LeAnne Martin
Christians in the Arts

Monday, May 18, 2009

Wilmer Mills, Part 3: Poet, Teacher, Carpenter

This is the conclusion of my feature with the poet Wilmer Mills.

To hear Wil read two poems, click here.
To read more of the essay he excerpts in our interview, click here.
To see some of his paintings, click here.

LeAnne: In addition to being a poet, you're also a carpenter. Has creating with your hands also helped you create with words and vice versa?

I have done a lot of carpentry, but I no longer do it professionally. I built my own house and am forever doing projects on it. They never seem to end. Working with my hands is the most important activity for stimulating my creativity. It is what makes me most human and also what puts me closest into contact with my creator. I also believe that working with my hands taps into a separate kind of human intelligence. There is the usual I.Q. kind; I often feel very deficient in that area. But when I work with my hands, I feel a broadening of connection-making ability. I am able to see how things fit together, how things work in a series of steps, almost how a story fits together. Yes, it’s all very narrative. I don’t think, though, that working with words has helped me work better with my hands. I think it only works the other way around. Manual dexterity or activity stimulates mental facility, not the reverse.

LM: You're also a teacher on a fellowship at UNC Chapel Hill. What has teaching students to write taught you?

It has taught me how much I still don’t know. I never wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to work with my hands. But I couldn’t make a living that way and teaching has been my salvation. This has been a great surprise to me, because of how much I love it and for how much I learn by teaching. I’ve learned more about poetry by teaching in two years than I have in fifteen years of writing. Having to explain something forces one to learn the material in a deeper way. I hope to be able to continue teaching poetry.

LM: What would you like for your students to know when they leave your classroom?

I teach my students how to construct a good line of verse both in strict meter and with lively and compelling syntax. Poetry is built out of lines, not feelings. When they learn how to build a good line, when they know the rules, then they can learn how to break them in intelligent ways, something that is essential for formal poetry, but especially for free verse, which, by definition, depends on variation. If you don’t have a grasp of regularity, your variation or “freedom” from a norm has no meaning.

I teach them to develop their ears to pick up the rich musical possibilities of language and how to channel that music through accurate observations of the real world around them. Too often, student poets think that writing a poem is about constructing an elaborate riddle with words, and that their job is to give cryptic clues to what the meaning is. This is at the root of most horrible poetry. If given the choice between the subtlety of mystery and the enigma of the mysterious, they will invariably choose the latter and drip it with oozings from their psyches.

I teach them to get out of their own heads, to stop thinking that poetry is a soapbox for self-expression. Poetry is about expressing the dictionary. Once they catch on, they realize that words are more intelligent than people are, and that words do a much better job of expressing their feelings and thoughts. Let good language do the work. So I teach students to look at what they see right in front of them and to say what they see in the most compelling language. Poets should make sense and make it sing.

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