LeAnne Martin
Christians in the Arts

Monday, May 11, 2009

Wilmer Mills, Poet

Wilmer Mills was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He graduated from The McCallie School in 1988 and The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee with a B.A. in English Literature in 1992. He received a Masters in Theology from Sewanee in 2005. His first book of poems, a chapbook, Right as Rain, was published by Aralia Press in 1999. His first full-length collection of poems, Light for the Orphans, was published by Story Line Press in 2002. Wilmer Mills has published poems in The New Republic, The Hudson Review, The Southern Review, Poetry, The New Criterion, Shenandoah, Literary Imagination, and others. His poems have been anthologized in Penguin/Longman Anthology of Contemporary American Poets, 2004, and are forthcoming from The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets. Mills has worked as a carpenter, furniture maker, sawmill operator, artisan bread baker, white oak basket weaver, farmer, and a white water raft guide, and poetry teacher among other things. He lives with his wife, Kathryn, and their two children in a bungalow he built himself in Sewanee, Tennessee. But he currently teaches poetry at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he is their Kenan Visiting Writer.

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: How did you get started in poetry?

The best way to answer this is by using an extract from an essay of mine that already answers this as best as I can.

My youthful epiphany that poetry was to be my major creative direction did not come like St. Paul's on the road to Damascus or like what the French call a coup de foudre, a lightning bolt. It was a gradual unfolding in my life the way that a story is told. I can look back to its beginning and see that a certain seed was planted in my adolescent mind. The sap was rising. The proverbial lights were coming on when, in the tenth grade, I was brought along by my mother and uncle to what would be my first literary event, a reading by Robert Penn Warren at Nichols State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana.

I was likely included because for several years my mother had been pulling wads of paper from the pockets of my dirty laundry. While bored in classes, I had written down thoughts and images, never admitting to myself that their lines about deer hunters and pickup trucks could be considered poems. At the time they were more a means of getting rid of perennial bouts of sadness that overtook me whenever I got a sense of things I didn't understand, feeling, nevertheless, the weight of their presence. It caused me to assume, at the worst, that there existed other territories of thought, places to which I was called, or even entitled, at best, like a young mallard on his first migration. Much later I learned that there were words for such feelings, most of them in foreign languages: Saudade, Sehnsucht, Hiraeth, Ahnung, all sentiments that have led many young writers into the production of copious drivel.

My earliest attempts were already far too much in that vein. To my credit I never expected anyone to read them and actually thought those wads of paper just got ground up in the washer and sent to the septic tank where they belonged. My mother only confessed years later to having saved them. My juvenile writing must have caused her to think that the Warren reading would inspire me or help shape my efforts. She was more right than she could have ever expected. But I had never heard of Robert Penn Warren and had never used the word "literary" to refer to anything. I knew what poetry was and liked it but felt no personal connection to it. My maternal grandfather, whose name was Robert, often recited Robert Service, Robert Frost, and Robert Burns. Not being named Robert myself I didn't feel called to be a poet or lover of poetry, so the presence of Robert Warren did nothing to change my assumption. I went along dutifully.

Unknown to my mother, my dominant creative outlet at the time was not poetry but painting, not so much what I drew or painted on my own but how I thought about art. Whatever interest I had in poetry was purely that it seemed to be a compatible medium to painting. Out of a reflex instilled in me by my grandfather, I had memorized Robert Frost's "The Gift Outright." In doing so I was compelled by the tone of the poem, which carried with it authority and a definitive social message about the land and culture of the United States. What also compelled me was how its tone and message dovetailed with its rhythm, something about the way the lines were put together.

After reading more by Frost, I compared his haunting narrative aesthetic to the texture of paintings by Andrew Wyeth whose works, while structured, dry brushed, and stark, seemed also vibrant with human stories of flesh and feeling. I could tell that in Wyeth's painting and in Frost's poetry the stories were told while following strict rules. I sensed that when such rules were mastered, the artist or poet was able to achieve a measure of freedom that rose above the rules. I wouldn't have been able to articulate this too clearly then, but I thought about it a lot and my early fascination with stylistics was the result of a strange rebelliousness, the likes of which had nothing in common with the "acting out" of my contemporaries. I was looking for ways of embracing submission to stylistic authority and tradition so as to gain artistic freedom from them.

Toward this end I secretly wanted to be a watercolor painter because technique in that medium, when done well, involves getting a thought or response to nature on paper quickly and exactly in a practiced gesture of the hand. The technique takes skill that, after becoming second-nature, releases you from technique. You strive toward realism but to do so must employ significant impressionistic skills, downright abstraction, to suggest reality. So watercolor, to me, promised in an unsuspecting way to be more accurate and true-to-nature than oil painting, which seemed to require much more revision and repainting to get right.

But in one evening Warren changed my field of vision from painting to poetry. It wasn't so much Warren's poetry that initially affected me. I mean no condescension to his talent. It's just that at the time I would have been outright embarrassed to say anything out loud about art, much less poetry, so what moved me was seeing that oak of a man stand up in front of grown people and read poems. It was the equivalent in my mind of the small change in sunlight that causes whole continents of birds to fly somewhere else. Warren's poem, "Audubon: A Vision," particularly moved me. The painter, John James Audubon, had lived and painted birds only minutes from my family's land in Louisiana. I had grown up hearing the name and knew that my ancestors would have almost certainly had dealings with him. The last section of Warren's poem about him made me want to be a poet.

"Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.

I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.

I did not know what was happening in my heart."

These lines didn't strike me as a poem, though I'm certainly not saying they don't constitute one. I just mean that I was mainly aware of them hitting me as powerful writing should: like a truck. The fact that there wasn't an underlying metrical structure in the poem didn't bother me. While I was compelled by the rhythms in Frost I didn't yet know what the word "meter" was, iambic pentameter and such things, and the term "free verse" had no meaning to me. Frost and Warren both had an explosive impact on me, even though I could tell they were not in the same vein, like two oak trees of the same genus but of different species. Warren inspired me to look for the acorn in myself. Frost made it grow. While I cannot claim to be an oak, much less of the same variety and stature of Frost or Warren, I have at least become some kind of sapling. The fact that I have taken root in the forest of Frost does not diminish my awe and respect for Warren in the least. The end of the Audubon poem reads, "Tell me a story of deep delight," and this may be utter silliness but I have taken that as an exhortation as if given to me personally as a charge. It is my motto as a writer. I met Warren that night. He asked me where I was from. When I told him North of Baton Rouge, south of St. Francisville in an area called The Plains he said, “there are good people there.”

More from Wilmer Mills on Thursday.

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