On Friday, poet Joe Mills was our guest in Composition Seminar. Joe has secured solid footing in the free-verse narrative terrain, with poems that speak to our collective struggles with identity. He hails from the Midwest, and his use of the language reflects the reticence of his roots. As he put it, while Eskimos have fifty words for “snow,” his family has one word for fifty emotions. No matter how high or low things get, the question “How ya feelin’?” could always be answered by “Fine.”
As he described his upbringing, I found myself imagining him with a pitchfork and a pair of spectacles, his piercing eyes fitting nicely into a Grant Wood painting.
Joe’s economy with language enables him to make rich, direct connections between the felt moment and the imagined eternity, as in this excerpt from Somewhere During the Spin Cycle:
Drive long enough
and mile markers skitter
across the road
like rabid shadows,
the “winding curves”
from their signs,
the pavement itself
shrugs, stretches, twistsuntil you’re convinced
the back of a living thing.
As he described his approach to composition, I found myself nodding in recognition at almost every turn. It’s a certain kind of wonderful to hear an artist from another discipline speak of his work in words that resonate powerfully with ones own experience — and how much better when that artist is a poet, someone who can make experience come alive with a sure grasp of the peculiar weight of each word.
Joe talked about how often poetry comes from painful experience, while stressing the importance of transcending the experience, being true to the poem. He described the familiar sensation of having to express oneself after an intense event, likening it to the need to grab a barf bag when overcome by a nasty stomach bug. As he put it, that kind of relief is important and valuable – “but please don’t show me the bag and say ‘Look what I made!’” A poem has to find its own way, apart from the initial impetus.
Joe also addressed the challenge of identifying what makes a poem good, describing an assignment he gives his students: write a bad poem in five minutes. He says his students have no trouble with this assignment – coming up with elements of bad poetry is easy, much easier than defining its opposite.
After the seminar, I managed to commit an artistic misdemeanor when I tried to tell Joe how a particular poem of his had resonated powerfully with me. I paraphrased his poem, essentially obliterating it. My brain stood by in disbelief, listening to my mouth fumble for words. It was a potent reminder of how difficult it is to speak to artists about their work, how irresistible that need can be, and the patience we need to muster when others speak to us.