Our May featured writer, Joseph Millar grew up in western Pennsylvania and received an MA from Johns Hopkins University in 1970. Upon completion of graduate school, he sought adventure in Alaska, finding work on a fishing boat. For 25 years he immersed himself in the blue collar world and raised a family, and in 1997, left his job as a phone installation foreman and moved to western Oregon.
With renewed interest in poetry, he began writing narrative poems about his life, which slowly evolved into his first book, Overtime (Eastern Washington Press, 2001), a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. A second book, Fortune, followed in 2007.
In addition, he is the author of two chapbooks : “Slow Dancer” (Cherry Valley Editions, 1992) and “Nightbound” (Idaho Review Press, 2009)
In 2002, Millar was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 2008, won a Pushcart prize. He has also received fellowships from the Montalvo Center for the Arts, and from Oregon Literary Arts. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Shenandoah, Double Take, New Letters, TriQuarterly Review, Ploughshares, Manoa and River Styx, among others.
Mr. Millar is married to fellow poet Dorianne Laux, whom he met at a poetry class she was teaching at a bookstore. The two occasionally do readings together and try to keep the competition to a minimum by splitting them 50-50, though he says she's clearly the more famous draw.
After eleven years together in the Northwest, they now reside in to Raleigh, NC, though they return each year to teach in Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA.
Readers and reviewers alike find this writer's work accessible, poignant, authentic. Each poem is a vignette in which, as Billy Collins notes, “Millar never forgets... to tell it line by line.” His are poems about jobs in the workaday world, and richly textured narratives of day-to-day life in language that speaks to the everyman. He writes of bill-paying, of rent and taxes, of Red Wing shoes, of relationships.
Something in the fingerprints never forgets,
(From “Slow Hands”)
smudged indelibly under the surface
the shadows of things carried and stroked:
rake handle, newspaper, child's face, coin.
His “been there, done that” experiences and superb literary credentials prove to be a winning combination. What I love about his writing is its purity—so straightforward and yet complex. I believe this classic piece is a picture-perfect example:
All morning in the February light
he has been mending cable,
splicing the pairs of wires together
according to their colors,
white-blue to white-blue
violet-slate to violet-slate,
in the warehouse attic by the river.
When he is finished
the messages will flow along the line:
thank you for the gift,
please come to the baptism,
the bill is now past due:
voices that flicker and gleam back and forth
across the tracer-colored wires.
We live so much of our lives
without telling anyone,
going out before dawn,
working all day by ourselves,
shaking our heads in silence
at the news on the radio.
He thinks of the many signals
flying through the air around him,
the syllables fluttering,
saying please love me,
from continent to continent
over the curve of the earth.
(from Overtime, c.2 001)
Small wonder his words have been called “poetry for the rest of us.” In the narrative entitled “Tools,” note the ease of the read and clarity of images—the humanness of it all. He seems a master in finding nuance in the “nitty-gritty.”
I was sixty days without a drink
working the back of the Howard Street store,
cleaning the tools my boss scavenged from basements
of tradesmen's widows all over the state.
I'd sort through the wrenches, boxes and crescents
from Stanley, Craftsman and Urica Tool,
bright sockets from Snap-On
we could charge twice as much for.
I'd polish the wrecking bars with WD-40,
the claw hammers, jack planes and pliers,
then clean up the handsaws, old Disston Brothers
and the best, London Springs,
twisting the studs from the filigreed handle
and sanding away the resinous shell,
one stroke at a time,
for the wide steel blade.
I seldom looked out through the dusty panes
at the rubble of Howard Street's
plywood-scabbed storefronts. I stayed
in the back near the cracked tubs of solvent
whose gray vapors ghosted the air
and kept my eyes lowered, watching
the grinding wheel whirr in its armature,
cutting blue rust from the chisels and knives,
washing my knuckles in sparks.
(from Fortune, c. 2007)
I am impressed by Millar's ability to communicate the inner workings of the common man or woman not only on the job, but in their ever-important lives outside of the workplace--as these wonderful lines from “Sole Custody” do so well:
We're bound together like sailors, swaying across
a dark ocean, resigned to each other's odd humors
and unable to see the stars overhead,
as we stagger around in the engine room
of a ship with a foreign name.
In the same vein, I love the authenticity of the scenario in the poem, “Kung Fu” as a father considers his responsibilities after dropping his wife off at the detox center:
The youngest kneels on his skateboard,
looks up at me and says
he wants to learn Kung Fu
before school starts next month,
to wear black and carry
its invisible weapons in secret,
moving softly through the fifth grade
like a spy.
Millar has said that poetry should be about feeling—that a writer's clever wording and verbal gymnastics matter naught without an emotional connection. Nowhere can we see this demonstrated better than in this stark and beautiful piece:
In the steady stare of a homeless man,
his newspaper rolled up like a club, my father
eyes me without rage or grief, smelling
of port wine and death. He peers out
from the wings of his dank overcoat,
the downtown library behind him
smoldering with language, music and poetry,
numbers, prophecy, science. His voice
is a whisper as he thrusts a fingerless
glove palm-up in front of my face.
Maybe he'd like to stab me right here
next to the Civic Center, blue exhaust
from the Five McAlester drifting like ether
around us. Where are you going and
where have you been he sang to the hills
on his last day alive, sipping whiskey
and milk on the porch, his Freud, Cervantes,
stashed in their stale glue bindings.
He always thought death owed him extra
for the young wife he lost one piece
at a time, extra for the sons
who hid from his rages,
throwing rocks at the neighbor's windows
and flattening their frostbitten tulips
under a plywood sled. Too much
moonlight kept splashing down
on the house we would never own,
its driveway plowed under in springtime,
shallow footprints leading away into our
separate amnesias. Some of us would wander
for years from the docks to the Greyhound station
while sleet fell into the ravaged garden.
Sometimes I hear him groan just at nightfall,
a gray dove brooding above a small fire,
Queen Anne's lace like patches of spawn
spread over the frozen hillsides.
(from Fortune, c. 2007)
With the refreshing absence of extras or embellishments in Millar's narratives, one need only inhale the purity of the words, grasp the life within them, and exhale. I particularly like this touching poem, which I believe we can all relate to in one way or another:
She makes her supper late, moving slowly
in the bare kitchen, between the entertainment channel
and the glass tray of leftovers bubbling in the oven.
The wind pushes on the outside walls
and the floor joists creak as she wanders
aimless, unsure of her hunger.
She sags onto the stool near the heat vent
resting her face on her palm.
To be brave is to be tired much of the time,
half stunned by the continuing dusk.
She sets out the plate and the single glass
because it's time for the next thing--
the day-old casserole, its pinched edges
starting to burn.
She feels her lower abdomen cramp
in the stillness under her housecoat;
and for a moment it takes her to rise,
she thinks of nothing.
The dark photographs of childhood
bear down from the walls
and the veils of rain
tear open over the trees.
The message of Millar's poems, he says, is that the best thing we can do is keep going. I suspect we will do precisely that—no doubt now, with new eyes and an awakened sense of the rhythm and timbre of all our days yet to come.
Lark Vernon Timmons
Pirene’s Fountain interviews Joseph Millar
With Charles Morrison
CM: Glad to have you with us, Mr. Millar. We have always thought of you as a poet of the people. Can you tell us how you began to write poetry and what brought about that decision?
I started out wanting to write fiction, but I could never think of plots. This is obviously a pretty serious handicap. I was good at description, though, and not bad at making statements of feeling. One day in the college library I started to describe what was going on around me: birds walking outside on the windowsill in the rain.... And the way my sweater felt around my arms. I write this down in lines, not knowing where I was going or why and somehow the lines seemed to have life in them. I showed them to a friend and he said, This looks like a poem to me! That was it. I was hooked. I was in.
CM: Can you share with us some of your personal life philosophies and concerns in life? How have those translated to your poetry?
Well, I have a lot of poems about work and a lot of poems about love. Freud says these are the two main human motivators, and I agree with him. In fact I think a person's love translates into their work, even if the work is not intrinsically rewarding, at a high level. For instance, how does a person keep themselves happy, how do they treat their colleagues, do they know how to be a worker among workers? Those are important things for a person to think about. And love is work, treating a person as you would want to be treated, holding your tongue, washing the dishes, listening. Simple things that are worthy of poetry.
CM: Who were some of the major influences early on in your career as a poet? What passions fueled your work?
I loved Carl Sandburg's poem, Chicago. I loved the city laughing with dust on its mouth. My father had records of Dylan Thomas reading his poetry and I thought it was magic. I didn't know language could do that.
CM: Do you have some favorite poems? And who are the writers you most enjoy reading?
I like and hope I have been influenced by James Wright and Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, and Pablo Neruda and Antoinio Machado. Some of my favorite poems are Levine's "You Can Have It' and "What Work Is", the poems in Machado's "Times Alone", Ols' "I Go Back to May, 1937" and young mother poems, Kinnell's "The Bear".
CM: What are some of your hobbies/interests when you are not working as a poet?
I like to work in the yard, I'm a sports fan. I like biographies, history, travel, music, art. I try to follow politics. I'm hugely proud that my country elected our current President-- a landslide win-- prouder than I've ever been.
CM: With so many “poetry” websites, what do you feel the future of poetry will be like?
It seems poetry is busting out everywhere: readings in clubs, cafes, campuses, the web, the radio, the buses, sidewalks, billboards, at the inauguration, we even caught a reading by Sharon Olds, Philip Booth and Wesley McNair on hotel TV the other night. What a joy to come across on the airwaves. The future is solid, I think. All you have to do is look at the past. Poetry has been here since we could speak. The younger generation is spitting out some wonderful new poets and I have great faith in them.
CM: In your opinion what key elements can turn “good” poetry into “great” poetry?
Truth and Beauty. We must have the ambition for our poems that they reach toward the sublime, that they speak from our own true selves and are grounded in the experience of our daily lives, including our dreams and hopes.
(We thank Joseph Millar for permission to publish his work, and appreciate his time and graciousness in response to the interview above.)