Joseph Millar’s poetry spoke to me the instant I opened his first collection, Overtime (Eastern Washington University Press, 2001), a book that spans across the great American landscape and touches upon everything from fathers and sons to the telephone lines. As Millar mentioned when we spoke, the poems in Overtime seem to possess the sense of “good faith” despite struggle. While the poems exist on the page as if they were happening in the moment, his recent collection, Fortune (EWU Press, 2007), expresses a deeply reflective voice, and demonstrates Millar’s connection to music and the musicality of his verse.
After living in the Bay Area in many years, then briefly in Oregon, Millar and his wife, the poet Dorianne Laux, currently reside in North Carolina. I caught up with Millar during the winter 2009 Pacific University MFA gathering in Seaside, Oregon. The first part of our interview is from a talk he gave with the poet Marvin Bell.
(JM): We all have to confront the blank page. In a poem – and I suppose stories and novels are like this too – it’s like a song. I was reading Dylan’s Chronicles the other day, and he says that writing a song is like entering a strange country. I thought that was profound. You’re not exactly sure what the language is or where anything is. You’re wandering a little bit. You’re looking around.
Maybe something’s pushing on you. Maybe you want to go north, or you know that it’s starting to be a poem about someone who’s left you, or someone who’s just been born. Maybe you don’t know what it’s about. So you write down something that’s happening right in front of you. Maybe it’s the rain on the grass. Then you can’t think of anything else, and you start to make a song out of it.
Chances are you’ve developed certain patterns and habits of conducting yourself in this strange land. The poem may tend to follow off in your way of doing things. If you’ve been at it long enough and have developed these habits, one of them may take over.
One of the things we should do in our poems is to “go there, beyond the woods.” And one of the ways to do that is to try to avoid these patterns of entry into the strange land. Lately I’ve been doing little rhymers, almost as a kind of joke. Some of us were writing together and I couldn’t think of anything. Marvin (Bell) likes to say, “Music always wins” – if there’s a competition between sense and sound, between the message of the words and the music of the words, the music wins every time. So one possibility is that you become childlike and start to goof around. Instead of telling a story, you sing a song.
Some part of this passes our understanding. We’re not going to completely understand it when we’re writing, and this needs to be OK with us. We don’t need to be that smart to be writers. It’s a different part of the human that makes both song and story. It’s not the same as the smart part that gets you to be the valedictorian. That’s good. In fact, a lot of times, the element that makes you a poet or a writer is the part that’s held out of the “A” group, the advanced group, the “in-crowd” of whatever world you’re in. The part of you that wasn’t the best looking, wasn’t the best athlete, didn’t have enough money. The part of you that was held out is the part that makes you able to hear the song inside yourself. The part that can play by itself a little bit, make up little songs, move the chairs around.
You’ve seen it happen in prose, poetry, fiction…the writing just lifts up off the page. The journey stops, freezes up, and the writing lifts up into song, sound and lyric.
It’s a huge thing when you sit down with your little self, you open the page and you say, “OK, look here, the rain on the grass….or whatever. It’s this huge, vast thing. We go there not in the spirit of confrontation but in the spirit of humility and the hope that something good happens. And we go there even if we’re afraid nothing good will happen and we’re tired. We just go there. That’s the way you get something. By going there, opening the page and making marks on it.
You’re trying to put a spell on yourself, to hypnotize yourself, to go under a little bit. You don’t want to be sitting there in the same frame of mind as if you were reading directions on how to put something together. It’s a different way of being, and a different way of thinking. You’re trying to lower your conscious restrictor. And some people are better at this, naturally. It’s a knack that can be practiced, and like most practice, it works best if you get a regularity or rhythm going with it. The unconscious relates to rhythm the same way a kids goes, ‘Oh, it’s 10 o’clock. Time for milk and cookies. Then we go out in the yard. Then we come in and lie down.’ For us, it’s like, ‘I’m going to open my notebook now. This is my chair. This is my light. Now I’m going to practice.’
After you’ve been doing this for a while, something takes over besides just your thinking. A lot of times, when you lower (the thinking) part of you down a bit, surprising things happen. Strange sounds come out. Strange cries arise from the back. That’s where you’re trying to get to. It’s something you learn by practicing.
(DJ): Your subjects are often deeply humanistic, of the earth, blue collar. The poems in Overtime especially feel like they have a lot of history to them.
(JM): Those poems go back to the 80s, and the experiences are even older than that. I didn’t have much time to really sit down and write poems every day, or work on them every day. Or I didn’t make the time. By ’97 I had a bunch of the poems already, but it took about four-years after that.
In Fortune, my chops are a little better, but another thing is that, a lot of the poems in the first book were written during an intense period of disorientation, single-fatherhood, craziness and big changes in my life. Mainly being suddenly single with an eight-year-old to raise and his big sister who was in high school, and all of us being in this weird place. I was exposed in a strange way, and the poems in Overtime came out of that. With Fortune, I had more time and my chops became a little better. I learned more technical stuff. It’s not covering as long a period of time. And my life wasn’t so (messed) up. That’s the difference in the two books.
I was less pleased with the poems in Fortune for a long time. Then I said, ‘Well, you know, they’re pretty good.’
(DJ): What was it you found less pleasing?
(JM): I felt like I was complaining a lot in that book. Here I have this great life and all I could do is piss and moan. I was thinking, ‘What’s up with that?’ And I’d talk with people about that, and they’d say, ‘Well, look Joe, you take what they’re giving you. Don’t worry about it. Maybe you’re pissing and moaning because you couldn’t do it before.’ I couldn’t afford to, sort of. Maybe that was it. It just seemed like the outlook was more bleak, stripped out and existential. The first book seemed like it had more good faith in it. More struggling good faith. Later I kind of forgave myself and thought, ‘That’s what I got. That’s the way it is.’
To some extent you take what they’re giving you, make poems out of it and try not to judge yourself. You can judge your technique in the poem and try to improve that. And you can judge the poem on whether it’s good or bad. But for the mode of expression, the thing that’s driving the poem…you know, we all have different parts and that’s it.
(DJ): In Overtime, there’s a deep tenderness between the characters in these poems – you and the father, you and the son. When you were living in this time, what was your process of getting things out. Were you stealing time? Or did you find yourself in the moment with something triggering you?
(JM): Both. I’d write at night. I’d write in the truck at work.
(DJ): You were working in a crew?
(JM): I was foreman by the time I quit. Sometimes I’d put my guys to work somewhere and park a mile and a half away, sit near the Bay and go back in an hour and a half to see how they were doing.
(DJ): Did people know you were writing?
(JM): No. I hid it from them. If they came up to my truck and I was writing I’d cover it up in a newspaper or something else.
(JM): I didn’t want to hear anything about it. I didn’t want to give that part of myself away.
(DJ): It doesn’t really fit…
(JM): The blue collar, macho…you know, the whole deal. And then later my guys went and bought Overtime and were like, ‘Hey man you were writing those poems about us!’
(DJ): Who were you reading?
(JM): I was reading Merwin, Phil Levine. He’s a national treasure. He’s the one who gave permission to so many of us to write these poems. Of course I feel it’s a privilege to be able to write poems at all.
(DJ): As a younger man, when did you start going toward writing?
(JM): I wanted to be a novelist in college. I went to Penn State for a couple of years.
(JM): Back in ’63 and ’64. There were all these great novels about personal freedom. Novels like Henderson the Rain King, A Fan’s Notes, The Ginger Man. They were all about personal freedom. I could never…it’s such a different way of imagining things. I joke with fiction writers about it all the time because I love that.
I didn’t start writing poems until I graduated, came out west to California in ’67. Then I started writing poems. I knew I couldn’t write fiction. I couldn’t think of a plot. So I started writing personal impressions that turned into poems.
(DJ): Some writers either don’t want to or don’t know if they can access certain things. Do you feel that the narrator of a poem is always necessarily the writer?
(JM): It is for me. There’s a big part of me in all my poems. I don’t think that’s true for everyone. For me it is. All these things about the unstable “I” and the fractionalized first person…to me, I write poems because I’m alive and I like how it makes me feel to do it. Maybe I’ll change. Occasionally I’ll do a persona poem, or I’ve been writing these bestiary poems, but they all have some big part of me in them. I’m imbedded in the much maligned “I”.