By: Joseph Mills
The Exit of the Bear
We take our two-year-old daughter to The Nutcracker.
She’s puzzled when it begins, asking “Why is no one
talking?” Because, we explain, they’re dancers.
If they were talking, they would be actors. She nods
as if this distinction makes sense. She’s mildly interested
until the Toy Bear lumbers onstage with the soldiers
to fight the mice, and then she sits up, fascinated.
“Nounours.” she cries, French slang for teddy bear.
After the battle, when the bear leaves, she asks,
“Where’s Nounours? Ou Nounours?” We say,
“He’s gone” which sends her into a melt-down.
“Nooo!” We want to say the bear will come back,
but we don’t know this, and since we already lie
so much in this Santa season we try to comfort her
with hugs and pats as she moans in our laps.
Why don’t we whisk her away in that parental scooch
of embarrassment and contrition? It’s simple rudeness,
perhaps, allowing this toddler’s seeming gibberish
to spoil the show for those around us. Or, a refusal,
maybe, to waste the expensive tickets. Or, it could be
we want our child to learn that holiday traditions are
to be gutted out and it’s the season of thwarted desires.
But maybe, maybe, we implicitly sense that wonder
sits with sorrow, and we too have been mourning
the bear’s exit, in some form, for some time. Maybe
that’s why so many of us pilgrimage with our children
to these theaters, remembering anew the bear’s arrival,
and hoping, however irrationally, for its return.
When Asked Where My Love of Modern Dance Comes from I Answer John Wayne
For the series “Have Gun Will Travel,”
the combat veteran Richard Boone,
who played the gunslinger Paladin,
studied for a while with Martha Graham.
She didn’t want to make him a dancer,
but to understand intentional actions,
and this helped him with the scenes
of riding, shooting, and fighting.
Watch a western and consider
the footwork and floorwork.
Watch a dance and consider
the toughness and tenacity.
Whether from Grey or Graham,
we like our mythologies muscular,
men and women, booted and barefoot,
solid as mountains, powerful as rivers.
I explain to the staff I’ve been looking
for the right hat for most of my life,
but the wide-brimmed ones I like
look stupid on me. I don’t have the face
or backstory to pull them off. So I settle
for the baseball caps everyone wears,
knowing they’re not me, feeling false;
no one wants to move in hats like that.
I explain that I want a hat I can throw
across the room and have it land
on a rack or a classical bust, something Fred Astaire-like, something styled
with an elegant insouciance, something
that shows I’m both in control and not
afraid to toss it away, a hat that helps me
be the person I’ve always wanted to be,
one that would encourage me to dance
on people’s furniture and that would
have them charmed rather than upset.
“Do you have something like that?” I ask.
They say they’ll check in the back.
You know the rest. They never return,
and I’m left waiting there, holding
a hatful of desires in my empty hands.
A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills has published six collections of poetry, including “Exit, pursued by a bear” which consists of poems triggered by stage directions in Shakespeare. His book “This Miraculous Turning” was awarded the North Carolina Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry for its exploration of race and family. In 2019, he published his first book of fiction, “Bleachers: 54 linked fictions.” information about his work is available at www.josephrobertmills.com.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
I started writing poetry in college when I took a creative writing course mainly because it still had slots available (and I always procrastinated as far as registering). However, despite vague ideas of being “a writer” and a lot of jotting in notebooks, I didn’t begin writing in a disciplined way until my thirties. In my forties, I produced work that gratified me enough to keep going, and now, in my fifties, I’m writing fewer poems but think, perhaps wrongly, that they’re better.
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
I loved Westerns growing up, particularly Louis L’Amour, and his cowboy loners would often quote Tennyson’s “Ulysess”: “I cannot rest from travel: I will drink/Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d/Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those/That loved me, and alone…How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/To rust, unburnish’d, not to shine in use!/As tho’ to breathe were life?” Heady stuff for a young kid growing up in Indiana. I searched out the poem and memorized it, and used it for practice in typing class.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
There are poems that strike you at particular times in your life and that you then carry around inside and return to again and again. For me, these include: “Philip Levine’s “What Work Is,” Gary Snyder’s “I Went Into the Maverick Bar,” Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel,” Robert Hayden “Those Winter Sundays,” W.H. Auden’s “Musee de Beaux Arts.” When I was young, as a reader, I loved the work of A.E. Housman and E.A. Robinson. When I was older, as a writer, I learned a great deal about the possibilities of form from the work of Adrienne Rich, Judy Grahn, Rita Dove, and W.S. Merwin.
Can you share a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
For decades, I’ve worked in coffee shops, usually ones close to wherever my kids are in school. So, after lunch, I would go and get a table for a couple hours before picking them up in the afternoon carpool. The pandemic has shattered my working process, and now I’ve been working on picnic tables and benches in parks, but it’s been difficulty to get into a productive routine. I both believe in rituals to acclimatize the body, to have it recognize, “Oh we’re getting to work now,” and I resist insisting too rigidly on them. They need to be helpful without making us neurotic. So, there are pens I like – the way they feel in the hand – and notebooks I like, but if it comes to it, I’ll scrawl with a pencil stub on a receipt to make sure that I record an idea before it gets away. I don’t write for long periods, hours at a time, but I write regularly in small chunks and those add up. There are a lot of ten to fifteen minute segments in the day that can be used to write a line or two.
How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
I draft poems in cheap notebooks. I’m not picky, and in the first draft, they often flow in short lines down the page. Then, as I revise, I’ll start to compress them like packing a parachute or squeezing a snowball. I rarely have a form in mind, but, as Ted Kooser puts it in The Poetry Home Repair Manual, at some point I’ll take a step back and see what the poem wants to be and if I can “tip” it into a particular form. Kooser insists, “you serve the poem,” and I believe that.
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
Be in it for the long haul. Don’t be too eager to publish. Publishing isn’t hard to do, particularly with all the on-line opportunities, but it’s also not a certification. You don’t want to be proud of a piece because it’s published, you want to publish pieces you’re proud of. Frankly, you will earn little money from poetry and few people will read the work. For many this is depressing; I find it liberating. It means that you might as well take the time to make the pieces as good as possible. The reward is the making and the shaping. There’s a story that Neil Gaiman tells that I love. He had the idea for The Graveyard Book, but each time he tried to write it, he didn’t think he was good enough yet to do it justice. So, he kept returning to the idea and finally, twenty years later, he wrote the book. That’s the long haul. And yet, it’s not like he was idle in the mean-time. He is amazingly prolific, but he wasn’t waiting to get better, he was working to get better.
What is your editing process like?
Slow. I sit on drafts for a while. I worry at them. I go back to them, then put them aside, then go back to them. Sometimes I never solve what I see as a poem’s problems. Sometimes I revise a poem out of existence. I write in long hand, enter the draft into a computer, revise several times, then print out the version and make long-hand edits and enter those into the computer. I save each version since a revision is no guarantee of an improvement, so a poem might have dozens of versions in a file before it nears completion.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
On the one hand, I know when a poem is finished when I’m doing minor tinkering, flipping a word back and forth, or spending an afternoon wondering if it should be “woke” or “awoke.” I also know it’s close to finished when I’m no longer no longer sensing that silent persistent voice insisting “come on, that’s good enough” while another voice is saying “Hmmmm, I guess, I don’t love it, but I guess.” On the other hand, I’ve published poems then revised them for book publication, then revised them again for a different edition. I keep a reading copy with notes because, like with songs, after you’ve lived with a poem for a while and read and performed it, you understand it better and have a better sense of how it works.