FIRST-BOOK INTERVIEW WITH JOE WILKINS
Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers (Counterpoint 2012) and a collection of poems, Killing the Murnion Dogs (Black Lawrence Press 2011). His poems, essays, and stories have appeared in the Georgia Review, the Southern Review, Harvard Review, the Sun, Orion, and Slate, among other magazines and literary journals. He lives with his wife, son, and daughter in Iowa, where he teaches writing at Waldorf College.
FIRST BOOK: Killing the Murnion Dogs
AUTHOR: Joe Wilkins
PUBLISHER: Black Lawrence Press
Tell us about the title, Killing the Murnion Dogs. Where did it come, what does it mean to you, or how did you decide on it?
The title comes from a poem in the book, a long pastoral elegy for my father, who died when I was quite young. Beyond loss, the poem addresses a number of other themes that run through the book as well, and when deciding on a title “Killing the Murnion Dogs” seemed the poem that most contained the rest of the collection.
Also, out of the handful of other titles I was considering, Killing the Murnion Dogs seemed the most beguiling; I know I’m unduly swayed by the words on the cover, both in bookstores and online, and I hope this one has the requisite mystery and magnetism!
How would you describe Killing the Murnion Dogs in a few sentences to someone who doesn’t regularly read poetry?
Killing the Murnion Dogs is about loss; it’s about memory and story; about the dangerous and necessary practice of making of myth; about violence and poverty and ruin; about the search for home; about coming to forgive and love whatever home you might happen to have; it’s about the highways and byways of the vast, lonesome American interior.
Can you give us a rough idea of how long it took you to write all the poems in the book?
There are a few poems in the book that were written in the fall of 2002, during my first few months in the Mississippi Delta as a pre-algebra teacher with Teach For America. (To a poem, though, those first few that made the manuscript were radically revised while I was a grad student in the University of Idaho’s MFA program.) It was in Idaho, from 2004-2007, that I started to figure out what in the world I was doing and that the bulk of the poems that would eventually populate Killing the Murnion Dogs were drafted and revised. Then, I spent two years or so after grad school cutting, adding, ordering, and reordering before I felt like the book was really ready to go. So, all told, about seven years!
What was the process like trying to get it published? How long were you shopping the book before Black Lawrence Press picked it up?
As I was cutting, adding, ordering, and reordering, I was also sending the manuscript out here and there—all told, maybe eight or ten contests in two years.
I didn’t really get serious about sending it out until early 2009, after a very critical and incredibly helpful manuscript workshop with my poetry and IPA compatriots, Lucas Howell and Steve Coughlin. Acting on their wise advice, I cut some poems and radically restructured the manuscript around a long poem that became a series of poems all titled “A Dream of Home.”
The manuscript finally seemed done after that, so throughout 2009 I sent it out to every major contest and open reading period on the calendar, sometimes two or three a month. The finalist nods and kind comments from editors started piling up—which was both wonderful and frustrating, to be so close and still not see publication!—and in the very last week of December of 2009 Diane Goettel of Black Lawrence Press called with the good news.
What was the submission process like for individual poems from the book? Are there certain places you had poems published that you felt generated momentum for getting the book out?
I’ve always sent out lots of poems. And I’ve always got lots of rejections. (I think the rejection helps me write with a vengeance!) I’d say, then, that my submission process for the poems in Killing the Murnion Dogs was built on persistence—as well as making sure the writing of poems and the delight in poetry remained, and always remains, absolutely central.
I do vividly remember, though, landing a poem in the Northwest Review for the first time. It was the summer after my first year of grad school, and I was teaching for a week at an arts high school in Vancouver, Washington, when wife called with the news. It was one of the first big publications I could include in my bio, and it felt, strangely, like a relief, like I wasn’t crazy to be scribbling and reading into the late hours.
Northwest Review would go on to publish the poem “Killing the Murnion Dogs,” which occasioned a number of kind comments from friends and readers, and subsequent poems in venues like Best New Poets, Boulevard, Indiana Review, Slate, and the Southern Review all helped shape the book and helped me more firmly believe in the project I’d taken on.
Are there other poets, poems, or books that you feel like Killing the Murnion Dogs is in conversation with? Either in terms of style or inspiration?
I owe great debts to any number of poets. James Wright, Richard Hugo, B. H. Fairchild, Robert Hass, and Robert Wrigley have been and continue to be huge influences, poets whose work I go back to again and again and again. Though it feels a stretch, it’s nice to think my work is in conversation with theirs!
Lots of single volumes of poetry were important to me as well, including Kevin Young’s Most Way Home, Patrick Phillips’s Chattahoochee, Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, Rebecca Wee’s Uncertain Grace, Michael McGriff’s Dismantling the Hills, and Nick Flynn’s Some Ether. Individual poems in these books astounded and inspired me, and the books themselves served as models for how to craft a collection.
I’ve learned a lot from prose and music, too. I’m thinking of books like James Galvin’s The Meadow and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, each of which taught me important lessons about voice and character, and I only wish I could write a poem as tonally perfect as just about any track from Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road album.
Tell us about finding out that Black Lawrence Press was going to publish your book. What was running through your mind?
I was jazzed! Just happy and fizzy and unable to stop smiling the rest of the day.
What was it like working with BLP after they accepted the manuscript? What kinds of things needed to happen on your end from acceptance to print?
Diane and the folks at BLP have been great. They take their time and really try to put a lot behind each book. We started planning marketing stuff early on and are still in the midst of that. I definitely had a say in the design of the cover, too, which I really appreciated. We did a few manuscript edits, but BLP only accepts books that they think are more or less ready to publish, so there wasn’t a lot of work there.
How have things changed now that you’ve got a first book under your belt?
I’ve always loved books, and it’s humbling and wonderful to know someone believed in my poems enough to make them into a book. Beyond just feeling good about that, though, I’m not sure much has really changed. I keep writing, I keep reading, I keep trying to figure things out, I keep being wrong and amazed.
Is there anything about this whole first-book process you would have done differently? Any advice you would give the Joe Wilkins from before the book?
I’d have definitely waited to send out the book. Like I said above, I haphazardly sent out a manuscript that was pretty much my MFA thesis for about a year and a half, just kind of hoping. I think I knew even then that it wasn’t ready, so looking back I’d definitely tell my former self: Slow down. Focus on the poems. Consider more carefully how they sit next to one another. And be as willing to revise the manuscript as you are the poem.
Do you have a favorite poem from the book? If so, which one and why?
One I love to share at readings is “Ruins,” a long poem that primarily chronicles a road trip south through Illinois and into Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi—though the journey of the poem is often interrupted by anecdotes, historical accounts, various interrogations, and found text. I think I like to read it because it’s a poem that’s making an overt political point, and I’ve always liked to get a good argument going!
How has it been promoting the book now that it’s about to come out? How is the publicity work split between yourself and the press?
I’ve definitely had to do more self-promotion in the past months than I’ve ever done before. It feels a little strange sometimes, but there’s so much cultural noise out there that I think you sort of have to shout about poetry now and then. (I hope I can forgive myself!) BLP has helped me think through lots of various marketing stuff as well, and they’re planning to really push the book with their big social media audience.
Do you have a piece of advice for poets still shopping their first book? What’s your take on open reading periods vs. first book contests vs. open contests?
Remember to save your best energy for the page. That’s what really matters: the attention to language, the way a poem helps you clarify or complicate or re-enter the world. Always remember that. Then, persevere. There’s so much stunning poetry out there, and it’s just really hard to get noticed. When you get that rejection, think about it for a while, maybe take another look at the manuscript, and then shake it off. Write. Read. Live your life.
I’m very pleased to see more and more small presses doing open reading periods, as I do think contests, with their layers of readers and harried guest judges, often end up rewarding the style and poetic stance of the moment. (Or maybe I’m just sore about not winning a contest! There’s a place for all of these publishing avenues.)
Can you recommend a first book by another poet you’re loving right now?
You bet. Traci Brimhall’s Rookery. Such language, intelligence, and emotional intensity. Damn.
If someone asked you “why is poetry important?” what would you say to them?
We live in a world where we are asked, for the most part, to be no more or less than tools of consumption. We buy, and we “like,” and we spend the hours of our days working to buy more and like more. And we end up hollowed out, the rest of what we are eaten away in pursuit of that one identity: consumer.
Poetry’s necessity stems from its having nothing at all to do with any of that. Auden tells us:
…poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Poetry is necessary because it is a place where we can be rigorous with that which gives shape to our world and our very selves: language. Poetry has to do with the mouth, the thrumming blood, those isolate bits of geography that scarred and shaped us. Poetry precedes and works against our consumer culture and the lies it tells us; poetry works against whatever would deny us our humanity and our ties to the physical world.
Poetry is necessary because for the space of a few lines we might be what we are: co-creators, truth-tellers, story-swappers, singers, wonderers and wanderers, believers and resistors, celebrants, citizens, and searchers.