Joe Wilkins: ‘I’m always writing poems’

The Oregon Book Award finalist talks about poetry collections, the Western sensibility, and his love of chapbooks.

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The 2021 Oregon Book Award winners will be announced Sunday night on a special episode of OPB Radio’s The Archive Project, and McMinnville writer Joe Wilkins once again finds himself among the finalists. Thieve, his latest collection of poetry, is up for the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. An earlier collection, When We Were Birds, won the 2017 Stafford/Hall Award.

Published in 2020 by Lynx House Press, Thieve “is a pointed, political book, though the politics here are local, particular, physically felt,” the publisher writes on the book flap. “The central sequence of poems — subtitled Poem Against the Crumbling of the Republic — was written in direct response to the poet’s own transition from rural poverty to coastal liberal comfort, as well as the presidential election of 2016.”

Joe Wilkins, a Linfield professor, is a finalist for a 2021 Oregon Book Award in poetry.
“Art cannot be in service to partisan politics or preconceived notions,” says Joe Wilkins. “If it is, it ceases to be art and becomes propaganda or commercial copy or a Facebook post. Art is about discovery, both in the perceiver and the creator.”

The author’s experience of poverty growing up in Montana is the gritty subject of his 2012 memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on the Big Dry. It won a 2014 GLCA New Writers Award, an honor that has previously recognized early work by the likes of Richard Ford, Louise Erdrich, and Alice Munro.

An earlier presidential election, the one that propelled Barack Obama into the White House, provides the political backdrop of his best-known work, the 2019 novel Fall Back Down When I Die, which won one rave review after another, including a starred review in Booklist.  Also set in Montana, the novel has as its hero a young ranch hand who suddenly finds himself caring for the mute and traumatized son of an incarcerated relative. In the novel as well as Thieve, the tension and dynamic between rural poverty and “liberal comfort” is among the many deeply considered themes.

Wilkins lives with his family in McMinnville, where he is a professor of English/environmental studies and director of Linfield University’s creative writing program. On top of all that, he finds the time to participate in local cultural events — judging Paper Gardens one year, teaching a workshop at the Terroir Creative Writing Festival another. Graciously, he made time for this interview, which was conducted by email. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Thieve is your fourth volume of poetry, and given that many of your poems are first published in literary magazines, could you speak generally about how one of these collections comes together in terms of the initial vision or concept, the planning, and then knowing when you’re “done” and have the right mix and number of poems.

Wilkins: I’m always writing poems. The act of fitting precise language to what I see, to what bewilders me and scares me, to what I love — well, it’s the best way I know to attempt to understand, empathize, and more deeply know the world around me. As I begin to accumulate poems, I often find similar threads stitching the poems together, that in my quest to know, and my failure to fully do so, I end up circling certain ideas, places, memories, feelings, and stories. Across a number of years, as I sort through the work, many of the poems begin to cohere, begin to speak to each other in new and striking ways. Some don’t, and those poems don’t make it into the book!

While the drafting of many poems in Thieve roughly follows this pattern, there are as well a number of series, or poems specifically linked to one another. For instance, there’s a movement of five poems all titled Lost Boys of the Upper Great Plains. I’d written one poem by that title and was so taken by the voice I discovered that I kept writing; that voice had more to say, to confess, to witness to. Similarly, I wrote a poem called Explain: Harvest, in which I tried to explain to my children the work I’d done as a young man, the work of wheat harvest on a dryland ranch; after I finished that poem, I realized there was so much more I wanted to explain to my son and daughter, and so in Thieve, you’ll find Explain: Extinct, Explain: Recession, and Explain: Rain, among others.

Joe Wilkins, poet and Linfield University professor, has been nominated for an Oregon Book Award for "Thieve."

The throughline of the book is a sequence of 10 poems all subtitled Poem Against the Crumbling of the Republic. Tell us about those.

Not long after the election of 2016, a friend I hadn’t spoken to in 20 years, though we’d been quite close in high school, emailed me out of the blue. He was still living in Montana, near the small town we grew up in, and I knew we led very different lives; specifically, I knew we were on opposite sides of the political divide, a divide that often maps cleanly onto the urban/rural divide. But he was reaching out, and it was clear he was searching for something. I wrote back. He wrote again, his second email more clearly laying out his struggles. I wrote a long, intimate note to him, hoping we could continue the conversation — and I never heard back. But I wanted to keep talking, I wanted to try to bridge the chasm between us, so, again, I turned to poems.

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If the Republic is crumbling, what do you see as the role and responsibility of the artist who lives in that Republic? I’m wondering if your feelings have evolved over, say, the past four years.

The responsibility of the artist is to the art. As a poet, as a storyteller, I am responsible to the poem, to the story — responsible for making that particular gathering of words as graceful, staggering, and, maybe, upsetting as it must be. Art cannot be in service to partisan politics or preconceived notions. If it is, it ceases to be art and becomes propaganda or commercial copy or a Facebook post. Art is about discovery, both in the perceiver and the creator, such that when I write a poem I am not affirming but testing and challenging my own beliefs, pushing the limits of how I understand and feel. That’s the responsibility of art. Yes, it can inspire and affirm and make beautiful, but it also tests and challenges, afflicts, wakes us up.

You have a wonderful illustration of the power of art in Fall Back Down When I Die, where you have the character Wendell, a struggling, working-class young man, for whom the memory of appearing as Banquo in a high school production of Macbeth provides comfort, even a kind of spiritual solace. He actually says, “I think about it all the time.”

Yeah, absolutely. While we’re of course writing from a particular place and time, we are, as artists, hoping the words might land and take root anywhere. In places and situations we don’t know, in lives far different from ours. Or, as James Baldwin puts it: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

Your published work now includes a memoir, several poetry collections, and a novel, but it also includes a story that’s not mentioned in the “Also by Joe Wilkins” at the front of Thieve, and that’s Far Enough: A Western in Fragments. I’d describe it as a short story told in fragments of prose that are poetic. Could you tell us about that? 

The “Also by” page lists just the full-length books, and Far Enough is a chapbook, or a book about the length of a chapter. I’ve written two others — Leviathan, a collection of poems, and We Had to Go on Living, a pair of essays — and I love the chapbook! Usually, you can read a chapbook in one sitting, and they tend to be tightly focused narratively or thematically. Far Enough is a novella told in prose fragments or prose poems or short-short stories — something! It’s a form I latched onto early on as a prose writer, as it allowed me to zoom in on a particular dramatic moment, as well as leap narratively through time (I employed a similar form in my memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers.) Far Enough tells the story of a dryland ranch in eastern Montana in the late 1980s, the height of the farm crisis and the culmination of a decade-long drought. There’s a struggling rancher and wayward ranch hand who loses his thumb in a roping accident and the beautiful daughter of the rancher, and across a dry summer they all get crossways of one another.

A novella, prose fragments, or short stories, or “something.” This reminds me of Ursula Le Guin, who didn’t care much for “genre,” the idea of slapping labels on stories. You’re a storyteller.

I’ll take any chance I can get to be in the company of Ursula Le Guin! Absolutely. Stories are stories.

Having said that, let me resort to a label for a moment, the Western. Whether in fiction or film, Westerns have always been complicated, by virtue of being  products of empire and all that entails. Yet it seems that much of your work is a poetic reimagining of that narrative space. Far Enough is subtitled “A Western.” Fall Back Down When I Die is literally about a cowboy and gunslingers. Is this something you’ve thought about?

In much of my work, I’m writing right at the idea of the Western — and, hopefully, bending it in a kinder, more sustainable direction. Wendell, the character you referenced earlier, is one of the heroes of Fall Back Down When I Die not because he is violent or decisive, but because he is a caretaker, someone who cares for others and refuses to reduce them. In The Mountain and the Fathers, my mother and my grandfather occupy a similar space; they are classically Western characters — hard-working, fierce, in love with the land — yet what makes them heroic is their kindness, their care, their willingness to see and accept differences.

In one of the final poems in Thieve, This Late Hour, or Poem Against the Crumbling of the Republic, I try to do the same, I try to find a space of care and acceptance for my old friend, someone who is now, I know, very different from me. Here are the last lines of that one:

 What if we had loved each other
 & said so? Shall we commence
 even at this late hour 
 telling the truth? The pines beetle-killed,
 the great cedars nothing 
 but stumps? 
  
 Old friend,
 how old is your boy?
 Mine’s seven. 
  
 If you ever met him he’d walk right up 
 & put his arms around you,
  
 you can be sure.  

As a writing teacher, you have a front-row seat to the next generation of writers. Are you encouraged by what you see?

Oh, goodness. Yes, yes, yes! My students at Linfield are earnest and hard-working — and talk about stories to tell! Each year I’m amazed and humbled that I get to be part of their journey. 

What are you working on now?

Like I said, I’m always writing poems! And I’ve got another novel in the works. Though not exactly a sequel to Fall Back Down When I Die, it’s set in the same community — Delphia, Montana — and has a few crossover characters. Not positive about the title, but I’m thinking maybe All Apologies; the book takes place in April of 1994, and Kurt Cobain’s suicide is one of the inciting events. There’s also some romance and lots of ranch work and a young kid on the run, trying to get back to Seattle.

About the author

David Bates is an award-winning Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and is currently a freelance writer whose clients have included the McMinnville News-RegisterOregon Wine Press, and Indulge, a food-oriented publication. He has a B.S. degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a long history of involvement in the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players of Oregon and other theaters in Oregon.

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