Joseph Millar's first collection, Overtime (2001) was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. A second collection, Fortune, appeared in 2007. Millar grew up in Pennsylvania and attended Johns Hopkins University and spent twenty-five years in the San Francisco Bay area working at a variety of jobs, from telephone repairman to commercial fisherman. His work has won a fellowship for the National Endowment for the Arts and a 2008 Pushcart Prize. In 1997, he gave up his job as telephone installation foreman to try his hand at teaching. A new chapbook, Bestiary, is now available from Red Dragonfly Press, and a third collection, Blue Rust, will be published by Carnegie-Mellon in 2012. Millar is now core faculty at Pacific University's Low Residency MFA Program and lives in Raleigh, NC with his wife, the poet Dorianne Laux.
The yarmulke hides the bald spot on my goyische skull
as I watch my new son-in-law's size 13
stomp down on the linen-swathed wineglass.
My daughter looks radiant, no other word
for it, gowned in white satin the color of light.
We're surrounded by Jews dressed in black
like the sea, like the streets of Manhattan,
whose young men will soon bear me up
on a chair, a floating throne
over the circle clapping and singing.
I've eaten roast duck at the rehearsal dinner,
listened to the cantor's plangent tones,
stood by while the two signed the ornate
ketubah, gold-leafed promise
unschooled like a map of the world.
My small wan gaggle of distant family
clumps together next to the aisle,
divorced, remarried adopted, nervous:
our dead father's third wife coughing behind
my stepchildren, ex-wife, half brothers, motley,
ragged, one nephew wearing a baseball cap.
When the groom lifts the veil from her
delicate temples, I'm thinking someone
should warn them: a future of funerals, car
payments, taxes, kids throwing up in the night.
It's a job you mostly won't know how to do,
your naked arm deep in a jammed kitchen sink,
burnt rinds of eggplant crazily adrift.
Your children will lift their small faces
toward you and give you reason to weep,
and if you manage to stay together
there will be nights you lie down
like strangers back to back
falling away from each other in sleep.
Above us the moon looks speckled, torn,
fluttering over the courtyard and I'm dazed by the perfume rising up
from this fleshy rose pinned to my worsted lapel.
I'm swallowing down the thick nuptial wine,
getting reading to dance all night.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
It started after we got back home from New Orleans where the wedding took place. I was having a spell of sadness, a kind of dazed aftermath. I knew my daughter was kind of going away forever.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
It went through quite a few. These narratives usually require a lot of cutting and some pasting. I had the basic scaffolding, and then I kept remembering things (the jammed kitchen sink) and fitting them in there. Maybe ten months or fifteen. Sometimes I have to keep walking around for a while when I think a poem's finished and then I will find it is not. Sometimes when I can't get an ending, I need to be alive for a little longer, to wait and be patient.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do believe in inspiration and surely there must have been some of that, but the way most of this poem came was through the various avenues of memory: the Jewish wedding customs—the shattered glass, the Ketubah, the hoisted chair—they were obvious poetry. So the writing seemed like mostly conscious labor, but I had so much feeling about this, I was able to jump around fairly well.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Just the usual techniques of free-verse narrative. I tried to compress the syntax, make sure each line had something in it, tried to speak clearly and not overdo it...
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It didn't appear until my second book, Fortune, came out in ‘07, maybe three years.
It was accepted by Paterson Review but I don't think they ever printed it because I failed to send them a computer disc of it, which they'd requested.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I usually let them sit for a while. No rules but usually.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
This poem is pretty much true to the facts. I think the spirit of a poem's truth is more important than its factual truth, but in this case the facts seemed enough.
Is this a narrative poem?
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Probably my usual influences: Sharon Olds, James Wright, Philip Levine, Nina Simone, Neil Young.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Usually a true friend, but sometimes an enemy or someone I don't like.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
My wife, the poet Dorianne Laux, sees all my work before I send it anywhere.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It's not that different.
What is American about this poem?
There are a few American threads running through it. The Jewish ceremony, its old-world solidarity, the speaker's sense of estrangement, his own "recombined" family riddled with death and divorce. Also, a kind of celebration of the Other and the idea that marriage is probably somewhat the same for everybody.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I think it's finished.