Sunday, January 15, 2012

Joseph Millar

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?

Oh yes.

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.


  1. Marvelously accurately descriptive, but more impressively evocative. I love this poem for all the familiar things in it (I, too, have a daughter who married a Jew, though we had many fewer family fractures in the observers.) What I love most is the sense of the significance of the nuptial ceremony and the contradictory emotions of the father. An abstract matter of rational thought so fraught with emotion that it needed to be expressed in poetry. I wish I had written it!

  2. I hate to say this but as a Jew, that is, born and raised although no longer practicing, I find this offensive and racist and antisemitic! Perhaps not intentional but its really grossly politically incorrect and I am one who usually hates PC stuff! I didn't think this kind of perception was still alive and well in these times but I guess it rears its ugly head periodically. Just the phrase, "we're surrounded by Jews dressed in black" Yikes! I am deeply offended by this poem and I have a feeling other Jewish people might be as well. Racial profiling is insidious and ugly. The irony is that half a lifetime ago I stopped practicing Judaism as my spiritual path. However it really is true that being Jewish is both a religion and a culture and culturally I find this offensive.

  3. This poet might have done better to express his own problems with racism, fear and prejudice and examine more deeply his inner conflicts and process. Instead, he projects it outwards in the most obnoxious way. Plus JLC's comment about "I have a daughter who married a Jew" just puts another nail in the coffin!

  4. Allison: I'm sorry to hear you're offended by this poem that, to my sensibilities, is celebratory of the differences between the poet's own diverse extended family and, by extension, the larger human "family" we all find ourselves part of. The line you mention ("surrounded by Jews in black") strikes me as being more literal than anything else. I wonder why you find it hateful? Also, as JLC's comment, that her "daughter married a Jew" strikes me as being completely innocuous. Is it the word "Jew" that's bothering you? It can't be when you yourself used in the first sentence of of your first comment above. Again, I'm sorry you were offended by all this, but I also wonder why exactly you're taking offense. There's certainly none intended from my end. In any case, thanks for commenting.

  5. I'm glad to see Joan continuing to follow your blog, Brian. I'd like to take some credit for that, having encouraged my blog readers to visit your site, but her own intellectual and creative drive deserves the real credit.
    Allison's comments seem unrelated to the poem, to be honest, a poem that uses the literal details to express the familial and emotional fissure that comes with "giving away" one's daughter to, let's face it, a stranger, no matter his ethnicity. I'm sorry she can't appreciate the poem in and of itself. I wonder what sort of poem my mother-in-law might have written about seeing her son marry a woman whose father had forgotten to change his farm boots to Sunday shoes before the wedding and whose preacher had to endure his wife stormimg out of the house because we had a bit of champagne afterward! Whose maid of honor was a hippie in hippie dress with long hair down to her waist. A celebration of the Other. Yes. That's what a wedding is. A marriage, too, when it lasts.

  6. Brian
    I think it best for us to carry on this dialogue in private where I can share with you in more detail why I reacted as I did. Please email me or I will send you a comment via Facebook messaging. I will do some thoughtful probing and write something this evening. This is a LONG dialogue that has been going on for centuries!

  7. I found Joe Millar's poem deeply descriptive and heartfelt. Nothing reads as offensive to me. The power of poetry is in its ability to remove the veil from what one sees to what one portrays. The reader visualizes the wedding party as the narrator did, people dressed in black, a kid wearing a baseball cap, his daughter radiant, all elements of a diverse, blended family coming together without judgement. And then we read of the inevitable shift that the narrator's daughter will experience once the ceremony is over, sleeping together but apart, a clogged drain. Beautiful poem, full of life. thank you!

  8. It's beautiful and poignant. Most of all, it's true. Thank you for sharing your work and your process. God bless you and your daughter's new family.

  9. I enjoyed this poem very much. Also, I appreciated the interview. Thank you.

  10. I enjoyed this poem, thanks for sharing with us!

    Take care

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  11. Allison,
    I am sorry to say this, but as Jew, one who still practices, it feels to me that what your are responding to, and are exposing is your own feelings about specific kinds of Jews...Is the reference to "Jews dressing in black" racist and antisemitic because you feel that "Jews dressed in black" are somehow only figures of the past, or a literary caricature? I know not all Jews dress that way, and most don't. My own Jewish wedding was not attended by many such Jews, but I have been to some that were. I even know of American weddings that sound very similar to this one, involving a member of an ultra-orthodox family marrying a non-Jew.

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