JOE WILKINS is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, winner of a GLCA New Writers Award, and three collections of poems, most recently When We Were Birds, winner of the Oregon Book Award in Poetry. His debut novel, And Ever These Bull Mountains, will be published by Little, Brown in 2019. He lives with his family in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.

JOE WILKINS is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, winner of a GLCA New Writers Award, and three collections of poems, most recently When We Were Birds, winner of the Oregon Book Award in Poetry. His debut novel, And Ever These Bull Mountains, will be published by Little, Brown in 2019. He lives with his family in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.

The Far Becomes the Near, and They Are Not the Same

When from the forest you step into dry meadow, 
reach back and grab one handful of shadow—
it’s heavier than you might imagine, a soft stone,
a gathered, lacy weight. Carry it to the seep, 
where some hundred years ago in the mud
a miner, nameless now and dead, sunk
an enamel tub—faintail of unburnt daisies, 
maidenhair and lady fern. Kneel down. 
Hang the shadow from the derelict maple. 
Rinse your face. You have come a long way
to this one sunny noon of your life. Isn’t it nice
to have yet a scrap of shadow? Isn’t it? Tell me, 
fugitive, how would you ever cool your hot
heart without it? 

Conversation with Joe Wilkins

Jenny Catlin, Lisa Laughlin, & Cody Smith
Cascade Head, Oregon

 

          When we contacted Joe Wilkins for an interview, he knew exactly the place he wanted to share with us: Cascade Head, a grassy knoll overlooking the Oregon Coast just a few miles north of Lincoln City. The only question was how to approach it—we could hike to the top of Cascade Head (the views were tremendous, Joe promised, but the hike might be a bit intense), or canoe to a “spit” of beach just below Cascade Head via an estuary (the beach below Cascade Head was accessible only if one had a watercraft.) Our interview team weighed the options. We thought of ferrying our precious electronic devices on a wobbly canoe. We thought about the likelihood of interviewing Joe Wilkins while drenched in saltwater, post-canoe-flip. We decided, for the good of the interview, to go with the hike.
          The hike did turn out to be a bit intense—not necessarily in length or elevation, but in terrain. Though we were approaching Memorial Day Weekend, the cool wet of early spring had yet to entirely leave the place. The trail up to Cascade Head was inches-deep with mud in places. The upside to all the water was the trail’s edge of rich greenery—there were gentle lady ferns and sword ferns, patches of clover and berry bushes. Every so often, mossy tree roots covered the trail. We slipped up the quiet, rocky paths. We paused on narrow foot bridges that appeared suddenly in small clearings where streams pitched down the hillside. We bent low through brush that grew up and over the trail, as if we’d found some secret passage. Eventually, the trees thinned. Eventually, we could hear the low tumbling of the ocean.
          At the top of Cascade Head, you can often spot wild elk, Joe told us. In the absence of trees there were shin-high tangled grasses, and a long view of the Pacific Ocean. It was mid-morning when we reached the top of Cascade Head. The place was still shrouded with a curious mix of sea spray and light fog. From our vantage, we could watch the Pacific ghost wave after wave onto a light-sanded beach, thin breaks of white rolling and then fanning to disappear in the wet border between land and sea. We could see the twisting estuary Joe spoke of that threaded the ocean farther inland. Every so often, Joe said, when he chose to canoe, curious seals popped up suddenly in the saltwater beside him. I slightly regretted nixing the canoe option.
          We chose a grassy viewpoint just off the trail to conduct the interview. Joe seemed at home in the place. He wore a trucker hat and blue flannel, casual jeans and a zip-up hoodie. He shared how, walking in among the flora, he often got the feeling of things being hidden. That, somehow, the place itself was secret—like it was a place that was easy to hide in. He compared it, with admiration, to the fictional Shire from The Lord of the Rings.
          Our interview team had driven from the dry, pine-riddled land of Spokane in eastern Washington state. Standing on hills that seemed unnaturally green, above the gray-blue water that blurred to gray-cloud horizon, we were primed to talk about the disparity of places. Joe, who had grown up in the open, high desert plains of Montana, spoke of a divide of the head and the heart when it came to moving places and cultures. He loved his new green Shire in Oregon, but the sage-strewn farm of his youth was a place he still carried with him. He spoke of his time living in the rural South as a place of influence, too—somehow, each of the rural places he’d experienced seemed more alike than they were different. It had something to do, he said, with “being way off, together;” with experiencing the isolation of a place with a community of people who felt the isolation alongside you. 
          It felt like we were “way off, together” as our interview team stood with Joe in the sea-spray fog on Cascade Head. At first, it seemed we were the only four bodies for miles. Once the fog began to settle, small people-dots appeared on the beach below us, and a few other mud-covered hikers trickled in on the trail behind us. As we took the place in, we began to discuss a writer’s job of incorporating place—how distance from a place can both help and hinder the process, how writing about a place just as often entails writing about the people, and the power of using imagination to write honestly about both. 

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Conversation

CODY SMITH

          What does it mean to be a writer and poet of the American West?

JOE WILKINS

          The meaning is changing for me. When I was in grad school encountering William Kittredge, Kim Barnes, and Mary Clearman Blew, Ivan Doig and others in my shared background, it meant a certain kind of story about the failure of homesteading and this pioneer myth we tell ourselves that isn’t really true. It was very much tied to that and tied mostly to the interior West. And I still think that working against nostalgia and mythology is part of what we do in the West. I don’t think that’s just the West. I think Southern writers do the same thing. But I do think the Western myth—the cowboy, the homesteader myth—is soaked in our culture. And that’s something writers have to take on. 
          It’s changed, though, for me. I’ve started to discover, since I’m here [Oregon] in a very different West, that there are a lot of other kinds of Wests. There are other kinds of communities. The country around here has a history that’s far different from much of the interior West—it’s older, it’s got a different kind of settlement pattern—and so I think, as a writer, for me now it’s discovering those other Wests, starting to try to figure them out. 
          In their big Montana anthology, The Last Best Place, Bill Kittredge and Annick Smith write something like, “it still might be possible to find a coherent way to live in the last best place.” That idea of finding a coherent way to live is something I feel like I’m seeing in the community I am in now, whereas, when I was growing up, many of the ways people were living were incoherent and unsustainable. So, how do we honor the landscape? How do we honor the fact that we’re here now and we love this place, but we need to live coherently with it and on it? A lot of being a Western writer, for me, are those issues. 

LISA LAUGHLIN

          When you’re inhabiting these different Wests, how do you write about a culture that you both are and are not a part of, without treating that culture unfairly?

WILKINS

          A number of years ago, I went and stayed with the Buffalo Field Campaign, which is a front lines environmental group operating right outside of Yellowstone Park. Wild buffalo migrate out of the park. In the winter, when they come down for forage, they’re often pretty brutally hazed back into the park and then shot. So, what the field campaign does is just hang out with the buffalo, and they have this big lodge—and it looks just like you think it might, you know: front lines environmental group, dedicated to wild buffalo [laughs]. They document things, so they’re running around in pickups all the time, filming. 
          In a lot of ways, my capacity for reason and my intellectual self is so with them. Buffalo don’t give brucellosis to cattle. It’s a myth that ranchers have built up—that they’re under attack by buffalo, that buffalo threaten their livelihoods. And they just don’t. But the state of Montana and the Department of Livestock has put in millions of dollars to hire out-of-work cowboys, who will ride on horses and run around in fancy SUVs and stuff, and they’re blaring air sirens at the buffalo to get them to move—they’ve got a helicopter that comes down—so you’re just like, Ah, this is idiocy, right? I mean, there’s just no reason we’re doing this. It’s about that myth: we had to get rid of the buffalo and replace them with cattle; we can’t let the buffalo back, or what we’ve built will somehow fall. 
          So I’m totally with the Buffalo Field Campaign, my intellectual sense of self. But I found I had this unreasonable emotional attachment to the cowboys. They all know each other. It’s like that old Looney Tunes cartoon where the wolf and the dog check in together, and then the wolf tries to get the sheep all day. I was riding with the Buffalo Field Campaign, and we pulled into the parking lot at McDonald’s, and they called out to one [of the cowboys], “Hey Bridger, are you all done for the day?” [laughs]. The cowboy, you know, he’s like, [begrudgingly] “Yeah, I think we’re done. Have a good one.” 
          And I saw him [the cowboy], and he was a young guy, 22 or 23, and he just reminded me so much of people I grew up with. There was a lot of bashing of the agents at the field campaign. I found myself so torn—okay, it’s idiocy, what’s occurring, but at the same time, many of these guys are out of work and what they know is horseback work and herding. So I feel like I’m always going to carry that with me, even as I have stepped outside of that culture. And I think it’s right and proper that I should bring as much intellectual rigor to bear on that life. If that means criticizing it, that’s what it means. It also means, though, that I have to understand that it is life—these are people who are leading these lives who are trying to make it through their days, as we all are.

LAUGHLIN

          So, when you have those warring ideals about a culture, how do you approach that in your writing?

WILKINS

          Part of it goes back to being honest with oneself on multiple levels. In an essay, it means writing what happened and putting the actual people on the page. Even as idiotic or villainous as their actions are, they’re going to be people if you honestly write them. Part of it, too, goes to thinking it through: asking yourself why. Why’s it so important to me? Why do I feel so conflicted? What’s going on? 

SMITH

          So, talking about the cowboys—who you disagree with on an idealistic level, but you found some sort of emotional attachment to—is that how one is able to write something and avoid, say, propaganda? Is to find some way to fully round something?

WILKINS

          Yeah, I think so. I think that’s part of it—trying to, as much as possible, step into that space. I think we can step into particular spaces more easily than we can others, because we know the experience—experience as likeness, not their particular one. So I found myself, without even trying, immediately wanting to open up the door, get out of the car, and go into McDonald’s with this guy [cowboy]. That felt like the right thing to do at that moment. I didn’t, but it felt like that’s what I did in my head. I followed him. 
          So I think sometimes that happens to us, and that’s important and we need to pay attention to that, but sometimes we have to try to make that happen. And we just need to be like, Okay, can I calm this other part of me, or see through these other things that are in my way and see if I can follow that experience, or that life, a little bit.

JENNY CATLIN

          How do you battle that “cowboy nostalgia” of a place for the reality of it?

WILKINS

          Well, I think you battle [laughs]. I think you have to keep in mind that nostalgia is a really, really powerful thing, that it can overwhelm, and that you have to remind yourself of the realities as much as you can. Because my particular experience in the place I grew up is so colored by loss, I find that loss often works against nostalgia. Because my father died when I was young, and that place is so infused with that sense of loss, the loss almost precludes nostalgia creeping in. My experience with that place was an experience of sundering, of something going very wrong. 

SMITH

          It makes me think of when Hugo talks about, especially in poetry, how addition is easier than subtraction. Does coming from that place of loss give you a space to add what you want to add to it? 

WILKINS

          Sure, to step into it in a different way. Yeah. It wasn’t laid out for me by a father figure, and it’s a very male place. That vision, that way to be, might have been there in a way that now there’s this room. 

SMITH

          How did being a Montanan help or hinder those poems set in the South in Killing the Murnion Dogs?

WILKINS

          Being from a rural place gave me access to the rural South. The South is so different. I naïvely thought when I first went south that that connection would be stronger, and then I get there and I’m like, Oh wow, this is a different place all together, I’m an idiot [laughs]. But I do think, knowing the experience of living in small communities—of distance, of having to travel those distances to get places, of being sort of way off together, in a way that people end up in rural areas—I did eventually begin to see the similarities there. 
          So when I was living in little Sunflower, Mississippi, I thought a lot about living in little Melstone, Montana. When I was teaching ninth graders who lived out on the Bayou, who’d walk the mile and a half to the bus stop, I thought, Yeah, the Bayou’s not the same, but that mile and half to the bus stop, that experience of sitting there waiting for the bus, that’s the same. We’re kids from way out somewhere. So I think that gave me some access. 
          I find—and maybe it goes back to loss—the experience of the South is so much about the loss of a previous culture, that those remnants are still there. That sense of loss was very prevalent in the South. And maybe I’m just predisposed to see that everywhere. It feels like you can walk through New Orleans or Memphis and see ghosts all the time. I think it felt familiar in that way. 

SMITH

          Maybe you’re seeing things with an objective eye that everyone else has internalized. 

WILKINS

          Yes, absolutely. I think there’s something about the experience of traveling to a different place. When I first moved to Mississippi, I wasn’t writing about it. I found myself writing much more about Montana. I think that distance, being able to see something else and place it next to this other thing, and say, Okay, this is what that was, because now I see what it’s not.

SMITH

          Do you think distance is helpful when you’re writing about the American West? How does it help or hinder? 

WILKINS 

          I think it was vital for me as I began writing to have distance from Montana. And distance from family, to a certain extent. That was just totally necessary. I don’t know that it’s as necessary now, though I do find sometimes that distance will still help. 
          My whole family went and stayed way south on the Rogue River [in Oregon] for a summer, in an off-the-grid cabin. While I was there I wrote a lot about what we were doing, but nothing stuck. It’s only now that I feel like I’m starting to get things together about that, and distance in time and space is helping me figure that out. I don’t know if it’s absolutely necessary. There are people who write about where they are beautifully—Robert Michael Pyle lives up on the Washington coast, and he writes about his little community of Grays River and he’s lived there forty years now or something. So, he’s figured out a way to do it [laughs]

SMITH

          We need to call him up—

WILKINS

          Yeah, right? What’s your secret, Bob? [laughs]. But for me I do think it helps some, it offers a way to see. And when I’m in a place, and writing about that place, I find myself not writing about my own experiences as much. I find myself writing about other facets of it, or trying to see it through someone else’s eyes. That’s maybe a way to distance without distancing. 

SMITH

          When I’m reading Killing the Murnion Dogs with poems often set in the South in contrast with Notes from the Journey Westward, it seems as if when you’re away from the West, your poetry takes on a form of witness. And when you’re in the West, you’rea more active agent in the poem.

WILKINS

          Maybe it goes back to addition and subtraction, how it’s easier to add again. When you have this whole hunk of experience with it, you have to wrestle with those things, whereas when you’ve been in a place for a year or two that’s not there. You can start to add in more. You can step out of it and just look, and not have those same kind of attachments, or weight of history and family behind you, to an extent. 

LAUGHLIN 

          How do you incorporate historical research? Do you feel like that’s tied with writing about a place, that you have to look into the history? 

WILKINS 

          I do think that it’s tied to it. I do think you have to do it. It’s something in the beginning that I didn’t do a lot of, and I found myself missing things. Or, hitting something and getting stuck, and being like, Why am I stuck? And then it was reading Mary Clearman Blew—who’s really historically engaged, both with her own family and the wider history of the West—that I thought, Ohh, I need to do some work here. I’m not nearly the writer of history that Mary is. She just kind of delights in it, I think, and spends a lot of time in it. For me, it often doesn’t show up in the work, but it informs it. I’ll do a lot of research and reading, and sometimes it feels like, Why’d I do all that when so little of it actually made it to the page? [laughs]. Or I’ll read all these books of Delta history, you know, and then two poems will show up out of it. 
          But I do think, for me, it’s become more and more important to do that research and spend time in that space. It sort of helps me through, I think, and allows me to speak with more confidence. 

LAUGHLIN 

          It seems like there’s an extent where historical research becomes an obligation, but you want it to be organic in your own work. How do you balance that? 

WILKINS 

          At High Desert Journal we read a lot of essays that never step outside of the history. And you think, Well, that’s interesting, but I need a story. How does this impact us now? Connect some dots for me—What’s that doing? So, again, I think it’s important, but it’s not sufficient. At least in the kind of writing we’re attempting to do.

CATLIN

          I have a question about form—how do you decide what a piece is going to be when you sit down? You have a segmented, almost collage-style format in your memoir, these fantastic little snippets of life. How does something inform what it’s going to become? Is that organic?

WILKINS

          I’d say organic, but it’s messy, like most organic things [laughs]. Form is really important to me. I’m always talking to students about form. I think there are times when you’re writing something and it finds its form pretty quickly, so you don’t question it. I think the trouble with that, is when that happens you think that’s the way writing should always go. That the form is somehow there in the beginning. But the form isn’t there. Often you have something—a line, a scene, a narrative—and the form’s way off here and you have to work your way to it.
          There are a number of poems in my latest book that went through so many radical formal changes. There’s one called “Little Light” that ends up being just a tiny poem, and I tried to write that for years and years. At one point it was this big thing in like four parts, and it was all over the page, and none of it was working. And then, finally, deciding that the real experience of this—as a young man I played basketball against the high school of a young Crow man, and he and his family ended up running out of gas and freezing to death out on this road out on the Crow reservation—and I finally realized, I can’t explain any of this. And I was like, Okay, start there—don’t explain. And so it became this anaphora. That became the line that allowed me to find the form.
          So, I think you have to work toward form, and I think it’s an essential question in prose and in poetry. In poetry, I often compose in couplets, just because you can’t hide things. And sometimes they stay there, but often then I’ll find my way to something else. And it seems like it happens pretty quick. I’ll get, say, halfway down the page and I’ll think, You know, couplets aren’t it. I might keep going for a while in it, but I realize already that’s not it. In prose, it takes a little bit longer. In prose it’s so connected to other decisions you might make about psychological distance, and point of view, and where you start, and all that kind of stuff. But I do think that form is an essential question. My students get so tired of hearing me talk about it [laughs]

LAUGHLIN 

          It seems like it’s partially tied to revision, that you find the form later on. How do you puzzle out form during revision?

WILKINS 

          Mostly it’s when I know it’s not working, so I’ll try another form. Sometimes I’ll have already tried and failed on a particular story or a particular thing, and I’ll start again and I’ll be like, Okay, well . . . I’ll just force it into a sonnet today, just to see what happens. Likely it doesn’t work, but maybe then you learn something in that process. 

SMITH

          So if you’re starting poems in couplets, is there something that you’re always going to in prose? Like tense, or—?

WILKINS 

          Yeah [laughs]. In nonfiction prose I’m always going to the present tense fragment. 

LAUGHLIN

          —Oh, and then it’s like, can’t stay there. 

WILKINS 

          Nope [laughs]

LAUGHLIN 

          I have that same problem. 

WILKINS 

          It’s the present tense leap, right. I want to get deep in, and then I want to jump. And I want to do it in present tense. So I really had to force myself out of that. And that’s been a struggle in nonfiction. I wrote that way for years. It’s only now, I think, that I’m starting to find ways to write in a different way, especially with more autobiographical stories. I think I’ve written some stories that are a little less autobiographical that felt easier to operate in a different mode. But I’m only now figuring that out.

LAUGHLIN 

          Do you often write in present tense still, initially, and then go back and revisit it, just because it’s accessible? 

WILKINS

          Yep. And it feels immediately important to me on the page, you know. I started doing that in fiction, too, and I just now quit. I decided no more present tense fiction for me for a long time. Because I can’t figure out how to make it work. 

LAUGHLIN 

          It seems like present tense is especially challenging because your reader is more inclined to ask, Why do I want to stay in this moment with you—where’s the investment? Which seems contradictory, because present tense can seem urgent in a way that should work to instantly engage. Do you consider your reader when you’re deciding on tense? 

WILKINS 

          Yeah, I’m thinking about the reader’s experience. I’m often, though, thinking about the reader as someone a lot like me [laughs]. I’m trying to write something that I’d like to read, you know? That’s sort of my gauge. So I’m thinking about the payoff, but I always think about it as, would I keep reading this? Is this going to capture me? And there are times I’ll start something and it just feels like the energy is lost, or I don’t know what it is I’m doing. 
          One thing I’ve been thinking about related to present tense, and related to nonfiction, is this term by Scott Russell Sanders that you have to earn present tense. I’ve heard him talk about it, but I take that to mean that earning the present tense is about having a really good reason. Like, this narrative has to be arresting in and of itself, but it also has to have intellectual reverberations beyond the own emotional moment. And then the other sense too, is, if you start in past tense, you better, by the end, make it matter right now. It has to become present to us in a really real way by the end. So, I’ve been toying with that formulation, really thinking about how to earn the present tense.

CATLIN 

          Do you know when you sit down, when you have a story you want to tell, if you want it in essay or poetry form? Do you know that design ahead of time? 

WILKINS 

          Poetry and essay seem to come from the same place for me. They often begin in my own experience, with something pretty close to me. They come to me as image, as narrative. Not always as a full narrative, sometimes just a half of it, and you’re like, I don’t know what happened to that other half [laughs]. But they come to me in those ways. They come to me without the worry of what happens next, because the language or the scene itself will tell me something about what happens next. 
          Fiction works very differently. It’s much more about thinking on a particular character or something I want to explore, and then really the question is, What next? Where do I go from here? And then where do I go from here? And so it feels like, rather than this sort of spinning thing that goes on in poetry and nonfiction, it feels like journeying out. The question of the end becomes a really important question there, in a way that, in poetry and nonfiction, it feels like the end is always there. I just have to work my way to it. 

SMITH

          You said that, often, when you’re working with poetry or nonfiction that it starts with an image, or maybe a sound. That’s how it starts for me too. But does it ever start sometimes with an idea? I have ideas sometimes [laughs]. . . but then I don’t trust the genesis of the poem.

WILKINS 

          Very seldom [laughs]. There have been a few, and a lot of ones that I don’t think worked very well.

SMITH

          A lot of drafts in the desk drawer?

WILKINS 

          Yeah. . . Or, then, sometimes I feel like it’s done, but it’s just not as good. But there are people who work that way. I have a friend, Steve Coughlin, and that’s the way he starts, with an idea. And when he told me that I was just was like—What!? But he said the same thing about the image, that he doesn’t know what he’s doing with the image. When he has the idea, he feels like he knows what he’s supposed to be writing about. So, it seems to work for him. 

CATLIN 

          So there is a way. [Laughs] 

WILKINS 

          Yeah. I do find, though, as I continue to write and as my concerns maybe grow or change, that I no longer eschew thinking intellectually about pieces. I find myself doing that more and more. It’s just became more important in my process. I think maybe that’s because a lot of the material that was closest to me when I first started writing I’ve written, so I’m having to step further out.

SMITH 

          What is the difficulty there? With having already written the material that’s closest to you and having to find something else to write about? That seems terrifying. 

WILKINS 

          [Laughs] Yeah. Well, I think there’s always things to continue to mine in those areas. I’m always going to be writing poems about being a kid way out in the middle of Montana. And I find things there that I didn’t know were there still, ways of thinking about it and looking at it. But that actually is one of the reasons I’ve turned to fiction, too. I found myself still wanting to write about that space and those things, but wanting to get outside of my own experience. I wanted to write other characters and other ways of seeing it. And, to a certain extent, to be a little more intellectually driven, though not as much as some, I don’t think. I wanted to explore ideas in a way that my own experience wouldn’t allow me to.

SMITH

          Was there a touch of that motivation in, say, Notes on the Journey Westward, where we’re dealing a lot with persona poems? 

WILKINS 

          Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a way to step outside the self, to deal with things that self might not be able to really know or see. I love the persona poem. Persona, of course, is all you. In some ways persona poems feel really close to nonfiction. They feel like this little confession you get to make, and you’re like, I didn’t even know I had to confess! [Laughs].

LAUGHLIN 

          It seems like there’s an element of imagination with persona. Do you find that imagination is important to be able to inhabit a place?

WILKINS 

          Yes. Even in nonfiction I often talk to my students about what I call “imaginative space,” the idea of opening up—not just perhapsing, or saying “perhaps”—a kind of fictional moment inside nonfiction to bring a force to bear on what did happen. So, in the end of my memoir, the last scene is roughly probably how a day in my father’s life might have went, but it’s all made up. I think exploring those areas where beginning to imagine something new can be really fruitful in nonfiction. I think it’s essential in poetry, as well, to be able to allow the imagination the freedom to link things, to go places you haven’t been. 
          Norman Dubie has this great essay about the persona poem, and it’s all about how in the greatest dramatic monologues in persona poems you have this weird thing where the persona melds with the poet, and it’s sort of in between them. The danger of the persona poem is that you caricature the speaker. And so the greatest ones are sort of in between them. We understand, as readers, that we’re reading this creation, this fakery. But we’re okay with that, because the poet is making what’s being said important enough for us to listen to, an aesthetic experience that we want to hear, but we also want it from this particular place. What is the poem told from the persona of a child murderer that Dubie references? 

SMITH

          I’m not sure, but you’re making me think about Springsteen’s Nebraska.

WILKINS 

          Yes! That’s the power of that album, yeah. 

LAUGHLIN 

          So do you think persona is tied to the writer’s voice, since you still have your voice when you’re inhabiting or creating the persona? Is there that interplay?

WILKINS 

          Yes. Bob Dylan couldn’t do the Nebraska album, right? His voice is just too ironic, too shifted. And we understand when we’re listening to the Nebraska album that we’re listening to Bruce Springsteen, but his voice is perfect for that particular space. And they somehow come together and create this thing in between them, in a way that maybe another singer wouldn’t be able to do. 

CATLIN 

          Are you finding some freedom in fiction now, or is it more restricted than other genres when you’re working to cast the net of believability? Nonfiction can be much more fantastical, in some ways. 

WILKINS

          I’m finding it really freeing. Though, it feels harder. It feels more like work. It’s like the part of the trail down there where you’re slogging through the mud, versus this part of the trail here, where you’re like Ahhh. This is the poem; that [the trail] is the writing it takes you. And there are moments when you get ahold of something and something happens and you’re like, Oooh, that’s good, I didn’t know that. I’m going to follow that. But a lot of it does feel tough, like you have to keep working away without knowing—in the way in the other forms where it feels like the end is contained in there somewhere, fiction feels like it’s out there and I have to keep going, I have to keep working to get to it. 
          But it’s also fun. Then when you do find something that happens, and you think, Oh, yeah, that’s right, that’s what needed to happen, it’s pretty delightful [laughs].

CATLIN 

          That’s actually how I pictured fiction being—a slow, arduous climb. 

WILKINS

          My colleague Anna Keesey always says that fiction writers are the dishwashers in the literature world. They’re the ones doing that thing behind the scenes making it look so nice out front. They’re doing the dishes. 

SMITH

          We were talking about music just a second ago and you have this quote I wanted to ask you about. On the music and literature website Large Hearted Boy, you say, “It seems to me that poems and songs, or at least the ones that I most admire, often work the same way: they amplify the moment; they jump and cut through narrative; they twist the edges of things, pull strange details into focus.” Can you talk more about that relationship? I’m always interested in the way music is working in poetry.

WILKINS 

          We talk about music moving us, you know. You feel that “rock on” or whatever it is, rise up as you hear the guitar solo, you’re just like, Yeah!—and it doesn’t mean anything, there’s no intellectual meaning accruing there, but something is happening to you, something is physically occurring. You’re being moved, as we say. That meaning before you can have any kind of rational meaning is partly what I’m after there. But then there’s that other layer of the narrative, or of the idea, that’s also working on you. And sometimes those are working against each other or with each other in interesting ways. 
          My first book, Killing the Murnion Dogs, is influenced by a lot of things, but maybe by Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road more than anything. That album was just on repeat for me for years and years. It just mattered so much. The way she’ll step halfway into a story, and then step out, and the musicality of her gravelly voice and the really careful country instrumentation on that album—I love how those work.

SMITH

          How much did it mean, then, listening to Lucinda for so long, to win her father’s prize? [When We Were Birds won the Miller Williams Poetry Prize.]

WILKINS 

          [Laughs] Right? The first thing I asked, when I talked with the editor, was, does this mean I get to meet Lucinda Williams? And he’s like—No. [Laughs].

SMITH

          We interviewed Jonathan Johnson for our first Swamp interview, and we talked about music a little bit. He was saying something similar to you, in that, you hear the first few notes of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and you’re emotionally just right there. And, like photography, music has an immediacy that poetry takes a little while to get at.

WILKINS 

          Yeah, you talk about the first few lines of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and I think, “You might come here Sunday on a whim / Say your life broke down” [from Richard Hugo's "Degrees of Gray at Philipsburg"]. Even immediately, even before sense—“You might come here Sunday on a whim,” like, Sunday? Where, where are we going? [Laughs]. But just the musicality of the line immediately has this sort of minor key just, Ahhh. . . yes I might. So the music of the words themselves is doing that already, even though we don’t know what’s working on us yet.
          Dan Butterworth, during my super senior year at Gonzaga, when I finally had room to take a poetry class, walked in. At the time we said he was sort of in his Don Johnson phase, he would wear the suits without the tie, and he kind of had this feathered look to his hair, and he just walked in and started reading that poem, before introductions or anything. And I just went like—Whoa! What is this? I have no idea but I love it, it’s so great, whatever it is.

LAUGHLIN

          I was really interested in your recent essay in Orion, “A Place of First Permission.” Could you talk more about the relationship between permission and place when it comes to your writing? 

WILKINS

          Yeah, so that’s that Robert Duncan poem, where in the penultimate line he says, “That is a place of first permission.” He’s speaking about this boyhood meadow that somehow allowed him to choose to imagine the space that let him become who he is. Often our spaces are forced on us, especially as children—Get in your car seat, or, It’s time to go to bed, go to your room. Our spaces are chosen for us, in a way. But this is the space that gives him the ability to choose. Like here, as a boy, he had the chance to be in this meadow, and choose, and so it gave him permission to be himself. And I do think that place allows us, as children. When we don’t have those places, something kind of sad and maybe really dangerous occurs. It’s akin perhaps to losing a parent. It’s a really deep loss. The difference is that it’s an unrecognized one, so you feel that sense of loss without even knowing what it is that’s gone, without even knowing why. That discomfort, that unease. 
          So, in that Orion essay, I think, I’m trying to write about my children’s places of permission, and what they might give them. What these places might do for them in the ways that the place I grew up did. As critical of its cultural aspects as I am, the land itself was so giving to me. There’s the old sense of kith and kin. We often think of “kith” as “friends,” but in the original meaning, kith is land. Kith and kin is the land and the family you are a part of. So the kith informs who you will be. And that land absolutely informed who I am. 
          When it comes to permission about writing about a place—which I think is a totally reasonable reading of that, too—I think we have those places that we feel are somehow ours, or we are theirs, maybe. That ownership should be in there. And I think that happens because of time, or family connection, or history with the place. But sometimes it can happen in other ways. A particular hike, or a particular place you went with someone you loved once—somehow that weekend has allowed that place to be yours, and you to be part of that place. 
          And then there are places we want to figure out, places we’re excited by, but we don’t feel that instant connection. The Delta was like that for me in a lot of ways. It was confusing. I didn’t know what was going on there, and I had to work to try to learn it. And I don’t know that I have a lot of permission about the Delta, but I have a little, I think. I feel like I have that permission partially because I tried to work to earn it, in my own eyes, to a certain extent. And that is the research. That is the time. That is the careful attention to the landscape, to the people. Being that witness as much as possible. 

SMITH

          Permission comes with responsibility?

WILKINS 

          Yeah. Absolutely. It comes with great responsibility.

SMITH

          So, just being here—I’d have to imagine that the Oregon Coast, with all the greenery and all the water, has to be so different than the high desert. Are you finding yourself writing different things or looking through a different lens at the same things? 

WILKINS 

          I find myself writing about my kids’ experience a lot. Walter may have a few memories of Iowa, but not many. And Edie won’t have any, we moved here [to Oregon] when she was just two. And it’s interesting, too, to think about—maybe just because we came on the hike today I have one-up on them—but every time I’ve been here [Cascade Head] I’ve been with my kids. This will be in some ways more their place than it will ever be mine because of that primal connection. That sense of it being a part of their first landscape. So I’m looking at the place we are and often thinking about them—thinking about how it will become a force in their life, and then, through them, my own life. 
          I’ve also been trying to write about the community we live in—it’s pretty wonderful, “the Shire,” and there’s all these local farms—and it’s just silly, almost, like: How’d we end up here ? This isn’t fair for anyone else, you know [laughs]. That we’re here and they’re not. But trying to write about that as well, in perhaps a more journalistic mode. So I’ve been thinking about that, but, yes, it’s definitely a different course of work. Getting to know the different plants and things is so fun, and shows up in the poems and stories.
          I have a story coming out in The Georgia Review this summer, and it’s all about this feeling—you know, going through those little tunnels on the trail. This is a much more populated place than where I grew up, but in some ways it feels more secret, it feels like you can hide. I’ve had the experience a couple of times of hiking somewhere and walking up on a little itinerant camp or something—and you would never know from any number of angles that it’s there, and you just happen to see it through the right one. So that story is about this boy and this sister sort of hiding out in these drippy, wet woods. They’re living out there, just hanging out. It’s kind of a harrowing story, but it was fun to write to just be there in that space and really hang out. Crawl through blackberries, that kind of stuff. 

SMITH 

          In all three of your books of poems, structure-wise, there’s this recurring sort of thing. There’s the dreams of home, the notes to your son, the seven devils. What’s the function of having these things repeat throughout your collection?

WILKINS 

          I see it like a rhyme. You hit a rhyme and it reminds you of where you were, and it makes you think about where you’re headed. So it’s this way to be still in the space you are, but be reminded of the wider space you’re occupying. I find writing this sort of series of poems to be a way to sort of know what you’re going to work on—I only have four, and I know I’ve got to have five, so I’ve got to work on that, you know [laughs].

LAUGHLIN

          It’s like a prompt.

WILKINS

          Yeah, it’s like a prompt you give yourself. But I have found them important in putting together a book in the way that they work to remind where you’ve been and sort of think about where you might be going. I also think putting together collections is just a lot of playing around, of seeing how this leads to that. 
          We just finished Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec in my Rural American class, and it’s a great book, but it’s the old-fashioned three sections: first section is all about growing up on the Mojave Indian Reservation, the second section is all about her brother who’s a meth addict, and the third section is all these erotic poems, right? [Laughs]. That’s pretty standard, you know? A lot of people put those together. And I do think it works—I just find myself totally incapable of doing that. I get bored. I want there to be more layering and overlapping. I want the erotic poems to sit next to the drug-addicted-brother poems and see what might happen when that is the case. And I think when I write I’m thinking about that too. So when I write individual poems I’m thinking, I don’t know, the language is a whole different thing but it reminds me of this other poem, these are going to be near each other somehow. 

SMITH

          Do you get 40 poems in and start thinking about a collection, or are you thinking about a collection early—?

WILKINS 

          I’m always thinking about a collection [laughs]. You write a poem and you think, Oh! This is going to be the centerpiece of a new collection!
          I try to restrain myself these days, though. I used to get about 25 poems and I’d start putting them together. Now I’m holding off a bit more. But I’m always thinking about how they might sit together, what they might do next to each other. When it starts to feel—I don’t know the number, around 40—I start to think, well, is it time to put these together or are some of them too far in left field and they just wouldn’t fit? 
          Robert Wrigley’s latest book of poems, Box, is so different for him. It’s challenging me to think differently about how books go together. His books tend to be pretty big—three, four, five sections, that sort of thing. I tend to think kind of big as well, but I found myself thinking [about Box], Wow, I so admire this. It’s so tight, so economical. He’s got this crazy huge poem that was in Blackbird called “Arrowhead” and it’s like 500 lines. It’s a ridiculously big poem—it’s totally worth it though. It reminds me of a Bob Dylan song, where you’re bouncing around and then there’ll be this funny image and you’re like, I don’t know where it came from, but that’s funny, and then you’re going to the next thing. So I asked him about why that poem didn’t go into the book, and he just said, I love the poem, but it couldn’t sit beside these others. It’s not the same. 

SMITH

          That has to be heartbreaking. 

WILKINS 

          [Laughs] Yeah I know, right? 

SMITH 

          I find I kind of have to temper how often I write poems for Edith [my daughter], but the good thing I’m finding—and, this isn’t my idea, this is Jonathan Johnson’s idea—is that the poems already have a reason to exist in the world. Like the “Notes for my Unborn Son” poems. The rhetorical situation of those are genius. They already have a reason to exist in the world. 

WILKINS 

          Yeah, I find myself addressing people a lot in poems. I’m working on another series—and they’re all subtitled Against the Crumbling of the Republic, with all this political crap going on—and they’re all addressed to “old friend.” And that solves so many problems, when you can address something. You can say this to someone. It allows you to speak in a particular way. It allows you a reason for speaking. It amplifies certain parts of what you’re looking at, and the particular content that might step into there. So I think the address is a really powerful way to begin. 

SMITH 

          How do we write politically, without it being didactic, or just political? Joe Millar told us a while ago that you have to come at it slant. I thought that was wise, but I’m still wrapping my head around how to come at something slant. 

WILKINS 

          I think that’s great advice. Just going back to narrative sometimes will help. The trouble with writing politically is often because we step outside of narrative and we step into an expository mode—which can be powerful, but I think narrative is ultimately more powerful. It allows us to speak with more authority as literary writers about political things. 
          My series of poems [Against the Crumbling of the Republic] is occurring because last fall I got this out-of-the-blue note from a high school friend, and it was basically like, Hi, how are you doing . . . also I’m having a mid-life crisis [laughs]. And we’re both about to turn 40, so maybe that’s it. But I wrote back, and we exchanged a few emails and then he just quit responding. And then his mom, who I was close with—it was a family of divorce, so we bonded, neither of us had fathers, so I’d stay at his place a lot—she got my address somehow and wrote me a Christmas card, and one of her lines was, It’s so great we finally have a president we can be proud of again. I was just like, Oh, God. Jesus Christ. [Laughs]. And then the poems became to him, you know: What would I say to you? I know we’ve taken these very different paths, I know you’re an evangelical Christian, but you weren’t when we knew each other, you know, like—what could I say to you in this poem where you’re struggling and where I feel like our country is struggling? Is there anything I can say that would help?
          That’s how I’m coming at it slant, I think. I don’t know if they [the poems] are going to work, but we’ll see [laughs]

CATLIN

          Writing about politics is very hard—it seems to break all the rules about not writing about something while you’re in it. 

WILKINS 

          I think so too. 

SMITH

          I haven’t tested the waters of political writing. I have a hard time writing love poems, too, because I can’t make it not just about that. Maybe just being a better writer would help [laughs].

WILKINS 

          [Laughs] Tony Hoagland talked about the tonal fraction. He literally put the fraction bar on the board, and he’s like, you know, [imitates] When you’re writing a love poem, I think it might be 17 parts love, but then, it needs to be at least three parts . . . hate, or, three parts annoyance—right? He’s like—whatever it is, you have to have that fraction: if you have a zero underneath, remember . . . it explodes.

SMITH

          Poet math.

WILKINS

          Yeah, poet math [laughs]. And so I sometimes think about that, too, with writing the love poem or the political poem—it might be primarily this political poem, but it’s got to have . . . maybe it’s four parts love poem too, I don’t know. Whatever it is underneath there that allows a different way of looking at it.

LAUGHLIN 

          Do you have any reading recommendations for good, place-based writers you love? 

WILKINS

          I teach this class called Rural America—well, it’s called Darkness on the Edge of Town, from Springsteen, Rural America in Contemporary Literature—so we read Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. Everyone always talks about how lovely it is, but man it’s a novel of pain, too. Of fractured family, which I think is the experience of rural America in many ways these days. There’s also Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage. Then we read Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped. She grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and the memoir is about five young men, including her brother, who were killed in five years in her community. So it’s an investigation of those deaths. It’s really terribly sad, but good. Then we read Lacy Johnson’s Trespasses, which always has loads of discussion because students want to dig into this idea of white trash as a racialized term. We have lots of arguments about that [laughs], which is great. Then we do Michael McGriff’s Home Burial and Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec. So those would be the ones I’d recommend. And I feel like, too, with Hillbilly Elegy sort of getting all of these headlines as the book to understand rural America in Trump country I’m like, Ehhh, read these instead.