Spikes & Rivers: The Work of Joe Wilkins by Elizabeth Eslami

What I’m looking for, always, is writing that works me over like a crowbar. That bruises, yes, but also that breaks the skin, so it can slip under and stay put. Writing that fractures bone, so some part of me has to forever knit around someone else’s story. I don’t want writing I can shake off or walk away from.

It’s pretty simple. Great writing does damage. And I don’t want to heal from it, ever.

That’s what I tell my students every semester, at the risk of spooking them, and they usually know what I’m driving at: that high bar I want them to aim for, yank down, and club me with.

Of course, all of that talk of bludgeoning is another way of saying that I want writing that makes me feel. I don’t want pretty domestic dramas about Leslie and Steve and a bunch of other Weebles enduring manufactured tragedies – dead babies, affairs, divorce – that exist To Make Them Reflect on Their Problems. And Emote. (Which, damn it all, never helps me emote.) I pick those things up and they smell like my dead Granny’s face powder.

I prefer the crowbar. I want something to happen, and I want to smell it when it is happening. I want to sit at the table with Granny and feel the stone between my teeth.

Joe Wilkins knows how to do this. How to give us “burnt chuck” and the “dirty jackets” of potatoes and an old wood table made from the guts of an abandoned mine. He works his magic in The Big Dry, Musselshell County, which is a place, and has “placeness,” which is a fancy way of saying his writing puts dust in your eyes and grasshoppers on your pant-legs and never smells like new car smell or my dead Granny’s face powder.

Not for nothing, his magic is also breaking your heart:

What does it mean, anyway, to remember? If a coyote clacks his yellow teeth in the night, if a cross of oil breaks and scatters the light, if I am alone or not alone – what does it matter? The light broke one way or another. That coyote must be dust. My father is in Montana still and is dust. And me? I am no longer that sad, roundheaded boy. No longer, if I ever was, scared and alone. Though I did not rise to see my father, I tell myself it does not matter.

Or do I, like a boy, pretend?


– The Mountain and the Fathers


Now I am crying on my crowbar. You know what we need more of? Coyote teeth. And furnace coal. You know who never spent a day shoveling “two tons of furnace coal”? Leslie and Steve, that’s who. They were never poor. No one they knew was ever poor.

Theirs is a world without “many-hearted worms” – if they had ‘em, they’d call someone to exterminate – and where rivers are re-routed or dammed up or bridged over instead of what Joe Wilkins does with them, to them.

“The river is a mother.” “Like the skin of the river. The river beneath the river. The river entering the Os of their mouths...” “Riverrock.” “Riverstink.” “Downriver.” Those are one word now, folks.

You know who could use a little riverstink? Who might benefit from using “skewer” as a verb instead of with shrimp on the grill for their weekend barbecues?

I don’t mean to be so hard on poor Leslie and Steve. They do good business inside their pastel book covers where Leslie is always sitting on a dock or sitting on a bed, her head turned slightly away because she is Thinking About Steve’s Infidelity, her hair pinned up to show that She Has Secrets. Leslie never wears shoes.

Which, in Joe Wilkins’s world, makes you prone to stepping on rattlesnakes, but that’s okay, because Leslie lives in Akron or Baltimore or New Haven. It’s not her fault that she lives with Steve in these places, any more than it’s my fault for living in New Haven instead of Dillon, Montana, where I used to live. By which I mean, I hope it’s not my fault, and also: Any place is as good as another. I try to believe that.

Forgive me. I know I’m not being fair to these two. People really seem to like them.

The thing is, if Leslie and Steve lived in Joe Wilkins’s world, they’d never make it. They’d blow out their tires trying to drive over all the goddamn railroad spikes.

To my students, I’m supposed to say the truth is a slippery thing, what matters to you won’t always matter to someone else. That there are no absolutes. But the problem with that is when you run up against something this good: “In story we learn to live like human beings in the dark houses of our bodies. For beyond anything we can do, we are alone in there.” Thanks, Joe. That hurt.

Kim Barnes has said of The Mountain and the Fathers, “If you want to read what matters, read this.” She’s right. If you want to read what matters, read Joe Wilkins. These poems gracing our first issue. Notes from the Journey Westward. The work matters, and the work works you over.

Like I said, I prefer the crowbar.

-Elizabeth Eslami


An Interview with Joe Wilkins for Tupelo Quarterly:

EE: I’m wondering if you might begin by talking a little about the genesis of “Eat Stone and Go On.” What was your starting point, and was there a moment when you knew the poem was going to work?

JW: Like many ranch women, my grandmother lived a life full of complexities and contradictions; she managed to put herself through business school in the 1930s, but then went and married a broke cowboy; she was a voracious reader and always full of opinions, but her vision of the world, and her place in it, was very traditional; and though she made rich, buttery fudge and was always trying to feed anyone who walked through her door, she had a kind of Catholic aversion to things of the body.

“Eat Stone and Go On” grew out of these contradictions. I carried her comment, the one that opens the poem, around with me for many years before I tried to do anything with it. And, at first, I kept trying to address too many things in the poem, all those various contradictions. But once I pared back, trusting the image and the moment and only letting a little history and context slip in here and there, I found that crunch of salt there at the end—which made me think of the amazing last line of Richard Hugo’s “Glen Uig,” which I then stole as a title.

EE: What did you want to get at with “Trotline”? What did you struggle with in this poem?

JW: With “Trotline,” I was hoping to imbue an ordinary disappointment, the kind children of rural poverty face day after day, with theological implications. Which, I think, is often how it feels when you’re a child: the world is charged, and everything you do is of tremendous consequence.

Though this poem came more quickly than most do for me (the process was only months long, rather than years, as was the case with “Eat Stone and Go On”), I struggled with the non-chronological movement of the poem. It sort of naturally moved that direction in the drafting, but I kept wondering if it just shouldn’t be chronological, for clarity’s sake. The more I toyed with it, though, the more I realized that the bullhead falling into the fire, rather than the near drowning, is, for the boys at least, the true disappointment, and that I couldn’t end there, on that moment of despair. I need the poem to end in a more theologically complex place, which is, I think, the moment of false hope the boys have once they get the line out and swim back to the bank.

EE: There’s a great deal of attention to sound in your poetry. When I taught your poem “A Story We Might Follow” to a freshmen class, many of whom were pretty new to poetry, they “heard” the poem first. Could you talk a little about where/when sound figures into the process for you?

JW: Sound is all over the process for me. I talk and chant my way through the drafting and revising of poems. The way syllables slip and knock against one another often becomes a generative force, suggesting new insights and associations apart from any narrative or potential meaning I’ve carried to the page.

With poetry, I very intentionally try to let the language take over. With prose, though, I’m always balancing that attention to sound against some other thing: a coherent narrative in fiction or an idea or set of memories I’m exploring in nonfiction. Language is important to me in prose, but it is not the only limit.

EE: You’ve published poetry, essays, memoir, and fiction. In a review of your memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, Sean Prentiss writes that “each sentence is a hand-built and beautiful thing just like an old homesteader’s cabin is a hand-built and beautiful thing. The words... are always poetic.” It does seem like there’s some permeability there between forms. Have you always felt compelled to write across genres? And how does that break down for you on an average working/writing day? Can you move fluidly from working on a poem right into a prose project?

JW: I find this question hard to answer because I keep getting my impulses as a reader and a writer confused. But maybe that’s the right answer after all: I love to read all kinds of different things, and so, yes, I do feel compelled to write all kinds of things. What’s more, when I sit down to write I relish and look forward to what each genre offers: the intense focus on language in poetry, the searching after sense of an essay, the wide-open narrative field of a story.

And I do tend to move across genres during a normal workday. Often, I’ll have a handful of pieces—some big, some small, and all in various stages of development—and after a little bit of time with pen and paper, I’ll open up whatever’s closest to completion. Then, after finding my way to another draft of that first piece, I purposefully open up something different, often something in another genre or something much further from completion.

And, every once in a while, I have to remind myself to start something new; I just really dig revision and would spend most of my time there, if I could!

EE: Could you talk a little about The Mountain and the Fathers? How soon did you know you wanted to adopt a fragmented structure, and how did it serve the work?

JW: Though I just talked about how I like to write across the genres, I started my writing life as a poet, and I do think that lyric impulse followed me into prose. Many of the first essays I published were built of fragments, and beyond just seeming possible—as a beginning writer an entire essay was so daunting, but a fragment? I could do a fragment!—I found I really liked the way the fragment allowed me as a writer to mimic the way our minds and our memories slice and dice across time, allowed me to follow the thematic and associative implications of the essay, rather than being forced into a straightforward, chronological narrative.

So I had a number of fragmented essays and a few more traditionally constructed essays, and as I began work on the manuscript that would become The Mountain and the Fathers, I began pulling apart the fragmented essays and wrapping them around the larger pieces. As I re-organized and revised, I also began to see where the thematic and narrative gaps were simply too wide. During a residency at the Blue Mountain Center, I spent a month of eight-hour writing days drafting new pieces, often fragments, to bridge those many gaps.

In many ways, with The Mountain and the Fathers, I think I was attempting to create a book-length, fragmented essay. And for it, I hope the memoir more truthfully hews to the fragmented form memory so frustratingly takes, while making clearer, more forceful arguments about grief and survival, fathers and son, land use and landscape.

EE: You’ve written about Montana, which means, on the one hand, that you’re part of a grand literary tradition: Kittredge, Annick Smith, Rick Bass and others. But you also come from a state where, like many other sparsely populated states, writers and scholars are sometimes met with some degree of suspicion or unease. What has been your experience inhabiting both worlds?

JW: I think about my grandmother here: when I left a job teaching 9th grade math to go back to school and get my MFA, she told me, “Joe, thinking you can make a living as a writer is a temptation of the devil!” She was right about the making a living part—though teaching writing and literature works a lot better for me than teaching pre-algebra—but, eventually, she changed her tune on the writer part. Before she died, she read nearly everything I’d published and was as proud as could be.

I love so many Montana writers—Kittredge’s work, especially, continues to be a huge influence on my writing and my thinking—and so I’m delighted to be part of that tradition. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the reception The Mountain and the Fathers has received back home. Lots of old friends and neighbors and former teachers have emailed and called in the last couple of years, and almost to a person they’ve been excited for me and excited about the book.

EE: How do you feel about being embraced as a wilderness writer, a nature writer, a Western writer? Do you worry about those labels being restrictive in terms of bringing new readers to your work, or is it worth it for the fine company?

JW: Oh, this is an easy one: it’s worth it. The company’s good, as you say, but I also think the label fits what I do and probably helps the right readers find my work.

EE: In a wonderful interview you and Pam Houston did with Orion Magazine, you both discussed different approaches to the West and landscape. You mentioned that you find yourself, “yearning to be one of only a few people in a certain space,” drawn to open spaces where there are fewer people. How does this openness feed you as a writer? And how do you hold on to that in a world where there’s significant pressure to engage with others via social media, websites, literary events, etc?

JW: In much of my work thus far, I’ve been drawing on the openness I knew as a boy and young man. And, even now, I do find myself hungry for a dose of the wide open; I like to get up on a good hill and see the lay of the land, map it for myself. Which is why our recent move to Oregon has been so wonderful: it’s been a true joy to introduce my children to mountains and trout rivers, as well as come to know the coast together.

But I think my children have been helping me see the wild in the familiar as well. A walk down to the railroad tracks to pick blackberries or a hike along the creek in the park is a great journey for them. And through them I’m reminded that the wild is all around. We just have to pay attention.

But on to the second part of your question: I’ve had three books come out in the last two years, and I have definitely felt a lot of pressure (most of it self-generated, I think) to keep my website up-to-date, to bug people on Facebook about reviews and other good news, to fly or drive half the day for the next conference or reading. It’s been exhausting and crazy-making at times, but I can’t complain too much: I’ve made great connections with readers using social media, and I always learn so much and meet lots of new writer friends when I attend literary events. And I know the pace is going to slow as well. I won’t have another book out anytime soon, so I’m trying to enjoy the hubbub while it’s around!

EE: What would you – or do you – say to young writers who find themselves on the business end of a particularly disappointing rejection? What do you tell your students when they say, “I don’t know why I bother submitting my work”?

JW: As we’re beginning to talk about publishing, I always tell my students about the Iraq war vet I had in a poetry writing class at the University of Idaho. He wrote some honest, striking poems about his experiences in the war and put together a really fine portfolio; the next semester I happened to see him at the fitness center (n.b., don’t try to keep up with a former Marine on the track; you’ll just end up looking foolish), and he told me he took his poems and made a bunch of copies and turned them into chapbooks that he gave his family for Christmas gifts. He told me that it was the first time he’d been able to talk about many of his experiences in Iraq with his family and that they just loved the poems.

I tell them this story because even though I’ve had students publish work in all sorts of great places—Pank, Gargoyle, Third Coast, etc.—the only essential publishing is the sharing we do with those close to us. I really believe that.

But I also let them know that it is a really wonderful thing, too, when some editor says that they’ll share your work for you, that they believe in it enough to hand it to someone else and say, “You should read this.” It’s not essential to being a writer or living a life of filled with books and words, but it is a wonderful feeling (and, if you plan to get an MFA and teach, it is essential to that life). So, if they’re truly interested, I make sure they know the odds are long and the rejection piles bound to be deep—and then I tell them to go at it. And when the first rejection comes back, I tell them to send the piece to five more places. And keep writing. That’s the most important thing. Keep writing.

EE: Finally, in the spirit of Tupelo Quarterly’s philosophy of holding the gate open, I’m wondering if you might like to mention a writer whose work is not getting the recognition it deserves. Whose work has made you jump out of your skin recently?

JW: How about three? Steve Coughlin’s lyric essay/prose poem “Another Life” in the latest issue of Seneca Review is a knockout. I read Shann Ray’s poem “In America,” from the January/February 2013 issue of Poetry, about once a week, just to remind myself. And every time I run across one of Rachel Yoder’s essays I know I’m in for something wonderful.

EE: Thanks so much for talking with me, Joe, and for being a part of TQ’s inaugural issue!

JW: Thanks for the opportunity, Liz. I really enjoyed it!

Joe Wilkins poems in TQ1: Trotline and Eat Stone and Go On