P.F. Remix: Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar
It is a privilege and pleasure to welcome the return of two of our favorite and previously featured poets, Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar, who share not only a passion for writing, but for each other. Both are recognized and well-regarded authors in their own right, who among other things, have in common authentic honest styles and superb academic credentials.
Dorianne’s finely-crafted writing, her keen ear for language, her instinctive feel for music and her insights into the human heart are all part of this writer’s enormous appeal. We invite you to check out Pirene’s Fountain’s previous feature and share our appreciation for her poetic gifts.
Equally talented, Millar engages his reading audience with immense warmth, in vignettes which transform everyday life into inspiration and wisdom. His honest, personal and relatable poetry touches a chord in us all. To enjoy more from this wonderful writer, see our May, 2009 issue.
Ms. Laux’s poetry collections include Awake (1990), What We Carry (1994), Smoke (2000), Facts About the Moon (2005), Superman: The Chapbook (2008), and co-author of The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (1997) with Kim Addonizio. She is the recipient of two NEA’s, a Guggenheim, two Pushcart Prizes, and an Oregon Book Award. For its universal regard, Laux’s poetry has been translated into French, Italian, Korean, Romanian and Brazilian Portuguese. Currently she is a professor at North Carolina University.
Mr. Millar was awarded a grant from the NEA in 2002, and the Pushcart Prize in 2008. He has also received fellowships from the Montalvo Center for the Arts, and from Oregon Literary Arts. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Shenandoah, Double Take, Ploughshares and River Styx, among others. In addition, he is the author of Overtime (2001), and Fortune (2007) and two chapbooks, Slow Dancer (1992) and Nightbound (2009). He and Laux make their home in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Hers & His
Hers is poetry alive with wisdom, keen observation, wit and deft imagery; his is richly-textured narratives of the day-to-day, in language that speaks to the everyman.
…“Inside my house are those who love me.
My daughter dusts biscuit dough.
And there’s a man who will lift my hair
in his hands, brush it
until it throws sparks.”
Laux, from “On the Back Porch”
In always human voice, both authors possess a natural ability to invite readers into their respective experiences with memorable, relatable, free-flowing verse. Such is the case with Millar’s “Lyrical,” in which the incessant yapping of a neighbor’s dog turns poetic.
The spaniel next door yaps at the sparrows,
he yaps at the crows and the mailman,
yaps at the compost pile and the sunflower,
yaps at the rain and the sky. He yaps
at the steps leading down to the creek
where the flax plants bloom high as my waist
and blue flowers force their way up
through small stones the color of night. He
yaps at the garbage truck’s back-up beeper,
iron bell song of the priest and bridegroom,
song of the lone ship, song of the train,
song of the big waves rolling and breaking
over the western reefs. He yaps at the rosebush,
yaps at the fence, song of the sidewalk cracked
in half, the wine bottle resting against the curb,
the neighbor who doesn’t come home.
In the following poem, again Millar effectively engages readers, brings them along. In subtle powerful terms he shares the soul of a man driven by remembrance and regret. The tone is melancholy, entirely believable, poignant:
I’m fifty miles west of town,
a stranger driving this coal dust valley,
bottom land chopped out years ago,
old snow sliding into the river.
Bunch grass stabs its glittering arrows
up through the frozen gravel. I can
remember holidays like repeat episodes
of schizophrenia, furniture breaking
downstairs in the dark, everyones head
bowed like hostages over the evening meal.
I’m passing close to the villages:
Avonmore, Saltzburg, Leechburg, Apollo.
Forgive me my history, I want to say
to these broken hills, the slow river,
it feels like it happened to someone else.
Forgive these ghost’s hands bringing you nothing,
this heart filled with cobwebs and rain.
…”Everything is just as I’ve left it.
Dinner simmers on the stove.
Glass bowls wait to be filled
with gold broth. Sprigs of parsley
on the cutting board.
I want to smell this rich soup, the air
around me going dark, as stars press
their simple shapes into the sky.”
Laux, from “On the Back Porch”
One cannot help but feel the sense of connection in the following piece. The lovely imagery, metaphor, and smooth lines are indeed as finely crafted as the wood. It is a stunning work, a well-polished beauty, a prayer.
Light comes up through the naked wood
under the drum sander: skid marks,
gouges, blue flecks of sawdust
disappear into the air. Planks scuffed
black near the threshold by workshoes
thrown off at the end of day: red dirt,
rainwater, creek mud, tar. Who knows
who they were, their tracks risen up
under the crusts of the past? Did they argue,
and curse each other, their mother stranded
at the kitchen window, uncle’s sea bag packed
by the stairs? These look like knife marks
next to the door. Maybe they played cards
Friday nights, homemade wine staining their
whiskers. Bull Durham ashes and pipe tobacco
sifting down onto pocked fir.
Now the dust clouds, then comes clear
in the heartwood, bright vein of amber
trapped in the tree. We shuffle on sock feet
from room to room, held free of the ground
by footing and joist, tongue-in-groove
scraped raw. Let our quarrels be brief, sand
blown loose from the sills. Let the new resins,
glazed orange and gold, seep down into the grain.
…”I want to stay on the back porch
while the world tilts
toward sleep, until what I love
misses me, and calls me in.”
Laux, from “On the Back Porch”
The simplicity of the excerpts from “On the Back Porch” demonstrate the poet’s love for the comforts of home. “Heart” holds nothing back. From its endearing opening line to fitting end, the imagery, alliteration, personification and word play give readers a great sense of Laux’s command of language.
The heart shifts shape of its own accord—
from bird to ax, from pinwheel
to budded branch. It rolls over in the chest,
a brown bear groggy with winter, skips
like a child at the fair, stopping in the shade
of the fireworks booth, the fat lady’s tent,
the corndog stand. Or the heart
is an empty room where the ghosts of the dead
wait, paging through magazines, licking
their skinless thumbs. One gets up, walks
through a door or maze or hallways.
Behind one door a room full of orchids,
behind another, the smell of burned toast.
The rooms go on and on: sewing room
with its squeaky treadle, its bright needles,
room full of file cabinets and torn curtains,
room buzzing with a thousand black flies.
Or the heart closes its doors, becomes smoke,
a wispy lie, curls like a worm and forgets
its life, burrows into the fleshy dirt.
Heart makes a wrong turn.
Heart locked in its gate of thorns.
Heart with its hands folded in its lap.
Heart a blue skiff parting the silk of lake.
It does what it wants, take what it needs, eats
when its hungry, sleeps when the soul shuts down.
Bored, it watches movies deep into the night,
stands by the window counting the streetlamps
squinting out one by one.
Heart with a hundred mouths open.
Heart with its hundred eyes closed.
Harmonica heart, heart of tinsel,
heart of cement, broken teeth, redwood fence.
Heart of bricks and boards, heart of books stacked,
in devoted rows, their dusty spines
with its hands full.
Hieroglyph heart, etched deep with history’s lists,
things to do. Near-sighted heart. Club-footed heart
Hard-hearted heart. Heart of gold, coal.
Bad juju heart, singing the low down blues.
Choir boy heart, heart in a frumpy robe.
Heart with its feet up reading the scores.
Homeless heart, dozing, its back against the Dumpster.
Cop-on-the-beat heart with its black billy club,
banging on the lid.
In the next wonderful lines from a narrative called “Mugged By Poetry,” one can see that along with home and family, Dorianne, like so many of us, is enamored by her craft. After a charming dedication, the poem begins:
“Reading a good one makes me love the one who wrote it,
as well as the animal or element or planet or person
the poet wrote the poem for. I end up like I always do,
flat on my back like a drunk in the grass, loving the world.”
“…I keep reading one line/ over and over/,” she continues:
“…hovering above it like a bird on a wire
spying on the dragonfly with ‘turquoise dots all down its back
like Lauren Bacall’. Like Lauren Bacall!! Well hell,
I could do this all night. I could be in love like this
for the rest of my life, with everything in the expanding
universe, and whatever else might be beyond it
that we can’t grind a lens big enough to see.”
(from The Cortland Review, Spring, 2009)
Many will recognize Ms. Laux’s sensitive and romantic poem entitled “The Shipfitter’s Wife.” Chosen by Robert Bly for inclusion in a Best American Poetry edition, it communicates love, desire, caring and devotion to one’s spouse. I first encountered this beauty—now a favorite, in an audio collection. Whether read or recited, the lines linger unforgettably, beg your return.
The Shipfitter’s Wife
I loved him most
when he came home from work,
his fingers still curled from fitting pipe,
his denim shirt ringed with sweat
and smelling of salt, the drying weeds
of the ocean. I would go to him where he sat
on the edge of the bed, his forehead
anointed with grease, his cracked hands
jammed between his thighs, and unlace
the steel-toed boots, stroke his ankles,
his calves, the pads and bones of his feet.
Then I’d open his clothes and take
the whole day inside me—the ship’s
gray sides, the miles of copper pipe,
the voice of the foreman clanging
off the hull’s silver ribs, spark of lead
kissing metal, the clamp, the winch,
the white fire of the torch, the whistle
and the long drive home.
“Maybe the heart decides while we sleep
what to remember
and the lights of a coal truck
sweeping our walls at midnight
will revisit us as an angel’s face
we have already known.”
Millar, from “Waking Up After Reading Proust”
Together: Dorianne & Joe
A Conversation with Partners in Writing & Life
Welcome back, you two! How fitting to have you together for Pirene’s Fountain issue addressing aspects of love.
Those familiar with your work know you met at a poetry function. Were you introduced by another individual, or did one of you approach the other? Tell us a little bit about what has lingered in your memory about that first meeting.
D: We actually met in a poetry class I was teaching at an independent bookstore in San Anselmo, CA. We knew one another for a couple of years as poets around town. I’m not sure I remember our very first meeting, but I do remember loving Joe’s poems, and his laugh—his sense of humor is like none I’ve ever encountered. And he was generous. I liked his profound interest in poetry, in people. He was passionate, handsome, kind and a little off. How could I not notice him??
J: Dorianne’s class was $75 for 6 Wednesday nights, and I started going over there after work . Awake had just come out. I was trying to kick-start my writing again and her class was great, very inspiring and fun. My poems became much more narrative under her guidance.
How long after you met did you begin dating? Who asked who on the first date, and where did you go? Any sparks from the get-go, or did it evolve over time?
J: I took classes from her off and on for about 3 years. During the last year, my wife and I split up and the same thing happened with Dorianne and her husband, though we didn’t really know this at the time. We finally met for a kind of poetry-date, so I could show her a final batch of poems, and by then we each knew the other person was single. After that we started going out.
D: The relationship evolved over time. We were both interested in poetry, reading it, writing it, and we just genuinely liked one another. We knew each other as friends for a couple of years before we began dating which was a few of weeks before I left the Bay Area to go teach at the University of Oregon. It was a bit ridiculous. He was a single father with a ten year old boy, and so even though we talked each night on the phone and visited whenever we could, the growing relationship seemed doomed to distance time and lack of money. But after three years of false starts and stops and idling in between, we decided to move in together. At first I was going to leave my job and move back to the Bay Area, but then we decided that he would quit his job as a telephone installation foreman and move up to Oregon and try to get a job teaching. It was a leap of faith and somehow we landed on our feet. We got married shortly thereafter.
What personal quality do you most admire in one another? Is it reflected in their writing?
J: I admire the great democracy of Dorianne’s spirit, and this is very much evident in her writing. Philip Levine once said she is “Whitman’s sister,” and I think this is true.
D: His generosity. He holds nothing back and neither do his poems. I think to be a poet is to be open, permeable, and Joe’s poems reflect that; they are bighearted, open-handed, substantial and noble. Joe is also humble, so he would never see that in himself or in his poems, but it’s true.
How long have you been a couple, and was it challenging or perfectly natural to blend your lives and/or families together?
D: We’ve known each other for 18 years. It was both natural and challenging. Blending families is never easy, and there were times of great difficulty, but on the whole, it was easier than we first thought. Our children were very supportive of us as a couple, so that helped a lot. All our kids have a collectively huge sense of humor and that was needed to allow two poets to get married.
J: We had our share of problems to overcome. She was on her way to Oregon when we really started to go out with each other. I was working as a telephone installer and would drive from SF to Eugene to see her and then back to work by Monday. Then she would get long teachers vacations and come down and
stay with me and my young son, whose adolescence we suffered through together later on. This went on for 3 years. When I finally moved up to Eugene, she supported me until I could land a small teaching job and until Overtime came out. There was a lot we had to go through, not so much financially as emotionally.
What, if anything, have you “agreed to disagree on” because your views simply don’t jive?
J: I’m more reclusive than she is, less comfortable at literary shindigs in particular. Though I usually wind up having a good time, my first instinct is to pull away. We also have a deal about going shopping, which is that I keep a novel in the car and am allowed to go read once I start getting creeped out by the stores.
D: Couplehood is based on compromise. If we disagree, we talk it out or individually, silently, work it out. What’s the alternative?? And, we weren’t attracted to each other because we disagreed on most things.
So often romantic love is communicated in unrealistic dreamlike terms. I see both of your writing styles as the antithesis of “hearts and flowers.” Would either of you consider yourself a romantic? How do you keep it real both in life and on paper?
D: I would say we are romantic realists. Love is deep, and, the abyss is all around us.
J: It’s no problem keeping it real in life. Life does that for you. On paper, we help each other tone it down if it seems like the poem is becoming overly inflamed.
Outside of writing, what is the most rewarding way the two of you spend time together? Do either of you have interests/passions not shared by the other?
J: We like to go places together, go to the movies, take walks.
D: Just being together, cooking dinner, watching the news, our favorite TV shows, having friends over. Joe loves sports and I abhor them for the most part. He watches with the sound turned down. It’s mostly the commentators and the manic cheering crowds that drive me nuts. He hates to shop, so I let him sit in the car and read poetry while I go in and browse around. I love knick-knacks and he would probably live more monastically if it weren’t for me. He puts up with it. I appreciate his forbearance.
Finally, with apologies to Oprah on her oft-posed question inspired by author, Wally Lamb—“What do you know for sure?”
D: We were brought together by poetry, and poetry is a part of what keeps us together. On the odd occasion when we do have a fight and are on “no speaking” terms, Joe will pick up a book of poems and say “Listen to this” or “What do you think of this poem?” and it will suck me back in. The poetry reminds us that whatever we’re fighting about is so minor in the grand scheme of things. It shuttles us back, rings a bell, strikes a chord, reminds us why we’re together and what’s worth fighting for. It calms us down or lifts us up. Poetry helps us to remember who we are under the rubble of whatever is trying to bury our best selves. Poetry reawakens us to the importance and incomprehensible brevity of our lives.
J: I know Dorianne has been a great blessing in my life. She has liberated me from the blue collar, eight-to-five world I inhabited for so many years, and has brought me more fully into my own self awareness as a person and a poet.
Thank you both sincerely for sharing your time and talent!
Lark Vernon Timmons
Pirene’s Fountain thanks Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar for permission to use their writing and for the gracious, warm interview.