National Poetry Month Spotlight: Joe Wilkins

Memphis Closes Her Eyes
Friday, and I need a drink, something strong
because it’s rice harvest, so much dust, steel,
and sun. A boy throws sticks to a dog twisting
in the street. I’m working too damn hard.
Mr. Lake, my next door neighbor, an easy hundred,
oldest of seven dead brothers, trembles to stand
like grass in the wind, is waiting in my driveway
to tell me Johnny Cash, like each of his brothers,
is dead. So I drive to Memphis. Let bourbon
roar down my throat. Watch chaff fires burn
like gods as the sun goes down. Then I’m walking
Union Avenue—drunks and lunatics and bits
of paper drift across the street. A man holds
a cigarette to his lips. Blue neon lights in the gray
of his eyes—and I know there is a song for all of this,
something hard and wild, black as night, and rising.
Q: Where is your favorite place to write?
A: I gave up my office when our daughter was born last month, so I write now from our dining room, which is actually wonderful. I’m right in the thick of things: the early light pouring through the front windows, my son giving his doll dumptruck rides, the teakettle snapping on the stove.
Q: Do you remember the first poem you read that really blew your mind?
A: For a number of years in undergrad I tried very hard to like T. S. Eliot. I thought all that high-minded bluster was what poetry just had to be. But in my senior year, in my first poetry workshop, I found James Wright—“As I Step Over a Puddle at the End of Winter, I Think of an Ancient Chinese Governor,” “The Minneapolis Poem,” “Northern Pike”—and fell in love.
Q: What is the most interesting thing that has happened to you in the last 12 months?
A: Two things: First, my son is suddenly little person; he talks and laughs and reads his books; we put on the Old Crow Medicine Show and have a family dance party in the kitchen. Second, my daughter was born, and everything shifts and turns again.
Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir-in-fragments, The Mountain, the Fathers (Counterpoint 2012) and a collection of poems, Killing the Murnion Dogs (Black Lawrence Press 2011). His poems, essays, and stories have appeared in the Georgia Review, the Southern Review, Harvard Review, the Sun, Orion, and Slate, among other magazines and literary journals. He lives with his wife, son, and daughter on the north Iowa prairie, where he teaches writing at Waldorf College.