Poet Joe Wilkins ('02) says his time in Mississippi showed him the great diversity of beauty in the world
October 12, 2016
Mississippi is famous for its writers. So perhaps it's no surprise that some of our alumni have been inspired by their time here. This week, we're running interviews with a few alumni writers, who speak about how Mississippi informed their work, and how they continue to find ways to serve.
Joe Wilkins ('02) currently lives in Oregon, where he teaches at Linfield College. He is the author of a memoir, The Mountains and the Fathers, and three collections of poetry.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?
I’m working on a novel about rural poverty in eastern Montana. It’s about the disconnect between the wider cultural sphere of the United States and these pockets of ruralness. Sometimes they come onto our radar screen—every once in a while you’ll see a story about the Mississippi Delta, and it seems so out of time and out of place. But these things are not out of time, or out of place—the same forces shape all our lives, and we need to be able to see that in different ways. With the novel, I’m trying to write about something similar.
DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO WRITE WHEN YOU CAME TO MISSISSIPPI? WAS THAT RELATED TO YOUR DECISION TO COME HERE?
I didn’t really know what writing meant yet. I wanted to keep at it, I wanted to keep trying. I was an engineering major in undergrad, and I had an internship my sophomore year that made me realize I didn’t really like engineering. But I didn’t know what I did like. So I stumbled around a bit, and took a fifth senior year—that’s when I finally took creative writing courses and really fell in love with them.
At the same time Teach For America was really exciting to me. I had done all sorts of service stuff, and that led me to TFA. The decisions may not have been related, but they were being made at the same time.
HOW DID YOUR TIME IN MISSISSIPPI CHANGE AND INFORM YOUR WORK?
I grew up in a community of rural poverty in eastern Montana. The writers I loved were doing addressing those issues—Willa Cather, James Wright—and those were the issues I felt called to speak to. The naïve part of me, when I found out I was going to Mississippi, thought, “Oh, I can handle this, I know rural places.” But it’s a very different rural place—and those differences taught me so much. To step into another community of rural poverty—but with a very different history, a very different kind of poverty—I was like, “Oh, I need to talk about more than my own biography.” Mississippi cemented some of those ideas, and made me see them in new ways.
It also made me hungry to see more of the world. I don’t know that I’d thought too much about the Mississippi Delta before I learned I was going there. To be open to the power of all places, not just the places people have told you should visit; to consider a place, to wonder at it—that’s something that’s definitely stayed with me, and informed me as a writer.
HOW DOES YOUR CURRENT WORK REFLECT THE VALUES THAT LED YOU TO JOIN TFA?
In Mississippi I fell in love with teaching. It was the hardest work I’d ever done, but I really enjoyed it. And it made me a far stronger teacher. (My wife teaches early childhood education and kindergarten; we joke all the time that the methods are the same, it’s just the content that is different.) The first institution of higher learning where I taught at had over 40 percent first-generation college students, and here at Linfield we have about 30 percent. That’s something that really matters to me.
When I joined TFA, I had also been considering joining the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. They have an ironic motto, that you get “ruined for life.” I think TFA ruined me, but in the best way. I can’t look at the world in the same way now.
Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, winner of a 2014 GLCA New Writers Award and a finalist for the 2013 Orion Book Award, and three collections of poetry, When We Were Birds, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. Of Wilkins’s work, the Indiana Review writes, “The most striking component of it is its awareness of ‘the whole world.’ What is ordinary becomes transcendent. In places derelict and seemingly unexceptional, Wilkins compels us to recognize what is worth salvage, worth praise.” Wilkins lives with his family in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.