The American West has fascinated Americans for decades. The great plains have been romanticized in American literature, film, and music countless times. Something about the wide-open spaces and the tough men and women who have attempted to conquer it captures an essential aspect of Americans’ relationship to the land they inhabit.
Joe Wilkins grew up in the heart of the West, in the Big Dry of Montana. It was a land of hardship–crops take poorly to the thin topsoil, meaning farm life is a constant struggle to wring out of nature what nature did not intend. This experience of “growing up hard” shaped Wilkins’ view of his upbringing and the land he came from. Rather than reject the hardship of his youth, Wilkins has embraced it as a source of material for two books of poetry and a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers.
On Monday, Oct. 20th, Wilkins gave a reading from his works to an audience at Albion College’s Bobbitt auditorium. Earlier that day, Wilkins sat down with The Pleiad to talk about how he found writing as a way to engage with his upbringing and the land that made him. That conversation is transcribed here, lightly edited for clarity and length.
The Pleiad:Describe your life as a writer. When did you notice that writing worked for you?
Joe Wilkins: I’ve always been a reader, and I think that’s where it started. My parents were readers, my grandparents were readers, and I spent a lot of time as a kid reading. I think the impulse toward narrative came not necessarily from the idea of writing, but the idea of storytelling. My grandfather was a great storyteller, my grandmother was. I’ve heard from many people my father was, but I don’t remember his stories as well. So that idea of storytelling, of making sense of your world and speaking to other people through story,was always with me even though, y’know, when I went off to college I majored in computer engineering, because I didn’t know that being a writer was a possibility. [laughs] I didn’t know it was something you could do! Every once in a while, I’d try something, I’d try to write a poem like something I read in literature class, but, again, I didn’t think of it as something people did. I took a victory lap senior year [of college], I was a fifth year senior. I had a little room in my schedule and I took a poetry writing course sort of on a whim, because I’d liked my English courses before and I didn’t want to take any engineering science-y stuff. It became clear to me very quickly that what I was doing in there mattered to me deeply. And we read so much wonderful stuff — I was introduced to contemporary poetry:James Wright, Richard Hugo, a number of writers who are still with me today. To a certain extent I haven’t stopped since then. I started that course, and even though I took some twists and turns–taught high school for a while, went back to grad school–I’ve been writing ever since. I taught high school math with my engineering degree through Teach for America for two years in the Mississippi Delta, and that was great. Really, really hard, but great. At that point, I didn’t—I joined Teach for America because I knew i wasn’t going to be an an engineer. I applied for the Peace Corps, JVC and a number of other things like that.
What compelled you to do that, rather than work as an engineer?
Well, I had an internship after my junior year, and I made a lot of money, it allowed me to go to London. It was great, but I just, y’know, I just didn’t love it. I felt like I was playing crossword puzzles on the computer all day.
What led you to computer engineering in the first place? In The Mountain and the Fathers, it seemed very important to your grandfather that you go to college.
It was economic. I knew you could get a job in engineering, and a good one, one that paid well, paid more than my mom’s kindergarten teacher salary. So that was a big reason. I also had a great calculus teacher, and I thought I really liked math, but I think what I liked what just his class. It was a good experience. I felt challenged, I felt pushed intellectually, and I remember asking “what can I major in that has a lot of math?” and he said “well, engineering.”
DId you feel that way again when you started writing?
Oh, absolutely. That same thing.The way that the challenge of it had dissipated in engineering—it was hard, but I didn’t understand the challenge, I didn’t have a connection to the challenge. In writing, that sense of doing something, making something that mattered to me and hopefully the world was immediately apparent. That’s a great question, I hadn’t thought of it that way before.
I’m glad to hear that. It’s interesting that we’re talking about this notion of difficulty. In your essay “Out West,” you talk about “growing up hard,” and I think you make some incredibly interesting points about what it means for something to be difficult. You challenge the traditional notion that things that are difficult have great worth. What do you think about difficulty and what you get out of it?
You know, my grandfather was a worker. He was somebody who was up early and working every day of his life. My grandmother would sort of have to tell him to stop working. That ethic, I find it admirable, and I think that it in some ways, not in the same ways that he had it, has passed down to me that sense of “there are challenges in the world,” whether they’re walking this next six miles of fence [laughs] or doing something far different. You need to meet those challenges, and there’s just no way to do it but to take one step and then another and keep going, right? If the challenge matters to you, then that’s great. But sometimes, even if the challenge doesn’t matter to you, you gotta keep at it. There’s just no other way around it. So he instilled that in me, and I very much feel that in my own life. However, I have come to sort of temper it. There are times when I think back to growing up in Montana—and of course I wouldn’t change it—but do I think now, would I want my son to grow up there? And I say no, not at all. There was a community of violence, a community of desperation, poverty. And though I made it out and I feel like I’m mostly put together, a lot of folks I know didn’t. That could have been a combination of poor choices, but also, it’s because of the rough circumstances, this tremendous difficulty they grew up in, the tremendous challenge of their growing-up years. And that’s unfair. i wish it wasn’t so hard for some people in that place. And so much of the book is about that, and that essay is definitely about that. About trying to find that position where yes, there is something to be valued from that heritage, something to be valued from our ideas of the West, but there’s a lot we need to discard. There’s a lot of this mythical, especially masculine myths, and we need to say “nope, these aren’t helping. This is part of the problem.” The challenge then becomes to parse out these various things, and say, what are these good hard things we can hold onto and what are these things to which we need to say “no, these are destroying us.”
I got the feeling that the way you’re treating these notions sort of hollows out the old notions of masculinity that I thought of. When I read about the Big Dry river in your book, I needed a glass of water afterwards. I could see the empty riverbeds and feel the dry wind off the plains. The setting conveys these ideas as well.
Definitely. Place matters so much to me. Windeberry says if you don’t know where you are, you can’t know who you are, that sense that self springs out of place, that culture springs out of place and that community springs out of place and it’s when you don’t have a place that communities fail. It’s when you don’t have a place when cultures start to destroy themselves. It’s when we don’t know where we are that we are at loose ends in our own lives. So yes, place matters to me. I want the historical sense. I remember researching and coming across that quote by Meriwether Lewis. I didn’t know he was the one who named the Big Dry. It’s just been there. But to know that, to know that is something that has traveled down to me and those of us who were there is important, it makes sense. Place matters deeply.
In my nature writing class, we talk about place as a particular space bound by human meaning. What do you think the human meaning of this hard land is?
Well, I think we’ve tried to change the meaning of it. When the railroads came through, much of that, and it’s not just the Big Dry, though I think that the Big Dry is kind of an extreme example of it, we tried to change the nature of it. We thought we could turn much of the West into the Midwest. We just can’t. The Midwest is good at what it does. It’s got grain at the right time, it’s got fertile soils from these years and years of floods. It’s great for agriculture. It’s also great for other things, but much of it is great for agriculture. The West is not. The West has very thin topsoil. Many places have none now, because of plowing. It supports bunch grass, which grows at a distance, meaning there will be spaces of dry ground in between. Which means whatever animals that are there to graze will need a lot of room to roam. They’ll need to carefully select which plants they eat so they don’t destroy them. There’s a way in which a land like the Big Dry, we’ve tried to impose this meaning on it, we’ve said “this will support our small communities like the Midwest,” and it can’t do that. It keeps failing. It’s still failing. In fact, I don’t think we’ve quite learned that lesson. I go back I go back and I see these people with these big sprinklers, and I think “that water’s not going to last.” We’re still trying to impose this narrative meaning on it. I mean, I understand why. People have families there, they’ve got roots there, they want to hang on, and it’s to a certain extent unfair to them. They didn’t ask to have this narrative handed to them, but they got it. Ultimately, I think we’re going to have to rethink how we interact with it. We need to think about what it’s good for. Mostly it’s good for growing grass, it’s good for growing certain kinds of protein. So we need to think about what kinds of animals should be raised there, how we would treat it; I don’t think it’s going to look like contemporary agriculture. There’s so much wind there I can see it becoming a wind farm area, farming something different than how we were trying to impose this meaning. But, I think the Big Dry is a microcosm of what happened across the West, the American West. We came in, we tried to impose this narrative of meaning, this is what it’s going to be. Maybe it boomed for a little while, maybe it worked for a bit, but then nature caught up with us and knocked the feet out from everyone.
You treat this theme of this imposition of a narrative on the West that doesn’t really take with a lot of reserve. I don’t think you ever dip towards calling it folly. I think it’s appropriate that you place it in this context, and that you note that people are handed this narrative. Have you always thought about it like that?
I’ve tried to. There have been times when I’ve been less generous. [laughs]
I can tell in the way you treat your childhood that your understanding of it has changed.
Well, there were times when I was very angry with my hometown, and there were times when I loved it. I think I hadn’t really reckoned with it well until I started writing about it. I tell my students that if there’s no discovery on your part as a writer, there will be no discovery on the reader’s part/ Writing the essays and the memoir were a process of discovery for me. I discovered a way to sort of reckon with where I grew up, reckon with the people of that place and to try to honor for them for what demands honor and to a certain extent to paint the truth about perhaps what doesn’t demand that honor. I tried very hard to be self-aware. It’s a really hard process, especially when things are so close to the bone, that cut to the quick. I think one of the great things for the writer is that you have revision. It’s this recursive process. You come back. You start to put things next to each other and you start to understand why these things are here and here and here. Then slowly, the meaning emerges for you, and oh, that’s a wonderful feeling.
You started writing poetry before you moved into memoir. How did that influence your thinking?
I think the poetry began that process. I remember in that poetry-writing class, the first couple of poems I turned in were these abstruse, philosophical, try-to-solve-the-world’s-problems-in-one-poem kind of poems. They just didn’t work. Then, the third or fourth poem I turned in was just about this old couple that lived north of us. My professor said “oh, this is your subject. Why haven’t I heard about this?” That began that process. I keep writing about that, about Montana, about rural places. I was at University of Idaho and I brought a poem to my mentor, Robert Wrigley. The poetic tradition that I feel like I come from is not purely confessional, but the confessional is a big part of it. The “I” in most of my poems is me. Not always, but for the most part it’s someone close to me. So that sense of reckoning with the world I’m handed is in the poems. We were talking about this poem, and I wanted to explain to him why I did some things and he told me that I had to take some non-fiction classes. He said “You gotta get in there and muck around in your head some more.” [laughs] The class I enrolled in next spring was called “Finding the Father in Contemporary Memoir,”which couldn’t have been more perfect. That’s really where the memoir began for me. That class was where I took what I was doing with poetry and turned it to prose. I’ve been writing some fiction lately. After being immersed in the self for so long in the memoir and in poetry, it’s fun to step outside the self.
One way you link the narrative in your book is through your grandfather. He seems to embody these notions of masculinity, but interestingly, he was the one who provided you with the means and motivation to go to college.
I think in many ways he was such an anachronism. He was this cowboy, this man out on the land, expert horseman, great rifle shot. But like all of us he had these paradoxes in him. He had an eighth-grade education, but he read all the time. I can think of so few of my friends’ parents who were readers, even fewer grandparents. He became a reader with so little education and a time when books were so scarce, during the Depression. So many of the men who populate the book are bombastic, jokers and teasers. My grandfather wasn’t like that. WHen he was out in a crowd, at church, or at the grocery store, he was a very inward men. I saw that he was different from the other men. He didn’t swear all the time or drink all the time. He and my grandmother had a loving relationship, a working relationship. He in his self contained a lot of those contradictions. One of the next nonfiction projects I’m working on is how my children are growing up in Oregon, this wet, wet place, and I grew up in the Big Dry. It’s about where we grew up and how it will shape us. I remember in many ways, it seems like he can’t be real, because he was such a good grandfather. But I talk to my brother, I talk to my cousins, and they all say “oh yeah, you captured it.” But my mother once told me that he may have been a better grandfather than he was a father, especially to his sons. There’s a complication there. There’s something that I wasn’t there for that complicates his character. I’m interested in that. I think in his person we see this growth. He sold the ranch, which was heartbreaking, but in a way it freed us. I think he saw that it wasn’t going to work.
The form of The Mountains and the Father struck me. In each essay, there won’t just be one anecdote, there will be many strung together. What in your writing style lends itself to that format?
I think some of it is coming from poetry, being used to this smaller form. But I think a lot of it comes from when I started to work in this more fragmented form. It made so much sense to me. The fragment is how memory works. We get a flash here, a flash here. We’re not always sure what’s in between them, But we know they’re connected. I think memory works that way. I think it allows us to find what’s most important in narrative, and that’s those intense, dramatic moments It allows the reader to reconstruct and enter the text. They see these two events, and they’re not synchronous, so they have to figure out why they’re here. So the reader gets to participate in that creation of meaning. So I think the fragment for me is true, allows the reader to engage in the text, and allows the writer to craft a more thematically whole work.
That’s true. Different events in your life contribute to different through-lines.
You’re right. Another thing is that fragment just made sense to me It fit how I remembered.
Do you think your life now, as a professor in Oregon, is a reaction to the hardship of your upbringing?
I actually had a long talk with a friend about this this summer. She feels like her kids need some more hardship, because they’re, y’know, living well. I don’t know. I think, at least right now, that there are far more harmful things from that kind of deep deprivation than good. No matter where you are, just growing up’s hard enough. It’s confusing, you don’t know things and want to know things, it’s just a hard business. It’s going to be hard anywhere. We want to make sure our kids aren’t insulated from the world. It’ll look different in different places of their lives.
Thank you so much for your time, Joe.
Photo by Clementine Boyer