Steady rhythm and rules were driving forces not only behind Wilmer Mills’ daily life, but also his poetry, as he thought of “narrative, metrical, old-fashioned poetry as a kind of non-mechanized farming, using outmoded metrical devices to create an organic gardening on the page.”
Mills’ affection for manual labor began in his youth, when his family traveled to Brazil to serve as agricultural missionaries. While there, the family farmed, and Mills thus developed an appreciation for hard work, as well as a slowing-down of time.
Farm life continued for Mills after the family’s return to the United States, as they lived and worked as “his people” have been “since the earliest ones received the land as grants from the king of Spain in 1797,” as he claimed.
Mills credited the agricultural life as his ultimate inspiration, not, “a coup de foudre, a lightning bolt,” or an epiphany “like St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus.”
Despite denying a singular defining moment, Mills did admit to regularly writing down thoughts and images, “never admitting to myself that their lines about deer hunters and pickup trucks could be considered poems. At the time, they were more a means of getting rid of perennial bouts of sadness that overtook me whenever I got a sense of things I didn’t understand, feeling, nevertheless, the weight of their presence.”
Before he put those urges to use in poetry, however, Mills had different artistic ambitions.
“I secretly wanted to be a watercolor painter,” he admitted, after Poetrynet.org named him their July 2006 Poet of the Month. “Technique in that medium, when done well, involves getting a thought or response to nature on paper very quickly and exactly in practiced gestures of the hand.”
However, the impetus to write came in his teen years, when his mother took him to a Robert Penn Warren reading. By the time he reached college at the University of the South, Mills was a voracious reader and writer, and completed his Bachelor of Arts in English in 1992. However, the degree only came after Mills made a serious life decision.
“Conventional, modern farming, as practiced by my father in south Louisiana, was not a viable option for me,” he said. “Farming versus poetry seemed like an either/or proposition. My parents were likely not surprised and perhaps even a little relieved, believing that I would probably become a teacher of some sort to support poetry, and end up better off than they were in agriculture.”
But instead of teaching, Mills supported his family by working as an artisan bread baker, woodworker and a sawmill operator, taking breaks to earn his Master’s degree in theology, and a year to live in France. He and his family also built a bungalow from salvaged building materials, which was featured in a 2007 Southern Living issue.
Mills’ work paid off in 2002, when his first collection, Light for the Orphans, was released to high accolades. Austin MacRae, critic, hailed Mills’ narrative style, which is “predominantly made up of longer narrative pieces and dramatic monologues,” as well as his unusual choice of writing in the third person, and focusing on overlooked members of society, such as the farmers and carpenters he works with daily. True to his temperament, the poems are all precisely metered, and written in blank verse.
Even though Mills’ work frequently bleeds into agricultural territory, he considered himself a poet, not a farmer: “I assuage my guilt about being one of the millions of people who grew up on a farm but didn’t go on to live the life by reminding myself that I am doing what God intended me to do.”
Light for the Orphans, 2002
Selected Poems, 2013
Chapter 16‘s review of Selected Poems:
Wilmer Mills remembered by Jeff Hardin in Chapter 16:
An essay by Wilmer Mills in Chapter 16:
Wilmer Mills featured at the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference page:
Milmer Mills featured as Poet of the Month at PoetryNet.org:
Austin MacRae’s review of The Poet as Orphan in EP&M Online Review:
“Presbyterian Poet Takes Time for Connections,” feature on Wilmer Mills by Ray Waddle in The Voice:
“An Equation for My Children” by Wilmer Mills at The Poetry Foundation:
“The Dowser’s Ear” by Wilmer Mills at The Poetry Foundation:
“Remembering Grand Isle” by Wilmer Mills in The New Criterion: