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NM: You're a dyed-in-the-wool writer — you've published not just about wine, but other subjects as well. Given that, did the inspiration for your wine poems come to you in other contexts, or were they borne of direct and immediate experiences with wine itself — perhaps in opening a bottle, drinking from a wineglass, or interacting with a wine professional?
JM: I find that most of my poems were inspired by other people, talking to winemakers, traveling around, and thinking about my experiences of drinking wine in the last ten years. So, most of it came out of an actual experience, rather than thinking, "Oh, I have this idea; I think I'll write a poem about it." A winemaker would say something to spark it off, a phrase perhaps. In that case I might think something like, "I wonder… that's a really odd term — 'a wine thief' or 'the angels' share'," or whatever it may be. And so, I would start to think about those images. When we wrote the wineries guide, I realized very quickly that the cool thing about wineries, to me, is that they're not all the same, even if they might appear so. They have different stories about different sorts of people and how they came to be there — that's what really fascinated me, their stories and their narratives. I sit and watch people go by, and I want to ask every one of them, "How did you get here?" That's what drives me! My wife often says, "You're writing these to figure things out. You're writing because something is gnawing at you, or you want to figure out how you feel about something." And yes, that's what I do with my writing, whether it's about wine, my family, a literary text, or whatever.
NM: So, what I'm hearing from you is that writing these poems was your own way of thinking out loud about the complexities, nuances, and convoluted emotions that experiencing wine brings out. But I wonder if it's also a form of catharsis that provides no concrete answers, but rather help in processing some of the raw material in your mind generated from these experiences with wine.
JM: Yes, I think, definitely: it helps me process my experiences the way I think about them. As much as I don't want to say that it's a cathartic process, I think it really is. Now, I don't know what to make of this, but ever since I published the book [Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers], I haven't written a single wine poem. I've been writing poems about something else — I've actually been writing about my mother who has dementia, and I think I'm trying to figure out how I feel about that. Also, there's a enormous difference between writing the guidebook — which has a very definite audience (because with that I think, "Okay, what do people need?") — and writing poetry. [When writing poems], I never think about the reader. I never think of what the audience needs, because in that particular case, I think, "What does the poem need, and what do I need? And how do I make it good, as an artistic work; how do I shape it?" I don't get that same sense with writing for a reader. In fact, I never expect anybody to read my poems, quite frankly. I never know what's going to happen with them!
NM: Oh, now, that's interesting! That, to me, further suggests that this collection is, in many ways, a way for you to work through some of the mysteries of wine and the inspiration brought about by your interactions with wine professionals.
JM: I would say yes, that's probably an accurate summation of what I'm doing here. I have enormous respect for winemakers and people in the wine industry, and their attention to craft and discipline. I feel it's very similar to teaching, very similar to writing. And it's interesting for me to explore these things in my poems, and in other works.
NM: I definitely see a parallel. Winemaking is very much an artisan-driven craft, one that balances art with technique and, of course, a great deal of discipline. Now, another thing that struck me in reading a few of your poems, is that while some of them are narrative, others go a little deeper with a lot of symbolism. Can you speak to your choice of using wine as a metaphor for people or things, or even entire experiences in our lives?
"Most of my poems were inspired by other people, talking to winemakers, traveling around, and thinking about my experiences of drinking wine in the last ten years."
JM: I think that was what really appealed to me so much about wine — how it can be so metaphorical, how so many major religions put wine at the center, because of the way you take a fruit and it transforms itself. I love that idea of the vineyard, where you cut down [prune or trim] the vines and they come back stronger, or even in rocky soil they can grow and flourish. Certainly, wine becomes an actual physical product, but also a metaphor for something else: of aging, of taking care of something, of craft, of all the possibilities of life. When people talk about the romance of wine, that's one of the things they're talking about, whether they know it or not. It seems to have all of these possibilities that we can become, or we can take part in a beautiful, artistic process. And it's also such a social act: sure, it stems from the land, but when I picture a wine bottle, I always picture a couple of glasses; and whenever I think about drinking wine, I always think about drinking it with people.