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Writer Pens Anthology of Poems on Wine
An Interview with Angels, Thieves & Winemakers Author Joseph Mills
As an avid city dweller who was born and raised in the urban jungle, I'm not fond of the outdoors. I don't take much of an interest in nature, barely noticing the myriad of greenery prevalent here in Northern California. But my passion for wine has compelled me, a number of times, to hike the sometimes steep slopes of dusty vineyards, peering closely at vine shoots and leaf canopies, and examine with fascination and reverence the clusters of curiously small berries hanging from them. With that same enthusiasm, I was recently drawn to another area of otherwise complete disinterest for me: poetry. I never was a fan of it, frankly hated it in school, and honestly can't remember the last time I voluntarily read any as an adult. But because the subject of Joseph Mills' recently published Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers involves the subject so near and dear to my heart, once again out of sheer curiosity, I felt compelled to suspend my aversion and begin reading some of his work. What I found was an experience that tickled, touched, and in some cases, totally transported me. In writing about wine, Joe's sensitivity, humility, creativity, and imagery are perhaps the closest I've come to experiencing wine, without actually drinking it. I spoke with the author from his home in North Carolina, where he's a full-time professor of English, about his book of poems and his own unique perspective on wine.
NM: What prompted you to write poems specifically about wine, and then ultimately to compile and publish them into an anthology?
JM: The poems about wine actually emerged from a project that's much more informational. When we first moved out here [from Oakland, California] to North Carolina, we were immediately told about a local winery, Westbend Vineyards in Lewisville. And when we went to visit it, just to check it out, it became immediately clear that they needed help. Since my wife was looking for a job, she thought she'd help them in the tasting room, which is how she started working in the North Carolina wine industry altogether… about ten years ago. Right about that time, a lot of wineries were opening up here; a kind of boom was happening. And people kept coming in [to the tasting room] and asking my wife if we'd been to some of the other wineries here, like Shelton and Raylen — but she hadn't, since she was so busy working two jobs and I, myself, had a full-time job [at the university]. So, she came home one day and told me she felt that there really needed to be a guidebook, and —long story short — we ended up writing the book ourselves, for a publisher that does guides for the South. It was the first edition of A Guide to North Carolina's Wineries. Now, when we did the second edition last summer, the wineries had tripled in number. And so, as I was starting to write about wineries, I decided very quickly that I didn't want to write about the wines themselves — there's a lot of small batch wines, so the wines would be gone immediately, anyway; plus there are other people who already do a wonderful job of describing wines. I just wasn't really all interested in doing that. Instead, I wanted to write more about people's stories. But this was still a non-fiction book; it was a guidebook and so it was fairly straight-forward. [Nevertheless,] I found myself just falling in love with the language that winemakers talk about, the phrases that they use… And so [with some of these phrases] I started creating fragments of poems. I completed some of those poems, [and published them] in another book of poetry. But even after that, the poems kept coming, and eventually I realized that I was going to have a lot of them! So I went to the publisher of the first poetry book (which is a different publisher from the wineries guide) and I said, "I think I'm going to have enough for an entire collection." And that was seen as a good way to have a coherent volume, rather than a scattered bunch of poems that I wrote over time. It now had a theme, allowing us to put the second book together [Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers], which came out in the spring.