Monday, December 26, 2016

My First Time: Joseph Mills

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Joseph Mills, author of the new poetry collection Exit, pursued by a bear. A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Mills has published six volumes of poetry with Press 53, including Somewhere During the Spin Cycle, Sending Christmas Cards to Huck and Hamlet and Love and Other Collisions. His fifth collection, This Miraculous Turning, was awarded the North Carolina Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry. More information about his work is available at

My First Time Bathing with the Bard

After college, I travelled around in a Toyota pickup with a camper shell, and the only book I kept permanently in its back box was The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. It was a heavy blue-bound tome that I had bought at Powell’s Books in Chicago. I imagined reading it by campfires, delighting in the playwright’s timeless wisdom and his understanding of human relationships. I was, of course, also imagining myself as being the kind of person who read Shakespeare by a campfire.

But I wasn’t.

I never finished a single play in that collection.

There were physical reasons for this. Campfires don’t give off much light, and the type was tiny as the volume jammed together multiple columns on a page. Also, the book was too big. Literally. It was difficult to hold. It was a book to own rather than read.

There were other reasons as well. It turned out that I didn’t actually want to read Shakespeare. I wanted to be someone who had read Shakespeare. I wanted to be that erudite person who recognized phrases beyond “to be or not to be” and who got the reference when someone named their dog Portia or Shylock.

So I hauled the book around for a while then finally abandoned it out West, like those who jettisoned their possessions along the Oregon Trail.

Years later, on a New Year’s Day, I resolved again to be the person that I wanted to be (or thought I should be), and I decided to commit to reading a Shakespeare play a month. This time, I bought individual texts, ones that fit in the hand and the pocket. I had come to understand that part of the pleasure of reading is the physical experience of holding a book. It is a tactile relationship.

But I still wasn’t reading for pleasure. By that time I had read several Shakespeare plays at different points in my education (writing papers with arguments like “Hamlet can be read on many different levels” and “King Lear can be read on many different levels”) but, although I admired the work, or at least professed to, I didn’t emotionally respond to it. Instead, I started the project thinking it would be “good for me,” like going to the gym. In this mindset, I dutifully worked through a couple plays. Then, something unexpected happened.

One night, I took Henry VI, Part 2 into the bathroom. It is most famous for the line, “The first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers.” In high school, I bought a coffee cup with that quotation for a friend who was pre-law. (Thinking back that was a jerk gift. Sorry, Denny.) As I read the play in the bath, Jack Cade, the Irish rebel, walks on stage holding two heads. He makes them kiss, separates them, then says he will ride through the streets “and at every corner have them kiss.” I laughed out loud at the audacity of this passage. It was dark. It was funny. At that moment, Shakespeare’s work opened to me in a way that it hadn’t before. I hadn’t responded to the “comedies” and at what I thought I was supposed to find amusing or witty. The archaic sex “jokes” often took too much work to figure out; by the time I realized what was happening, they weren’t funny. But this, this was a sardonic humor that I understood.

It was as if suddenly I had become attuned to how to read some of the plays. For example, the morning after Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have killed King Duncan, people arrive at the castle and emphasize how “unruly” the past night had been. One character notes that chimneys blew down, screams were in the air, birds were clamoring, and “some say the Earth/was feverous and did shake.” To this, Macbeth responds only, “Twas a rough night.” That is funny. Sly and ironic and dark and self-knowing.

I finished Henry VI, Part 2 in the bath. This, for me, is an unofficial mark of a good book. The cold water test. I discovered the novels of Dawn Powell when I took a bath with Angels on Toast and stayed there for hours.

So although I initially encountered Shakespeare in high school and had read various plays over the years, “my first time” truly responding to him was in a tub laughing at a dark dark scene. I don’t think it’s coincidental that it happened there. I had to strip away expectations of what Shakespeare’s work should be or who I should be while reading it. In a sense, I had to become a naked reader. So, it probably was just as well that I wasn’t by a fire.

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