Monday, November 28, 2011

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 poetry collections from Press 53Love and Other Collisions, Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers, and Somewhere During the Spin Cycle.  Joseph and his wife, Danielle Tarmey, are the authors of A Guide to North Carolinas Wineries.  His fourth volume of poetry, Sending Christmas Cards to Huck and Hamlet, will be released by Press 53 in the spring of 2012.  He holds degrees in literature from the University of Chicago (B.A.), the University of New Mexico (M.A.), and the University of California-Davis (Ph.D).  A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, he holds the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. In addition to teaching at UNCSA, Joseph is the Poet-in-Residence at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Visit his website here.

My First Publication

The writer Fred Chappell has said, “If you’re lucky, you’ll be rejected the first 1,000 times.  That will teach you to persevere.  Get the first poems that you submit published, and you’re dead meat.”  In my case, he was wrong.  The first place I ever sent work to accepted it, and it was the best thing that could have happened.

As a junior in college in 1986, I had just begun to write poetry as part of a creative writing course.  However, I had been told since elementary school that I would be an author someday.  So, after I had written a half dozen poems, it was logical to send them out for publication.  They had received scathing critiques in workshops, but only by classmates.  The professor hadn’t said a word, I suspected, because he didn’t want to embarrass the other students in public by correcting their faulty judgments.

I’m not sure where I saw the announcement, probably in The Writer or Writer’s Digest, which I had begun to read regularly (spending more time, in fact, reading about writing than actually doing any).  An “Important International Poetry Anthology” wanted submissions.  I sent my best poem.  It was four lines long, and it dealt with the aftermath of a party.  Cigarette butts.  Empty bottles.  Hangovers.  Ash, trash, and regret.  Real life, man.

The acceptance came quickly, along with the stipulation that contributors must buy a copy.  This seemed reasonable, even unnecessary since, of course, I wanted one.  My dorm-mate began introducing me as a “published poet” at the business school recruiting parties we were crashing.  I would shake my head and look away as he did this, trying to look modest, which was difficult since I was only 20 and already on my way.

Finally the fat envelope came.  I opened the book and had an immediate, overwhelming, feeling.  Surprisingly, since this was my first publication, it was also a familiar one.  It’s that feeling you get at the arrival of the X-Ray specs or the life-size remote control Frankenstein ordered from a comic book, that alloy of disappointment, anger, and shame forged by the awareness you’ve been scammed. 

Each of the anthology’s hundreds of pages had at least a dozen poems.  It was difficult to find mine crammed among the thousands.  I read some, and they were uniformly terrible.  Then I realized that if each “contributor” bought a copy, that’s all the publisher had to sell.

Long after midnight, when the hall was deserted, I took the book to the garbage chute, tossed it in, and listened as it hammered its way down to the dumpster to be incinerated.

This first publication was critical.  I stopped going to B school parties, afraid someone might remember “the poet.”  Consequently, a business career became even more unlikely.  I didn’t submit work again for several years, and then I chose the places that I knew.  Most importantly, I understood from the beginning of my career what it meant to be a “published author.”


  1. This is great, Joe. Funny and heartbreaking. You got lucky.

  2. Every writer should read this.