Joe Wilkins

We Had to Go On Living (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014)Wilkins

Leviathan (Iron Horse Review, 2014)

What kind of worlds do you think your chapbooks create? What, or who, inhabits those worlds? 

Eight years ago now, my wife and I, both born and raised in the West, moved to a small town in north Iowa. I’d gotten a gig teaching at the college in town, my first job out of grad school, and my wife found a position in the local school district. We started our family there, we worked on our house and in our garden, we snowshoed along the frozen river in the winter—yet we never quite attuned ourselves to that flat, forever landscape, and we were often lonely in a town of less than five thousand, a town where most of the folks our age had either left for the city or had children who were already teenagers. And as the Great Recession ground on, the town, the college, our neighbors—they all suffered.

I’m thinking of We Had to Go on Living and Leviathan as my Midwesterns, my attempts to speak about those good, sad, hard years. And so the worlds the chapbooks create are built of just the things we encountered and reckoned with living in Iowa: lilacs and cornfields and slow rivers, empty factory parking lots and empty shops downtown, month after month of winter, of wind and drifted snow and glaring, white light, neighbors, small kindnesses, a neighbor’s suicide, our worried, astonished wait for our son’s birth.

What themes and images “bridge” your work? Have you found that composing a chapbook alleviates these inclinations, or amplifies them?

I think many of the images above—winter, empty factories, the Winnebago River—serve as bridges between the pieces in the chapbooks, as well as between the chapbooks themselves, which feel very much twinned to me. For one, both chapbooks deal only sparingly with my childhood biography (while all my previous books root themselves very much in the memories and the landscapes of my youth); rather, these chapbooks both look out into the world of the Midwest, into the lives of those I found around me. For another, both books move similarly; they riff and meditate, following trails of association and ideation rather than clear narratives. And, finally, themes of displacement, silence, struggle, survival, faith, and fatherhood—these crisscross the chapbooks.

What is the oldest piece in either of your chapbooks? What do you remember about writing that piece?

I think the oldest piece is the first essay in We Had to Go On Living, “Northern Pike.” I drafted that essay in a fever, just days after our next-door neighbor’s suicide, though I then spent a good while tightening and revising, eventually cutting much of what I’d written and keeping only what felt most vivid and intense.

What was the final piece you wrote for or significantly revised for either chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbooks were complete?

I think the final piece I significantly revised was the long poem that concludes Leviathan, “Eight Letters of Explanation, Acknowledgement, & Apology on the Occasion of My Son’s First Birthday.” I’d had a few of these letters—in earlier form—lying around, but they didn’t quite feel alive: there was no force pushing from one to the next. Then, trying to write something for my son’s first birthday, I happened to see those letters again and realized this birthday, this moment of joy and worry and great good fortune, somehow had a bearing on all those previous confessions. And so I began the last letter. I think I added a few more letters in as well, and as they all took shape together, I began to see I had a poem that really mattered to me and thematically contained much of what I’d been working on. So, it became the anchor poem for Leviathan.

How did you decide on the arrangements and titles of your chapbooks? What was your titling process for individual pieces in the chapbooks?

I stole the title for We Had to Go On Living from James Wright’s devastatingly beautiful poem “Northern Pike,” which opens like this:

All right. Try this,
Then. Every body
I know and care for,
And every body
Else is going
To die in a loneliness
I can’t imagine and a pain
I don’t know. We had
To go on living.

And that sentiment felt so perfect for the sadness and struggle and hope I was after in both of the essays.

Leviathan is a bit trickier. Working on the poem “Leviathan,” I latched onto the story of Job as a kind of analogue to the escaped prisoner’s journey; Job’s story of misfortune and suffering and perseverance helped me answer the question that initiated the poem: why would anyone try to escape from a county jail in rural Iowa in the middle of winter? And though it might be a bit of stretch, as I put the chapbook together, that story and that poem continued to matter.

Did you set out with the intention of writing chapbooks?

For Leviathan, yes. Once we found out Liz was pregnant, I immediately began penning the “Letters to…” poems. And I saw, too, that the dramatic monologues I was working on could be woven around those letters, creating, hopefully, a kind of chorus of confession, all these voices trying to explain, and so redeem, themselves.

I didn’t plan for the essays in We Had to Go On Living to land in a chapbook, but they were written near one another, chronologically, and once they were both published and out there in the world, I began to think of them as a pair of sorts.

What are you working on now?

Poems, always poems. I think there’s a full-length collection coming that builds on Leviathan. I’ve been writing fiction lately as well. Some short stories, a novel that’s really kicking my ass. And I’m beginning—if I keep telling myself I’m beginning I’m bound to actually get started on it one of these days!—work on a nonfiction project about childhood and landscape and how the places of our lives exert such a force on us as human beings.

What is your writing practice or process?

I drop the kids off at pre-school and then bike to campus. I try to be at my desk not long after eight in the morning, and if I don’t have meetings or a stack of papers to grade, I try to read/ journal/ write for the next three hours or so. I’d say most weeks I get three of those days, and, wow, they’re lovely.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

Keep reading. Keep writing.

What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?

Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?


Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, winner of the 2014 GLCA New Writers Award, and two full-length collections of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. His work has appeared in The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, The Sun, Orion, and Slate. A Pushcart Prize winner and National Magazine Award finalist, he lives with his wife, son, and daughter in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.



from We Had to Go On Living

I guess what I am aiming at here is this:

There is some connection between the contusions on our skin and the various contusions that bloom in our brains. As the violet bruise blossoms—as, weeks later, the flared scar finally diminishes—the neurons themselves lurch and wobble, link and relink. It makes sense but is still somehow shocking. Each wound changes how we see ourselves, how we understand the world around us. This bat’s wing will color more than the tissues around my eye, will stay with me longer than the ten days it will take for the skeletal muscles to repair themselves and the extracellular serums to drain. (Even now, I can almost feel the dendritic connections shifting, can almost hear the liquid pop and snap of my brain rewiring itself around this wound.)

Consider this morning in the alley: though neither of us said a thing, I am sure Keith was aware, as I was, that we spoke by our neighbor Lynn’s back door, by his black row of lilacs. Lynn and Keith were close. Before Keith retired and Lynn was laid off due to cutbacks, they’d worked together at Winnebago for years and lived as neighbors the whole time. They both fished and hunted and sat in their backyards with cans of beer and cigarettes as the sun went red and muddy over the cornfields. Then, a year ago, just months before Walter was born, Lynn laid himself down on his couch, nestled a pistol barrel up to his temple, and fired. A few days later his sister came to clean up the house, but the couch was too heavy for her and her husband to move. Liz and I helped them cart Lynn’s blood-soaked sofa into the street, so they could take it to the dump. We stood there, catching our breath and wondering. Though Lynn’s wounds were labyrinthean and hidden, there was no hiding the damage they had wrought, the puddle of his blood in the late-winter light.


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