by Eric Ginsburg
It’s pretty clear that Joe Mills is one of those people who is really easy to like, as he stands around and answers questions and engages with his children before a reading to celebrate his latest book of poetry.
The only reason he’s wearing a tie— one decorated with a few dozen flopping images of Tintin’s terrier Milou — because his wife made him.
Standing there in the spacious Artworks Gallery on Trade Street in Winston-Salem, without much in the way of hair and with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, Mills is quick with self-effacing humor.
As the room fills, Mills transitions from his role as a functioning jungle gym for his son and into a host, circulating among friends and colleagues from UNC School of the Arts.
His pensive and good-natured character might have something to do with the considerable turnout to hear him read from This Miraculous Turning, his latest poetry collection put out by local outfit Press 53, and it certainly influenced the strength of his words and power of his delivery.
When Press 53 first decided to publish poetry, Mills was selected alongside Greensboro’s Valerie Neiman as the inaugural writers out of a field of more than 100 submissions from six continents. Years later, Mills has put out five books with the local press, and feels like This Miraculous Turning is his best yet. The week of the reading, as Press 53 celebrated its ninth anniversary, publisher Kevin Watson received an email asking to feature a poem from Mills’ new book on the popular radio show “The Writer’s Almanac” on Oct. 12. Three poems into his reading, Mills jokes that he’ll do a better job with “First Skating Party” than radio host Garrison Keillor will, just one of a series of comments that elicits laughter from his rapt audience.
It is difficult to pick a favorite out of Mills’ selection, which he notes is a more family-friendly version of the full book in consideration of the capacity crowd that is sitting on the floor and packing the back of the room.
A number of his poems, such as “Death and My Daughter: A Timeline,” evoke the same humor of everyday life or raising kids that he does in person, but Mills oscillates expertly between poignant observations on the mechanics of life and its enjoyable, lighthearted moments.
Undeniably genuine, Mills elaborates on the complexities of being a white Yankee transplant raising two black kids from the South and how he navigates serious and precious moments everywhere from God’s Acre in Old Salem or by a swimming pool.
At one point Mills stops to note what many audience members would’ve picked up anyway: a thread through his writing that says, “This isn’t what I thought it would be.” That continual learning process and wonderment at how life unfolds is evident from the beginning of the reading, when he starts with a poem called “We Were Only Going to Stay a Year or Two” about living in Winston-Salem and through the end, when he runs back up and takes the microphone from Watson as he closed the program. Mills had promised his kids they could say something on the mic, even though they end up being too shy just as he predicted.
The entire event — though programmed and stocked with complimentary wine, cheese and crackers — retains that slightly spontaneous and unpredictable current.
“It never gets old,” Watson says as he wrapped up the event. “Man, I love hearing him read.”
The beauty of Mills’ precise and incisive language moves more people than his wife to tears, and several people dab at the corners of their eyes as an unofficial line begins to form for autographs.
Joseph Mills, who goes by Joe, will read from This Miraculous Turning at Scuppernong Books (GSO) on Saturday at 7 p.m. Press 53 will host its fiction contest winner, Wendy J. Fox, who is flying in from Denver, for an event on Oct. 17. Visit press53.com for details.