Editor’s note: This interview was originally published in March 2015 by The Mimeograph.
John Milkereit is from Chicago and works as a rotating equipment engineer for a contracting firm in Houston, Texas. His poems have appeared in various literary journals, such as Big River Poetry Review and San Pedro River Review. His latest book, A Rotating Equipment Engineer Is Never Finished (Ink Brush Press, 2015) has already meet with much praise. John has also been featured as the first writer in the New Writer Spotlight of Small Press News.
The Mimeograph: Your individual poems have appeared in a variety of publications, but A Rotating Equipment Engineer Is Never Finished is your first book-length collection, and many of these selections first appeared elsewhere. At what point did you get the idea to gather the poems in a single book?
John Milkereit: When I starting running out of copies of my chapbooks in 2013 and I knew I couldn’t reprint them. Coming to terms with that was when I knew I had to get a book together. A poet is always writing for the book.
The Mimeograph: The title is one unexpected for a collection of poetry, and the first poem, “Rotating Equipment Engineer,” states “what he does is mystery.” So what is a rotating equipment engineer?
John Milkereit: A rotating equipment engineer specializes in specifics pumps, motors, and compressors that typically go in a chemical plant, refinery, power plant, or any industrial plant or offshore oil platform. The engineer also makes requisition packages for vendors to bid, and then he evaluates the bids and makes recommendations to clients. He also reviews drawings and other vendor data.
The Mimeograph: Sounds like you’ve had to answer that one before. Engineers aren’t stereotypically a poetic lot. Do you find your day job at odds with your poetic sensibilities, or do you find the two compliment each other?
John Milkereit: There is a rich language to be accessed in the world of engineering that I haven’t fully tapped into. There are also wonderful stories about co-workers that I wouldn’t have gotten without working for an engineering firm. Trying to write a poem about engineering is tricky and often at odds with the world outside of engineering because if you don’t have the right balance in the writing (between engineering/non-engineering language), then no one knows what you’re writing about. There needs to be a certain amount of accessibility in the poem for the reader to get what you’re saying. Most of the time, I keep these worlds separate but they could compliment each other under the right circumstances. Very often I have a hunch something from work would be great material for poetry, but I never know until well into the writing process and review.
The Mimeograph: In a 2012 interview with the Friendswood Public Library, you mentioned being a part of a group of poets. And in the acknowledgements of your book you mention several poetry societies. Can you tell us a little about those groups and their value to your writing?
John Milkereit: Two of those groups formed after taking two classes at Inprint. Each class wanted to meet after the scheduled classes ended and we carried forth the ideas and methods from our instructors. A friend formed the third group, but the idea of workshopping poems is the same in all three groups. Workshopping poems has been critical in making my poems better as long as I continue to be receptive to listening and taking constructive criticism. My poems are never perfect after the first draft—I never kid myself about that. Critiquing other poems and receiving critique is the gateway into the world of revision, which is probably the most creative act but also can be the most difficult task for me. All of these groups have some poets better than me, which has been very beneficial. If I’m the best poet, that’s not going to help me very much.
The Mimeograph: Since that 2012 interview, you’ve enrolled in an MFA program. Can you tell us something about how the MFA program has helped your poetry?
John Milkereit: The MFA program has certainly widened my horizon into what other poets are publishing, which in turn widens the possibilities for my own writing. Many of my poems today move beyond the speaker as someone like myself and become projected onto other speakers. My ego or self is more removed. My first-year mentor said by the time I’m done with the program that I won’t recognize my own writing. Many people think a typical MFA program forces you to change your writing in some way that’s different but not better because the student is under constant due dates. That could be true, but I don’t think that’s true in my case. I still choose what I write, and I never have to write a certain way. It’s the process of reading the books I’m assigned (and sometimes that’s collaborative) and seeing what I’m interested in. It’s also my reaction to the classes I’m choosing to take during the residency component of the program.
The Mimeograph: What tips can you give aspiring poets who want to improve their craft?
John Milkereit: The No.1 thing is reading. Then after that, more reading and to read widely even outside the genre of poetry. We live in a world of social media and a huge amount of distractions that block the creative process, and that affects crafting. I’ve gotten great material after reading short stories, personal essays, and fiction. There are several good craft books on the market now. Paying attention to craft in poetry means paying attention to each line and not as much the sentence. You have to pay attention to each word. How does each word add to the poem? How does the poem sound aloud? Can you remember everything you wrote in the poem after putting it away for a week? If not, what parts can’t you remember and if you can’t remember, then are they important? Things like that in addition to belonging to a community of writers and being in a critique group. If you live in a small town and there are no critique groups, then find one on-line. Go to poetry conferences where you can workshop poems. I don’t think you can improve craft solely by oneself and reading craft books.
The Mimeograph: So being part of a poetry group is crucial?
John Milkereit: If you want to improve your craft, I think it’s essential. If you’re taking your writing seriously, then you want to find one preferably in-person or on-line. I know one very good poet that emails his work to one person in L.A. and another person in Atlanta. But they all first met by going to a poetry conference. They trade poems through email. I’m fortunate enough to live in a big urban area that is strong on the literary arts.
The Mimeograph: Is an MFA program worth the time and expense?
John Milkereit: That’s a highly individual choice and there’s no scorecard one can make that tells someone whether the MFA program is worth it. I wanted an MFA program because I wanted to be a better writer. Obviously, there are other ways to become a better writer. But I thought the answer of one of my classmates was very telling and really resonated with me after I asked him that question. He dropped out of my MFA program, went on to publish a successful book from a well-known publisher in New York, then he returned to finish the MFA program. I thought he would be the best person to ask this question. He said he came back because he wanted to be held accountable for his writing. I was really surprised by that answer but it’s really stuck with me for over a year now. If I’m not being held accountable for my writing, then how am I going to get better as a writer? I think that’s the biggest benefit for me. The program establishes habits I’ll be able to use long after the program is over to hold myself accountable to my writing.
The Mimeograph: Does being a performance poet—as opposed to a poet who writes poetry to be read by the audience—affect your craft?
John Milkereit: Yes, it does affect craft because I pay more attention to where I take a breath in reading aloud. Taking a breath can be the place where a linebreak occurs. Or vice versa, if I have linebreak where I don’t take a breath, then how is that last word on the line functioning? There are other things like placement of commas within the line. Certain word choices I’ve made on the page I realize later don’t sound very good when I’m reading in front of people.
The Mimeograph: Are you always aware that you will be reading the poetry aloud, and does that shape your creative process?
John Milkereit: I’m aware of reading every poem aloud. Some poets don’t care and don’t like reading aloud. I think the oral tradition of poetry is essential not only to entertain but also to provide critical feedback. It’s another way to figure out whether the poem is any good. You can get some sense of that by reading in front of strangers. If the poem is too long, you’ll eventually find out and then that might spark the investigation of what’s boring. If it’s boring to an audience, then it’s probably boring to read it on the page. Yes, there are very good poems that are long, but you wouldn’t read the whole poem to an audience in one reading, right? You would only read sections just as you might read on the page sections and then come back to it later. Reading aloud also can tell you if pausing in certain places you envisioned is working or whether the white space you’ve created on the page is not working. Where you pause and how fast you read can be shaped on the page. Ideally, the reading experience and the audio experience might match with each other. I understand that humans perceive or listen through body movements. Do we actually understand poetry better in a live performance with our eyes closed? I think of the live performance as an opportunity for the poet to help the listener understand better. Some people don’t agree with that. I just see it as an opportunity I would rather embrace than miss.
The Mimeograph: Do you have a lot of performances scheduled?
John Milkereit: I will be in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico the first week of January 2016 and Piccolo Spoleto in Charleston, SC end of May 2016 promoting the new book. I will be in Austin, TX April 10-12, 2015 with one or two readings. Other readings will be set-up soon to promote the new book.
The Mimeograph: For those of us that can’t make it to a live reading, is there any chance the future might offer some recorded performances, like a YouTube video?
John Milkereit: I did a dropcard last year where I recorded sixteen of my best poems in a recording studio. You can download all the poems as MP3s and listen every day of the week once you get the download card from me. Otherwise, one live performance is on YouTube.
Some of the poems I read on YouTube are in the book!