Interview: Mike Wilson
This week we sat down with Mike Wilson, a poet who took the long way around. Join us as we talk about his journey through teaching and lawyering and how he uses his poetry to make sense of the dumpster fire that has become our world.
CJ: Thanks for joining me today! Why don’t you start by telling us a little about yourself?
Mike: I’m a semi-retired lawyer and professor teaching law to paralegals who has returned to his original passion – writing. I studied to be a writer in college, took classes under Wendell Berry, Jane Gentry Vance, and other writers, but then took a different path. About 6 years ago, I returned to writing. I’ve had stories and poetry published in several magazines and just this month Rabbit House Press released my collection of poetry, Arranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic, political poetry for a post-truth world.
CJ: That is amazing! What made you put your writing on hold for those years?
Mike: Two things. First, I realized I didn’t want to be an English professor required to make a career by publishing on obscure aspects of literature. I wanted to address the big questions. Second, I realized I was young and really didn’t know much and needed to learn about life so I would have something meaningful to say.
CJ: That makes sense. When did you switch to lawyering?
Mike: After receiving my degree in English, I worked for a year and, partly influenced by a friend, realized law was something I probably could do well in. I had been on the debate team in college, and analytical thinking came easy for me. Besides, I needed to do something! As I pursued law, I also continued learning on my own about things that interested me. I’ve spent a lot of time studying many religions and spirituality, politics, history, and so on.
CJ: Having an analytical mind isn’t something you typically find in a poet. Do you find that it helped or hindered you?
Mike: It can hinder, but remember I started out wanting to be a poet, so I can do both. I have to watch out for that sometimes because part of my mind enjoys explaining and making arguments. I’ve learned to allow non-linear processes to guide my poems and stories most of the time. I’ve trained myself to remember my dreams and am working on a collection of poems based upon them. I plan to post a blog about my technique on my website sometime soon.
CJ: Do you find that you have to consciously make the switch from lawyer to poet and back again, or have you figured out the flow?
Mike: I have to consciously make the switch. If I’ve been doing lawyerish straight-line thinking all day, I can’t get much done writing unless it’s an essay. I get up early in the morning and write before the day begins and I shift my focus from one mode to the other with things like yoga, gardening, exercise or reading poetry or novels to put myself in a writing frame of mind.
CJ: Those are definitely good things to do to reset your mind. You’ve got your work published in a lot of places and have a book of poetry out. Have you thought about doing other types of fiction writing, or is poetry pretty much what you excel at?
Mike: I have ten short stories published and enjoy that as much as poetry. Poetry has been the focus lately because of the book, but I’m getting back into prose. I started, when I returned to writing, with novels. I’ve written several, but it seems almost impossible to get an agent. I became discouraged in writing novels because of my inability to find an agent. I plan to return to it, however, I’m a better writer now than I was 5 years ago. I wrote a novel before the election of Trump that involved a demagogue rising to power in an America polarized much the way it is now. Poetry can improve one’s ability to write fiction. The language and description and metaphors come to you more easily. Nothing is wasted and everything helps everything else.
CJ: So you’re looking to traditionally publish your work?
Mike: I think so. I know there’s the option of self-publishing, but I’ve been leery of it. That may change.
CJ: What is it about self-publishing that you have concerns with?
Mike: The amount of work involved and the need to do all your own promotions. However, with the poetry book that’s out this month, I’m learning how to do self-promotion. I’ve never wanted to do that, just wanted to write and have someone else deal with all of that. But I guess that’s part of being a writer, getting the word out and helping readers find a reason to buy your book.
CJ: I think self-promotion is probably the hardest thing about self-publishing. I know a lot of indie authors who struggle with that aspect of it, and because of that, they aren’t as read as they should be. I’ve always thought that traditional publishing would be difficult. Did you have any issues with that?
Mike: You mean with my current publisher, Rabbit House? Not at all. They’re small, local, and wonderful to work with. I might, at some points, ask if they want to publish stories or a novel, but since we’re doing the book that would be down the line. At the moment, I just want to re-engage prose, write a few stories, and then return to my novels. I plan to keep it all going.
CJ: You’ve been a professor, a lawyer, and an author. I know that society would put a salary on being a professor and a lawyer as a sign of success. How do you define success as an author?
Mike: First, I’m proud of what I’ve written. Second, at least some people appreciate it and validate it for me. It would be nice to sell a lot of books or have a movie made based on a novel or story I wrote, but really it’s the quality of the writing that matters. And the process. There are best-sellers out there that aren’t something I would have wanted to write. I feel like my writing is improving, and that is rewarding.
CJ: I think that is a very important thing to remember. You can publish a hundred books, but if your work isn’t improving, does it even matter?
Mike: Right. I remember the first moment I decided I wanted to be a writer. Without giving the entire story, I had a revelation that by writing I could learn what was inside me. I still think that’s true and developing the writing skills enables the writer to release what’s inside but have the skills to make something with it. Like jazz musicians. They’ve studied all the classics, played scales and exercises, and so on, which means when they play jazz the mechanisms are all there to allow them to
Interpret without having to think about it linearly.
CJ: I think there’s also a difference in being a writer and being a talented writer. Like your musicians, you can study and learn and be technically perfect, but if you don’t have the passion, people won’t want to keep listening.
Mike: Yes, something real has to be happening. Something with juice.
CJ: Did getting published change your writing in any way?
Mike: It helps validate me a little. I spend a lot of time writing, and my wife supports it, but it’s time I could spend doing something with her or the grandkids or helping other people. How do I justify spending so much time on such a solitary activity? So getting some feedback, a little validation, is a kind of evidence that whatever I’m doing has meaning beyond what it has just for me. But in terms of what I write, no, it changes nothing. My next book will differ totally from the one that’s just been published because I’m focusing on something else now.
CJ: We all have something we can’t write, whether or not we want to. Is there a specific genre or topic that you may have tried to write about but ultimately decided against?
Mike: No, I haven’t tried to write things I don’t want to write, other than perhaps as exercises in a class. There are certain genres I just don’t care for, like science fiction and fantasy, but nothing I’ve chosen. There are some subjects that are personal that may be difficult to write about, such as my father’s death, that I’ve avoided. However, usually, the thing you don’t want to write about is where all the best material is and the most powerful. So I guess I should put on my big-boy britches and tackle it.
CJ: I have heard that too. Emotion is power, and a talented writer lays the groundwork for the reader to feel that emotion with them. We are just about out of time, so let’s end with a fun question. What is your most interesting writing quirk?
Mike: I don’t know that I have one. I don’t write by hand, always compose on the laptop. I always work at the dining room table. I don’t know if those are quirks.
CJ: Is there a reason you always write at the dining room table?
Mike: I can look out the window at people passing on the street. It’s a comfortable place to sit. I’m near enough to whatever else is going on in the house to not feel cut off, but far enough away that I’m not distracted. It’s just developed that way.
CJ: It sounds like a very peaceful setting. I’m assuming you don’t have small children running around all the time demanding your attention.
Mike: Correct. And when the grandkids visit, they don’t (often) bother me if I’m in the dining room because they understand I’m working. Also, when they’re here, I’m usually corralled into a game of hide and seek or some other activity with them at some point, so priorities change for a bit.
CJ: Completely understandable! Thank you so much for sitting with me today Mike, I had a great time talking with you.
Mike: Thank you so much. I enjoyed our conversation, too.
You can connect with Mike via these avenues: