Joe Mills.JPG

Poetry from Joe Mills

followed by Q&A



“Tell us a story,” the children ask,

and the parents, although they know

it’s a delaying tactic, always agree.  

Listen, they say, once upon a time

there were girls and boys like you,

scared and resourceful, disobedient

and loved, and there were parents,

like us, trying to keep them safe

and warm and fed, but they failed 

so the children had to leave to fight

monsters and giants, witches and wolves,

and when they came back home

sometimes they found their parents 

had died, but not you, you never will.



Yes, there is evil

in the world, some

directed at you

and you can do

nothing to avoid it.

Beware of strangers.

Don’t judge by appearances.

None of these will help.

Evil will do what evil does,

striking you down

even when you don’t

bite into the apple,

and if you’re lucky,

you survive, sometimes

unconscious, sometimes

in a tower (after all

there are  so many ways 

to be locked up) 

but still alive, if not

warm, at least waiting.



You prefer beauty

to the point of wanting

someone comatose

instead of the village girl

who dances according

to her own desires


because you believe

you will be the one 

to wake her, the one 

to make her move, 

your vivifying kiss, 

your magical presence.


This is the mirror

of the tale.  Stop

looking at her,

imagining the feel

of that skin, and listen.



Forget they’re animals.

Forget the easy jokes 

about property crimes.

Don’t stop at slogans:

 “Avoid extremes” or

“Find the middle way.”

Consider only the bare

element.  A woman,

a blonde stranger,

eats and sits and sleeps

in the bed you’ve shared

your most intimate moments.

Call her intruder

or mistress.

Call her daughter in law

or doubt.

Call her longing 

or desire.

But she will come 

and afterwards

nowhere will be

just right again.



When you get home

after stealing and killing 

to feed your family, 

you’ll take an ax 

to memory,

hacking down

the evidence

and burning 

the green stalks;

the smoke will be 

seen for miles

ensuring an audience

for you to recount

what happened

and what happened

becomes the tale

you tell.



Ignore the housing materials;

pay attention to the statistics.

Whatever gets built

brute force knocks down

two out of three times.


This is enough

to keep yourself fed 

and something to remember 

when you lock the door 

before going to bed.



Blood, puberty,

sex, violence, 

it may be these

sometimes, but always

the family dies.

No matter what 

we do or have

in the basket, 

no matter who

happens to pass by

at the last minute.

Blame the wolves,

among us, famine,

viruses, poor vision,

or tell the story

so the mother

of your mother

survives this

particular ending

but we all know

where each path ends.

Burn everything

away; this remains

the bone of the story

on which we choke.



Telling Time

A tale, like a rock,

over the years,

becomes smooth

from constant rubbing;

edges and corners abrade 

until it seems no more

than a glossy ornament,

but hold it to your ear,

you can still hear

the ticking within.


Whatever gets polished

away, the violence

we do to one another

and ourselves – the cutting,

off of toes to try to fit

into a slipper, the dancing

to death in red hot shoes,

the pulling out of tongues –

this remains:  the clock

will strike midnight,

the crocodile is nearing,

the last petal falls.

Hurry, each story says,

you don’t have much time.



Joe Mills teaches at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he holds the endowed chair for the Susan Burress Wall Professorship for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities. He also is the poet-in residence at Salem College.



Q: How do fairy tales prepare children to understand their world–and their parents?

A: The crime writer Jim Thompson said that there were dozens of plots, but “there is only one story. Things are not what they seem.”  Every fairy tale deals with this, and readers learn about the world’s complexities. (This, by the way, is also why I think Disney often gets the tales wrong. In Disney films, you can judge by appearances. Scar is clearly evil; he has a scar. The step-sisters are “ugly” inside and out.) Dealing with these complexities requires resilience, resourcefulness, and the recognition that there is much outside of your control. It’s good for children and for parents to understand this.


Q: What is a fairy tale that you won’t read to your children, and why?

A: I’ve kept them away from Bluebeard although I know they’ll get to him eventually.  It’s less the tale than the telling that I’m careful about. Fairy tales deal with identity, so issues of race, gender, class, etc. are inevitably involved. Issues involved with adoption also come into play a great deal.


Q: If you found yourself lost in an unknown forest, what strategies would you use to save yourself/be saved/win the day?

A: Be careful who you talk to–no matter what they look like–and what you say to them. Again and again, fairy tales suggest a key strategy is to know when to keep your mouth shut. And be nice to the birds; they usually can help.