Milton Bates’ piece “Tragedy at Presque Isle” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2017 issue, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
Though I’ve lived on both coasts and briefly in the South, I grew up in Wisconsin and spent most of my working life there. On retiring, I moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where I’ve joined a lively community of writers who both challenge and encourage me.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
In a word, water. I live on Lake Superior and enjoy kayaking and fishing in the lake. Not surprisingly, the Great Lakes and the rivers of the upper Midwest figure prominently in my writing, including both of the poems I’ve published in Midwestern Gothic.
How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?
After publishing several academic books, I asked myself what subject I knew well enough to address in a more creative way. The result was The Bark River Chronicles: Stories from a Wisconsin Watershed (2012), which distills three decades of exploring a single river with my family and learning as much as possible about its natural and human history. That book was my bridge to poetry, the genre in which I’ve apprenticed for the last half-dozen years.
Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
There are two kinds of writer’s block. The first is when you don’t know what to write about; the second is when you’ve found a subject but can’t get started. I cope with the second kind by putting words on the page or computer screen until I understand where I should begin and how I should structure the piece.
The first kind of writer’s block is more challenging. Sometimes the answer is immersion, going more deeply into a potential subject until I discover why it’s worth writing about. Other times the answer is escape—through travel, let’s say, or wide reading. Both strategies may be simply ways to distract the conscious mind while the unconscious goes about its work.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
As a compulsive reviser, I rarely reach a point where I feel a piece can’t be improved with further revision. But it occasionally happens, and I’m grateful for those moments when a poem or a prose passage seems absolutely right and inevitable. (This isn’t one of those moments.)
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
My favorite is William Faulkner, whose best fiction is at once deeply tragic and delightfully comic. Add to that his command of a regional idiom and his willingness to address the big issues—racism, for example, and the devastation of the natural landscape—and you have a writer who inspires me even though I don’t plan to write a novel.
What’s next for you?
When I find a publisher for my current poetry collection, I will move on to the next chapbook or collection. And then the next.
Where can we find more information about you?