Mid-recitation, David Mills points at the audience and slices the air with the edge of his hand. He’s a martial artist of hand gestures. When he scrunches his mustache over the thump of a punch line connecting, he looks like a bald, half-Jamaican Groucho Marx. He almost dances out of his shoes as he shadowboxes in front of the podium in Chandler Recital Hall, the words of his poetry – a breathless play of Anglo-Saxon and Jamaican sounds – tumble out of his mouth like packed church vans careening off a cliff. His shirt is streaked with sweat.
Suddenly, his voice trails off on the end of a line. Mills looks at the ceiling and apologizes. “This never happens,” he says sheepishly, leafing through the papers at the podium to find the start of the next line.
“If you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of a little…” he flicks his scalp and makes a popping sound, and the audience laughs with him until he’s able to start again.
“I’m like James Brown,” he cracks, “The hardest working man in No Biz.” The energy Mills commands when he reads is as much a part of his poetry as the words themselves.
As Tim Seibles, his friend and moderator of the ODU Lit Fest, explains, “David maximizes the embodiment of reading.”
For his part, Mills denies that his training as an actor is an influence on his performance. “When I move as an actor, it’s always with purpose. The first thing they teach you in school is to control your arms when you act. It’s very rigid. When I’m reading, I can’t control it. It’s more of a seizure for me. A seizure of spirit.”
That spirit was born from two cultures. His most personal poems address his childhood as the son of a Jamaican national, and the duality of Mills’ Jamaican and American identity. The sound of his poetry pays tribute to that dual heritage, slipping from stanzas of New England prep school accents to Caribbean slang, Bob Marley’s “One Love,” and Eric Donaldson’s “Land of My Birth.” In the titular poem of his second book, The Sudden Country, Mills speaks of the bridge that poetry provides to his cultural identity: “No matter the mother / the tongue is always pink meat.”
“The intelligence of sound is what dominates the drive of a poem at the end of the day,” Mills concludes after the last poem of his reading, a selection from Tim Seibles’ book of poems,Hurdy-Gurdy. “It trumps the intelligence of meaning. Sound is the anchor.”