-The following first appeared in The Floyd Press newspaper on January 19, 2017.
Bill Spillman’s talent for writing poetry began in the 7th grade. He still remembers the first poem he wrote: The children came downstairs on Easter day. / They didn’t have a lot to say. / There lay the Easter baskets all nice and straight / and on each was a tag that read $2.98.
Today, Spillman – a retired director of Virginia Tech Applied Biosciences Center and associate professor of physics – has just released an e-book of poetry to benefit the Floyd County Humane Society (FCHS). Titled The View from Wills Ridge: Photographs and Poems from Floyd County, the book’s 25 poems are accompanied by Spillman’s photography, an interest that began when he was in the army and before he began graduate school.
Born in South Carolina, Spillman grew up as a “navy brat” and lived all over the east coast, from Nova Scotia to Key West and in-between. He and his wife Barbara moved to Floyd County from Vermont in 1999. Barbara is an active member and a past president of the FCHS.
“They work very hard,” Spillman said about the FCHS volunteers. In the book’s introduction, he writes, “The activities of the FCHS are really beyond admiration, including spay/neuter clinics, helping the owners of companion animals in need of assistance, finding homes for abandoned and stray animals, and the list goes on and on.”
Many of the poems and photographs in the book were inspired by the natural world and views from the couple’s Wills Ridge homestead. Some are memorial tributes to past stray cats (some feral) that the couple has taken in. Others reflect touches of the humor that was evident in Spillman’s seventh grade poem. In a poem about aging, the now 70-year-old writes: You go slower and slower until it hardly seems / that it’s worth the effort. / Everything you see is going the other way, / and fairly excited about it.
Spillman began writing stream-of-consciousness poetry as a form of diary writing. In 1990 he began a self-study, learning about the craft of poetry and poetry form. “I write lots of sonnets because there’s struggle of form against content, and it forces you to be better,” he said.
Spillman has had over 30 poems published in a variety of literary magazines, including The Lyric. Originally based in Blacksburg, The Lyric is the oldest continuously published literary magazine for traditional poetry in the North America. It’s so old (founded in 1921) that the journal published Emily Dickinson’s poems in the early years of publication.
“I don’t get writer’s block,” Spillman said. “I use a theory called stochastic,” which refers to things happening in a random manner and a bell curve of probability. “I figured if I wrote enough poetry, statistically, most of it would be average, some would be terrible, a small amount would be good and a smaller amount would be better. So I just write and write and write, all the time.”
“And I did have more than 400 poems published in the Museletter,” Spillman added, referring to a local publication that was typed, copied and mailed to subscribers for nearly three decades. A poem titled “Farewell to the Museletter in Blank Verse” pays tribute to the homespun newsletter, which fostered a local community of poets and included a bulletin board, letters and commentaries, until it ceased publication in 2014.
The View from Wills Ridge begins and ends with poems set in the Café del Sol, a favorite downtown hangout that was located where Dogtown Roadhouse is now. Seasons, mountains, a wild heart, a Civil War site and the solstice moon are all topics that Spillman has set to verse. In “Down the Mountain,” Spillman writes, Air’s breath sings opera along rising atonal scales … and … The Braille of underbrush that marks my touch / means I must now be moving below the tree line…..
A poem about a Japanese-style torii gate that Spillman designed and had built on his property, reads like instructions for preparing a tea ceremony: First, it is constructed but not painted. / A year is allowed / for spirits to weather it, / then primer and paint to finish. / Now it stands / red orange against the forest / between our house and the wild. / Slow thoughts / take form and movement, / celebrating with invisible dance…
The torii gate, which holds a bell, is a tradition is from Japan, a country that the Spillmans have visited twice. “The idea is that it’s a gateway to the spirits of the ridge, and it welcomes them to our place,” Spillman said. He encourages people to visit the FCHS webpage (floydhumanesociety.org), make a donation of $10 or more for a download of the book.
Post note: Bill is also a musician and songwriter. He’s pictured above enjoying a cup of tea at the Black Water Loft in Floyd. When asked what inspires him, he said, “Wildlife gets my attention. You can’t look at the world and not be moved.”