Interview with Jim Daniels

jim danielsJim Daniels is the author of fourteen collections of poetry, four collections of fiction, and three produced screenplays. He has received the Brittingham Prize for Poetry, the Tillie Olsen Prize, the Blue Lynx Poetry Prize, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and two from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. His poems have appeared in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Poetry anthologies, and his poem “Factory Love” is displayed on the roof of a racecar. At Carnegie Mellon University, he is the Thomas Stockham Baker Professor of English. A native of Detroit, Daniels lives with his family in Pittsburgh, near the boyhood homes of Andy Warhol and Dan Marino. His latest collection of poetry, Birth Marks, was released by BOA Editions this year.

Gulf Stream Poetry Editor, Marci Calabretta corresponded with Daniels via email about his new book, Birth Marks, his obsessions and rituals, and his roles as father, writer, and professor.

The Laying on of Hands
Their bodies touch, casual in the classroom,
fingers brushing thighs under cluttered desks.
Go home and fuck, I’d tell them

if I was high or not in charge. Lust oozes above
my low bark stripping somebody’s words naked.
Their bodies touch in the casual classroom

of nodding heads half-detached, glazing out
into the gray February blah blah blah.
Go home and fuck! I’d tell them

if we were friends. A statue of our founder imposes itself
above dirty snow like twisted black coal, an effigy of me.
Their caustic bodies touch in the classroom. They know

each other. Everything. The floor burns beneath them.
My notes erupt in flames. I taste the ash.
Go home. Fuck you! I’d like to tell them.

It’s not on the syllabus. I’m talking about character today.
Punctuation leads me astray. The boy the girl the ink bleeds.
Their bodies touch. Causality in the classroom.
Go home. Fuck, what can I tell them?
Jim Daniels, “The Laying on of Hands” from Birth Marks. Copyright© 2013 by Jim Daniels. Reprinted by permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.
Source: Birth Marks (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2013)

MC: The poems in your latest collection, Birth Marks, take some fascinating risks with the role of professor. For example, “The Laying on of Hands” is a villanelle that grapples with the notion of teaching from a strange and refreshing angle.

JD: I’ve always been interested in writing about work—the links between who we are and what we do for a living, how work can shape who we are. My first real poem was about working in this party store when I was in high school. I feel that in some way I’m catching up in terms of writing about teaching, considering how long I’ve been doing it. The book before this, Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry, had a section of “Tenured Guy” poems, and as you point out, this one has a number of teaching poems as well.

MC: Because many of the poems in Birth Marks reference your students, do your students read your work?

JD: To be honest, no, most of them don’t. They’re undergraduates who often have not read much—not enough, I would argue. They see me more as a teacher than a writer, and I like that. I have to prove it in the classroom—I can’t get by on what I’ve written and published. It’s about the students and their work. “The Laying on of Hands” tries to deal with this odd, but necessary distance you have to keep between yourself and your students, which sometimes involves pretending not to notice things….

MC: “The Laying on of Hands” is one of few formal poems you include in your full collections.

JD: I don’t write a lot of formal poems, but there’s something about the villanelle that attracts me. The obsessiveness of it, I think. Of course, I always cheat on the forms, though.

MC: Place is such an important part of your work, whether it is Detroit or Pittsburgh or some specific neighborhood corner. How conscious is setting when you write?

JD: As a reader, I like to know where I’m at—whether it’s a poem or story, I want to be able to put my feet down on the ground somewhere. How can a reader look around and take in the writer’s world if they’re in free fall, busy trying to find something to grab onto? It’s hard to pull readers into something that’s a blur. In first drafts, I’m pretty much unconscious of everything, but in revision, I do often ask myself if readers will know where they’re at. I also look at whether I can zoom in more and sharpen up that sense of place in more detail. There are plenty of writers I admire who don’t pay so much attention to place, but to me—and maybe it has something to do with coming from large, industrial cities—often the tension is the poem is with the place—city life is full of surprises, uncertainties. You can cross over one block, and suddenly you are at risk in some way. An awareness of where you are is crucial.

MC: You teach a few of Jonathan Holden’s ideas to your students, including his philosophy on creating poetry. What do you think about his idea that the “emotional urgency which energizes a poem of any value” should drive the creation of a piece?

JD: I copy a longer version of that quote and give it to my students at the beginning of every workshop. When you have to turn in something every week, there might be a temptation to mail it in, but if you don’t care about what you’ve written, it’s going to be damn hard to revise “emotional urgency” into a poem in future drafts. For me, life’s too short. I don’t want to spend my time trying to solve word puzzles or deal with deliberate coyness in poetry. I didn’t see much coyness growing up, so I guess I never learned to appreciate it. I read more with my heart than with my head. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate experimental, challenging work, but it has to earn my attention and offer me some kind of payoff. Some writer said there’s nothing wrong with experimental poetry as long as the reader is in on the experiment. I can’t remember who said it, but that seems about right to me.

MC: Li-Young Lee once said that, “once a word or image or line has started to generate itself as the poem, it eliminates […] the other 999 or 9,999 poems that might have been produced.” What are some poems or stories that got away?

JD: Li-Young Lee is a wise man. I don’t feel like any have gotten away. The potential is still there in the boxes of notes, busted poems, files full of lines cut out of poems, but saved. I tend to be relentless and not concede anything.

MC: Do you have any writing rituals?

JD: Yes, but if I tell you about them, then they won’t work anymore.

MC: “Riding the Bench” is such a visceral sports poem. Can you talk about sports being such a huge part of your work?

JD: I’ve always loved sports, though, as you can tell from that poem, I was never particularly talented at it, nor did I have the killer instinct necessary to succeed as an athlete. I still play slow-pitch softball every summer, and I like the camaraderie of being on a team more than anything else (as writers, we spend a lot of time by ourselves). In general, sports were such a big part of my childhood, that it inevitably comes up in the writing. As kids, we were pretty much left alone, so we had to sort things out among ourselves. Our games were usually played without coaches, umpires, referees, or meddling parents, and so there was a purity to them that I end up returning to as a writer.

MC: What are some of your current obsessions? What do you make of them?

JD: I think most of my obsessions are long term: city life in all of its complexities, work, faith, music, sports, family—nothing particularly original there, I’m afraid. It may have seemed flippant when I said I try to be unconscious in first drafts, but it’s true—I guess I’m saying that I try not to make too much of the obsessions. It’s only when I’m putting a book together that I notice them.

MC: After having published so many books, what advice would you offer when laying out a book?

JD: First, I caution against anyone taking my advice about anything, having so often been wrong about so many things. Once I have whittled the poems down to a manageable semi-book-like number, I put them into piles on my dining room table, or on the ping pong table in my basement. Poems that are on similar subjects or explore similar themes get stacked together. Sometimes, it’s surprising how many poems I have on a certain subject, because as I write them individually, I’m not always conscious of what my obsessions are. Then, I spread out all the poems in each group, then, eliminate poems that seem too similar—either in subject or approach (this can be where certain tics can emerge)—so I cut what I think are the weaker poems or ones that just don’t seem to fit the voice or mood I see emerging. Then, I think about the order of the sections. Think about first and last poems in the book, and first and last poems in each section. I think about movement through the sections, poems that might gain something from being next to each other. Then, I find all the files on my computer and put them in a manuscript, and print it up again. I revise poems, even though on some level I thought they were already done. Typically, I do the first culling just by choosing from poems that have been published in journals. I think it’s important not to think about other books or what kinds of poems seem to be the “latest thing.” Just think about you and your work and what you want to say and how you want to present that to the world. Be hard on yourself, because few editors are going to work with you on a manuscript. They’re either going to say yes or no.

MC: Your wife is the poet Kristin Kovacic, correct? Do you share work with each other in its early stages? Can you describe what it’s like to live with another poet?

JD: Actually, we don’t share work in the early stages. It’s only when we’re ready to try to publish something that we do more sharing. Kristin is a great reader for me—she’s tough on me, which is what I need. We share more about what we’re reading than what we’re writing, I think. Always a lot of books around the house.

MC: What are some books you kept close by when writing the poems in Birth Marks?

JD: The poems in Birth Marks were written over many years, so there were no specific books that I connect to that collection. I’ve accumulated a lot of poems over the years that have been published in journals, but not in books, so the gathering process involves going through those poems and seeing threads that I want to pursue. I felt when I put this book together, I could have gone softer or with more of an edge, and I decided to go with the edge.

MC: Can you explain what you mean by “more of an edge?”

JD: Grittier. Harsher, more politically charged, perhaps. Something like the long poem, “Foundation,” for example, might be seen as pretty grim. Or, maybe this explains it: section four of the book starts with a poem called “Love Poem with Pesticide.” I could’ve gone with the love poems without the pesticide, but I went with a little dash of the toxic.

MC: I love that. Redefining poetry as something that doesn’t always have to be flowery. Do your children read your work? What do they think of it?

JD: The kids—well, they’re both in college now, so they’re not kids anymore—have all of my books. I gave them everything for Christmas a couple of years ago. Not sure they’ve read any of them, and that’s okay. The books are there if they want to read them.

MC: Do you think your family ever gets to see you objectively as Jim Daniels, the writer? Because you are such a family man, do you find it difficult at times to shift from your professional author’s persona to your more personal roles?

JD: I don’t think my family thinks much about being a writer most of the time. When I’m with my family, we don’t talk about our work much. I don’t ask my brother at Chrysler about his job, and he doesn’t ask about mine, for example. When the books come out, they might comment, but in general, I never feel like being a writer is part of what I am with them. The guy on the page—I just let him loose. I’m often surprised myself by the persona that emerges. He’s obviously in me somewhere, but I feel completely unrestrained on the page, when in my daily life, I often feel constrained and self-conscious. That’s one of the addicting things about writing—the release!

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