Jim Daniels’ next book of poems, Rowing Inland, will be published by Wayne State University Press in 2017. Other recent collections include Apology to the Moon published by BatCat Press, Birth Marks, BOA Editions, and Eight Mile High, stories, Michigan State University Press. He is also the writer/producer of a number of short films, including The End of Blessings, currently making the rounds of film festivals. Born in Detroit, Daniels is the Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
Your latest collection of poems, Apology to the Moon (2015), came out last year. The hardcover is a hand-bound edition put out by Bat Cat Press, a group of high school students operating out of Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, Pennsylvania. It is a gorgeous book and reminds me of the excitement of holding a record or an album — that sort of wonderful tactile feeling we miss these days when we download songs or read the Internet as opposed to purchasing physical books. The physical object makes one more aware of the labor and process that went into the work: that an idea has gone from inspiration, to drafts, to a raw material that can age alongside the reader’s own experiences. (And be lent and passed on to friends!) Reading online or downloading a song — the work is still there, of course, but the process feels more obscured. So, what a delight to crack open this lovely book with its cover punched through with holes representing the constellation of Hercules. When you wrote the poems, did you think of them as a book? And how does Hercules fit into the concept of the collection as a whole?
It’s the most beautiful production of all of my books, and it was done by high school students — I was truly astonished when I first saw and held the completed book. I’m hopeful that this is a good sign for the future of the book as an object rather than a computer file. When I wrote the poems, I didn’t think of them as a whole. In fact, in the spirit of BatCat and the learning environment for the students, I sent them a whole bunch of poems and different groups of students came up with different ways of ordering them, which was very useful. I didn’t even know the punched holes were in the shape of constellations until they told me, so Hercules was their idea. Here’s their explanation: “As a demigod who had to face many hardships, or trials, he was a perfect choice to represent the man inside the book. On the back cover you’ll find the Hydra constellation, the creature Hercules defeated in his second labor.”
This new collection opens with the poem “Apology to the Moon” and ends with the poem “Audience with the Moon.” How is the book situated? Would you prefer a reader to wade through from page one to 36 consecutively, as one would a novel, or is it just as well to open randomly to any page and go from there?
I’ve been thinking about the moon a lot lately as the “Moon Poetry Curator” for the Moon Arts Project. That’s the favorite title I’ve ever had. My job was to find poems about the moon to send to the moon — fascinating, really, since the moon, from the human perspective, has always been up there, essentially unchanged, and has been thought about, sung about, written about, etc. for a long time. The moon hasn’t changed, but we’ve changed, so the poetry is a fascinating reflection of our culture(s). Once I got started, I realized how often I’d written about the moon myself, and so framing the collection with a couple of moon poems felt right to me.
Working with the students, quite a bit of thought went into the sequencing, so I guess I’d prefer that a reader go from beginning to end, but I do hope you could just dig in anywhere and get something out of it.
We recently featured your poem “Last Night I Drove My Son Home” on The Writer’s Almanac. Can you talk a little bit about that poem?
That poem is very close to my heart. When I first started writing poems, I wrote a lot about my relationship with my father, but when I became a father, I started writing in both directions — about being a son and a father both, and trying to negotiate that territory. Though I knew, intellectually, that teenagers naturally pull apart in various ways from their parents (as I did) to begin to establish what will become their adult selves, I was not emotionally prepared, and it hit me pretty hard. For me, the poem is about a fleeting moment of connection between us in the car — unspoken, but something happened to us both when we witnessed this guy in pain being comforted. Sometimes humming is enough — or maybe, in those years, humming was the best we could do to communicate with each other. We had some strained years there for a while, but he’s a great kid — young adult now.
Detroit. Everyone that interviews you must ask about your connection to Detroit. You paraphrased Richard Price once, saying that Detroit is the “ZIP code of my heart.” It’s obviously informed your writing over the years. You grew up in a white, working-class neighborhood on the edge of Detroit, and now live in Pittsburgh, where you’ve taught at Carnegie Mellon University for many years. Almanac interviewed Marge Piercy, another Detroit native, not too long ago, and she said: “The thing about Detroit was that even in poor and working-class neighborhoods, there were lots of gorgeous trees. We had huge elms in front of our asbestos shack and behind it. And the sandy soil is very fertile. You don’t have barren land in Detroit. If a house burns down, as they so frequently do, the lot fills up almost at once with lush growth.” I thought that was interesting because it is exactly the opposite of how non-natives imagine the urban landscape there. What particular images and impressions of your hometown stay with you? Haunt you? What continues to keep you emotionally connected to this place even as it is not a place you have spent many of your adult years?
That’s funny — maybe our house was cursed or something, but my father planted a number of trees in the front yard, in the same location all the neighbors had trees, but they all died. We had a streetlight in our front yard, which was in many ways better than a tree. We congregated under it at night — it was like our bonfire.
Everyone has their own version of Detroit, so I always tell people, this is just my version — I don’t want anyone to think I’m an authority on the place — as you point out, I haven’t lived there in a long time. I do go back frequently because much of my family and most of my oldest, best friends still live there, and that certainly keeps me emotionally connected. I’ve never been good at letting go of things — I just try and carry them all with me — so I suppose I have an inclination to not want to let go, though I also think the place won’t let go of its hold on me either.
A lot of hauntings, for sure. Two in particular that I continue to write about. My next book, Rowing Inland (Wayne State University Press, 2017), contains poems about both of these hauntings. The first girl I ever really kissed died in a fire down the street when I was in eighth grade, and that’s like a permanent sliver in my heart. The other haunting is that my father had a brother and sister that both died when he was young, and my grandparents — and my father — never mentioned them, the grief was so profound, so I didn’t know they even existed until I was in college. And then that explained nearly everything about my grandparents and father that I hadn’t understood.
In terms of images, it’s often the landscape that I think of — the long rows of identical houses and how they reflected our assembly-line culture and community, yet how every house, if you looked closely enough, was distinct. As a writer, I feel like it’s been part of my job to look closely and point out those distinctions to readers who tend to stereotype and generalize about working-class communities.
You took a course in graduate school at Bowling Green taught by James Baldwin. What were his classes like?
Taking a course from Baldwin was, in retrospect, a turning point for me as a writer, since he ultimately forced me to closely examine my own background in terms of race — that’s why I dedicated my first poem that dealt honestly with that issue, “Time/Temperature,” which focuses on the 1968 Detroit riots, to him — the longest poem I’d written to date, since I’d repressed so much.
Class met in a bare apartment that I think the university rented for him — I remember it as having no furniture at all, but it must have had some. We sat on the floor, and Jimmy would tell stories, challenge us to tell our own stories. He was a short, slight man, but he had a presence, that’s for sure. He had those big eyes, and when you said something he disagreed with, he would seem to open them even further and give you this look. He was whip-smart and quick and passionate and also maybe a bit weary at times of our ignorance. One of the most charismatic individuals I ever met.
We read Huck Finn and Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart — you might imagine the discussions we had. The Jeffersons were on TV, and I remember him railing against them.
And you’ve taught writing for over 30 years now. What books do you recommend to your students? What advice do you give them?
I think what’s served me well over the years is a kind of dogged perseverance — I always feel like there are better writers out there than me, but that no one is going to outwork me. I try and instill that work ethic in my students through my example, and through demanding a lot of them in turn. Particularly as poets, there are plenty of challenges out there that make us think about giving up, but we have to believe there is a place for poetry in our culture, and a place for us in the culture of poetry — which connects, for me, to this issue of clarity below.
Learning to become a teacher continues to be an evolving process — I never dreamed I would take to it as I have, given my introverted personality and my years of speech therapy as a youngster. What I try to do is help my students find writers who speak to them and that they can learn from. When I read a good book, it makes me want to write. But my books might not be the books that do it for my students, so I have to try and figure out what writers might generate that enthusiasm and energy for them as writers.
Is poetry a spontaneous or premeditated process for you, or somewhere in between? Do you get up in the middle of the night and have to jot an idea on a Post-it note?
I definitely get up in the middle of the night, as my wife will attest, having been woken by my midnight stirrings. She bought me this contraption that holds three-by-five notecards, and when you pull out the special pen (it writes while upside down), a little light comes on to illuminate the notecard, but I’m afraid I still manage to wake her up now and then. I also always have those notecards in my back pocket because I get these flashes while running around during the day that I want to capture to reflect on later.
Your poems are clear. The images are straightforward, coherent, sharp, and expertly rendered. One does not have to be a scholar of poetry to understand them, thank goodness, and they do not make a reader feel dumb for not catching an obscure reference or get lost in elaborate word gymnastics. That is not to say they are simple or uncomplicated. How do you feel about language in poems? What is important to you as a craftsman? Do you have an audience in mind when you write?
This is such an important issue for me. I came to poetry for — this is going to sound hokey I suppose — spiritual nourishment, emotional sustenance. And when I read and write poetry now, that’s still what I’m searching for. I try to read widely and take what I can from all styles of poetry, but the stuff that sticks with me is the stuff that gets me below the neck as well as above the neck. I too have often felt “dumb” when reading poetry, but I no longer take that as a sign of inadequacy on my part as a reader, or maybe I just feel okay with being seen as inadequate — life’s too short. The poetry audience is too small — why would you want to make it even smaller?
I spend a lot of time on revision — I think a lot about voice, rhythm, compression, line breaks. A lot of my poems are narrative, and since I write short stories and screenplays too, I am very conscious of taking advantage of the genre in telling the stories. If a narrative poem isn’t tight, doesn’t sing, then why not just make it a short story?
I think my natural voice is direct, straightforward, and I think this might be a little bit of Detroit coming through. For example, working on an assembly line, subtlety and indirectness are not effective means of communication. Clarity and precision are key.
I don’t have an audience in mind, though I am often thrilled when I find a way to get my poems out there beyond the typical poetry audience. When this guy put my poem “Factory Love” on the roof of his race car — that was a real thrill.
I think one of the reasons I also write fiction and do these little films is because a lot of people are more likely to read fiction or see a movie than pick up a book of poems. Obviously I do want the people I write about to be able to understand my poems. I want an audience. It’s hard to get the poems into the hands of the people I write about. That’s one of the things that’s so great about The Writer’s Almanac — anyone can be randomly turning the radio dial and stumble onto Garrison Keillor reading one of my poems. How great is that?
You were recently on A Prairie Home Companion. Did you enjoy the experience? Do you like to hear your poems read aloud by others, or do you prefer to read them yourself?
Being on A Prairie Home Companion was one of the highlights of my life. Reading my poems in my hometown in a packed Fox Theatre where as a seven-year-old I saw my first movie was an incredible experience — the largest audience I’ve ever read in front of (plus everyone listening on the radio!). I was very nervous — I idle pretty high to begin with — but everyone involved with the show, from Garrison Keillor to the sound guy, was incredibly kind and helped me get through it without any major gaffes. Also, I heard from people all over the country in the next few days, complete strangers and some old friends I’d lost touch with.
I am always interested and pleased when anyone else takes the time to read a poem of mine aloud, and hearing it in someone else’s voice is useful in terms of what’s coming across tonally versus how I might read it. Sometimes I notice things that I miss when I read it myself. Though I do squirm a bit — it’s like when I’m sitting in the audience when one of my little films is being screened. Things are out of my control, and I’m a spectator to my own words and it’s too late to change anything. At least in a dark movie theater, no one can see me squirm.
What have you been working on lately?
It’s been an exciting time for me lately, with some projects coming to fruition (they don’t all come to fruition …). I’ve got a new book of poems coming out next spring, Rowing Inland, from Wayne State University Press. My most recent short film, The End of Blessings, based on a poem of the same name, is finished and making the rounds of film festivals now. In addition, the photographer Charlee Brodsky and I just had a gallery show of our collaborative work (her photos, my poems) at the Robert Morris University Art Gallery. As always, I continue to work on new short stories and poems, hoping they will amount to something.
Interview by Joy Biles