“Bringing the Poem Back to the Actual”: An Interview with David J. Daniels


David J. Daniels writes poems that sneak up on you. Smart and worldly, emotional and funny, they convey a sense of life-as-it’s-lived: culture both high and low, our strivings and failings, the countless ways we let each other down and hold each other up. Because of the immediacy of voice and freshness of language, you might not realize at first that his poems also often rhyme and come to life in sophisticated formal structures. David’s first book, Clean, received the Four Way Books Intro Prize and was recently named a finalist for the 2015 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He is also the author of two chapbooks, Breakfast in the Suburbs and Indecency, both from Seven Kitchens Press. He teaches at the University of Denver.

Matthew Thorburn: Two poems in Clean have postscripts – “Public Indecency” is followed by “The Casserole: a Postscript” and “Letter to Curtis, Dead at Twenty-Four” is followed by “Postscript to Curtis.” I love the idea of a poem having a sequel. Could you talk about how these poems came to be? Did you finish a poem and then feel there really was more to say?

David J. Daniels: Thom Gunn has two adjacent poems in his collection Boss Cupid, “In the Post Office” and “Postscript: The Panel.” The first is an elegy, delivered in second person to the dead, and the second begins fairly directly in prose form: “Reciprocation from the dead. Having finished the post office poem, I decide to take a look at the stained-glass panel it refers to, which Charlie made I would say two years before he died.” There’s a lot I’ve learned from Thom Gunn – his attention to rhyme and syllabics, his mix of high and low dictions, his use of asides – and these poems have lingered with me, the latter providing a commentary and new mode of interior inquiry into the former. I love that!

A few days after I finished “Public Indecency,” I felt that the wife in that poem had been mistreated, overlooked, perhaps cruelly neglected, and I felt compelled to right the situation. “The Casserole,” I hope, provides a correction to the former poem, in an act of empathy toward her, and also another way of investigating the delicacies of desire and illegality that “Public Indecency” examines.

The “Postscript to Curtis,” short as it is, serves as an inside joke between the speaker and the dead one, and perhaps, too, as a kind of deprecating commentary on the former poem’s sometimes highfalutin, elegiac stance.

MT: You have a wonderful way of bringing together musical, inventive rhymes and formal structures with vivid, conversational language and narrative. This makes me think of Philip Larkin, who makes a cameo in “Danny Starr: a Lament,” as well as Paul Muldoon. Would you talk about how rhyme and narrative and formal considerations and colloquial language all come together for you?

DJD: Thank you, Matt! Muldoon and Larkin are two of my favorites, for the reasons you point out. For me, almost always, formal considerations come first, way before any sense of narrative. Even if it’s simply a matter of counting out syllables on my fingers or generating rhymes, I find pleasure in those calculations, sort of like working out a puzzle. In terms of colloquial phrasing, which other readers have picked up on, I think I do that to undercut the more earnest moments in my poems. To say, well, sure, David, you’re sad that so-and-so is dead, and you’re really laying that grief on thick, just don’t forget that the guy was a jerk, too, or sometimes catty. A way to bring the poem back to the actual, I guess, linguistically and discursively.

MT: I’m always curious how poets find that larger shape that makes a group of poems a book. I think each of us does it a little differently. How did you decide on the order of the poems in Clean?

D.A. Powell, after he selected the book for the Intro Prize, sent me four or five pages of notes and suggestions for revision. So extensive were his notes that I wondered if he’d chosen the wrong book, in fact, although now I realize he’s just an incredibly kind, careful reader. He insisted that the book begin with “Public Indecency” and “The Casserole,” which had been fairly buried in the manuscript, and he encouraged me to end with “To an Old Queen Getting Dressed.” There were also three sections to the manuscript, which he helped me reshape as two. In the original version, I’d worked fairly chronologically, from childhood poems to adult poems, and he suggested the book would be stronger if it located echoes and unexpected contrasts, lyrically and formally, between poems. To chop the linear progression in favor of musicality, tensions, and so forth. He was right.

MT: What are you working on now? What’s next for you?

DJD: Two manuscripts, although they’re loosely connected – the one might be a chapbook for the other. Gossip, which lifts quoted material in centos fashion; and a longer collection Queen Down, which I shouted out on a dance floor once after breaking my heel during a line dancing lesson. We were dancing to “Footloose,” and when I went to the hospital the next morning – having sobered up – I told my physician that I think I broke my foot in the gayest way possible. She replied, We’ll see about that!

MT: And lastly: what are you reading—or what have you read recently—that moved you?

DJD: The list is too long always, but within eyesight as I type this, on my shelf or in my backpack, are: Amiri Baraka’s Black Fire, the Black Arts anthology; Jeffrey Pethybridge’s Striven, the Bright Treatise, a wonderfully architectural and chilling elegy for his brother; Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel; Keetje Kuipers’s The Keys to the Jail; the selected Cavafy; and Crystal Williams’s Detroit as Barn.

Read a couple of poems from Clean here and here.

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