Jim Daniels’ new book, Birth Marks, was published by BOA Editions in 2013. Other books published in 2011 include Trigger Man: More Tales of the Motor City, Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry, and All of the Above. In 2010, he wrote and produced the independent film "Mr. Pleasant,” which appeared in many film festivals across the country. He also published From Milltown to Malltown, a collaboration with photographer Charlee Brodsky. His poem "Factory Love" is displayed on the roof of a race car. A native of Detroit, Daniels teaches at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Superstition Review student editors Sheila Johnson and Cassie Tolman conducted this online interview with author Jim Daniels.
Superstition Review: You grew up in Detroit and worked several jobs before going to college. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Jim Daniels: I decided to be a writer after the encouragement of a couple of my high school teachers. I had been saving up to buy a car the dream of most guys from around Detroit back then but when I decided I wanted to be a writer, I knew I had to go to college to accomplish that, so my whole attitude changed. I had been a closet writer. I had gone to remedial speech class through eighth grade, so I had developed the habit of writing things down instead of saying them aloud, and it became a habit, a secret addiction. I had never thought it would be possible for me to be a "real" writer. My history teacher saw something in a piece I wrote for his class and encouraged me to write on my own and show it to him. He recommended books for me to read. He took what I was doing seriously, and eventually took me over to an English teacher who told me I was writing poetry. I didn't like poetry, so I wasn't too crazy about that, but I'll touch on that later.
SR: When you were younger, you worked in the factory with your father and some of your neighbors. In another interview you mention that this experience helped you to gain insight into the way work can shape a person's character. How did working in a factory and having a father who worked in a factory shape your character?
JD: Well, one way it shaped me relates to the next question I think. I am a very disciplined writer. It's my work. It's what I do. I work hard at it and write a lot because I believe I was instilled with this sense of hard work being what you did. No slacking off, no whining. I think it also affected my writing style, which is pretty direct. In that world, people said what they meant. Blunt, direct, but honest, and those are qualities I hope some of my writing has.
SR: You are an extremely prolific writer, have two children, and hold down a demanding job. Do you see any correlations between the physical and mechanical labor of the factory and the labor of writing?
JD: On the surface, they probably don't seem to have much in common. In the factory, you couldn't wander away from the assembly line; the machines would keep kicking out parts, and it'd be a disaster. As writers, we have no such compelling external reason for keeping us at the desk, or wherever we write. In fact, it seems like we're often looking for excuses to get away from that hard work of creation. I think if writer's chairs had seat belts that kept us in place, we all might be a bit more productive. I think I am usually able to be stubborn enough to stay in that chair even when it seems like nothing's happening, or, on the other hand, too much is happening, and I'm getting too close to some emotional territory I'd prefer to avoid.
SR: Your poetry draws from your childhood experiences, but you have said that you think sometimes people get distracted by what really happened—how does memory function for you as a writer? How true do you stay to your memories, and how much do you let them expand in order to fit a poem?
JD: I think the older I get, the easier it gets, in a way, because what often fades away is exactly what happened, and what lingers is the emotion of what happened, so that frees me up to change the literal to create the emotional reality that is ultimately much more important. It varies from poem to poem; some, for example, do stick pretty close to what really happened, while others just use a real event as a trigger for something else, wandering further away from what happened and more into what could have happened. I certainly don't place any limits on how much memories can expand. Jack Gilbert has a poem called, very explicitly, "Poetry is a Kind of Lying," and that's exactly what it is I think. This process is pretty unconscious when I'm in the middle of a poem it's only later I can look back and think about memory in this way. I've got a poem called "Skywriting" which is all about the process of not really remembering what really happened.
SR: How has your writing affected your family and the community you grew up with? Does being a writer distance you from the working class?
JD: I doubt whether my writing has had any impact on the community a grew up with. I'm not sure of how many people in that community are even aware of my writing. Even my old friends, who know I'm a writer, really aren't that interested in actually reading my books. And I'm fine with that. I mean, I don't talk about the intricacies of running a bar with my friend who does that for a living.
In terms of my family, I'm not sure I can speak for them. I feel like they are proud of me. I have a photo of my father selling my first book of poems in the factory at an open house, and I treasure that photo as evidence of his approval and pride in my work as a writer. I've been teaching at Carnegie Mellon University for 27 years now, and certainly that creates a distance in my present life from the working class. I still write about work. I have a series of poems called "The Tenured Guy" poems that explore academia. My last film, "Dumpster," focuses on an encounter between a campus worker and a wealthy student he finds hiding in a Dumpster on campus, so in that film, I'm explicitly bringing those two worlds together and having them duke it out a little. I don't limit myself to work or class concerns in my work, but it's part of who I am, my consciousness and my heart, so it's always going to show up in one way or another, whether I'm writing about a Francis Bacon painting (my book Blue Jesus has a series of poems based on his paintings) or a James Brown song, "Please, Please, Please."
SR: Tell us about the first poem you ever wrote.
JD: Okay. Once my teacher convinced me I was writing "poetry", that freaked me out and I started writing things that sounded like some self-pitying bad rhyming dude from the eighteenth century. But, then I read Ferlinghetti's Coney Island of the Mind at some point, the first book I read by a living poet, and I said, wow, I can sound like myself and it's okay. Anyway, so I published two poems in my high school magazine. One went like "I who am about to die/I who weep but cannot cry/I am losing my mind, you say/perhaps I think it went astray." Etc. That's enough. That's too much. BUT, the other poem was my first real poem. It was called "Growing Up in a Party Store"—party stores in Michigan are these corner stores like a 7-11 that sell booze. I worked at one all through high school. In the poem, I juxtaposed the names of candy (we had a big candy counter for kids right next to the liquor counter) with the names of liquor. I was writing about something I knew and cared about. I was putting the reader in a specific place, and I was using juxtaposition, a key element of poetry, metaphor, etc. Not a great poem, but my first legit poem. And it was a work poem.
SR: Your work addresses violence through a variety of voices. In Now Showing, the first poem entitled "The Shelter of My Father's Coat" tells the story of a shooting that occurs across the street from the narrator's apartment. The short story "Islands" is told from the perspective of a man struggling with being a new father and a journalist in a run down neighborhood that has been overtaken by drugs. How do you deal with raising children in an increasingly violent society and how does fatherhood affect your writing?
JD: Man, that's tough. I'm sitting here looking out the window at that damn building as I write this. The building that shows up in both the story and in, actually, a number of poems. We have considered moving. We have not moved. We've worked with a group of neighbors to try and make it safer. It has not been easy, obviously. But we make our choices. We take our stands and fight against the forces damaging our society as best we can. We continue to struggle with raising our children here, so I can't say I have any answers.
SR: The poems in Blessing the House are much more introspective than some of your earlier persona poems. Why did you make this shift and what did you learn from it?
JD: Looking back on it, I became a father twice during the years between Blessing the House and the previous book, and I think that had a lot to do with becoming more introspective. Becoming a parent changes everything, and it led me away from persona and toward a more reflective voice. Or, maybe it was just the sleeplessness of those years, being up with the kids all the time (born in 1993 and 1995, Blessing the House came out in 1997) that put me in a different state of mind. So, it wasn't a conscious thing. Being a parent is the most humbling experience I've had, and perhaps the most humbling that exists. What I learned from that, or simply became more conscious of, as opposed to what I learned from the book exactly, is to put my own life into the larger perspective of the world around me. Not seeing the I of the poems quite so much at the center of it all, I hope, and becoming more aware of the complexities the everyday. My poems became longer in that book as I explored those complexities. I think.
SR: When you begin to write, do you have an idea of where your poem is headed, or does it come to you as you write? Can you describe your writing process?
JD: I have a big box full of scraps of paper, mostly 3x5 index cards now. I have those cards in my pocket, on my nightstand, so when an idea occurs, I can jot it down. These are triggers for what I hope might be poems. Often there's just a word or two on them. Enough to remind me of what I was seeing/hearing/thinking that MADE me want to write it down. When something hits me, I HAVE to write it down. I don't know why. The process of writing often involves pulling out a handful of those cards or scraps (sometimes I run out of cards or forget them or something) and seeing what pulls me in to expand and elaborate on those few words. The writing often involves trying to figure out why I wrote the phrase down in the first place. So, no, I don't have any idea where it's headed. I want to be surprised by where it takes me. So, I just run with the idea/image/whatever and write what typically is a long, rambling first draft, then print it up and put it in another box of poems that are now "in process." I let them cool like cupcakes in that box, then when they get nice and stale, I'm ready to come back to them and do another draft. And so on. No frosting allowed.
SR: What do you consider a successful poem?
JD: Hey, the poems I remember the most, the ones that stick with me, are the poems that affect me on an emotional level. They penetrate and linger. They take my head off and inhabit my body. I'm placed down in a world where my feet are on the ground and somebody's trying to tell me something that's important in a clear, concise way that packs the wallop of a good snowball. Ouch. Then the snow melts off of our faces, and we say, Wow, what was that? And we're awake!
SR: How would you describe your poetry? Do you see it as having a purpose?
JD: I think purpose is too close to agenda, and I don't set out with any agenda. Oh, I can look back and make stuff up, or see trends, see the subconscious revealed, see me coming back to certain places and subjects, but in the process, my only purpose is to tell the truth the best I can in a way that's accessible to readers. A hand reaching out hoping somebody grabs it. I think another poet said something like that, so I might be paraphrasing someone else there, but I think it's true.
SR: In an interview with Tim Ross in 1998, you described poetry in these terms: "emotional truth," "paying attention to the world" and you stated that, "I come to poetry to learn about life, to come to a deeper understanding of my own life and the world around me through somebody else's vision." Ten years later, have your views on poetry changed. Do these statements apply to your own work today?
JD: Yeah, I remember talking to Tim Ross. A really nice guy who drove all the way from Ohio just to talk to me. I don't think my views have changed much. That's what poetry does for me, and that's what guides what poetry I read and appreciate. I don't have much patience with these feuds within the small poetry community. Everybody should just write what they write and not mess with each other too much it just drains energy and passion away from the writing itself, which is what it's all about, not who gets what prize or who gets published where, or blah blah blah. Me, I'm still trying to figure things out, and that's enough to keep me busy.
SR: When you look back at your body of work, do you see a progression? Can you describe it? How do your two latest books In Line for the Exterminator and Revolt of the Crash-Test Dummies fit into this progression? How do they reflect who you are now and your current view of the world?
JD: Argh. That's a tough one. It's something I try not to think about too much. I prefer to just write the poems and have others who might care enough about the work to analyze it in this way. Obviously, I WANT to see a progression, as opposed to a regression. I'm still trying to experiment, "make it new"—and, as I said, I try to do that in part through experimenting with other genres, through writing a book (STREET) with a photographer (Charlee Brodsky), using her photos and my poems. Within the poems, though, I see the two latest books, though I distinguish them from each other below, as being more the poetry of a 51-year-old, which is what I am. So, I think there are obvious links in terms of some similar subject matter, but I think stylistically I've grown and maybe have more of a range there. I had a number of poems in a great issue of the Green Mountains Review recently under the theme of "American Apocalypse," so I guess my current view of the world (as reflected in the titles of both of the books) is pretty bleak. But I hope maybe there's some humor there. Dark humor sometimes, but maybe a few chuckles that hurt the gut a little.
SR: In your book In Line For The Exterminator, the poem by the same name portrays a dismal and dangerous urban scene. Could you talk about the significance of the title and why you chose it for the title of the book. How does this poem relate to the other poems in the book?
JD: The title comes from a ride at Kennywood Park, an old amusement park in Pittsburgh, but it seems like so many people are in line for the exterminator in terms of social class and the limitations placed on them, how society herds them toward the cliff. How hard it is to get off of that "ride," break out of the places we're put in based on economic and social restrictions, the myth of class mobility, what I dealt with in my first book, Places/Everyone. So, I guess it's something I'm obsessed with as a writer. Witnessing the gap between rich and poor continue to enlarge, seeing the middle class squeezed downward. I think much of the rest of the book also portrays a dismal and dangerous urban scene, so that title, and that poem, seemed to work well as an introduction to what's to come.
SR: In Revolt Of The Crash-Test Dummies, many of your poems are nostalgic remembrances of American life - family and friends. The poem "Revolt of the Crash Test Dummies" stands out in this collection as a poem with more political and social implications. Could you discuss your views on poetry in this context. Do you see your role as a poet as being a witness? A teacher? Again, could you talk about what inspired this title and how it represents this collection of poems.
JD: Well, I hope they're not too nostalgic. I don't want them to sound like I'm some old fogie talking about "the good old days" because those days weren't so good. That, of course, is for the reader to decide though. For me, a lot of the poems reflect political issues in this country. One of the things I've often felt is that the people I grew up with and care about the most don't show up in enough of our literature. I want to say, These lives are important. There is poetry in these lives.
SR: Why did you publish two books in the same year? How did you decide what poems went into what collection? How are the books different, and the same?
JD: It wasn't planned. It really wasn't a decision on my part. It's hard enough to get one book published, so I'm not going to say no to a publisher who wants to publish a book of mine. The vagaries of publishing for a mid-career poet like myself are such that I have no idea who might publish my next book. Someone, I hope, but there's no certainty. Some might say, what the hell are you doing publishing two books in one year. I know some poets create some arbitrary time thing and decide they're going to try and publish a book every five years or something. The fact is that I do write a lot, and when I get the chance to get something out there, I'm not going to wait. I have no illusions about my career. I'm not going to make fine distinctions between the merits of one publisher or another. If it's a university press, I'm going to be happy; there will be people at the press who know me and work with me closely, and they'll keep the book in print, and that's all I ask for, really. Revolt of the Crash-Test Dummies won the Blue Lynx Poetry Prize, and you can never predict when a book might win a prize and get published. So, that came out in the Spring '07. But I was also working on In Line for the Exterminator, what I saw as the third book in a trilogy of books that began with my first book, Places/Everyone and continued in my third book, M-80. Each book has a section of poems about a character named Digger, a fictional auto worker whose life I've been "following" in the Exterminator, he retires. Each of those three books also contains a number of poems dealing with urban life, urban violence, the difficult, complex world of city life and how hard work intersects with hard lives. I had worked with Wayne State University Press on my second book, Punching Out, so I went with them on this book because it's more of a Detroit book; it seemed appropriate to have it published in Detroit, and the Press has been good to me over the years. That book ended up coming out a bit faster than I had imagined; I thought it might be an '08 book, but it came out in Fall '07. I see Crash-Test Dummies as more of a "grown-up" book with a lot of poems about my family and life here in Pittsburgh, and the first section of the book I see as being less traditional, less narrative, more stream-of-conscious at times. The long poem, "Sizing the Ring" is what brought that manuscript together for me, because it combines religion, violence, and politics, elements that show up in the rest of the book. Maybe the books aren't as different as I imagine them to be, but I see the Exterminator book as having a narrower geographic landscape, stronger sense of place, than Crash-Test Dummies. I haven't mentioned religion, and issues of secular faith in this world, this life, and that's also been a major theme for me in many poems, and books.
SR: What direction do you see your work moving in in the future?
JD: Man, I wish I knew. I like doing poetry and fiction and films, and I hope I can continue to do all three. I just hope the work keeps moving in SOME direction in the future. The one thing I don't want to do is stagnate, to stop surprising myself and whoever might be reading my work.
SR: What advice would you give an emerging writer?
JD: I've never been good at advice, since I've screwed up so many things in my own life by not listening to advice. Even my own advice. My younger brother probably suffered greatly because of all my bad advice. BUT you have to stick with it. Keep doing it. Simple as that. I always tell myself that other writers are going to have more success than I am (however we define success in the small world of poetry) and, frankly, be better poets than I'll ever be, but that no one should ever be able of accusing me of not working hard at what I do. I've taken the attitude that through hard work and hustle, I can overcome a lot. Be stubborn. Use the sheer force of will to keep you going when there are various forces suggesting that your work isn't up to snuff, that you hang it up and find something more practical to do with your life. I know this sounds obvious or perhaps overly romantic, but I've seen so many talented writers give up that I think this advice is worth repeating.