David Koehn: Birth Marks. New from BOA. We’ll focus mostly on this, your latest book of poetry, but you have a wide body of work. And Birth Marks makes book number what?
Jim Daniels: I think 14 poetry books, and then the fiction and the chapbooks and other stuff. I actually just got some news this week. My fifth book of stories will be coming out next fall, 8 Mile High. They’re stories about being on the border of Detroit. They’re linked with overlapping characters, but definitely not a novel.
DK: No novel in your future?
JD: No. As a poet, writing stories seems like enough of a stretch in terms of length.
DK: Who’s publishing the book of short stories?
JD: Michigan State University Press. This will be my fourth book of stories with them. The first one was with Bottom Dog Press. I’m really comfortable with Michigan State, and at this point in my career, it’s just nice to be able to deal with people that I know already and they know me. And I know they’ll do a good job with it.
On the poetry side, BOA really came through for me at a point where I was looking for a new publisher again.
DK: They’re an amazing publisher. You must be pretty happy that they did pick the book up. I mean, it’s one of the best presses out there—across the entire industry for that matter.
JD: Yeah, I really love their list, the people they’ve published. It’s great to see Birth Marks listed with all those great BOA books.
DK: When you were putting together Birth Marks, talk through that process of figuring out how this book was going to come together. I’m also interested in how you think of this book in terms of the next piece, the next step, based on what you’ve done before. Or if you think about that at all. I don’t know.
JD: I just did my first reading from the book back in Detroit. My parents came, which is—they’re 85, and my mom’s health is not very good, so it’s kind of a—
DK: Big deal.
JD: Yeah. To be honest, I don’t think they’ll ever hear me read again.
When I was putting together the manuscript for Birth Marks, I was trying to figure out what tone I wanted. I’ve actually written a lot of poems about my kids, but very few of those poems have shown up in books. And so I had the option of going with a kind of softer manuscript, and my wife Kristin said, why don’t you just go out and make this a tougher book, and focus on that. Give it more of an edge. So that’s what I went for overall. I guess I was feeling a little frustrated with what was going on politically in the country.
DK: When you say the political climate. What in particular had your attention? Because it could be anything, right?
JD: For me, maybe the biggest thing is the disappearing middle class, and the greater disparity between the super rich and what’s becoming a larger and larger lower class. And I guess just the sense of greed that drives a lot of things that happen in this country. I was getting discouraged about that—well, I still am. And certainly back in Detroit, all this gets magnified. People—my family and friends—have suffered. Detroit seems to be in the news all the time these days—usually, for its problems. Detroit’s been in trouble for a long time in various ways.
I’ve been loosely alternating books that are more focused on Detroit, and books that are doing other things. So, Blue Jesus had all these weird ekphrastic poems about Francis Bacon paintings. And then the next book, Night with Drive-By Shooting Stars, was kind of a Detroit book, and then In Line for the Exterminator and Revolt of the Crash Test Dummies came out close together. In Line for the Exterminator was a Detroit book, Revolt of the Crash Test Dummies moves around a lot more. There were some Detroit poems, but it wasn’t so clearly focused.
And then Capital P Poetry has the tenured professor poems, and these crazy music poems I wrote called Esperanto poems. So that wasn’t so much a Detroit book. Then I came back, and Birth Marks is pretty much a Detroit book.
DK: Yeah. The path felt—knowing your trajectory—definitely like a return. But you mentioned that you just recently read in Detroit to your parents. This definitely had a sense of—I don’t know—prodigality to it. I know you’ve kind of returned consistently, but this felt intensely committed to memoir, to some sort of deep capture that seemed to reflect both—what has always been part of your work, but also an attitude, some new skills as a writer that have surfaced later in your career.
Whether it’s the “Religious Significance of the Super Ball” poem, or one I particularly loved, “Treaty.” There’s just a difference—and I think the level of investigation of alcoholism, addiction, I mean, this is explicitly dealt with here, repeatedly, almost like a through line. To a degree, I don’t think addiction was so fully seamed, maybe, in the past. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my sense.
JD: Particularly near the end of the book, a number of poems deal with that sense of inheritance of addiction. It was strange at that reading because my aunt came with my parents. She was originally going along to guide my mother, who’s legally blind, and then my father ended up coming along. He’s not big on these reading things. One of the characters in the poem, “My Two Aunts,” is based loosely on that aunt. I had thought about putting that poem in a couple books earlier, but I held back—I rarely do this because my immediate family, they’re used to it. Used to showing up in poems, and realizing what’s true and what isn’t. But I wasn’t sure about my aunt. But the other three people in that poem are all dead, and I thought, yeah, maybe it’d be safe to put that out there. I didn’t read that poem that night—there are certain things like the marriage annulment, which are very specific to her situation, and I didn’t want to embarrass her. The issue of inherited alcoholism and problems with drugs—a lot of families have it, and certainly my family did, too. I hadn’t really dealt with it so explicitly before in other books. But I started thinking about it after my mom warned my son. She told him, I don’t know if you know this, but we have this pretty serious history, and you need to be careful.
DK: And is this one of the birth marks that’s sort of this tag throughout the book? I think it makes me think about the title, in a very graphic way.
JD: Where you’re from marks you forever. Where you’re from physically, but also in terms of family inheritance and baggage. Sometimes people say to me, how come you’re still writing about Detroit? You haven’t lived there in over 30 years or whatever.
I write about Pittsburgh too, of course. But when I drove home to the reading—to Detroit—my brother, who works for Chrysler, came over before he went into work because he’s on afternoons, and my sister came after work, because she’s on days, so I had all this family stuff going on—ideas, memories, sparking all over the place.
DK: Everybody has their place. And for some of us, it’s that specific: it’s at the corner of this street and that street. This kind of allegorical city is where it’s anchored. So it’s no surprise that we return to—what Hugo calls the triggering town, but—
DK: But from your early book, Places / Everyone, all the way through until now, that kind of deep location, it makes sense for your work, even in Birth Marks. I do want to come back to the “My Two Aunts” poem, I want to have you read it. By my count, I think well over half the poems in the book are dealing with this particular birth mark of alcohol and drug abuse. My guess is that “My Two Aunts” is probably not a poem you’re going to read that often.
But your work is, I think, primarily associated with that place, Detroit, out of the tradition of poems in place. But also, highly narrative, I think people associate that with the working class poet motif. But at least from my perspective, that’s only a piece of the puzzle. I think your poems are funny, sometimes darkly funny. And I don’t know if you want to talk about the function of the comic at all, to what degree that kind of is intentional or unintentional in your work.
JD: I think I have a dark sense of humor. And so, sometimes I find something funny and nobody else does. I have a theory about that, but maybe it’s full of shit, but okay. My wife Kristin’s father is an immigrant from Croatia, what used to be part of Yugoslavia. He didn’t come to the States until he was about 25, so he still has all his family there.
And when Kristin and I went to visit his family—I’ve been there three or four times, twice when it was still a part of communist Yugoslavia. And they had a fatalistic sense of humor that I connected to. Coming from Detroit, where in many of those factory jobs you really don’t have any control of your future, I could relate to that kind of fatalism. In Detroit, you could be the best worker in the world, but if the cars aren’t selling, you could lose your job. I think that relinquishing of control—feeling like you don’t have any power or say in your economic future—can result in using dark humor as a coping mechanism.
DK: Gallows humor, right?
JD: Oh yeah. Her family’s dark humor was pretty intense.
DK: And I think this use of humor is generally rare. Contemporary poets like yourself can grapple with significant aesthetic and cultural issues, but as soon as that becomes the end game, and humor and surprise are left out of the equation, two-thirds of the possibility of a poem is left out. And to make it even—sometimes to make it even digestible, to make it even consumable. In some cases, tragedy is so terrible to get us to even feel it—you have to come at it sideways, and sometimes that gallows humor, gets us into that place without having to knock us out every time, if you will.
JD: It’s not something that I consciously think about when I write, but I am aware of it floating around, and then when I read the poems, I see what kind of reaction I get. I get silence most of the time.
DK: Yeah. I think it was at a Victoria Chang reading recently, she was reading The Boss, her new book from McSweeneys, where she said the things she thinks are funny no one laughs at, and the things she thinks aren’t funny, everybody laughs at. So she doesn’t know what the hell’s she doing.
JD: Yeah. I second that emotion.
DK: So relatedly, in regards to dark humor, we’re going to come back to the “My Two Aunts” poem. And quickly. let’s touch on narrative a little bit, and just for full disclosure, you were my first and mightiest teacher—early in my career when I was at Carnegie Mellon. Not that I am a narrative poet, per se, though, that’s a driver in my work, but I also felt the drive toward clarity and the drive to get really clear on the language. There was the fight to always crisp up the construction. I don’t think it’s in fashion to be so specific or to be so clear, let alone to use narrative, but for me these kind of tie together in your work. And I wanted to push you a little bit and find out if you think this it’s just like “hey, man this is the way I write, that’s what I do and I don’t think of it beyond that.” Or if there’s something else there.
JD: Well, I think it’s a combination of things. My writing is usually fairly clear. Part of it might be the way my mind works, I tend to be pretty direct and straightforward as a person, and I do value a certain kind of clarity in my writing as well.
My mother-in-law read Birth Marks, and she said, I like this one, but I really didn’t understand that last book. And I value her opinion as a reader–not just because she’s my mother-in-law, but because I want her as a general reader to understand and connect to what I have to say. The last book, Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry, did have some more experimental poems in it, like the Esperanto series, that might not have the same kind of clarity. There is a kind of clarity that I don’t value: the kind where you just spell everything out, and don’t leave your reader anywhere to go. I want to be clear enough through my imagery and details to take you to an emotional place without defining that place for you.
DK: Yes. I sense that.
JD: My enthusiasms as a reader and writer have always been geared towards work that move me emotionally, that I feel in my heart as well as understand intellectually in my head. While I can appreciate a wide range of poems, and some of the more interesting experimental work, the poems and stories I come back to are the ones that I take in physically.
The issue of clarity might even go back to Detroit again, just in terms of the environment. I think of it as a place where people tell you what they think in a pretty direct way—no subterfuge or subtlety or beating around the bush. That would be a luxury—particularly in the harsh, intense work environment, where you’re under a real time constraint. In the factory, for example, people can’t hear you unless you’re yelling at them. I remember the word ‘Fuck’ more as a punctuation mark, than as an obscenity. It also might be connected to the fact that I went to remedial speech class through eighth grade. I would get frustrated when people couldn’t understanding what I was saying because of the speech problems.
It wasn’t some big hardship or anything, but you know kids—particularly when you get into fifth or sixth grade, they start zooming in on what they can tease you about. So, I ended up keeping things inside, writing them down because people couldn’t mess with me the same way as when I was speaking out loud. When I finally corrected my speech problems, I felt like I wanted to be clear and to be understood, both in speaking, and in writing. And I tended to be terse. I still am not a great conversationalist, as anyone who knows me will tell you. That’s one of the things I like about poetry—the compression of language. A lot of my revision process is focused on whittling away words and tinkering with line breaks to try and get the poems as packed and tight as I can without losing the clear, emotional punch I want them to have.
I tell people, for better or worse, you should be able to understand most of my poems. There’s the issue of audience. But when I write, I definitely don’t feel like I’m trying to dumb down my poems for anybody. I’m just writing what comes, and it just happens to be that voice. Not that I’ve stayed locked into one voice in my work—I hope not, anyway.
I read this book of interviews of Vaclav Havel where he said that as a writer—I’m paraphrasing here—when you hit around age 35 or 40 (I was around that age at the time) you can either keep repeating what you’ve done to have the success you’ve had so far, or to take a crucial step into something new.
DK: Yes. I noticed this shift. Saw it in your work.
JD: And I took that to heart because I’d been consistently writing these straightforward narratives, usually about one page long, and I felt like, well, maybe I can write that kind of poem forever. But I don’t want to end up parodying myself or becoming too predictable. Some poets can riff with metaphor after brilliant metaphor, and I’m jealous of that ability. I use a lot of literal imagery, but not so much figurative stuff.
So, in order to push myself, I started using simultaneous narratives in poems. There’s more than one story going on, and readers move from story to story. The stories aren’t related on the surface, so that when it works, they can have that same kind of electric jump between tenor and vehicle in a trope, but you have it between one story and the next instead. You don’t see how they’re related, but the more you think about them, maybe they are. My work in film also made me more conscious of that kind of jump cut on the page.
DK: Yeah. That strategy, when it works, makes frictions when the divergent narratives collide.
JD: That pushed me into writing some longer poems.
DK: When was that again? Around which frame? When did you read Havel?
JD: The book came out in 1991, so the early 90’s. I actually copied the page from the book and taped it above my desk as a challenge to myself. We were living in this house, I am still in the same house as when you were a student here—
DK: Oh yeah, I remember it. Is the hoop still up in the driveway?
JD: Yeah. My son can kick my ass now, which is a problem. But he’s 6’5”, it’s all the height.
DK: Yeah, yeah. It’s all the height, right? You know, I stopped playing with my kids once they could beat me. So now I just coach them, tell them what they’re doing wrong, they love that.
JD: I still play on a softball team, but hoops? I’ve just seen too many people wreck their knees.
DK: When we were playing on the CMU intramural basketball team, that was different. We weren’t exactly a Dr. J. and Moses Malone out there. So back to Havel, and the trajectory, I’m also trying think about it from the change in production in your work. I think—a sort of watermark in your career—a career I see in three phases. The early stuff I think reflects what you were just talking about. The Places / Everyone phase. Then once you moved into the house, had the kids, there was a set of books in there that seemed like the Blessing the House, kind of phase. And then, I think there’s been greater and greater experimentation in the later work. Even in Birth Marks, with the longer poems like you talk about, there is a deeper address, a far more expansive view of what you are doing. I think about how different a poem about family was in Places / Everyone compared to in Birth Marks.
If you were to set up any one of those poems side by side, one looks like a stalk of corn, and the other one is the entire field. The other thing is about that compression; I think that’s something we spend a lot of time thinking about, even when I was a kid, was to what degree compression is just part of that revision process where you can get things as compressed as they can be. I tend to get too compressed sometimes, but that compression I think is true in your work. Even in the longer work, you’re just taking on a broader scope. So I think that’s pretty cool.
The other question I had was you said the stuff you go back to is stuff that—the stuff that you remember is— and the stuff that ends up settling in your gut. And I think people would probably be—maybe not—but perhaps surprised that when I was younger, you pushed me toward reading some folks like Ai, Li Young Lee. My lifelong affection for Kinnell came out of your suggestion that I look at The Book of Nightmares.
And I don’t think people necessarily put The Book of Nightmares or Ai or Li-Young Lee in your starter kit—few would put them on your shelf, and yet I know you read folks like them and others. So maybe we can talk about some of the folks that you read that hit you in your gut. Ones that might be a surprise to people.
JD: Let me just grab the stack of books that I’m reading right now—it’ll keep me from having to make a top ten list or whatever. I read a lot of prose, too, but when I read poetry, I tend to read a lot of books at the same time. And when I sit down to write, I’ll just read a couple of poems, from this one, a couple poems from that one. There’s the—The Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, Jeffery McDaniel’s new book. He’s a very funny poet, kind of surreal—well, here’s one, “Pickup lines of the Marquis de Sade”—he has a great sense of humor. He reminds me of that comedian Steven Wright. He has this deadpan intensity.
Another BOA book, by Jillian Weise, The Book of Goodbyes, it just won the Laughlin Prize. I’ve been enjoying that. And somebody who people probably wouldn’t be surprised I read is Charles Harper Webb.
DK: Yes, Charles and I were at Aspen Institute working with Pinsky ages ago. Though Charles was as interested in the fly fishing as he was workshop. Charles’ work is hilarious but often deeply felt as well. I don’t know if you read Hudgins or not, his book, The Joker just came out. Webb and Hudgins use humor in ways few can. But there are a long list of pranksters for to list from Dean Young to Jeff Friedman that deserve a tip of the cap to keeping humor in the game.
JD: I’m also reading Leanne Norman, a local poet who was involved in the labor movement. I ran into her in physical therapy after my knee surgery. And When My Brother was an Aztec, by Natalie Diaz. And Jan Beatty’s latest book, The Switching Yard—she’s a friend of mine in Pittsburgh. Oh, and a national poetry series title, Markus Wicker’s Maybe the Saddest Thing, with Bruce Lee on the cover. And Mary Ann Samyn’s latest—I’m in the middle of that one, too—My Life in Heaven. She writes stuff that is maybe more out there for me, but I’m able to make the jumps in her work more than I can with some other poets. We are the two Belgian-American poets from Detroit. We were both interviewed by the Gazette van Detroit—which might be the only Belgian newspaper in the United States. My family name was actually Danneels, D-A-N-N-E-E-L-S. My great grandfather Americanized it at some point.
DK: Yeah. Well, you’ve cornered the Belgian-American-Detroit demographic. You’ve cornered that poetry niche, that’s all yours.
JD: Well, JD is not exactly the most interesting name in the world. Maybe a step above John Smith, but not by much. I wrote a poem called “You bring out the boring white guy in me” to play with the blandness a little—that’s me, on some level, so why not own up to it instead of trying to be something else.
DK: That seems exactly right. That sounds exactly like a poem you would, could, should and did write.
JD: I guess even in my earlier series, the Digger poems, about a factory worker and his family, I was trying to find poetry in ordinary life that many people think is mundane.
DK: Yeah. Digger’s Territory, that was a finely made little chap. Tuned me into identifying characters that may recur in my own work.
JD: Then later I wrote the “Tenured Guy” poems, I was really trying to—
DK: Step into that, too.
JD: I’ve been teaching for over 30 years, so I’m writing poems about teaching and academia. I’ve always been interested in writing about work, not necessarily blue collar or white collar, but just work and how it affects the rest of our lives. Academia is such a crazy world, there’s plenty of material for poems. People talk about it being an ivory tower, but all the same shit happens in academia that happens everywhere else.
DK: In my experience, whether, you work as a short-order cook, or you work in “ivory tower academia”, or technology or manufacturing, or the goddamned whaling crew on the North Slope of Alaska, it’s the same shit. People fuck each other’s wives, people are pissed about the work they’ve got to get done, who’s in charge, and getting up to go to work every day. So, no surprise for me that you might find some fodder inside the halls of academia.
JD: Of course, it’s all fiction, right?
DK: Right. Right. The names and circumstances have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent. Sure.
JD: It’s amazing I’ve been at Carnegie Mellon, I think this is my 33rd year there—I never would have dreamt it. But hey, I really like Pittsburgh, it fits me well as a place to live, and the university’s really treated me great.
DK: Well, I haven’t been back in a while, but I went back to the Big O, I guess it was about eight years ago, and there’s something special about the Big O. Getting a small fry—I can’t even fit my hands in the camera to illustrate the size of a small fry with some cheese on top.
JD: That’s an investment there, yeah.
DK: It’s not health food, but it was good stuff. It is a great place. I have lots of affection for Pittsburgh for sure. In relation to Pittsburgh, you have a film about Pittsburgh coming out, right?
JD: Well, I’ve done three films, and we were going to do another one this summer, but we ran out of time, so we’re planning on trying to do it in this spring. A short film—this next one’s based on a poem. We never have any money for these films, but I love working on them because it puts me in touch with all these talented people around the city that I wouldn’t have met otherwise who have great ideas, and we kind of feed off each other. Either Tony Buba or John Rice have directed my films, and they’ve both become very good friends.
DK: If I remember correctly, the early films were done by folks in Pittsburgh about Pittsburgh, right? Am I right?
JD: Yeah. Pittsburgh/Detroit, this hybrid of my two cities. No Pets was the first one. Two of them were adaptations of my own stories. The most recent one was Mr. Pleasant—it’s based on Mt. Pleasant, a city in Central Michigan that is completely flat. We have no area like that around Pittsburgh because, as you know, it’s very hilly here, so we had to drive to Ohio to film. And we had this ‘Welcome to Mt. Pleasant’ sign somebody made and we just stuck it in the snow and started filming.
It’s that creative kind of shit that I really enjoy. It gets me out of that little writing room. I have these hermit-like tendencies, so it’s good to get me out of the house. I’m working with John Rice again on the new one.
DK: Is he a Pittsburgh guy or a Detroit guy?
JD: Pittsburgh guy. And like most people in film in Pittsburgh, he got his start on George Romero zombie films. I think Dawn of the Dead was the first film John worked on. Now he’s teaching filmmaking at Point Park University here in Pittsburgh.
We have the same sort of aesthetic, he works fast, no nonsense, and we’re always on the same page—which is key when you don’t have any money to spare. With Mr. Pleasant, we worked on the script for a year, we filmed it in a week, and then we spent a year editing it.
DK: So, this will becoming out from MGM when?
JD: We don’t even make them feature length, so we just get in some film festivals with them, and we have a good time. Even with our limited audience, I always say more people have seen these films than have read my books. I feel good about getting my work out there in front of people who are not poetry readers.
DK: Which festivals?
JD: None of the big ones, I’m afraid.
DK: So, I won’t be seeing it at Cannes or at Sundance?
JD: No. No. These are like $10,000 films. At Sundance, the average budget is $1 million. If we added another zero and had $100,000, I think we could do miracles. But it’s part of the challenge, it’s like a scavenger hunt, finding people, places, props, etc. We did get around a bit—film festivals in South Africa, Wales, Canada. A couple in California, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Carolina, Texas—
You can see the trailers online—we have websites for the last couple, Dumpster, and Mr. Pleasant. We tend to use local theater people as actors, and we’ve been very lucky to get talented people who are willing to be a part of what we’re doing for little or no money. One actor from Pittsburgh, David Conrad, was in this CBS series called “Ghost Whisperer,” and we got him to be in Dumpster because he loves Pittsburgh and was willing to help us out.
And so you meet these interesting people. In fact, I got the cover for Birth Marks through working with David—he had this crazy idea to create an imaginary art movement called the Lost School of Pittsburgh. He imagined this group of artists in the 50s that made all this art, and then disappeared, then he had contemporary artists and writers in Pittsburgh recreate work that the lost school might’ve made.
DK: This is the displaced writing about the displaced of the nonexistent, right?
JD: Right. Right.
DK: The Askenazi of Pittsburgh or something.
JD: I think it only made sense in David’s head, but we all went along with it. The photograph on the book cover is from this group that he called the Skid Crews that created artwork by making skid marks with their cars. When BOA was asking about cover ideas, I thought of the photographs of the skid marks. You don’t know where you’re going to find a book cover. Have you got a cover for your book yet?
DK: No. I sent some suggestions for the cover of Twine to Bauhan Publishing. Bauhan is the publisher for the May Sarton prize. But it’s—we’ll see. I’m not a cover designer, and this is my first full length book. I have no idea what to expect, or what level of influence I’ll have over the process. I sent a couple of random pictures their way, but no. No. None yet.
JD: And it is an interesting process because it’s so—
DK: You can judge a book by its cover?
JD: Well, if I’m signing books and there’s three or four books on the table, it’s interesting to see which ones people pick up. The cover does make a difference. Some of my ideas that have been used were probably not very good ones in terms of catching people’s eye.
DK: So, which ones weren’t good ideas?
JD: Well, one book of stories, Mr. Pleasant had a bland cover—I’ve been doing these photo books with Charlee Brodsky, this great photographer who teaches at CMU, and one of her photos is of this guy smoking a cigarette where the ash is really long, and you can’t see his face, and he’s bent over on a bench. But it didn’t draw people to it, despite it being a great photo. Sometimes I don’t have any ideas at all, but with the last book of stories, Trigger Man, I just gave them this broad idea, I said there’s a story about a clown in there, can you do something with a clown in some kind of an urban setting. So they came up with this thing—It’s a smiley face made up of hubcaps with a clown nose.
DK: Awesome. It’s so smart.
JD: I would’ve never come up with that. They did a great job.
DK: That’s exactly the kind of thing where I’m hoping that there are smarter people in the world than me about those things because—I had to think about a cover and send some ideas none of which I loved. But boy, that’s a really smart cover. So I guess you can judge a book by its cover. Do people pick up Trigger Man and make you sign that one? Is that the deal?
JD: Yeah, I have a lot of respect and admiration for designers. Already, I’m trying to come up with ideas for Eight Mile High.
DK: A gentleman named Henry James is the book designer for Bauhan Publishing. I’ve seen his work so I’m excited to see what he creates. The picture I sent Bauhan Publishing was—or the idea was just—the book’s called Twine, so there’s the twine that ties up a package over the surface of a book shape. And that’s as far as I got.
JD: That could work. What do I know? I have friends who have had awful book covers. My one friend, he would only read from the hardcover because he hated the image on the paperback so much.
DK: Oh really?
JD: It was his own book. Yeah, they had like a drawing of a frog on a lily pond—it looked like a kid’s book. Oh man, he was really bummed.
DK: Yeah, you’re scaring me, man. Drive me back to drinking or something. But—
JD: Yeah, I don’t drink anymore.
DK: Yeah, I don’t either. How long has it been since you…how long have you been not drinking?
JD: Four years. I had quit previous times because I was out of control. In fact, I quit drinking for my entire freshman year in college because I was drinking so much in high school. The drinking age was 18, and so we were just getting wasted all the time. I went to Alma College, this little college in a small town in the middle of Michigan to dry out. But then I started again, and I stopped again, and drugs and….
But my daughter got really sick her freshman year in high school. And it was a very tough time for a while, and my stomach had all these issues as a result. And so it forced me to stop drinking. When my stomach got better, I felt like I didn’t miss the drinking, and I probably drank enough for one lifetime already anyway, so I haven’t had anything since. There was this weird kind of pressure—I was only having one glass of wine now and then, but I was always having to put my hand over my glass to keep people from refilling it. And I figured if I say I don’t drink at all, then I don’t have to deal with that.
DK: Interesting. I haven’t had a drink since February of 2004. I had no interest in stopping until about then. I did my fair share, certainly as a youngster. Then grad school, it was kind of the motif, if you will. And I had my haunts. And during my 5 years in Alaska, there’s not much to do other than hunt Caribou, and your next drink.
DK: And so yeah, at some point I had had 100 reasons to quit along the way, every one you could imagine. But in 2004 was when it was just time. I’m kind of looking forward to having not drank as long as I drank. Which will be pretty meaningful. But for me it wasn’t even about stopping the person from pouring the next drink. I never left a half glass of wine. If somebody was refilling the glass, I was happy to drink it.
But not drinking certainly has changed my reasons for doing what I do. I don’t have to plan my life around it. I am more connected in a lot of ways to what is true for me. So yeah.
JD: Yeah, I remember—
DK: We have the same legacy in my family around drinking.
JD: Yeah. It’s tough to break from that. A number of years ago Ted Kooser told me he quit drinking because it was like a part-time job for him. And that made a lot of sense just in terms of the recovery time.
DK: It takes a lot of management to live a life and employ yourself in the job of drinking. And sometimes that part-time employment became a full-time job for me. So, I was—
JD: Oh yeah. And grad school was tough, too. The woman I lived with in Bowling Green was related to a big-time cocaine dealer. Yeah, he was major league, man. He didn’t have to touch the stuff. He had all these guys working for him, and he just fronted the business. She would go home, and she’d bring back—this was during the big cocaine years in the 80s—and she’d just bring back baggies full of the stuff. And technically, he told her that—or she told him that—she was going to sell it, and then we’d just do it all. I mean, what was he going to do? It was his sister-in-law. He wasn’t going to take her out, you know? Yeah, that was bad news. I loved cocaine.
DK: Yeah, it’s a great —it’s a good time drug, but again, talk about a full-time job, right?
JD: Oh man.
DK: A full-time nose job.
JD: So, here we are. Clean and sober.
DK: Yeah, totally. And grad school, it’s one big blur, but I think one of my favorite memories was this pattern I would have of going to parties after the readings, and for whatever reason, some of the faculty and I would get liquored up and decide to get into fist fights. With relative frequency, people would be breaking up fights in these posh homes with the readers in the other room, witha faculty member and I talking trash and about to throw down in the living room. Writers trying to beat each other up….never pretty.
JD: Well, you always had that kind of intensity. I’m sure it would get magnified when you were drinking.
DK: Good times. So, coming up on an hour here, I don’t want to and I do want to zero in on the Two Aunts poem. Read it if you would..
My Two Aunts
work at Burger King and McDonald’s.
One in Newark, the other in Memphis.
My two aunts married two drunks–
one died, the other disappeared.
My two aunts are two alcoholics,
recovering. One dates a blind man.
The other dates memory:
her husband’s final day
breathing his own blood.
Their alcoholic sons
have married and divorced.
Their children are sad and overweight
they are tall and stutter
they have imaginary illnesses
they blame their fathers
they blame their mothers
they smoke one endless cigarette.
But my two aunts,
they’re saying, May I help you.
And Big Mac and fries.
And Whopper and fries.
They are amazed by and resigned to
the goofy hats and polyester slacks.
They take orders from bosses
younger than their children.
They pledge allegiance to the burger corps.
After work, they put up their feet
and reach for the imaginary drink.
One lost the condo paying off
shared credit cards after the divorce.
The other lost the house after the husband
lost his salesman’s job after 27 years,
lost his factory job after six months,
ended up a janitor swigging wine
in the broom closet.
My two aunts take off their sour uniforms
and sleep — or don’t sleep, depending.
Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder,
Whopper. Itchy collar, swollen feet.
No more Cheerios for dinner
no more shakes and instant regrets
no more half-gallon vodka guilt and lies.
One aunt bites holes in her lips
and takes community college courses in math.
The other started aerobics
with matching leotard and sweat band.
It’s a matter of time,
they both say. I’m getting on
my feet again. AA, the church.
May I help you, please?
Please, may I help you?
One aunts wants her marriage
annulled: they were teenagers and not
in their right mind for thirty years.
The other says she stopped visiting
the grave but hasn’t.
My two aunts are getting
their lives together.
They have shed their soggy dreams
they are selling hamburgers
in America for minimum wage
they are trying to shed
their scales and bad news.
If only they could give up
on bad news, swear it off.
What put them here
pressing buttons, handing out change?
Thank you, yes, thank you.
Here is your order.
My two aunts smoke now,
more than they ever drank.
My two aunts, one way or another
we will kill them.
That’s one of the things that I suppose is typical, and probably cliché about AA meetings, that everybody stands outside and smokes. My aunts — most of the people of their generation that I knew growing up finally did quit smoking, but it was like they needed that one thing to keep up —
DK: A dirty little secret about recovery is swapping one thing for another. Of course, you’re not running down kids in the street drunk, but it definitely is one way to take yourself out if you’re replacing drink with something else.
DK: I think about that poem, and I think about it as a mirror back to talk about the trajectory of your career again, I reflect all the way back to “Short Order Cook” from Places / Everyone. And I think to myself where that poem was coming from, its persona, its concerns, right? And then I think about this poem, which is about a couple of folks working in a fast food restaurant, your aunts working in a fast food restaurant, but the concerns, the arc, the stance, the point of view, the stories, and how that reflects a kind of transformation in your career to some degree. What if we put one poem, “Short Order Cook,” a well understood poem, a well known poem, right? And you put —
JD: I’ve made more money off that poem than any other poems. Isn’t that crazy?
DK: Exactly. It’s been the money shot, I get that. Yeah, anthologized, appearing in writing poems by Robert Wallace, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, but then to put that poem in the context of the “My Two Aunts” poem, which is I think a broader more mature frame I think that’s interesting to see those two as a diptych between then and now, between being in it and now being about it. This transformation signifies to me what I know of you as thoughtful artist wanting to progressive his craft even if the words artist and craft in and of themselves are a kind of contraband in the world your work emerges from.
JD: It’s interesting to compare those two poems, “Short-order Cook” and “My Two Aunts”—they both involve working in fast food, but I think they’re different in one key way, and that involves thinking about myself vs. thinking about others. Since becoming a parent myself, I’d like to think that I’m a little more empathetic. Sometimes I look back at those earlier poems and I say oh, it’s all about I, I, I. And—
DK: Well, when we were 20, what else was there, right? Here we go, “Short Order Cook”
An average joe comes in
and orders thirty cheeseburgers and thirty fries.
I wait for him to pay before I start cooking.
He ain’t no average joe.
The grill is just big enough for ten rows of three.
I slap the burgers down
throw two buckets of fries in the deep frier
and they pop pop, spit spit. . .
pssss. . .
The counter girls laugh.
It is the crucial point–
they are ready for the cheese:
my fingers shake as I tear off slices
toss them on the burgers/fries done/dump/
refill buckets/burgers ready/flip into buns/
beat that melting cheese/wrap burgers in plastic/
into paper bags/fried done/dump/fill thirty bags/
bring them to the counter/wipe sweat on sleeve
and smile at the counter girls.
I puff my chest out and bellow:
Thirty cheeseburgers! Thirty fries!
I grab a handful of ice, toss it in my mouth
do a little dance and walk back to the grill.
Pressure, responsibility, success.
Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries.
JD: Yeah, right. Right. But, as you know, becoming a parent just changes everything. And I think Blessing the House was a kind of turn there, an expansion of scope.
DK: Yeah. That was my sense and when I first read Blessing the House, I was like very—not only was I interested in that book, but I started to wonder what’s next. That book cleared the deck where I could see you were going to start producing many forms, many different styles, with a hell of a culmination in Birth Marks.
I recently I read the book quietly to myself to dig in to the poems to prepare for this interview. I also wanted to hear them read aloud to me. In a recent road trip with Linda, my other half, I asked her to read the book aloud as we were driving. And so—
JD: Oh boy.
DK: So she was reading the poems, and reading the poems, and—as we were driving up into the mountains, she turned to me after the super ball poem and she said wow, I really like the way he writes. And then she kind of looked at me, and I took her look to mean how come you can’t write more like him?
It was my interpretation of her look. I couldn’t really explain to her that I could never write with such candor and generosity and heart. I did explain to her your influence on me and she again just gave me that look.
Birth Marks, its a really beautiful and tough book. And shit, we should probably do this more often. We should definitely hold a conversation more often than every 20 years or so. Lets chat again soon.
Jim Daniels is the Thomas Stockham Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, where he has been teaching since 1981. At Carnegie Mellon, he has received the Ryan Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Elliott Dunlap Smith Award for Teaching and Educational Service, and a Faculty Service Award from the Alumni Association. For fifteen years, he directed the Creative Writing Program, and for seven years, he has been the English Department Director of Undergraduate Studies. He is the founder and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards, which just celebrated its 15th anniversary, and in 2001 he founded a mentoring program involving students in the creative writing program at Carnegie Mellon and students at the Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, the creative and performing arts magnet school. Daniels’ fourteenth book of poems Birth Marks, was published in 2013 and was selected as a Michigan Notable Book. His fifth book of short fiction, Eight Mile High, will be published in Fall 2014. He has also written the screenplays for three films, most recently, Mr. Pleasant, in 2011, which he also produced. He has collaborated with Design Department Professor, Charlee Brodsky, on two books combining his poems with her photographs. Their book, Street, won the Tillie Olsen Prize. Other writing awards include the Brittingham Prize for Poetry, the Blue Lynx Poetry Prize, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and two from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. In addition, he has edited or coedited four anthologies, including Letters to America: Contemporary American Poetry on Race. A native of Detroit, Daniels is a graduate of Alma College and Bowling Green State University.
David Koehn’s first full length manuscript, Twine, now available from Bauhan Publishing, won the 2013 May Sarton Poetry Prize. David’s poetry and translations were previously collected in two chapbooks. Tunic (speCt! books 2013) is a small collection of some of his translations of Catullus, and Coil (University of Alaska 1998) won the Midnight Sun Chapbook Contest. David’s poetry and essays have appeared in a wide range of literary magazines including The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rhino, Volt, CarolinaQuarterly, New York Quarterly, Diagram, Omniverse and many others. David currently writes and runs “First Verse,” first book interview series for Omniverse, the Web property of Omnidawn Publishing. David is Chairman of the Board for Ominidawn Publishing (http://www.omnidawn.com/), has a BA from Carnegie Mellon, and an MFA from the University of Florida.