Interview with Jim Daniels

Andy Kuhn: You have traveled further from where you came from to where you are than a lot of people your age, certainly than most poets and professors. Can you say a little about that journey, and some of the different ways it has informed your work over the years?

Jim Daniels: Despite the fact that I’ve taught writing for over thirty years now, where I come from— white, working-class neighborhood on the edge of Detroit—continues to inform  my writing. It’s where I’m from literally and emotionally; it’s where I went through childhood and emerged on the other side, so it’s a rich source of material for me. Also, many of the people I am closest to still live there, so I am still connected emotionally to the place and return there often (I was just there four days ago).. It informs my work in that I continue to write about work of all kinds (the Tenured Guy poems in Having a Little Talk With Capital P Poetry, for example)

AK: You have written in stark and unlovely terms about working and working class life; it’s not exactly PC (politically correct that is). There’s not a lot of feel-good solidarity in the Digger poems, for example, when the narrator is being socialized into intentionally busting the assembly line so everybody gets a breather. Kind of makes the reader think about the decline and fall of industrial America in slightly less tragic terms. Did you think about a political text or subtext in these poems when you wrote them? Have you had any surprising responses to this work from a political angle? Do you consider yourself a political person, or a political poet?

JD: As soon as you start writing with a political agenda, you’re limiting yourself. Life, and poetry, are more complicated for that. The stereotypes emerge and the writing reads like propaganda. I feel that my work is political simply through my choice of subject matter. Examining these lives in my writing to say they are important and should be a part of our literature. A lot of the struggles of those lives involve asserting your individuality in the face of forces designed to make you more anonymous, so workplace sabotage was just one of the ways of asserting that individuality.  I also believe that the literature of work is crucial to our understanding of our lives—not just working-class jobs, but all jobs.

AK: In terms of non-PC poetry, though, a strong case could be made that your powerful long poem “Time, Temperature” about race and race conflict over decades in Detroit represents an absolute high water mark (alright, possibly excepting Bukowski). You give the “N” word such a workout that it retains or recovers its percussive, nasty power, even after what is now decades of habituation and numbing caused by its routine appearance in rap lyrics. Part of the shock, of course, is that it’s a white man using it, and not casually but angrily, with anguish, even despairingly. Can you talk about how that poem came to be, how it was received, and how you experience it now?

JD: PC poetry can be bland poetry that can come off as self-righteous or self-serving, when in poetry we need to examine our own lives honestly. “Time, Temperature” was the longest poem I ever wrote until “Niagara Falls,” and the reason is that I had repressed writing about race for so long (see comment on Baldwin below) that when I opened that door, all this stuff came spilling out. It was a hard poem to write and revise. I’ve only read the poem aloud a couple of times—once at an AWP (Associated Writing Programs) conference, and once in Detroit at Marygrove College. In Detroit, I got one of the few standing ovations I’ve received at a reading ever from a very diverse audience, and it nearly brought me to tears. Obviously, racism continues to be a huge problem in this country, and many of the problems that Detroit continues to have are linked to racial issues, so while I think the poem reflects a particular time period, I believe it is still relevant.

AK: The poem is dedicated to James Baldwin. Can you say why? Was his writing a major influence on you? How do you think Baldwin would have responded to “Time, Temperature”?

JD: I had James Baldwin as a teacher for a course in graduate school at Bowling Green, and in that class, he challenged us to examine our own lives honestly in terms of race. At that time, I was not up to the challenge. I consider that poem like a late paper for his class. Ernest Champion, an ethnic studies professor at Bowling Green, had invited Baldwin as a visiting professor. When they opened the James Baldwin room at Bowling Green after his death, I sent a copy of the book to Champion to put in the room. I also edited an anthology, Letters to America: Contemporary American Poetry on Race, as further work in this area, and at Carnegie Mellon, I started the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards for local students, which is in its 16th year, so I continue to be interested in having honest discussions about difference through poetry.

AK: Many of your poems are about as plain-spoken as could be, almost defiantly non-figurative. As in some of Frost’s earlier work there are long dramatic monologues that portray a character in a very specific place and time, but you go well beyond Frost in your commitment to keeping the language scrupulously colloquial and non-literary. There’s “Niagara” for instance:

I can afford this bad meal
and our hotel room in Niagara Falls.
Some people think I’m cheap,
the way I can’t relax
about money, counting it,
making sure. I envy the easy grace
of credit card and keep the change.
My parents never stayed in hotels
or went out to eat.
We stayed at home. At home, we ate.

[Daniels, Jim (2003-05-20). Show and Tell: New and Selected Poems (Univ of Wisconsin Press Poetry Series) (p. 75). University of Wisconsin Press. Kindle Edition.]

One of the striking things about this strategy is that it denies the speaker in the poem, and the reader, one of the consolations of poetry, which is the prospect and pleasure of the little escape that’s accomplished when you use language to turn something into something else. In a lot of these poems, as in the lives they describe, “It is what it is” isn’t a bland tautology, it’s a grim fact not only of their lives but of their minds. There’s an austerity to the discipline you bring to this voice that’s bracing, and certainly comes across as authentic. But it can also seem pretty relentlessly dour. Does life really suck that consistently in Warren, Mich? For everybody? Or, putting it another way, do you think that this strategy fully honors the potential emotional and imaginative range even of the hard-up, beaten down, indifferently educated narrators of these poems?

JD:  I am not overtly conscious when I write of using figurative language or not, but I know that I don’t use as much as a lot of poets. I think it might have something to do with what I’m writing about. Using figurative language can perhaps seem like a luxury if you’re in the middle of the assembly-line or having a gun pointed at you. There’s a relentless urge to be understood, to be clear.  I’m not sure “honoring” is a word that I would be concerned with. Acknowledging, yes, but not so concerned with honoring anyone.  I can’t—and don’t try to speak—for everyone in Warren or Detroit or working-class or whatever. Someone wrote to me after my book of stories, Detroit Tales, was published, to complain that my stories didn’t reflect their Detroit, and I said, of course not, we all have our own tales, and those are just mine.

Of course, I don’t intend to be relentlessly dour. I have sort of a dark, fatalistic sense of humor, so sometimes I think something is funny, but no one else does.  Same with range—people will react differently to my work in ways that I can’t control. I can only hope it can find an audience out there somewhere in the poetry landscape.

AK: Which it certainly has . . . . Switching gears for a minute, how do you feel about Bruce Springsteen? You’re of about the same generation, and conjure with a lot of the same materials, including what living through the rusting of the rust belt feels like, growing up confused in a tough and ugly place. But you don’t give us the soaring sax and the screaming redemption—it’s a lot darker at the edge of your town. Are you ever tempted to resolve to that major chord, or would that represent a feel-good cheat, a surrender to sentiment?

JD: I remember first seeing Springsteen at the Masonic Temple in Detroit in 1978. I saw Bob Seger at Pine Knob (an outdoor music facility in the outskirts of Detroit) the same week. That was a pretty exciting week, despite the hearing loss I may have experienced. I write a lot of poems about music, and first connected to writing through music more than the poetry we were studying in school. I would like a sax player to accompany me at all my readings, or an electric guitar. Or back-up singers. Yes, definitely back-up singers.

I guess I’m not that conscious of how things resolve in terms of darkness and light, so I am not tempted usually to alter things to lighten them up. I do remember one poem from my first book, Places/Everyone, called “My Father Worked Late” where I’d tacked on an ending that was somewhat more hopeful, but an editor called me out on it, and she was right—the ending was a kind of wishful thinking—I was thinking more about my relationship with my father than I was the poem. So, I cut that ending and left it with:

Give, Give, I give.
As if there was anything left
to give.

Which, I admit, is a pretty much of a downer.

AK: But—and—a very strong close to the poem . . . . Even closer to home than Springsteen, of course, there’s Eminem, another native son of Warren, Mich. Addressing him in “Can’t Sleep” your narrator notes, “Your mother could / have been any number of my classmates: / Lynn, Robin, Patty, Cindy M., Cindy R.,” . . . . The poem is framed by a news snippet noting that the rapper had canceled a tour owing to a dependency on sleep medication. This did in fact occur in August 2005, when Eminem was 33, at which point he was still the number one selling male artist in the world, though his figures were down from the 19 million copies that his Marshall Mathers LP had sold worldwide.  Does it feel strange, as a highly respected and successful poet with a record of achievement spanning decades, to have a punk kid zoom up behind you straight out of your back yard and become a multi-millionaire household name spouting what, as poetry, reads as rageful doggerel? In one of your poems you mention Gil Scott-Heron, a jazz musician whose elegant and allusive spoken word compositions prefigured rap, or hip-hop; prophetically, a group from that same era styled themselves “The Last Poets.”  Is there still a way for literary poetry and rap or hip-hop to connect and maybe enrich one another, or has that ship sailed, or long since been sunk in the harbor?

JD: Oh yeah, Marshall. He reminds me very clearly of certain guys I went to high school with—a different generation, obviously, but the same attitude and edge.  A lot of punk kids in Warren. They filmed part of “Eight Mile” at a trailer park very close to where I grew up. I don’t resent him at all, just like I don’t resent more successful poets—and there’s a lot of them. This may sound hokey, but at this point in my career, I guess I don’t really care, but I consider myself very, very lucky to have found poetry and been successful enough to have this great job at Carnegie Mellon University that rewards me for what I do and gives me time to continue to do it.

I clearly remember hearing Gil-Scott Heron on WABX, an “underground” radio station, when I was in high school and being excited by his work. I’d never heard anything like it.  There’s always an intersection where music and poetry merge—I’m not one to say this is poetry and that isn’t poetry. I also remember seeing Public Enemy here in Pittsburgh shortly after “Do the Right Thing” came out. I was intrigued by their blend of words and music. In fact, I wrote a poem about going to that concert. Some young guys in the audience thought me and my friend Frank were undercover cops.

AK: You probably know that the Katonah Poetry Series has been going nearly half a century now, and has featured many distinguished poets over the years. Looking at the list of past readers, do you see poets who have influenced your own development?

JD:  I love the list of previous readers for the range of voices there. I get a bit discouraged when I see poetry defined too narrowly to the exclusion of a lot of important voices. Of course, Phil Levine is important to me. The weird thing is that I came to him late—I was already in grad school before I read any of his work. Phil has been an inspiration on my levels and I am grateful for his support at times when I’ve really needed it. He was born in Detroit the same year my parents were born in Detroit, so we have this interesting generational link too.

I don’t want to think too much about the list because it’s pretty intimidating. You’ve got a special thing going there, and I’m really looking forward to being a part of it.

Also, I have to say that these are some great, tough questions. I hope my answers do them justice. Thanks for spending the time with my work.

AK: It has been a pleasure and a privilege—as for your answers, you’ve done justice and then some. We’re very much looking forward to your reading!