Wednesday, August 7, 2019

From Nature Trails to the Moon: An Interview with Jim Daniels


The Ohio Poetry Association is pleased to host poet and writer Jim Daniels as the 2019 Sun & Moon Festival keynote speaker. Daniels is the Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. He has authored seventeen books of poetry, most recently, The Middle Ages (Red Mountain Press, 2018).

In the following interview with OPA Treasurer Sayuri Ayers, Jim Daniels shares his insights on his most recent projects and his processes as a writer.  

SA: We are so honored to have you as the keynote speaker for the 2019 Sun & Moon Festival. What can participants look forward to in your keynote workshop?  

JD: One of my main interests as a writer has been the poetry of work—writing about our daily jobs, however we define them. The workplace is a microcosm of the larger world, but in poetry it is often ignored as a subject, despite the impact it has on the rest of our lives. My workshop will provide a range of sample poems from a range of occupations in order to try to get participants to engage in their own work histories as potential subject matter for their poems.

SA: The Moon Ark is a highly collaborative project that combines arts, humanities, sciences, and technologies. (Our readers may find out more about this project here.)  May you tell us more about your role as the poetry curator for the Moon Ark's Moon Poems collection? How did you select poems that embody "the spiritual essence of the moon?" 

JD: This was a lot of fun. I learned a lot through the process of researching poems about the moon—that was my job, to find poems about the moon to send to the moon. While I wanted to be representative in some way, I didn’t worry about it being a complete historical record. There are so many wonderful ones—I couldn’t include them all. I tried to include poems that, throughout the ages, dealt with looking at the moon with awe and wonder. The moon clearly is a mirror in some way—we see ourselves reflected back. Doing the research inspired a whole series of my own moon poems. Given the conceit of the project, I took on the notion of trying to explain to the moon as if [it] were a person (personifying the moon has been an international sport throughout the ages) all the crazy things that we’ve been doing down here.

SA: When reviewing your 2013 book of poetry, Birth Marks, Li-Young Lee said that you "stand in silent awe and wonder at the world turning about [you], a world of unaccountable suffering and unaccounted for beauty." How do you, through your poetry, navigate this world?

JD: As humbly and as open as I can. I need to remind myself to stand still and take things in and try to maintain the awe and wonder of childhood and not get too cynical about the world—to keep looking for the beauty despite the suffering.

SA: In your poem, "Man with Child, May," nature is intricately interwoven into human relationships. How does the dynamic between nature and humankind influence your creative process?

JD: First, an interesting thing about this poem is that the inspiration for it came in Yellow Springs when I was there for the Antioch Writers’ Workshop a number of years ago. Though it was probably June or July, not May. This image of this guy with his shirt off holding this baby outside early one morning in a grassy meadow really stuck with me.

Perhaps it’s in the tension between the human and the natural worlds. We continue to infringe upon and destroy the natural world, and I suppose on a larger level that’s something I think about a lot.

SA: When was your first memorable experience with the natural world? Did you describe this experience in one of your poems?

JD: It’s hard to remember a first experience here, but I did write a poem called “My Nature Poem” that played on the word “nature,” since we had so little natural beauty among the concrete streets, strip malls, and auto factories of Detroit.

SA: Much of your work is influenced by places such as Pittsburgh and Detroit. Is there a place in nature that you gravitate towards, as a place of inspiration or rejuvenation? 

JD: In urban environments, you take what nature you can find. In Detroit, it was behind my parents’ garage on a small plot of grass or in the field that was somehow passed over in the development of our neighborhood. In Pittsburgh, I’m fortunate enough to live across a bridge from Schenley Park, which some call the Central Park of Pittsburgh. I spend a lot of time walking the trails in the park throughout the year and have set a number of poems there as well—particularly about spending time in the park with my children when they were young. I get a lot of ideas for poems while walking in the park, so I need to make sure I have a pen and some notecards with me as I walk,

SA: In past interviews, you've described the importance of "emotional urgency" in poems. What poem first struck you with its "emotional urgency?" When do you know you've established "emotional urgency" in your work?

JD: For me, emotional urgency involves making my readers feel some of what I felt that inspired the piece. To go beyond simply understanding how the speaker in my work is feeling to feel some of that emotion unfiltered. For me, that’s what makes any work of literature memorable—I am moved by it.

The first living poet I read (and he’s over 100 now!), Lawrence Ferlinghetti, moved me because he made me feel what he was feeling. There’s a reason A Coney Island of the Mind is one of the best-selling books of poetry—he connected with his readers.

I can’t really know if I’ve established that urgency in my own poems until I get reactions from readers. I do know that the more concrete detail I include, the more likely I’m going to be able to move some readers by placing them in the world of the poem and making it as real as possible.

SA: Your fifth book of short fiction, Eight Mile High, was released in 2014 by Michigan State University Press. How has your poetry influenced your prose?

JD: My sixth book of short fiction, The Perp Walk, was published this past May by Michigan State University Press, so I continue to write prose. The poetry and prose influence each other. In The Perp Walk, I alternate flash fiction/prose poems with traditional short stories throughout. I often use a lot of sections in my stories and jump around in time, just like I do in my poems. I like writing simultaneous narratives—two stories in the same thread, playing off each other. Juxtaposition is the main technique that I use in my fiction that is borrowed from my poetry.

SA: What words of wisdom would you offer to a discouraged writer or poet?

JD: To be honest, I frequently get discouraged myself, so I’m not sure I have any words of wisdom. It may sound a bit corny, and it certainly applies to just about everything, but for me it’s simply persistence and hard work that drive me, and whatever little success I have had I attribute to that. While there are clearly more talented writers out there, I always tell myself that no one is going to outwork me. 

To find out more information about the Sun & Moon Festival, please click here.  

Festival registration is now open and will end on August 31st.