Secular Cleanse: An Interview with David J. Daniels
I had the pleasure of meeting David J. Daniels at the Denver-based Lighthouse Writers Workshop when he read there in June. A native Texan living in Colorado, Daniels had published two chapbooks, Indecency and Breakfast in the Suburbs, prior to his full-length collection, Clean (2014), winning The Four Way Books Intro Prize, judged by D.A. Powell.
Clean is an extravagance of ratios. For every Saint Gregory there is a Dolly Parton, each glory hole weighted by intimacy at its most unabashed. The book’s VIPs range from Joseph Conrad and Fleetwood Mac to Richard Hugo’s ghost (who admonishes with the jarring “Bitch, you didn’t,”),all wandering “Into the penetrating light where/ somebody’s shirt has just stopped moving,/ unable to see whose mouth it was/ that sucked and treasured you.”
Generous as he is well-read, Daniels discusses the writing of Clean, sharing his thoughts on sonnet crowns, Stations of the Cross and the occasional closeted groom.
JR: Clean is a trove of images: a bee circling an open bleach bottle, a snowdrift of rouge, sea-washed nipple hairs, a casserole’s vacant weight. I could continue (the reliquary of coffee urns, pink sun rimming the Conoco). How did you develop such an image-driven ear?
DD: First, thanks for the interview (CutBank published one of my very first poems, by the way, so it’s nice to be back) and thanks for the compliment. In terms of sound and image, when I begin to write, I’m primarily interested in sound. Thus the number of rhymed poems, for instance. I’ll often make lists of rhymes in the margins of early drafts and change the direction of poems (I mean, invent stuff like “nipple hairs” if I have to, and thus invent a couple of lobster catchers) in order to match that sound. Maybe this explains the variety of images? I also have access to a rich Catholic lexicon, having been raised Catholic, and it’s simply delightful to me to write out some of those crazy, erotic words.
JR: In a recent interview with Martha Silano you said Clean, from start to finish, took twenty years to write. Imagine the David J. Daniels of 1994 reading his finished product. How would he react?
DD: He might be shocked by its plain openness in terms of subject matter. Being still half-closeted in 1994, that kid might tremble a little. He might also be shocked by the humor and plainness in tone, the non-poetic turns of phrase and jokey asides. Being very serious and dumb about lofty poesy in 1994, that kid might think Clean isn’t ‘poetic’ enough but too much like bathroom graffiti.
JR: You have an MFA from Indiana University, and held various fellowships/scholarships at Bread Loaf and Bucknell. Were there any other programs that impacted your writing?
DD: My only other workshop experience really was at Tulane, as an undergrad, where I studied with Peter Cooley. Cooley remains a good friend and deep, early influence on my work. Not directly, in terms of our tone and attitudes toward the religious, but still profoundly: he introduced me to practically every important poet of the mid-20th century, from Bishop and Ashbery and Ammons, to those who were youngsters at the time, like Stephen Dunn and Bill Matthews and Rita Dove. I read voraciously under Cooley’s smart eye.
JR: What was the best writing prompt you ever received? The hardest?
DD: The best was probably to write a nonce poem, following Marianne Moore’s examples. That was a prompt given to me during grad school by Maura Stanton, and it was the first poem I wrote where I felt the simultaneous strangle-hold and liberating energies of an imposed form. The hardest prompt – or what I consider the cruelest – was given to me by a fairly well-known poet who I won’t identify. It was to “write a poem that you imagine I [the faculty member] won’t like.” Well, he didn’t like them, duh, and we went in a circle being reprimanded rather sadistically by him, for having failed by having succeeded with the prompt. A nightmare.
JR: “Missing,” with its absentee janitor (freshly detoxed) and cheaply Xeroxed black-n-whites (“Face of a kid you fucked last fall”), devastates and haunts. Could you elaborate on the poem’s background? Was it intended as a sonnet from the beginning?
DD: The central two background details of the poem are true: I’d chatted with a young kid in a bar one night (although we never even kissed, let alone had sex) and, months later, his face turned up on a Missing Poster near campus. It was a startling feeling for me, that someone I’d sort of half-intimately talked with had simply vanished, and that there were those more intimately involved with him who were missing him more profoundly. Yes, I imagine it was intended to be a sonnet at the time because I remember writing about six sonnets that summer, some of which appear in the book: “Glory Hole,” “Shell Station,” and “Julia” among them.
JR: “Julia” may well have been called “My Immigrant Grandma Shit-storming the American Dream via Bendix Aviation in Mishawaka (Polishing Off Her Fourth Manhattan).” What advice do you have for writers exploring the familial truthful?
DD: Simply to do so – write truthfully. Your grandmother deserves to be memorialized, so please, please actually memorialize her, in all actuality. Don’t shroud her in cliché and pretense, because she deserves better. And read Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s brilliant poem “To a Young Girl Writing Her Father’s Death,” which is what prompted me to write “Julia”.
JR: Since we’re on the subject of everyone’s favorite form, suppose Clean had additional room for a sonnet crown. You would have written it on…?
DD: I’ve been working on a crown for years now actually, which I hope to finish for an upcoming book, and it’s about my earliest visits to bathhouses in contrast with the double life I lead with a woman at the time, who I still love and remain dear friends with. But the poem ranges in subject matter quite a bit, from my adolescence as a competitive swimmer, shaving my legs in the mornings in my parents’ bathroom, and my early experiences in the Catholic church. I’ve often thought a sonnet crown on the Stations of the Cross would be handy in the world, if such a thing doesn’t exist already. It’s a ready-made poem practically.
JR: “The Age of Nancy” features Scotsmen, birthcracks and blown VHS, inhabitants all in “the Age of Otherness/ and thus/ of self-reflection.” What Age are we in now?
DD: Wow, good question. I suppose, with Facebook and Instagram and all, we’re in the age of self-disclosure and I would hope greater transparency. An age of fewer inhibitions and greater forms of brave authenticity. Yet, my hope would be that we’re thus in an age of greater compassion and acceptance of others, which is clearly not the case. We’re indeed in an age of increased anxiety and polarized political stances, of heightened panic and hate.
JR: “To a Closeted Groom on His Wedding Day” is a scorcher of a title appearing near Clean’send. Your toast to writers and artists who self-identify as queer would be?
DD: Wow, great question. I can’t write the poem right now, of course, but it would be something about clinking our champagne flutes together (ladies, am I right?) in a way that made them vibrate a little but not shatter. (And here, I begin to think in terms of clatter, scatter, smatter, matter, mad-hatter, and I’m on my way.) But yes, something about that delicate level of firmness qua gentleness.
David J. Daniels is the author of two chapbooks, Breakfast in the Suburbs and Indecency (winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize), as well as the full-length collection Clean, winner of the Four Way Books Intro Prize. He has received scholarships and fellowships from Bread Loaf, Kenyon Review, Bucknell University, and the Colorado Arts Grant. His poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Kenyon Review, Indiana Review, Boston Review, and Pleiades.
Jon Riccio studied viola performance at Oberlin College and the Cleveland Institute of Music. An MFA candidate at the University of Arizona, he is a recipient of the UA Foundation Poetry Award. Current and forthcoming work appears in Bird’s Thumb, Plenitude, Blast Furnace, Your Impossible Voice, Four Chambers, Small Po[r]tions, Paper Nautilus, and Petrichor Review. He is a coordinator of the Tucson-based WIP Reading Series.