A Conversation With Jim Daniels
IN RECENT YEARS Jim Daniels has certainly been a poet hungry for change and growth. Fans of Daniels’ first three books — Places/Everyone, Punching Out, and M-80 — in fact might be surprised to discover the various ways in which this growth has manifested itself in his most recent collection, Blessing the House(1997). Right away, the reader will notice that Daniels, at least for the time being, has turned away from the familiar urban landscape of Detroit and the auto factories of that area to the new urban setting of Pittsburgh and, even more startling, to the essentially rural landscapes of Italy. But changes in landscape and setting are not the only developments; Daniels has also been hard at work developing the experimental technique of simultaneous narrative: the incorporation and juxtaposition of more than one story line in a single poem.
In his essay “Seeing More than Red: Narrative and Juxtaposition,” Daniels mentions having looked back over his earliest attempts at writing poem — in high school — and discovering, as he puts it, only “one keeper in the bunch.” He writes: “it was about my job working in a local party store. We sold both liquor and penny candy there. I ended up rhyming names of liquor with names of penny candy.”
Daniels’ simultaneous narratives find their power and insight in just this sort of juxtaposition, offering the reader, as Daniels writes in his essay, “those flashes of discovery that come from contrast.” Indeed, Daniels’ entire body of work gathers power through such heightened oppositions. Stylistically, throughout his career he has always found a way to combine a straightforward, conversational tone with a sharp sense of rhythm and tightly compressed language. Also, though he has almost exclusively focused on the singular experience of the individual, his poems manage to resonate with a much wider social as well as political awareness. Even the path his own life has taken seems, at least from an outsider’s point of view, to be a portrait of contrast: the blue-collar autoworker turned college professor and poet.
But as Daniels himself well knows, his writing endeavor is not simply to accentuate contrasts, but to bring together, to reconcile — a fact highlighted in his attempts to confront and understand the continued complexities of race relations in this country through his long poem “Time, Temperature” (from M-80), as well as in the anthology he edited entitled Letters to America: Contemporary American Poetry On Race. In both cases, Daniels does not show us black against white, but the gray area in between. Daniels seems to tell us, time and time again, in many different ways, what he knew even as a high school kid rhyming the names of candy and liquor: that the world flows into itself as well as separates.
The following interview with Jim Daniels took place on February 17, 1998, amid the proverbial clutter of a poet’s work, there in Daniels’ office on the top floor of his home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he teaches writing at Carnegie-Mellon University. —Tim Ross, Granville, Ohio, September 7, 1998.
Tim Ross: C.K. Williams in the forward to your first book Places/Everyone calls your work “a poetry of persona.” At the same time, I think a lot of the appeal of your work is in how real it all seems to the reader. How do you balance this issue of poet versus persona, autobiography versus fiction in your work, particularly in terms of the “Digger” poems?
Jim Daniels: I was just reading out in California last week and this issue came up. People were asking me how autobiographical my work is. The way I explain it is that usually there is a seed of something that is autobiographical in every single poem, but I take that seed and run with it and after a while I forget what really happened and what was made up. So every time a book comes out my family has these big debates about what happened and what didn’t, while I don’t know and I don’t care at that point because I’m just trying to write good poems, trying to get a kind of emotional truth, regardless of what really happened. In a way, the “Digger” poems are less autobiographical than others because he’s more of a composite of a lot of different characters. And the main thing I was trying to do with those poems is to show how his life at work affects his life away from work. When I first went to work in the factory I started to get insight into my father and into the other people in the neighborhood in terms of how they were at home. I could start to understand, based on what the life at the plant was like. And that’s one reason I wrote about it so much because I started to see all these connections between work and home-life. But with Digger I didn’t have one specific person in mind. He’s more of a character completely made up as opposed to some of the others that are at least based on someone real. So, though I got the name Digger because there was some guy in the plant with a hardhat that said “Digger” on it, the character has nothing to do with this guy, who I didn’t know very well.
TR: You’ve touched on this a bit in what you’ve already said here, but how closely do you think a writer is bound to represent things they’ve actually experienced? For example, does someone writing about a character who works in a factory have to have extensive experience working in a factory themselves?
Daniels: That’s a good question too. And I think it brings up the whole issue of authority. I was at a writer’s conference at the University of Pittsburgh a number of years ago and they had this panel with William Styron on it and the poet Ai. She writes exclusively persona poems, and William Styron wrote “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in the voice of a black man. At the time he took all this heat for that. It was like “who are you, a white guy, to do this?” And Ai, a black poet, was saying “more power to you because that’s all I do also is take on voices of other people.” I mean, she writes poems in the voices of Lee Harvey Oswald or J. Edgar Hoover, characters she has no direct relationship to. I think in every single poem you write you have to create the authority on the page. You can’t say “but I worked there,” or “but I’m black” or whatever. The poem has to create the authority for the voice. And in every single poem you have to create that authority. William Stafford’s collected poems is called Stories That Could Be True, and I think a good poem is a story that could be true. In other words, you could accept that it could possibly be true. It doesn’t matter whether it really happened or not. You’re not writing nonfiction, you’re writing poetry. It’s called creative writing after all. And when you create you have to create with enough imagination, knowledge and authority to make it sound real. I think sometimes people get distracted by what really happened. In my own work there’s a real mixture of things that I try to do to create the authority and gain some sort of emotional truth. If it didn’t really happen I feel like it could have happened.
TR: One more question about the “Digger” poems. Why do you use the second person? Is there any specific reason?
Daniels: Yeah, that’s a good question too. It’s a tough, complicated thing in that I felt close to Digger. There’s part of my father in Digger, and maybe part of the other men in the neighborhood, and part of the guys who I grew up with who went to work in the plant. And part of it is me — the me I could have become if I had stayed working in the factory. So there’s a kind of intimacy. But, if I wrote about it in the third person, I felt like it could be perceived as condescending. If I wrote about it in the first person, I felt I wouldn’t be able to get beneath the surface of the character in the way that the “you” allows me to do. I wanted it to have a feeling of a sort of conversation with somebody I knew, and I ended up feeling really comfortable with that. But then my second book Punching Out took place entirely in the auto factory. There, I named the character Digger, but in that case it was a first person Digger. It was one of the last changes I made. I was creating all these characters and then there’s this “I” narrator, but I really didn’t want to be so closely associated with the narrator. I wanted it to be the voice of someone who stayed there, not someone who left. I thought that that was the kind of voice I was working with. So, I said maybe he’s an earlier, younger version of Digger and that it would be fun to go ahead and name him that. By the way, I just recently wrote my first “Digger” poem in a long time. He doesn’t show up as often as he used to.
TR: In his forward to Places/Everyone, C. K. Williams also talks about what he calls a “tradition of Proletariat poetry in American literature.” Do you see your work as fitting into this tradition? Is it fair to characterize your work as social or political in nature?
Daniels: Yeah, I suppose so. But one of the things I feel as a writer is that I don’t want to get pigeonholed, to have a label on my forehead — “Working Class Poet.” I’ve been teaching college for seventeen years. Obviously I’m pretty far removed from factory work by now. But, on the other hand, that’s part of my background and experience and I’ll always be a part of that world. And, I think this world will always show up in my work in direct or indirect ways. And, inevitably, some of the work is political. But I don’t have a political agenda set out when I write the poems. In fact, some of the people on the left have criticized my work for not presenting workers in the most favorable light possible. But I’m just trying to write about real life and the complications of that. And I think how you get in trouble when you’re consciously wanting to write something to be perceived as political is when you try to simplify the poem to make a political point. Then you’re writing propaganda. I’m just trying to deal with daily life in a way in which political issues and assumptions could maybe emerge naturally. But I don’t feel like I’m writing “message” poems.
TR: Along those same lines, do you think poetry today has any lasting social or political effects?
Daniels: I think it was Philip Levine who said simply writing a poem in twentieth century America is a political act. Because I think what you’re doing when you’re writing a poem is paying attention to the world and slowing down in a way that works against what our society puts a premium on — speed, efficiency and surface, for the most part. We’re taught we should be these stones skipping across the surface of the water, but to get to the place where poetry comes from I think you have to sink down — slow down and start to examine things more closely. Now, people say “nobody reads poetry. Poetry is irrelevant. How can poetry make any kind of change?” But I think it makes a lot of change in the people who read it and write it. Maybe we wish more people would read it and write it, but poetry is certainly alive and well in many ways out there. And it’s interesting to see some of the current manifestations — performance poetry, the return to the oral tradition of poetry; new formalism, the return to strict form. There’s all kinds of interesting things going on. The computer revolution has made desktop publishing a viable tool so that it’s easier for people to publish poetry; and so, while you see the major publishers maybe not publishing so much poetry, you see all these interesting small presses sprouting up all over the place. I’ve had my work printed in places like Solidarity, which is the national UAW journal, and I’ve had it printed in places like The Minnesota Review, which is a Marxist literary journal, places where the context itself might seem to give more of a political slant to my work. And in The Progressive. In fact, I’ve got a letter over there on my desk from The Progressive requesting some poetry, a periodical which if you’ve looked at it, is obviously a very leftist magazine. Certainly my politics fall on that side of the spectrum, but I think that has a lot to do with the things I’m writing about. A compassion for people who are suffering and the various social problems in our culture are often the material that drives a lot of poetry. I put together this anthology called Letters to America: Contemporary American Poetry on Race, and the whole idea behind that collection was the belief that poetry does matter. You get these poets from all different backgrounds talking about this subject that so often divides us — race. But through poetry you can create an interesting dialogue which people who read the poems can then learn from. I hope people using it in their classrooms can generate the kinds of discussion that can break down some of these barriers that keep us from talking about things like race. I guess I do have a belief that poetry can make a difference. Maybe it’s not the difference on the grand scale that you might imagine, but I do think it’s more important person by person.
TR: Well, you just started to talk about my next question, which deals with the poem “Time, Temperature” that appears in Letters to America. Was part of your aim with this poem simply to speak honestly about race, to say, “yes I grew up surrounded by racial stereotypes and racial tension and yes I’ve even used racial slurs myself” — whereas so often we hide behind the politically correct in our public discourse?
Daniels: Well yeah, I think some of the more insidious forms of racism are the more subtle ones. I dedicated that poem to James Baldwin, who was a teacher of mine in graduate school at Bowling Green. Somehow they convinced James Baldwin — he was living in Paris at the time — to come to Bowling Green, Ohio to be a visiting professor. From Paris to Bowling Green! And what Baldwin did in that class was to challenge us to examine our backgrounds, in terms of race, more honestly. I think the whole class was white. Of course we thought we were all good liberals; after all, we were taking a course from James Baldwin, right? So he wanted to make us feel a little uncomfortable and to get beneath the surface. At the time I felt a little threatened. I didn’t feel up to the challenge of what he wanted us to do in there. So, I dedicated the poem to him as a kind of late paper for that class. I imagined it as the kind of thing he would have respected and wanted me to bring out, instead of just getting defensive about it. I do think to get into any sort of meaningful dialogue we first have to fess up to the realities of our own backgrounds and experiences. I guess in that poem I was trying to put some things on the table that are often kept under the table.
TR: Okay, change of subjects. There have always been writers who have attempted to write in the language of everyday people, to imitate the rhythm and cadence of real speech. I think your work especially seems to fit the colloquialisms and non-standard grammar of everyday language into a poetic structure with rhythm and sound and sharp imagery. Can you talk about the technique involved here?
Daniels: Well, I don’t think I do it consciously. That’s my poetic voice, for better or worse. I tend to be a pretty direct, straightforward person in general and I think that comes through in the poems too. But what I look for when I read poetry is clarity and emotional depth. I mean, you can have all the pretty images in the world but if there’s no emotional heart to the poem I’m not really interested in it. 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. I tell my students not to use a word in a poem that they wouldn’t use in a conversation. This doesn’t necessarily mean to be colloquial, but it does mean whatever language you use you should be able to use with authority. That’s why the thesaurus is sometimes a dangerous tool, because you say “Oh, this is a synonym for this,” when the connotation and the level of diction can be really different and not fit with your voice. I strive for clarity and precision. A lot of my poetry is narrative, and I think for narrative poetry to work it has to be cut to the bone for it to be a poem and not something that could easily be shifted into a short story. I really work at compressing the language, so that even though there might be an informal quality to it, the strings are all pulled tight. Another thing is that frankly I don’t have the easy facility for figurative language that some poets have. The metaphors and similes don’t just come flowing out. They show up, and I like it when they show up, but if you were to do a count in terms of how many per poem you’d probably say I didn’t have so many. I rely quite heavily on literal imagery. And one of things I’ve been working on in my recent poetry is simultaneous narrative — more than one story in a poem. “Time, Temperature” does that to a certain extent, I guess. I try to have two stories that don’t seem anything alike so that there’s a distance between them, but the poem jumps the gap and you see some sort of emotional connection between them. When it works, I think it’s like a parallel between the two parts of a simile or a metaphor. You have two things that are unalike but you bring them together and there’s some energy and insight created there. So I’m trying to use narrative more like a metaphor.
TR: As in “Niagara Falls”?
Daniels: Yeah, it has a lot of these little jump cuts. I wrote a screenplay that was made into a film, and in the poem there are these same kind of cuts where you just jump from one scene to the next and you pick up another scene somewhere else. Film does that all the time. I don’t think I consciously adopted these cuts from film though actually working on a film did make me more conscious of what I was trying to do in these poems, to really break up the straightforward narrative. I’ve even written an essay about this subject —simultaneous narrative and juxtaposition in poetry. But the essay dealt also with change in a writer’s career. One of the essay’s two epigraphs is from Vaclav Havel. He had this comment about writers around the age of thirty-five, that they will either continue to write the kinds of things that got them the success they have so far, or they’ll take a crucial step forward into something new. That’s a broad paraphrase. But I was around thirty-five when I read this and I cut it out and taped it above my desk as a challenge to myself to try to push my work in new directions, to maybe break out of the straightforward narrative. I felt I could continue to write those, but that maybe I was too comfortable writing in that style.
TR: I want to talk a bit about the connection between poetry and place. In the intro to the anthology “A New Geography of Poets,” in which one of your poems appears, the editors claimed they wanted poems that “reveal the spirit of the place and the poet, aiming for a balance between inner and outer geography.” Detroit is the central landscape of at least most of your early work. Do you think these poems attempt to reveal the spirit of Detroit itself — along with the individual characters in the poems?
Daniels: Oh yeah, there’s a definite connection between people and place. Part of what I was trying to do in M-80 was to focus in on urban violence and the effect that it has on the human spirit, how it can wear you down and change you and make you more suspicious and hostile yourself. And, a lot of that comes from seeing Detroit, which for a number of years was just a city under siege in terms of violence. I was trying to deal with the psychology of violence and how it effects place. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but on the covers of my books I’m playing with this grid pattern. That’s actually Detroit. You see, there’s this grid which represents for me the Detroit landscape. You have all these boxes. The streets are laid out in a grid and all the houses are these tiny, square, working class houses and they’re surrounding the big boxes which are the factories. The houses are pretty much exactly the same, and the streets have this repetitious structure to them as well. The painting for the cover of M-80 was done by a friend of mine from high school, and what he was trying to do was to play with that grid. So this diagonal pattern across the square grids for me represents the violence cutting across the external structure of the place. And, with Blessing the House — I’ve sort of abstracted this out, but these patterns here are houses and one is yellow to represent the porchlight that shows up in a couple of the poems, and it’s kind of a metaphor for, well, everything a light tends to symbolize in terms of hope and reaching out and being life-sustaining. So the landscape of Detroit is a lot like the covers of these books, and I hope that connection is brought out in the poems too — maybe in some of the “Digger” poems where you have the square of his yard. On the cover of Punching Out is a Diego Rivera mural that’s in the Detroit Institute of the Arts. If you ever get a chance to see it, it’s really wonderful. I was happy to get that image on the cover because Rivera treats his subject matter with the kind of dignity and respect that I’m trying to do in my poems. As a kid growing up you were taught to respect that mural. It’s in a huge room in the museum. So, yeah, landscape effects my poems. And one of the reasons I’m so comfortable in Pittsburgh, even though the landscape is more hilly, is because it reminds me a lot of Detroit in terms of it being an older, industrial city. I could have landed a lot of places as a teacher. I could have ended up teaching at a small college in a more rural area. I feel very fortunate to have landed in a bigger city that’s similar to the place where I grew up. It’s been a real boon to the writing in that I can get away from the university and live a life apart from that. It’s been very stimulating for me. That building across the street is where my poem “The Day of the Two Bodies” is set. You can see it’s a pretty run down building. It’s still a problem to look at every day. But, yeah, more of the poems are starting to be set here.
TR: Actually, I was going to ask you if you think the move from Detroit to Pittsburgh has changed your poetry any.
Daniels: Well, I’m actually still close enough to Detroit. It’s only a five hour drive so I get back there often enough. When I drive around the old neighborhood I’m always jotting down little triggers for possible poems.
TR: But don’t a lot of the poems in the most recent book show a definite break from the previous collections in terms of subject matter and tone. I read a sense of optimism and contentment that I didn’t see in most of the earlier work. Does this have anything to do with the move from working class Detroit into the world of teaching?
Daniels: Part of it has a lot to do with starting a family. That’s changed my whole view of things. And I’ve got a whole bunch of poems that are set in Italy. I think it’s important not to limit yourself. I was going to Italy on sabbatical and someone said, “I can’t picture you writing about the hills of Italy.” So I said, “that’s exactly what I going to write about.” I don’t want to be pigeonholed as someone who can only write about certain things. I write about whatever I come in contact with. But I do think there is more of a reflective quality to the latest book. A lot of those poems are closer to who I am now than some of the earlier work. My life continues to change, and one of the things that happens for me as I get older is that I get more humbled and less certain of things. You get worn down and start to see how complex and difficult life can be. Now, when I look back on them, some of the earlier poems look too simple. And who knows how my poems are going to continue to evolve, but I do feel like there’s been a bigger jump between M-80 and the new book than between any of the other books. The first three books are almost like the Detroit trilogy. And Niagara Falls is transitional. I don’t quite know how it fits in. But in a way, my two long poems, Niagara Falls and “Time, Temperature,” are both about things I had repressed writing about-race and religion. And then once I started opening that gate . . . That’s why those poems ended up being so long. But it’s harder to characterize my more recent work, so I won’t even try.
TR: Could you talk a bit about your early career? How and when you first got into poetry?
Daniels: One thing that probably prompted me to become a writer was that I went to remedial speech class through the eighth grade. Kids, as kids will do, they saw a weakness and they exploited it. They teased me for the way I talked. I slurred my words. There were a lot of sounds I had real trouble with. I got in the habit of holding back and not talking much except around people I trusted, my friends and family, because they wouldn’t make fun of the way I talked. The one thing I could do is to write, because on the page no one could make fun. I got in the habit of writing things down, things I wished I would have said, things I thought about later, and poetry began to become a kind of prayer for me. In the first poem “Faith” from Blessing the House, I write about that:
I stopped saying prayers at night
but kept on with my speech drills
kneeling, folded over the side of my bed
prayers for this life with their
Also, in tenth grade I had a great history teacher, Dennis McCarthy, and once we watched a film in class and I wrote some kind of creative response to it. It was about the fall of the Roman empire, I think. And he saw something in it and he said, “why don’t you just try to write some things on your own and show them to me.” And I’d kind of been doing that already. But then I consciously wrote a few things for him. It’s funny, because the first thing I gave him was this long, rambling thing called “The Existence of God” — I was dealing with the small issues right off the bat. Then I wrote “The Existence of God, Part II.” I was going to a Catholic grade school, and I was in the process of renouncing my faith. And he read it and gave me other stuff to read. Then at some point he took me over to an English teacher and this guy said, “You’re writing poems.” I was just writing across the page. I wasn’t breaking anything into lines. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about what he said because I hated poetry. I didn’t like poetry in high school up until that point because it was this real intimidating thing in some language that seemed foreign to me. And it didn’t seem to have anything to do with my life. And besides, the image of it was as a kind of a wimpy thing that guys weren’t supposed to do. But he started breaking the lines up and saying, “No, these are poems.”
He was also very encouraging, and I was starting to get hooked. If you look at my grades in high school, things turned around completely when I started writing because I knew if I wanted to be a writer I had to go to college. And I knew I wanted to be a writer. I just felt it, more than I have ever felt anything. I said, “This is what I want to do.” So I started working harder and ended up doing a lot better in my last couple of years of high school, which allowed me to go to college, allowed me to do something a lot of my friends weren’t doing. They were going straight into the factories because the money was great. You’re eighteen years old, you go in there and all of a sudden you’re making these big bucks. You can buy a nice, fancy new car. But of course then you have to make payments, so you can’t quit your factory job. A lot of our parents were doing that same thing already. So it was a natural step. I think in Places/Everyone I have the line, “where you gonna work, Ford, Chrysler or GM?” Those were the choices for a lot of people there. What drove me to college was that I wanted to be a writer. And, ironically, working in the factory is what helped me pay my way through college. I was really not a very good poet. I mean, the first week of college I sat down with this English teacher there. And I had hundreds of poems, and I showed some of them to him. He just started ripping them to shreds. My high school teachers had just been encouraging me. They never really critiqued anything. They just said, “Oh, this is great, this is great.” But at the time that’s probably what I needed to hear. Because with my friends — I couldn’t really talk about writing with any of them. In fact, the guy who painted that painting for M-80 was the one guy — well, him and a couple other people — who could share an interest in creative things. It was like we were in the closet. I’d go out drinking with my other friends and we never talked about any of these things. Then I quit drinking my freshman year in college, when most people were just starting to drink. You can probably tell from some of the poems, or at least guess, that I’d gotten into the rut of getting wasted all the time. It was part of my lifestyle, my image. I knew I had to go away to college to break away from that too. I made a clean break and went to a small college where nobody knew me and I could start over. They didn’t have any creative writing classes, but there were a couple of teachers who kept me going. And I just kept going, and I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do. I feel very fortunate and happy. I like teaching. It gives me plenty of time for my own work, and teaching writing makes me a better writer. I find the sense of community and the excitement of seeing young writers develop very stimulating. Some writers find it kind of claustrophobic, but for me that’s not a problem. Every class is different. Each student is different. I’ve even written some poems about teaching.
TR: What about influences from your reading?
Daniels: The first book of poems I read by a living poet was Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind. Up until that point I hadn’t read anything by any poet who was alive, and that’s one of the reasons, I guess, why I didn’t like poetry. It seemed so far removed. And Ferlinghetti writes in a kind of hip vernacular that I connected with. I said, “Hey, I didn’t know poetry could sound like this.” That really opened up a lot of things for me. It gave me permission to write about my life. And I have to admit that Charles Bukowski was an influence, partly because of my background. At the time, it was refreshing to read poems about someone going out and getting drunk, and the sex and all that. It was an antidote to the other more sterile kinds of poetry. Bukowski ended up seeming pretty repetitive to me after a while. But, initially, it gave me a little bit of a charge. And in terms of writing about work in particular, a Canadian poet named Tom Wayman was very important to me. I was in graduate school and I had this kind of chip on my shoulder because the people I knew best, and cared most about, weren’t showing up in the poetry I was reading. On one hand I had a chip on my shoulder about it and on the other hand I was insecure about it. I felt like, “Should I be writing about this? Is this okay to be writing about?” Then somebody in grad school said, “You really gotta read this Canadian poet named Tom Wayman.” He loaned me one of Wayman’s books, and I was so excited by it that I wrote to Wayman in care of his publisher in Canada and he wrote back. He had published a number of anthologies of poems about work, particularly blue collar work but not exclusively. In fact, he has some great poems about teaching. But these anthologies opened things up to where I could see a lot of other people, or enough other people, had already been writing about these things. And it made me feel better and it gave me confidence about what I was trying to write. Plus, his personal encouragement was very important. He’s also written some excellent essays on writing about work.
TR: In the bio in Blessing the House it says you’ve been publishing some fiction. Are you planning to move in that direction at all? What’s in store for the future?
Daniels: I’m writing more fiction than I ever have before. But who knows what will become of it? I’ve always been a narrative writer, but now I’ve been drawn toward stretching things out more and working with dialogue. With narrative poetry it’s often hard to get dialogue in, at least for me. I’ve been challenging myself to try new things. Whenever I publish a story I feel like I’m getting away with something. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up with a collection one of these days, but I’m taking it one story at a time and seeing what happens. I’m also working on a series of poems based on some paintings by Francis Bacon. There’s just something about those paintings that drew me in. And I’ve been writing more persona poems again. And my kids, ages three and four, they’re showing up all over the place. The poems seem to be going in a lot of different directions, and I’m just looking forward to the next book. Actually I might have a chapbook coming out pretty soon — poems about teenage drinking. It’s called Trails, and it’s going to be part of a book with four or five other writers, entitled Brooding in the Heartland, published this year by Bottom Dog Press. And I’d like to do another screenplay, though I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I worked with this independent film maker here in Pittsburgh, Tony Buba, who just had a documentary on PBS a couple of weeks ago called “Struggles in Steel: The History of African-American steel workers.” We’d like to work together again, but with film you need to have money.
TR: What was your film about?
Daniels: It’s called “No Pets,” and it’s based on a short story I wrote. Tony wanted to do a fictional film, and he knew my work and I knew his work, so he said, “Do you have anything that maybe we could turn into a screenplay?” And I said, “Well, I’ve got this short story.” It’s about this guy working in a factory who has to give his dog away. Tony and I worked together and turned it into a screenplay and we filmed it with local actors and actresses, some of whom had quite a bit of film experience from working on George Romero horror films, those zombie movies that were made here in Pittsburgh. “No Pets” made it into some film festivals. It didn’t, obviously, make it into your local cineplex, but it got around enough so that we felt pretty good about it. It was a low budget film. Tony called it “no budget.” But I’m pretty proud of it. I mean it was my first try at a screenplay, so if I did it again I hope I’d be a little better at it. It was fun to work on a collaborative project because as a writer you’re often working in isolation. It was nice to work with people from other creative fields — Tony in film, the actors and actresses in drama, and even some musicians. As a writer, I liked feeling connected to other creative people. Another interesting thing for me was the exposure to a larger audience. They had a big premier in downtown Pittsburgh in this theater that holds like twelve hundred people and tickets were like fifteen bucks, and we sold it out. I said to Tony, “if this were a poetry reading and it were free, we wouldn’t even have a hundred people here.” It was a collaboration all the way through. Tony let me be involved in the editing and casting. He also had a lot of input in the script. But I told him any changes that need to be made I’ll make them. That was our agreement, so for better or worse the work is mine.
I also try to write an essay now and then, but it’s too hard because you’re stuck with the truth when you write an essay. I always catch myself wanting to make stuff up. But I have written a couple of essays about coming from a working class background and teaching at a university. I’ve thought about that gap and tried to write about how I’ve negotiated it. I’m a college professor. That’s what I am now, and I’m happy with it. I feel very lucky to be in this position because there’s so much flexibility and extra time built in. And I love my students. It’s just been a really rewarding thing that, again, poetry allowed me to do. I’m not a natural teacher because I’m sort of quiet and withdrawn, so it’s helped me with that, because when you walk into class everybody looks at you and you have to start talking. We’ll see what happens in my writing down the road. The only thing I can say is that I’m really focusing in on my own kids right now, and I’m sure they’re influencing me as both a person and a poet — for the better.
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