I was lucky enough to spend some time chatting with David J. Daniels, winner of the Four Way Books Intro Poetry Prize, about his new book Clean (D.A. Powell, Judge). My questions primarily deal with the ways that writing in fixed forms--in David's case, rhymed and metered quatrains--can often assist poets in tackling painful subjects they might not otherwise venture to write about. We also discussed his infuences, religious upbringing, and Whitmanesque compassion. Here's how the conversation went:
MS: Clean was a book I picked up late one night, and it kept me awake till I finished. I was tired, so that’s saying a lot. I was drawn in immediately by the opening poem, “Public Indecency.” Talk about not wasting time to shock the reader: to begin with a poem about a friend caught on camera exposing himself. It’s a bold move, not exactly standard subject matter—that the speaker is friends with a criminal. What I love about this poem is how the speaker’s reactions to this incident progress from “sure glad it wasn’t me” to “there but for the grace of God,” a kind of Whitmanian embrace and compassionate witness: Not that you were unstable / exactly; at least, I don’t think so, / and I say that, of course, as someone who / has extracted brief pleasure from strangers”. It’s straight out of Leaves of Grass,: “no two alike, and every one good”! I wondered if you could talk about how this poem evolved – the structure, the use of rhymed double-quatrain couplets, the progression from relief to, well, acceptance, and joy?
DJD: Well, first, I’m delighted the book gripped you, and I’m touched that you’ve asked to interview me. Having that line appear first in the book – “Relieved, to be frank, it was you not me” – was D.A. Powell’s decision. He insisted on it because he thought the peculiar moral stance captured an essence of the collection, about looking and exposing and public risks and being found guilty for things. My looking and my exposing. "Public Indecency" was a tricky poem to write, emotionally, because I felt nervous about further humiliating my friend who'd already been fairly publicly shamed (ruined, really, in some ways) for what happened to him. Yet I also felt an immediate sort of kinship toward him – certainly, I didn’t judge him – because, yes, as I say in the poem, I've done similar things, and then some, in darkened parks. Many closeted men have (my friend, by the way, is straight), so I also felt some grand moral urge not just to 'out' those truths but to understand and accept them. To name those acts, to give them an identity apart from how our police force would name them. This is maybe the Whitmanesque quality you're sensing, and what I hope is one of the humane motives of the book, of not just telling 'the truth' (which is risky) but of truly empathizing and calling those truths, if not holy, then understandably human and real. And among my feelings – and those of our mutual friends, as we talked about the incident repeatedly in a bar – were grief, concern, sympathy, some joking occurred, some folks rejected him, but nobody, as I recall, mentioned ‘relief’ even though, as I looked around the table, I knew we were all (in the state’s eyes) similarly ‘guilty’ for things. Is relief so startling to admit? Perhaps.
As for the strict syllabic rhymes, perhaps they offered me a more distant motivating stance, so I could propel the poem in terms apart from its subject matter. I remember drafting the poem fairly vividly, over the course of a few days, lining up couplets, tossing some aside, jotting down the word ‘jail cells’ for instance, then listing as many rhymes as possible until landing on ‘pixels’ and asking myself, How would pixels ever occur in this scene? In an earlier draft, I’d gone with ‘pretzels’ and went on this goofy tangent about kids eating pretzels innocently in a park (I suppose I’d invented some sort of pretzel stand and vendor – what rhymes with vendor?) while my friend did his business in nearby bushes.
For what it's worth, when I read the poem aloud, audiences sometimes laugh at moments I still find most tragic and sad, weirdly.
MS: “Public Indecency” turns out to be just the tip of the risk-taking iceberg in this book with its most fitting title, as one of the themes seems to be about making clean what has been deemed dirty. There’s also this sense of danger which is part of the allure – “Stared at / long enough, the night no longer // can be trusted, is filled with accident / or misplaced longing.” Could you talk a bit about how the book evolved into a treatise on revisioning what you deem, in “Larghissimo, as your “soul less salvageable”?
DJD: There’s a danger, certainly, in talking so plainly about things I’ve done, things friends have done, and so forth, things that are deemed criminal or morally unsound. As the Mommie Dearest epigraph states, This isn’t clean; nothing is clean!, just as (I suppose) nothing is fully dirty. I lived a long time in various closets, sexual and otherwise, denying, refusing to name, and I nearly destroyed a few people -- including myself – in the process because of those layers of secrecy and shame. So part of the book is about refusing to deny, of being "frank,” and maybe this makes it Confessional in a very specifically Catholic sense, except my priest ain’t alone with me in a booth. Does this level of honesty make my soul less salvageable? I hope not. I hope, if anything, that it makes me more known, that it makes the people I've loved more known, and brings us toward greater intimacy with others. Whitman again, I suppose: nothing is dirty, it's just us, often sad, sometimes criminal, sometimes very funny.
MS: There’s quite a bit of Catholicism throughout this book. We learn that Catechism derives from “the Greek kata, meaning “down,” plus / echein, more or less equaling “sound”—/ roughly, then, “to sound down,” // to make from airy music a meaty tangible, / from ether the actual gravel.” This is sort of what you do in Clean, if I have it correctly? Take the ethereal, one’s received religion and cultural norms, and render them not only into flesh, but flesh not sullied or sinful? Was that your intention at the outset, or am I completely misreading your intentions?
DJD: “A meaty tangible” – I don’t much love my own work, upon reading it in print, I’ll admit, but that phrase strikes me as a crazy, good way to describe Christ, or God taking on physical form. Outlandish, a meaty tangible. Few people, I think, would call me a Christian poet, despite the number of religious references in the book, yet I was raised in a very Christian/Catholic household, by two of the coolest, most liberal people I know. Liberal in the sense that Christ was liberal. (My dad's a deacon, and my mother works for the Catholic Diocese, far down South in one of the big states that wants to leave the union.) While I've rejected most of the Church's teachings, I remain fascinated by the carnal, by the blood and flesh of it, and I've tried to hold on to a few central Christian virtues that my parents taught me growing up, those of acceptance and compassion.
MS: Fine virtues, indeed! I think for me a big part of the freshness in this book derives from the use of vernacular and slang while writing in strict forms – rhymed couplets and stanzas. I am trying to think of others who do this. Marilyn Hacker comes to mind. And William Meredith’s “Effort at Speech,” with its Sapphics rendered into everyday speech, “Give me your wallet,” which by the way sounds a lot like “We’ve just made love in the fumes of gasoline” (“Shell Station”). But taking Hacker and Meredith’s vernacular a step further, you’ve made the choice to go with fuck, shit, and bitch. Can you talk a little about this dance between content and form, this low and high-brow do-see-do?
DJD: My friends have sometimes remarked that my poem-voice sounds awfully similar to my happy hour-voice, and I like that, if it's true! Rehashing a story with them, I often take center stage and can shift sort of wildly in conversation from earnestness to glib humor, but I hope all those different registers are true – that one tone doesn’t ring false or performative any more than another. So it feels natural to write that way, too. Hacker is certainly a major influence, although less so Meredith, whom I haven’t read much, sadly. Thom Gunn is certainly an influence, as is Larkin, both of whom make appearances in the book. Fuck, I suppose, I learned from them, along with their strict measures and near-holy music and cadences. I take the writing very seriously – I mean, I regard poetry-making as nearing something like prayer, at least in the sense of speaking to something that never answers back – so I’m often surprised to go back and see so many cuss words scattered throughout. It’s not like I’m aiming for shock value; it’s just what comes out naturally, part of my actual voice. Yours, too, I’d venture to guess. Why withhold that actual language from poetry?
MS: Point well taken, said the woman with a similar fondness for high and low diction, the Latinate versus the Anglo-Saxon. But while we are on the subject of formal considerations, I’d love to know your scheme for coming up with such dreamy end-rhymes: plastered/Xeroxed. assume/freedom, Lent/vestment, soul/salvageable. It just doesn’t seem, at first glance, like you find your rhymes in a freaking rhyme dictionary! And your slant rhyming—exposed/holes—are pure genius. What’s your method?
DJD: I’m glad you like the rhymes! As central as subject matter might seem in the book—I guess it's not one's usual poetry fodder, hand jobs and all—for me, form is what truly matters, and rhyme is one of my peculiar kinks. I mean that honestly: I get off reading Merrill just for his rhymes and syntactical wizardry -- the opening pages of Light at Sandover are, to my mind, the craziest, most joyful mouthbits of language out there, just for the sheer technical genius and sound pleasure of it. I do use a rhyming dictionary—a lot!!—and I'll often post on Facebook to friends, "I need a rhyme for Grindr" or "buttercream.” People are very generous in response.
As for the actual content, I'll often alter it to fit the next rhyme, so as I'm writing, at some point a more technical, puzzle-making spirit takes over, a kind of crossword puzzle, more than any earnest allegiance to "telling the truth," whatever that means. Many moments in the book are made up—bent, or slant-truths, I suppose—just to achieve a particular rhyme. If it rings, too, as some sort of echoing authenticity, sweet! But that's just gravy.
MS: Again, on the subject of literary devices –music! –“Hurricane David” is an auditory tour de force–“the brut, the brat, / the funnel cloud, that storm your name / dragged from the Keys / to shit kick a piece of paradise … Both bird / and burial, you rolled / from the pink-flamingoed sprawl.” It’s such a delight to the ears. I love “Whirly bird of no mercy” and “the brood, / the brave, the bravura,” not to mention “the plague, the plunge, the paddle,” and my favorite: “the lost testosterone at sea”! How many drafts did this poem go through? Do you use a thesaurus? Read a lot of Auden beforehand?
DJD: Auden, too, I should've name-dropped earlier as among my influences. I just wrote a poem about him – he was into some pretty rough trade during the Berlin years, apparently. But I don't recall reading Auden in relation to this poem specifically. “Hurricane David” was really pure sound for me, seeing how far I could sustain its patterns, varying words slightly, rearranging the letters on the page for each word to see what else they resembled. Testosterone, for instance, was just a verbal gift-from-elsewhere, as I anagrammed and played around with words like testing, lost, alone, rest, and so forth.
MS: “This is the Pink” feels like an important big poem as it takes on the issue of racial stereotyping of African-Americans—assumptions, ignorance, that sort of thing. The mugger as saint. And we learn that the word clean was spoken by, of all Biblical figures, Noah: go in, all clean. I admire the negative capability of this poem – how fitting its nebulousness, as to the color of the mugger’s skin, as to why the speaker doesn’t show up at the line-up. Again, that reluctance to condemn or implicate what could be oneself. Has this always been your natural impulse? Without getting too autobiographical (unless you want to, of course), who were your teachers?
DJD: “This Is the Pink” is the center of the book, literally in terms of page numbers, and figuratively in terms of my working through various concerns of mine, of guilt and naming, of redemption. I’d spent a lot of time cruising public restrooms for intimacy, behind the back of a woman I lived with. We’d been mugged together on our first date, and stayed together because of that for close to seven years. Flash forward to Katrina, and yes, I overheard a white bartender in Indiana make racist comments while we all watched CNN footage, watched people struggle for safety. I was stunned, and his racism and lack of humanity lingered with me a long time. So the poem works through a lot of overlapping threads: of my coming-out, of the mugging, of giving name to experience, of both the Biblical storm and the one in New Orleans (which I also don’t name in the poem, on purpose), of my own sort of endless appetites when I lived there.
By the time I re-read Genesis, for research purposes, I’d already chosen Clean as the title for the manuscript, so imagine my delight when learning that ‘both clean and unclean’ beasts were granted entrance to the ark. And God’s promise to Noah, that whatever he salvages from the storm will be his to eat. Wow! Talk about privilege. Talk about outrageous privilege! I’ve mentioned to people often that, as much as my own writing may strike them as forthright, the most brazen line in the book (to my mind) is the one lifted straight out of The Old Testament: every living thing shall be your meat. But of course, I’m guilty, too: “Mugger. Our mugger. This dumb kid.” Guilty of turning someone who’d mugged me into ‘mine’, my property, at least linguistically, so part of the poem attempts to work out my own violence. And again, yes, to empathize with the man who’d mugged me and my girlfriend, to understand the cultural deprivation he must have felt, to make that choice. And to not condemn him, anymore than I’d condemn myself or others.
MS: Thanks so much for providing some backstory. Of course, Katrina and the original Flood – they work so well together in this poem. I live for those times when I’m in the act of writing and am provided that kind of gift—like yours with Noah and The Old Testament. Call it: coincidence, synchronicity, payback for paying close attention and doing one’s research, but it’s always a feeling of luck, of privilege, I agree.
“The title poem reminds us of the other sense of this word, as in clean and sober. In it you rhyme, “Pisa” with “’please,: a,” and “St. Luke’s” with “shaky-shakes.” Talk about tough material to write about: a guy thrown in jail, then going through forced detox, but you pull it off with aplomb. Are you emboldened and buoyed (forced to say things you’d never say) by formal constraints? It seems to me the answer is yes. To an Old Queen Getting Dressed” is a gorgeously heartbreaking poem. The form seems to work as a poultice, drawing out your best lines. When did you discover that rhymed quatrains were your friends?
DJD: I love – loved, they’re both dead now – the people at the center of these two poems, and as I often do when I sit down to write, I write to them directly, trying to recapture some of their beautiful essence so that history doesn’t obscure them. Of course, they’re not solely beautiful people: they were both capable, as we all are, of terrible moral crimes. But they were also incredibly funny, at times, and charming, and deserve to be remembered.
Rhyming, as staged as it may appear on the page, might also serve as some form of authentic intimacy, or echo for me: sending out a first word that requires another to join it. Perhaps writing to the dead, as I often do, imitates my own longing to re-connect with them. I’m not quite sure. I know it would be much easier to simply ‘spill my guts’ on the page (I mistyped “spill my guys” on the page, then corrected it, although I like the error!) in free form, but in some ways, free form bugs me: it claims some sort of authenticity or quality of ‘real speech’ that I simply don’t trust. Poetry isn’t letters or news. It’s sound primarily, and highly artificial, so I guess the quatrains hold me to the task. Plus, it’s just fun, freakishly fun, to rhyme “Pisa” with “please: a”. It lets the language remain in control. I suppose there’s some sort of masochistic pleasure in writing so formally, syllabics and meters and rhymes, of letting the poem call the shots.
I also think, sometimes, stunning things can occur when we attend to rhymes and loosen our own control. Consider Hacker’s “Against Elegies,” an absolutely gorgeous poem, which begins with a brief litany of friends who are dying: “James has cancer. Catherine has cancer. / Melvin has AIDS. / Whom will I call, and get no answer?” I adore that rhyme, I find it chilling. And whether Catherine actually has cancer, versus some other disease, matters less to me than the chilling effects of that sonorous quality. I get the same feeling, of sonic pleasure, of very physical pleasure, from reading Muldoon, who is simply crazy with rhyme!
The word “clean” itself, by the way, particularly in gay culture, is somewhat pejorative, meaning negative, and thus set apart from those who are infected or (yuck!) dirty. And I’m aware of that when I use it. But in a book largely about addictions, it’s also meant in that sense of sober.
MS: This is all so enlightening—thanks for clarifying a definition of clean I wasn’t aware of. And why you prefer rhymed quatrains to “free verse.” “Poetry isn’t letters or news. It’s sound primarily”: someone should put that on a t-shirt!
Your book more than deserves all the attention it’s been getting. I can only imagine that DA Powell feels lucky to have found it/you. Have you had a chance to meet him/talk? If so, what was that like? And how was it to work with the editors at Four Way? Did the book undergo much revision from ms. to book stage. If so, what changes were made?
DJD: Four Way is a wonderful press, and I’m humbled to work with them. Martha Rhodes has been nothing but supportive and attentive and kind to me, and the staff, from marketers to in-house designers and line editors, are fantastic. I feel very lucky. They offered suggestions on arrangement of the poems, although the poems themselves, at the level of line, are pretty much what they were when I sent in the manuscript.
I’ve met D.A. Powell once, legitimately, just a month ago, in Seattle at AWP. I was standing in a circle of poets, including Matthew Cooperman and Aby Kauping, who both know Doug well, and I didn’t recognize him. Matthew was about to introduce us – you know how we all just sort of drink and linger and speak casually, as friends – when he stopped and said, Wait, you must know each other! And that’s when it hit me who I’d been standing by. Doug and I hugged, and I thanked him profusely – I’m a gusher – and yes, he thanked me, too, for writing a book that, he said, he loved so much and found very daring.
Illegitimately, I’ve been told, Doug and I danced briefly at another AWP, during one of those late-night sponsored parties. But the floor was crowded, the lights dim, no doubt Gloria Gaynor was blaring, gin flowed (I drank gin then, whiskey now), and neither of us recalls it well.
MS: Dancing with “Doug” to Gloria Gaynor late-night at AWP—does it get any better?! I’m so glad to know you got to meet the person who helped to bring Clean into the world. Wrapping things up, I’m curious to know what are you working on now.
DJD: I’m working on very little, or a few things, very slowly. Clean, from start to finish, took me twenty years to write. I’m hoping the next book arrives more quickly, although the poet Brian Barker likes to tell me just to wait and not rush. I’ve written about ten poems post-Clean, and a few have appeared in journals, and weirdly, they don’t rhyme. Well, one does, but it’s an anomaly. Mostly I’m working on a looser, longer line – despite how I praised strict forms above – reading a lot of C.K. Williams and Ammons, learning how they sustain a line. We shall see.
MS: That’s great advice from Barker. No need to rush! How cool that you are writing poems that are looser and have longer lines. I think that’s a good instinct—to do what you just said you’d never do. It’s kinda what the best poets—state they’re vehemently against rhyme, and then the next thing you know they’re extolling the virtues of terza rima. Whatever form or non-form your next poems come out in, I can’t wait to read them!