Prose Feature: “The Zip Code of the Heart: An Interview with Jim Daniels” by Justin Bigos

October 11, 2013

Jim DanielsA native of Detroit, Jim Daniels’s new book, Birth Marks, was published by BOA Editions in 2013. Other recent books include Trigger Man: More Tales of the Motor City, fiction; Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry; and All of the Above, all published in 2011. In 2010, he wrote and produced the independent film Mr. Pleasant, his third produced screenplay, and From Milltown to Malltown (a collaborative book with photographs by Charlee Brodsky), was published. His poem “Factory Love” is displayed on the roof of a race car. He has received the Brittingham Prize for Poetry, the Tillie Olsen Prize, the Blue Lynx Poetry Prize, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and two from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. His poems have appeared in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Poetry anthologies. At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he is the Thomas Stockham Professor of English.

Justin Bigos: I’ve thought more than once that the best literary theory class would be a bunch of people sitting around reading great poems out loud. I’d put you on that syllabus. Your poems, throughout your career, have sung of our daily existence, the lives of the suburban and urban, the family and the loner, the lovers and losers, the workers and the unemployed. And contained inside these songs are our most pressing moral and philosophical issues, in language as it exists in the larger culture, the hot breath of the world-right-now, and also in a voice, across fourteen collections of poems, that you’ve somehow made all your own—the necessary contradiction, I think, for any great writer.

Your latest collection, Birth Marks, has just been published by BOA. Let’s start our discussion with the title. The title poem is a kind of he-did/she-did character sketch, until the end of the poem, when we realize the “he” and “she” are the speaker’s improbable parents. Why did you make this poem the title poem?

Jim Daniels: Thanks, Justin. I’m trying to do two things in the title. First, I want to suggest that where we’re from stays with us always, no matter where we go, what we do—one of my favorite quotes is from the novelist and screenwriter Richard Price, who said that where we’re from is “the zip code for your heart.” In my case, that’s certainly true. I know it’s not exactly a radical idea, but personally, I always appreciate a sense of place in what I read. Sometimes I wonder why I still write quite a bit about Detroit, despite not having lived there in a long, long time, and I think it’s because I do carry that place with me—I’ve got a big birthmark on my ass, so I’m not always sure it’s always in my heart, but it’s inside me somewhere. The place won’t let go of me. My last book, Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry, had few Detroit poems in it, so this new book is more of a return to place. Detroit, and Pittsburgh, my two cities.

Technically, a birthmark is a blemish, and I wanted those connotations in there too. I thought a lot about putting the space in between the words, but I guess I put it in because I wanted readers to think about both how those words work together and how they work separately. None of us come out of childhood unblemished.

The other reason for that title is that the poem itself is about making stuff up, playing with memory—the fictional aspect of poetry that’s an important part of my work. I have no problem talking about what really happened in a poem and what I made up—it’s all part of the creative process, not some sacred thing—I just don’t want to get pinned down one way or another. With my fiction, people tend not to make the same kind of autobiographical assumptions. William Stafford’s new and collected poems is titled Stories That Could Be True, and I subscribe to that. My job is not to simply tell the truth, but to convince readers that the stories could be true—it doesn’t matter if they are or not, and I have to remind myself that I have to create the authority for the voice telling the poem or story every single time.

Then I got the idea for the cover, which BOA generously used. I was part of this crazy project, The Lost School of Pittsburgh, cooked up by my friend, the actor David Conrad and I remembered these striking images of the Skid Crews, a group of artists who created art by making skid marks with their cars. In fact, my role in the project was to write a narrative from the perspective of a member of the Skid Crews. Through Dave, I got permission from the photographer to use one of them. Cars. Burning rubber. Art. Perfect!

It’s also, for me, a shout out to the wonderful artistic community in Pittsburgh that has allowed me to participate in various collaborations and be inspired by the great work done by artists in other fields.

JB: I also think the title is better as two words. You can read it as a complete sentence even: “birth” as the noun, and “marks” as the verb.

As far as the emphasis on the fictional aspect of poetry, that’s something that people who don’t write poems seem to struggle with. And I think it’s easy to read your poems as autobiographical because you do return, as you point out, to your “two cities,” and write so much about family. You also write a lot about work, about factory jobs but increasingly about the job of a professor. In Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry you have a whole series of “Tenured Guy” poems. Like your earlier “Digger” persona, you balance an often humorous tone with sudden moments of blunt honesty. In the poem “Company Men,” from Birth Marks, you even draw an explicit parallel between manual labor and teaching as long-term careers that largely shape social identity. When did you notice yourself first writing about teaching writing? What keeps bringing you back to the creative writing classroom as poetic subject?

JD: I published my first two poems in my high school literary magazine—one was a self-pitying teen angst poem:

I who am about to die
I who weep but cannot cry
I am losing my mind you say
perhaps I think it went astray . . .

I could go on, but I don’t think I should . . .

But, the other poem was my first real poem, and my first “work” poem. It was called “Growing Up in a Party Store,” and it was about my high school job working in what we call in Michigan a party store—a corner store that sells booze. I was writing about a subject that I knew about and cared about. And I was restricted in a good way to the four walls of that tiny store where the candy counter was wedged right up against the liquor counter. In the poem, I juxtaposed the names of penny candy with the names of liquor.

I guess what I’m saying is that for whatever reason I’ve always been attracted to writing about work—it’s one of the few subjects I’ve written essays on. We spend so much of our lives on the job—whatever job that is—yet I still see relatively little poetry being written about the daily work that we do. I think it goes way back to when those who wrote poetry—hell, those who could read and write—were from the privileged classes and many of them did not have to work, so it wasn’t the subject of many early poems. It certainly hasn’t been one of the central subjects of poetry over the centuries, and I think it should be—alongside love, death, etc. It affects every aspect of our lives off the job, yet we tend to ignore it in our poetry.

I think I may be attracted to work as a subject because my father worked so much overtime when I was a kid. We didn’t see him a lot, and when we did, he tended to be exhausted. He told me a couple of years ago that in 1972 he worked 800 hours of overtime. That’s twenty extra forty-hour weeks in a year. He was an absence from my childhood due to work, and I guess that in some way drew me to the subject.

I began writing about teaching in a gradual way. In my early years, I think I was too preoccupied on just trying to learn how to be an effective teacher, but eventually it began to creep into some poems. I saw how the academic life affected various people, myself included. With the Tenured Guy poems, I did create a character as a way of writing about that world, like I did Digger with the auto factory. I still occasionally write about both characters.

I’m conscious of trying to move forward and backward in my poems, so that, while I continue to return to Detroit as a setting, I also write about my life here in Pittsburgh as a husband and father, and as a professor at Carnegie Mellon, where I’ve been teaching for over thirty years. In a way, it seemed dishonest not to write about teaching when I’d written about so many other jobs over the years. I guess I was hesitant to write specifically about creative writing classes, but I couldn’t avoid it. Teaching is one of my obsessions, so I couldn’t avoid writing about it. I know that world very well at this point. Three of the things I find most interesting about teaching and academia: 1) you get to reboot every few months and start all over with a new group of students 2) your encounters with your colleagues are relatively few, so those encounters often get exaggerated or distorted 3) you have this independence of not being on the clock, but then again, you are always on the clock—you take your work home with you, so it’s hard to turn the job “off” when you’re away from school.

I know there’s a risk there—every workshop I teach, I think I get at least one poem about being in a creative writing workshop. I don’t want the poems to address too narrow of an audience. Hell, the audience for poetry is already pretty damn small. But that’s the challenge of any work poem—or any poem, period—to make the unfamiliar familiar. So, you’ve never worked in a factory before—then it’s my job to yank you inside the factory gates and show you around and introduce you so that you begin to care about these people and their lives. Writing about teaching is no different, really. You’ve got your stereotypes to battle with. Mister Chips versus the Working-Class Hero, Texas Cage Match.

JB: I’m fascinated by your longer poem “Foundation,” which takes up the second section of Birth Marks. The poem centers around “the pit,” an abandoned concrete building foundation covered in weeds and graffiti, where children gather to play, fight, fuck, and pretty much practice becoming adults. The “pit,” in its visual simplicity and Biblical, metaphorical power, reminds me of the set of a Beckett play. Do you ever imagine your poems as stage or screen drama? I ask, in part, because you have written screenplays and fiction.

JD: My hope is that this poem operates as the core of the book—the first draft of that one, I felt like I was talking in tongues.

I am very interested in plays and films. Many, many years ago, the idea for the Digger poems came from a night in a bar with an artist friend of mine where we were fantasizing about making a movie about Detroit and what images we would want to capture. I went home that night and jotted down all these notes, and I guess as the series unfolded, I kept that movie idea in my head—someone shoveling snow, someone watering a lawn—very simple things.

Writing screenplays for these no-budget independent films like Dumpster and Mr. Pleasant has definitely made me more aware of dialogue and visual imagery playing off of each other. I don’t often consciously imagine the poems as dramas, but I’m sure that my experiences with films and plays influences the writing. Actually, the current film my filmmaking partner John Rice and I are working on is an adaptation of a poem, “The End of Blessings,” and it breaks down into three “acts” pretty naturally, so that’s a very concrete example of the link between poetry and drama for me.

I admire Beckett and do try and work with minimal plot and sets in all three genres: poetry, fiction, and film. I’m very interested in situations where on the surface not a lot is going on, so you have to really pay attention—I love working within those limitations. For example, the film “Dumpster” takes place mostly in a dumpster, and the film “Mr. Pleasant” takes place mostly in cars. I like the idea of containment, enclosures that both limit and inspire. The “Foundation” poem also fits that pattern. It’s a box of sorts whose function was never realized, so it takes on another function for the kids who hang out there.

This idea of minimalism and containment also connects to my collaborations with the photographer Charlee Brodsky. Her photos are very provocative yet spare, limited by the frame. They inspire this very intense kind of seeing for me.

I like putting my characters in sweatboxes—my one-act play “Heart of Hearts” takes place entirely in an abortion clinic waiting room—where the characters can’t get out, or if they can, they have to pay some kind of price. “Foundation” is just that kind of poem for me.

And of course the classroom is a kind of sweatbox too.

JB: I like the idea of characters put in “sweatboxes”—reminds me a lot of Raymond Carver’s short stories. Has he been an inspiration for your writing? In both your writing (and each of you is the rare combo of story writer and poet) I hear both a conversational style combined with a real appreciation for moments of perfect pith, epigrammatic scalpels that cut right to the heart of the poem. You’re also both from the same side of the tracks, though Carver’s terrain is more rural and suburban than yours.

JD: Oh, yeah. Carver has definitely been an inspiration. I can’t say how exciting it was when I first came upon writers like him whose characters I recognized from my own background and experiences. It was validating, particularly when I first writing, to find other writers who valued these people and treated their lives as important and worth writing about, and when Carver started getting a lot of attention, it was like, good for him, goddamn it. I always appreciated Carver’s style. He said something about no tricks, no gimmicks, that I took to heart.

JB: I’m curious about your use of visual metaphor. In many of your poems, over many books now, your speakers are not content with one metaphor. Instead, the speaker provides a litany of metaphors in order—it seems to me—to work out the knot of the image, which often becomes both visual and rhetorical. For example, in the poem “Exterior with Quiet,” these lines:

They pulled down the old church like a diseased elephant.
Like a gray tooth, like a busted equation,
like the thrown fight between religion and economics.

I love that we get to see the mind in action here, and the “mixed” metaphors make the poem stronger. But—and this is a very big question—I do wonder if contemporary American poetry can be a little too in love with displaying the process of making poems. It’s almost like poets have reacted so strongly against the oft-quoted Wordsworth dictum about writing in repose (versus in the hot flux of passion) that there is now a contrary, unstated dictum that poems must demonstrate how they are made as we read them—or else they are somehow naïve in their belief (Yeats’s belief) that a poem must not show its stitches. (What I really think is that even the poems that show their stitches are merely hiding other stitches . . .)

JD: Ah, that’s a great question. I think you’re right about the whole “showing the stitches” thing. It does seem to me that I’m reading more poets who are including more of the process into the poem—for example, the whole device of the strike-through where you can read the words and also know that on some level they’ve been rejected. I believe some of this inclusion of process is linked to writing on word processors, though of course I can’t prove it and might end up sounding like some old fogey if I try. I don’t have any problems with working with the technology, and I mess around with it myself, but I always remember something my filmmaker friend Tony Buba said. He was talking about shooting digitally, which is so much cheaper than shooting on film, and about using the technology in general, and he said young filmmakers tended to be sloppier and not edit as much as they should because they could shoot as much as they want without being restrained by the cost of the film. I think we should write like the words cost us. That’s why I’ve had my students do letterpress at Carnegie Mellon. When you have to physically form the words letter by letter, then, guess what, you might not need that word there after all. He also said something about the students’ credit sequences being great, often better than the films, because the technology allows them to do all this clever stuff, and that too can be true in poetry.

The example you used surprised me because, typically, my poems don’t use as much metaphoric language as you’ll find in a lot of poets’ work. It’s not a conscious choice—in fact, I’m envious of poets to whom metaphor occurs more often and gives us these wonderful surprises—it’s just part of the way my mind works, I guess. I think it might also have something to do with growing up in a world where people tended to be very direct and straightforward in their speech: get to the point already. When you’re working in a factory, for example, you’re not going to have the time to do much elaboration when you’re communicating with someone else. Or, when someone is pointing a gun at you. Maybe I’m getting a bit looser than when I first started out, though. I write a lot of 14-line poems just to rein myself in. The sonnet—talk about a sweat box . . .

Sometimes the knot is a good one and you shouldn’t be messing with it, diluting it. And the danger of this kind of poem is diluting the intensity of what makes something a poem in the first place—that extreme compression of language.

You’re definitely right about the stitches hiding other stitches. Don’t trust those poets . . .

JB: One of the things I have long admired in your poetry is the willingness—compulsion, maybe?—to write about race and racism, and to do it very consciously from the perspective of a white man. I’m thinking of the longer poem “Time, Temperature” (dedicated to James Baldwin) from M-80; the poem “Going to the Place” (dedicated to Jonny Gammage, an African American man killed by police in a suburb of Pittsburgh in the mid-90s) from Night with Drive-By Shooting Stars; and “Places/Everyone,” the title poem from your first book, in which a disgruntled white guy breaks down boxes with his black co-workers, “not even trying to match their anger.” My question is whether or not white poets have a responsibility to engage with race in their work. It might be a hard thing to claim about an individual poet, but sometimes I look out there and see almost no white poets willing to write honestly about race (a couple exceptions: Sean Thomas Dougherty and Tony Hoagland).

JD: Maybe it is a compulsion. After writing “Time/Temperature,” at that point the longest poem I had ever written (if you want to write a long poem, just repress something for years and years, then let it all out at once), I was compelled to search out other poets who were dealing with race in their work—this search resulted in the anthology, Letters to America: Contemporary American Poetry on Race. I learned a lot from putting that anthology together, not just from reading and selecting the poems, but from my interactions with the other poets. A number of writers asked if I was a poet of color, and when I said no, I’m a white guy, they were often curious as to why I was doing the anthology. I would refer them to “Time/Temperature.” There’s a certain arrogance involved in including your own work in an anthology you’re editing, but I felt I had to include that poem in the hopes that it might help readers make sense of why I was doing it.

As you might imagine, it was easy to find poems by minority poets, but you’re right, it was difficult to find poems by white poets. I think partly it might seem like more of a choice for white poets to write about race, but for poets from minority groups, it is something they face every time they step out the door. It’s a kind of convenient omission for a lot of white poets—because once you open that door, you’ve got to let it all out, and that’s pretty scary.

I do feel a responsibility, but that’s just me. It continues to be uncomfortable territory, but coming from where I come from, on the Detroit border off of Eminem’s “Eight Mile,” race was something I dealt with growing up—not something I dealt with very well, but you had to deal—try to deal. And I’m still trying to deal. In Middlesex, there’s a line that goes something like, “In Detroit, it’s always about race.”

I want to mention an outgrowth of Letters to America—in 1999, I started this writing contest for Pittsburgh-area high school students, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards. We ask students not to write essays about how Martin Luther King was a great man, but to tell their stories—personal narratives dealing with their experience with race. My colleagues at Carnegie Mellon have helped me keep this thing going over the years. The students are invited to read their winning pieces at Carnegie Mellon on MLK Day, and we publish a chapbook of their writing, and they can be read on-line here:

Last year, one of the winning entries caused quite a stir and went viral, so we were getting responses (and a fair amount of hate mail) from around the world. That can happen when people are honest about race. It was a difficult and unsettling month or two there, particularly for the young kid who wrote the piece, and his family, but he had something important to say, and he said it. If we can’t tell and listen to each other’s stories, then we’re screwed—let me just quote Michelle Obama here: “Real change comes from having enough comfort to be really honest and say something very uncomfortable.”

JB: Let’s end on endings. Reading Birth Marks, I’m reminded of how often you don’t simply make a poem’s ending “resonate” (triggering those head-nodding poet-audience Mmmms) but, instead, surprise the reader with a major move. For example, the poem “Recreational Trail” confesses toward the end: “By now, you might guess/ I’m unreliable.” The poem “My Two Aunts,” a portrait of two recovering-alcoholic, chain-smoking, fast-food-working aunts, ends: “My two aunts, one way or another/ we will kill them,” lines which suddenly invite the reader into the poem as agent, and which cause a thrilling ripple of implications up through the entire poem. Can you talk about ending poems, especially with these big, risky moves?

JD: Poetry readings are so crazy—that makes me laugh, the head-nodding Mmmms. As a writer, you’re standing up there wondering, is that a good Mmmm or a bad Mmmmm.

I usually write past my endings in early drafts—either write past them or miss them altogether. Sometimes it’s a matter of coming clean, like I’ve been holding back and finally can’t avoid going where I need to go. I probably spend more time on endings than anything else when I’m revising because they’re so hard to nail. When I read, you might see me moving my lips at the end of the poem—that’d be me whispering the lines that I cut, the ghost endings . . . I have my sandwich theory of poetry, which basically involves taking off the bread (the warm-up at the beginning and the summary or wrap-up at the end) and just leaving what’s in the middle—the meat, or, for vegetarians, the cheese, or for vegans, the peanut butter and jelly. Whatever—the good stuff in the middle. The body without intro or conclusion. Pretty deep, huh? Can I get a Mmmm?

Justin BigosJustin Bigos teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University. He holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College, and has published poems in magazines including Ploughshares, The Collagist, New England Review, The Gettysburg Review, and iO.

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