David J. Daniels is the author of Clean, winner of the Four Way Books Intro Prize, and two chapbooks, Breakfast in the Suburbs and Indecency. He teaches in the University Writing Program at the University of Denver. His poem “This is the Pink” appears in the Winter 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Is there a story behind your KR poem “This is the Pink”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
The story behind “This Is the Pink” is fairly frank: I was mugged with a beautiful woman I fell in love with for the wrong reasons, I cruised public bathrooms for other kinds of intimacy on the side, we finally broke up, and decades later, Katrina happened. This was a hard poem to write, not just for its subject matter (which is, I suppose, the matter of catastrophe, at both a personal and national level) but also for its vagrant use of outside sources. One challenge was how to modulate tone when I stole from so many voices, among them James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Adrienne Rich, actual CNN footage, a racist bartender, the queer theorists Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, and of course, The Old Testament. Related to this was how to balance the personal thread (of “coming out” and of being mugged, which aren’t in themselves that interesting really) with the public threads of national racism as highlighted through hurricane Katrina. When I first shared the poem with David Baker, we spent several conversations undoing lines, re-arranging lines, deleting sections, and so forth. Reading it now, I still regard the poem as a labyrinth that I’m glad to not have to re-enter again.
This poem is unmistakably set in New Orleans, yet you never directly name the city. What is the importance of having New Orleans as the backdrop, and how did you decide how much information about the setting to give the reader?
In actual terms, New Orleans was where I fell in love, got mugged, and came out. Yet that was a decade before Katrina, so when “the famous storm” happened and unfolded to me (I was far from New Orleans then), I finally found opportunity to revisit that haunting, terribly beautiful landscape, and to revisit what was a difficult time for me and my partner—our circular talks, our negotiations, or trying to maintain a love affair that we both understood but couldn’t admit was impossible at the time. Katrina, too, gave me opportunity to acknowledge my own privileges there: sure, I was suffering at some psychic and erotic level at the time, but I was also a young white male student at a prestigious university, where I could pick and choose fairly safely and indulgently (apart from the threat of disease) whom to sleep with and when and behind whose backs. Only years later, when I read God’s promise to Noah, following that other famous storm, that “every living thing shall be your meat,” could I begin to confront my own privileged appetites at the time.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
To be frank.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
I won’t bother saying (but you’re about to, baby!) what I regard to be a common, if disingenuous response: that I’m somehow driven, that I have no choice but to write. Of course I have choices, and I don’t regard the writing of poetry in the Romantic terms of inspiration. Indeed the writing of poetry is privileged: those who can afford to, who have access to resources such as time, are those who can afford to write, particularly something as seemingly anti-Capitalist as poetry. So, why do I: it’s fun (no, not always, not even that is true). I suppose I don’t know.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
When I finished my full-length collection Clean—which, if I may plug, comes out in early 2014 from Four Way Books, and is largely about HIV and drug addiction—I felt the urgency to keep on writing in that vein, to sustain the momentum of those poems. But it didn’t happen: I buried a lot of friends in Clean, both literally and figuratively, and I feel (for now) that they’re gladly buried. A lot of those poems are crude in their frankness, so now I’m writing much shorter, more intimate, I hope more subtle, and I hope more kid-friendly lyrics. A lot of sonnets or truncated sonnets, each titled after current, former, or would-be lovers.