Monday, August 17, 2009

Jim Daniels

Jim Daniels’ recent books include Revolt of the Crash Test Dummies, winner of the Blue Lynx Poetry Prize, Eastern Washington University Press; Mr. Pleasant, (fiction) Michigan State University Press; and In Line for the Exterminator, Wayne State University Press, all published in 2007. He teaches creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University.


In Amsterdam my friend Dr. Zero
put the Dutch equivalent of a quarter
into a machine to watch some fat hairy
zombie fuck a pig. A real pig. The screen
was tiny, but not tiny enough, for he invited me
to take a peek, and, given my only chance to watch
a man fuck a pig, I took it. I liked Holland
because we could also call it The Netherlands
and call the people Dutch so we had a lot of options
while smoking legal marijuana in a club
that warned us not to shoot up in the bathroom.
Everybody draws the line somewhere. Perhaps
you drew it a few lines back, and I'm whispering
my sins to a dusty screen and I won’t be getting
any penance for my trouble. Dr. Zero was sufficiently
disgusted and chose not to watch the one
with the donkey. Not that I hadn't put a few guilders in—
that's it, guilders! What a great name for money.
And they have the best dimes in the world.
Smaller than ours. It's great to come upon one
in the deep lining of a coat, walking home
from the hash bar knowing you're not broke—
yes, I'd used up all my change at the arcade
watching variations on a theme. Twenty-five years ago.
We didn't get tattoos like we'd threatened to,
and it's a good thing, seeing as how trendy they are
now. The past is like a bad back—not subtle enough
to haunt anyone. Ten years ago a doctor told The Doctor
he might have AIDS and Dr. Zero obsessed
about that prostitute in Amsterdam he spent five
minutes with, even though she'd unrolled
a condom on him. It turned out he had
chronic fatigue syndrome. Every story
is a long story. We didn't shoot up. We didn't
fuck any animals. We told each other the truth
most of the time. I haven't seen him
in sixteen years. The world is a bad joke.
Sometimes we laugh because we think
we're supposed to. When I showed him
the Dutch dime, he took it and swallowed it
so I'd really be broke. I forgave him.
I made a wish.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I don’t know exactly when it was composed. It was originally published in 2005, so probably sometime in the previous year. It started with a memory of my friend Dr. O when we were in Amsterdam together. He’s a larger than life character, but I found that while I’d often told stories about him, I’d rarely found a way to work those stories into poems.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

This one came pretty naturally, so I’d guess less than ten drafts. I work on a lot of poems simultaneously, so it’s not one continuous process with each poem. It’s hard to tell with most poems how long they actually took because I pick up these folders of poems I’m working on and try to move various poems forward depending on which I’m drawn to (and ready to return to) at a particular moment. It’s a messy process in a way, but it frees me from the pressure on any individual poem. At some point in the process, if I’m lucky, the poem moves into the “done” folder and I begin to send it out.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

Well, there weren’t any tears with this poem, but a fair amount of sweat. I don’t believe in the Muse coming down and touching you. I feel like I have to wake up the Muse and put her to work—so I guess I believe in a qualified inspiration—inspiration that emerges from hard work.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I wanted it to use lots of enjambment and have it look a little ragged. I wanted to create this wandering around feel, a casualness to the voice and narrative—I come out and address the reader, for example. Too much overt control would make that more mannered I think.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

Given the nature of the poem, I had to choose carefully where I sent it. Slipstream, a fine journal, was a good fit because of their lack of qualms about printing work that deals frankly with explicit subject matter, and because of my history with the editors. I felt like I would get a good read there, and it would be a good fit. Fortunately, the editors agreed.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

I think I kind of answered this earlier. I’m not sure how long I let them sit. Usually, I pull a lot of things together at the end of the summer to send out. I have no rules. I tend to have a lot of poems circulating though, so I don’t feel any pressure to rush the new ones out there. Definitely time for my initial enthusiasm to die down before I send it out.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

You know, given the length of time, and our state of mind in Amsterdam, I’m not sure I myself could even distinguish between fact and fiction. He probably did not swallow the tiny dime. I wanted to write a kind of wholesome poem about friendship while dealing with unwholesome subject matter, if that makes any sense.

Is this a narrative poem?


Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I don’t remember. I often am reading things totally disconnected from what I’m writing. Reading calms me down enough to get to the place poetry comes from, but I rarely find another writer’s style or subject matter creeping into my writing while I’m reading that writer.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

Not really. I’ll take any audience I can get. With this poem, it’s pretty graphic—which is why I just went and called it “Explicit”—so I suppose an adult audience for that one poem.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

Sure. I’ve got some old poet friends I’ve known since I was an undergrad who still read my work sometimes, and they’re great critics, since they’ve known me and my writing for so long. My wife, the writer Kristin Kovacic, reads more of my work than anyone. She is a very tough, excellent critic, and I owe a lot to her for all the help she’s given me over the years.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Well, it’s more explicit. And it’s set outside the U.S. Most of my poems are set in American cities. The style, to me at least, seems pretty representative of my poetry.

What is American about this poem?

I don’t know. Maybe the bumbling Americans enjoying the legalized debauchery of Amsterdam makes it “American.”

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Both. I assume it’s finished at the time, though often change things, even after they’re published, if given an opportunity to take another look at them.

["Explicit" appears in Revolt of the Crash-Test Dummies, Eastern Washington University Press, 2007.]


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