Destruction and Euphoria:
An Interview with Poet Jeffrey McDaniel
Jeffrey McDaniel is one of the few poets that has successfully united the distant cousins of poetry:
spoken word and written poetry. His work has appeared in major publications: Ploughshares and Best American Poetry.
McDaniel has performed at the Lollapalooza Festival, the Moscow Writers Union, the Globe in Prague, and poetry
slams throughout the U.S. Manic D Press of San Francisco has published two collections of his poetry-Alibi School
($11.95) and The Forgiveness Parade ($11.95)-with a third book, The Splinter Factory ($13.95), to be available in
the Fall of 2002. McDaniel currently teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.
Jaime Wright: When did you begin writing poetry? What experience culminated in your first poem or proto-poem?
Jeffrey McDaniel: I wrote my first poem when I was 14. It was called “The Rollercoaster of Life.” I don’t know where it came from. My family wasn’t particularly literary. Poetry wasn’t something that happened in my house. My friends at that time were more delinquent than artistic.
Wright: When did you begin performing poetry? Did the audience respond well from the start or did it take a while to hit the right nerve?
McDaniel: I did my first poetry performance when I was 16 in 1983 at my high school’s talent show. I did poetry, dance, and mime-not simultaneously. I’d never been to a poetry reading. I was wearing brown leather pants, big dangling earrings, and lots of make-up. It went over quite well.
Wright: What was this performance poem about?
McDaniel: There were two poems. One was a meditation or fantasy about what life would be like without the constraints of time. The other was a love poem.
I wouldn’t say I “perform” my poems, except for a few persona poems. I read them. I try and read them well. I don’t dance around or use hand gestures.
Wright: In your poem “Poetry Nation” in The Forgiveness Parade, you mention Tristan Tzara and W. S. Merwin, and in “Twentynothing” in Alibi School you mention Benjamin Peret. To what extent do you feel that your poetry walks in stride with Surrealism? If you do feel an assonance with Surrealism, then what is it that attracts your sensibilities?
McDaniel: I’ve certainly been influenced by the Surrealist poets.
Wright: What are some of your other influences?
McDaniel: David Bowie and The Doors were both important to me when I was 15 and 16. The concert film Ziggy Stardust made a big impression on me in terms of performance. Bauhaus influenced me. The first poets I really connected with were James Tate and Bill Knott when I was 19 thanks to my first poetry teacher, Thomas Lux.
Wright: Many of your poems concern family. In fact, it seems to be one of the most recurring themes. Do poems such as “Obvious” (The Forgiveness Parade) and “Last Night” (Alibi School) attempt to grasp at an observed reality about the family state in America in terms of group and individual anxiety, or do these poems more specifically arise from personal experience?
McDaniel: Some of my family poems are more “personal,” or more “autobiographical,” and in others the “I” is more liberal.
Wright: It seems that you challenge the reader to find meaning in your poetry. “Cryptosporidium” (Alibi School) puts forth, “Find meaning in this, and I’ll slit a rabbit’s throat / with a comma I keep between my teeth. / Nothing saves us.” As a rule, would you caution readers that attempt to find meaning in your poetry, or something personal, that they may be able to relate to?
McDaniel: I wrote those particular lines in a very black period. They’re not reflective of any sort of theory.
Wright: Would you say that life-experience is more important than any sort of theory, or familiarity with any sort of poetic genre when it comes to writing poetry?
McDaniel: I certainly don’t think a poem is simply a transcription of a life experience. It’s constructed out of language. At the same time, I think a lot of contemporary U.S. poetry lacks passion.
Wright: In “The Offer” (Alibi School) and in “Siamese Opposites” (The Forgiveness Parade) you mention the Catalan surrealist Joan Miró. His work often displays bleak imagery with broad solid-colored backgrounds in works such as “Personage Throwing a Stone at a Bird,” or displays a dimensionless collage of form-based sporadic images or connective realist images in “Carnival of a Harlequin” or “The Table (Still Life with Rabbit)” that combine Surrealism, Cubism, and Fauvism. Often the imagery in your poetry takes on seemingly similar landscapes:
And this new, improved imaginary lover-her whiplash
parabola of tongue snaps sandpaper over spine. Yeah,
in thirteen seconds of pure logic I boomerang
to the future and return as a glimpse.
-from “Technology” (Alibi School)
I believe if one looked in your ear one would see sky:
An intelligent, lobe-bounded blue with languid peacocks
And one cloud so compact it could be chiseled nightly.
-from “The Unspoken.” (Alibi School)
I ate my eggs with a glue stick and scissors.
-from “Siamese Opposites” (The Forgiveness Parade)
How do you imagine your poetry when you write? Do you see these images as real, surreal, abstract, all of the above?
McDaniel: Looking at these lines now, I think the image from “Technology” is what I might call a “linguistic image.” The one from “The Unspoken” is more of a visual image. And the third one is somewhere in between.
Wright: The force of disaster is a frequent character in your poetry:
My life’s a chandelier dropped from an airplane.
-from “Disasterology” (Alibi School)
Our moment expires and two workers
drag it away on a stretcher.
-from “Our Shadows Dance in Riot Gear.” (Alibi School)
But there are moments when disaster turns into a spirit of resistance, yet still destructive perhaps:
I’ve had the wind knocked out of me
but never the hurricane. . . .
-from “Lineage” (The Forgiveness Parade)
It seems your poetry communicates that the necessity and the vitality of disaster and destruction should be embraced as a creative source (in the sense that you write about disaster), or as a source for an individual’s resistance to the destructive forces of society (best described in “Objectivity” in Alibi School). Do you feel that the human spirit generally moves forward only through negation? If so, does this mean that your view of human existence is generally bleak and cynical?
McDaniel: My personal experience was at one time one of disaster and destruction, but that has perhaps evolved into resistance and growth.
Wright: Most romance and romantic relationships in your poetry end in the disaster described above. For example, in “True Story” (Alibi School):
It was our first date, and she was beautiful on the sofa.
My advances were the only thing on the oak table between us. . . .
I knew by the way she glanced at my advances
she wanted to wake up next to them.
I leaned forward to drape them around her neck
when a steel beam fell and nearly took off my nose.
My advances weren’t as fortunate . . .
But then there are moments when we see the calm space of a loving relationship even in the shadow of its impending destruction:
You were mysterious, like a chandelier
suspended by a rattlesnake.
Your palms were the islands
of sleep I swam between.
-from “D” (Alibi School)
Does your poetry seek the ultimate in the erotic embrace? After all, in “Twentynothing” (Alibi School) it says, “Since orgasm is a prayer reduced to its simplest / expression I consider myself deeply spiritual.”
McDaniel: I think it’s hard to write a “happy” love poem, or a “content” love poem. It’s easier to write either pre-mortem or post-mortem.
It’s funny you quote the poem “D” and use the phrase “calm space,” because that is a love poem to heroin, which was very much about finding that ultra-calm space.
I used to believe in the magical power of the erotic embrace. I think I confused euphoria with happiness.
Wright: There are many instances in your poetry that contain references to letters (their orthographic and phonetic personalities) and to punctuation or language:
I hoist a pale vowel up the throat’s pole,
wave it in surrender over the body.
-from “The Multiple Floor” (Alibi School)
. . . your S’es stretched like tendons . . .
-from “Anti-Suicide Jewelry” (Alibi School)
My fingers will dig into you like quotation marks,
blazing your limbs into parts of speech.
-from “The Jerk” (The Forgiveness Parade)
Do you perceive the rudimentary parts of language (i.e., letters and punctuation in isolation) as somehow sacred? Somehow charged with significance beyond their practical usage in words and sentences?
McDaniel: Working with language so much-I guess it was only a matter of time till I began to explore the metaphorical possibilities of the symbols.
Wright: You say “D” was a love poem to heroin: To what extent have drugs in general shaped your poetry? Or in using drugs and experiencing moments ranging from a euphoric synesthia to dumb exhaustion, do you think you’ve been able to intensify your poetry? Do you think the high of certain drugs have drained you of a certain self-motivated creativity at times?
McDaniel: At first drugs and alcohol helped opened some “doors” in terms of perception, but it became a crutch I leaned on and I used that crutch to nearly beat my creativity to death.
Wright: Is poetry a redemptive force?
McDaniel: I guess it depends on the person.
Wright: What’s your opinion of creative writing programs? I often hear people making derogatory remarks about them. For example, the editor of Zyzzyva, Howard Junker, wrote a letter to The New York Times trashing on all the “wannabes at large . . . churned out by the creative writing programs that have infested our universities . . . as the refuge of those who believe in expressing themselves” (Letter to The New York Times, November 12, 2001). Why be so harsh? Don’t these programs just provide structured practice? Can a writing program actually ruin a writer?
McDaniel: If a writing program can ruin a writer, then what does that say about the writer? My own personal experience is that I wrote my best work outside of graduate school, but I had some good experiences and learned some things. It’s a community of writers, but it’s somewhat artificial in the sense that people are paying to be there. My best experiences were when what happened in the classroom was connected to the community at large.
Wright: Imagine that you and I are in a House of Mirrors (one with solid walls of mirrors that range in their manner of distortion); we are both wearing T-shirts composed of pictures of various dead poets, and I turn to you and ask, “What is your advice to young poets?” How would you respond?
McDaniel: If someone is a poet, if that’s their destiny, then they don’t need any advice from me.
McDaniel's poetry online:
Published on Arroyo Arts Collective: Creativity, Innovation and Culture in Northeast Los Angeles (To view poem go to *Archive*, *Poetry*. Then go to *Poetry in the Windows IV (2001)* and click on *Jeffrey McDaniel*.
Boss of the Nethers; Ethel's Lament (Ethel Rosenburg);The Day It Rained Splinters; The Boy Inside the Turtle;
Technology; Alibi School; The Offer; Friends and High Places; Where Babies Come From; Mannequin Complex; The Quiet World;
The Biology of Numbers; The Archipelago of Kisses; and The Passion Tree
All poems listed above reprinted online with translations in Spanish courtesy of Zapatos Rojos.
The Jerk; and Billy Idol (audio files).
Brief bio and two audio files of McDaniel reading his poetry on salon.com.
Exile; 1975; 1976; 1977; and more poetry links.
hyperage.com // blowin' up the dizzot // wisdom, sense, and soul.
The Scars of Utopia.
Rivendell, a literary journal with an emphasis on place.