The writer’s life: Daniel Anderson
By Hilary S. Jacqmin, JHUP Staff
How did you become a writer? What drew you to poetry specifically? What were your early poems like?
It’s hard to imagine that my early poems weren’t a lot like those of many others. Long on adolescent angst and abstraction. A little lonely and sad with a healthy twist of alienation and a garden variety of anxieties associated with growing up. All those things probably got me into writing in the first place—at sixteen or seventeen. If those first poems I wrote are embarrassing, I can’t very well disown the person who composed them. I mean, I’m still trying to figure that kid out all these years later. As for what drew me to poetry specifically, I’d probably say it was my early belief, as a “sensitive” boy, that poetry (as opposed to prose) was the appropriate venue for my griefs and my grievances and hurt.
When I went through the Writing Seminars it was a one-year program. This was in the late 80s. It all passed by so quickly, to be honest. I couldn’t get past the feeling that everyone I was at Hopkins with (poets and prose writers alike) was smarter and better educated than I was. I still think that’s true. In the end, though, they made me scrutinize who I was and what I wanted to do as a writer and a teacher. It wasn’t that they were back-biting or competitive at all. In fact, quite the opposite. They were generous critics and friends. We took ourselves quite seriously. But we also managed to laugh a lot, too. It was a very happy, if dizzyingly brief, time.
How has your writing changed over the years? And what are you doing differently in The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel? It seems to me, for example, that your lines—while iambic—have gotten shorter and more flexible since your first book of poetry, January Rain, came out.
I suspect that the technical answers to that question—about line length and measure—wouldn’t be that interesting to many people. A lot of it has to do with the way I’ve learned to listen over the years. The big difference or progression, I think, is that the older you get, the more you actually have to write about. At least that’s what I believe. When I was in my twenties, starting out, I had to pretend to know more than I did, that I was wiser than I was, or that I’d experienced more than I had. I suppose if you stay at it long enough, for better or worse, life gives you plenty to work with. Looking at the difference between my three books, I’d say my subjects are more my own. My ideas are more my own, too.
I’m probably drawn to rhyme and meter because the poets I love and study and teach use rhyme and meter in their work—or, at the very least, they explored the possibilities of those elements in their poetry. Even someone like Whitman, right? It also seems to me, because I have a challenged and atrocious memory myself, that rhyme and meter increase the odds (however overwhelming and futile and depressing those odds actually are!) that someone just might remember something I have written. Not that I expect this to happen, mind you, but isn’t that what all writers want or should want? To compose something memorable?
The New Formalist wrangling of the 90s—by which I mean the battle (however academic) fought both for and against New Formalist poetry—has ebbed, but many poets writing now seem perhaps better versed in formal techniques than they were a few decades ago. What do you make of the presence of form in contemporary poetry? Who is currently shaping the field, and to what end?
I studied with and alongside of people who were associated with the New Formalist conversation, but I wasn’t too involved. Or let’s put it this way, the opposing dogmas were pretty uninteresting for me and remain so today. Those debates often turn out to be more about the people arguing than the matter at hand. I think it’s ridiculous that anyone would suggest that rhyme and meter and received formal structures in poetry are something oppressive or obsolete. Similarly, I’m equally ambivalent people clubbing readers over the head with their sonnet sequences and sestinas and villanelles.
I take a lot of pleasure asking students to consider the basic formal (and musical) elements in poetry. Most of the students I’m around get teased out of their complacency by rhyme and meter. It can be fun to watch—when they write a line that really works. It’s important for anyone who wants to be a poet to understand just how difficult it is to write a formal line that sounds like natural speech, or one that sounds like someone thinking beautifully and intelligently out loud about the world. Plenty of people can do a forced march through the form—and I think this was the case with a lot of the New Formalists—but that’s not the same thing as writing a poem necessarily. But then again, neither is talking your way down a page, snapping your sentences off here and there in the name of line breaks, and addressing an unnamed intimate second person who you and—thanks to the obscurity of the poem—only you have feelings about.
I really wouldn’t be able to say who is shaping the field. In part because I think in this age there are many fields or schools or cartels that yell at and over and around one another all in the name of poetry. The only thing that seems to unite poets is when someone criticizes Poetry at large, about how irrelevant it often seems or out-of-touch or impenetrable or self-absorbed or small-minded. When that happens, look out! Everyone becomes indignant. They organize rallies. They write angry letters about whoever said such a thing. They start long-winded threads in the public forums and on Facebook. It’s hard not to be somewhat overwhelmed and discouraged by the bickering. Who learns what from it? I’m never sure.
The poems that appear in The Night Guard are wonderfully image-heavy and meditative. They are engaged with rich detail, light and color, the contrast between society’s rules and nature, nostalgia, householding, food, love, regret, death. Are there any particular themes or subjects that you are interested in writing about at the moment, or any incidents from your life that demand to be written about, but that you feel you haven’t been able to adequately address thus far? And I was hoping as well that you could tell us a bit about your childhood and growing up, as well as your family, which comes into play in poems like “Insomnia at Forty-Six” (“My mother, who was never very young / or happy or at ease”).
I’m working on a nonfiction prose project right now about a childhood friend who committed suicide. Some of the essays I’ve been writing have started cross-pollinating with the poems. In fact, one from The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel, “Someone is Burning Leaves,” percolated out of the prose endeavor. A couple more poems seem to be itching to come out, too. But that’s just a small handful. I have poems in the queue I want to write or think I want to write. But you never know how your childhood or family experiences will sneak up on you when you’re writing a poem.
As for my upbringing, it was fairly unremarkable. I grew up in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio. I was the last of five children and, technically, just squeaked in under the wire to be a “Baby Boomer,” in December 1964. My parents were older than the parents of nearly all my peers, and that was always something I was aware of and somewhat self-conscious over. It certainly wasn’t their fault. But that’s where the observation in “Insomnia at Forty-Six” originates. My parents also divorced when I was seven. I seemed to have grown up in the uncomfortable gap between the generation that was born around the Great Depression and fought in WWII, and the generation that was sent off to fight in Vietnam. I’d say those two conflicts are something I still think about today, and how they shaped my perspective. Throw in Watergate, then Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. It was a bit of a rollercoaster looking back on it, though at the time (as a kid) I had no idea what was going on. Zero.
In a way, these poems, even though they speak so much of nostalgia, seem out of time, perhaps because they allow the reader to linger in a concentrated moment. The primary exception to this timelessness would perhaps be “Provinces,” which conjures up a scene straight out of today’s Middle East, most likely Iraq, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, although the poem is never actually placed specifically: “It is a chiseled, godforsaken place. / Unmapped. Ambiguous. Potato-beige . . . / But lately, on the hamlet’s Western edge, / there have been strange movements— / convoys of trucks arriving after dark. The construction of a generator shed. / An ever-slight increase / in local population.” The poem’s introspective attitude is characteristic of your usual voice, and its uncertainty about the possibility of terrorism—and how to thwart it—is moving, as is the way you contrast this scene with the supposed innocence of a typical middle American summer. Why did you take on what some might think of as a politicized subject?
It’s interesting that you would make the observation that “Provinces” has a politicized subject. I’ve always thought I did a fairly decent job keeping it apolitical. In much the same way WWII and Vietnam shaped my psyche growing up, September 11th certainly shaped my perspective as an adult (as it did for many people as well as our government). I have strong opinions about what we did after 9/11, opinions that are clearly political and unapologetically partisan toward the people who led us into Iraq, for instance. The same people who began that destabilization now insist on blaming the current holder of the presidency for not being able to foster order and tranquility and, above all else, fear and respect for the United States. And frankly, it wouldn’t have mattered which party held the Presidency in the aftermath of the Iraq war. The irreversible spiral had begun. You can’t have it both ways—you can’t make the mess then blame others for not being able to make it better. See, now that’s what I would call political.
In “Provinces,” I never intended to blame anyone for the persistent and sometimes exhausting anxiety that came in the wake of 9/11. I certainly don’t hold any one political party responsible for that change in our lives. I guess I always saw the writing of that poem as an exercise in expressing a dark and rather guilty gratitude for the peace we do enjoy here. At least the peace I myself am fortunate to enjoy.
I was hoping that you could speak more about “Four Voices for the Afterlife,” a sort of multi-part eulogy for an anonymous figure (M.M.). Why four parts? And how did you compose this poem?
“Four Voices” is a kind of elegy in-the-round, though the poem is a fiction. I wanted to play with different voices that meditated on a particular common grief—the suicide of a woman named Martha McEnroe. I had a lot of models in my head when I was writing it. William Faulkner and William Blake for starters. But also Emily Dickinson and I would also say Anthony Hecht, too. But you almost always have someone’s voice going off in your brain when you’re writing a poem. I believe that.
How do you think about organizing a collection of poetry? What goes where, and why?
That’s a hard question. Much of it is intuitive. I usually lay all the poems that are going into to the book on a table and start grouping them, putting them next to one another, stacking them, rearranging them, etc. It can be a little unnerving, though, because you start seeing patterns and all your tricks and gimmicks—or things that can start to bother you as your own personal tricks and gimmicks—neatly lined up in front of you. At a certain point, you just have to give it up to the higher powers and hope that no one sees the faults you recognize in your own work. I suppose it’s a lot like looking at your reflection. I’m reminded of the line from Auden’s poem about The Tempest, “The Sea and the Mirror”: “All we are not stares back at what we are.”
I was hoping that you could tell me a bit about your writing and revision process. What do you do when a poem is giving you trouble?
I usually write quite slowly and revise as I go along. I get a few lines down then give myself permission to proceed. I don’t write whole drafts and go back and re-write. And when a poem gives you trouble, you learn that there are plenty of others that are waiting for your attention. It took a long time for me to figure that out, but now I’m relatively quick to let a poem sit in a quiet space on its own until I come back to it. Makes for much healthier and happier relationships with the work, I find. That’s not to say I don’t get frustrated because I do. I’m just less obsessive than I used to be about insisting a poem into the world.
Which poets are you reading now? Whose work is inspiring yours?
I’m mostly reading nonfiction. I just finished a biography on Norman Rockwell and am starting one about Frank Lloyd Wright. I’m teaching a craft seminar at the University of Oregon next year on Shakespeare, whom I never tire of reading. So I’ll be going back to those plays over the summer, which I’m looking forward to. As far as poetry goes, I find myself often returning to three poets in particular—Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop, and Philip Larkin. They’re the ones who always seem to be hanging around in my brain most of the time. They make good company.
And finally, you’ve spent a long time as a teacher at several very distinguished universities. What advice would you give to young poets?
I am so unbelievable lucky to have the job I do. I taught prep school for eight years before I was fortunate enough to get a visiting position at the college level. There was a lot of uncertainty along the way, and there were times when it looked like I would have to give up teaching altogether because the market was so brutal. It’s still brutal, and I worry for all of the fine writers who are also excellent and deeply committed teachers who will be driven out of the field because there are infinitely more candidates than there are jobs. I don’t think setting your sites on teaching at the university level is a viable career plan, that’s for sure. I know that’s not advice, exactly. (Again, I feel unbelievably lucky to be where I am in this age.) If I have any advice at all, it’s to pay attention to the work—your own work—rather than all the noise and chest-thumping and quasi-author photos your friends and contemporaries and even nemeses are posting on social media. I think about the things I scold myself over on a daily basis—not that anyone should use me as a model—and much of it just has to do with getting to the quiet place for clean, uninterrupted blocks of time, where there aren’t any bright colors on a screen blinking at me or ringtones or text-tones jarring me out of my thoughts. Where there are a couple poems and notebooks on a desk or in a stack near that desk. Or where, next to a comfortable reading chair, there are a couple of books. Someplace where people aren’t yelling at each other on the TV about a presidential race that’s a year and a half away, either. I guess I’m saying this more to myself than offering advice.
This First Hot Saturday in May
by Daniel Anderson
The plump, governing bees
discover our tomato blooms,
our squash and watermelon blooms.
They tickle, kiss, and plumb
the open, velvet flower heads
of iris and hibiscus blooms.
They levitate and drift
among the purple hanging clouds
of blossoming wisteria.
This first hot Saturday of May,
the doused and dripping garden smells of green.
The catbird and electric finch,
the feisty jay and oriole
nip thistle, millet, milo seed, and corn
from feeders I have filled.
The world has come alive
with energy and appetite
and all the grand astonishments of sex.
It used to be the only thing
I ever thought about.
Cleavage. Athletic legs.
Tan lines, tight jeans, and lacy bras.
Now it’s the nest egg and the ass at work,
a water heater that’s about to blow,
election politics, and how
it feels the globe is going all to hell.
This would have seemed miraculous if not
entirely impossible to me
a quarter century ago.
What do the young expect?
I guarantee it isn’t this:
a mortgage and a morning picking weeds,
the pleasurable shade
and savory tobacco scent of mulch.
Our fig tree and our lemon tree
survived an April frost.
Now they relax in clear, gold light,
and this, I confess, this brings me joy,
but more than joy it brings
a thankfulness that I’m no longer young,
uncertain, and obsessed.
Besides, it isn’t youth I want.
Who needs the grudges and the big ideas?
The idiot decisions and the hurt?
It isn’t youth I want,
only the high, luxuriating sense,
beneath these excellent and clean
procrastinations of the sun,
that certain days—this one—
may never end.
Daniel Anderson teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Oregon and is a winner of the Pushcart Prize. He is the author of January Rain, Drunk in Sunlight, and The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel and the editor of The Selected Poems of Howard Nemerov.