Reading, Thinking, Keeping My Heart Open:
Mark Danowsky Interviews Daniel Simpson for Schuylkill Valley Journal*
MD: Reading your poem "Dolly" I'm particularly struck by the line, "Let them mail out all your desire." There's often something
startling about your delivery; I'd like to hear a few words about your approach to lineation.
DS: I actually wrote a fairly detailed essay called "Line Breaks The Way I See Them," which appeared in the anthology Beauty Is a
Verb: The New Poetry of Disability and in the online journal Wordgathering:
At the center of it was a discussion I had with the poet Molly Peacock when I first sought her out to serve as a mentor. She asked this same question
you are posing. At that time, even though I am blind, I paid attention to the appearance of a poem on the page, more or less neatening up lines so the
right margin stayed fairly even. I knew from working with previous teachers and receiving feedback from other poets that many believed that doing so
increased the aesthetics of the poem.
"Having lines of relatively the same length can make a poem look beautiful on the page," Molly said, "but that's a painterly thing to do.
Why do you care how it looks on the page? You're blind, and that seems like a particularly sighted concern. Besides that, you're a musician. Wouldn't
it make more sense in the context of your life to treat the poem and its line breaks more like a musical score than a painting? For now, at least for
your next couple of poems, why not try this? Don't worry about making the poem look pretty on the page. Just listen to your natural cadence and let the
line breaks act as indicators in a musical score as to where you want the performers to breathe or to place more emphasis. And if one line sticks way out
like a big shirt billowing on a clothesline, and the next line hangs like a limp little sock next to it, so be it. What do you care?"
She had a point. For a while, I tried it. It stretched my thinking about the line and gave me some practical idea of what Charles Olson must have
been talking about in his discussions of line length and the breath. Eventually, though, I moderated lines so they didn't have the extreme differences
in length that early experiments did, but I never went back to worrying about evenness.
Even though I now write mostly in free verse, I feel a pull toward four or five beats per line. In "Dolly," however, I see that lines can
vary from two to five beats and are mostly end-stopped. When I'm writing down a poem, I just let an almost unconscious sense of rhythm guide me.
Analyzing too much at that point takes me out of the poem. But I try to guard against a leaning toward so many end-stop lines now, since thinking a
little about where to break a line can create a delicious tension. So, for example, if I see a place where holding a word back until the beginning of
the next line will give it more weight or a double entendre, I'll do it.
MD: Thinking about your poem "What To Do When": What can poetry offer when we're grieving?
DS: Poetry, like memoir, can provide a contradiction to the isolation we can feel, especially during grief. Poetry says,"This is what it's like
for me. What is it like for you?" It has the added advantages of concision and attention to the music of language. In ordinary times, many people
dream of writing the "great American novel," but watch how many turn to poetry in times of national crisis such as 9/11. When we're grieving,
we look for something we can hold on to, and poems provide that.
MD: What is the role of writing in your daily routine?
DS: When I'm at my best, writing plays a primary role in my daily routine. I work best in the morning, that wonderful time when the subconscious hasn't
slipped completely from view and my sense of energy and possibility is at its apex. I aim to be at my desk around 8:30. Fortunately, I have two dogs who
love breakfast as much as I do, so they keep me honest—sometimes more than necessary—when it comes to getting out of bed. Partly due to good
fortune and partly due to effort on my part, I have managed to set up my life so that my paid work comes later in the day, allowing me the luxury of writing
when I'm at my best.
I saw a remark from Joan Didion that expresses well my primary reasons for writing: "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm
looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear."
Of course, when I go to the desk, I always hope that, ultimately, I'm making something meaningful that will last and will speak to someone else.
Needless to say, that doesn't always happen, which is why I have to keep those primary reasons in focus to sustain me through those days when nothing
much happens. Writing centers me. If I go for several days without writing, I feel less grounded.
MD: Do you have any writing-related habits?
DS: Besides trying to keep a regular schedule, I allow myself to read for up to an hour before I start writing. I don't make this a hard and fast
rule; if I feel a strong pull to get down to writing immediately, I go with it. (Never say no to the muse.) If I give into my curiosity and listen to
the news during breakfast, I limit myself to 15 minutes. After all, "the world is too much with us, late and soon," especially during
distressing times like ours. I need to experiment with resisting the urge to check the news before I write but, at any rate, I know not to let too much
of the world crowd in on me before I try to write. Music sustains me, so I often immerse myself in music before I get to work. Good lyrics inspire me,
and then there's the way that music itself can trigger lots of emotions and affect one's mood.
I find it helpful not to check email or answer the phone until I've finished my writing time, although I do allow myself about 10 minutes to organize
my list of priorities for the day before I start reading and writing. I know this sounds contradictory to keeping the world at bay, but for some reason,
organizing a short list of things to accomplish that day makes it more possible to put those things aside, knowing that I have written them down and
don't have to worry about forgetting something important to take care of later.
MD: What are the most enjoyable aspects of the writing process for you?
DS: I like best that space between the blank page and revising. You've gotten down a line or two, so you're beyond that land of nothingness, but all
the surprises and possibilities of a brand new poem still await you. My brother Dave once interviewed the poet Marie Howe for a podcast. In it, she
talked about her process. "I'll just write and write and write and write and write and write and write," she said, "until something catches.
I'll just start writing into that other key, if you know what I mean. It takes me a long time to get there, so I write a lot. And then, something happens.
You start being dragged along by something else. The horse, if you will, starts riding you, and that is the greatest feeling in the world because then
all you have to do is hold tight, hold onto the reins and trust that the horse knows where it's going. I guess that horse would be Pegasus." Who
doesn't love that moment when the horse starts riding you? I do revise a lot and generally over a long time, maybe even years, and am learning to enjoy
that process more. But there's still nothing that matches that thrill when something outside of you seems to be running the show.
MD: What is the spark that begins a poem?
DS: Sometimes, they come as half-formed ideas. If I stop to analyze them, I think many of the sparks come as something even more
vague—intimations, questions, curiosities. It's easier to identify their sources than to define them. Looking back at my poems, I see that their
sparks came from all over, as I suspect most writers' do. Here is just a partial list:
Bible stories and other classic literature
an infestation of squirrels in my house
setting out to write in a poetic form
snippets of conversation, overheard or otherwise
an interview with Joseph Campbell
events, large and small, from childhood
small intimacies and awkward moments in relationships
major events in my more recent life that needed sorting out
MD: When do you decide a poem is complete? Is this related to a sense of satisfaction or closure?
DS: In principle, I agree with the statement attributed to Paul Valery: "A poem is never finished, only abandoned." I say "in
principle" because I have some poems I've lived with long enough without wanting to change them that, if some urge to tinker with them came along,
I wouldn't trust it. I think that's the advantage of taking your time before putting your poems out in public. My approach to publishing poems isn't
unlike my approach to decision making. I tend to agonize for a long time, but once I come to a conclusion, I tend not to waver about it. Still, you
never know. I've had the experience of reading some of my own poems after they have remained unchanged for a long time, even after they have been
published, and hearing something new. I've even republished them in their altered form.
Overall, however, I do think you have to be satisfied with a poem before you publish it. You have to come to at least enough of a sense of closure
that you believe (1) that you've taken it as far as you think you can and (2) it's good. Even if you allow that a poem might not be quite perfect, you
make an assessment about diminishing returns. Essentially, you make a choice about how you want to spend your time and creative energy. You have to
ask yourself, "Is it worth continuing to work on this poem which hasn't changed in a long time, or would I be better served by turning that attention
toward creating new poems?"
You have to ask the same question about poems you have lived with for a while, which haven't changed, and which don't satisfy you. Anyone who knows
me well knows I have a hard time getting rid of anything I think I might need or want later. It's even harder with poems. Even the ones that don't
quite work still have a place in my heart; we've put in a lot of time together and I've gotten attached to them. Fortunately, Molly Peacock helped me
ease the pain of shelving failed poems. "Make two piles," she said, "a Yes pile and a Maybe pile. The Yes poems get to go out for dinner,
and the Maybe poems are just going to stay at home for a nice lunch."
MD: Do you share your poems with others prior to seeking publication?
DS: Yes. Back when I had a long-term working relationship with a teacher or mentor, that was the point. Now, I still occasionally take poems to
workshops led by poets I admire, but I've also learned to take comments, particularly from the other participants, with a grain of salt. If everybody
loves a particular line or image, that's usually a good sign. If nobody understands a certain line, you'd better think again about it. But if opinion is
divided, you haven't learned a lot unless somebody can articulate more convincingly than others why something works or doesn't and, if it doesn't, how
you might fix the problem.
Mostly, I limit myself to a few trusted readers, people who know me and what I'm trying to do and who aren't trying to make me write like them. Ona,
my wife, who is also a poet and writer, comes first. I used to count on my brother Dave, too, before he died. Even while he was sick, I could run a poem
by him, and he'd have something valuable to say. I also have a friend, the poet and essayist Molly Fisk, who reads me well and gives feedback in a way
that feels expansive rather than restrictive. I like a critic who has some distance from the poem, yet feels like they're in my corner.
One important thing I've learned over the years is to be clear about what I want from a reader. Sometimes, I just feel so pleased that I've gotten
something down that I want to read it to someone. In those situations, I've learned to say, "I just want to share this day's accomplishment with you
and see what it feels like to read it out loud to someone. I'm not ready yet for someone else's take on it." It's important to me to find my own
way for a while with a poem. Later, I can say that I'm ready for reactions and suggestions.
MD: How has your vision of success as a poet shifted over the course of your writing life?
DS: It's more internal and less external in its focus. To put it more starkly, it's more about doing the work today and less about immortality. I used
to gloss over my successes and dwell too much on my failures and on making comparisons with others. I'm not immune to those things now. It's just that
those negative things are quieter. Of course, one reason they're quieter, ironically, is that I've accomplished an important, product-oriented goal:
I have books I can hold in my hand that are mine—books I'm proud of. That doesn't mean I don't still hear rumblings within about more books and
greater recognition. But I'm better at turning away from them and thinking about the work at hand and how much I love the processes of reading,
thinking, keeping my heart open, and writing. In these times, anything we do to keep the poetic and the creative alive in us and in the world counts
as a success. "Just do the work," I tell myself, "and let the externals take care of themselves."
MD: Who do you write for? Has your target audience changed?
DS: While I'm writing a poem, I'm mostly interested in my relationship with that poem, where my mind and that poem are taking me. In the background,
I suppose I hope that someone will want to read that poem and get something from it someday, but I don't feel like I'm writing directly to them. I
think that's been fairly constant over time.
MD: Who do you enjoy reading these days?
DS: Most recently, I've been reading Mary Oliver and Charles Bukowski. Mary Oliver is one of my mainstays. Probably like many, I feel a kinship with
her sensibility, although I would never call myself a "nature poet." Yet, when I read her, I think, "Oh yes, I want to have that kind of
attention for the world and the goings-on of life." I got interested in Charles Bukowski precisely because his narrators challenge the smoothness
and gentleness of mine. He's so raw and gritty and, sometimes, even vulgar. But one of the great things about poetry—any good literature,
really—is that if the writer draws his characters well, you soon find yourself seeing a reflection of some part of yourself. Reading him is a
long-term project, partially because The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951-1993 is a large book and partially because I can't read him in
large doses. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy reading him. Something about his voice can really grab me, and I want to know who he is and how he does
what he does.
MD: Is there a poet whose work you never tire of reading?
DS: There are many. In fact, one definition of hell would be having to limit myself to one poet I love reading. Besides Mary Oliver, I'd list Stephen
Dunn, Gregory Djanikian, Walt Whitman, Tony Hoagland, Robert Frost, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, and John Donne.
MD: What advice do you have for poets/writers?
- Feel free to write shitty first drafts. Lock the internal editor out of the room while you're playing/experimenting/creating.
- Don't settle for first drafts. Very rarely does everything come out just right on the first pass.
- Read your work aloud when you're writing and revising. If you find yourself tripping over the same place every time, there's something
that needs to be fixed. If you get a niggling feeling about the logic or content in some line, don't gloss over it.
- Be patient with your work. Don't rush it into publication until it's ready. But once it's ready, make time to get it out into the world.
(This is one of the harder parts for me of being a writer, so I'm giving this advice to myself as I'm giving it to you.)
- Read widely. It will improve your writing immensely. Writing is just one half of the conversation.
- Take time to figure out the right balance between asking others for their opinions of your work and coming to your own thinking about it.
- Take it from Uncle Walt; loafing is good. As he wrote in "Song of Myself":
"I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease … observing a spear of summer grass."
I know it's radical, but hide all clocks and cell phones, remove all other distractions, and dare yourself to drift toward boredom. What you find
there might amaze you.
8. Keep your appointments with the writer in you. Even if the most you can figure out is fifteen minutes, three times a week, honor it. In my early
days as a serious poet, I asked Mary Oliver about her writing process. She said, "Think of that writer within you as a shy person. Anyone who has
tried to befriend a shy person knows that you have to keep showing up if you want her to feel safe enough to reveal herself. If you honor your
appointments, she'll work between times on the writing problems you haven't yet solved and be ready with possible solutions when you return. But if you
throw her over for a sale at Kmart, don't expect much when you finally show up."
MD: Is there anything on your mind, in general, that you'd like to share with readers?
DS: Yes, a couple things:
Earlier, I mentioned the poet Gregory Djanikian. If you don't know of him and his work, please read him. He's been a great model for me. He doesn't
blow his own horn; he just does the work. And what fabulous work it is—so full of heart and mind! He has a way of saying things that are at once
completely fresh and inevitable. If I had to single out one poem to start with, it would be "The Journey," the same one that first hooked me.
It's the first poem in his first book, Man in the Middle.
This leads into my second thought. I think we as poets can do more to champion the work of other poets. I've decided to include at least one poem by
another poet in all the readings I give. Lately, I often read something by my brother, who isn't around anymore to read his own work. It can be a way
of keeping someone's presence and work alive. But it doesn't have to be just that. In the music world, singers and bands cover other people's music all
the time. Why shouldn't we poets do the equivalent thing for our comrades?
*This interview, along with sixteen of Simpson's poems, was previously published in the Fall 2017 issue of Schuykill Valley Journal
in which he was the featured poet.