In a recent Metro Times interview, Peter Markus discusses with poet Jim Daniels his newest and 14th collection Birth Marks. According to Markus, Daniels’ poems “invite us in to the daily conversation, giving us permission to speak about what it means to be a part of this world.” Here are some excerpts from the interview we found particularly engaging. Enjoy!
Metro Times: This new book opens with these lines: “I am not a minister’s son or a former pro boxer, but I have a few things to say.” What is it in the world, what is it about the world, that keeps Jim Daniels saying?
Jim Daniels: I guess I’m situating myself between the sacred and the profane, and I’m arguing for the ordinary in poetry — for the most part, that’s been my world in terms of my writing. I want to say, there’s poetry in these lives — the ones you and I know, the families that grew up in the Detroit area. No gimmicks, no pyrotechnics — just the hard work of decent, flawed people trying to stay alive.
Metro Times: You also write, in a poem that recalls going to a Black Sabbath show at the Michigan State Fairgrounds, “Poetry was all I had that wasn’t toxic.” Can you talk a bit about the “toxic” and how poetry was a sort of antidote?
Jim Daniels: Yeah, the toxic. The drinking age was 18 in Michigan back then, which meant, back in my neighborhood in Warren, and in a lot of other places, that the “trickle down” drinking age was around 14. I started drinking, and drinking heavily, way before I should have — I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Drugs were in the mix too, but at that time, drinking was really the problem. I was getting wasted a lot, and that really became the focus of my life to such an extent that I quit drinking right around high school graduation, when a lot of people were just getting started. I started again and amped up the drugs big-time, then quit again, started again, then quit for good, but my whole freshman year of college I was straight and sober. It was like college was my dry-out camp for me to try and get my life together and get rid of all the poison. I don’t want to go into a catalogue of all my little sins and crimes, but in general, my behavior itself was toxic. Cruel. Destructive. Selfish. It kept me from myself, if that makes any sense — it pushed me further from looking inward, where I needed to look. It was poetry that allowed me to turn inside and have a good look and rediscover my heart.
Metro Times: I consider you a Detroit poet. You write, “In ‘68, when the wind blew in off the river, Detroit still reeked wet smoke from the riots.” Your poems reek of Detroit. You grew up in Warren. You live in Pittsburgh now. You’ve been living there for more than 30 years. And yet your poems are still very Detroit. In what ways do you see yourself as still being a Detroit poet?
Jim Daniels: That’s a great question. Detroit, we can all agree, is a complicated place. I never think of myself as any kind of authority on Detroit — particularly since I haven’t lived there in so many years. I come back regularly to visit family, but it’s not the same thing. Phil Levine has his version of Detroit. I have my version. And all I can do is tell my stories as part of the larger complex story of the city.
Click here to read the entire Metro Times interview with Jim Daniels.
To purchase a copy of Daniels’ Birth Marks, visit the BOA Bookstore.