The Art of Healing
No one exudes wisdom and empathy like David Daniel. Poet and Director of the undergraduate creative writing program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, David engages both people and projects with calm, caring guidance. As the creator of WAMFEST, the Words and Music Festival hosted at FDU, he aims to break down the boundaries between the arts, and through the arts, intends to give audiences a new perspective of the surrounding world.
For this upcoming WAMFEST, you’re connecting to soldiers and healing. What drew you toward soldiers, veterans? Is it just about veterans?
From my understanding, the population likes to be called “soldiers,” including veterans of all wars.
Is there a stigmatization of the term veteran?
I wouldn’t go that far, and I may change it to “veterans” before it happens, and I want to talk to more people just to get a sense of it and what would be clear, because it could be misleading to say soldiers to the general public, even though that might be what they refer to themselves.
What has drawn you to this population in particular?
A couple things. One of the first was [our mutual friend]. He and I were talking about his experiences and, you know, in thinking of his experiences in relation to the kind of crazy little poems he’s writing, and how he’s a successful story of someone who’s come back from war, and you think he’d come back and be a mess like so many because he was just a foot soldier and infantry guy. And instead, he has this passion for the art that a) he’s good at and b) it has given him a place in life, in a community within his area, which I found incredibly moving. And then hearing stories about how he hasn’t been in touch at all with his fellow soldiers because he said, you know, it’s very isolating once you go back home.
We all hear the cliché stories of that, people having a hard time adjusting, but to me it was, at a personal level, if you’d gone through an experience that intense with a bunch of guys, a bunch of women, to come back home and to not be in touch with them seems so strange, you know?
It’s hard to go through a life-changing experience and not have access to that community and that shared understanding.
Absolutely. You know, you’re the guy who everybody asks, “Did you kill anybody?” right?
That made me start thinking about the different reaction to veterans returning from war as opposed to Vietnam that I saw a child: I was vaguely aware of all the spitting, and all the things that the soldiers got. Many of those people are still angry, and some of those veterans are angry with the reception these contemporary vets are getting because it’s so positive relative to their own.
To me, it’s a wonderfully complex story to investigate and have discussions that aren’t taking place. The more I poke into it, the more I see these organizations like the Warrior Writers and Combat Paper—there’s just many, many—and that they are almost invisible. I feel that one of the things I can do is bring them together (with no knowledge and no experience) just saying, “What can I do to spread the word, to let people know what’s going on?” Especially for the students, who tend to be so isolated, though a lot of these kids have friends who are vets, so that’s a difference, too.
It is a silent issue, isn’t it? We have our movies that popularize stories—even from contemporary veterans—but those all push the topic a step away. WAMFEST doesn’t typically have this sort of desire to address something other than art, right? This is a new facet?
Two years ago, I did one on the Appalachian heritage, which had at least some political aspect to it, and that one was partially to call attention to mountaintop removal, coal mining, fracking, and other environmental issues that are destroying Appalachia. I think of Appalachia as being one of the founts of American culture—and we’re destroying that place and that culture.
That had something to it, but nothing like this. That was sort of the start of me thinking more thematically about putting things together. And since we’ve gotten more successful, we have a little more money and ability to get, not just the things we luck into, but rather actually design things and pull it off.
How do you see the “words” aspect coming into play?
Part of what I’ve done historically, part of the mission, is to break down barriers between the art of the people and the art of the academy, or the high arts and the low arts. And the reason for that, for me, the reason that was a big issue is because, as a kid, I was inspired by people like Neil Young or earlier than that, the Beatles, and I wouldn’t be a poet if it weren’t for the Beatles. I’m sure of that.
I think that most artists fell in love with what they do in popular arts, the things that they were exposed to, and yet when you get to school and start studying these things, they don’t exist anymore and are put in a different place—that’s just country music, that’s just pop music, that’s just the movies. And I feel like that is really a sort of specious distinction. It feels class-related. For instance, to see no popular music being studied typically at most college campuses. There’s always the freak teaching the Dylan class, whatever, that’s suddenly cool. But I’m just thinking, “Are you kidding? Bruce Springsteen? He’s not a good artist and shouldn’t be celebrated the same way Robert Pinsky is?” This led to their pairing: I knew if I put them together, people would see that they are very much the same person. Robert is basically the Bruce Springsteen of the poetry world, you know? And one of the first things that came out of their mouths was Robert said, “I wanted to be a musician,” and Bruce said, “I wanted to be a writer.”
I’m not sure how seriously Robert took Bruce as an artist until they had this conversation, and they became great friends after meeting. And I feel like it was a great test of my theory. If you put these people whose worlds will never collide critically, you find that in fact, they are both really, really good at what they do, and both are substantial artists making substantial contributions. Can’t we have them in the same conversation? Not that you’d call Bruce a poet or Robert a musician, but there’s a lot of music in Robert’s poetry, and certainly a lot of good writing in Bruce’s songs. And that’s just happened again and again. Students get this creation story of the artists, and you see these two stories are almost identical—they just took different paths to create it for whatever reason. And it suddenly humanizes these artists, and they’re going “Oh they’re not that different from me, there’s just a different place for this artist. A different place on the road.”
You shouldn’t be ashamed of those things which led you into your art as you’re in the academy, and you should celebrate them and have an integrated life with the arts where you don’t have to say one thing is more valuable than the other. You just say, “This is all part of art.” And it has much more in common than it has not in common.
So WAMFEST is as much a social experiment as much as it is a celebration of the arts. Has it always been in that vein? To destroy the barriers?
Absolutely. That was my idea from the beginning, because I don’t think they serve anybody. You have the pretentious assholes in the academy—great, right? You can celebrate your Vivaldi or whatever you want, and more power to you. But if you don’t understand the relationship, if you’ve lost the connection to whatever brought you there, you’re doing yourself a disservice and your students a disservice. I think, not only in the arts but throughout life, there’s this sense that you’ve left something behind, like your childhood, that you’re no longer that person, you’ve grown out of that, as opposed to grown from that. And it creates all kinds of problems, because you have this dissociation between who you think you are and who you were, which seems sort of silly. It happens to me monthly, I think, “That stuff I wrote was crap” and “I’m writing new stuff now” and “What was I thinking?” Five years later, it all looks the same. It’s not that it wasn’t this great breakthrough, it was just more of the same with some variation, just growing. It certainly wasn’t a huge, huge difference.
When I was in college—I grew up in a small town in south Tennessee, and I went to Vanderbilt University, which is a pretty fancy place—it felt as if, when I decided to become a poet, I was sort of ashamed of everything that I came from. So I decided I was going to love the fanciest poetry I could possibly love. I was an Ezra Pound freak, and I was an Eliot freak. For years, I was writing things that were just so… I don’t know… they had nothing to do with the life that I had led in a significant way, they had nothing to do with my background. And they were pretty! I had an ear, I knew that, but there was something wrong.
Years later, I was listening to Hank Williams and thought “I’ve never in my life written anything as moving as ‘I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You.’” I couldn’t tell the truth because I was afraid, I was ashamed, and I think that was a gigantic breakthrough in terms of me understanding who I wanted to be as an artist. It’s not that I don’t love Eliot and those people—I do very much—it’s just that I feel a little bit more continuous as a human being. And that’s one of the same things that’s informed WAMFEST, it’s one of the things I talked to Liam [Rector] about all the time. This is what I hope to eliminate for other people.
What’s the barrier you’re breaking for soldiers in relation to the arts? Just access to it?
We’re using the paradigm that if we have artists, musical or whatever, to interpret or recast a soldier’s story into an art form, then that’s a way of breaking down a barrier between the raw soldier’s story, who’s not an artist, and seeing it transformed into art. To see that transformation seems like a way to break down those barriers of pure experience, which can be understood in a different light. Just to basically give voice. And in doing so hoping that, you know, let’s say the students participate and try to write a poem based on a soldier’s story, that they will begin to understand how it might be related to something real, to something that’s happening in the world.
I’m really curious to see if you take the same story, and you have a painter paint it, and a songwriter sing a song based on it, what’s that going to do? Going back to the Springsteen and Pinsky thing, one of my dreams was that people would collaborate, right? That these two artists would collaborate, and that’s what happened in a small way as Bruce put one of Robert’s poems to music and then segued into “Darkness at the Edge of Town.” There’s this wonderful moment of seeing somebody literally cross the barrier between these two worlds. And that’s sort of what I want to see, how artists and soldiers, or soldier/artists collaborate to make art.
From the veterans’ point of view, I would hope that by seeing their story shared and understood by someone who doesn’t have their experience could be useful to them, or simply enjoyable, or be surprising. But in any case, I can’t imagine that being involved in that attempt at collaborating isn’t a positive thing. I’m a big believer in bringing people together to create either better art or better people. And that’s the healing thing, right?
What brought you to poetry?
I think I had a deep love of music lyrics. I mean, I knew every word to every Beatles song growing up, and I would sit in my parents’ living room—I was a lonely boy—I would sit with the album from the time I was six years old on just weeping, alone in the room I was in, kissing the album covers. It was awful. But those words were so much a part of me, and those are spectacular words, those lyrics. As things went along, I never thought much about it, but I was always interested in language and had some sort of flair for it.
I went to college originally to study biomechanical engineering as a pre-med student, and there was just this one hitch that I couldn’t really do math or chemistry. And it was like, you know, I would understand concepts, but when it came to executing anything, I wasn’t any good. So I eventually changed to philosophy and English, which is where some of my heart was anyway.
One night, I was at an IHOP with a friend of mine, who was a bit older, and we’d been drinking—it was probably 2 a.m. We’re in this IHOP and he pulls out Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” He read it and I burst into tears and said, “That’s what I’m going to do.” I was so, so moved I couldn’t get over it. And instantly, I went—there was a famous poet there, Donald Davie—and knowing absolutely nothing, I asked if I could come into his class, and the first question was like, “Is this early, middle, or late Yeats?” and I was like “What the fuck am I in for?” because it was all graduate students and seniors. But Donald loved me, and he didn’t embarrass me, and he became my mentor. He was very much like a father to me, and I just kept following whatever that was.
Having no idea what to do after college, I was talking to Rosanna Warren, who was my friend who happened to be teaching there. She was much cooler and hipper than Donald, who was this old pipe-smoking English guy. She said, “Well, why don’t you apply to graduate school?” and I said “Okay.” I was the worst graduate student. Just arrogant and talentless in many ways, and lazy, and yet, somehow I really loved it and loved what I was doing; loved the work and just kept at it.
When I started teaching at Emerson, that’s when I actually got educated because I had to teach all the classes I blew off in college, so I really had to learn! I would prepare for hours for these classes. I taught British literature as an adjunct at 25 or 26 years old. I was teaching Paradise Lost, Chaucer, it was stuff I knew of and had read at some level, and man… I learned so much.
You’re developing a “School for the Arts” here at FDU to give students a space where they can be artists and find work. There’s really almost no guidance in the world for student artists: can you speak to that need for guidance?
I think it goes back a ways to some of the same issues around WAMFEST in terms of class, and how the academy, specifically in the arts, or even in literature really, just thinks of itself. Which historically is, “We would not dirty our hands with this ‘guidance.’” My teachers would have done nothing remotely like that. It never would have come up. And I think some of that persists, that there’s a kind of vacuum that is unsullied by the world of getting and spending. Obviously, it’s changing very rapidly because there’s such a demand for programs that look practical. You see it from the White House on down: if we’re going to support the arts, we better make it look like they can get jobs.
I do think that just by having the conversation of what it means to be a professional writer, or what kind of path there may be early on, honestly, is a really good thing. Have students focused. Yeah, you might want to write some special exotic thing, but these will be the consequences of you doing that. You’re going to have a harder path than someone else who’s thinking about “Do I want to be read by people?” I respect both decisions, but it’s a matter of making that decision on purpose or just blindly thinking someone was going to read your work.
You have a new book manuscript! What is the manuscript for you—as far as your next step in poetry, I guess, because you have Seven Star Bird, which is a wonderful book—but what is this new book for you?
I feel like I’m trying to tell a story, and all the things I write are like the story of America. The first book is about this notion of an immigrant family, and suggesting that in this contemporary life for all immigrants, there is no sense of home for most of us. And that just seems like the story of America.
I thought what comes next, to the extent that I have control of it, and thought “What is my experience as an American?” and “What are the pressures that are coming around me?” I thought it would be interesting to capture the voice that is really sort of… a mind moving through the world. I feel shaped by lots of pressures from history, my family, different things. I want to try to write poems that have every moment of my life happening at once, basically. Every moment of my real life. So there’s no sense—there is some sense of past and future—but really, everything is sort of simultaneous. That’s what I wanted to create. It came to me, in a sense, from Gerard Manley Hopkins with something like “The Windhover” where he’s watching a bird and it’s really, you know, about what that meant to him, about how his heart had been stirred for a bird, and how many thousands of things are pushing down on him. Instead of leaving anything out, he seems to push everything in, and you can feel that kind of pressure bursting out of him as he has this experience. That’s the story he’s telling—not a narrative—but it’s everything happening at once. That’s what I wanted to do, and it’s been a total joy.
I was also integrating a lot of contemporary culture stuff, which I haven’t done. Life writing with kids means you’re writing waiting in line at school for pick-up, and I thought if I don’t integrate my life as it has been, then I’m not going to write a lot of poems. I hope it doesn’t sound too goofy or like I’m trying to be too trendy or something. I’m just trying to be honest about the people who matter to me and the things that matter to me. It’s a big stew of stuff that I hope is exciting, and I want people to have fun.
If what we search for in art is authenticity, the authentic thing is going to be the most complete view, and not the finely cut apart and shaped thing, right?
I can’t tell you how different and differently I feel. I thought I used to love those tiny, carved, beautiful poems, but now I’m barely interested in anything that’s not at least a page long, that’s not rip-roaring down the page. I’m just like, “C’mon! Tell me more! Keep going!” Like Ginsberg, he wrote magnificent things, like Whitman.
I guess a long time ago, I decided the way I would make decisions would be to look at something and say, “Which mistake do I want to make?” Because they’re all mistakes. I want to make the mistake of not shutting up. I want it to be bubbling with life. It’s like what Keats said, “This is life itself,” and you know what’s at stake. No one is going to get mad at me if I wrote bad poems. There really are no consequences, so why not do something that is scary, and beautiful, and fun? I don’t think before writing this book I laughed out loud while I was writing, but I do all the time.
It’s so hard to tell the truth, to be honest, and I think there is a facade of some sort, but it’s pretty thinly veiled. I’m being myself! Which is really hard for me, and being myself in my poems is even harder, but I think I am now. It’s not bullshit. This is me, for better or worse. And my advice to most students is they’re a lot more interesting than they think—just tell the truth. Don’t try to impress me. Don’t try to impress anyone. Just relax.
As everything else falls apart in midlife, you just… you don’t give a shit! And that can be very freeing. I took myself really seriously for a long time, and not doing that has allowed me to be the artist I want to be for me, not necessarily the world’s view. Somehow I feel I’ve taken the art more seriously without taking myself too seriously, and that’s been the key to whatever I’ve achieved in life as a writer or anything else.
Feature Photo by Catalina Fragoso
This article first appeared in Issue 05