Poet Kate Daniels recently published her much anticipated fourth collection, A Walk in Victoria's Secret. A professor in Vanderbilt's creative writing program, Daniels has received numerous honors including the 2011 Hanes Award for Poetry, which the Fellowship of Southern Writers has given to the South's pre-eminent poets, such as Yusef Komunyakaa and Ellen Bryant Voigt. Daniels has also been featured in Best American Poetry in 2008 and 2010 and has published scholarly books on Robert Bly and Muriel Rukeyser in addition to her three other poetry collections, The White Wave, The Niobe Poems and Four Testimonies. She recently answered questions about her work via email.
Many of your poems focus on intensely personal and familial subjects. Granted, each book approaches these subjects with a different lens — The Niobe Poems, for example, addresses your nephew's drowning through Greek myth. How would you characterize the difference between your latest collection and your past collections?
In certain ways this one is, overall, "darker" than the others — although my work is pretty dark, anyway. But Vic (as I call it) keeps returning to themes of aging, mortality, trauma — a lot of really, really bad situations around race, violence, poverty, etc. I've always been pretty obsessed by what people come up with to get through the difficulties of their lives. Also, I think there was more levity in the earlier volumes, ultimately. Here, there is hardly any once you get past the first few poems. As my husband likes to joke, "Another bestseller!"
I'm struck by how much of the world you write into your poems. "Pedicure" is a good example. As the speaker is getting a pedicure, she thinks of the "whole legions of my family crowded in behind" and then proceeds to catalog some of their experiences, a list which then leads to more historical references: "Yet here I was / with my sympathy for the workers, my love of Marx, my hatred / and fear of the bourgeoisie, the robber barons, the planter class, / all kings and queens. ..." Does the impulse to gather the world into the poems help you move beyond the personal to the universal?
I grew up in the white working class in the South, and I still carry around a lot of class rage on behalf of my family, who have stayed where they have always been while I've evolved, socially and economically, out of that life. Plus, I have all the gender rage that has energized Baby Boomer feminists like me. These things — however personally they're experienced — are universals, aren't they? This book in particular, I think, explores aspects of the entirely destructive, humanly wasteful ways in which poor whites and poor blacks of my generation in the South were divided and separated from each other — manipulated, really, by and for the advantage of economically powerful whites.
Those poems don't flinch from the realities of life, yet they celebrate life at the same time. Did you encounter any difficulties in crafting a collection that manages both?
The main difficulty for me is how to prevent rage from deforming the poem. I have to keep poems around me for a long time in order to guard against that. And I have to let certain people who will be brutally honest with me take a look at them at some point.
This collection is dedicated to three poets: Mark Jarman, Philip Levine and Dave Smith. I'm curious about how these three poets have affected your work on a practical level, such as editing — and on an abstract level, too.
I think of these three men as my poetry fathers. For almost 20 years now, Mark Jarman has been a dear friend, close colleague and a clear-eyed critic of my poetry, which is so different from his. He is one of the smartest people I know, and one of the finest poets. I have incredible respect for him in all ways, and I am always humbled by his regard for my poems.
I write about Philip Levine in the poem you mention, and how his poems about his early life in working-class Detroit, and his use of his own class rage in his poetry throughout his entire career convinced me, against all odds, that someone like me could aspire to writing poetry. I would never have had the courage to write my poems in the way that I write them without the inspiration of his example.
And Dave Smith, whom I first knew as colleague and senior poet-friend, has turned out to be my editor at LSU. His thorough, completely devoted approach to the vocation of poetry, his intensity as editor, and his brilliance as poet and critic: these have comprised one of the most marvelous blessings of my life as poet and educator.
What does your immediate future look like?
My third, and final, child is about to leave for college, so basically I'm concentrating on not having a nervous breakdown! The empty nest is not something I look forward to. I have loved having children in the house. I do seem to be writing a lot of poems right now in the wake of the publication of Vic, so that's good. And I am fine-tuning a prose book, Slow Fuse of the Possible: On Poetry & Psychoanalysis, to submit to publishers. Hopefully, that will get me through the last months of my daughter's full-time life at home. After that? Well, who knows? I haven't been able to concentrate full time on writing for a quarter of a century, so whatever it is, it will probably be interesting.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.
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