Merill Poet Jim Daniels Visits Campus

News  /  by Tanmay Rao '15  /  January 10, 2014

Carnegie Mellon University’s Thomas Stockham Baker Professor of English Jim Daniels visited Lawrenceville this past week as our annual Merrill Poet in Residence. Working with students through discussions, meeting and lectures, Daniels spoke about his life, his work and some of his biggest influences.

Daniels grew up in Warren, Michigan in the shadow of Detroit’s booming auto-industry. Having worked “on the floor” in high school, Daniels’ early life experiences are a big influence on his work. While addressing a IV form English class, he emphasized the lessons he learned from his own misconstrued fear of poetry. Admitting that he was never one for enjoying poetry in high school, Daniels spoke of the stigma that arose from being a writer. “It just wasn’t seen as being something a factory-working teenage boy would do,” said Daniels. He also spoke about the very different lifestyle and culture that permeated his senior year. While most students today will be asked, “What major are you doing?” or “What colleges are you applying to?” students at his high school were asked, “So where are you going to work, Chrysler, GM or Ford?”

As a teacher, Daniels also feels that fear of poetry stems from students being too afraid that they have to follow a certain structure and write only about certain topics. This traditional form may sometimes be the case, but Daniels makes it a point to tell his students that this doesn’t have to be true. Anna Heckler’14 echoed similar feelings about poetry on our campus. “Oftentimes at Lawrenceville we only see poetry as a vehicle for romanticism and hyper-emotional laments. Daniels’ definitely challenges that perception of verse.”

Challenging it is certainly what Daniels does. As he puts it, “One of my things is to get poetry where it normally doesn’t go, in order to reach people it wouldn’t normally reach.” Perhaps the best example of this was when a racecar driver and fan of Daniels’ work asked to stencil his poem, entitled “Factory Love,” on the top of his racecar. The story goes back to his days as a machine operator in the shift system at an auto-plant. It is meant to be about the machine he worked on during the morning shift, a connection he says went deeper than simply that of operator and operated. It especially addresses the pangs of jealousy he felt when he realized someone else shared his beloved machine. The driver wanted this poem on his car because of the similar relationship racers have with their machines. Daniels spoke fondly of seeing crowds gather during a race at every pit stop the driver took to read what was written across the roof of the car, certainly reaching audiences that poetry may otherwise not have reached.

Daniels has always focused his poetry on what may be considered every day, even mundane. To him, poetry is about creating what a photographer can create through a lens, and shape it as one sees fit. “He somehow digs out a dry emotion even in the most seemingly sterile moments. There’s a sort of raw quality to his writing, an intensity and integrity that strikes at something just as deep as the poetry that we know, but one that looks at it through a different—and  somewhat unorthodox—lens,” says Heckler of Daniels’ work. His blunt, down-to-earth, and approachable style of writing draws heavily on his life and experiences on the factory floor, in a classroom, in Detroit, and in Pittsburgh.

This very natural style of writing is evident in his experiences converting from a poet in Detroit to a poet that also teaches in Pittsburgh. “A lot of poets end up teaching because they can’t make money off of their poems, so some don’t take much interest in their teaching,” says Daniels of his profession, “but I love what I do. Teaching hasn’t burnt me out—it has fueled a lot of what I do. The young students keep me energetic and enthusiastic about my own work.” At the same time, Michigan has always been in Daniels’ heart.  His most recent published collection, Bookmarks, is about Detroit. “It’s where I was born and where all these first time experiences happened to me. Every corner has a different story so it’s always with me now, ergo the name of the collection.”

Poetry can take on many tones, and Daniels certainly has a unique one. “He’s like a collection of juxtapositions,” says Heckler appreciatively, “a poetry-writing boy born from the iron-and-steel of factory life; a writer who captures the material existence, yet at the same time recognizes a world that is saturated in emotion. We Lawrentians may see poetry in terms of the abstract, clichéd metaphors of flowers and romance and teenage angst, but Daniels’ writing confronts us with the unadorned poetry of everyday life.”

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