First Verse is a series of conversations between David Koehn and another poet who has recently had a first book accepted or won a first book prize. These conversations navigate the process and experience of conceiving, developing, and bringing a first manuscript to its final form as a finished book.
Jazzy Danziger’s debut collection, Darkroom, was the winner of the 2012 Brittingham Prize in Poetry. Danziger studied at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns/Poe-Faulkner Fellow in poetry. She currently lives in St. Louis, Missouri, where she serves as the series editor for the Best New Poets anthology.
David’s poetry and translations were previously collected in two chapbooks, Tunic, (speCt! books 2013) a small collection of some of his translations of Catullus, and Coil (University of Alaska, 1998), winner of the Midnight Sun Chapbook Contest. David’s first full length manuscript, Twine, now available from Bauhan Publishing, won the May Sarton Poetry Prize. David’s poetry has appeared in a wide range of literary magazines including Kenyon Review, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rhino, Volt, Carolina Quarterly, New York Quarterly, Diagram and many others. David Koehn received his MFA from the University of Florida, Bachelors from Carnegie Mellon, is an essayist for OmniVerse, and Chair of Omnidawn’s Advisory Board.
David Koehn: So, in my thinking about Darkroom, and it is such a fine book and so deserving of the 2012 Brittingham Prize, I was asking myself several questions about where to start this conversation. Your book opens up to several lines of questioning. Should we start by talking about the poems and how they accumulated into a book? Should we talk about how you came to writing and emerged as a writer in this first book? Or should we start by talking about suicide? These three questions seem interrelated in Darkroom. So I want to put these questions out there for you to sort of negotiate, because I think any one of them would lead us down an interesting path. And so…
Jazzy Danziger: It’s hard to choose. You know, the topic of suicide is interesting, because it’s not one that I’ve ever really discussed. I think people tend to be hesitant to…to start there, even though it’s the elephant the room. It’s the reason the book exists. I’m interested in starting there.
DK: Let’s do that, then. So, the poems in the book sort of emerge from this early experience with suicide, and I was wondering how you kept that as background information as you would write poems without letting “suicide” as an “issue” overwhelm the poems as poems, as works of art? And I found this balance very successful in your book. I could see that there’s a way to write beautiful work without necessarily letting this shadow of an issue, especially one as heavy as suicide, to become the only thing that was emerging from the work. So, maybe talk about that a little bit?
JD: The grieving process is an obsessive process. There’s an exhausting retreading that happens in your mind, a retreading that can’t necessarily happen on the page. You go over and over and over the same ideas. Some are productive ideas—about what’s happened to you, about what you can do to move forward. Some are self-indulgent. A lot of them are self-indulgent. Some are angry, some are probably unfair. But that’s the grieving process. I think that it’s natural and it’s necessary, but it doesn’t always make for good reading, especially if you put it on the page without some element of control, without thinking, “What’s going to bring this to life for someone who hasn’t experienced it?” So, when writing an individual poem—ah, sorry, go ahead.
DK: I saw you pausing; I was going to say that I think that’s exactly what I’m sensing in your work—there’s a background processing happening, but that is not impacting the quality of the poems in a way that makes them singlefold. They remain manifold. And yet, they’re all connected to this heady, heavy topic of suicide, and that’s interesting—really interesting.
JD: I think one thing that helps me is—well, I like to tell stories, and when you have a story to tell, there’s an arc that has to unfold in a certain way, at a certain pace. That can help you gain some distance from the disconnected thoughts, right? Or it can help you organize those thoughts. Here’s a very specific story that says everything that I need to say in a concentrated, grounded way, in a way that allows the reader to understand without needing to be in my body.
DK: Is there—I’m thinking of a couple of the poems in the book, but is there a poem in the book where that became clearest for you? Where you said: I’m talking about suicide, I’ve found a way. Was there a poem in the book that was the starting point for I’ve found a way to write poems about suicide, to negotiate this complex topic. Is there a breakthrough poem in the book?
JD: I’m looking at my list of poems now. There are two poems that I think about when I think about breakthrough moments, and they’re very different. But let’s talk about “Other Mothers,” which is the poem that ends the first section, “Florida Poems.” I don’t think the poem even mentions the suicide. It’s just a story about being dropped off at school on the wrong day, and being stuck there, alone on your elementary school campus, and screaming because you’re seven and you don’t know what to do. You don’t have a phone. There are no adults around. It was a way to write about my mother’s absence—even though her death is not the absence there. She’s just driven away, temporarily. Still, looking back, it very much feels like the death was embedded into that moment. The poem ends with me in the donut shop across the street, calling her, and the phone rings and rings and no one’s there. And now I can look at that moment and say her death was built into it. The inevitability of what was going to happen to her because of her illness was built into that moment. I see myself as that little girl, barely able to reach the phone, standing there feeling embarrassed about this separation from my mother. It’s all there, even though the poem doesn’t talk about suicide at all.
The other poem I think about…
DK: Before we move past “Other Mothers”—yeah, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and anytime I sense that, I’m like, let’s stop there and talk. That’s a bodily reaction to what you’re talking about. A couple things: one is if a reader read that poem and your name wasn’t on it and it wasn’t in this book, one might not necessarily connect the trope to the arc of the book, or to the arc of suicide as a theme, just like you’re talking about. But then, this poem, for the writer, compresses the fact the mother’s alive but not present and this not showing up when expected, sort of crystallizes without even talking about suicide, the feeling of a mother who’s no longer there but expected to be there. There’s the sense of responsibility that she’s supposed to be there. There’s this sense of shouldn’t—this girl have a right to expect her to be there. There’s this sense that—the reader’s going, well, why isn’t the mother there? And then the complexity associated with negotiating the world on your own — in a certain unexpected circumstance — and that others in the world helped in some way crystallizes a lot of some of the other themes in the book without ever talking about suicide. But that subtext doesn’t punch through unless it’s in this cycle of Darkroom, which is, to me, the beauty of your book. I’m so glad you chose it to pause on, just because without the book it has power, it’s a beautiful piece, but it wouldn’t necessarily cross the wire with the electric wire that’s running through Darkroom. Would you mind reading it?
JD: Sure, absolutely.
Something in the echo across the elementary school yard,
the way anemic Florida ice trembles
and falls from science building guttersand smashes without fanfare.
Worse than being alone
is what being alone means:
no one else’s mother
forgot today was a school holiday. No other mother
dropped her daughter off and drove away.
The child thinks of other houses, of baked bread
in clean kitchens with calendars, with today circled
in popsicle-red Sharpie. She thinks of her mother,
back from grocery shopping, falling in the garage,
spilling oranges and bright bottles of liquor
on the concrete floor, her pleated skirt
spread out and soaking.
The dazzling fury of that body, the way
it can blame you for its own mistakes.
The girl will be in trouble
whatever she does. Her voice
would crack this chill, the electric cold—
even the smallest squeak or hum
and she can feel the wooden spoon
on her behind, the back of her head,
whichever bodily arch offers itself up
as she cowers, flat, on the linoleum.
She stands in the parking lot. She wonders what she can do
to save herself. What is the proper way
to be saved. Clutching the braided hat on her head,
fifteen minutes of writhing before she begins
to howl. Help, she screams,
someone, please, I don’t know what to do
and soon is heard through the glass of a donut shop
well down the street. The owner
scuttles out to her,
shouting what’s wrong what’s wrong
and she is red and wet
from her crying. He takes her hand
across the street, lets her call her mother
from the phone in back, which hangs so high
he must dial for her.
No one answers. He gives her a French cruller,
round, ringlike, on wax paper—
he has cinnamon on his hands. All the patrons are made
of coffee and smoke and Aqua Net. For now, she is allowed to nap,
to disintegrate onto a hard orange booth seat
like fine sugar onto a pastry mat.
DK: Story—I’m going to sort of circle back to stories. One of my early mentors, Jim Daniels, just released his 15th book of poetry, Birth Marks, and he was one of the early winners of the Brittingham Prize. And his modus operandi is to work with story in its various ways, and I get a sense that, in the contemporary—whatever that means—in the contemporary, story kind of gets a bad rap.
JD: I agree.
DK: Yeah, why does story in a poem get a bad rap? What’s your sense of that, or do you care? Or is it not even worth talking about? I just—it’s noticeable, right?
JD: It is noticeable. I can’t pinpoint a specific instance where I felt “less than” because I tend toward narrative, but it’s in the atmosphere. It seems that poets who rely on narrative have a rep for being cheesy, for perhaps for relying on fiction’s tropes in order to lend a legitimacy to what they’re doing, or for writing poems that are “too accessible.” “Accessible” is such a misused word. But these poets and their poems are dismissed in the way some worthy mass-market films are, you know? Where, even if it’s telling a meaningful story, if it’s perceived as too slick, or as even slightly catered to a wide audience, then it’s somehow “less than.” It drives me crazy. It really drives me crazy. I think a good poem is a good poem. I love experimental, conceptual, language poetry, so on. But I’m not an experimental poet. I won’t lie and say that I haven’t tried it—why not try it?—because there’s sometimes a pressure to move in that direction or to be that type of poet, especially before you’ve published and firmly established your voice. But it’s just not me; it’s not built into my DNA as a writer. I always want to tell a story. When I’m trying not to, I end up doing it anyway. Whether it’s fashionable or not, it’s who I am, so I have to just go ahead and accept it, be “lame” if I’m going to be lame, [laughs] but do my best to write good poems. That’s all I can do.
DK: I am omnivorous in practically every way. Certainly, my grandfathers and fathers in the art are not entirely but largely narrative. Most of my brothers and sisters are lyric; some—and then there’s a whole sort of part of the family tree that is experimental or projective or Language or whatever you want to call it. And I’ve never felt political about any of those choices; I’ve always subscribed to, fundamentally, what you were talking about, which was I’m just trying to write a great piece, and whatever I’m doing to do that, that’s what I’m chasing. So, while I don’t identify with Language or with lyric or with narrative exclusively, I see no reason for the contemporary to de-prioritize or de-privilege any mode. I don’t trust the definitions of the modern is this and the narrative is that, and there’s only this thing. It’s all available. I wanted to talk about story because it feels like a trope that’s being, I don’t know, unfairly criticized or arbitrarily abandoned.
JD: I’m no expert in the history of poetry. I’m just a scavenger. I read what I can get my hands on, and I enjoy what I enjoy, and I don’t like what I don’t like. But I know that narrative poetry has its day and then it becomes passé and people move away from it. Then everyone comes back again and embraces it. It’s always there.
DK: An omnivorous scavenger. Romantic. This seems to a very specific mentality—a kind of subservience to the poem or the process if you will. Almost a “whatever it takes” sort of view…yes?
JD: Yes! At UVA, I worked with Gregory Orr, and he had this great line—I told Greg that my problem was that I have so much anxiety when I write that it often stops me from writing anything at all. I’m so nervous about just putting anything on the page. I feel constricted by expectation, by shame, by the politics of the poetry community, by any number of things. So, I told him that I had started having a glass of wine before writing. He said, “Okay…”
DK: I’ve never heard this before.
JD: Right, no one drinks when they write. So, I started having a glass of wine, and I said, “Greg, I feel very guilty about this, because I’m not me when I drink.” He said, “Who are you, Mozart?” That’s just a great way to encapsulate Greg’s approach to mentorship, at least as I experienced it—the lesson that I learned from Greg is to just write. It’s not even about being productive. It’s about just getting it on the page, whatever it is—good, bad. And also, and this is important, to not feel bad or childish for using poetry as a form of therapy.
JD: Because it can be. It doesn’t have to be, but it can be.
DK: It doesn’t have to be, but it can be. Sure.
JD: I don’t want to be afraid to write the ugly things, you know? I do not want to be afraid to talk about suicide directly. There’s the poem—not “Horseshoe”—“Reinvention,” I think? Or “The Re-Telling.”
DK: “The Re-Telling,” on 32?
JD: Right, where that poem is a reimagining and a romanticizing of this horrible thing that happened. And even though it’s a poem about that impulse toward “softening” the stories of our trauma, it was the first time I even allowed myself to write the word “gun” in a poem about my mother. Until then, I’d felt like I needed to write around it. Why not just go for it and say, “Here’s what happened”?
DK: Say it.
DK: Just say the thing, yeah. So, these poems have been emergent, it sounds like, for a while, and maybe—we’ve talked about a couple of them, but let’s talk about them as a manuscript, sort of. Did they come together immediately, kind of like you sat down and said, “Okay, today I’m going to put together a manuscript,” and you lined them up and you got to page 50 and it was good to go? Or kind of…
JD: You know, it’s funny. It kind of was like that.
DK: Well, talk about that. That’s great.
JD: I was just trying to write poems. And I was always worried: oh, God, is this going to come together as a book? Being in grad school gave me a hard deadline. I’m graduating in May. I have to get this done. Sometime around January of the year I graduated, I laid out all 40-plus poems and I asked myself, is there a shape yet? Incredibly, there was. You have to trust yourself, even when you’re just writing one-off poems, to know that your own obsessions, your style is going to naturally create at least one arc, and probably several arcs. You can take 40 poems and rearrange them in any number of ways and tell a completely different story each time. You arrange them, and you begin to see holes if there are holes, and then you write the poem that fits that space or bridges the gap. That was my approach, and I’m still amazed that it worked. I did not expect it to work. It was just, well, what else am I going to do? I can’t start from scratch here, so let’s find the story.
DK: Yeah. So, two questions about that. One is—a comment and then a question. That’s really, I think, a relief to folks maybe putting together their first book, which is, oh my God, you mean, for the past three years, I should have been thinking about writing poems in some sequence in order to get to a book? Which people, probably, when they start putting together a manuscript, are going, “Oh, no.” But, like you said, they can’t start over, but perhaps if one just trusts that writing individual poems, that whatever it is that is interesting to you is emerging, and that you’ll find, in the result, a manuscript. This is what you did, yes?
JD: Right. Regardless of the surface topic of the individual poem you’re working on, the location, or the character, the themes are going to be compatible, and they’re going to create a story, and that’s what I found. There’s a poem in here, “Maps,” which seems to come from nowhere. I mean, it’s about Sudan. How does that fit into a story about this little family in Florida? And it just does. It’s about the scars that we carry with us, the stories that our bodies tell, and that’s an obsession that exists in the book elsewhere. I think some people can say, well, my book’s going to be about “blank” and then they write the poems, and I envy those people. But some people can’t do it. I don’t think I can. I have to start with the individual poems and see what happens. It’s the same when writing a single poem—I can’t sit down and say, “This poem’s about this.” I have to start with language and see what happens. It’s the same model.
DK: Yeah, there’s the old William Stafford phrase, which is, “I have no idea what I’m going to say until I start writing.”
JD: It’s true.
DK: Put the pen to paper, and then figure it out. That’s beautiful. I love that poem “Maps” for that exact reason, so I’d like you to read that, if possible. And then, real quickly, before we jump into “Maps,” was “Maps”—just a question—was “Maps” a poem that you wrote to fill a gap, or was that a previously existing poem that was already part of the arc?
JD: It was a previously existing poem. It came out of an assignment from Rita Dove—it needed to be a poem about a bride and a groom from a culture that was not my own, with sections from each of their perspectives. Originally, it did have both voices, and then I found myself drawn to what the bride was saying. And so, the groom was silenced. But, yeah…
DK: That’s okay. He’s used to it.
JD: Right. [Laughs] I was surprised that it ended up in the book, because I felt, well, this is too different. This doesn’t have a place. But, as I put the book together, it knew it wanted to be part of it.
DK: I identified that poem as well, for a similar reason, it has that sense of expanding the range in the book, and yet it didn’t feel out of place, so it sort of expands the territory of the book—coincidentally named “Maps.” So, it allows us to process the book as a whole maybe in a more—in a broader way, and it suggests that you, the poet, the writer is sensitive to that, that you are aware that there’s not just one thing here but, again, there’s a polysemousness. There’s lots of things going on here. While suicide may be the undertone in the stories and Darkroom the frame—which we should talk about that a little bit—across the top, but that there’s a broader application. So, if you would read “Maps,” that’d be great.
The bride sings:In Khartoum, our mouths are full of ice milk.
Love and God and your mother are lifting my shawl
in the ballroom off Nile Road, where ceiling lights
hang like wet cotton.
I work at the Coca-Cola plant.
They hire deaf girls to inspect the bottles. It doesn’t require
every sense, merely to look on the assembly line
for slight curves in the neck, broken bits of glass
in the body. So there’s cola
at our wedding table, and hot butter,
dishes of mutton, white cheese, and bread. And sugar
from Kenana downstream, where canecutters slice
the blistered stalks.
Now on the jirtig bed, half-hidden
from guests, we wait for ritual, surround ourselves
with older women. They baked my red heart
each night this month, set me above a wood pit
to roast me thick like meat. My sisters prepared me,
brushed me sore with turmeric, coffee.
They stripped me of hair with lemon juice
and boiled sugar, lit me like a lantern.
I lost my hearing at ten in a schoolhouse.
The explosions down the street shot waves of stars
and dirt and chickens for miles. The heat melted
our plastic book jackets: my skirt stained
bright as a bluebird feather.
In my dream last night, we were wedded in the south.
A man slaughtered a bull for us. Its long tail whipped
in the grass. Its stomach and sides were dark with dirt, and the skin slipped
from its bones. I saw a village boy who had taken a razor
to his hair. He patted himself with ash and clay,
held a cupped hand above his own head filled with water
and cattle urine for bleaching. The liquid spilled down his shoulders,
but the ash and clay slowed it, dried it on his chest. You could map
whatever movement it had made in its short life,
could chart where the rivers had run
through the sheet of earth on his skin.
When I woke, I saw my scars as borders.
JD: It’s something different. [Laughs]
DK: Yeah, that sense of this bride’s analogy to the female character in the book to a broader sense of suffering, maybe, but also to a sense of boundary, to a sense of politic, to a—those kinds of things, I think, were—and, again, a poem that I think operates even more effectively in the collection than if it was standalone, because you’re connecting so much of the other pieces in the book to what seems to be a poem about a bride in Khartoum. And, of course, the language you use, as always, and as in every poem, startling and beautiful and active, whether “cane cutter sliced the blistered stalks” and “they stripped me of hair with lemon juice and boiled sugar, lit me like a lantern.”
JD: It’s funny to revisit it—I haven’t read it in a while—and to think about the way that the body in the center of the poem becomes separate from the speaker. The body as an object separate from identity—it’s an idea that’s emerging in the work I’m doing now. To see it here in older work is great. Again, our obsessions are always there and will appear in surprising places.
DK: Yeah, this one was a—maybe this one was a signifier poem in that it fit within Darkroom but also had something that was carrying forward into what’s next for you. Beautiful.
So, one of the parts of the conversation here is, okay, so did you get a call from Brittingham? Did they send an email? Did they—what was that experience like of receiving notice that Darkroom was accepted as the winner of the Brittingham Prize?
JD: At the time, I was working in a very corporate office, so I had a cubicle, gray walls—think Office Space. A lot of creative people work in environments like that, and sometimes you’re struck by the fact that you have a rich inner life and you’re working on your poetry and it’s so entirely at odds with the sterile environment you spend your days in. I felt like that every day. So, I had gone to lunch in the cafeteria, and when I came back, I checked my voicemail. And Ron Wallace from the University of Wisconsin had left me a voicemail with the news. I had that voicemail on my phone for a long time, and then my phone deleted it.
DK: Oh no!
JD: I’m so sad about it, because in moments of—I have terrible impostor syndrome, like many writers, and in moments of despair I could go to that voicemail and re-listen and say, “Yes, I am a good writer! I am good.” Anyway, I received that voicemail, and because I worked in a very quiet office, I had to celebrate silently in a “lactation room,” the rooms that are provided for nursing mothers. There it was, on the door, “Lactation Room,” and I opened the door and walked in and called Ron Wallace back, and it was surreal. I did not expect to ever have a book, and even in those rare moments of optimism I certainly did not expect to have one so soon. I believed very strongly in Darkroom, but I know how many talented poets there are writing right now, trying to get their work out into the world, submitting to these book contests. So I felt unworthy, as much as I loved my book and believed in my book. I sat in that room for about half an hour, calling the important people, and saying, “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this.” And then I had to wait about a year and a half before it was actually in my hands. That was the longest wait of my life.
DK: But talk about that. Yeah, what was that experience like? From the phone call to here it is, you know.
JD: Right. I was anxious, because I felt that, because the book wasn’t in my hand, the whole thing could be taken away from me at any moment. It was, Oh God, this is just an idea. This is just a project, and at any moment they could say, “Never mind,” and then the book’s gone, unlikely as that may have been. That time between acceptance and publication was very new and strange for me: going through cover art, proofreading the book, finding blurbs, because I felt—who am I to be telling a press what a book should look like?
DK: So, you touched on so many things in that story. It’s like I don’t even know where to start. One is I think a lot of folks that are working on their first book can identify with that: you know, my external, day-to-day life is so different from my interior world where I’m this person producing poems with little to no chance of ever having a book, which is the way we operate. Maybe we’ll publish some here and there, but never actually produce a book. And then there’s this—I think people really identify with that sense of the difference between, maybe, our interior lives and the workaday week to some degree.
You also touched on that—the sense of unworthiness when you do succeed—certainly, I had that experience, which is I kind of resigned myself to just never having a book, just publishing here and there, and that would be that, and that would be fine. I had pursued a technology career and the large proportion of my life had been committed to the workaday and a small subset of my interior life was committed to the art. I’m not part of the world of poetry, if you will—I’m not in academia. And so, that sense that people have of—even with an acceptance of an individual poem is like, oh my gosh, there’s so many people trying to have this experience, and then—and for you, being the recipient of the Brittingham, I think people are going to be like, wow, luxury problem. How can you feel unworthy when you won this great prize? But I get it. It makes total sense.
And then there’s that who am I to decide on what the book should look like, or who should blurb it? How did you decide? How did the cover art emerge? And the only reason I like to talk about cover art a little bit is that some of the people I’ve talked to about their books say that process is meaningful. You can judge a book by its cover, if you will, and so maybe talk about the cover art a little bit.
JD: I think it’s especially meaningful in poetry, because your everyday reader, even an enthusiastic one, is probably going to be unfamiliar with or intimidated by poetry. So, there’s a burden on the cover to encapsulate the book’s story and themes, to begin to provide a way in, and it takes a very talented designer to not just understand what the cover needs to say, but to be able to design something that says just that. I had a recurring nightmare about an ugly cover. Badly designed books make me sad, because they do a disservice to the work inside. I never wanted anyone to dismiss my book because of the cover, or to misinterpret what it was or what it needed to be. I found Matt Roeser, a designer here in St. Louis—he works for Candlewick Press in Boston now. Very talented guy who was redesigning existing book covers and doing a beautiful job of it, so I asked him to design my book and connected him with the press. What I loved was that Matt reads every book he designs. He doesn’t just look off a worksheet that says, “Use purple, and here are the themes: love, death, blah blah blah.” He reads the book, and he knows how to design a cover that speaks to its complexities.
DK: How many versions of the cover did you take a look at before you chose this one?
JD: He showed me three concepts. Two involved film strips, and the third one, which I almost went with, involved maps. It was this gorgeous heat map of the United States. It was incredible, and I think that it may have said more about the inside of the book than the current cover does. But I was concerned that it was…
DK: Divergent from…?
JD: … too disorienting. That once you had finished the book, the cover would make sense, but if you were looking at it for the first time, that it wouldn’t connect with the title, that it wouldn’t offer a way in. So he came up with something that I think is both striking and accessible, that uses film to communicate that idea of replaying something, rewatching your life, recreating it.
DK: Yeah. So, let’s dive into that a little bit, which is—so, you’ve assembled the book into an arc and you’re thinking about, clearly—we’ve talked about this—the sensitive, elephant-in-the-room topic of suicide as a force in the book. But then, there’s the framing trope of the darkroom. And so, maybe talk about—I mean, I have some theories, but I’d be interested in hearing from you about how Darkroom became the choice, if that makes any sense. I know that was a little bit of a stuttering question, but…
JD: No, that’s the central idea of the book. That’s what we’re getting at. In my work, there is a fundamental anxiety about the damage that is done by rewriting your life, by rewriting or trying to capture in words the experiences in your life. And by damage, I mean there’s a risk of distorting the truth, not just to others, but to yourself. That’s a fundamental fear for me.
DK: My question about that is, what are you afraid of?
JD: I’m afraid of misremembering the events of my life, and particularly misremembering my mother. I’m afraid of my mother becoming this to me [pointing to the book], the character in this, and not the person she was. There’s no absolute truth, right? Who she is is not a fixed thing. She is an amalgamation of her perception of herself and the perception of others around her, including me. But I am afraid of remembering her through my writing rather than remembering her through my actual memories and experience—which are themselves flawed, of course. So, it’s a useless anxiety, but it’s the anxiety that drove this book and that continues to drive my work.
DK: Yeah. So—and the book, I think the book is a triumph in a lot of ways. It’s a triumph of art. I think it’s beautiful. It’s well written. I think the courage to deal with suicide is something I would never have even—it’s so challenging. So, that is a triumph. And then, to what degree we want to talk maybe just real briefly about it, is this connected to you? You went through this. This is partly autobiographical and partly not. And, as a way of managing your own life, it’s a triumph as well. It’s a personal triumph.
JD: Thank you for asking me. I’m honored to be asked.
DK: And so, to close, if you would, read “Darkroom.” That’d be great.
JD: Sure. Oh, let me find it. 21.
DK: 21, yep. It’s funny. Whenever I’m in these interviews with—I’ve done it a couple times now, where people have a new book out, I’ll start talking about a poem and they’re like, “Is that in here?” Or, “Let me look at the table of contents.” It’s like you’re so in it when you’re constructing it, and then the book comes out and people are like, “Oh yeah, I don’t even know the book yet.”
JD: “I don’t remember what the name of that poem is.” It all gets mixed up in your memory of the drafts. You’re like, oh yeah, this is where it ended up! Actually, let me say a little bit about “Darkroom” before I read it, because I neglected to make the connection when I was talking about memory. The act of writing is akin to working in a darkroom: the negative is equivalent to the core memory of whatever you’re about to describe. And you have to project that negative onto the paper in order to make the print. By doing so, you inevitably manipulate its information, and it becomes distorted, false. “Darkroom” deals with working in that space, and the consequences of the work that we do. So, this is “Darkroom.”
The body erased. Light birthing the image.The hand’s obstruction removes an eye, a rib.
It happened this way:
the soft infrareds not red
but black, engraved in the colloid. The choked look
of the projector, the jam-capped reds of filters
and their choice of contrast intensity—darker
and darker, the sooted blood. Color deciding
how white is your white on gloss or matte.
This power trip and scare. We were looking
inside the grain, wrenching the focus knob,
the negative sharpened
but observed through mirrors.
This could have been creation:
the tendon and mouth, blank
of the background bound in the space, were seen;
halide silver and dirt clinging,
separating, finding the natural shape.
Then, we had our desires. And tricks
of the hand and light. We made our demands.
So the salts formed the backs of spoons
or fish scales,
or human smoke. And images in silver
that were not silver: a few teeth flashing
in the soil.
We mangled our subjects after the shot—technique hushing the grain. The body
had its hunger
and its words, the agitations and stop baths, the vinegar and burn
and fingernails blacked. Our brutal selves reeling
the strips onto spools. The world made new,
and blooming, and dumb.
DK: I think it was an ethnographer named Clifford who said that there is no ethnographic film, there is no objective eye, that the camera cuts things out and focuses things on what it wants to see. So, there’s this sense that one might imagine that, in the darkroom, that these negatives are capturing truth, but they themselves sort of are frames of what we ourselves have chosen to anchor on or see and cut out, simultaneously. And then, you talk about taking them out of this darkroom—of our subconscious, of our conscious, of our mind, of our memories, of our experience—and then, as we develop them into art, that that’s another manipulation of what was framed by the capturing eye. And so, one wonders if beauty isn’t, at the end of the day, some distortion.
JD: Absolutely. But if there’s no objective truth, then what is “distortion”?
DK: What are you distorting?
JD: If there’s no objective truth to destroy, is distortion destruction, or is it creation? Are you just creating something new? This is something I like to think about, even if I can’t find an answer. I’m glad that that frustration hasn’t stopped me from writing. It fuels the work.
DK: Yeah, it’s amazing. So, one more comment, which is this sense of the darkroom, the developed poems in your book, which are—I guess we can sort of agree on the sort of distortions, that then emerge as stories: distortions and stories sort of in the same breath, that the story becomes a way of putting them into a frame that makes them true, and I found your book true. I’ll just say it, it’s a beautiful thing.