City Paper is not for tourists
Jeffrey McDaniel is a poet whose work is characterized by smart couplets glued together into snappy little comebacks of verse. His work—and his interview persona, for that matter—tends toward self-mythologization. In 1990, he moved to D.C. to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing from George Mason University; these days, he straddles the worlds of academia and performance as the author of Alibi School (Manic D Press) and host of the Black Cat’s monthly “Blabbermouth” open-mike. McDaniel has read his work locally and at such spoken-word events as the 1993 National Poetry Slam in San Francisco (with D.C. contemporaries Silvana Straw, Miles David Moore and Ed Simmons Jr.); he’s been published in Epoch, Ploughshares, The Best American Poetry 1994, and a forthcoming anthology, Last Call (Sarabande Books). As D.C.’s version of Lord Byron, McDaniel has a reputation for eccentricity to uphold; in this Q&A, he shares his unique philosophies.
When did you become a writer?
I used to write these little skits in fourth grade, about the other kids in my class, making fun of them, but the teacher made us stop. At 8, I discovered Santa Claus didn’t exist. It was all downhill from there. I don’t know why I would start writing poems considering I never read any.
What did you think graduate school would afford you?
I was always at odds with the program at GMU….I had a bad attitude when I was there, which had more to do with me than with anything external. I didn’t think they were entirely supportive of me, either. I wasn’t any of the teachers’ favorite, that’s for sure. I was kind of abrasive. [Students seem to feel] like the teachers have this special hook up to the next level, or something. They don’t.
Basically, I said this to a professor: “I am going to write a book.” She said, “There are so many people who write books—what makes you think that you are different?”….I said, “I just know that I am different and someone’s going to see that.”
She was not happy with my arrogance. But I was right.
How does it feel to have achieved that recognition?
I was really looking forward to [Alibi School] when it was coming out, and when I went to get the first box of books I was really excited, thinking it was going to be this great moment. But the book was just the way they had shown me in the galleys and…it was sort of a letdown. Nothing special.
Because of the way I used to live my life, I used to worry that I was going to die….And I remember praying, “Please don’t let me die. If I die at least let me have a book out, let me live until at least I have a book together.” That was very important to me. Because if I left this world I wanted to at least leave something behind. I’m not as obsessed with it anymore.
The fact is, you die without knowing if anything you ever wrote was any good at all…you can’t worry about that. If you need to know that sort of thing, if you need to know if you’re successful or not, you’re in the wrong business: poetry.
Now that you’re no longer obsessed, do you have a schedule or do you just write when the muse hits?
I like to write at night. I write from midnight to 6 a.m. I like to keep busy….I’ve written a lot of new poems since [Alibi School] came out. I’ve got about 20 pages that I like from the past 10 months and that’s a good year for me…..I wrap myself up in my world.
What inspires your poems—are they autobiographical?
“True Story” was from a show I was watching on the Discovery channel with a friend of mine….We created the story of these two brothers who hadn’t spoken in 20 years because there was some woman in between them. Just as they were making up and shaking hands, a beam came crashing down as the building collapsed and severed their hands, each at the wrist and they didn’t know which hand was which. The one guy got the other guy’s hand and his still worked, the one brother’s didn’t, and he kept calling the first brother saying, “Give me back my fucking hand.” But I went with that idea, just sort of transplanted myself into that natural disaster, this industrial disaster, a metaphor for my relationship with women. That’s one of my poems.
Do you always write on your own, or do you collaborate?
Cindy Goff [a fellow GMU graduate] and I do these experiments, these writing exercises where we actually don’t even write at all, we just turn on this tape recorder and we just lie on the floor and free associate, just start saying images. That’s been very beneficial, I’ve got about five or six poems that I like out of that. We just collect the images that we like, I mean a lot of them are bad; a lot of the things we say are stupid or gross or dumb or make no sense, but there are some in there that are good.
How have you got where you are, do you think?
I fake being a gentleman. Fake it until you make it. If you wear a mask long enough it becomes your face. I think that’s the way life works, though. There are things in my life where I thought I was doing them for fun and the next thing I know I’m doing it for real, all the time.
You seem so manly, Jeffrey—isn’t poetry a little effeminate?
Yeah, well. It’s reverse compensation because I lost a testicle in a bike accident when I was 14. [He drops his drawers as if to prove it. His statement remains unverified.]
What do you want to be when you grow up?
It’s funny. People might say, “You’re 28—you should be grown up,” but I don’t feel that I am. I feel like I’m 13, emotionally. But I am growing up, and if I continue to publish poems and publish books, I can see maybe some university would offer me a position teaching in their M.F.A. program or something. Right now it’s not really an option, because I’d have to kiss ass, and I don’t really want to do that. I like being in a community like D.C., full of writers. It’s vibrant and just being in some university doesn’t seem all that interesting.
Do you find the D.C. community supportive?
I’ve been to a lot of cities in America, and D.C.’s got a very good spoken-word scene. D.C.’s got a lot of good writers…who do spoken word and publish in magazines, and that’s an important thing. Some people who do spoken word only want to do well out loud, they want to be stars, they want to be the next Maggie Estep, they want to be on Arsenio. I don’t know where they are thinking of going.
Where are you going?
“It’s a U-turn to nowhere,” says my friend [New York poet] Regan Maud Good. I’ve been told that I should write screenplays or a novel or scripts or something. It’s like poetry isn’t going to get me anywhere. It’s kind of true. I stay up all night writing these poems—I could be writing screenplays, but I’m putting all my energy into these things that really no one reads. That doesn’t bother me much, but sometimes it makes me sad to think how alone I am. That I just don’t have people in my life. I’ve chosen my professional life over my social life or my romantic life….If I had somebody there, though, I might just talk away all the poems.