Harnessing Thoughts About Events That Never Happened: An Interview with Daniel M. Shapiro

You’d be hard-pressed to find a poet more fun and affable than Daniel M Shapiro. He is the author of How the Potato Chip Was Invented, What If You Were Happy for Just One Second: Instructional Diagrams (with Jessy Randall), and The 44th-Worst Album Ever, among many other things, and his Pushcart Prize-nominated “And the World and the World,” debuted in the July 2015 issue of Hermeneutic Chaos.

Here we ask him about prose poems, 80s pop songs, and eschewing “what’s real” in favor of the allegory and the daydream—revel in his brilliant answers, then find even more information on his blog.

Dan 6.26.15 [3705]

– Interview by Olivia Olson

1.How is writing prose poems different than writing poems with line breaks, in your experience? Do you prefer one style to the other?

I tend to write prose poems when I want to tell a story, or at least imply a narrative, by using poetic language or devices. If you’re looking at a paragraph, you could be looking at anything: nonfiction, op-ed piece, whatever. It can lull the reader into expecting straight talk, and I like that because it allows the writer to be a bit sneaky.

I’ve always written mostly narrative poems, but I used to feel like I had to incorporate line breaks to establish the right rhythm. Then it started to feel like my pursuit of rhythm was tampering with my pursuit of theme, and I didn’t want to do that. I have preferred the prose poem lately because it removes the restrictions breaks seem to impose, and I still strive to keep the writing as tight as I can.

2.Many of your poems are titled after lyrics from 80s pop songs. What’s up with that?

For about six months, I’ve been working on a series of poems based on 1980s pop songs and their videos. I have about 75 of them so far. I believe that decade is often misunderstood; I had misunderstood it, and I lived through it. So the poems are helping me to understand aspects of my childhood. A lot of the music of the time sounds artificial, and I used to hate it, especially synth pop. But I appreciate it more because I realize some of it was really performance art (Pet Shop Boys especially), and a number of the videos were revealing the artists’ fear of nuclear war. Artists had a strong awareness of AIDS, famine, and other problems before a lot of politicians did much about those problems. I wonder if people were so afraid of being eviscerated that they felt compelled to hide behind gaudy makeup, leg warmers, shoulder pads, etc. Anyway, the poems are commenting on what the 1980s were like but also about how we haven’t gotten past certain problems that were glossed over during that era. A lot of the poems are paranoid, and people are as angry and conspiracy-obsessed now as they’ve ever been.

3.There are often elements of magical realism, or just plain magic, in your poetry. What is it about the fantastic that is important to you?

I have a lot of respect for poets who are able to take their real lives and the associated emotions and translate them into art. If I know a bit about a poet and can see clear connections between the poet’s life and art, I become more interested in the life and art. I don’t think I’m like that, though. I don’t believe I can turn my life experience into art; it’s more about harnessing thoughts about events that never happened. It’s about daydreaming. I often use allegory because I want to establish parallels between what’s made up and what’s real. Also, I can incorporate my own feelings about love or other somewhat typical themes by turning them into bit parts in poems. Whenever I am looking for places to send poems, if the guidelines say, “We want what’s real,” I skip them.

4.Your book, Interruptions, is a collaborative work with poet Jessy Randall. What are the challenges inherent in writing poems with someone else? Did you ever disagree? How did you choose which poems made the cut and which didn’t?

The main challenge is to sort out what ideas should stay yours and what you should work on with a partner. Jessy and I have been friends for more than 30 years (!), so when one of us would pitch an idea, the other could say, “This sounds like something you should do on your own,” and it wouldn’t hurt our friendship or relationship as collaborators. Also, one of us could say, “Let’s lop off the last stanza,” and typically the other person would say, “OK.”

I remember arguing with Jessy about a diagram poem we had done that she didn’t want to include in a chapbook manuscript. She had thought the poem was too jokey, and she might’ve been right. We had placed poetic labels on diagrams from a weird manual she had found, and one of the diagrams showed a silhouette of a girl. For whatever reason, I wrote, “She never listens” and was sure it was the funniest thing I had written in my life, though maybe it wasn’t funny at all. Anyway, we ended up including that in the manuscript, and it’s in the chapbook published by BOAAT. For Interruptions, we didn’t have much trouble choosing what to include because we didn’t have hundreds of poems then. Also, I feel like we wanted to show a variety of ideas, techniques, etc., so it made sense to leave a range of poems in.

5.In On Writing, Stephen King says that his “ideal reader,” or the person who he imagines while working on a piece, is his wife, Tabitha. Is there a particular person in your life that you have in mind while you write?

I don’t have a specific person in mind. Sometimes I think of people I have known a bit who have given me useful feedback. I say people I’ve known a bit because they can’t be close friends or family members, who are more likely to be nice. Also, I think of how I would feel about the piece if I hadn’t written it. This seems like it would be difficult, but I often forget I’ve written things and can look at them later as if they were someone else’s.

6.Why poetry? Why not another kind of writing?

Poetry forces you to use only what you need and to avoid exposition. It lets you leave openings for readers, and they can apply their own experiences or feelings to the poems. I used to write a lot of music reviews and film reviews when I worked for newspapers a long time ago, but ultimately, I didn’t feel like I could say anything other critics couldn’t say just as well. I have tried to write novels and short stories, but I don’t do a good job with them because I feel like I need to explain too much. Poetry gives you room to sneak in secrets, and the poems can work on more than one level, so readers might respond to them even if they don’t uncover the secrets.

7.What is your loftiest poetic ambition?

I want pop culture to be recognized as actual culture and not as lesser art or non-art, and I want to be recognized in some way–even via shout-out from a poet I admire–as a good poet who exposes something insightful about that culture. I like poetry as social commentary rather than personal commentary. Also, I would like to be perceived as a supporter of poets, someone who encourages people who might doubt their strengths. There has been a lot of negative behavior in the poetry world lately—open misogyny online, a poet using a Chinese pseudonym, a prominent organization mishandling criticism about diversity in its panel selections, etc.—and I want people to focus on meaningful work instead of backward politics.

8.Do you have any books/writers/journals/etc you would like to recommend? 

I like books that create worlds or introduce unusual premises and don’t get cute with them, books that say, “This is how things are; take it or leave it.” T.A. Noonan’s The Bone Folders is that way. It’s a world of mathematical formulas and witches’ brews. Ruth Foley’s chapbook Creature Feature is that way, too. She’s writing epistolary poems, letters to classic movie monsters or the actors who played them, and I’ll be damned if they aren’t as heartfelt or meaningful as what’s supposed to be heartfelt or meaningful. She’s taking a concept and not bailing on it because she’s sure it works. It kind of makes me mad that I know about Noonan and Foley only because I met them at readings or conferences. They’re two of many, many poets everyone should know about. Todd Kaneko is another poet like that. His book Dead Wrestler Elegies combines pop culture, mythology, and personal depth. No one else has his exact interests or voice, and he’s smart enough to celebrate that. It troubles me that there are a template voice and template vocabulary in poetry, that too many people write the way they think people should write. Poetry should be required to pass through a poet’s unique voice and/or unique perspective before it’s released into the world. If there isn’t a unique voice or perspective, the writer needs to find one.

I’ve been lucky to have a number of poems published in Menacing Hedge, which is one of my favorite journals because its editors celebrate the risks writers take when they create mythologies or the illusion of mythologies. I might convince you that I made up something terrifying, but it might be real (or vice versa). I also love a couple of journals that have been around for a while, Gargoyle and Chiron Review, because their editors are open to a variety of voices, themes, forms, etc. Their notion of “a good fit” welcomes a wide range of perspectives.

Also, I’ve been reading a lot of books by poets with Pittsburgh ties because I’ve lived here for almost 10 years, and I feel like the community has been strengthening. We’re lucky to have people such as Toi Derricotte and Terrance Hayes here, and a number of great, great poets (Ross Gay, among others) are being published through University of Pittsburgh Press. The best feeling for me, though, is to go to a reading here and find yet another wonderful local poet. This has been happening a lot lately.