Jim Daniels

Affiliate Faculty
MFA in Creative Writing

Jim Daniels (Poetry) has published thirteen books of poetry. His recent collections include Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry, Carnegie Mellon University Press (winner of the Independent Publishers Book Award for Poetry) and All of the Above, Adastra Press, both published in 2011. His fourth collection of short stories, Trigger Man, was published in 2011 by Michigan State University Press, and won the Midwest Book Award for Short Fiction. His fourteenth book of poems, Birth Marks, will be published in 2013 by BOA Editions. In 2007, he was awarded the Blue Lynx Poetry Prize for his collection Revolt of the Crash-Test Dummies.  Two other books were published that year, his third collection of short fiction, Mr. Pleasant (Best Regional Fiction Gold Medal, Independent Publisher Book Awards) and his eleventh book of poems, In Line for the Exterminator (Paterson Award for Literary Excellence). In 2010, he wrote and produced the independent film “Mr. Pleasant” (mrpleasantmovie.com <http://mrpleasantmovie.com>), his third produced screenplay, currently making the rounds of film festivals. His second, “Dumpster,” was filmed in 2005.  Street, a book of his poems with photographs by Charlee Brodsky, won the Tillie Olsen Prize from the Working-Class Studies Association in 2006. In addition, he has edited or co-edited four anthologies, including Letters to America: Contemporary American Poetry on Race, and American Poetry:The Next Generation.  His poems have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac,” in Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 anthologies, and Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” series. His poem “Factory Love” is displayed on the roof of a race car.  He has received the Brittingham Prize for Poetry, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and two from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.  His poems have appeared in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Poetry anthologies. At Carnegie Mellon, where he is the Thomas Stockham Professor of English, he has received the Ryan Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Elliott Dunlap Smith Award for Teaching and Educational Service, and a Faculty Service Award from the Alumni Association. A native of Detroit, Daniels lives in Pittsburgh with his wife, the writer Kristin Kovacic, and their two children near the boyhood homes of Dan Marino and Andy Warhol.

Jim Daniels—Poetry

As a mentor, I first try and understand what kind of poem you’re trying to write: what your ambitions are for your own work, what’s motivating you in terms of subject matter, form, tone, etc. Once I have an understanding of that—and it evolved over time, as your work evolves—then I feel like I can give you the kind of advice that might be most useful to you as a poet.

I tend to give more suggestions rather than less. I want to push you to do your best work. As a result, it may seem as if I’m never satisfied with anything you write.  I may give contradictory advice. As Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” We all contain multitudes. And, as a result, I look at poems, as many poets do, as a process of discovery, and I consider pushing you, being “fussy” about your poems, as a way of helping you to find the emotional core of your poem among the multitudes of options.

I am open to a wide range of styles and subject matter, but I di have a bias toward clarity. I don’t consider it a bias, though others might. I am not content with word play for its own sake. I first came to poetry, as a reader and a writer, for the emotional experience and transformation that a good poem can give. I believe poetry can make us better human beings because it helps us get in touch with our best selves, it helps us figure out what’s going on beneath the surface of our own lives, and beneath the surface of the world around us One of the things that happens sometimes—and continues to happen to me as a writer—is that we can be too close to the subject matter of a poem to be able to see its flaws. I’ll try to give you a reality check in terms of how you’re making the personal universal.

All of my comments are geared toward revision, assume revision. I tend to start with some of the more general issues. If, for example, the poem confuses me, I’m not going to be talking much about the line break in line five. As poems continue through drafts, I’ll get more and more detailed. Another thing that I focus on is compression of language. I’m always looking to cut a word here, a word there, to intensify the experience of the poem. I try to balance my comments to deal with both craft and content. My goal for you will be to end the project period with some publishable poems, and I am certainly willing to give suggestions on journals to submit to.

I am not interested in having you defend your work. It has to defend itself. I know it’s not easy to let it stand on its own, but ultimately, it will have to. On the other hand, if my comments are confusing or unclear to you, please email me to ask for clarification. Because we won’t be looking at each other across a table, things can sometimes get misconstrued over email, so don’t hesitate to ask questions of me. I will be throwing a lot of suggestions at you. If some of them don’t make sense to you in terms of where you want to take the poem, simply ignore them. Despite my best attempts, I am often wrong. I do hope that with every poem at least some of my comments are useful to you.

I tend not to be big on assignments, unless you really feel yourself blocked. I believe that you’re in this program because you have something to say, a burning desire to write, and I tend to want to stay out of the way of that unless you ask for intervention. I find that reading poetry is the best way to become unblocked. Find the poets that get you excited about writing, and often the ideas for your own poems will emerge from that reading.

As we continue to work together, I will look for trends in your work and point out certain obsessions, quirks, etc., that you might not be aware of yourself, and, given that the end result of your studies will be a collection of poems, will also note how poems might cluster together, play off of one another in a larger manuscript.

I want to be encouraging as possible. If you ever are getting discouraged by my feedback, let me know immediately. I understand the sacrifices people are making to be in this wonderful program, and the sense of community it establishes that is so important to all of you, and I want to help create that sense of community and trust while pushing you to do your best work.