The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show #5: Daniel Anderson

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Daniel Anderson has written three collections of poetry: The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel, Drunk in Sunlight, and January Rain, which won the Nicholas Roerich Prize. The New York Times listed The Selected Poems of Howard Nemerov, a book he edited, as one of its “notable” books in 2003. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The Yale Review, The Hudson Review, The New Republic, New England Review, The Missouri Review, The Hopkins Review, Northwest Review, Southwest Review, The Best American Poetry, The Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review. They have also been featured on Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac.” His honors include a Pushcart Prize as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bogliasco Foundation.

Danny is here to chat about his new book from Johns Hopkins University Press, The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel.

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The Rumpus: Come on out here, Danny, and make yourself comfortable. Watch your step there. Katie Peterson stumbled over that spot.

Daniel Anderson: Good to be here, Dave. Thanks for the invite.

Rumpus: We’re happy you could make it. You know, we’ve never had a sports enthusiast on the program before. I hope, in addition to talking about your new book, we can talk shop about sports.

Anderson: Sure thing, though I’m not an expert in any particular sport. Just a spectator. I’m not a statistics hound when it comes to baseball or anything.

Rumpus: So you’re into meter but not sabermetrics?

Anderson: Something like that.

Rumpus: You’re really here to talk about your beautiful new book from Johns Hopkins Press, The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel. Compelling title, striking design. This book is filled with some hard-earned verses, my friend. Genuine sweat went into these lines. Are you a morning, evening, or late-night writer?

Anderson: I’m definitely an early morning writer. Alleviates the guilt if you get something done before too much of the day has passed.

Rumpus: I’m not surprised to hear you’re a morning writer. You’re interested in natural light, perhaps as much as a painter. You have a painterly aesthetic too: acute vision, a flair for color and form, etc. Beautiful sensory writing.

Anderson: Well, I appreciate the kindness. Thanks for noticing, too, the use of light. Yeah, I guess it’s a bit of an obsession. I just spend a lot of time staring at things like that, you know? When I should be doing other, more practical tasks.

Rumpus: Like laundry or vacuuming? Walking the dog? Or working out?

Anderson: More likely walking the dog. The workouts have diminished, I’m afraid. Though I can still manage some decent mileage on the bike.

Rumpus: You’ll have to excuse some of the juvenile humor on this show, Danny. I hope your agent warned you.

Anderson: What’s an agent?

The Night Guard at the Wilberforce HotelRumpus: Let’s get down to the business of discussing the book. One thing I notice is that you’re inspired to write in a strong iambic rhythm. The iambic pentameter line is probably the staple line of poetry written in English, but very few contemporary poets can pull it off and still sound contemporary. I admire that quality here… it’s imprinted into every poem.

Anderson: Well, one way to make someone’s eyes glaze over is to start talking about poetic measures. But it’s something that I learned to listen for early on. The hard thing, I think, is using that measure in a way that it comes out sounding like natural speech. Robert Frost and Philip Larkin, both, were models for me in this regard.

Rumpus: In The Night Guard you’ve relaxed that rhythm slightly. It sounds more comfortable, more colloquial than your last book, Drunk in Sunlight, which in turn is more relaxed than January Rain. Can you tell us about that development? 

Anderson: The development is something I’m not sure I can explain. I’ll say now that when I look back at earlier work, those iambic lines I wrote make me squirm a little bit. In this book, and in Drunk in Sunlight, I started varying the line lengths while keeping them iambic with the hope that this could give a little energy to the lines themselves.

Rumpus: That variability is a key component. One of my favorite poems from the book, “Easter Sundays,” kicks off with a mix of four and five beat lines:

These yellow April evenings I,
no longer idealistic or inclined
to wish my life were something that it’s not,
sip gin and tonics and enjoy
a fragrant breath of just-mown grass.

(4/5/5/4/4)

Obviously this is the product of hard work, but has it gotten any easier for you? Your lines now feel more instinctive to me. Also, in The Night Guard you abandon the habit of capitalizing every line. How deliberate were these decisions?

Anderson: Last thing first. My copy editor told me to—er, um, suggested—that I ditch the caps at the head of each line. So I went back through the manuscript and made that correction. I stared at those poems a long time before I figured the poetic convention of capitalizing the first letter of each line could go by the wayside. I wish there were a more nuanced and sophisticated explanation.

About the rhythm, I would say yes, I have internalized it. At least the iambic foot. I hear it all over the place. I couldn’t crank out dactyls—the cadence of the limerick—if you held a gun to my head. There is still a lot of self-consciousness for me, though. I worry about those lines sounding like a metronome. There’s a lot of second guessing that for me.

Rumpus: Hey, I think you’ve gotta keep running on those iambic feet. Shakespeare thought they were sexy. Good enough for Will, good enough for me.

Anderson: It’s the natural cadence for our language. I had a crusty uncle who terrified the crap out of me when I was a kid. As an adult, I enjoyed being around him a lot. Once when we were watching the news, there was a story about some politician or another. He just looked over at me and said, “You know, you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.” Blew me away. Perfect iambic pentameter.

Rumpus: Such lush, textured lines are the product of repetition, failure, and much flexing of mental muscles, right? I know the brain isn’t a muscle, but when you’ve mastered the line, as you have, you develop a kind of muscle memory for it. Does that ring true for you?

Anderson: More like an ear, I’d say. It becomes a kind of habit. Almost a need, sometimes, to hear those rhythms. To write in them. And I don’t expect anyone to either A) understand this or B) find it interesting.

Rumpus: Don’t you know we fill the seats in this studio with impending MFA applicants only? This is a willing crowd.

Anderson: There is also definitely repetition. And erasure. And re-writing. Yes. That’s true. Maybe that is a kind of muscle. Or stamina if nothing else.

Rumpus: I know you’re interested in sports and even coached a few teams back in the day. I’m not asking if you’re a world-class athlete, but there’s something sort of athletic about that iambic rhythm. I always think of it—or rather its texture—as being muscular, sinewy. Do any of your experiences with sports connect to, or intersect with, your poetry?

Anderson: Hard to say. I’m not sure any athletic experience I ever had—which largely consisted of sitting on the bench in baseball or serving as a tackling dummy during scrimmage in football—facilitated my comfort with meter. There are all kinds of cadences the mind tends to, and maybe those talents are fostered by sports. Who knows?

Rumpus: So you played some baseball in your day. What position?

Anderson: I was a catcher.

Rumpus: Catcher! I knew it!

Anderson: But that hardly counts because I stopped playing in the 8th grade. I do love the game, though. Still. Even though I live in a time zone where you have to watch the playoffs and World Series at unnatural times of the day. That also goes for watching football.

Rumpus: It so fits the temperament of the speaker in your poems. He’s cerebral and can see the whole field. No way he’s a spazzy infielder. Or an outfielder with his head in the clouds.

I know you grew up near Cincinnati. Were you a fan of the Big Red Machine?

Anderson: I was. Until Marge Schott, who was an inveterate racist, took over the team. Then there was the whole Pete Rose thing. But yes, I was in love with those guys. Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Cesar Geronimo, Dave Concepcion, Ken Griffey, Sr. All of them. And, of course, Sparky Anderson.

Rumpus: My love for the Red Sox was forged by their failure to beat the Reds in the 1975 World Series.

Anderson: Let me just say as a lad, I had nightmares about the Green Monster.

Rumpus: Let’s try this. On Late Nite we take pride in using other media and entertainment to talk about poetry. Sometimes it’s useful to think about poets and how they’d fit into radically different contexts. Like when I thought of your poetry I could totally picture you as a catcher and had a hard time imagining you anywhere else on the field.

So, here’s the game. If you were coaching a baseball team of poets, who makes the starting lineup and where would they field? Feed them to us one at a time. Leading off…?

Anderson: Wait. Can we just go with positions in the field rather than batting order? That seems a little more interesting.

Rumpus: Hell yes. I like that even better. Who’s your battery? Who do you put on the mound and behind the plate?

Anderson: I’m thinking two pitchers I want in my lineup are Emily Dickinson, a left-handed pitcher, and Shakespeare, a right-hander. Behind the plate, I’m going to go with Frost, who would be perfectly comfortable—and tireless—telling his teammates how to play the game.

Rumpus: Dickinson as a pitcher! Bold move, friend. She’d be fierce. I’m sure she could also deal with the boo-birds in Boston. She’d be superstitious too, as most pitchers are. She’d probably sew fascicles into her uniform.

I hesitate to ask the next question this way: Who’s on first?

Anderson: That’s easy. Elizabeth Bishop. When someone gets out and the infield throws around the horn, they don’t include the guy on first. She would be so OK with that.

Rumpus: Oh, yeah!

Anderson: I mean, right? Just sits back and watches the ball go around while she punches her mitt indifferently?

Rumpus: Bishop at first. Check. There’s something hilarious about imagining these poets on the field. There’s not an athletic bone among the lot of them. Of course you’ve got to be strong up the middle. Frost is behind the plate. Who do you have as your double play tandem at second base and short?

Anderson: I think I’m going to have to go with a Gerard Manley Hopkins/Richard Wilbur second and shortstop combination. They’re two of the most athletic poets in English as far as I’m concerned.

Rumpus: Wait wait wait. Hopkins at second? Are you kidding me?

Anderson: Well, Hopkins would play short if it weren’t for Wilbur. Like Robinson Cano playing second because of Derek Jeter. If you’re asking about the poetry itself, Hopkins is wildfire when it comes to energy and speed, but Wilbur—for our purposes here—is a bit more well-rounded.

Rumpus: I had such high hopes for you, man.

Anderson: Just my opinion, which is often questionable.

Rumpus: Maybe you didn’t inherit Sparky Anderson’s genes after all. Redeem yourself at third base, “the hot corner.”

Anderson: I’m going to go with Thomas Hardy, who may be one of the most unappreciated poets in English. We’ll just call him the Scott Brosius of my line-up.

Rumpus: Okay, I can see Hardy handling third. What worries me is that you’re making a lot of Yankee references here. Are you a closet NY fan?

Anderson: Nothing “closet” about it, I’m afraid.

Rumpus: Doesn’t anyone vet the guests for this show? We obviously leave too many decisions to our unpaid interns. Lay your outfield on us, coach.

Anderson: Well, where else would Walt Whitman play but left field, I ask you? Derek Walcott has to play center. That leaves right. And I’m going to go with an awful pun. Has to be Charles Wright, that is. At home in the loneliest, most contemplative position in the game.

Rumpus: That’s one of the worst puns I’ve ever heard. But I agree with your decision to populate the outfield with meditative, dreamy types. Do you have a crazy relief pitcher for us?

Anderson: Hmm. I think it has to be Jorie Graham or Geoffrey Hill, who both utterly baffle me. Which is to say, I want them on my team.

Rumpus: A good relief pitcher should have some wild hair. Jorie’s got a wealth of it. I bet Geoffrey Hill is a spitballer. Thanks for indulging us with your lineup.

Anderson: It was fun.

Rumpus: Well, we’re aiming to bring some fun back to poetry. Would you say being a poet is fun?

Anderson: Not especially. Let’s put it this way, if you consider tireless self-doubt, a near obsessive attention to detail and the corresponding, nagging sense that you just aren’t getting it right, and a hesitancy to actually tell anyone what you do with your working hours fun, then, hell yeah, it’s a blast. That said, there can also be great satisfaction when you have gotten something right, and that’s what keeps me doing it, I suspect.

Rumpus: Going back to those first few lines of “Easter Sundays,” the message seems like a microcosm of larger themes you explore in The Night Guard. The speaker isn’t happy, per se, but he’s “no longer idealistic or inclined / to wish my life were something that it’s not…” There is a lot of coming-to-terms in this book… with marriage, with middle age, with accepting the past, etc. Is that an accurate representation?

Anderson: I think that’s a fair representation. You get older, and all those griefs become something you understand a lot better. How they’ve made you who you are. The part you played in bringing both darkness and light into the lives of people you love. I’m not as quick to duke it out with people over politics the way I once was. I’m still pretty quick, I like to think, when it comes to sticking up for people who are getting screwed over by others. Coming to terms, that’s a good phrase. That’s what we do. And if we don’t, then we’re doomed a lot of unhappiness and disappointment, right?

Rumpus: I think that’s true. In “Easter Sundays,” it seems as if the holiday itself is what interferes with the bliss experienced by the speaker at the outset of the poem. I like this ironic twist… the rhythm of the speaker’s life interrupted by Holy Week.

Anderson: It was a strange thing, thinking about the power of this holiday, Easter, though I’m hardly what one would consider religious.

Rumpus: You discuss “paradise” a couple of times at the end of “Easter Sundays”: “This isn’t paradise, I know. / This isn’t paradise, it’s home.” You mentioned Larkin earlier. “Easter Sundays” totally reminds me of opening of one of his most popular poems, “High Windows”:

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—

For both of you there is no paradise. That said, the speaker in The Night Guard seems more capable of joy. There are flashes of joy in Larkin’s work too, but often his bitterness—or bitter irony—is what we remember most. Was Larkin also an influence on your work, both technically and thematically?

Anderson: Larkin isn’t terribly happy on the page, is he? And we know he wasn’t in life, either. I suspect that might be one difference between the two of us. He is one of the voices I hear—or maybe the word would be “consult”—when I write. I love Larkin immensely.

Rumpus: I’m a big fan of the bald, bespectacled librarian from Hell… I mean Hull.

Anderson: He knows how to hurt without pummeling you over the head with his sorrow. He knows how to feel isolated and strange, too, without whining about it.

Rumpus: For those of you in the audience who don’t know much about Larkin, I’ll say this. He’s the exact opposite, in every way imaginable, from this guy.

Anderson: I’d like to be able to put Will Ferrell at the bar with Larkin just to see what would happen.

Rumpus: Can you imagine? They’d probably turn out to be best buds in an Oscar Madison/Felix Unger kind of way. One of the faults of this show is that we’re always looking for ways to insert Frank the Tank clips into the interview.

Anyway, I’m exaggerating Philip Larkin’s gloominess. One of my favorite Larkin statements is this: “Art is a release or generation of delight in life.” Does that statement resonate with you?

Anderson: Well, Larkin also said that deprivation was for him what daffodils were for Wordsworth, or something along those lines. But you’re right. I actually think there is delight in Larkin, though much of it hides behind that mean veneer he likes to construct. I think there’s a good deal of generosity, too. But let’s face it, the man behind those poems is very complicated and that results in a complicated poetry. I guess the other thing has to do with absolutes. They’re boring, aren’t they?

Rumpus: Without ambiguity, poems are pretty dull. Like Hallmark cards.

Anderson: Think about William Blake. “The Lamb” on its own is an utterly sappy, tedious, and unconvincing lyric. You throw in “The Tyger,” though, and it starts giving you the shivers. So delight and dread, joy and sorrow, gloom and brightness, they all co-exist. That’s not saying anything new. Maybe every poem has to ultimately choose in which direction to lean, but committing entirely to the pure, pharmaceutical composition of an emotion—happiness or hurt, say—isn’t very interesting to me.

Drunk in SunlightRumpus: This leads me to my next question. The speaker in your poem seems like he’s trying to settle into comfortable middle years, but scathing fires still burn inside. Your poem “Provinces” does this by expressing anxiety over U.S. foreign policy after 9/11 and our country’s love of guns. That’s one of my favorite poems in the book because its context is surprisingly broad.

Anderson: I suspect there is frustration and anger and fire—at least I hope there’s enough of a human pulse in the poems to convey that.

Rumpus: The book benefits from the anger displayed in “Provinces.” You skillfully resolve tension in this poem by showing gratitude: “Thank God, I sometimes think though never say, / that—this—is where we are.”

Anderson: I’m not going to lie. There aren’t any places I’d rather live than here. Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot to NOT love, no doubt. Moments in our history that are savage and mortifying. I worry a great deal about the politics of the day. Who doesn’t? There are a lot of radioactive lines of conversation waiting here.

Rumpus: Tell us more about the speaker in your poems. Is this an unmediated self—the Danny Anderson sitting here on this couch in front of our live audience—or a carefully cultivated persona? Where does the speaker in your poems fit on that spectrum?

Anderson: I’d have to say the speaker in the book is often a composite of voices. Part me. Part fictional/flexible narrator. The same goes for the characters that appear in the poems themselves. You kind of have to play “Mr. Potato Head” when you’re writing to see what works in terms of making a poem complete as it might be. At least I do. You know what I mean?

Rumpus: Sure.

Anderson: Trying out different parts until the whole thing makes sense the way you want it to. Most of these poems wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for my own personal experiences, of course. But in the end, except for maybe one or two, none of the poems are purely autobiographical or obsessed with their allegiance to factual happening. As for the couple that may very well be autobiographical, I hope it doesn’t matter. Let’s put it this way, I’m not going to reveal which ones resemble me or my life the closest. Wouldn’t be much fun that way.

Rumpus: This question extends from the last one. Are these “real” moments and situations being described in your poems? Take these lines from the first stanza of “Easter Mornings,” which feels so grounded in a specific life and world:

Immaculately laned front lawns
are flower-crowned, our windows bright and clean.
The lime wedge bobbing in my glass
suggests an effervescent, new,
and utterly surprising thought of green.

Those descriptions are incredibly precise. Talk about the connection between the real world and the world you build in your poems.

Anderson: One of the things I admire about poetry is its power to crystalize a moment in time. “At the Fishhouses” and “The Moose” are two of my favorite poems for this reason. “The Wood-Pile” by Frost is another one. Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” too. Anyway, it’s one of the things that really helps me get traction when I’m wrestling with a subject. Trying to zero in on what it is I want to recreate in terms of temporality and place and how that corresponds to a particular emotional moment.

Rumpus: Tell all the truth but tell it slant…

Anderson: I figure if that moment is going to matter to a reader, I should do everything I can to get it right. I guess I feel it’s kind of my responsibility as a writer. Maybe I do get it right sometimes. Maybe I don’t. But it’s what I’m aiming for. Again, some of the images are taken from my own experiences, sure. On the other hand, some are purely imaginative.

Rumpus: Okay, Danny, I’ve saved my best question for last. What’s up with the title of your book, The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel? Because I Googled “Wilberforce Hotel” and didn’t find anything. Of course, if it’s not on Google, it doesn’t exist. This appears to be a made-up name. Is it totally invented?

Anderson: Yeah, the Wilberforce Hotel is an invented place.

Rumpus: Any chance you’re punning off the poet Richard Wilbur’s name in that title? A keen reader of poetry will notice affinities between your work and his. I’m hoping you’ll cop to some wordplay here.

Anderson: Ha! Nope. No pun. Though the question makes perfect sense, now that you mention it!

Rumpus: So you made up the title. Where does an invented word like “Wilberforce” come from then?

Anderson: That’s hard to say. A lot of looking out the window, I guess. A lot of trial and error, too. With names, that is.

Rumpus: I can’t let you off the hook that easily. I don’t want you to give away trade secrets. Can you at least speculate about where a name like that comes from?

Anderson: Well, I was aiming for something that sounded highbrow and formal. I will say that the idea of the hotel itself is modeled after the Drake in Chicago. But just loosely. I don’t remember, though, any of the other possibilities I was rolling around at the time I was writing the poem.

Rumpus: Interesting stuff. Okay, I think it’s the time we’ve all been waiting for. Are you ready to be obstructed?

Anderson: Story of my life.

Rumpus: Produce a draft that follows these three rules:

  1. Write a poem in one or two quatrains.
  2. No end-rhymes allowed, but slant rhymes are okay.
  3. Since you’re a Yankee fan, the poem must be about or to Derek Jeter, in honor of his impending retirement. You can be as opaque or direct about the Jeter homage as you want to be. And if you need inspiration, you can watch this first—a commercial that even tingles the spines of Red Sox fans. Not mine, but I bet there are a few softies out there.

 

Anderson:

The Hall-of-Fame Shortstop on the Eve of His Retirement
9.26.14

Because nothing lasts, that’s why.
Empire and apple blossom each
must die. But for him
the shallows of the late September light,

the rhomboid shadows sliding in,
this first, cool aromatic afternoon of fall,
will always mean a deeper kind of dream,
joyous at first, and more than just a little sad.

Rumpus: Whoa, not too shabby! I demanded a short poem because I don’t think I’ve seen one from you before. Was that the most difficult part of the assignment?

Anderson: Thanks. Yeah. As a general rule, I don’t write short poems. I’d have to say the hardest part for me was letting go of it. Sending it your way so quickly. I usually take a couple months to write eight lines. I’m pretty obsessive in that regard.

Rumpus: How do you feel about the outcome? Your signature style doesn’t seem too stressed by the tight form.

Anderson: I’d say the end is a little diaphanous for me. A bit abstract and uncommitted, maybe. It’s tough to say a lot in a little space like that.

Rumpus: You’re a humble man, Anderson. I can see what you mean about the ending—as soon as the poem gains momentum in those first four or five striking lines, you have to start looking for a way out. But I like it.

Anderson: That’s the thing about endings. Real, satisfying endings. They tend to take a long time to discover. At least for me they do.

Rumpus: I hope Jeter sees this before the season wraps up. Hey, Danny—it was a real pleasure having you on the show. Good luck with the book!

Anderson: Thanks for the time, Dave.

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Stay tuned for Episode #6 of The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show, with guest Oliver de la Paz.


David Roderick’s latest book of poems is The Americans. He also has a website and can be followed on Twitter. More from this author →