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INTERVIEW WITH TOM DALEY

Tom Daley

Photo: Nicole Terez Dutton

Tom Daley was a machinist for many years and now teaches poetry writing at the Boston Center for Adult Education in Boston, Massachusetts (http://www.bcae.org/) and poetry and memoir writing at Lexington (MA) Community Education (http://lexingtoncommunityed.org/). He is a member of the faculty of the Online School of Poetry (http://onlineschoolofpoetry.org/faculty.html) and serves on the tutorial faculty of Walnut Hill School for the Arts. He has lectured on ekphrastic poetry at Brown University and on performance poetry at Stonehill College and SUNY Cobleskill. He conducted the poetry workshop at Writers in the Round's annual retreat for poets and songwriters on Star Island, NH in 2006.

Tom's poetry has been published or is forthcoming in numerous journals, including Harvard Review, Prairie Schooner, Barrow Street, Del Sol Review, Diagram, Poetry Ireland Review, 32 Poems, Salamander, Perihelion, Archipelago, Hacks: The Grub Street Anthology, and The Bagel Bards Anthology (Numbers 1 and 2). His manuscript, Shim, was a finalist for the Emily Dickinson First Book Prize and the Brittingham and Pollak Poetry Prizes His poetry was nominated for inclusion in the anthology, The Best New Poets 2007. He graduated with highest honors in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina, where he won the Charles and Fanny Fay Wood Academy of American Poets Prize.

Tom produced and performed in several gala evenings of poetry performance with musical accompaniment, including "The Musician and the Muse" in 2004 (featuring Regie Gibson, Kent Foreman, Nicole Terez Dutton, Iyeoka Ivie Okoawo, J*me, and L'Merchie Frazier) and "The Poetry Vaudeville Show" in 2008 (featuring Regie Gibson, Nicole Terez Dutton, and Lilli Lewis).

Where I write

I usually write in the dining room of my third floor apartment, which does triple service as my study, the place where I lead my Monday night workshops, and the place where I keep most of my poetry books. There's something comforting about all those astonishing words committed to ink and paper just an arm's length or two away. Some mornings I sit near the bay windows at one end of the rock maple dining room table and wait for the light to come in, Rapidograph pen at the ready. Sometimes I compose at the computer, surrounded by disorderly files, rubber stamps, a jar full of fountain pens, and an alto recorder I pick up sometimes and play when I am mulling something over. There's a stack of books at the end of a long desk-mostly the library books I've checked out recently or books I've bought that I aim to peruse. Right now the stack includes A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson, Paddy and the Republic, Erin's Daughters in America, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Open Letters (Carolyn Gregory) and How to Develop A Super Power Memory, a book I studied several years ago-I've forgotten almost everything in it.

In the cabinets above the desk, books and notebooks and cassette tapes try to keep an uneasy order with each other. I have wedged into the molding of the cabinet doors laminated snapshots by Katherine Adams, a participant in my poetry workshops. She has a keen eye for the quirky detail-something I admire tremendously in both poetry and graphic arts. A series of pen and ink sketches by Emily Dusser de Barenne (mother of Marion Kilson, another writing workshop participant) graces a small calendar which hangs over the printer on a small white string and sometimes spins, as if months were some kind of mobile, in the air currents. The walls are painted Turkey red, the trim a semi-gloss off-white. There's the comforting buzz of my eleven year old Apple G-4, the occasional airplane overhead, trucks rumbling over potholes on the street, the lingering whiff of tea bags from last night waiting to be transferred to my compost pile. My favorite thing to look at it in the room is an unfinished portrait of my partner's mother at age twelve playing a violin, her face steady and wistful as she poses with the bow poised over a tan outline of the instrument.

The room is lit by an electrified replica of a Shaker chandelier, the crimped faux wax receptacles looking for all the world like wide and shallow cupcake paper. At my desk, I use a pedestal lamp which we bought years ago from a saleswoman who shared my late stepmother's droll sense of humor. (I hope she doesn't share her sloppiness and vitriol when inebriated). I sit in a sturdy ladder back chair and which helps to remind me to not let my back slump too badly when I have been at the computer for six or seven hours.

You currently teach poetry workshops, including online. What has this experience been like for you?

A great joy. I am constantly astonished at the richness and diversity of the voices of writers who enroll in my workshops. Their skill, their vulnerability, their insights, their doggedness, and their enthusiasm teach me much about the craft of writing (I offer workshops in memoir writing as well as in poetry).

The workshops are all characterized by lively and intelligent discussion among the participants. While we sometimes reach a consensus about the strengths and shortcomings of a particular work, more often than not, we agree to disagree. Each participant then comes away with a range of suggestions for improving the piece. The most successful revisions that are brought to the workshop are informed by the spirit of some of the suggestions, and not the letter.

I ask that each participant bring a poem by someone whose work they admire (not themselves!) to read at the beginning of each meeting of the poetry workshops. This is one of the most exciting parts of the workshop to hear new (and almost always) compelling poems and to get a sense of the aesthetic of the participant.

Every week, I give each participant a poem by another author which reminds me in some way of the poem they brought in the previous week. I also offer optional exercises which focus on particular subjects or the work of particular poets. In my current Lexington Community Education poetry workshop, I am offering exercises in how poets can learn from songwriters. In other workshops, the current set of exercises involves writing about work. I have also used the letters and poems of Emily Dickinson as a model. Dickinson is a fine, if sometimes elusive, model for writing the epistolary poem, writing about transformations, using aphorisms, and using the common (or hymn or ballad) meter, and employing rhyme in unusual ways.

My online workshop at the Online School of Poetry (http://onlineschoolofpoetry.org/TomDaleyWorkshop.html) is a somewhat more intensive experience. The exercises that are optional in other workshops are assignments in the online workshop. Each participant writes at least two thoroughgoing critiques of another participant's work every week. I also offer advice to participants on publishing in the online workshop

What level are your students at with their writing skills? Name a few things that you try to teach them.

I teach writers at all different levels, from the person just trying her or his hand for the first time at poetry or memoir to writers who have had books published. I have led workshops in which one participant's last poetry teacher was Elizabeth Bishop and another participant's work seemed more informed by the aesthetic of the greeting card. The two actually learned something from each other!

Although most of my workshops are open to all levels of skill, I do have a joint workshop for poets and prose memoir writers that meets on Monday nights at my house in which the general level of craft is quite high. Some of the participants are working on book manuscripts and are publishing poems in respected journals. I also select more experienced and skilled writers for my advanced online workshop. In the memoir workshops, some participants enroll who are breaking away from the academic and technical writing that was their bread and butter to forge memoir pieces with a more robustly personal style. Others write in a fascinating hybrid of street patois and Hemingwayesque elegance.

I think the most important lesson a writer finding her or his way can learn is the value of one's own experience of the world as one is framing poems and prose pieces. Many writers come to the first couple of workshops with work that marches in the heavy boots of abstraction and generalization. I always hear some wrongheaded phantom whispering over their shoulder "No one would be interested in your story or your observation. You need to be universal to be understood." I suggest that that they consider the old Russian proverb, "Taste mouthfuls--taste the ocean." Or the adage (I think it is Paul Valery's) "It is a thousand times easier to be profound than it is to be precise." Precision comes from an acuity of perception, from giving expression to the individual genius that inhabits all mentally competent human beings, from mining the rich lodes of our unique experience in the world. This is the first and sometimes most difficult lesson to teach, because it involves not just a shift in aesthetic orientation, but also an acute shift in awareness.

Whether in poetry or prose, I try to help writers develop a sense of the almost magical properties of well-tuned language. For poetry especially, a sense of "heightened attention to language" (to use Coleridge's formula) is critical to my sense of a successful poem. So many poems these days ignore this important requirement, focusing on narrative or precept without any attention to the lyrical (i.e. musical) impulse that was poetry's hallmark for most of its long history. I encourage explorations with rhyme and meter and writing in forms. I am constantly battling the silly prejudice against rhyme fostered by many poetry teachers in the Modernist and post-Modernist tradition, a prejudice I had to unlearn myself.

Talk about your chapbook, Canticles and Inventories (Wyngaerts Hoeck Press, 2005).

The chapbook is a pastiche of ekphrastic poems (poems written in response to paintings, photographs, and other works of art), poems about my experience as a machinist, meditations on the bizarre world of the nuclear family, and elegiac tributes to my brother, father, and a past that always hovers in the sinews of my hands, waiting to break into some kind of song or sojourn. I tried to make the chapbook as aesthetically pleasing as I could, using a typeface called Adobe Garamond and having it printed (by union labor) at a press in Newburyport that has state of the art offset presses.

What writers influence you?

That would be a list too long to do your question justice without overwhelming your readers! If my writing has any life to it, it derives from a cross-pollination of many different sources. The most influential poets are Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Charles Olson, Robert Browning, John Donne, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Gwendolyn Brooks, Pablo Neruda and John Berryman. Recent engagements with the work of poets Aime Cesaire and Thomas McGrath have also been very influential. There are literally hundreds of other poets whose work I admire and from whom I learn. There are many prose writers whose work is often more poetic than that of some of the "leading lights" of American poetry today, and I have studied their work with an ear to gleaning lessons about poetry from their prose as much as the plot or message of their work. These include Toni Morrison, William Faulkner and Thomas Hardy. Garbiel Garcia Marquez wrote the novel I love above all others, Love in the Time of Cholera. Leon Trotsky is the best polemicist I know, the King James Version of the Bible the most beautiful collection of religious propaganda. Beck, Elliott Smith and Sam Beam (of Iron and Wine) write some of the smartest songs I've been listening to in the last few years. Emerson is the headiest aphorist, Heather McHugh the most strikingly original critic, Camille Paglia the greatest shoot-from the-hipster. Besides the misnamed Norton Anthology of Poetry (it's rather presumptuous to have an anthology "of Poetry" which only includes poems in English), two anthologies have received a lot of attention from my eye, ear, and brain: A Celtic Miscellany (translated and edited by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson) and Technicians of the Sacred (edited by Jerome Rothenberg).

What are you working on now?

Mostly revamping the Emily Dickinson play (see below). Under the leadership of my friend (and the very fine writer) Nicole Terez Dutton, I participated in a project of writing a poem a day for thirty days last October--every one of which was (allegedly) in the voice of my mother. I would like to extend and deepen that collection. A small press publisher asked me to put together a book of homages I have written to poets and other performers and send it to them for their consideration, so I will be working on that post April 4.

As you know, I have an extensive theatre background. I am intrigued with a play you wrote and produced called, Every Broom and Bridget, which is a play about Emily Dickinson and Her Servants. How long did it take you to write this?

I have been working on a play (or dramatic presentation) based on Emily Dickinson's poems and letters for about a year, but the play really came into focus in January when I decided to concentrate on material about her servants (I am indebted to the work of Jay Leyda, who wrote a long paper on the subject of her servants called "Miss Emily's Maggie" in the nineteen fifties and the work of Aife Murray, who has a book coming out this spring called Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson's Life and Language, and of course to Emily Dickinson's surviving letters and poems, which is where I gleaned much of the material for the play.

Give a brief synposis of the play. Who is directing this? Why did you decide to write about Emily Dickinson? (This production will be presented on April 4th at 7:30 PM at the Cambridge YMCA/Central Square, in Cambridge, MA., Please see Cervena's readings page for more details).

The play takes place on the day of Emily Dickinson's funeral and burial. Dickinson, whose parents inhabited the upper tiers of Protestant Yankee society in Amherst, Massachusetts, had an ambivalent attitude towards the Irish immigrants and other working class people who were employed by her family. She could be affectionate, condescending, and hostile. Her appointment of six of her father's Irish Catholic groundskeepers and helpers to be her pallbearers was controversial at a time when Irish were considered a sub-species by many well-to-do Yankees.

In one letter, she speaks with great affection about one of these pallbearers, Tom Kelley, who was the brother-in-law of her housekeeper of thirty years, Maggie Maher. I have made these two central characters in the play, and their reciprocal affection towards Dickinson is counterpointed by the ambivalent hostility of another pallbearer, who seduces the housekeeper so he can get a hold of Dickinson's papers for the purposes of blackmailing her family. In the process, the malevolent pallbearer becomes enchanted with her poems. There is a back and forth between these three and other pallbearers. Other working class citizens of Amherst emerge as characters, including Henry Jackson and Angeline Palmer and a Jewish worker at the hat factory across from the Dickinson manse. (Jackson, a African American entrenpeneur who is to be played by the internationally acclaimed performance poet, Regie Gibson, was defended by Emily Dickinson's father, Edward, when Jackson was tried for abduction. Jackson had whisked the young black servant Angeline Palmer away when a Yankee mistress was threatening to sell her into slavery on an upcoming trip to South Carolina).

Emily Dickinson appears in several manifestations in the play, including as a wraith reading her own poems as events unfold after her burial, and in several flashback scenes. There are a number of musical and dance numbers in the play, including the performance of an aria from Gian Carlo Menotti's opera The Old Maid and the Thief; a song first popularized by Aretha Franklin, and a song by Sam Beam.

The play is being directed by Peter Berkrot, an acting coach and instructor with a lot of experience in community theater and staged readings, which is how this play is being produced. Peter has acted in many movies and directed his own theater company on the North Shore.

I find Dickinson fascinating. Once you peel away the "Queen Recluse" stereotype, a woman of great charm, humor, spiritual intensity, and genius emerges. I find that the more I study her poetry, the more astonished I am at the breadth of her vision and the daring of her project. When the literary critic Harold Bloom said hers was the most original mind in Western letters since Shakespeare, it wasn't a casual aside.

 


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