Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Life of a Poet ~ Danny Earl Simmons

by Sherry Blue Sky

Kids, over the months I have enjoyed this poet’s tenderly beautiful poems about his wife and baby, and knew I wanted to interview him. Shortly before I contacted him, Dan made a decision to  post only poems accepted for publication on his site. So, while right now there may be a scarcity of work appearing on his site, our community applauds his  serious efforts to be published. Dan's first accepted poems will appear in the inaugural issue of Gold Man Review in November of 2011. He also has had poems accepted by Poetry Quarterly, Pirene's Fountain and a blogzine called a handful of stones. 

 
Dan, who lives in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, whose coastline is among the most dramatically beautiful in the world, is also a Poets United staffer, bringing us the I Wish I'd Written This column every week. Dan can be found at Poems by Danny Earl Simmons.


Poets United: Hi Dan. Nice to finally sit down with you. Can you tell us a little about yourself,  your family,  and life in your wonderful part of the world?


Dan: I am 47-years old, married to a wonderful woman for over two years now, and have three sons (25-years, 21-years, 8-months).   Yep, I am an old father.


[Beautiful Boy - Baby Jackson]

I have lived in Oregon since I was 16-years old and love it here.  I love the green and the cool and the rain.  I love coffee and contemplation.  Sherry, you are right to highlight the beauty of the Oregon coast – majestic, powerful, moody.  I guess those same words can be used to describe our Cascade Mountains, too.

Poets United: You live in a special place, has great energy, Dan. And I love that you have a new baby. It was your poem about him that first interested me in your work. What led you to creating your  blog?

Dan: I have opinions.  One of them is that art is only half done when the artistic expression is completed by the artist.  The other half comes when the art is experienced by others.  (This is not to say that the joy and catharsis of creativity cannot be had in isolation.)  So, I just wanted to get my “art” out there.  At first, I did not even allow comments, just wanted to share.  Eventually, I got talked into allowing comments and got hooked on the positive feedback (it’s kind of addicting).

As I felt that my writing started to improve, I decided to start submitting poems for publication in literary journals and reviews.  Many of those publications will not accept pieces that are on personal blogs.  That is why I am only posting poems that have been published or have been accepted for publication (sometimes I have to wait until the publication comes out before I can post).  So, right now, my blog only has a few of the couple-hundred poems I’ve written.  I know, boring.  But, I hope that more and more of my work will be published and that my blog will someday be full again.

Poets United: That's awesome, Dan. Poets often don't persist in efforts to be published, and I admire that you do. It seems it does pay off, if one keeps at it. Can you name a modern author or poet who has had a significant impact on your own approach to writing?

Dan: I think I have been most influence by three poets:  Kay Ryan, Billy Collins, and the late Raymond Carver.

I like Kay Ryan’s poems, but I love her story even more.  She plugged away at her poetry for a couple of decades in obscurity, writing poems that she loved (including rhyming poems when rhyming was not in fashion).  She had confidence in her art and, eventually, she became the U.S. Poet Laureate.  This is what I most respect about her – while knowing her work was good, she never stopped trying to improve.  She reviewed every rejected poem for over twenty years to see how she could make it better.  Great example.

Billy Collins and Raymond Carver write/wrote poems that don’t show off.  They write what they observe.  They add to us just by watching and writing.  I love that and really want to do the same with my poetry.  We learn about them in their poems, but their poems are mostly for the readers and I admire that.  I hate reading poems that seem to be written without the reader in mind.  I don’t have a problem with folks writing for themselves, just please don’t inflict that upon the rest of us.

Poets United: How would you describe your personal approach to the creative writing process?

Dan: Sometimes, I write in response to prompts, but not usually.  Generally, I hear or say some words that sound good together.  Then I build a poem from that.  For me, the hardest part is writing the early crap (can I say “crap”?).  First drafts are often lame, but they are necessary.  Get that first stuff down on paper (or up on the screen) and then start molding.  Stick with it and a poem comes out. The key for me is to start and not worry about the crap (dang, I did it again). Then work it.

I am part of a private critique group called The Boathouse (from Stephen Dunn’s poem) that helps me finalize.  This group consists of both published poets and new poets (like myself).  I love The Boathouse!

This highlights the need for honest critique, if a poet really wants to improve.  In our blog world, we mostly support each other with kind words of encouragement and expressions of appreciation and compassion.  All of that is wonderful.  However, most of us also need straightforward criticism if we want to improve.  This type of feedback can be difficult to take, but I encourage everyone who wants to get better to find a group of good poets and start hitting each other hard.  Some really good poems get banged-out that way.

Poets United: This is true. Constructive, and hopefully positively-presented feedback is very helpful. Who would you say has been the biggest influence in your life on your writing?

Dan: I have already mentioned my friends of The Boathouse.  They are invaluable.  Teachers, of course, who give you hope that you might be able to do something some day.  But, really, my wife, Alisha, has helped me get to a place in my life where I believe in myself.  For most of my life, I did not have that – someone who makes you feel you can do whatever you set your mind to do, someone who believes in you and supports you.  I don’t want to make it sound like I think I have accomplished some big thing in life, but, regardless of my anonymity in the big, wide world, she thinks I’m great and that IS great!


[Dan and the beautiful Alisha]

 Poets United: Is it ever! Yay, Alisha! Have you always written, or did you come to writing slowly over time?

Dan: I fell in love with writing the minute I learned how to spell.  I did write poetry in school, and my friends did not mind.  They let me read my stuff to them.  They politely listened and nodded their heads and then went back to their french fries.  It was all good.

Poets United: That is so cool! What inspires you to communicate in the poetic form?

Dan: Good question.  I don’t think I know.  I have tried to figure out why poetry works....I just know that when it does, it is powerful.  So, you have forced me to stumble upon an answer.  I love the feeling of making readers feel powerful emotions, to wag their heads and smile or cry or laugh or just stop and think.

Poets United: Well said, Dan. What, most often, triggers you to write? Where do you go for inspiration?

Dan: I just try to be observant and keep my mouth shut so I can listen and think.  There are poems in every cubic-inch of reality and every memory and every conversation.  We just have to pick them out.

Poets United: And how do you know when a poem is finished?

Dan: When it is published.  Until then, anything goes regarding revision.  My wife HATES that.  She gets emotionally attached to early versions and gets annoyed as I revise, revise, revise.  It is a running joke with us now.

Poets United: I'm with your wife. I get attached to my early drafts too. In what way would you say your writing has improved in the past year?

Dan: We have probably all heard the advice to show don’t tell, well, I think I am doing a better job than ever of showing.  Also, I use metaphor a little better these days, but I am still working on that.

Poets United: What are your personal criteria for good poetry?

Dan: I like a poem that makes me feel.  I don’t care how it does it, I just want to feel.
Regarding forms I don’t like, I don’t like sonnets.

I like some constrained forms, such as haiku, sestina, and acrostic, but they are hard to do well.  Because they are so often done poorly, just looking at one can cause an initial negative reaction.  I think that any form should be used to bring depth to a poem.  In other words, if the form just becomes a word game, the chances of the poem being enjoyable to the reader are greatly diminished (back to the focus on the reader versus the writer).

Poets United: Many writers say that revising is the real work of writing, and it sounds like you do a lot of revision.

Dan: I revise.  Revision is hard work.  One reason is your attachment to what you’ve already written.  So, again, if you focus on the reader, you will revise, revise, revise until you believe it is ready to be read.  Another reason revision is hard is because it sometimes requires bending the truth (hell, it requires lying) for the sake of the poem.  That is difficult to accept if your poem is about something or someone  real.  I try to remember that I want the truth of the poem to come through even if it requires that I adjust the specific details in order to make that happen.   

Poets United: Interesting, Dan. What advice would you give someone who is just a beginner?

Dan:
1)     Read lots of good poetry (a great book for beginners is Garrison Keillor’s anthology called Good Poems).  Pay attention to the poems you really like and try to figure out why you like them.  Then try to do that yourself (no need to worry about imitating someone else – your own voice will come through).
2)    Get yourself some quality criticism and listen to it with an opened mind. 
3)    Only accept criticism you agree with.  But, listen and think before deciding whether or not you agree with it.
4)    Write a lot.
Poets United: Great advice! What issues are dear to your heart?

Dan: Family, people, love.


[Me and the Boys - Aric on the left, Kyle on the right]

Poets United: I love that! Do you have a favorite poem, written by you?

Dan: That is a difficult thing, picking a favorite poem.  If there was a gun to my head, I would pick Bonnard’s Nudes by Raymond Carver.  I have wanted to put this in the I Wish I’d Written This spot, but it is not available from the two places I take poems from (Poetry Foundation and Poets.org).

Favorite poem of mine?  Hmmm.  I guess it is A big round belly stretched nine-months tight, which I can’t share yet because I really want to get that one published.  How about this one, which I like and will risk not getting it published where that matters to the publisher...

How to Survive the End of a 22-Year Marriage
Danny Earl Simmons

Lean over the rail and drop it.

Make sure you’re plenty high
because there are things to do
before the splash.

Drop it and shake-out
your hands and arms,
let them get used to the lightness.

Look over the rail
and beware the dizziness
and the urge to jump after.

Linger a bit and watch it turn small.

Now is the time for crying
if you think it will do you any good,
but do not lose track of time.

Here’s where things get difficult
and take real nerve.  Reach around
into your back pocket and grab hold of your knife.

Raise it right up to your throat,
so close you can feel the blade
scrape with every dry swallow.

Hold it there and watch
as this thing you released continues to disappear
until it just touches the surface

and the line between you and it turns taut;
just then, jerk the blade sideways
and cut the noose.

Poets United: I like that one too, Dan. It is powerful, and I am so glad it ended positively! What poets in the blogosphere do you visit most?

Poets United: Cool. When you are not writing, what other interests do you pursue?



 Dan: Well, with my youngest being so young, I spend a lot of time at home.  I also have a demanding work schedule.  A couple of years ago, I took up community theater (Di Niro watch out!) and I currently serve on the board of directors of Albany Civic Theater (http://albanycivic.org/)

Poets United: Local theatre! How wonderful! Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

Dan: Just that I appreciate this community very much and hope that everyone continues to enjoy writing and reading.

Poets United: Me, too! Thanks, Danny, for the peek into your life! I've really enjoyed it, and I know our readers will, too.

See, kids? Isn't it true that the people behind the pens can be some of the most interesting folks around? Come back to see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!


12 comments:

  1. I really enjoy this "Life of a Poet" series...it was nice to read your interview, Dan. I'm fascinated to hear how other writers go about creating their poems. Like any other art form, everyone has their own technique and inspiration. Your end of marriage poem was powerful. Thanks for sharing, and I wish you much success with the publication of your poetry!

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  2. "Dan: I just try to be observant and keep my mouth shut so I can listen and think. There are poems in every cubic-inch of reality and every memory and every conversation. We just have to pick them out."


    SO true, Dan, and I always appreciate your comments :)

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  3. Wonderful interview, Sherry. Nice to learn more about you, Dan! I always enjoy my visits to your blog.

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  4. Way to go, Sherry!
    I was THRILLED to see Dan profiled today. He is one of my favorites. His poetry is packed with meaning and intention, flows with a natural rhythm all its own, and teaches me something vital nearly every time I read it. Never disappointed by his work. I foresee great things for this man. And how nice to get a glimpse of his beautiful family. Great way to start my day.

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  5. Really enjoyed meeting you, Dan. And thank you again Sherry for another interesting interview. I love meeting the poets of this community! Wonderful multi-leveled poems, Dan.

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  6. I appreciate all the kind comments about my poems. Thank you. Sherry, thanks for thinking of me. This was a blast!

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  7. You made it so easy, Dan, and I'm glad folks are enjoying it. I am amazed every single time at the amazing stories of "the people behind the pen".

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  8. I enjoyed reading about you Dan. It's always interesting to see how other poets process their thoughts and ideas. Thanks for sharing and all the best to you :)

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  9. I love reading about our poet friends on Poets United. Thanks for a personal interview... Dan is a true inspiration!

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  10. Great write up Sherry - on Danny...so much dedication here...thank you....both for a wonderful interview...bkm

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  11. Great interview you two! I loved Dan's view of poetry being out there in our every day~ So wonderful you have such great support; you have a lovely family~ I enjoyed getting to know you better~

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  12. Sherry you did a wonderful job presenting Danny and his personality. His work speaks for itself. I love these interviews.

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