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Interview with David Daniels
Michael Basinski

David Daniels in UbuWeb Contemporary
John Strausbaugh on David Daniels in UbuWeb Papers
Michael Basinski in UbuWeb Contemporary

This interview took place on Thursday, July 26, 2001 at the home of poet David Daniels on Cornell Avenue in Berkeley, California.


MB: Give me biographical background.

DD: I was born on October 11, 1933 in Newark, New Jersey. My mother thought that I would be smart because I didn’t want to come out. She was in labor 28 hours. My mother’s name was Lena Daniels. My father’s name was Samuel Daniels. My father worked as a lawyer and a CPA in Newark, New Jersey. Any other information can be gathered from the poems in my book Years.

MB: Tell us about Years.

DD: I wanted to put down a taste for each year of my life, like someone would have a wine cellar and they’d go to the wine cellar and they’d siphon off a taste from a bottle and know what the wine tasted like that year. Then, I liked to make words into pictures so I decided I’d make shape poem where the words tell the shapes what to be and the shapes tell the words what to be.

MB: Could you tell us something about The Gates of Paradise?

DD: Now here’s the true story. From 1966 until now, 2001, I have been earning my living partially just by talking to people about everything under the sun. In 1984, some people like took notes and in 1984 I asked them to give me their notes and I was thinking I was going to write a small book of maxims like Larry in The Razor’s Edge. After he found wisdom he decided he was going to write a small volume and then go to New York to be a cab driver. So, I called in all these things and I looked at them and I got my first computer, a woman gave me a Corona computer which was like a little TV with a screen 4 inches by 4 inches and I hooked it up to a Mitsubishi 24 inch TV, which you could do at the time, and I would sit there and I would take their notes and sit there and try to write them. I soon found that nobody heard what I said. I didn’t say one word in these notes. They had all put down what they thought I said. So I said, well, I’m just going to have to rewrite this to capture what I said and before I knew it, I had like 500 pages of sayings, stories, and everything else. And that’s it. And then I thought it was boring. I just didn’t think it was…………I know what bores people by now. I figured, OK. Now, my son Chris gave me a book called The Stuffed Owl which is an anthology of bad verse by good writers edited by D. B. Wyndham Lewis. It’s the poetry I first read that I ever liked. It was just so easy to read and it was so interesting. And I thought that well, if people think this is bad poetry and I think a lot of good poetry is boring, maybe I’ll just start writing bad poetry. That really freed me from having to write dull things. They had things in there about frogs climbing in some woman’s bed and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s work.

So anyway, I saw these poems and I started writing like them. And I guess that because I painted when I was young, I just started making pictures. The first one I just made a diamond. And from there on, I did them all as pictures. I talked to many people about their unhappiness and that’s all people want to talk about because bitching and complaining is a national sport. So I said I am going to write a poem about every form of happiness I’ve ever known. In the book, except for the first twenty where I put what I thought were my best poems, every poem is just in the order in which it was written.

Then, at that time, I rediscovered Ovid’s Metamorphosis and this great translation by… well first I read Ovid in Latin, and I translated four or five, I forget which ones. It’s in verse and it’s almost word for word what Ovid wrote. It’s uncanny. His work isn’t really in what we call verse because the Latin idea of meter was long syllable and consonants, long vowels, short consonants, and I don’t know how the guy did it. Horace Gregory was the translator and then when I read the Metamorphosis I thought to myself, well, I finished with the first part that was about change, breathing and how life is like breathe and changes like breathe and their character is really their inner atmosphere and their breathe changes their inner atmosphere. I thought after reading Ovid that people never change, so I mind as well make some changes. So I decided that I would write like the Metamorphosis but I called the poems transformations and then I called them the Flux Card. And I started writing those about all kinds of people turning into all kinds of things just like in the Greek myths. And at that time, I began to come under the influence of the internet. I had never had the internet before and someone named Mark Peters started sending me these weird poems where people had taken things off the internet and assembled them. So people started sending me at that time, I guess it was 1994/95, this amazing lists of things, jokes, dirty words, things that have happened, slang, everything under the sun. So, with I took these things and added the material to mine. I just took them and put them into my works.

MB: Can you speak about how the words form the images or the images impose themselves into forms and the origin of like. I mean the diamond is a simple shape but they have become much more enhanced since the diamond.

DD: Well, what Einstein says is gravity tells mass where to go and mass tells gravity how to bend or something like that. It’s like a continuum. So, what happens is you write a line and a line is so long and then to make a shape you break the lines into the length necessary for a shape and then you have words to get the line to fit the shape you have to change the words sometimes. To get the shape right, you need to add words sometimes, so you’re constantly changing the length of the lines and the words. And then there are subtler things where you need to get a line to go up so if there is a word like light or elevation, you can by raising it 5 point, _ point, 1 point you can get a word to get up or down and then when people read it, it affects them the way meter works. So with meter, shading, expanding, contracting, you can get all kinds of effects, almost musical effects. My 1962, which is a mini epic, 70 pages long, I wrote in sonata form. I wrote three very short movements that repeat. They go up into nowhere and come back. Then a long boring second movement, then a very short fancy third movement, then a real gallop for the forth movement. I do that with a lot of things. I’ll write them like song, symphony, or like oaths or like nonsense. But I also believe, for me, that everything I write should have some meaning relating to what I am because I think I am just a human being. I’m just trying to show people who live in the future or whenever what I was like or what life was like when I lived. Like conversation over a vast distance. Because everything people do is conversation, everything people do, whether they touch, they feel, sex, it’s all conversing.

MB: Unlike other visual poetry that is minimalist. Your work is narrative.

DD: Now I’m going to say something terrible that I should not say. Most people, who can write, can’t draw and most people who can draw can’t write. I’m lucky enough to have learned to write largely through just reading. I have a very good ear for writing because when I hear things, I think of Dickens, Hemingway, and all these people. I also studied painting and I’ve copied El Greco’s, Rembrandt, and Renior’s. I’ve earned my living for a couple of years coping old masters. So I know how to paint. And also because I was never allowed to work when I was young, in my 20’s, I’d go to a farm in New Jersey and work on weekends with people who were real workers. They really knew how to pay attention to things. They were into that. I learned how to work. I love it; to me it was a luxury. I’m not afraid to work. I’m not afraid to do things for the sake of doing things for nothing in return. I don’t have dreams of glory. I just want to do things for the sake of doing things. Give up control, give up trying to get someplace, give up taking in and cast your bread upon the waters.

MB: Where does the title Gates of Paradise come from?

DD: The Gates of Paradise comes from when I was 15, 14, in 1948. I visited my brother at the University of Chicago and he was taking a course from Philip Reef, the husband of Susan Sontag, who at that time who was putting out Freud’s collected works, brilliant man.

And he was teaching this class to people 40 years old, who had been in the Battle of the Bulge and 12 year old wiz kids on Marvel to his mistress, and they were talking about the line and through the iron bars of life near the end. And I think it comes from that image. And then, almost all my life, I have been interested in opening up myself and other people and seeing what’s inside, that there’s gates into people and knowledge is really a gate into the universe so I think it comes from that too. And in the Messiah, they have opened your gates, your everlasting doors. That is a very beautiful corral, and of course to the Muslims, paradise is heaven, and Allah’s description of paradise is the garden under which the river runs. Well, this is supposed to be a code for the sensations of the human being and the blood running under them or the poetry in the person is the river and the heart is the fountain and they always have the fountains, the rivers, like the Oriental rugs. They’re all a garden. And then I would say in all cultures they have the idea of the inside of the human being, Marvel’s garden and the green thought and the green shade.

MB: There are 99 sections/poems to The Gates?

DD: 350 plus. Over 350 and maybe 400 pages. And the reason that there are so many is that I’m so unconcerned with labor and a lot of people would divide it up into10 books and then have a little book and say I’ve published, I’ve published. I’m old too. I’m 67 going on 68, so why shouldn’t I just dump it all out together. Why doesn’t anyone want to do anything important anymore? Why are they all being Uriah Heap and saying little me, I couldn’t do anything important. I’m not going to name names but I heard someone who is supposed to be a brilliant professor and student of poetry that eating light is not poetry and writing long things is not poetry. So, I think there is something about these people today that anyone who does anything long or big or whatever or tries to make a masterpiece is considered a lunatic weirdo. That’s what my best friends call me. Kenny Goldsmith, he likes me but he calls me a daulphy waulphy. Well, Blake was like that. He was considered a total idiot. And let’s hope he was.

MB: I think one thing that’s fascinating is that you started to make your poems and your work outside of the Academy and outside of the world of poetry and without particular contemporary masters. You’re independent in thinking and in your creative approach. And untrained except for self trained.

DD: Well, I did go to The University of Chicago and we did read heavily anything before 1940 or even up to 1940. To me, poetry was just as much ancient Greek as T.S. Eliot. I saw T.S. Eliot. I met him, heard him read. Katherine Porter impressed me amazingly. She was amazing when she read Flowering Judas. Thornton Wilder came to our class in Humanities. I had a very nice teacher, I don’t remember her name but she had set Shakespeare’s poems to music so I’m not a postal clerk. I probably know a lot more about things than most professors. I’m probably one of the few alive that have completely read the Greek Anthology - all 7 volumes for fun! When I went to school, everyone talked about these things. You didn’t have to know anything. You just hear people talk. So, I wouldn’t say that I’m outside of anything. I’d say that those people are. And I just didn’t read anything from 1950 on because it wasn’t like anything I knew. I thought it was kind of junk. And I thought Allan Ginsberg was an idiot and I thought Jack Kerouac didn’t even know how to hitchhike. I hitch-hiked 20,000 miles before I was 16 and when I read On the Road, it wasn’t anything about traveling and then I met some of them up around Columbia and they were morons. I went to dinner once with William De Cuing, Larry Rivers, and some other really big artists and they were like fools. They were talking about some pop movies. They were like fucking morons. I saw John Cage do a performance in 1951 and I didn’t know what it was. He was hitting milk pails with spoons but he seemed to be having a lot of fun. But I wasn’t told that was good and I wasn’t told it was bad but I wasn’t into it. That’s where I’m coming from. So, I’m just trying to do things like I read when I was young. My father was an enormous admirer of Dickens and I like Dickens a lot. But in those days, they got paid by the word, but I’m probably one of the few people who isn’t writing for money or for fame or anything. I’m just writing because I’m 67 years old and I have nothing to do. I’m very lucky because with what I know and what I’ve been through, I’m amazed that weird people aren’t floating around me. I’m not bragging I know a lot. So, anyway.

MB: Gates is a finished piece now?

DD: Yes.

MB: And the new project is here? And how is this work moving along?

DD: In Years, I have from 1933 to 1972 done and I plan to go through my whole life. I have from 1973 to 1981 more than half done and I may stop at that point or I may go on. When that’s all done, I want to get to the point where I can do one every year if I want to, but I may stop in 1981. And after that, I am going to do something called Humans because I’ve met and interviewed thousands of people and I’m just going to write about every person I’ve met on the model of my first one about Michael Basinski, my first attempt. And after my book Humans, I’m going to write a book called Assholes because I’ll be very old and I can write nasty things about everyone I hate. That’ll be like the Gates of Paradise, one part will be Humans and one part will be Assholes. And I’ve been collecting now, like Alan Sondheim. I like some of his things very much so I saved a love poem he wrote and I’m gonna do it maybe in the form of his wife’s face and different things. And after that, someone I know named Michael Basinski wrote Edgar Allan Poe into penis dreaming about penises and vaginas and I think I’ll do that in the face of Edgar Allan Poe. I really like doing the pictures better than the writing but I will do both.

MB: So you began working on the computer when and what programs do you use and are you going to remain there?

DD: I use Microsoft Word, I started in 1984. I started off with Microsoft Word and every new Microsoft Word, I’ve had to redo everything I’ve done until the latest one because it has gray shading, unless they come out with something that makes things move. But, I’ve said this to my friend Kenneth Goldsmith who’s asked me to make things that move, that I’d rather move minds than move video screens. I think that to read my poems and pictures, to read them, your mind has to move. It moves your mind. It’s like making ripples in human minds. .

MB: How many drafts are there of each piece?

DD: Some have up to 400 and some have 10. If I think it’s good, I’ll leave it. But I’m a student of Matisse I saw Matisse draw in a movie when I was young and I saw that he would leave things right before anyone else would crush them. So I work and I work and I work until it looks like I didn’t do it, till no one did it. I think that’s what I’m going for, or I don’t know what to do anymore or I’m sick of it.

MB: Do you go back two months later and change things?


DD: What I do generally is I write them, then I send them to a friend of mine, Virginia Zielinski, a tech writer and her husband Mark, a Harvard man, and I give them the text and then they do copy reading. Then when I think I have it really, really copy proofed, then I start making the pictures, then after I think the pictures are done, I give it back to them and they go over them again. Then I finish them up and then that’s it. It’s just like painting, when something’s done, it’s done. It’s a version.

MB: Who’s your ideal reader?

DD: You and Natalie Basinski. Well, I don’t care who reads it. I know that from long experience, different people like different things. And, I think that anyone who likes me, or liked me or is like me, might read them. And I know some people think they are stupid. I sent them to Oxford Poetry and they just thought they were crap. They didn’t say it but you could tell by the note they put in their response. And some people send me glowing praise. But I don't care whether anyone reads them. I’m not trying to get a book signing or readings or anything like that. I’m not into that. I’m not trying to compete with movies or anything. I was watching a thing on Hollywood script writers and one of them said it’s a very cooperative collective effort. If you’re not willing to let people take over from you and give up and get your work changed, you mind as well go off and write poetry somewhere. And that’s one of the reasons I started writing poetry too. Because I don’t have to make money. I have a nice job and everything and I have time and social security is the greatest artist’s grant ever invented. I’m glad I put that in about that. I try very hard when I write to not care if it hurts anyone’s feelings or is obnoxious to people or kisses people’s ass. I say what I really think is the truth about something. Why be an artist? You mind as well go and work at the telephone company if you want to do what someone tells you to do. I was thrown out of a life insurance company for not knowing how to write because I would write letters like, hi, how are ya? Sorry you’re having trouble. We didn’t mean to cheat you.

It’s better for me to keep going and keep doing what I am doing because at many times in my life, with my bird writing, I just stopped, with my Chinese, I didn’t keep practicing and it’s hard for me to do it now and I’m getting so much more skill because I am really inventing a meter. I’m really inventing a way of creating because back then they didn’t have computers. So everyday I do something I never saw before and some things just knock me out. I can’t believe anybody could do it. But I saw myself do it and I might have all the printouts out. It’s a wonderful feeling. I read a book by Faulkner. The guy said he just smoked constantly and drank whiskey for three days and he’d go on these roles and write the first chapters or first four chapters of say Light in August.

My father’s four brothers were printers in Newark, New Jersey and they did small printing jobs and they had an old horse barn that had the printing shop in it. They had my old grandfather working there looking at the paper in the hay lofts. It really was a Dickensian place. And my Uncle Nathan, who was a total wise guy, like I can be at times, would sit at this huge line-o-type machine and type in things and out would come typeset. I was only there once and I watched him and I said, "Nathan, what are you doing?" He said, "I’m writing a poem." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "It’s just nothing, it’s just a poem for someone, someone wants a poem for their wedding." So he was typesetting poems and I might have got the idea from that. Because he, by far, was the nicest person to me in my family. I’d say he was the Titanic and the rest were the people dead in the water.

MB When did you start writing?

DD: I’d really started writing in 84. I started Gates in 87. I finished them in 2000. I started Years along with Gates and after all I left them out and then I just said, no, I’ll make a book. M son, Christopher Daniels, the poet and translator, told me, dad, wait until they see this, no one’s ever written their life story in pictures. People are going to be in awe. They’re going to think you’re like Blake or something. Then I said, oh well. I’ll make a separate book of it. But I want to say one other thing for posterity. That in 1999, in the fall, my son Chris said to me, "Ya know what? Send it to Kenny Goldsmith at Ubuweb. That guy likes anything." So I sent the book to Kenny Goldsmith and I got back a one whole page 8x11 email that said things like, this is a major work or the 20th century. I am going to put the whole thing on Ubuweb. And I couldn’t believe it. Of course, everyone likes to hear that, especially someone who thinks they’re Jesus or something or at least Dickens. But I couldn’t believe it because I didn’t think that would ever happen. I never thought that in my lifetime this would happen. So, this was one of the greatest events in my artistic life. It gave me so much happiness and courage to go on, which I had a little of, but this gave me enormous courage. And then he put it on the internet which I thought that was amazing because that is really being published. So then, someone named Mark Peters and Michael Basinski wrote me letters and said they saw my book and could they have a copy of my book and I couldn’t believe that anyone would want it.