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10 Questions for Daniel Wolff

Courtesy of Chris Buhalis

If you’re gone for good—if you’re history -
I’ll know to search along rivers.
I’ll look for bones, trace foundations,
piece old shapes from shards.

But time will take those, too.
Strangers arriving with children will run
the length of the ruins for hide-and-seek,
squeals of living delight.
from "Always Beside a River," Volume 65, Issue 1 (Spring 2024)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I don’t remember its name. Not sure it had a name. It was a long, probably rhyming narrative along the lines of “The highway man came riding, riding...” Written in the back of shall we say a 5th grade class. To the interest of some fellow classmates and the irritation of the teacher, who eventually came to the back of the class (where “W’s” always sit) and confiscated the piece: a preview of critical reaction to come.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I don’t think you can teach poetry. May I say that again? I don’t think you can teach poetry. But I think you can learn it. And a lot of that is from reading. In backwards order from the present to the past, I knew and read and admired William Bronk, a poet who is no longer with us and maybe his poetry isn’t, either: difficult, funny, honed to such an edge that you don’t know when you’ve been cut. Lorine Niedecker, whom I—along with lots of other people—didn’t know, but her knowledge of natural landscapes, her ability to both leave those alone and somehow use them to evoke history and passion, make her work instantly familiar. And George Herbert: an old, dead, white guy who believed in an old, dead, white church I have no connection with, but defined things like faith and prayer in such a way that they end up sitting in the room with you, trembling.

What did you want to be when you were young?
Sorry to nitpick but how young?
A thing that could fly. An adventurer. A pirate. A naturalist. A rake. An older person. A younger person. Astonishingly, I wanted to be a lot like what I’ve ended up being. Who’s that joke on?

What inspired you to write this piece?
Ah, now we’re getting down to it. I needed a piece in the puzzle, the puzzle being the story of a couple breaking up and one of them reacting by driving fairly aimlessly through the Mid-West until noticing the earth works—great dirt mounds, sometimes in the shape of animals, often simply geometric—that can date back to what we once called “B.C.” and indicate not only a whole, largely unknown civilization but also a yearning for answers, for knowing how the world works, for needing pieces to a larger puzzle. “Always Beside A River” is part of a series of poems about those earth works—and that series is, in turn, part of a larger love story in a manuscript called “Indiana Nature Notes.”

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Lots of them. In the case of the poem before you, the place is these mounds, some of which have become traffic circles, some turned into golf courses, some parks, many have become corn fields. In this case, I’m thinking the answer to “real or imagined” is yes.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
No, no. The things that I call poems have their own music and listening to outside melodies only distracts. Having said that, popular music of the last century or so has a continuing influence. I hope there’s as much Nina Simone to what I do as there is John Milton (both being experts in paradises lost). The texture and tempo and impact of pop music is everywhere; if you’re foolish enough to want to communicate with “regular” people through poetry, you’d be a fool to disregard popular music—from hip hop to folk.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Not a one. If you want to write and also have a partner, kids, friends, a role in the community, it seems to me you have to be able to write whenever you get a moment—and can’t afford to have rituals or traditions. One pencil has to be as good as the next, a seat on a train as good as your table, the back of an envelope as good as a cell phone. I have the ritual and tradition of trying to write every day. With failures but without fail. 

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
The author. And the second through twentieth reads, too. And lots of times, those are the only reads. If it passes through that gauntlet, my wife usually takes a look, but that can be too much pressure on the people you love, so sometimes it goes straight to an editor, who has no obligation to be kind or even nice. By that time, it’s usually what we call “done,” so I don’t adjust much. As first reader, I am meaner than anyone. 

What are you working on currently?
Let’s say I’m working on the manuscript, “Indiana Nature Notes,” from which the poem here is taken. Though that’s a lie; by the time I share stuff like this, it’s done (see above). In fact, I don’t like talking about what I’m working on because than it ceases to be what I’m working on and becomes this thing I’m describing to someone. It’s enough to make it so the cake don’t rise. Usually, in answer to this question, I prefer to look the other way or mumble, “Poetry.” 

What are you reading right now?
Last night, I finished “The Kingdom of This World” by Alejo Carpentier—a pretty wonderful 1949 novel about Haiti which might be called surrealistic except it sticks close to that brave country’s extraordinary history. The day before, I finished “Merchants of Grain,” a 1970’s non-fiction account by Dan Morgan of the families that control the distribution of food—global conglomerates before we had the term. The last book of poems was “So What” by the Palestinian poet, Taha Muhammad Ali: about as complex—emotionally and politically—as plain language gets. 


DANIEL WOLFF’s fourth collection of poems, More Poems About Money (Four Way Books) came out in 2022. His poetry has appeared in lots of journals, including The Paris Review, APR, and Raritan. He’s done collaborations with sculptors, choreographers, photographers, and songwriters. And then there’s the half-dozen non-fiction books, helping produce three documentary films with director Jonathan Demme, and recently directing a fourth, Guardians of the Flame.

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