The Vintage Sundress Series offers us an opportunity to catch up with writers who published with us in the past. In 2011, Daniel Crocker published Like a Fish with Sundress, followed by The One Where I Ruin Your Childhoodin 2015. He took a moment to speak with our Editorial Intern, Annie McIntosh, about how mental illness affects his writing and the future of poetry.
Annie McIntosh: I’ve often found phrases from pop culture or literature that just echo on a loop for me, sometimes for years—and you’ve talked about this before as well. Are there any poems that you’ve written, or maybe haven’t written yet, that have the same effect for you? What poems or lines still haunt you?
Daniel Crocker: Most of my OCD manifests itself through intrusive thoughts, so I understand where you’re coming from! Mostly they are dark thoughts about self-harm, how stupid I am, that one time 20 years ago I said something embarrassing, etc. There was one piece of pop culture that often repeats nonstop in one of these episodes. It’s from The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s when Richie looks into the mirror and says, “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.” That’s a usual for me. Luckily, on the medication I’m on now I don’t have a lot of intrusive thoughts—usually only when I’m having high anxiety. Anyway, I did write a poem about a line getting stuck in your head from OCD. It’s “Jazz” from Shit House Rat.
AM: How has using black humor in your poetry and fiction informed your creative process, particularly when you’re drawing from deep places of childhood trauma?
DC: I just always used humor to cope, and often that humor is dark. Also, people like funny poems. It makes them happy, even if the underlying theme is depressing. I love reading them at poetry readings. Nothing makes me feel happier than when the audience laughs when I want them to laugh. Then, I bring the hammer down on them.
AM: What was it about Sesame Street characters that inspired you to have this dialogue about mental illness in your poetry?
DC: I thought many of them just lent themselves to bipolar symptoms. Snuffy is depression. Big Bird is mania. Cookie Monster is addiction. It just seemed like a natural connection for me. I think the first one I wrote was about Oscar the Grouch—that one is in Like a Fish. When I was working on Shit House Rat, I think I wrote the Snuffy poem first and after that everything else just fell into place.
AM: In your essay “Mania Makes Me A Better Poet,” you discuss the balancing act of mania/medication affecting your creativity as a poet. Do you have any advice for others in finding that balance? Does poetry ever trump being healthy?
DC: Sometimes poetry trumps being happy. Not as often as it used to, but sometimes. For the most part, however, I try to stay stable. I mean I have a family and a job. It’s good to stay as sane as possible. Though, I do want to clarify only a mildish mania (hypomania) is fun and creative. Full-blown mania is scary as hell.
AM: Where do you see poetry moving forward? Are there any poets we should really be paying attention to right now?
DC: I think it’s already moved forward just in my lifetime. I started in the ’90s small press poetry boom. The old cut and paste magazines. They were great. That was our time, though. Now, it’s time for new poets. I mean, I could have never imagined when I was 20 that there would be Instagram poets, YouTube poets, etc. I think it’s great. It is bringing a lot of attention to poetry in general. I also like that poetry is much more inclusive than it used to be—though it still has a way to go. When I was starting out, I was one of the few non-straight (I’m bi) poets I knew of.
Poets I love: John Dorsey, Rebecca Schumejda, Laura Kasishke, Erin Elizabeth Smith, David Taylor, Mike James, Tim Siebles, Nate Graziano, Chase Dimock, my wife Margaret, and there’s so many that I just can’t name them all.
AM: What are some future projects you’re working on right now?
DC: I have a new book coming out called Sick. It’s a split book with me and John Dorsey. I should have my first fiction collection in many years coming soon. Probably my last fiction collection too. After that, I might work on a memoir. I don’t know. I might just be done.
Daniel Crocker’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Hobart, Big Muddy, New World Writing, Stirring, Juked, The Chiron Review, The Mas Tequila Review and over 100 others. His books include Like a Fish (full length) and The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood (e-chap with thousands of downloads) both from Sundress Publications. Green Bean Press published several of his books in the ’90s and early 2000s. These include People Everyday and Other Poems, Long Live the 2 of Spades, the novel The Cornstalk Man, and the short story collection Do Not Look Directly Into Me. He has also published several chapbooks through various presses. His newest full length collection of poetry, Shit House Rat, was published by Spartan Press in September of 2017. Stubborn Mule Press published Leadwood: New and Selected Poems—1998-2018 in October 2018. He was the first winner of the Gerald Locklin Prize in poetry. He is the editor of The Cape Rock (Southeast Missouri State University) and the co-editor of Trailer Park Quarterly. He’s also the host of the podcast, Sanesplaining, about poetry, mental illness, and nerd stuff.
Annie McIntosh is an English major at Franklin College, where she writes about gender-queer studies in science fiction. She is the Lead Poetry Editor of Brave Voices Magazine and a Fiction Editorial Intern for Juxtaprose Magazine. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming from Okay Donkey, Theta Wave, Digital Americana Magazine, carte blanche, and others. She recently received her first Pushcart Prize nomination and was named one of Indiana’s Best Emerging Poets for 2018. Currently searching for a publication home for her first chapbook, she lives in Indianapolis with her partner and their dog, Jackson.
Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Daniel Crocker reads “How to Watch Your Brother Die” by Michael Lassel.
Daniel, you recorded reading this poem a few years ago back in 2013 with the caption, “One of the best poems ever written.” I reckon it’s not lost its impact. What was it like to discover this poem? Do you remember when you first came across “How to Watch Your Brother Die?”
Daniel: I can’t remember exactly where I read it. I think I was taking an independent study in LGBT literature when I was introduced to it. Either way, I remember it hit me hard the first time I read it. Although I think I’m a pretty emotional person, I’m not always a very emotive person. I’m not ashamed at all to say I cried the first time I read this and several times reading it since.
I remember those times in the ’80s and even the ’90s. There was so much fear and misinformation. There was Reagan. Of course, homophobia was wide spread at the time. It’s hard to believe now that a disease killing so many people would be politicized and framed as some sort of moral failure, but that’s just how it was then. This poem took all of that political discourse and made it personal in a beautiful, powerful and painful way. It’s hard to ignore a poem that has that much power in it.
Chris: Lassell’s poem certainly isn’t holding any punches. It’s a powerful piece dealing with a wide range of emotions. What do you think is key to the poem’s ability to handle so much fear, hate, loss and confusion and not become overwrought?
Daniel: I think for a poem like that, the key is to just tell it like it is. That is, your audience is going to know if you’re just trying to manipulate them emotionally. If you got something, and you just tell it plain, then the impact is like a comet. It just hits you. It’s a hard writing habit to learn. It took me years. I can’t speculate how Lassell did it, but I will anyway. Probably, he just had this important thing to say and he just said it without over thinking it or trying to make it “poetry.” Instead, he wrote something right to the point and powerful.
Chris: How does “How to Watch Your Brother Die” compare to Lassell’s other poetry? Is all of his work charged with identity politics?
Daniel: It’s not. He writes in a lot of different genres and in a lot of different ways. To me, somehow, that makes this poem even more special. It’s in my top five poems of all time, and that’s saying something. I’ve read a lot of poems.
Chris: Do you think more poets and writers would benefit from following that advice—telling it plain? Or does it work best in a specific time, place, and medium?
Daniel: For the most part, I like the ones that tell it plain. That said, many of my favorite poems are lyrical and many of my favorite poets write lyrical poems–and those can be just as powerful and moving. In general, the more brutal the subject matter, the more power “plain” language can have. I put plain in quotes there because while it’s certainly easy to follow, there are also some very beautiful lines in “How to Watch Your Brother Die.” I just don’t want to confuse accessible language with boring language as those are two different things.
Poetry is so complex and there’s such a variety, so many different types right now, that it’s easy to get excited about (even though every year or so we all hear that poetry is dead–it’s not). I don’t want to be one of those writers who advocate a certain style as being better than others because it really just depends on what the poet can do with whatever style they write in.
Chris: You discussed the emotional weight of “How to Watch Your Brother Die” the effectiveness of telling it like it is. What other mechanisms are at work in Lassell’s poem that qualifies it as “essential?”
Daniel: It’s a part of history. It was written early on, at the start of the AIDS epidemic. It’s kind of hard to imagine what that time was like if you aren’t old enough to remember it. There was so much confusion and fear. Parents were keeping their kids home from school because they didn’t know if you could catch it from a water fountain or what. There was so much misinformation. The sex talk I got as a kid, was basically my Dad handing me some pamphlets on AIDS and telling me to read them. There are several good documentaries on this, and I would suggest How to Survive a Plague as a good place to start.
Back to the poem itself–it does so many thing so brilliantly. First, writing in second person forces the reader into empathy. Writing it from the point of view of the straight brother also made it easier to relate to for most people. Again, there was so much fear and homophobia at this time. Rather than angrily rail against it (though there is certainly anger in the poem), Lassell invited people into a world they may have known very little about. He humanized the epidemic for a lot of people who wouldn’t or couldn’t (for political, religious, just plain homophobic reasons) humanize it for themselves. So not only is it a great poem as far as poems go, but it’s also an important poem–which, as far as I’m concerned, makes it immortal.
Chris: Thank you for sharing and reading such a powerful poem. I keep thinking about the scar and all that it represents–rage, both physical and emotional pain, and, ultimately, it becomes a symbol of forgiveness and love for Lassell’s brother. What’s your favorite line or image? Maybe picking one is tough—go for two.
Daniel: Mine has to be the scar as well and for all of the reasons you said. I also love this, “Think that/ you haven’t been kissed by a man since/ your father died. Think,/ “This is no moment not to be strong.” From a technical perspective, I love those bold line breaks. More than that, I like what it says about traditional masculinity. Those attitudes are changing though, and that’s a good thing.
Daniel Crocker is the author of three collections of poetry, a novel, and a short story collection. His recent chapbook, The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood is available to download for free at the Sundress Publications site.
Christopher Petruccelli is an associate poetry editor at Stirring: A Literary Collection and is currently trying to survive his first winter in Fairbanks, Alaska. His poetry has appeared in Connotation Press, Still: The Journal, Rappahannock Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Action at a Distance, is available from UIndy’s Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with older women.
Sundress recently caught up with author Daniel Crocker to discuss his newest chapbook, The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood. Steve Henn, author of And God Said: Let there be Evolution, admitted he had “… never read a book so heartbreaking, so funny, so tender, so powerful, and so real” as The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood.
From the first time I read Daniel’s Like A Fish in a classroom at the University of Illinois Springfield, I too was taken aback by its balance of comedy and the profound, the personal and the pop-cultural. It was also my first interaction with Sundress Publications, a collective of souls forever dedicated to bringing original, captivating voices like Daniel’s to light.
The poems in his most recent installment are the culmination of years of living, writing, and working, as Daniel describes in the following interview.
Jacob Cross: The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood assembles cunning commentary with its leading men, women, puppets, and cartoons. Like a Fish also accomplished similar character portraits, with the poem “He-Man, You Smarmy Bastard,” appearing in both books. What drew you back to this mode of writing? How did you want to separate this new chapbook from Like a Fish?
Daniel Crocker: The He-Man poem was, I think, the first poem I wrote in this style. It came from a friend telling me that his first real crush was He-Man. I imagine that’s fairly common for gay and bi men of a certain age. There’s a lot of subtext in the Masters of the Universe cartoons that are ripe for analysis—back when Queerness was more coded than it is now. For a lot of folks, He-Man is a fictional gay icon. Plus, I just loved the hell out of those cartoons as a kid.
In the end though, I found Skeletor a more interesting character. I related to him. I mean, I have a fucking skull for a head.
What drew me back to this mode of writing is that it’s fun. Writing should be fun. When you’re thinking about tenure, publications, or god forbid writing an immortal poem, it’s easy to lose track of the idea that writing should be fun. There should be a large element of play to it.
It’s a way to explore serious topics without sounding preachy. I’ve always used humor as a way to get into some of the tougher stuff I’d like to write about, the scary stuff. It’s easier for me, and I think it’s easier on the reader. A perfect poem in this mode for me is one where the reader both laughs and gets a little uncomfortable, and then later still find themselves thinking about it.
My first few books of poetry—from way back in the 90s—were more earnest. In fact, I cringe at some of them now. But, people seemed to like them more than I did. I kept getting journals and stuff back with my work in it, then I’d read my work and just not be happy with it. It was depressing. That eventually put me on a 10 year drinking binge where I kept writing, but didn’t send much work out at all. Looking back on it now, I think I needed it. I spent that time becoming a better writer. I was sort of lucky to have some early success, but I wasn’t fully developed as a writer yet. I think what people liked about those early poems is that they were soulful. They were also sloppy. Hopefully, I can do soulful without sloppy now. At least I keep trying.
I’m not sure how to separate the new book from Like a Fish. In a lot of ways, I think everything I have ever written is really just one big book.
JC: The opening line from a poem called “The Hulkster,” reads “Knees crumbled/ like blue cheese and my back/ always hurts.” You bring larger than life personas down to tangible, human levels. I feel like many writers can take defamiliarization to unexpected places, which is nice. But your work does this with purpose, lending meaning by courting the ridiculous. How do you control the irony, the fun rediscovery of these characters? How do you direct the poems to resonate in deeper ways and not trip on the comical?
DC: As one of my writing teachers, Steve Barthelme, once told me, you have to be more than just funny. Of course, sometimes you can just be funny. People love funny, and it’s very hard to do—especially in writing. If you can do it, you’ll find a market for it. That said, and probably because I always had such respect for him, what Steve said stuck with me.
I grew up wanting to be both a professional writer and a professional wrestler. It never occurred to me that it might be difficult to do both. Plus, I never got big enough or in good enough shape to be a wrestler, so writing it was. Only recently, in the last five years I guess, has my love for professional wrestling dwindled. I had long wanted to write a poem from the point of view of Hulk Hogan though. I messed with it for two years. It never accomplished what I wanted it to. But, once I realized that Hogan was as much of a symbol for ’80s politics as Reagan, it got easier.
JC: I feel like “Lion-O,” which questions the Thundercat series for attempting to “un-gay” its protagonist, is a great example of a poetic monologue from a narrator to a subject. There are muses on TV, those inseparable from our 20th and 21st century memories. It’s vital to take ownership of these muses and their places in our lives.
Does talking directly to characters help you refine them into useful realities in your writing process? In other words, do you write outside the poem in early drafts, testing what it is you have to say to the characters?
DC: I wrote that one directly to Lion-O because I felt like we had something in common that we should talk about. Did you see the Thundercats re-imagining? They really did go and un-gay Lion-O. Why? Being a bi-man myself, I understood what it was like to have people want you to fit into a certain category. Something that fit the mold they more expected. In the case of Lion-O, we are socialized to think that our male heroes need to be straight—not just straight, but manly men straight. By all means he should have a few love interests. In the case of bi-men, well, no one believes we exist anyway so there just going to put us in whatever easy category they think we fit into the best.
I’m also pretty convinced that the Thundercats are the villains in this whole thing. They crash land on a planet and immediately start to take over—at least in the original.
As far as the drafts go, it just depends. I knew I wanted to write a Lion-O poem because he was an important part of my childhood. I had seen the reboot and had commented to my daughter that they had un-gayed Lion-O. The rest just wrote itself.
JC: Sesame Street seems to be a playground for your imagination, full of allegedly safe, innocent identities that you upset with your poems. Oscar the Grouch eating government issued cheese in Like a Fish will always stick with me. In the new chapbook, Snuffleupagas, the Cookie Monster, and other monsters are alive, but maybe not so well. What draws you into this setting?
DC: The good thing about the characters on Sesame Street, a great show by the way, is that most of them have one overwhelmingly defining characteristic. For example, Cookie Monster is a glutton. Perfect metaphor for addiction, which is what I used it for. Oscar was poor. I ate government cheese as a kid because we were poor. So, he was a good fit.
I was home alone a lot as a kid, so I watched a lot of television. All of these folks stuck with me, and as I got older, in the back of my mind they were getting older too. What does a 40 year old Grover act like? I ask myself a lot of stupid questions and sometimes they turn into poems.
JC: We have already talked a great deal about the pop-culture cleverness in The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood, but the chapbook’s final four pieces take the collection down a far more tragic path. In “A Dream of Siblings,” you relate a nightmare in scattered, curt couplets and frank language, questioning faith and the status of a brother’s passing; even his soul comes into play.
How do you arrange a poem this effortlessly emotive? How do you break up stanzas like “Maybe I never gave up believing/ Maybe, once having faith, no one/ ever gives up believing?” What rules do you set for yourself structurally?
DC: “A Dream of Siblings” is probably the only poem I’ve ever written that is entirely based on a dream. Everything in that poem was in the dream I had the night before. By that point my brother had been dead for almost thirty years. My sister had been gone about a year. So something subconscious was going on there.
I had written a lot about my brother over the years. I was 13 when he died in a car wreck. It was incredibly traumatic for my entire family, and I really had no good way to process it at that age. Then, when I was about 20, I wrote “Sorry, Richie” which is a long poem about my brother that was in my first book. That book got good reviews and that’s the poem that was most often mentioned. I’ve wondered a few times if I’ve written about it too much. Or about death in general. But, all poets have obsessions. There’s been a lot of death in my family. It’s just me and my mom left. So, I think I just have to resign myself to the fact that it’s something I’m going to write about.
Although I consider myself agnostic now, there’s a whole lot of heaven and hell stuff going on in the back of my head thanks to that damned church my grandma drug me to for years. This joint was one step above snake-handling.
Those 10 years I spent drinking and not submitting is where I learned how to be “effortlessly emotive.” The thing about “Sorry, Richie” is that it’s all out there. Some people like that. Others think it’s too much. I think it’s too much. It’s more powerful if it’s understated. My natural inclination is still to let it all hang out—so what I do now is let something sit for awhile and then cut out everything that can be cut out. On average, I probably end up cutting out 20-30 percent of everything I write. The appearance of effortlessness takes a lot of effort.
JC: What rules and editing expectations did you set for the next piece in the collection, “Brutal?” When was it time to close the book on that piece?
DC: “Brutal” came out, nearly word for word, just like you see it in The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood. I wrote it in probably thirty minutes. But, I had been thinking about it for thirty years. I had touched on the topic before in other writings—but always more veiled. It was such a difficult thing to even think about, much less write. Finally, one night I just felt ready. I decided I’d write it to the best of my memory—though memories that traumatic are surreal and take on a life of their own. What I’m saying is, I have no idea. I just sat down and wrote it and was happy with it. It got turned down by several places though for being too explicit.
JC: Before we finish up, will the culinary world ever make an appearance in your writing? I have read you’re a short order cook aside from a teacher. Do you have a close connection to food?
DC: A lot of my fiction is set in small restaurants, but not so much the poems. I’m not sure why.
I haven’t worked as a short order cook since I started my job at Southeast Missouri State University. I did spent a big part of my life working in family owned restaurants (a much different vibe than chain places). I really loved that work. I washed dishes until my mid-thirties. Great job for a writer. Plenty of time to think. I worked out a lot of poems and stories in the kitchens of various bars and grills.
I also did some cooking later on. I enjoyed that too. I still love to cook and mess around with trying to perfect different kinds of food. I’m not great at it, but I keep getting better.
Daniel Crocker is the author of three collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, and the novel The Cornstalk Man. His most recent collection of poetry, Like a Fish, was released by Sundress Publications in 2011. Crocker is a graduate from The Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, and he currently lives in Leadwood, MO, where he works as a short order cook and substitute teacher.
Jacob L. Cross lives in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. He studied creative writing and publishing at the University of Illinois Springfield, where he served as editor of The Popcorn Farm Literary Journal. His work has been featured in Still: The Journal, The Alchemist Review, Stirring, and elsewhere. His poems also appear in Clash by Night, a poetry anthology inspired by the punk staple, London Calling. He enjoys hiking with his wife, traversing Zelda dungeons, spoiling his dogs, and half-priced sushi.
Knoxville, TN—Sundress Publications is pleased to announce the release of Daniel Crocker’s newest chapbook, The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood.
“The poems in The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood are urgent and raw. Crocker uses popular culture to gut punch coming of age insecurities and all the ferocious sexual energy that comes with growing up. Whether in the form of a lust poem from Skeletor to He-Man, an existential lament for Snuffleupagas, or a poignant rumination on siblings, Crocker’s poems are at turns funny and haunting, and always bristling with the electric murmur of their characters making a place in the world for themselves.”
-James Brubaker, author of Liner Notes and Pilot Season
“I’ve never read a book so heartbreaking, so funny, so tender, so powerful, and so real. At a certain point in this book, one loses one’s bearings completely, and enters the darkness and confusion that Crocker has been hinting at. Then, Crocker takes that sensibility a step further. These poems needed to be written.”
-Steve Henn, author of And God Said: Let there be Evolution by NYQ Books
Daniel Crocker is the author the short fiction collection Do Not Look Directly Into Me and three collections of poetry, the most recent being Like a Fish from Sundress Publications. His work has recently appeared in Hobart, The Good Men Project, The Chiron Review, The Mas Tequila Review, and others. He teaches at Southeast Missouri State University.