Q&A: Award-winning author Mary-Alice Daniel on “night-owls,” poems as incantations, and her upcoming WashU visit

Q&A: Award-winning author Mary-Alice Daniel on “night-owls,” poems as incantations, and her upcoming WashU visit

As the Center for the Literary Arts' inaugural Visiting Writer in Residence, award-winning author Mary-Alice Daniel will participate in a reading, conversation, and Q&A on September 28.

A cross-genre author, Mary-Alice Daniel's work appears in New England Review, American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, Callaloo, The Yale Review and more.

Mass for Shut-Ins, her first book of poetry released in March 2023, won the 117th Yale Younger Poets Prize. In November 2022, Ecco/Harper Collins published her trans-continental memoir, A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing, which was People's Book of the Week and one of Kirkus Reviews' best nonfiction books of the year.

Daniel will visit Washington University the week of September 25 as the Center for the Literary Arts' inaugural Visiting Writer in Residence. On September 28, Daniel will read from her works and take part in a live conversation with Ariana Benson at the Women's Building Formal Lounge.

We chatted with Daniel over email on late-night poetry, her approach to live readings, and inviting younger writers to break rules and make mistakes.

In listening to your readings of poems from Mass for Shut-Ins, it’s striking how much these works sound like incantations – a sort of poetry-as-spellcasting. How do your poems change when recited aloud versus how they exist on the printed page? When you prepare for public readings like this one, what performative elements do you consider as you translate your writings from text to spoken words?

I'm interested in odd registers of speech as well as in their opposite – obsessive regularity. The latter appears in my addiction to alliteration. I tend to go overboard with alliteration. This is a problem when I'm reading my work aloud because I get tongue-tied, and there are so many tongue twisters in the text. As I'm standing at the podium looking down at a page of my poetry, I always ask, “Why did you do this to yourself?!” I track how many times I stumble or stutter during each reading.

I won’t allow my hyperawareness of how I sound – a vestige of my unstable accent as an immigrant moving from Nigeria to England to Tennessee – to change the way I compose words on the page. I still love public readings, although I overthink them. My fixation on craft at its most minute marks my style. On the page, I control every element absolutely. On the stage, much less so – I cannot force myself to articulate every syllable perfectly. As a control freak, I cater to the platform in which I exert the most agency.

I use consonance to create clash. It’s unsettling: a sustained string of sensical language that sounds so similar, especially when its segments share no etymological stems. It's like stroking the same section of skin, excessively, to the point of sensitivity and irritation.

You’re right to associate spellcasting – in my memoir, I explain that in a religious tradition indigenous to my native region, there is the belief that spirits sailing through the wind may be summoned by repeating specific patterns of drumbeats.

You are a self-described night owl, and Mass for Shut-Ins is your “night work” and your “dream work.” If you could curate a nighttime collection of poems, which authors and works would you include? What do you look for in good late-night reading?

I actually have a Google document with the list of poems I read very late at night!

In no particular order:

  • Albert Goldbarth, “Wings”
  • Charles Wright, “Clear Night”
  • Lucie Brock-Broido, “You Have Harnessed Yourself Ridiculously to This World”
  • Edith Sitwell, “Sir Beelzebub”
  • Dana Levin, “Ars Poetica (cocoons)”
  • Brenda Hillman, “Before My Pencil”
  • Anne Carson, “Ghost Q & A”
  • Anne Carson, “Wolf Town”
  • Sylvia Plath, “Edge”
  • Linda Gregg, “New York Address”
  • Gerald Stern, “Behaving Like a Jew”
  • Louise Glück, “Nocturne”
  • Nâzim Hikmet, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved”
  • Donald Justice, “The Wall”
  • Marie Howe, “Death, The Last Visit”

The Linda Gregg and Gerald Stern poems were added within the last year. The rest are poems I’ve returned to again and again for two decades. Taken together, this list is the body of poems that stun me every single time I reread them. I revisit them while revising my own poetry. They mean so much to me.

As part of your visit to WashU, you’ll take part in a couple of lunch workshops with graduate and undergraduate students. You’ll share tips on compiling books of poetry, applying for fellowships, and navigating the creative process. What do you enjoy most about interacting with students who are just beginning their literary journeys? As they learn from you, what will you learn from them?

The Debut Book exists as this Big Thing I suspect all emerging poets carry in the back of their minds. I relate to this preoccupation because it possessed me during the entire decade I spent making Mass for Shut-Ins.

I like to learn how students are conceiving first books. If there are 49 poems in a book, the book itself is the 50th. As they order a manuscript, what is their logic, their narrative, or arc? I judge every book by its cover; I love to see their thinking, as far ahead as cover design. I want to hear their catalogue of potential titles. Mostly, I want to help them develop their visions, however I can.

I led a masterclass this summer at the Oxbelly Writers Retreat in Greece. Its theme: “A Methodology of Mistakes.” In a slideshow, I projected unsuccessful, embarrassing experiments in my poetic process to my audience. I steered them inside the mechanics and mess of my method, unveiling my curious revision strategies and the inner workings of intuition, obsession, and interrogation. I find that leading with failure feels freeing to people who are unsure whether they can write poems at all – these are my people.

There are moments when a lightbulb goes off as a student takes a creative risk they hadn’t realized they were “allowed” to take. Those are my favorite moments.

At your September 28 reading, you’ll be sharing selections from “secret projects.” Do you have any hints as to what these might entail? Do you reserve any of your writing just for yourself?

Even for my memoir, there were a few things concerning my family I chose not to disclose due to powerful cultural taboos against violating certain intimate silences. In the memoir, I wrote, referring to an unspoken code in my family, “We do not talk to outsiders about the things I write in this book.”

I regularly remark that my favorite comment ever made about my first book was: “What drew me to it – the darkness. True darkness made it stand out.” Its epigraph quotes Parul Sehgal’s definition of “night work.”

I’m working on my second collection of poetry.

Book #2 is going to be all light. It will be called Random Acts of Kindness.