How It’s Made: Aaron Smith’s The Book of Daniel
We’re so happy to have had the chance to look under the hood of Aaron Smith’s The Book of Daniel, his fourth collection, published by University of Pittsburgh Press. With our How It’s Made series, we endeavor to take away some of that ever-present mystery of how a collection comes to being—in this interview, we learn of Aaron Smith’s great and supportive friends, the new risks and forms of poetry a fourth book asks for, and all the great collage artists that inspired his work.
An author never really works alone—without whose support would The Book of Daniel not have made it across the finish line?
Aaron Smith: The poet Miguel Murphy is the reason The Book of Daniel exists. While writing the poems that would become this book, I floated drafts by him. He got the sense immediately of what I trying to do, and he started giving suggestions. His feedback pushed me to trust my interest in juxtaposition, collage and making big leaps between ideas, which especially meant trusting the reader. My mind works quickly (and is strange). Miguel reinforced that I could capture that same movement on the page. He challenged me to let go of strategies that had previously served me and to follow my impulses. For example, my previous book, Primer, has more narrative connective tissue since that was necessary for those particular poems. The poems in this book, in both form and content, move differently, let more “air,” if you will, inside the poem; they allow the poem not to rely solely on narrative, while not abandoning it either.
What did you discover about writing and poetry over the journey of this book?
I touched on this some in my previous answer, but other things come to mind, too. I’ve never believed in writer’s block. You may not like what you’re writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write. The more I showed up, though, and pushed myself to write something, the more the poems I actually wanted to work on showed up (or maybe I was more willing to stick with a poem because I was making myself stay with it). I also remembered while writing this book that writing can be fun. This is my fourth book, and each of them has taught me something, but when I finished this one, I missed working on it. I found myself wondering what I was going to do with my time. I’m not someone who moves on to another project quickly. When I finish a book, I have a long period of silence. I usually look forward to that time when I’m not writing. This time I wanted to be back in the process of making that book.
What was the favorite piece of media or art you consumed while writing these poems?
This book is all about being in dialogue with my influences: poetry, visual art, movies, etc. I spent a lot of time flipping through or rereading books that were significant to me when I was a beginning writer. I read Frank O’Hara, Anne Sexton, Audre Lorde, Denise Duhamel, Etheridge Knight and Dennis Cooper, and many others. I was looking at visual art by Mapplethorpe, Wojnarowicz, Joel-Peter Witkin and some lesser-known artists on Instagram, a lot of collage artists. Many of my influences get mentioned in the book, and some are floating around in the background and are only noticeable to me. I always listen to different kinds of music. Ani Difranco showed up in the book unexpectedly.
What’s your one sentence piece of advice for poets currently putting a collection together?
Always be in service of the poems, and doing that means you have to let go of your “good” idea for the book and assemble the book the poems present to you.
Aaron Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Primer, Appetite, and Blue on Blue Ground, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Ploughshares and Best American Poetry. A three-time finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, he is the recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Mass Cultural Council. He is associate professor of creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.