Interview with Daniel Nathan Terry

Mary Akers: Hi, Daniel. Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me today and for letting us have your wonderful poem, The 8th of May: A Vow. Could you talk a little bit about the inspiration for this poem? I mean, the poem gives us the genesis, but what I’m interested in hearing about is the process by which a video of a hateful act mutates into a beautiful and sensitive work of art.

Daniel Nathan Terry: My pleasure, Mary. Thank you. I love your journal. The act of writing this poem, making the video and posting it to YouTube happened like a brushfire. I mean that I saw the clip of the NC man firing his gun into the sign that opposed Amendment One (which amended the NC Constitution and banned same-sex marriage), and I caught fire. I had nowhere to put my anger, no way to salve my wounds, no way to assuage my fear. So I drafted the poem, revised it (I think), filmed it, and posted it all within a few hours. I had never written a poem this way before, and I doubt I will again. This is not my process (normally, I revise over a long period of time), but events seemed in control of its creation. My partner (now husband) and I had planned to get married in DC on May 7th. We didn’t know of the proposed amendment vote on May 8th when we set the date the year before, but we were locked in due to finances and our teaching schedules. We had been together for over 16 years, and we didn’t want our marriage to be about politics and religious doctrine. We certainly didn’t want to believe that our own neighbors would fire guns into signs that represented our union. It felt like being burned in effigy. It felt one step away from being lynched. I needed to find some way of assuring my fiancé, Ben, and, indeed, myself, that I would be able to put this surge of hatred from my fellow citizens behind me–at least for one day, one hour, while I married the man I had loved for nearly two decades. I needed some means of answering the gunman, addressing those who agreed with him, and, somehow, I also needed to surface from the hatred, to reclaim the joy and peace Ben and I had made with each other. Of course transformation is often the goal of art, but I had never felt the urge–the need, really–to do so this swiftly. It felt like, I imagine, casting a counter-curse would feel. Not just a warding off of negativity, but the creation of something opposite and equal to send back to the sender–if only symbolically. That probably sounds a bit nuts, but that’s how it felt, and that’s why I posted it immediately to a public outlet. I wanted it out there and not in here–you know, my head, my home. That said, we did return “home” to a state that voted against our union, returned to church signs celebrating a “moral” victory over our love. I have never felt at home since that day. We did what we could. We campaigned against it, voted against it, but the majority of NC voters supported the ban. It is hard to feel at home when the majority do not want you there. You wonder if you should stay and fight or simply go somewhere safe and affirming. But we are not rich enough to make a choice, so we are staying, and we continue to teach and make art. Some days, it seems like knowledge, poetry and art are all we have. Some days that’s enough to make us happy.


MA: A counter-curse. I love that. It doesn’t sound nuts at all–makes perfect sense to me. (But perhaps I am also nuts.) I first read your poem online (Facebook, I think) and loved it so much that I solicited it from you for our journal. That doesn’t happen that often, but perhaps our readers will be encouraged to know that it does happen. Good work has a way of getting noticed if we put it out there. You subsequently had another bit of good fortune come from sharing this poem. Could you describe that for our readers?

DNT: Yes, there was a surprising reaction to my posting the poem. “Scarecrow,” one of the poems from my new book,  Waxwings, which was due to be published July of that year, was about to be featured in print and video as poem of week on TheThe Poetry. One of the editors, Christopher Phelps, saw the video of “May 8th: A Vow,” and asked if he could switch the two poems. He felt that the new poem was timely and might do some good if it gained more exposure before the vote. This happened very quickly. I think the poem, from genesis to acceptance took just over 24 hours. A few days after it was posted by TheThe and various social media, you contacted me via Facebook and asked if r.kv.r.y. could reprint it in October. I was blown away. I have admired your journal and its mission for some time. And I was so grateful that this poem’s life was extended a bit longer–especially after Ben and I returned to NC and Amendment One was law. It was good to know that we were not alone in what felt like a very hostile world. And it was surprising to feel embraced after facing such hatred. It was unexpected. I never expected this poem to be written. I never expected it to be received by such fine journals. And I certainly never expected it to lead to my first Pushcart Nomination in poetry. I suppose that good can come from bad, beauty from ugliness, enlightenment from ignorance. I suppose that is something art can do–transmute. And I do think that good work gets noticed. Maybe not in the beginning, but eventually. More and more, I find editors requesting poems because they liked my work in another journal. I don’t expect that to continue indefinitely, but it has been a nice intermission from the un-solicited submission process, which is such a time-eater on both ends of publishing.


 MA: I love that beauty can come from ugliness. That’s one of the things I strive for in my own work. Sometimes I can’t let a particular awful or confusing thing go until I have changed it for the better or given the world another way to look at it. I’ve written about the Indonesian Tsunami, the Terri Shiavo case, and other high-profile news items that upset me. It helps me process, I think, or helps me to write a better ending. Is this what motivates you, too? Do you ever take stories from the news and write about them?

DNT: I do. It isn’t always what motivates me, but it often is. My first full-length book, Capturing the Dead, is a collection of poems about the photographers the American Civil War. It was a direct reaction to the “War on Terror” and the /images that were, except for color, so similar to those taken by Brady, O’Sullivan and others so long ago. Every war became the same in my head. Every dead man, woman, child, horse became the same dead body. Every ruined house, the same house. I couldn’t let go or make sense of this war which was the same war (to me) and therefore endless. The same happened with the Katrina poems I wrote in 2005 and 2006 (which became the chapbook Days of Dark Miracles  in 2011). The horror of Katrina wasn’t that some new monster had arisen–although I think the media tried that angle. The horror was that the same old monster had risen again–poverty, racism, greed, and the foolish notion that we have some control over this planet. Yes, I do find myself writing about the news–new and old. But I think the impulse behind this need to address public pain and transmute it or translate it into art is the same impulse that drives what some have called my confessional poems. I don’t know that I try to turn these events–public and personal–into beauty, but I often discover the beauty that is inherent in all things, and this discovery, this uncovering, is what, for me, makes life livable.

MA: I’m fascinated by the ways in which art and the written word combine to make an even greater collaborative object. What did you think of the photo collage chosen to illustrate your poem?

DNT: I loved it! His work is wonderful. The image of the lone man coming home to the house which was also a tree seemed so right for the poem. Sheltering but so alone. Beautiful. Haunted. I wish I had a print of it. Visual art is on my list of reasons to wake up in the morning. I often work in response to visual art (probably a result of being married to a painter and printmaker), and that process seems so comfortable and reflexive. But it is so invigorating when it is reversed or when an editor pairs my work with a visual artist’s work. It is a new way of seeing.


MA: Who are some of your favorite poets? Do you find that you gravitate towards work with similar sensibilities to your own? Or do you like to read very different work from what you write?

DNT: There are so many from such diverse traditions and sensibilities. I know that’s a standard response, but it is true. I tend to gravitate toward collections and poems, not poets, if that makes sense, and in that way my reading is all over the place. That said, there are poets whose work I go back to repeatedly and many them have directly influenced my poetry: Transtromer, Szymborska, Bishop, Wilfred Owen, Plath, Ted Hughes, Kenyon, Kinnell, Yeats, Millay, Tu Fu, Lorca, Whitman. And there are some contemporaries I adore: Trethewey, Lavonne J. Adams, Ed Madden, Nicole Cooley, Judy Jordan, Mark Wunderlich, Virgil Suarez, Jericho Brown, Kristin Bock, Malena Morling, A. Van Jordan, Linda Gregerson–way too many to name here. I had the good fortune of reading with Marcus Wicker at Devil’s Kitchen this year. His first book, Maybe the Saddest Thing, has become a favorite. His poetry is so different. I love his voice and his way of seeing.


MA: Those are wonderful poets, all. A personal favorite of mine from your list would be Jericho Brown. We were fortunate enough to publish his poem Like Father in my very first issue as Editor-in-chief. I so admire his work.
And I have one final question: what does “recovery” mean to you?

DNT: Can I get back to you on that? I’m sort of kidding. I think it means to be capable of growth again. The camellias in my garden are a good example. If one of them is seriously injured by a harsh winter or a falling tree, they may survive, cling on to life for years–but they often do not produce new growth. And so they linger from year to year, living, not dying, but not growing. Sometimes it is a mystery. I give them all the care they require, but some never grow again–or at least, have not yet. I did that for years, too. I was surviving, but I was not creating, not growing, not recovering. I like to think I can feel new growth with each poem I read and write. I like to think there are new branches just beneath the skin.


MA: Beautiful. Here’s to New Branches. (Sounds like a poem title…) New Branches all around!

To read more of Daniel’s fine work, check out his books:

Waxwings (2012)

Days of Dark Miracles (2011)

Capturing the Dead (2008)

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