Daniel Lassell is the author of Spit (Michigan State University Press, July 2021), winner of the 2020 Wheelbarrow Books Emerging Poetry Prize selected by Gabrielle Calvocoressi, as well as a chapbook, Ad Spot (April 2021), from Ethel Zine & Micro Press. His recent poetry appears in the Southern Humanities Review, River Styx, Birmingham Poetry Review, Colorado Review, and Prairie Schooner. In his youth, he raised llamas and alpacas on a farm in Kentucky. Today, he lives with his family in Colorado.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first full-length book, Spit, and my first chapbook, Ad Spot, haven’t changed my life much, to be honest. And this is a good thing, since “fame” isn’t why I write, and I’m not sure I’d like it. So far as my recent poetry versus my older work, it feels different in that I’ve given myself much more permission to experiment, to be comfortable in my own voice.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My path to poetry is a little convoluted. I grew up wanting to be a novelist and a screenwriter, largely because I was so taken with the movies I watched and the books I read. I was a huge Jurassic Park fan, for example, so I wrote fan-fiction stories to feed that interest. After watching The Lord of the Rings, I wrote stories with knights and dragons, trying to create my own world as intricate as J.R.R. Tolkien did.
Growing up, I wasn’t ever interested in poetry. I only learned about “dead poets” in middle school and early high school, so I gathered that poets were extinct, much like dinosaurs. Then I changed schools and I just so happened to end up in classes with one of Wendell Berry's grandchildren. Turns out Wendell Berry even taught at the school! (One English class, every other week, if I remember correctly.) While I never had him in class, my brother did—for which I will always be envious.
Being in the same building as Wendell Berry, seeing him in the lobby waiting to take his grandkids home for the day…it really put poetry on the map for me, but I thought Wendell was an anomaly at the time. His farm, as it turned out, was just down the road from my family’s farm, so I viewed him more as a neighbor rather than a monumental figure. But in college, when I attended an English class with the prose poet David Shumate, that all changed. In his course, I was introduced to contemporary poetry. I noticed a poem by Wendell in the assigned anthology, which (I think, ashamedly) was the first time I ever read his poetry. Among Wendell were poets like Rita Dove, W.S. Merwin, Sharon Olds, Ted Kooser, Elizabeth Bishop, etc. There was poetry written, at that time, within the last few years! Not centuries ago. It was poetry that didn’t rhyme. Poetry that referenced cars, computers, cell phones…the technology of my modern experience. These poems spoke to me as no other poem had up until that point. As a result, I was finally able to look back at the poets I’d learned in high school, those poets of centuries ago, with appreciation. The rest, as they say, is history.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
A little bit of everything. I’ve had some projects coalesce pretty quickly, and some slowly. I’ve had to adapt my writing process since having kids. To put it honestly, I’ve not yet found my groove with what works best. I’ve written poems at night, in the morning, during nap time, etc. In the end, my best art always seems come unexpectedly and at inopportune times, no matter how much I try to establish a space and cadence. But to even write one good poem in this life is a gift, so I shouldn’t complain. I’m so blessed to have written, to have published, to have been read by anyone, especially during this rocky period of my life.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
There’s no single way a poem comes into being for me. Some start with a realization. Some with a single word that intrigues me. Some with a story or memory. Some with a clear sense of purpose. In all of these cases, I’ve found that it’s important to approach each poem on its own terms. If there are a couple poems that seem to be speaking to each other—that feel in community with each other—I explore the possibility of a collection at that point. Never beforehand.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings are counter to my creative process. Too much praise or judgement from others tends to cloud my creativity. To me, writing is a solitary practice that a poet must embark upon, just the page and their art. Performance is just a distraction from that hard work.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
There are many themes I return to often in my work, but of late I have been obsessed with the idea of place, the varied forms of belonging that we as humans find in ourselves and in the wider world. The act of “belonging” when taken to an extreme—which it often is—can have serious detrimental impacts on the natural world and on marginalized communities. Much of what we think of as “home” is rooted in colonialism, in the idea of ownership—which feeds into white supremacy. I want to write in a way that ultimately works to dismantle white supremacy and the scourge of colonialism. By exploring ideas of place and reframing place in my poetry, my hope is that it will in some way enact change in readers. Part of my purpose in writing Spit was to explore the notion of “home” through a fictionalized version of my own experience growing up, digging into what we carry with us when we say we are “from” somewhere. Similarly, in Ad Spot, I explore the concept of place, but from the perspective of a visitor to a fictional town where capitalism has been encouraged to run freely—a dystopia, to put it simply.
I attempt to answer the questions that haunt me, and this happens often in varied forms, often in different ways depending upon the topic and where I am as a person at the time of writing. And not surprisingly, the questions themselves evolve over time. In the end, I find myself returning to write what I can’t seem to answer easily.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Every writer has a responsibility—as all humans do—to dismantle systems of oppression at every opportunity. This includes racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, sexism…the list goes on. As humans, we use the tools of change that we are given—and for a writer, that is the talent of writing. For this reason, good writing should never seek to oppress. Good writing should always reach to enact societal change for the better, even if on subtle terms.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I only focus on the writing in front of me. If there’s an editor involved, great.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Diane Seuss signed a book for me once, and inside she kindly wrote me some advice: “Remember—always—where you’re from.” Throughout the years, this advice has come to mean different things, but it has always meant something profound to me. Recently, I’ve viewed her advice as a call to remember home and family first—or what I name as home and family. Then, and only then, should I approach the world with the intention of making poetry. As a privileged white writer, I must continually remind myself to acknowledge my own bias and privilege first and foremost. I try my best to look out at the world with kindness and empathy, and indeed, it is my responsibility as a human being to learn how to do this better, and to keep from growing complacent in the face of human suffering.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old, so there is no “typical” in my life of late—thus, my writing routine isn’t typical. I write what I can, when I can.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Writing, as you know, is often a lonely practice. To give myself some company while writing, I usually keep a poetry book on the table next to me, to keep that poet’s words nearby for support or when I get stuck on my own poems, to give myself a quick brain break. So far as naming a single author I turn to for inspiration, there are many, so I really can’t name just one.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Every kind of art influences my own art. Art is like “the Force” from Star Wars: it surrounds us and binds us.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Let’s look beyond poets, because that list is too long. One of the most talented, yet underrated fiction writers I know is Haley Fedor. I admire their imaginative storytelling and ability to create lasting tension, and I find myself constantly inspired by them.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
There is so much I want to do in this one, short life. I can’t even begin to share that list…
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I can’t imagine a life without writing—without some form of artistic expression. If I wasn’t a poet or writer, I would have pursued some other art form. If not another art form, I would have done something involving animals; I went through this period in my teen years of wanting to be a veterinarian – I have always loved taking care of animals.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
What is more beautiful than a poem? It has the ability—like all art—to enact change for the better, to bind together our humanity through centuries. I write poems because I have poems in me that want out. When they stop coming, I’ll stop writing them.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
We truly are living in a golden age of poetry! It’s sad to see there are so many books that don’t get the attention they deserve. I would recommend these books published in 2020 that didn’t receive recognition as finalists for popular book prizes last year (National Book Award, Pulitzer, etc.): Of This River by Noah Davis, Obscura by Frank Paino, Savage Pageant by Jessica Q. Stark, I Was Waiting to See What You Would Do First by Angie Mazakis, Through a Small Ghost by Chelsea Dingman, Space Struck by Paige Lewis, As One Fire Consumes Another by John Sibley Williams, Some Are Always Hungry by Jihyun Yun, All the Great Territories by Matthew Wimberley, In Bloom by Esteban Rodriguez, Cardinal by Tyree Daye, Code by Charlotte Pence, Wound from the Mouth of a Wound by torrin a. greathouse, Night Angler by Geffrey Davis, and Horsepower by Joy Priest. There are, of course, many other under-recognized books from 2020, but I think this is a good start.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a new poetry collection, but I don’t want to share anything more at this time. 🙂