First Books: A Conversation with Daniel Khalastchi

A number of THERMOS contributors have recently published first books. Here’s a conversation with one, the inexhaustible Daniel Khalastchi, whose Manoleria was published this year by Tupelo Press. He’s had work in THERMOS twice (our first and fifth issues), and co-founded and edits the wonderful Rescue Press.

TH: How has having a first book out changed how you think about your writing?

DK: I used to think (when I was young, silly, naive, etc.) that having a book out would mean finally getting that Bentley I always wanted and having jobs thrown at me left and right. Yet, to be more serious for a second, I think I actually thought it would give me the chance to really explore poetry in ways any writer who hasn’t gotten their foot in the door may not feel able to.  But in truth, it’s made me more nervous about both the act of writing itself and my personal connection to the global megaphone. I find myself asking more frequently now, “what do I want to say/why would anyone care to listen to me/how come I suddenly have all these gray hairs?”

Writing has become more stressful, but I’m not sure I would change that.  Once Manoleria entered the world, I realized I had to stand behind it, and I had to keep moving. It’s easy to write a bad Danny Khalastchi poem. It’s been more difficult to write somewhat-bad-but-also-somewhat-interesting/possibly-good Danny Khalastchi poems since the book was released, and that’s what I’ve taken away most from the experience.  I don’t want (as a writer/artist) to ever be complacent. I’m proud of Manoleria, but I also know nothing is guaranteed.  Like many other poets with a book, I have to dive right back into the “prize” system. I’m back to getting rejection letters and small notes of “we like this but we can’t take it,” etc.  Though it would be nice to be like some of my fiction writing colleagues (money, agents, cocktail parties with jokes about astronauts!), poetry is the real art. It lasts. Since Manoleria came out, I’m just trying to make more things that will continue to do just that.

TH: You seem to be a various and prolific writer. Is Manoleria a capsule of a specific time, or of a specific mood returned to in the midst of many other projects?
DK: It’s strange to admit this as often as I do, but the initial draft of Manoleria was written on my typewriter while I had a residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.  I had maybe a month left on the Cape, and I remember waking up every day with the weight of a brick-filled laundry basket pressing on my kidneys.  I was anxious and afraid that the time I had that winter/spring would (possibly) be the only time in my entire life where someone afforded me the opportunity to do nothing but write.  I read and wrote a lot that year, but everything seemed stale and young and (for lack of a better word) repetitive.

While my own writing was lying flat and shaved in my mind, the news from around the world was doing just the opposite to my body. A new election cycle was starting, we were in the middle of wars on multiple fronts, and information was coming in daily about torture and what these things truly (right word?) meant about being an “American.” Suddenly, I was energized. I wanted to try writing about these things, and I gave myself (possibly for the first time in my writing life) complete freedom to do so.

I had a painting by the artist Justin Richel over my desk, and I wrote every morning and afternoon poems that I didn’t really look at for three months. When I finally did go back and see what had come out of that specific time in my life, Manoleria was there. All packed up. All ready to go. I’ve worked on many projects prior and since completing that collection, but the actual writing of Manoleria was as uninterrupted and focused as I’m likely to ever get.

TH: How do you see your work in what’s happening now in poetry? Are there other first books out there that you feel like yours is friends with?

DK: The closer you read and pay attention to the “aesthetics” of a given press or “school” in contemporary poetry, the more you can become frustrated with what appears to be complete and utter writing towards the middle.  There is a lot of slapstick poetry in the world today, and that’s not something that really gets me excited.  Having said that, there are many first books that I would hope Manoleria could friend-request on Facebook and get a kind acceptance.  I’m thinking here of Arda Collins’ It Is Daylight, Shane McCrae’s Mule, Srikanth Reddy’s Facts for Visitors, Sabrina Orah Mark’s The Babies, Jericho Brown’s Please, and Nick Demske’s Nick Demske (a book that I’ll argue from the top of any building you put me on is not reckless humor—that book, and author, have serious heart).

I also think here of the work of Dora Malech, Caryl Pagel, Marc Rahe, Suzanne Buffam, and Robyn Schiff whose books/chapbooks/and individual poems continually inspire me and my writing every time I think/read/head to the typewriter.

TH: What poems or lines from your book feel the “youngest” to you, like they most show your development (though you remain fond of them)? Why/how?

DK:
Juvenilia shines brightest when you least expect it to, and it keeps humming and glowing no matter what you try to do to eradicate it.  There is part of me that wants to answer this question by simply saying now, today, the entire book feels “young” to me. But I have a flair for being dramatic. To pick a single line or poem from Manoleria to illustrate this shockingly youthful ignorance may be hard, but I can do it. For instance, “Audible Retraction” is a poem I appreciate for its detail/drive toward the disturbing, but the last two lines (the rhyme of “flesh in my teeth and screw in/whatever’s in reach”) seem forced and heavy. Like I was more excited about the sounds than the image. In fact, I’ve never read that poem in public for that very reason.

I have other examples of where I believe I missed the mark in Manoleria, but in the end I think it’s okay that some words/phrases/poems/sections/structures feel young. It’s my first book. Maybe my only book. It’s a collection of poems from a specific time in my life and the world, and it reads (for better or worse)—I hope—like a documentation of that era.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. […] Daniel Khalastchi (#10) has already been recognized his first book of poetry, Manoleria. It’s been awarded Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse First Book Prize. You can learn more about the book on Tupelo’s site. For more on the man himself, check out this interview he did with Thermos Mag. […]

    Reply

  2. […] 2011 Tupelo Press publication Manoleria. New Orleans-base Thermos magazine featured an interview with the poet in 2011, upon publication of […]

    Reply

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