How lucky is our community that we have such a generous example of how to be a writer in the world?! Danny believes in writing more than “being a writer,” a distinction we got to chat about at length last week. I got to chat with Danny about how he became a writer, how he got involved with The Cabin, how Boise’s literary community has changed, and so much more (like how he introduced Readings & Conversations with David Sedaris back in the day and ended up at dinner with David Sedaris and Brent Coles, an anecdote I, unfortunately, had to cut for length.)
Read on for some wisdom and a great “to read” list.
Megan Williams: Could you tell me a bit about your background? What inspired you to become a writer?
Danny Stewart: My first foray into writing was through comic books. I started writing and drawing my own comic books in fourth grade. First comic book I ever wrote, it was a terrible copy of Batman called “The Black Bat”.
I was always a sort of solitary kid, which is how I feel writers are. We tend to be solitary, we tend to like solitude and I was always very much entertained by my imagination. When I got out of junior high I was a big reader, as I’m sure you are. I found that whenever I was moved about something I wanted to write about it. If I read a book, I wanted to write a book. Everything that I read, still to this day, works that way.
I always wanted to be a novelist or a story writer. In eighth grade, I had a reading teacher who was also a coach in Twin Falls at O’Leary Junior High. In Twin Falls, if you weren’t a jock or Mormon or a brain, you didn’t get any attention, and I was none of those things. The first time he ever addressed me without reading my name from the roll sheet was because he assigned a short story, and I wrote a typical story called “The Night of the Yellow Dragon.” It was a spy story so of course lots of guns and fighting, right? But he came up to me and said “Danny, I really liked your short story. You’re a good writer.” Then I thought “That’s how you get attention, you write something.” I found that when I wrote things people paid attention to me that I didn’t get when I spoke. So my junior year, I wrote a poem and I don’t know what inspired me to write a poem, but I loved it and from then on it was about poetry. Not that I don’t have secret desires to write a novel, but I try to do stuff and I’m confounded by the form.
Even though I love novels and I read them. I read them with a writer’s eye just trying to include description or figuring out which description to include, I start getting lost. I love how poems are, for the most part, small and contained but can have the same amount of feeling, passion, and power that comes from a novel.
Interviewer: Oh totally, and I think that’s what draws poets to poetry. I feel similarly about narrative in general, where it just feels so artificial and that can remove the emotional impulse.
Danny: And I think poets in a lot of ways we get shortchanged a little bit because we are called “mysterious” or “hard to understand” but I think it’s the opposite. I think poets want to go down to the bone, faster. Get to the meat of the piece, right? Poetry is getting to the meat of it, I think without having to go through the whole world of a novel. I love novels and I love prose, but poetry still has that sting, when it’s good. And you get it because you’re an accomplished poet. You know that need too.
Interviewer: I do. It’s a need outside of the act of writing and reading — a poem is a tool.
Danny: Well, do you feel that it’s cathartic for you? With me I had a bad day last week, something bad happened in one of my classes… I felt so weird about it I had to immediately go write something….I was freaking out, and the whole time I was thinking “You are fifty-three years old, why are you reacting this way? And I just thought I’d write this little prose poem real fast.
Interviewer: I mean it serves that function. Because having those feelings in the body is so uncomfortable and that is a way to take them out of you and see what they are. Having the language for anything makes it more comfortable.
Danny: Absolutely, and that’s why I think it’s so necessary and why I tell students, even at Drop-In [The Cabin’s Free Drop-In Writing Workshop], “Be a writer, don’t worry about the publishing”. The first thing that always comes off their tongues is “How can I get this published?” Well, why don’t you revise it for a year, sit on it for another, and then write another one and don’t worry about sending it out… If you’re not writing because you love to write and it serves some other purpose, it’s going to be disappointing.
Interviewer: Yes… I really wish I would’ve heard at an earlier age that there are so many different ways out there to be a writer in the world. It can’t just be about publishing or making it to AWP or whatever.
Danny: We live in an award culture, everything’s an award, award, and award. Well, you know what, not everybody gets to win an award, and that’s not the reason why I write. I write because that’s what I do, I’m a writer good, bad, mediocre, I’m a writer. And I tell my students that over and over again, be a writer, not somebody who publishes stuff, not somebody who wants to be Stephen King, but somebody who loves to write and create worlds or love to help other people understand an emotion that’s complex. That’s what I do. And it led me here and led me to teaching, which is something I thought I would never do.
Interviewer: That’s basically my next question. How did you get involved with The Cabin and what was the first thing you taught for us?
Danny: Let’s see, there was a poet in town her name was Josephine Jones and at the time, which was 1988, Josephine Jones was big along with Gino Sky, Rick Ardinger, and of course the founders here. And Josephine said she had been teaching summer writing camps at the Log Cabin Literary Center and told me I should teach with them. She and some people from BSU, my poetry professor and her husband…They were both part of it. I said “Heck yeah, I’d love to do that,” and I felt so honored because I really admired Josephine.
And I don’t remember what I first taught, or when my first lesson was. It was so long ago now. But my first residency was at Garden Valley, for fourth, fifth and sixth grade. Exactly an hour from my house, one way. It was really cool to go up there and I had an affinity for it. It was very fun and gratifying to be working with language in a way different from writing, because at that time I hadn’t published very much at all, and so I was just flattered that anybody would give me the time of day.… I can barely remember any of the other people from the Writers of the Schools then — I think Lisa Sanchez was one of the other writers in the program, she was one of the first ones. There was another woman named Laura who was a firefighter and an essayist, and of course, Laura who was at CWI.
Interviewer: Oh, Laura Stavoe!
Danny: Yeah, she was there for a while and then left and came back as the Program Manager for WITS or something, I don’t quite remember. So that’s how I got in here and I just never left.
Danny: Well I don’t know if it was wise or not, but it was so gratifying to do, because at the time I was going to college, or I had just gotten done with college and I was bartending and I thought this was my way of getting my foot into the door of the scene, which there was not really a scene. But I published a magazine back then called Three Syllables and we publish a lot of people now who are really successful.
Interviewer: That’s interesting, do you still have copies of that? I want to see who’s in there.
Danny: Well, Kerri [Webster] is in there, and Matthew Haynes. If you ask Christian Winn he’ll tell you I rejected that story of his, and it’s not true.
Interviewer: Not true?
Danny: Well he gave me a story and I wanted to, well he actually brought this up a couple of years ago, but I wanted to talk to him about the dialogue, but we ended up not publishing another issue so it was a moot point.
But, this was a way of creating community, plus we got paid well. That was the whole thing about The Cabin from the very beginning, it was created to give jobs to writers….It was so nice to be able to get paid a great wage and then to do something that I loved and totally nerded out doing. I still feel that way.
Interviewer: What is your favorite thing to teach for The Cabin?
Danny: Well, of course, I love teaching poetry, but teaching anything that leads people to good writing. When I say that I’m not even talking about literary writing, but I mean writing that can help people in the greater humanity… does that sound ridiculous?
Interviewer: No, it does not.
Danny: Because a lot of time I feel like I’m invisible in the world and writing makes me visible somehow because it’s a way of figuring stuff out. Write to figure out your own mystery of experience and if then you want to go through tons of rejection sending it out, more power to you….I want people to feel empowered through language, that’s always been my goal… I like leading people to find power through their words, and I think it makes us better human beings when we share our stories with each other.
Interviewer: I agree.
Danny: It makes it harder to hate each other.
Interviewer: It’s a sure way to cultivate empathy.
Danny: We live in such a divisive time, I think writing can bridge that gap a little bit if we listen to each other and read our stories. If you can create, whatever narrative, whatever form you want to take it in that allows someone to go “Ah! I understand that I felt that too!” Even if we’re communicating and we’re a poet and reader and we never meet. We are still communicating our basic humanity and that’s important.
Interviewer: And there’s a psychological benefit to that too. I had a therapist who talked about that, the research they were doing on how healing it can be to have your exact feelings articulated in a way that makes you feel recognized.
Danny: Absolutely. You know I still feel that and not recognized in a vain way, but more so that I’m recognized as part of a voice or a multitude of voices. That mine isn’t extinguished or repressed because of whatever and knowing that I can find people to sing in choir, for instance, to sing with me….I just think that writing is empowering for everybody and everybody should do it, everybody should be a poet.
Danny: There’s no rule that says you have to be a good poet, god knows. And I hate the idea of “good poets versus bad poets” because I think anyone who is brave enough to write something and put it out there, that’s one thing. If you’re brave enough to put something out there, you get what you get. I wasn’t lying about getting rejected a million times. No one forced you to send it to a complete stranger and then basically beg for their acceptance “Please, person I’ve never seen, love me!” I mean what a weird, masochistic, endeavor. Sending out your stuff is going out and begging people you don’t know and will never actually meet for their approval.
Interviewer: Who are you reading right now?
Danny: I just finished Morgan Parker’s new book.
Interviewer: Oh! I haven’t read it yet.
Danny: She just kicks my butt. Magical Negro is what I think it’s called and it was amazing. I just finished Fanny Howe’s new book, Love and I. What else? So many, I just finished Tess Gallagher’s new book as well, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to. I mean, it was really good. It just wasn’t Morgan Parker, it didn’t have the immediacy of her language.
Interviewer: That and she does a thing I love, which is that she’s funny, but not a superficial or clever funny. A kind of funny where “everything is at stake” funny.
Danny: That is a perfect way to describe it, everything is at stake. With Morgan Parker, it feels like everything is at stake. Those are the most recent things I’ve read and then James Tate’s last book, The Government Lake. I came to him late, he’s one of those guys I never really got into. Honestly, I was slightly biased. I sort of felt like “I don’t want to read another white, male poet” even though I’m a white, male poet. But he was brilliant. No wonder he won all those awards and stuff his poems are insanely good. That book was a nearly perfect book.
Interviewer: I’ll have to do some research. I’ve never read anything by James Tate, honestly.
Danny: I like teaching that title poem from The Government Lake and watching people’s minds melt. And then going through sentence by sentence talking about it, while it takes all these surreal turns
Interviewer: You kind of answered this one already, but I wanted to ask it outright. How has Boise’s literary community changed in the last twenty years?
Danny: There wasn’t really much going on in the poetry community. There wasn’t really a community, I mean there was Gay Whitesides, Josephine Jones, Gino Sky, Rick Ardinger, and Alan Minskoff…Boise State didn’t even have a writing program. I did an open mic at Neurolux, Diane [Raptosh] read there. Diane was a poetry buddy and she helped me out a lot, I mean, she read my book. Went through the manuscript for me, she was doing all kinds of great stuff back then…
Back when I was at Boise State there was no writing major. Well, they had an English major with a focus on writing, but no creative writing or anything along those lines…Now you can get a Bachelor’s in writing. I think The Cabin helped with a lot of that — now we have Pulitzer Prize winners and not one, but two Whiting Award winners. Like, what the hell? We hit the big time.
Interviewer: Boise’s become a great place to be a writer.
Danny: Absolutely! Some of us were slogging through the mud in the early days.
Interviewer: So what are you working on right now?
Danny: I have a manuscript I’m working on called King of the Ghosts — almost every page of it has been published individually, now I’m just looking for someone to take it. I wrote and am revising a book it’s called, and it’s terrible, it’s a work in progress. But it’s called Sonnets of Innocence and Experience and of course, it’s William Blake and it’s about a single guy who hires a straight guy as a “rent boy” but falls in love with him. But, you know, he’s a straight boy. And then I have a bunch of poems that don’t fit into either of those books that are just the new poems for the next thing.
Interviewer: What advice do you have for people who want to center their lives around writing?
Danny: By reading and writing. I ask students in my adult workshops “what are you here for, what can I do for you?” They’ll respond with “I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” or “I’ve been thinking about writing.” Of course, my response is “when’s the last time you wrote something?” Stop thinking about being a writer and start writing. A lot of people think publishing makes you a writer, it does not. So, if you do want to center your life around writing, read and write.
I told a student from juvie earlier this month that he could be a great poet — he wants to be a rapper. And you know, that’s the same thing we were talking about earlier, there are so many different avenues to pursue those desires to further your writing or to get it out there in front of an audience. He wrote a poem in two minutes, it was amazing, it will go into Cambia [The Cabin’s anthology of youth writing]. I tried to convince him to sit down with the poem for an hour, a day, a week and not just worry about using talent to get it done, but really searching for that passion and finding your own personal connection to it. He was a kid like me who was sitting in the library for six hours reading through old poetry books. Geeking out and reading poems and then wondering what time it was.