Daniel Donaghy is a writer, professor, father, and husband whose poetry evokes growing up in Philadelphia, the inspiration of his chapbook “What Cement is Made of,” a finalist for this year’s Anzaldúa Poetry Prize.
“What Cement is Made of” chronicles the inner city racial violence and poverty-stricken neighborhoods Donaghy grew up around. Donaghy has received awards such as the Paterson Prize for Literary Excellence for his most recent book “Start with the Trouble.” He was also awarded the Board of Regents Teaching Award from Eastern Connecticut State University where he currently teaches poetry and creative writing.
Donaghy was encouraged by his poetry professor at Kuztown University to share his work and believe in his voice, and now he encourages his students to do the same.
Taeler Kallmerten: When did you start writing poetry? Why did you choose to write poetry?
Daniel Donaghy: I didn’t start to write poetry seriously until I took Harry Humes’s poetry writing course at Kutztown.
The first poem I wrote for that class was about the tension in my father’s life, which often manifested itself as violence toward my mom. I was a struggling physics major at the time, not sure what was going to happen to me. I honestly cannot tell you why I signed up for the class. It didn’t fill any requirements or electives. I just wanted to take it, I guess.
The class after I’d turned the poem in, Harry asked me to stay after class. I thought, “Oh great. I can’t do physics. Now I can’t do poetry. Where am I headed?” After class, though, he said that he liked what was at the heart of the poem and named four or five poets (including Len Roberts, whom I think should be far more widely known) to check out if I wanted to learn how to write poems about family. I hogged Harry’s office hours for the rest of my time at Kutztown. I cannot overstate his influence on my professional and writing life.
“Why poetry?” is a good question. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that I’m addicted to the compression of a poem. I love the potency of poetry, the energy that the best poems capture and transfer in such a short space.
The poems I like most come alive when you read them aloud. You can feel the force of life behind the poet’s words. They believe what they’re saying is important and they’ve organized their words in such a way so that I feel that way, too. And when I connect with their ideas, emotions, and energy on that level, I feel less alone in the world. I feel more alive. Just like when I hear a great song. The artist taps into a vein he/she shares with me and gives me something I didn’t know I needed. I always go back to Rainer Maria Rilke, who says in his “Letters to a Young Poet” that if you don’t have to write, don’t.
I am rarely if ever compelled to remember poems that feel as though they were composed entirely in the poet’s head, that have no emotional urgency driving them. I’ve always been someone who has a lot of energy, so writing, for me, is a physical exercise. So is reading. And that physical engagement is often most intense for me when I’m reading and writing poetry.
Kallmerten: You are a professor and your past students describe you as being knowledgeable, patient, engaging, and even “awesome” in one of your reviews on Rate My Professor. One review left on the site claims to be someone who never wrote poetry before your class but now they describes themselves as a true poet. You inspire your students to create. Can you say the same for your students?
Donaghy: I can certainly say the same for my students, many of whom are far more articulate, poised, and mature than I was at their age.
Teaching poetry writing at a state school is a job that I always wanted to have. There is not one day, not half of one day, when I am not fully aware of how fortunate I am to have a position that allows me to help students, many of whom have overcome great odds to become the first person in their family to go to college, to believe in the value of their own stories and their own voices.
When I started college, I had no idea what I wanted to be, what was going to happen to me. I was this kid with a lot of energy, looking for someplace to put it. I tell my students on the first day that they may have signed up for a poetry writing or a creative writing class, but they really signed up for a voice class. We spend a lot of time talking about what that means, about understanding the difference between the language that the world imposes on us and that language each of us owns, which only we own, which no other person who ever lives will have access to. I don’t want my students to sound like me or any other writer when they write. I try to help them to sound like themselves.
Throughout the course, I keep reinforcing the mantra that that I may be their professor, but books (the books we talk about, the books they find on their own) are their teachers. We read writers with widely varying styles, and we talk all the time about reading like mechanics, like thieves, so that we can learn from great writers how to move people with our own work, how to use language and images and memories they’ve mined from their own minds and hearts.
Next, hear silence falling flat
as awning shadows
over Osage, where in every
boarded window a nail gun
still rings rifle-loud
Kallmerten: Your poems reference life in Philadelphia while you were growing up, the racial conflicts, the bombing of Osage Avenue, and the eleven people who lost their lives that day. Do you feel like you are a voice for those whose city turned their backs on them?
Donaghy: I wouldn’t ever claim to be a voice for anyone but myself. I think we can get into trouble pretty quickly if we ever try to speak for anyone else.
That said, I think that I have a responsibility in my writing to bear witness to what I’ve seen and to argue in whatever way I can for social justice. Without, I hope, going on too much of a tangent (or a rant), what the city of Philadelphia did on Osage Avenue on May 13, 1985, and what it has done to the residents of that block and the surrounding neighborhood over the subsequent decades is unconscionable.
I recap the story in the poem about the day the city tried to “mobilize,” if not kill, members of an African American liberation group named MOVE (it’s not an acronym; the name is in all caps to emphasize the organization’s sense of urgency), with whom police had had many conflicts over the years, by dropping explosives on a row home that was linked to blocks of other row homes owned by residents who were completely uninvolved with MOVE. All of the houses burned down. The city, as the evidence has revealed, rebuilt those houses cheaply and shabbily then denied for years that it did so.
I was living on the other side of the city when that happened, in a mostly white, Irish-Catholic neighborhood. The fathers in my neighborhood were pretty unsympathetic to the plight of the mostly African American neighborhood that had been bombed. There was no outrage that I recall. In fact, I don’t remember much talk about it. It was around that time that I began to realize that I was being taught to be a racist by men I otherwise admired in many other respects. For a lot of reasons, I turned from their examples.
As an adult, now, I feel a strong sense of purpose to write about those experiences, to bear witness to that racism, that anger, the scary smallness of that life view, and to speak my truth about some very complicated and frightening times I have lived through.
“T-shirts, ball caps. They wait for each other
to pull on clean socks, lace their boots, then rise
together, laughing, toward their evenings.
– Daniel Donaghy
Kallmerten: What inspired you to write “What Cement is made of”?
Donaghy: I wrote that poem shortly after visiting the workplace of brother-in-law, Shawn. At the time, he was a truck dispatcher for a cement company. While I was visiting one time, he’d forgotten something at work and asked me if I wanted to come along. We had to walk through the locker room and shower area to get to where he worked. All of the details in the poem come directly from that experience.
The heart of the poem comes from what I saw growing up as men in my neighborhood, including my father, worked long, hard hours of physical labor. With Shawn’s workplace in my head, I finally had a place to situate these men collectively and individually. They came home from work five, six days a week exhausted, smelly, spent. They’d fall into the couch or out onto the front stoop or onto a stool at a corner bar for a while before did it all again the next day.
It’s an incredibly hard way to make a living. It’s no way to make a life, really, but it’s the life I was headed toward, like most of the people I grew up around. I remember my father sitting me down at the kitchen when I was 8 or 9, telling me about what it was like to be an electrician at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, how he’d wire boats for ten, twelve hours a day in any weather.
I remember that he told me, “Work with your mind. Your hands will fail you someday.” It’s like he had seen his own future; that’s what happened to him ten years later. I think about that talk with my dad a lot. It’s another moment, maybe the first moment, that put me on a path to be a teacher.
Kallmerten: Readers of ‘What Cement is Made of’ encounter racial injustices in Philadelphia, the poverty you grew up around, and about life in the Kensington neighborhood. What about these places inspired you to write about them?
Donaghy: It’s the story I have to tell. Simple as that. Each of us carries inside the story of where we come from and how we got where we are.
As we get to know new friends, we spend so much time talking what it was like where we grew up. And we’re always reminded in our present lives of someone or something from that earlier place. You grew up around some colorful people, I bet, Taeler––people who gave you, through their actions and their words, great examples of the kind of person you should grow up to be and the kind of person you should work your whole life trying not to become.
You could drive a friend up and down the streets of your hometown, I bet, and talk about what’s happened there over the years, how things have changed, what the local secrets are that no one likes to talk about. The longer we think about the houses we grew up in, about our hometowns, questions about “what was it like?” gets more and more complicated. At least they have for me. I love to be in the middle of writing a new piece in which I’m speaking to something that I thought I’d forgotten, that raises some part of my past from the dead so that I can wrestle with it again, maybe make some sense of it, some art out of it, maybe bring people back to life and let them have their say.
Kallmerten: What are you working on next?
Donaghy: I’m finishing up the third of a trilogy of book-length poetry collections about life in the inner city. Many of the poems from the chapbook manuscript I entered in to the Anzaldúa Poetry Prize is from that collection. This project has led me to do more research that I’d done previously. It includes poems triggered by memories as well by current events, which, where I’m from, have been pretty harrowing. This project also has led me to work in a variety of forms that I hadn’t tried before. I also have a short story manuscript that I keep coming back to––sometimes I start writing a poem and it turns into a story. When that happens, I just go with it. And I’d really like to publish a novel.
Taeler Kallmerten, Staff Writer