Thursday, July 10, 2008

Interview with Tom Daley: From machinist to master poet.

Interview with Tom Daley: From machinist to master poet.

Tom Daley was a machinist for many years, but now finds himself a well-regarded, well-published poet and workshop leader. Daley is the poet-in-residence at the Boston Center for Adult Education, and teaches poetry and memoir writing at Lexington (MA) Community education. Daley also teaches with poets Regie Gibson, Patricia Smith, and Quincy Troupe for the Online School of Poetry, and serves on the tutorial faculty of the Walnut Hill School for the Arts. He has lectured at Brown University, as well as Stonehill College, and SUNY Cobleskill. Daley has been widely published in such journals as the: Harvard Review, Salamander, Del Sol Review, and The Bagel Bards Anthology (Numbers 1 and 2). I spoke with Daley on my Somerville Community Access TV show: “ Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: You have a show about Emily Dickinson coming up in the spring that you are producing. Tell us about this.

Tom Daley: Yes. I am very excited. Next April I am going to produce a show titled: “The Many Voices of Emily Dickinson.” The plan is to have it at the Cambridge Family Y—at the theater there. The idea is to have several different interpretations of Emily Dickinson including people reading her poetry in different languages: Yiddish, Italian, Spanish, etc…. I have a commitment from the Cambridge Ringe & Latin High School dance program to choreograph some pieces for this show.

Emily Dickinson had an Irish housekeeper. Dickinson appointed him to be her chief undertaker. Obviously she was obsessed with death. I though it would be interesting to have a chorus of Emily Dickinsons and a chorus of Irish serving people.

DH: Tom I have worked for many years at McLean Hospital as a Mental Health Worker. I have tried to incorporate poetry into my job by running workshops on the wards, and later setting clients up with literary internships. Were you able to integrate your interest with writing with your work as a machinist?

TD: Absolutely. I am working on a manuscript that consists principally of poems that are related to working in the factory. I was on the shop floor with a lot of interesting people. People from all over the globe. I worked with one person from Ghana, another from Haiti…they were all wonderful. I really enjoyed that aspect of it. However the job itself was miserable.

I had been groomed to be an academic poet. But the very guy who groomed me told me what a horrible life it was. He said that poets did nothing but stab each other in the back and ask each other “ How much did you get for that poem?” (Yes, people actually got paid for poetry at one time. (laugh))

So I got more interested in political work. I was involved with union and anti-racism organizing for years.

The shop I worked at was not a union shop. My idea was to have a skill so I could go to an auto plant and organize. That didn’t work out. So I ended up being just a machinist. It’s hard to find a job with just an undergraduate English degree. I could of gone on to get my MFA…sometimes I regret that I didn’t. I wouldn’t have had the experiences I had if I did though. You don’t need an MFA to teach or be a poet.

DH: The poet Regie Gibson describes your work as being concerned with “life emerging from a decaying world” Do you agree?

TD: Along with my interest with Emily Dickinson, I have this interest with the whole process of life and death. In Western culture we see death as a very separate thing from life. But there is that famous quote: “ You’re dying the minute you are born.” Decay is such a vital part of renewal. Every day we are shedding millions cells, skin, blood, all these things! One of my favorite things to do is to build a compost heap. In this pile of dead matter is a huge florescence of life. I mean you through a banana peel in and there are thousands of microbes on it.

DH: Tom you are a very well regarded poetry workshop leader. Gives us three things a poet must do in order to write good verse?

TD: They have to read. Find good poetry and read it. A lot of people come to my workshops and say: “I don’t read poetry it might influence me.” Would you learn to play the guitar without listening to someone playing the guitar? I have everyone bring a poem they admire to every meeting of the workshop. That’s how it starts.

If you are not reading you are not going to improve as a writer. Without be “infused” you are not going to be “improved.”

As a poet you have to use interesting language. You must have an interesting story and idea as well. But if you don’t have language that is doing something interesting then you are simply transcribing.

DH: Your work is big on detail, observations. Do you find this lacking in the work people bring to your workshop?

TD: Sometimes people write about totally abstract concepts like: peace, love, justice, etc… They have no detail at all. They feel if they were more specific they would crowd the reader out.

My own poetry has been described by some as simply descriptive. But I try to create an imagistic impact. It has meaning on many different levels. There is an emotional content, a philosophical content, etc…

* For more info on Tom Daley go to:

Tom Daley

Tonight I walk by the mirror
in my father's green shirt
that I am wearing for the first time.
For a minute I think it is him in the mirror,
without the girth or the knob of the belly button
hanging strangely inside out,
but him all the same. In that moment
something has changed me
into a man content to sleep off weekends
under the rubber tree in the living room,
to watch football and play endless games of chess with myself.
I will live and die with a legacy of a handful of shirts
and a certain quantity of affection
given without condition or responsibility,
lavished equally on dog ears, nurses, neap tides,
bittersweet chocolate, paint flaking off bridges,
young women in laundromats folding their clothes.
Ambitious only for the small comfort
of late night long distance phone calls to an old lover,
I can stand up without my loose socks slipping to my ankles
and cross a cold creek barefoot without screaming.
All this is something to bless him for,
the man who once filled out
this old green shirt.
Doug Holder/Ibbetson Update/July 2008

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