Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dennis Daly: A floor sweeper. A union organizer. A journalist. A poet.

Dennis Daly: A floor sweeper. A union organizer. A journalist. A poet.

By Doug Holder

 Like many poets I know Dennis Daly has worn many hats in his working and personal life. He has swept the floors of the General Electric plant in Lynn, Mass.; he has organized workers; he edited a newspaper; he traveled the dangerous hinterlands of Afghanistan and Turkey, and has written his first full length collection of poetry The Custom House (Ibbetson Street Press). The poems in this collection deal with his hometown of Salem, Mass, the men and women he worked with during his General Electric days, his family, and his wanderlust that took him into the tribal badlands of Afghanistan. I have talked extensively about poetry, politics and life with Daly at my usual early morning perch at the Bagel Bards meeting in Somerville, Mass., and I was glad to have him in the studios of Somerville Community Access TV on my show Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer where the following interview takes place.

Doug Holder:  You got your advanced degree in English from Northeastern University. You studied with Samuel French Morse. He was a well- respected poet and scholar. What was the experience like under his tutelage?

Dennis Daly:  Sam was a great guy. He was an eye-opener for me as poetry goes. He spent serious time with his graduate students reading their work and taking it seriously. I became very close with him, along with two other student-friends of mine. One is Bob De Young, who later became head of the English Department of U/Mass Lowell. The other was Patrick Dudy who became ambassador to Venezuela. Both are very good poets and very good people to write poetry with.

DH: Was Morse a formal verse type of guy?

DD: Sam wrote with rhyme and usually with meter. But he didn’t insist on it in terms of the poetry he read. He was into all types of poetry. After studying with him you didn’t feel you were in the corner as far as formalism or fee verse. At that time I was interested in all types of poetry.

DH: After graduate school you strayed from literary pursuits.

DD: I became angry at poetry. I am not quite sure why. A number of things happened. Other poets I knew were able to get up and read their poetry—I couldn’t. I had a pretty bad stutter. It always was getting a little bit better but even when I was in grad school it was still pretty bad. It seemed I couldn’t get up and read my own poetry. I thought: What’s the point?” I tried to forget about poetry. I wrote journalistic pieces for The Salem News, etc…

DH: It is almost like you had a romantic relationship with poetry that you later tried to forget.

DD: There may be a bit of truth to that.  It wasn’t like I stopped writing it. I could have gone the literary route—perhaps working as a professor…but I took a job with General Electric. I was a floor sweeper.

DH: Why did you do that? I mean you were a highly educated man.

DD: It paid well for one thing. I had a family to support. The job was also quite interesting. I met a lot of really great people. There was one guy for instance who ran a lathe machine who had a PhD in physics. I met people like that all the time—poets too.

DH:  You translated Sophocles’ Ajax that was released by the Wilderness House Press and was praised by the likes of X. J. Kennedy. Ajax takes place during the Trojan Wars. You seem to be attracted to war and living on the edge. I mean you traveled in very dangerous areas in Afghanistan and other places, and were put in harm’s way. What Makes Sammy Run?—so to speak.

DD: I guess to some extent I like situations that are different. It is a change of scenery. I found going to Afghanistan and Turkey very interesting. You meet people who are outside of the box, and some real fascinating stuff usually develops. When I went to Afghanistan I was going to interview President Karazi. I had talked to the Ministry of the Interior but by the time I arrived on the scene he took off for India.

DH: I noticed in your new collection you wrote about my favorite Shakespearian character Falstaff.  Fat men often appear in literature. Offhand I can think of the gourmet and gourmand detective Nero Wolfe, Big Daddy in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and others.  What is it about fat men as a literary device?

DD: I’m not quite sure. The jovial, fat men, who know a lot does appear often—I agree. I mean Falstaff tutored King Henry the Fifth—in all the wrong things—like drinking and whores. But he was a mentor and did have a keen insight into human nature.

DH: You were a union leader and a workingman. Do you think there is poetry in the day to day grind of the working stiff?

DD: I think you can find poetry almost everywhere. Certainly in a place like General Electric, in which 16,000 people worked, you saw the best and worst of a wide selection of folks. You would meet other poets, and very intelligent individuals. These people worked very hard jobs. I don’t regret a minute working that job sweeping the floors of the plant and organizing workers.

The Custom House

Another age: our greed- governed ancestors
Venture forth, significant super cargoes
Compelling the twins: speed and economy.
They bounded oceans for Madagascar
Or Malay, craved the Orient’s garb.
We watch for their return with telescope
Of brass:  pennants streaming, hull stowed with teas
And silks:  we dream them into our harbors.
We await tribute from captains now arrived,
Long doldrumed—their ships in need of repair:
Sails split and rotting, spars sprung.
Ascending the granite steps, these dangerous men,
These men unable to meet our tariffs
Curse the collectors of the world, the weights
And measures; their minds unbalanced, salt-eaten.
They sulk impatiently, clawing their daggers:
We’ve seen their kind before.
Once in every while a revolution;
They murder us at our desks: stabbed with pen,
Bludgeoned with ink bottle. We disappear
For a time: there are advantages,
Our ghostly machinery still keeping account.
In the end they always pay.


  1. Anonymous12:42 PM

    nice interview doug and i enjoyed learning
    more about dennis who i regard as an important
    writer and person. irene

  2. This interview's much to my liking, so much gets said in a brief space. The image of Dennis as sweeper and organizer at GE suggested the ideal combination of labor and subversive good will: I sweep, therefore I organize. The mention of Samuel French Morse brought me way back;
    I had poetry workshops with Sam when I was an undergrad at Northeastern. He was at once a man of warmth and a master of ironic pronouncements on the state of such literature as his fledgling poet students would produce. He was my favorite teacher.