Here was some sense and some beauty in the midst of a life where everyone argued about money because no one had any, where the house and the car were always falling apart, where I was dropped off to chain-smoking babysitters who seemed to fulfill their obligations solely by ensuring that I did not die on their watches.
Daniel Bowman Jr.’s first book is A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country (VAC Press, 2012). His work has appeared in journals such as The Adirondack Review, American Poetry Journal, Art House America, Books and Culture, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong), Istanbul Literary Review (Turkey), The Midwest Quarterly, The Other Journal, Pyrta (India), Rio Grande Review, and Seneca Review. He lives in central Indiana where he teaches at Taylor University.
He can be found on the web at http://danielbowmanjr.com.
How Daniel Bowman Jr. Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (er, or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Dan for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I’m one of those people who feels like I didn’t so much choose to be a writer as writing—as literature and the arts—chose me. I read a lot as a kid. Something about the worlds inside books seemed more real, more true to me than anything else. Here was some sense and some beauty in the midst of a life where everyone argued about money because no one had any, where the house and the car were always falling apart, where I was dropped off to chain-smoking babysitters who seemed to fulfill their obligations solely by ensuring that I did not die on their watches. I was a sensitive kid, and it was to me a hardscrabble childhood much of the time, and the best consolation came in the form of nature and books—being outside in every season, and reading. Years later, my impulse would be not just to read, but to write. At college, I took the Intro to Literature course and it seemed perfectly inevitable to me that I would live with books for the rest of my days.
I remember seeing an interview with Barbra Streisand once where she was asked if she had doubts that she would “make it” when she was young and trying to get her first break. And she said, essentially, “No, never. I knew I was born to do it, and that it would only be a matter of time. There was nothing else for me.” And I understood that there was not a bit of arrogance in her answer, only that sense of inevitability. I feel like that about writing. It’s nearly absurd for anyone to think that he or she will “make it” as a writer, however you define that, or if you bother with such notions at all (many of us do, I suspect, but pretend we don’t). I always just knew I had to do it or die trying. If I couldn’t write books, I couldn’t do anything.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
I read and read and read. When I got to college, with the upbringing I’d had and the choices I’d made, I saw that I was far behind. I wasn’t even the best poet on my own campus, a tiny liberal arts school. So I overcompensated, became obsessed. I read everything I could get my hands on. At Roberts Wesleyan, it was a very traditional program, so I studied Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, the Romantic poets and the Victorian novelists, and then one single course offered to seniors called “Contemporary Literature,” a thing you, for the most part, had to discover on your own if you were going to discover it at all.
The courses drawing on the canon were what I needed, but I also knew that I could not write like that, that people didn’t say things like, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on.” I needed to find poems that I could emulate. I spent my time in the library and in the dusty little used books stores of Rochester, NY: Rick’s Recycled Books, Brownbag Bookshop, Greenwood Books…. I read and bought books more or less indiscriminately.
Mary Oliver, when talking about learning to write, privileges reading above all. She says something like (in A Poetry Handbook, which I don’t have here in front of me), “If given the choice between reading and taking a poetry writing workshop, the young poet should almost always choose to read.” That was the path I took. Of course, I surrounded myself with people who were like-minded and could help.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
I remain close to several of my undergraduate professors. William Judson Decker taught literature and had an expertise in the Romantic poets. He also loved Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher and Anne Tyler and Frederick Buechner…he was a great reader and one of the most thoughtful teachers, and men, I’ve ever met. Though he was not a writer himself, his influence on me has been profound.
After an MA program, I was employed in the business world for five years, during which time I was publishing a lot of poetry and had become friends with Jack Leax, who was teaching at nearby Houghton College. Jack’s friendship and mentoring helped me to persist even when it seemed I wasn’t making any progress toward my goals.
I did the low-residency MFA program at Seattle Pacific University. Gregory Wolfe, our program director, is the editor of Image, a journal of “art, faith, and mystery.” The faculty included poets Jeanine Hathaway and Jeanne Murray Walker, and like every low-res program, they brought in many terrific guests. It was just the perfect place for me, the perfect opportunity to improve my craft and finally piece together the manuscript that would become my first book. Greg and the faculty of the SPU MFA gave me a place where, for the first time in my writing life, I felt at home. The friends I made in the program help me every day of my life; even just seeing a quick line from them lets me know I’m not alone.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
As a poet, I’ve always been inspired by García Lorca—both his life and his work. He endured suffering in many forms, and also was very playful and wildly creative. Coming from an “old world” culture, Lorca valued what he ultimately would call “duende,” a kind of dark and powerful force he saw at work in authentic art. As he refined his thinking about duende, Lorca concluded that great art depends on a “vivid awareness of death,” a “connection with a nation’s soil,” and “an acknowledgment of the limitations of reason.” This paradigm has been extremely helpful to me. Lorca first saw the power in the place he came from, the people and traditions and art. I think I do the same thing.
Simone Weil urged us to “love the country of here below,” as “God saw fit that it should be difficult yet possible to love.” I am crazy about that idea, and I gravitate toward writers who have chosen to love places, writers who maintain a “connection with…soil,” with places that are difficult yet possible to love. To me, Lorca epitomizes that tradition; to grossly oversimplify, it became the lens through which he saw the world. His place informs his poetics. Wendell Berry is another example, though he is a writer who has stayed in his native place.
I come from a little Mohawk River town at the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, a beat up and forgotten piece of ground that is easy to dismiss. No one has written more eloquently about the Mohawk Valley than Richard Russo. The people in his upstate New York novels, those are my people, that’s my place, those are our stories. My family came to New York from the Palatinate region of Germany in the spring of 1710. That is three hundred years! So of course, like Lorca, like Russo, I’m haunted by that soil and those people, and I often write from and about that place, though I do not live there anymore.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Ora et labora.