Conversation with Raymond McDaniel

September 27, 2018

To kick things off: what inspires you?

Sadly, I have never been one of those writers who experiences inspiration as if it were some kind of divine gift (or even fortunate happenstance). Attention is my version of inspiration. It takes work to translate attention into writing you can then try to manipulate into something worthwhile, but that kind of work has to accompany inspiration, too, I imagine.


I took a look at your profile on the Sweetland page, and on top of the topics that you specialize in (poetry, illustration, etc.), your bio also claims that you are “interested in everything, because everything is interesting.” That certainly reflects an open attitude towards what you’re willing to learn, to argue about, to write about. Have you always had this attitude, or is it something you grew into with experience?


That might be a consequence of teaching. I’ve learned so much more as a teacher, and been so much more willing to learn, than I was as a student (when I mistakenly assumed I knew my own interests or aptitudes). But teaching asks me to be open to every perspective or expertise I’ll encounter via working with students of all kinds, and it would uncharitable to benefit so much from that variety and depth and breadth of knowledge and curiosity and not respect the basic attention it takes to be interested in the world. There’s attention again. Sound the Theme Klaxons.


As an instructor with Sweetland here at Michigan, your everyday involves working with student writers to nurture their writing to the next level. I know from experience, and can say with confidence that my own writings from your course wouldn’t be half so developed and comprehensive if not for your guidance and the confidence you showed in me and the work I was doing. It gets me thinking, though, that it must become quite taxing to approach who-knows-how-many students on a weekly basis with that same level of enthusiasm and competence. So how do you pull it off?


You know the joke about the two friends running from the bear, right? You don’t need to outrun a bear; you just need to outrun your friend. Well, it’s kind of like that but pulled inside out. I don’t need to know more than the students know about their subjects; I just need to trust that knowledge and make sure the students have room and time to fully activate it. Okay, I think this means that I am claiming that I willingly sacrifice myself to some kind of phantasmagorical Struggle Bear, and that *sounds* amazing, so please ring the Analogous and Metaphorical Bear Klaxons.


You’ve been a part of academia at Michigan for years, but you are originally from Florida, and you've written pieces that reflect a sense of identity with the south - I’m thinking of Saltwater Empire, for instance, which was influenced by the impact of Katrina on New Orleans. With this array of varied and complicated experiences, where do you place yourself on the spectrum of regional identification? How specifically do you still feel your roots in Florida against your current living in Michigan?


My family has been in Florida for a long time, and not just by Florida standards. One of the weird consequences of being from Florida is that you may develop a sensitivity to even the idea of tourism, so even though I have lived in Michigan for (I don’t want to talk about it), I would never identify myself as being from Michigan or even particularly knowledgeable about it. That is a privilege for others. I like it here, and I’m happy here, and I want the best for the place, but I would never be so disrespectful to either Florida OR Michigan as to call Michigan home. That said, I also don’t want to over-value my attachment to Florida at the expense of those who actually still reside there. So let’s just say my mind eternally lives in Florida even while I attempt to usefully direct my taxes to Michigan.


In your poetry, you’re not afraid to hone in on subjects that are pretty niche to your own interests and experiences. What motivates you tofocus where you do? Whom, if anyone, would you say you write for?


My suspicion is that everyone who writes does so from their own interests and experiences, and sometimes those align with a few, and sometimes they align with many - but you can’t know on the basis of the interest itself which way that will fall. Very narrow or obscure topics sometimes gain so much attention (!) that we no longer even think of them as niche; plenty of work that dwells on the most common and familiar experiences disappears quickly and forever. I would guess that all writers focus on what it sustains them to focus on, right? And so you may write TO specific people or populations, but you are only able to do so by writing first FOR yourself. Doing so may result in something narrow but with wide appeal, or wide but with narrow appeal, or any of the other logical permutations. When I am doing it, I am just trying to make the ship stand up in the bottle, to make the bottle and the ship both seaworthy. Where they go, how far, to whom: that’s all out of my control, thankfully.

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