A Conversation with Poet Daniel Crocker
By Chase Dimock
In Leadwood, Daniel Crocker surveys twenty years of his work as a poet. Ranging from the metaphysical significance of the McRib to courageous deep dives into bipolar disorder, Crocker’s book is more than a collection of poems; it’s a chronicle of a poet’s maturation and a man’s coming to terms with his upbringing and identity.
Leadwood is the Daniel Crocker origin story. He was born among the long closed lead mines and chat dumps that littered his rural Missouri hometown. In his poems he confronts poverty, bigotry, and religious zealotry along with personal tragedies that shaped him as man and a writer. As a middle aged poet, Crocker depicts the lingering effects of Leadwood, balancing nostalgia and care for his home with trauma. In his newest poems, he crafts vivid insight into his relationship with bipolar disorder.
No matter his age, his work has always been confessional and brave. Crocker is a rural Anne Sexton, a Sylvia Plath raised on Sesame Street and WWF wrestling, a John Berryman in the Wal-Mart aisles, a Robert Lowell with a smirk and morbid punchlines.
Chase Dimock: Although this is a collection of your work from the past two decades, you decided to give the book a title: Leadwood. Once the reader hits the first poem “Where We Come From,” they will learn that Leadwood is the name of your small hometown. Why did you decide that this one word would be descriptive of two decades worth of your work? What does understanding Leadwood as a town achieve toward understanding Daniel Crocker as a poet?
Daniel Crocker: This kind of dates back to my very first full length book, People Everyday and Other Poems (Green Bean Press, 1998), which I dedicated to Leadwood. Later, me and my wife, Margaret, would do a chapbook together called “My Favorite Hell.” It was put out by Alpha Beat Press. We used the Leadwood population sign as our cover art. So, I guess Leadwood has had a hold on me from the beginning.
Like you said, it’s my hometown. I think most of us are shaped by where we grew up–for better or worse. Most of my formative experiences happened there, and I’ve written a lot about them. And, I certainly have love/hate relationship with Leadwood. I have many great childhood memories, but also worries about lead poisoning and the ecological disaster that my home town is. Mostly, however, I wanted to make sure that the voices of my small town, and by extension other small towns, aren’t lost. There are small towns all over the country that have been ravaged and left behind by corporations–whether it’s Leadwood, which was founded by a lead mining company who later up and left the town with huge piles of chat (lead and dust) that were as big as football stadiums. The cancer rate there is extremely high. The soil has been tested there was found to be 10,000 more times the lead in the soil that is considered safe.
Chase Dimock: I’d like to hear more about the relationship between the environment and culture of Leadwood. You wrote an essay last year for As It Ought To Be that compared the Flint water crisis to the history of lead pollution in your hometown, arguing that the rural poor who grew up like you need to understand that their struggle is similar to the issues the urban poor face. In “City of Bones” you describe the environmental devastation left by the lead mines and refer to an “illness” that remains. How has this illness affected you personally and the culture of the town as a whole? How does writing about this in the form of poetry allow you to process and understand this illness?
Daniel Crocker: There are a lot of ill effects of lead on people. Lower IQ, higher rate of violence, and probably cancer. I’m as old now as my sister was when she died of cancer, and my dad died of it fairly young as well. I can’t be for certain that the high levels of lead found in the water and soil of Leadwood contributed to that, but I have had a doctor there tell me that the cancer rates in that general area were the highest of any place she’d ever worked. Then, there’s also the more tangential illness of a town founded and abandoned by a lead mining company. The ecological disaster left behind. The poverty and drug problems that come with that. We have a particularly bad problem with meth. Though there are still a lot of folks there, mostly older, who still hold a fondness for the lead mines. They meant good money and benefits while they were still open.
When I was a kid, we used to go play on them. People would take their dune buggies, three-wheelers, motorcycles, etc ride there. I can remember as a child there being some vague sense that it wasn’t good for us. I remember my mother mentioning once that people had come to test the water and the results weren’t good. I don’t want this to be forgotten. And, I’ve written so many poems about my hometown, the deaths that have taken place there, etc, that Leadwood just seemed like a logical title. Once I had the title, the ordering of the book became pretty simple for me. In fact, I usually struggle with ordering poems, but this one came pretty naturally.
Chase Dimock: Another part of the experience of rural poverty you address is food. You wrote an entire poem called “Government Cheese” and your poem “I Don’t Write Political Poems” begins with “we fed our kids fish sticks and we ate corn dogs we knew were poison.” Why is this kind of food so central to your experience living in Leadwood and what does it tell us about the culture of the town?
Daniel Crocker: We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up. We had government cheese, government peanut butter, etc. I don’t know if they still even have those programs to be honest. My parents both had to work, so I was often home alone in the evenings and I just had to fix whatever I could out of a box. I was also a fat kid. It was no fun being a fat kid. So, I’ve always had this weird love/hate relationship with food. When Margaret and I first got married, we had very little money as well. So, we had to feed our kids stuff that wasn’t exactly the healthiest. I don’t really know what it says about the culture of the town, except that a lot of us were poor.
Chase Dimock: Leadwood is essentially your greatest hits collection, and it represents two decades of your writing. I know that as you were reviewing your older manuscripts, you thought deeply about which poems to include from your youth. How did it feel to revisit some of your work from your 20s? Do those poems read differently now that you are revisiting them in your 40s?
Daniel Crocker: It was incredibly difficult, to the point where I nearly swore off ever putting out another book, for a couple of reasons. One, poems like “Sorry, Richie” about the death of my brother were hard to go back through emotionally. Before I started putting this book together, I hadn’t went through those early poems in years. There’s a lot of anger in that poem that I just don’t have anymore. And going through that poem put me in that space again. It wasn’t easy.
It was also difficult because my style has changed so much. I was lucky to have early success with People Everyday and Other Poems. It sold really well for a small press book of poetry, but looking back on them I could really see the mania in some of those poems. I was in my early 20s when the book came out, but most of the poems in there I had written about about 19 or 20. I was probably a little too influenced by Ginsberg and, of course, mania. This was way before I was diagnosed as bipolar, and I used to get manic and want to write this epic poems. That is probably most evident in poems like “People Everyday” and “The Unclean.” When getting Leadwood together, I wanted to keep those poems as close to as they were originally published as possible. I did try to clean up a little of the young poet sloppiness that was in them.
Chase Dimock: What do you think has changed the most about your voice as poet over the past 20 years? Also, let’s turn the tables. We know what Daniel Crocker at 40 thinks of Daniel Crocker in his 20s. What would the twenty-something poet Daniel Crocker think about the forty-something Daniel Crocker?
Daniel Crocker: I hope that he would think I was much funnier and had lightened up a bit. And that he would be a little proud of me for fulfilling a dream of his and becoming a professor. He might also think I’ve sold out a little. He wasn’t always rational.
Chase Dimock: In the past, we’ve done interviews together on how you use pop culture to explore mental illness. In Shit House Rat, you take on the personas of muppets to explore depression. In Gamma Rays, your were a bipolar Incredible Hulk. You also have some poems like “The Haven’t Called it a Complex in Forty Years” and “Why We Kill Ourselves” that discuss mental illness head on autobiographically. How is it different for you to write about mental illness with personal details versus doing so through a pop culture persona? Is it harder knowing there are true facts about yourself in these poems?
Daniel Crocker: While those poems are autobiographical, there is some poetic license in them as well. For example, I exaggerated “They Haven’t Called it a Complex in Forty Years” for a little comedic effect. Though the basics are true. I had a therapist that I just didn’t click with very well and wanted to write about it. I was in a bad spot when I wrote “Why We Kill Ourselves.” Every day is difficult when you have bipolar. Some days are better than others, but for me personally there’s never a day that goes by that I don’t show at least one symptom of my bipolar. Most of the time, it manifest as anxiety. When the anxiety gets bad enough, the intrusive thoughts come in. One of my mind’s favorite nonstop thoughts to think is suicidal ideation. However, I was thinking more about my fellow bipolar survivors. A large number of us commit suicide. It’s something that doesn’t get talked about as much as it should for whatever reason, so I wanted to write about it a little bit. To answer your main question, it’s much easier to hide behind a persona poem. They’re more fun to write as well. But, not every poem lends itself to that.
Chase Dimock: Earlier this year, you wrote an essay “Mania Makes Me a Better Poet” for As It Ought To Be that made quite a splash. It garnered more hits than any article we have published in the last two years. In Leadwood, you have written a poem of the same title with roughly the same perspective. First, why do you think this argument garnered so much attention? Second, how is it different for you to express this idea through poetry versus prose?
Daniel Crocker: I actually wrote the poem first. In fact, I think I wrote them both the same night. I had a hard time getting a handle on that essay. I knew what I wanted to write about, but couldn’t find a way into it. So, I tried it as a poem and that helped open up the essay for me. It also helped that I decided that my audience for both would be bipolar people and not the general public. I hope the general public enjoys them, but that’s a poem for my fellow bipolars in the end. It’s something many of us can relate to–the constant battle of medications. Getting the right ones can take years. They’re hard to get used to because they literally turn us into different people. It’s easy to miss the one good part of bipolar–and that is mild mania, or hypomania. Full blown mania is another, very scary beast.
Chase Dimock: In your last answer, you indicated that people with mental illness may get something different out of your work from what the general public may get. Ultimately, what do you hope people with mental illness will see in your 20 years of poems and what do you hope the general public will be able to take away from them?
Daniel Crocker: In the end, I hope my work is universal enough that everyone can get something out of it. Isn’t that the goal of poetry–to evoke an emotion or response of some kind in the reader? I’m sure some of my mentally ill readers get something a little different out of my bipolar poems than those who aren’t do. Still, I hope that even if the circumstances aren’t the same, the same feelings are there no matter who reads it. Just like someone who may not have had a brother die, can still get an emotion from “Sorry.” That is, if I’ve done my job right. But, it’s not my goal to be the poet laureate of the bipolar. I think John Berryman still holds that position. Either him or Plath.
About the Author: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College Literature, Western American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday Magazine, The Lambda Literary Review, Modern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews. His poetry has appeared in Waccamaw, The San Pedro River Review, and Trailer Park Quarterly. For more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.