Welcome from Amy D. Unsworth

Language, Literature, Learning & Life.

Pages Rustle: Featured Poet Brian Daldorph

Every so often, I'll be featuring a new poem, my thoughts on the work, and a conversation with the poet. I hope you'll enjoy and come back again for the next installation!


This week's poem from:

From the Inside Out: Sonnets

By Brian Daldorph

Woodley Press



He needs this cell. It was getting cold
out there and he’d done all the drugs he could buy.
It was either jail or die.
Sometimes he thinks he’s getting too old
for this shit, but it’s too late to start over
with some sweet-eyed lover
who says, “You and only you are the man I love.”
He’d be late for his wedding again,
and what woman would choose a man with a cracked brain?
He sees the young punks in here scared
about what they’ve gotten into, not
the cocky kids they were on the street who dared
to run faster than the cops. He ended up in this cell
where it’s warm enough. And three hot meals.


“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”
Henry David Thoreau

Brian Daldorph’s book of “From the Inside Out: Sonnets” utilizes many variations of the sonnet form. The sonnet form seems particularly appropriate for “Fall” and the other poems which are set in a jail cell. The poem, like the subject, must make do with a limited amount of space and breathing room. In the condensed lines we learn a great deal about the inhabitant of the cell: a sketch portrait in minimum of a habitual drug user, with a knotty life story at last taking ownership of his past actions. This is a poem of a man whose quite desperation has led him to an almost unthinkably constrained life.

In “Fall,” the tight construction of the sonnet requires a compression of the narrative but Daldorph manages, with some carefully selected modifiers, to imply quite a bit of the character’s back-story. One of the appealing aspects of this sonnet is the poet’s use of eye or sight rhyme that helps to reinforce the subject matter through the form: things are not always how they look. The reader doesn’t always get what he or she expects the form to provide, especially when the sonnet is read aloud.

Restraint might be the best adjective to describe the narrator’s approach; in looking quietly, Daldorph manages to fill the poem with an intensity of implied emotion. It would be easy to treat the convict with disdain for his ruined life, but somehow this portrayal is more sympathetic than one might expect. The sympathetic view succeeds in this poem because it is not didactic, the constrained form of the sonnet helps the poet to hold the emotional rein in check and prevent the all too easy slide into moralizing. One way the narrator builds this sympathy is through the contrast between the older inmate and the “young punks.” This portrayal shows the subject recognizing his younger self in the youth who aren’t so cocky now on the “inside.” The regret, although implied, is clear.

The way the inmate acknowledges his own faults and misgivings allows the reader a glimpse at how tenuous our civilized lives are and how difficult life must be when through addiction and poor choices the last way to provide food and shelter also means paying with one’s freedom. As Henry David Thoreau stated, “the cost of a thing it will be remembered is the amount of life it requires to be exchanged for it.” The cost for the inmate seems terribly high.


Q & A with Poet Brian Daldorph

Q: I’m interested in hearing about your work in the Douglas County Jail. How did you become a poet in the jailhouse? How has that influenced your work?

Brian Daldorph: I've been working at Douglas County Jail since 2001. Years go by! Two of my colleagues in the English Dept set up the program, and when they left, I took over. I've had many different teaching experiences in my career, including teaching in Japan and Senegal, but my jail teaching's been my best experience of all. It's endlessly exciting to see that the art form I love can bring so much to people in dire circumstances. I've learnt so much from my long commitment to jail work. My new book, Jail Time, is about my teaching there, and some of the people I've met.

Q: The speaker’s point of view in this poem is sympathetic in the manner it catalogs the inmate’s losses and lost opportunities. And there are so many hints towards a back-story that this poem feels like it might be a condensed version of a story. How did this poem come to be?

Brian Daldorph: This jail poem is really an amalgam of stories and characters from the jail. True of many of the poems. This is the artistic element, really. To take the raw material and try to transform it into something coherent, more than the sum of its parts.

Q: The photographs at the section breaks in your book show a ruined world that is fascinating in its decay; are you the photographer as well? Is your writing particularly inspired by the visual arts?

Brian Daldorph: These photographs are by my exceptionally talented former student, Matt Porubsky. (I collaborate with him in a number of different ways). I asked him for photographs that caught the mood of the poems rather than intentionally illustrated them, and these are the haunting poems he produced, visual poems really.

Q: For you, what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of the sonnet form?

Brian Daldorph: The title of my book, From the Inside Out: Sonnets, has several ideas. My idea about writing sonnets is that if you work with the form consistently, which I did, writing hundreds of sonnets over a 6 to 8 year period, then you can internalize the form and write out from the form rather than writing into it as though it's set out in front of you. I love the strong form of the sonnet, how it intensifies language, yet the poet can push against it and make use of it in any number of ways.

One more point I'd like to add: Jail Time published by Original Plus (England) and I'm very pleased with it. I think it catches a lot of what I've experienced with my jail teaching over the years. (purchase information: Jail Time)

I liked what Mike Caron had to say about Jail Time and it seems and apt description of “Fall” as well:

"What these poems do provide is something akin to dispatches from a nearby place we are far too conditioned to see as a foreign country. If we pay attention to Brian’s poems we may discover the inhabitants of that place are not so alien as we imagined. The distance is really not that great."
--Mike Caron, Programs Supervisor, Douglas County Jail


Three More Poems to Note:

“Prodigal Winter”


Poet’s Biography:

Brian Daldorph teaches creative writing, literature, and writing at the University of Kansas. He has also taught in Japan, Senegal, England, Zambia, and the Douglas County Jail. Two books of his poems, The Holocaust and Hiroshima: Poems, and Outcasts, were published by Mid-America Press. Jail Time, a collection of poems written about his writing class at the Douglas County Jail, was published in April of this year.

For more about this poet see his page at Kansas Poets .


Purchase Information: Woodley Press and elsewhere on the web.


Brian also has an upcoming reading:

TWP POETRY READING SERIES @ THE JOHNSON COUNTY LIBRARY Tuesday, October 20, 2009 - 7:00 pmJohnson County Public Library, 9875 W. 87th, Overland Park, KSPoets Brian Daldorph and Bill Bauer. Brian Daldorph, teacher at the University of Kansas and Douglas County Jail, edits Coal City Review. Bill Bauer's Pear Season and The Boy Who Ate Dandelions, published by Mid-America Press, was selected by The Kansas City Star as one of its most noteworthy books of 2006.


Upcoming on Pages Rustle: work from Tim Mayo’s The Kingdom of Possibilities.


Pages Rustle: Featured Poet John Gallaher

Every so often, I'll be featuring a new poem, my thoughts on the work, and a conversation with the poet. I hope you'll enjoy and come back again for the next installation!


This week's poem from:

Map of the Folded World

By: John Gallaher

Akron Series in Poetry

University of Akron Press


Anecdote of the Little Houses

They're folding maps out across the yards,
over the houses
on the north side of the street
and on the south.

Look, darling, they say, the houses
are all lit up.
It's a summer night, in blue.

In the houses, they've gotten new clothes
and they're trying them on.
They're saying yes,

and they're saying no,
whenever they step from a room.
They're saying, I think so, and is, or isn't.

The people
are folding maps out
across the streets.

Time keeps running out, they say,
and there keeps being more of it
as the surfaces flash by.

And below,
after they stop at their houses,
the lines rise above the lines.

The red and blue lines
rising and falling all night
in their sleep.


The experience of reading John Gallaher’s work is a bit disconcerting in both its stick- figure familiarity and its other-world strangeness. Not surprising for a book entitled “Map of the Folded World,” there is an eerie two-dimensionality to the reality portrayed. It is as if suburban America was dropped into Plato’s cave and Gallaher is writing of the shadows. This is “our” American life but rendered from outside the houses looking in. I’m reminded a bit of the dispassionate tone of Raines in “A Martian Writes a Letter Home,” especially in the way that a lack of emotion is projected onto the anonymous inhabitants of the poem. (There are several other parallels in the poem’s subject matter as well: a discussion of time, the way the way things flash by, and ending in sleep)

But even in its strangeness this poem is also very connected to the poetry that has come before. The title alludes to Wallace Steven’s “Anecdote of the Jar” and with the way a simple object reorders the perception of reality from that of wilderness to that of inhabited land. Similarly, the maps of “Anecdote of the Little Houses” create a reordering of the three dimensional world into a two-dimensional “surface” world lacking the former’s complexity and depth.

In some ways, the poem distills us to our common parts: “They’re saying, I think so, and is, or isn’t” like we all do at one point or another. But the speaker doesn't seem to connect with the other inhabitants of the poem. Perhaps he might be critical of the contemporary society that is content to sleep peacefully in a superficial world, or he may merely be looking at the landscape as an outsider, not willing to adopt for himself the way other people live. Or perhaps, more optimistically, the speaker is trying to accept the way Americans live without passing judgment. The marked dispassionate tone keeps the reader guessing.

The poems highlights as well, our human, domesticated desire to have the way mapped out for us, to only go where the lines lead us and our easy satisfaction of living between the very lines that box us in and limit us. I like the Rorschach blot ambiguity of the red and blue lines above the sleepers, which may be the telephone and cable lines which are our umbilical cords to the media–driven reality we live in, or the lines on the map of our towns and suburbs that contain and constrain us, or even lines on the monitors representing our breathing and heart-rates blinking out towards our inevitable ends. Nevertheless, we feel safe in that mapped off world; we can sleep.


Q & A with Poet John Gallaher

Q: I’m very much always looking for a poem’s “significance,” and this is a poem that is in some ways resistant to a single way of understanding. As the poet, do you subscribe to McLeish’s idea that “a poem should Be/ not mean”?

John Gallager: A teacher of mine, Wayne Dodd, used to say that a poem should “mean AND be.” I always liked that formulation, and would like to, as he would say, associate myself with those remarks. But I feel like that might be hedging, to leave it at that. I am drawn to moments where meaning is deferred, knowing that meaning is inevitable, as our lives contain meaning, or embody meaning. So yes, I would side with the “Be” if such a choice were demanded. (And again, to remind myself that there’s a lot of meaning tucked away in that “Be.”)

Q: I notice in your biography that you’re originally from Oregon and now have settled in the Mid-West. How have your many relocations affected your work?

John Gallaher: I’ve lived all over the place. From Portland, I went to Wichita, where I moved when I was adopted. Then my family moved to Orange County California, and then on to Birmingham, Alabama, and Long Island, New York. As an adult, I’ve lived in central Texas, Athens, Ohio, Conway, Arkansas, and now, finally, in Maryville, Missouri, where I’ve now been for seven years (with my wife and children).

I’m quite sure that these relocations have had a large impact on my work. They’ve certainly had a large impact on me. I always dread the question: “So, where are you from?”

Q: In “Anecdote of the Little Houses,” you’re certainly flagging Wallace Steven’s poem “Anecdote of the Jar.” Would you consider Wallace Stevens & Modernists to be a major influence on your writing? Or do you look more towards the New York School poets?

John Gallaher: The only two Library of America editions that I’ve purchased are the Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery ones. I know their work better than I know anyone else’s. So, if that might be evidence, I suppose the answer would have to be that I have a foot in each world. But, truth to tell, I read the poetry of Rae Armantrout (and Michael Palmer, Martha Ronk, and Charles Wright, as well) and numerous others nearly as much. There’s such a large world of reading out there, and I adore so much of it, I’d hate to narrow myself to one (or even two) influences. And that’s just poetry. I’m also very interested in painting. That’s probably had as much (or maybe even more) influence on the way I see things, or attend to things as poetry has had.

Q: I wonder in a “chicken versus egg way” about the creative process. Did you write the poem first and then find the title or did the title come first. How did this poem come to be?

John Gallaher: From what I can remember, the poem came to be around the image of the map rising and falling over the people as they sleep. I like looking at paintings quite a bit, and I often like to think up paintings that don’t exist. Painting can allow for a very specific, even neutral, stance toward a scene. I’m quite envious of that. Paintings are accepted more easily by viewers, I think. There’s more of a social aspect to them. They call out for the viewer to participate, and viewers usually seem fairly willing to do so. I wish poetry were more like that.

As for the title, I simply love the “anecdote” form, as it filters through Stevens. Calling a poem an “anecdote” is one of the ways I to try to get the reader into a participatory circumstance with the poem. I toyed with calling it (among other things I no longer remember) “Anecdote of the Map,” but in the end I liked the intimacy of “house.” “Map” seemed a little too abstracted to me, though now, looking back at it, I kind of wonder if that might have worked better.

I keep a little notebook with me at all times, and in it I write whatever comes to mind. That’s where I get most of the lines and titles that I use. I’m not sure in this case which came first, but I usually always write from a title first, though I often go back and revise the title later. I change things a lot. I like to revise. “You must revise your life,” as they say.

Three More Poems to Note:

"What We're Up Against"

"Poem for the End of January"

"In the Direction of X. In the City of Zero."


Poet's Biography:

John Gallaher is the author of the books of poetry, Gentlemen in Turbans, Ladies in Cauls (Spuyten Duyvil, 2001), The Little Book of Guesses, winner of the Levis Poetry Prize, from Four Way Books, and Map of the Folded World, from The University of Akron Press, as well as the free online chapbook, Guidebook from Blue Hour Press. Other than that, he's co-editor of The Laurel Review and GreenTower Press. Currently he's working on a co-authored manuscript with the poet G.C. Waldrep, titled Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, which is forthcoming from BOA Editions in Spring 2011.

For more about this poet see his blog: Nothing to Say & Saying It .

Purchase Information: University of Akron Press and elsewhere on the web.


Upcoming on Pages Rustle: work from Brian Daldorph's From the Inside Out: Sonnets