“I Have a Fucking Skull For a Head:” Daniel Crocker on The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood

theonewhere

Sundress recently caught up with author Daniel Crocker to discuss his newest chapbook, The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood. Steve Henn, author of And God Said: Let there be Evolution, admitted he had “… never read a book so heartbreaking, so funny, so tender, so powerful, and so real” as The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood.

From the first time I read Daniel’s Like A Fish in a classroom at the University of Illinois Springfield, I too was taken aback by its balance of comedy and the profound, the personal and the pop-cultural. It was also my first interaction with Sundress Publications, a collective of souls forever dedicated to bringing original, captivating voices like Daniel’s to light.

The poems in his most recent installment are the culmination of years of living, writing, and working, as Daniel describes in the following interview.

Jacob Cross: The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood assembles cunning commentary with its leading men, women, puppets, and cartoons. Like a Fish also accomplished similar character portraits, with the poem “He-Man, You Smarmy Bastard,” appearing in both books. What drew you back to this mode of writing? How did you want to separate this new chapbook from Like a Fish?

Daniel Crocker: The He-Man poem was, I think, the first poem I wrote in this style. It came from a friend telling me that his first real crush was He-Man. I imagine that’s fairly common for gay and bi men of a certain age. There’s a lot of subtext in the Masters of the Universe cartoons that are ripe for analysis—back when Queerness was more coded than it is now. For a lot of folks, He-Man is a fictional gay icon. Plus, I just loved the hell out of those cartoons as a kid.

In the end though, I found Skeletor a more interesting character. I related to him. I mean, I have a fucking skull for a head.

What drew me back to this mode of writing is that it’s fun. Writing should be fun. When you’re thinking about tenure, publications, or god forbid writing an immortal poem, it’s easy to lose track of the idea that writing should be fun. There should be a large element of play to it.

It’s a way to explore serious topics without sounding preachy. I’ve always used humor as a way to get into some of the tougher stuff I’d like to write about, the scary stuff. It’s easier for me, and I think it’s easier on the reader. A perfect poem in this mode for me is one where the reader both laughs and gets a little uncomfortable, and then later still find themselves thinking about it.

My first few books of poetry—from way back in the 90s—were more earnest. In fact, I cringe at some of them now. But, people seemed to like them more than I did. I kept getting journals and stuff back with my work in it, then I’d read my work and just not be happy with it. It was depressing. That eventually put me on a 10 year drinking binge where I kept writing, but didn’t send much work out at all. Looking back on it now, I think I needed it. I spent that time becoming a better writer. I was sort of lucky to have some early success, but I wasn’t fully developed as a writer yet. I think what people liked about those early poems is that they were soulful. They were also sloppy. Hopefully, I can do soulful without sloppy now. At least I keep trying.

I’m not sure how to separate the new book from Like a Fish. In a lot of ways, I think everything I have ever written is really just one big book.

JC: The opening line from a poem called “The Hulkster,” reads “Knees crumbled/ like blue cheese and my back/ always hurts.” You bring larger than life personas down to tangible, human levels. I feel like many writers can take defamiliarization to unexpected places, which is nice. But your work does this with purpose, lending meaning by courting the ridiculous. How do you control the irony, the fun rediscovery of these characters? How do you direct the poems to resonate in deeper ways and not trip on the comical?

DC: As one of my writing teachers, Steve Barthelme, once told me, you have to be more than just funny. Of course, sometimes you can just be funny. People love funny, and it’s very hard to do—especially in writing. If you can do it, you’ll find a market for it. That said, and probably because I always had such respect for him, what Steve said stuck with me.

I grew up wanting to be both a professional writer and a professional wrestler. It never occurred to me that it might be difficult to do both. Plus, I never got big enough or in good enough shape to be a wrestler, so writing it was. Only recently, in the last five years I guess, has my love for professional wrestling dwindled. I had long wanted to write a poem from the point of view of Hulk Hogan though. I messed with it for two years. It never accomplished what I wanted it to. But, once I realized that Hogan was as much of a symbol for ’80s politics as Reagan, it got easier.

JC: I feel like “Lion-O,” which questions the Thundercat series for attempting to “un-gay” its protagonist, is a great example of a poetic monologue from a narrator to a subject. There are muses on TV, those inseparable from our 20th and 21st century memories. It’s vital to take ownership of these muses and their places in our lives.

Does talking directly to characters help you refine them into useful realities in your writing process? In other words, do you write outside the poem in early drafts, testing what it is you have to say to the characters?

DC: I wrote that one directly to Lion-O because I felt like we had something in common that we should talk about. Did you see the Thundercats re-imagining? They really did go and un-gay Lion-O. Why? Being a bi-man myself, I understood what it was like to have people want you to fit into a certain category. Something that fit the mold they more expected. In the case of Lion-O, we are socialized to think that our male heroes need to be straight—not just straight, but manly men straight. By all means he should have a few love interests. In the case of bi-men, well, no one believes we exist anyway so there just going to put us in whatever easy category they think we fit into the best.

I’m also pretty convinced that the Thundercats are the villains in this whole thing. They crash land on a planet and immediately start to take over—at least in the original.

As far as the drafts go, it just depends. I knew I wanted to write a Lion-O poem because he was an important part of my childhood. I had seen the reboot and had commented to my daughter that they had un-gayed Lion-O. The rest just wrote itself.

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JC: Sesame Street seems to be a playground for your imagination, full of allegedly safe, innocent identities that you upset with your poems. Oscar the Grouch eating government issued cheese in Like a Fish will always stick with me. In the new chapbook, Snuffleupagas, the Cookie Monster, and other monsters are alive, but maybe not so well. What draws you into this setting?

DC: The good thing about the characters on Sesame Street, a great show by the way, is that most of them have one overwhelmingly defining characteristic. For example, Cookie Monster is a glutton. Perfect metaphor for addiction, which is what I used it for. Oscar was poor. I ate government cheese as a kid because we were poor. So, he was a good fit.

I was home alone a lot as a kid, so I watched a lot of television. All of these folks stuck with me, and as I got older, in the back of my mind they were getting older too. What does a 40 year old Grover act like? I ask myself a lot of stupid questions and sometimes they turn into poems.

JC: We have already talked a great deal about the pop-culture cleverness in The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood, but the chapbook’s final four pieces take the collection down a far more tragic path. In “A Dream of Siblings,” you relate a nightmare in scattered, curt couplets and frank language, questioning faith and the status of a brother’s passing; even his soul comes into play.

How do you arrange a poem this effortlessly emotive? How do you break up stanzas like “Maybe I never gave up believing/ Maybe, once having faith, no one/ ever gives up believing?” What rules do you set for yourself structurally?

DC: “A Dream of Siblings” is probably the only poem I’ve ever written that is entirely based on a dream. Everything in that poem was in the dream I had the night before. By that point my brother had been dead for almost thirty years. My sister had been gone about a year. So something subconscious was going on there.

I had written a lot about my brother over the years. I was 13 when he died in a car wreck. It was incredibly traumatic for my entire family, and I really had no good way to process it at that age. Then, when I was about 20, I wrote “Sorry, Richie” which is a long poem about my brother that was in my first book. That book got good reviews and that’s the poem that was most often mentioned. I’ve wondered a few times if I’ve written about it too much. Or about death in general. But, all poets have obsessions. There’s been a lot of death in my family. It’s just me and my mom left. So, I think I just have to resign myself to the fact that it’s something I’m going to write about.

Although I consider myself agnostic now, there’s a whole lot of heaven and hell stuff going on in the back of my head thanks to that damned church my grandma drug me to for years. This joint was one step above snake-handling.

Those 10 years I spent drinking and not submitting is where I learned how to be “effortlessly emotive.” The thing about “Sorry, Richie” is that it’s all out there. Some people like that. Others think it’s too much. I think it’s too much. It’s more powerful if it’s understated. My natural inclination is still to let it all hang out—so what I do now is let something sit for awhile and then cut out everything that can be cut out. On average, I probably end up cutting out 20-30 percent of everything I write. The appearance of effortlessness takes a lot of effort.

JC: What rules and editing expectations did you set for the next piece in the collection, “Brutal?” When was it time to close the book on that piece?

DC: “Brutal” came out, nearly word for word, just like you see it in The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood. I wrote it in probably thirty minutes. But, I had been thinking about it for thirty years. I had touched on the topic before in other writings—but always more veiled. It was such a difficult thing to even think about, much less write. Finally, one night I just felt ready. I decided I’d write it to the best of my memory—though memories that traumatic are surreal and take on a life of their own. What I’m saying is, I have no idea. I just sat down and wrote it and was happy with it. It got turned down by several places though for being too explicit.

JC: Before we finish up, will the culinary world ever make an appearance in your writing? I have read you’re a short order cook aside from a teacher. Do you have a close connection to food?

DC: A lot of my fiction is set in small restaurants, but not so much the poems. I’m not sure why.

I haven’t worked as a short order cook since I started my job at Southeast Missouri State University. I did spent a big part of my life working in family owned restaurants (a much different vibe than chain places). I really loved that work. I washed dishes until my mid-thirties. Great job for a writer. Plenty of time to think. I worked out a lot of poems and stories in the kitchens of various bars and grills.

I also did some cooking later on. I enjoyed that too. I still love to cook and mess around with trying to perfect different kinds of food. I’m not great at it, but I keep getting better.

____

You can reading Daniel Crocker’s chapbook, The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood, for free at the Sundress Publications website.

Daniel Crocker is the author of three collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, and the novel The Cornstalk Man. His most recent collection of poetry, Like a Fish, was released by Sundress Publications in 2011. Crocker is a graduate from The Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, and he currently lives in Leadwood, MO, where he works as a short order cook and substitute teacher.

Jacob L. Cross lives in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. He studied creative writing and publishing at the University of Illinois Springfield, where he served as editor of The Popcorn Farm Literary Journal. His work has been featured in Still: The Journal, The Alchemist Review, Stirring, and elsewhere. His poems also appear in Clash by Night, a poetry anthology inspired by the punk staple, London Calling. He enjoys hiking with his wife, traversing Zelda dungeons, spoiling his dogs, and half-priced sushi.

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