Editor’s Note: This exchange is part of a series of brief interviews with emerging writers of recent or forthcoming books. If you enjoyed it, please visit other interviews in the I’ve Got Questions feature.
- What’s the title of your book? Fiction? Nonfiction? Poetry? Who is the publisher and what’s the publication date?
Title: Inside the Invisible (Winner of the 2022 Propel Poetry Prize)
Publisher: Nine Mile Books
Publication Date: November 10, 2022
- In a couple of sentences, what’s the book about?
I don’t think I can say what this book is about any better than poet Ellen Bass:
This is a book of faith. Of desire. Of a blind poet asking, “So how shall I live inside the invisible?” Simpson’s poems are threaded with Biblical allusion, philosophical musings, lovers, and guide dogs. With close attention to detail, the use of dialogue, and curiosity about the limits of communication, he interrogates life and chooses to embrace it again and again: “Marry me to the outside; / marry me to the inside. / Place my palms on the handlebars of the sun…”
- What is the book’s primary style?
The book consists mostly of free verse with a scattering of formal poems and, while blending elements of the narrative and lyrical, leans toward narrative.
- What is the nicest thing anyone has said about the book so far?
I love what poet Molly Peacock said about this book:
Melding a sympathetic listener’s rich warmth with the zesty language of an equally sympathetic responder, Daniel Simpson creates the memorable poems of Inside the Invisible. Reading this beautifully calibrated book of poems as it unfolds from boyhood to maturity feels like sinking into a fresh bed after a long journey. Simpson’s rare talent makes each poem come home to the essential truth that existence is multilayered and contradictory. Candid, sharp, ranging in tone from sexy to spiritual, Simpson’s poems are always tuned to the sensuous pleasures of hearing. The wisdom of this poet gives back again and again in the bounty of the superb Inside the Invisible.
- What book or books is yours comparable to or a cross between?
To pick specific books, I think Inside the Invisible is a cross between Geode (Mainstreet Rag) by Ona Gritz and The Way Love Comes to Me (MutualMuse Books) by David Simpson. More generally, I hope and believe it shows its influences from Stephen Dunn, Mary Oliver, and Gregory Djanikian.
- Why this book? Why Now?
These days, it seems many poetry publishers prefer project-oriented collections, tightly connected poems around a specific subject or theme. This implies that poets of those books know early on, if not before beginning to write, something about the shape and trajectory of their collections.
Some of the poems in Inside the Invisible got their start two decades ago, well before I had published my first collection, School for the Blind. Back then, I didn’t know what my first book would look like, let alone a second. I just kept writing poems and noticing that they coalesced around certain topics—family, love and longing, loss, blindness, faith and doubt.
My poem “Acts of Faith,” from School for the Blind, may have been the first to overtly connect faith and blindness. It got me thinking about how much we blind people have to take on faith every day. That led to considering how much all of us, sighted and unsighted, have to take on faith, how much we inhabit lives containing, as the Apostle’s Creed puts it, “things seen and unseen.” Maybe because I’ve been blind from birth, I’m comfortable with not seeing. Maybe because I’ve moved toward agnosticism, I’ve become more comfortable with the idea of not knowing. At some point, the thought came to me that we all, in our various ways, live inside the invisible and, from there, I could start to recognize how my older poems related to each other and might make a cohesive collection.
During the height of the COVID pandemic, I, like many others, couldn’t generate much new work. Events of the day sucked out any free attention I needed in order to create. Up until then, I would have told you that I loved the rush of generating new work and found revision something I had to gird my loins for. I don’t know why—call it a mystery, a place where I’m still inside the invisible—but revision suddenly gained great appeal for me. I had been stacking up poems I really liked, really felt invested in, but knew weren’t finished. Returning to them in the hope of making things right with them felt like the perfect project to do while hunkering down. Suddenly, revising became exciting, creative. I actually ended up with more than enough finished poems for one book, so then the exciting process of selecting and arranging poems for the book commenced.
- Other than writing this book, what’s the best job you’ve ever had?
I suppose the easy answer is “writing my previous books,” but I don’t seem to be able to do easy answers. It’s difficult to declare a winner when you’re comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. I love my current job providing technical support for the Library of Congress’s digital audio and braille book download service for the blind, a service I love to use myself. Half-time on weekday afternoons, it leaves my best hours, the morning hours, for writing and reading while paying me more than twice per hour what my previous jobs paid, meaning I can support myself on less than half the time it took with other jobs.
But what makes a job “the best ever?” I loved a summer job I had for several years, serving as a mentor/teacher and artist-in-residence for the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for Teaching. Although I came home exhausted each year, I also came home exhilarated by having lived and worked with the most closely-knit communities of my life, communities that spanned a six-decade age range and contained some of the most open-hearted and eager teachers and learners in the world.
Yet, if I had to pick that “best” job, I’d have to say it was teaching English in an all-girls, inner-city school in Philadelphia. Until now, I wouldn’t have guessed I would say that because it was the toughest job I’ve ever taken on. Working in a school where the majority of students live below the poverty level and under the boot of racism and sexism can be quite frustrating. But then you ask your poetry class what they think about one tiny stanza of Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and you are blown away by what they know and are grappling to understand. You sit on the floor and hang out with some students while they eat their school-provided breakfast and share personal stories with you and each other. You go an extra mile for someone and see them thrive. You discuss a novel and feel the trust build in your classroom as students begin to show you and their colleagues their most vulnerable places. There are just so many opportunities for large and small meaningful communications. And not just meaningful for them.
At least while I was doing it, this job was the worst for me as a writer. Working 70-plus hours a week left me no time or energy for writing during the school year. And yet, I’ve never had more close connections across race and class than I did then. I’ve never felt I made as much of an immediate difference in so many people’s lives as I did then. I miss the chance to be with lots of teenagers every day. So while it took the greatest toll on my writing, I suppose it was the best job ever.
- What do you want readers to take away from the book?
We all need fresh similes and metaphors for thinking about our lives. I hope my writing openly about my disability can serve as a useful prism through which others can see their lives in a new light. I also hope they will come away with the recognition that disability is only part of the story, that on some level, people are just people. If my faith buoys someone else’s, well then, good. If my doubt shakes someone’s faith, that’s not so bad.
- What food and/or music do you associate with the book?
Food? Definitely chocolate, and I’m not always that picky. On my “healthy” days, it’s dark chocolate, but M&M’s, both plain and peanut, have been good friends along the way. White chocolate, though, is where I draw the line.
Music? Rock music of the sixties and seventies, plus English cathedral music.
- What books are you currently reading?
Poetry Unbound: Fifty Poems to Open Your World by Pádraig Ó Tuama
The Best American Poetry, 2009, edited by David Wagoner and David Lehman
Flash! Writing the Very Short Story by John Dufresne
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Learn more about Daniel from his website.
Buy the book from the publisher (Nine Mile Books), Amazon, or Bookshop.org.