(Sort of) a Lonely Jew in Iowa: An Interview with Daniel Khalastchi

Sevy Perez

Daniel Khalastchi is an American poet. He is a professor and assistant director of the new Undergraduate Certificate in Writing program at the University of Iowa, where he obtained his MFA in poetry from the Writers' Workshop. His first collection of poems, Manoleria, debuted last year and was awarded the Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse First Book Prize. He is also the managing editor at Rescue Press. His latest poem, "Notes from an Adjunct Professor at a Major American University," is featured in the Fall 2012 issue of The Iowa Review.

I sat down with Daniel to discuss his new poem, rap music, and why the chicken man blew up in Philly last night.

SP: I see you a lot with your iPod, walking around Iowa City. What kind of music are you listening to?

DK: I'm very into rap. I get up every morning and spend about an hour and a half on rap blogs, checking out new music, reading reviews of albums and tracks, that kind of stuff. Rap, for the longest time—when I didn't really know there was contemporary poetry, or that I could be a poet—rap was the closest thing.

SP: So music has a place in your writing process?

DK: It's actually hard for me to concentrate while listening to music. I listen to white noise now. I used to listen to classical music. For a while—when I was in the Workshop years ago—I had this one mix I'd listen to while I wrote, and it became a kind of white noise. For a while, I used to turn off my speakers and just have my subwoofer and try to write towards a rhythm.

SP: So poetry, for you, is rhythm-based?

DK: One of the first quotes that I fell in love with was from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who poetically blew my mind with very interesting phrases, using sound to drive a point, talking about God, his relationship with God, that kind of thematic content and how it was really pushed forward with his use of rhythm.

SP: The twentieth-century poet ‪Muriel Rukeyser is known for saying, "Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry." I know you've done work on Judaism before, and even in your poem in The Iowa Review, you talk about religion. As a Jewish American and someone who's written about Judaism, do you find your beliefs surfacing often in your work? Do you consciously attempt to write about any specific topics?

DK: Growing up as sort of a lonely Jew in Iowa, I did feel ostracized. And as I've grown up, I've tried to figure out what it is that makes me interested and think. And I noticed [Judaism] just started showing up in my writing in a way I wasn't prepared for. My father was born in Baghdad and escaped in 1969, and so often when I think about what he went through because of religion, that's a big part of my history. People in his family were killed, and he had all these experiences because of his religion. The poem that's in The Iowa Review: I was teaching at Marquette University, which is a Jesuit university. Everywhere you go you're in this beautifully depressed city, and there's this huge racial divide. You walk into every class and there's a cross. And so I just started thinking a lot about these things. I think when I focus on [Judaism], it's not as good or as interesting. When I write about what I'm thinking or feeling, it does tend to come up.

SP: So you tend to write about Judaism as being immersed in another culture?

DK: Someone could read my line "they'll find out you're Jewish" and think the same thing about being Hispanic or Mormon. It's this idea about what we mask in public. What we feel we can't stand behind. What we feel we want people to know; what we feel like we don't want other people to know about us. It's about what these things mean in our culture. "Notes from an Adjunct Professor at a Major American University" was written at a time when teaching in the adjunct world was a huge travesty. I have a lot of friends that don't have stable jobs. When I started writing that poem, I was thinking about what things professors would do for their loved ones. The poem's about my experiences on some level, but also what I imagine other educators' experiences to be.

SP: So the "I" in this poem is some nameless adjunct professor?

DK: I think all of the "I"s in every poem I write are some nameless guy. I don't think I'm a confessional poet. It's not a Twitter feed. That poem isn't 100% true, obviously.

SP: Do you think that experience is necessary to have in a poem? Even at least a modicum of personal experience?

DK: No. Poetry, for me, has to have a heart. All poetry can have a heart. Sometimes it's edited out. Sometimes it's just not there. The poem doesn't have to be real. Going back to music, Springsteen says he gets away with what he writes because of something he calls the rage of the music, which means if he's going to write a song and he starts in D-minor, I'm already sad. Lyrics don't even have to come in. So if he has a song that begins, "well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night"— if I wrote that in a poem, someone would think that's a surreal, humorous poem. Put some minor chords behind it, and it becomes kind of dark and scary. I think you can get away with more in music. But good readers will understand there's some element of fiction.

SP: Do you think music can do more than poetry? Do you think it's a more supreme form of art?

DK: I can emphatically say that I don't think music is a more supreme form of art. Can it do more? I think that depends on the artist. You can reach more people with music. To get a hundred people to read a poem is nearly impossible. You're a hugely successful poet if you sell a couple thousand books, but for a musician that's nothing. You can record a song in your basement and post it on Myspace. People take music in smaller bites. You don't have to interpret every chord change. Whereas I feel like with writing, people pick up a poem or a story, and they feel like there's this sort of intellectual battle going on—that if it's a poem it's a riddle. So people turn it off. Put on "Like a Rolling Stone" by Dylan, and people will sing along with it. Music has a different appeal. I don't think it's superior. Just different.

SP: So they're different. But can they achieve the same things?

DK: Yes. Nas had a record a couple of years back called Hip Hop is Dead. The last song he had on that record was called "Hope." The whole album is Nas rapping over beats and scratches and samples, and it gets louder and louder, and you get to the last song and it's just a capella. Take away the beat, and what is rap? It's a poem. Listen to a poet read a poem and Nas rap without a beat, and they're pretty similar. The difference is that poetry seems academic. And hip hop and music seem of-the-people. Essentially, a song is read to you.

SP: Do you think it's easier to ignore—in our culture—stuff that demands serious attention?

DK: I do. I mean, when I walk into a college literature classroom and all anybody's read is Nicholas Sparks and Fifty Shades of whatever, it makes me sad. Because I know there are so many books people would love if they gave them chances. Part of it is because of this big intellectual divide where people feel like they can't participate in difficult stuff. The Beastie Boys say there are only twelve notes a man can play, so how do you arrange those notes to do something to an audience? I'm getting, as a professor, e-mails that are all lower-case, exclamation points, smiley faces, tongues, "so drunk" with six k's, "can't come to class" with a z—just weird stuff where you're seeing that writing and reading is getting worse because people aren't giving up the time for things that require attention. Go into Barnes and Noble in your town and—

SP: It closed.

DK: See? Go into Prairie Lights and you'll see Jonathan Franzen's Freedom on sale for five bucks.

SP: I got it for two.

DK: Right? As writers, all we can do is write and hope people will read. As a poet, I have the one luxury of knowing I'm not going to make any money out of it. I think that means I can be a little freer with my work. And that's certainly not a problem for us poets.

Sevy Perez interned at The Iowa Review during the summer of 2012.