David Daniels: The Shapes of Things
John Strausbaugh
New York Press
August 2-8, 2000, Volume 13, Number 31

KENNETH GOLDSMITH came by the office to show me a book of poetry he knew I'd appreciate. Not a normal book of poetry, and not published. It's a black ledger book, fat with 394 8-1/2-by- 11 pages containing more than 350 poems. And not just any poems. These poems form shapes, black & white computer printout silhouettes of birds and men, stars and trees, urns and amphorae; an elephant of words, a poem shaped like a stiff penis, one shaped like a toilet in the White House, others shaped like a rectal thermometer, a church, a lemon, a seal, a snake, a vacuum cleaner, a flowering vagina, a winged griffin, a diagram of a traffic accident, a mushroom cloud, a Mixmaster, a gun, a New Yorker "pissing on the sidewalk." Apollinaire and the Chinese pictograms called Phoenix Dragon writing are the most obvious antecedents. Some are as funny and fantastical as Gorey drawings, others a sublime sort of typefaced Op Art, still others as intricately patterned, in letters and words, as a Persian rug.

David Daniels (not the opera countertenor) calls this collection of "shape poems" The Gates of Paradise. In the 1990s you might have called Daniels an Outsider or Visionary artist, but those terms became so degraded into art-marketing hype and downtown cliche one uses them with extreme care anymore. Yet Daniels definitely is a visionary and an artist, and though university-trained he is intentionally operating outside the mainstream of the art world. He was born in 1933 and grew up in Maplewood, NJ. He studied art in Chicago 1949-'53 and painted for some years, but says that for a long time he's avoided the art world because it's too commercial. "I've really stayed away from it all. Because I was taught at a very young age if you wanna make money start a business-if you wanna do art, do it. And so many friends of mine --I happened to know a lot of famous people when I was young, and they all really killed themselves when they were young to make money. It was sad." Asked if he still paints, he replies, "I don't paint anymore. This is my painting now." He lived in New York in the 60s, in Cambridge in the 70s, and moved to Berkeley in 1981.

Although he says he's been putting words and pictures together most of his life, this particular style was stimulated in 1980, when his son Chris, himself a poet and translator, "gave me a book called The Stuffed Owl," edited by Wyndham Lewis, "an anthology of bad verse by great poets. When I read it I did like 17 variations on some of the lines in there, and I really liked it. One thing led to another, and all of a sudden I started making pictures."

In the years since, he says, he's explored many traditions and oeuvres of picture writing and patternmaking, including but not limited to Arabic calligraphy, Cocteau, Greek poetry fragments, Persian rugs, Schubert's music, Rubens' fleshy nudes and jazz. Each of the works in The Gates of Paradise is itself a "gate"-"The Kitsch Gate," "The One Spark of Light and a Mountain Becomes the Sun Gate," "The Club Ha-Ha Gate," "The Transformation of Salami and Pastrami Rebar Into Dueling All Beef Ball Park Hot Dog Gates." Partly the "gate" terminology is in homage to a childhood influence, Rodin's Gates of Hell; when Daniels was a boy, his dad took him down to the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, where there's a bronze cast of the massive doors. He uses the term also because "they're gates to inside a person. And also paradise is really inside people-happiness. I tried to write something that would show every conception of human happiness I've ever seen, in every way that anyone I've ever known has tried to become happy." He writes that he's attempting to integrate everything "from dancing body parts to Las Vegas lounge singers, from Brooklyn Dodgers fans to cyborg Babbits, from nerve wracked saints to L.A. bottom feeder rabbits ... from intricate metaphysical forms to regional dialects, to just plain old fashioned crap." The goal is that "no dimension, no pretense, or any fad of soul crushing human trainings are left unilluminated."

He works on a PC, using Word. "I've gotten to the point where I can write out pictures on the computer just about the way you could write longhand, because I've done it for so many years. Some take me a week, and some take me a day.. It's like weaving or carving. It's very easy in Word," he claims, though he likes to tell people sometimes that he uses "a secret algorithm."

I ask him whether he writes the words first, or comes up with the shape first, or both simultaneously. "Both," he replies. "One forms the other... So I'm using shape as [poets] use meter." He told Deluxe Rubber Chicken, the avant-gardist website, that "What happens is I wake up at night, 2 or 3 am with a visual and word idea. I write it down on a piece of paper next to my bed. 2 or 3 half sentences. I put it on my desk the next morning. In a few hours or days or weeks I look at the idea on the piece of paper put it down and I start writing. I like to make things up. I kind of write and shape variations of the theme written on that paper. It might take me a few days or weeks. The picture tells me what to write and the writing tells me what to shape."

In fact it's hard to consider the poems as words outside of the context of those shapes. Line lengths balloon to cross the whole page or contract into a letter or two, as required. The language is sometimes poetical, sometimes prosaic, and often a combo package of prose poetry. Daniels blends vernacular American and slang with some mystical strains, wisecracks and puns with lyrical flights-and everywhere a penchant for the homiletic (Which I concede is a common trait among Outsider artists). "The soft knife of the sail, of life don't cut air but death./Life don't exist if you don't breathe some breath," he' advises in one gate. And elsewhere: "Life is short. There is breath, but there is absolutely no time at all. Lips are small./There are too many meaningful, validated, deeply committed rectums to kiss them all." There's a serious whimsy to these things that reminds me of Patchen, and something here of the groundedness (if not the economy) of Basho.

Daniels says he's shown The Gates to a number of publishers, with no takers; to date the works have appeared only on the Web: on Daniels' own site, thegatesofparadise.com, and on a couple of sites dedicated to avant-garde and experimental arts and literature, Mark Peters' Deluxe Rubber Chicken (wings.buffalo.edu/epc/ezines/deluxe) and Goldsmith's Ubuweb (ubu.com). They "saved me from oblivion," he tells me. "I thought nobody would ever read my poems."

Not, he adds, that this stopped him from making them. Since 1987 "I work everyday from 7 in the morning to 11 in the morning, and I've done that for 12 years, on these things. A friend of mine added it up, it's 3500 hours." For the rest of the day, he told the editors of Chicken, "I water 100 bonsai every day, drive my stepdaughter to college, feed my dog, and meet with friends to discuss everything under the sun."

Those meetings with friends, Daniels says, are also how he's made a living for years. This part gets a little murky; I think the concept is just a little too California for me. "Twice a week, at night, people come to a warehouse, where I have some chairs, and we talk-we talk about everything," Daniels says. He tells me it's not a spiritual gathering, just people talking about whatever interests them. It doesn't have a name. "It's called 'Dave,"' he jokes. What do they discuss? "Everything," he replies. Like? "You could call it like the great books, and self-realization, and friends-but without any religion, without any promises, any control." Who comes? "Some are musicians, some are businessmen, some have kids." So he's some sort of intellectual guru to these people? "I have a friend who's been all over the world, and he says every country has people like me-'they call them a teacher."' So he is like a guru? No, Daniels insists. They just talk. "I did try to help people when I was younger, but it's very hard. I gave that up fast." People really pay him just to come and talk, he says. "So since '66, '67, 1 really haven't had to worry about earning a living."

On his site Daniels has begun a marvelous project of writing his autobiography in shaped prose poems, one for each year. So far he's gotten from 1933, the year he "fell from beyond the stars," through 1948. They are great little tales of growing up in Jersey during the Depression and through the war years:

"The fall of 1941 was warm. The light was crystal. Father and I were driving by the ramshackle city of poor people living in cardboard refrigerator crates, rusted trucks, broken cars, and blanket tents in the garbage dump next to Newark Airport called Hooverville. 'Take a good look at this, Eagle Eye,' my father said, 'Never forget it. This is proof beyond Germany that there is no G dash D. For if there were a G dash D would He let people live like this?"'

Go look at Daniels' site. He encourages response: his e-mail is owidnazo@dnai.com