Leadwood: A Conversation with Poet Daniel Crocker

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Leadwood: A Conversation with Poet Daniel Crocker

By Chase Dimock

 

In Leadwood, Daniel Crocker surveys twenty years of his work as a poet. Ranging from the metaphysical significance of the McRib to courageous deep dives into bipolar disorder, Crocker’s book is more than a collection of poems; it’s a chronicle of a poet’s maturation and a man’s coming to terms with his upbringing and identity.

Leadwood is the Daniel Crocker origin story. He was born among the long closed lead mines and chat dumps that littered his rural Missouri hometown. He confronts poverty, bigotry, and religious zealotry along with personal tragedies that shaped him as man and a writer. As a middle aged poet, Crocker depicts the lingering effects of Leadwood, balancing nostalgia and care for his home with trauma. In his newest poems, he gives us stirring insight into his relationship with bipolar disorder.

No matter his age, his work has always been confessional and brave. Crocker is a rural Anne Sexton, a Sylvia Plath raised on Sesame Street and WWE wrestling, a John Berryman in the Wal-Mart aisles, a Robert Lowell with a smirk and morbid punchlines.

 

Chase Dimock: Although this is a collection of your work from the past two decades, you decided to give the book a title: Leadwood. Once the reader hits the first poem “Where We Come From,” they will learn that Leadwood is the name of your small hometown. Why did you decide that this one word would be descriptive of two decades worth of your work? What does understanding Leadwood as a town achieve toward understanding Daniel Crocker as a poet?

Daniel Crocker: This kind of dates back to my very first full length book, People Everyday and Other Poems (Green Bean Press, 1998), which I dedicated to  Leadwood. Later, me and my wife, Margaret, would do a chapbook together called “My Favorite Hell.” It was put out by Alpha Beat Press. We used the Leadwood population sign as our cover art. So, I guess Leadwood has had a hold on me from the beginning.

Like you said, it’s my hometown. I think most of us are shaped by where we grew up–for better or worse. Most of my formative experiences happened there, and I’ve written a lot about them.  And, I certainly have love/hate relationship with Leadwood. I have many great childhood memories, but also worries about lead poisoning and the ecological disaster that my home town is. Mostly, however, I wanted to make sure that the voices of my small town, and by extension other small towns, aren’t lost. There are small towns all over the country that have been ravaged and left behind by corporations–whether it’s Leadwood, which was founded by a lead mining company who later up and left the town with huge piles of chat (lead and dust) that were as big as football stadiums. The cancer rate there is extremely high. The soil has been tested there was found to be 10,000 more times the lead in the soil that is considered safe. Continue reading

Snuffleupagus as Depression: A Conversation with Poet Daniel Crocker

Snuffleupagus as Depression:

A Conversation with Poet Daniel Crocker

By Chase Dimock

 

If you ask Daniel Crocker how to get to Sesame Street, he’d point you toward a twisting road of manic depression, frustrated desires, and existential malaise. In his latest book, Shit House Rat, Crocker’s poetry reimagines the furry childhood icons of Sesame Street embodying torments and foibles as adult and human as the people whose hands are lodged up their muppet behinds. Cookie Monster is an addict, Big Bird has mania, Snuffy is the haunting specter of depression, and Grover’s anxiety led to a hell of a divorce. But, Sesame Street is only the starting point. Shit House Rat takes the reader to Leadwood, Missouri, Crocker’s rural, predictably lead polluted hometown, where he engages themes from his childhood to his adulthood, including mental illness, queer sexuality, poverty, and small town conservativism. I got a chance to ask Crocker about the appeal of dark humor in poetry, the struggle of growing up bipolar and bisexual in rural America, and most importantly, what exactly a “shit house rat” is.  

 

Chase Dimock: The first thing your readers will notice about your new book will obviously be the title, Shit House Rat. I know that as you were working on this collection, you had some trepidations about how the title might be perceived by your audience. Where did you get the idea for this title and why did you ultimately decide to use it?

 

Daniel Crocker: I have trepidation when it comes to just about anything, so I try not to let it worry me too much as a writer. I really put myself out there, especially in this new book, and there’s always a lot of anxiety that comes with that. I did have some specific concerns about the title though. I got the idea from the old saying, “Crazy as a shithouse rat.’ I don’t know if it’s a Midwestern or southern thing, but I’ve heard it a lot growing up and even now. It’s a nice turn of phrase, really. So, I just took the last half of  the saying (kind of like I did with Like a Fish) and used it. My worry is that it’s a real putdown to people, like me, with a mental illness. I don’t want anyone with a mental illness to think I’m making fun of them at all. My hope is to take the phrase and subvert it. Own it.

 

Chase Dimock: I think it will be clear to anyone who reads your poetry that your goal isn’t to make fun of the mentally ill, but to use humor to explore the experience of mental illness. A lot of your poems are funny, and I mean literally laugh out loud funny, which is pretty rare for modern poetry. (Robert Lowell wasn’t much of a yuckster) Why are you drawn to using humor in your work? What does using humor reveal about the experience of mental illness?

 

Daniel Crocker: A lot of my early work is pretty dark and without a lot of humor. I don’t like a lot of that early work either (some of it still holds up). But, I always like humor. I thought I was funny. Eventually, I wrote a short story or two for Do Not Look Directly Into Me that were funny, and I quickly found that I loved doing it. I haven’t written fiction in a while, and it’s pretty clear to me now that I’m mainly a poet. However, once humor started seeping its way into my poems it was like a creative flood. I guess it was me finally finding a voice that was all my own. As Steve Barthelme one said to me, it has to be more than just funny though. I think that’s true. For me, the perfect poem of mine is something that makes people laugh when they first read or hear it, but then they find they are still thinking about it later because there was something deeper and darker in it as well. Which I guess if you think about it, it’s the two extremes of bipolar disorder mixed together.

I can’t say what dealing with mental health issues with humor means for anyone else, but for me humor is just a way I deal with a lot of things. When you have mental health issues, every day can be a struggle. With my own particular diagnoses–bipolar, anxiety, OCD, probably PTSD, I worry about a lot of things. I’m doing well on medication right now, but when I wasn’t little things like planning an extra ten minutes before work just to get out of the house just in case there was something you needed to check over and over. You never really know what kind of mood you’re going to wake up in, what your anxiety level for the day is going to be, etc. If you’re going to be successful in any way, you have to plan ahead for just about anything. It’s tough to commit to anything in the future because you don’t know where you’re head space is going to be on that day. Or, before medication for me, I might commit to a ton of stuff while manic and then regret it while depressed. I guess this is a long way of saying if you don’t have a sense of humor about things they can become overwhelming. At least that’s my go to stress relief. Jokes.

The good thing about writing funny poems is everyone usually likes them. The worry is if they are going to take them seriously or not. In Shit House Rat I’m using Big Bird as a symbol for mania and Snuffleupagus as depression. Will people buy it? I dunno.

Continue reading

LEAD

 

 

From the journal Metallurgical and Chemical Engineering, Vol XVII, 1917

Lead

By Daniel Crocker

In a 2016 MSNBC opinion piece,  Hillary Clinton wrote, “Flint isn’t alone. There are a lot more Flints out there — overwhelmingly low-income communities of color where pollution, toxic chemicals and staggering neglect adds to families’ burdens.” She is right. There are too many Flints. I come from a town called Leadwood that resides in an area in Missouri commonly known as the Lead Belt. As you might guess from those names, we have a lead problem. Most of them have been knocked down and covered with rocks now, but until recently Leadwood (population about 1,000) and the small towns surrounding it had “chat dumps”–huge mounds of sand mixed with lead waste. The one in Bonne Terre, MO for example was about 160 feet high and 32 acres. I would guess the one in Leadwood was slightly bigger.

The giant mounds have been flattened, but the chat is still there. Miles of it. I’m in my 40s, and we’ve known since I was a kid that the water isn’t safe (though not the toxic levels Flint has at the moment). A few years ago, we got the attention of Erin Brockovich. She came to the area. Her team called it the worst thing they’d ever seen. Tests were run. The dirt in some people’s back yards had 10,000 times more lead than what is considered safe. Promises were made, but not a lot has gotten done.

The biggest detractors of Clinton’s article made two main points—that Clinton is only interested in Flint for political reasons and that her article is race-baiting. It would be naive to think that race doesn’t play a part in Flint and other areas, just as Clinton said. Facts are facts and anyone who says otherwise is just trying to detract from the actual problem. The economy plays a part as well. The Lead Belt is a mostly white,  poor area. I don’t think we talk enough about the similar problems the urban poor and the rural poor face. In fact, we too often separate the two for no other reason than political ideology. Environmental problems like the ones in Flint and Leadwood are not political. They are man-made disaster areas that overwhelmingly affect poorer communities. On this, we should be united.

There are, of course, different circumstances. The lead mining companies from where I live provided good jobs for people for a lot of years (my dad was a miner), but when it stopped being profitable they left a toxic mess and said they didn’t have the money to clean any of it up. This was decades ago, but a lot of people there still have fond memories of those good jobs. Some folks were actually upset that the chat dumps were knocked down. When I was a kid, we used to go play on them.  Finally, however, people there are starting to get it.

From the journal Metallurgical and Chemical Engineering, Vol XVII, 1917

When you come from a very poor community, it’s hard to get anyone with any power to listen, and the people who do have power think they can do what they want because of it. Luckily for Flint (if you can say there’s anything lucky about this disaster at all) is that Michael Moore was able to give them a national voice, and Rachel Maddow’s coverage had been fantastic, but quickly dropped off after Trump was elected. Continue reading