A Review of Daniel Crocker’s Shit House Rat

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A Review of Daniel Crocker’s Shit House Rat

By Stephen Furlong

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In a blurb for Daniel Crocker’s Everyday People and Other Poems (Green Bean Press, 1998), A.D. Winans writes “Daniel Crocker is one of a lively band of modern poets who write…from the heartland of the people, and I stress HEART, because Crocker’s poetry comes from deep inside him.” Daniel Crocker is a poet who lays it on the line, the poetic line, to provide his readers with impassioned honesty and the rawness of an exposed nerve. In Shit House Rat (Spartan Press, 2017), Crocker explores belonging, popular culture references, and sexuality.

In one of the first poems of the book, “Growing Up”, Crocker investigates youth and belonging. Channeling the 1990 documentary Silence=Death written and produced by Rosa von Praunheim, the speaker of the poem writes: “I saw Silence/equal death/and stayed silent/anyway.” The documentary focuses on the AIDS epidemic and includes appearances by Allen Ginsberg and David Wojanarowicz. This poem hints at a recurring theme in Crocker’s book which is, to borrow from Patricia Hampl: carry[ing] our wounds forward with us. Crocker’s poetry carries wounds forward in order to bring light to them and his poetry is remarkably admirable given today’s tumultuous climate of trying to hide, even deny, one’s misdeeds of the past. Crocker doesn’t hold back and doesn’t hide making his poetry powerful, even with its vulnerability.  Returning back to “Growing Up”, the popular culture references continue with the early 1980s Midwestern-driven sitcom “The Day After” and late 1970s “Roots”. The poem, itself, is honing in on these popular culture phenomena in an attempt to understand the Reagan administration and growing up during that timeframe.

In addition to these popular culture references, Crocker’s poems channel snuffleupagas, Wolverine, Reed Richards and writers who have influenced him throughout the years like Adrienne Rich and Lord Byron. In the last portion of the book, Crocker writes the poem “I Wish” for his wife, and longs to be Whitmanesque. The poem is gentle, heartfelt, and sincere which reveals growth and maturity throughout the course of the book. Throughout the course of the poet’s life. These references are entrances into Crocker’s livelihood, they are sometimes dark corners of the brain, but channeling back to A.D. Winans—they reveal Crocker’s heart. That makes all the difference in this collection.

There’s a devastating piece in this collection titled “Brutal,” which reminds me of Bruce Weigl’s “The Impossible”—a poem which talks about physical, namely sexual, abuse. The last line has stayed with me ever since I first read the poem: “Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.”  Of trauma, Weigl says in an interview “to understand that this (trauma) was not something that I was going to get over, but instead something that I needed to find a way to live with.”

In writing “Brutal” Crocker tries to live with this memory instead of trying to get over it because, frankly, overcoming abuse is just not done, or for certain, easily done. Crocker’s speaker in this poem is young and, under peer pressure, has what is called a gay night. The individuals of the poem, Crocker and cousin Terry, reveal themselves and fall prey to an older cousin named Larry. Crocker confesses around halfway through:

…if I ever have the guts to write about it, it’s going to be brutal. It’s going to be honest and detailed. The details, however, are like an impressionist painting. Parts of it, like the monster, are painfully vivid. Larry’s white, white teeth. His beautiful body. The rest is images, textures, feelings. Feelings of guilt and desire are all mixed up in one.

The form of this piece, set in prose, reveals the blurring of everything coming together, of the pieces of this pain being fused with feelings of guilt and desire. Crocker has written extensively about his bisexuality and alludes to it in this piece as well, which makes the piece even more dizzying, even more crushing when this memory sticks out in his history. The poem later reveals Larry, the perpetrator, has died in a motorcycle accident, a fact which used to bring Crocker happiness; “I’m not sure I am anymore,” he then confesses immediately afterward. This poem reflects the confusion and anger abuse leaves in its wake. It also discusses the wretchedness it can have years after as both Crocker and Terry, both drunk mind you, discuss it. And the pain comes back. The frankness of this poem’s language haunts me because the poem doesn’t try to hide in veiled language or metaphor; it just speaks to the horrors of abuse and it does it directly and does not hold back.

To me, the success of Daniel Crocker’s poetry is exactly that: He does it directly and does not hold back. It’s admirable, it’s damn hard work, but it’s healing. Daniel Crocker’s poetry and writing helps my writing because of their frankness and honesty. Those qualities push me to do the same; they push me to be honest and detailed. I am convinced Crocker can’t write any other way. And I don’t think he would choose that.

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About the Author: Stephen Furlong is a recent graduate of Southeast Missouri State University located on the Mississippi. His poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Yes Poetry, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Pine Hills Review, among others. He also had a poem in A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault published by Civil Coping Mechanisms and edited by Joanna C. Valente.

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.

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