Writing as the Act of Doing: Kwame Daniels

Kwame Sound Daniels is a painter/poet who is based out of Maryland. Xe are an MFA candidate for Vermont College of Fine Arts. Xir first book is coming out August 2022 with Perennial Press. You can find xem pickling vegetables or learning plant medicine or hiking with xir dog.

O: When did you begin writing? 

Kwame Daniels: I began writing in middle school! I dictated fanfiction to my friend Sunshine in middle school while she wrote it down and when I developed into a mallgoth early in high school, having read my father’s collection of best American poetry from his college years, I began to write poetry. (I still have that collection with my favorite pages marked, even though the binding is in pieces now.) But I recently read over my high school poetry and I was obsessed with rhyming — what’s funny to me is now I can’t stand rhyming. I suppose I feel like it’s a marker of my youth. I’m not that person anymore, you know?

O: Is there a writer that you look up to, whether it be someone who motivated you to begin writing/drawing or someone whose work inspires you today? 

K: As for writing, I am deeply inspired by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Anna Akhmatova, Rae Armantrout, Robert Hayden, and Kwame Dawes. None of them motivated me to begin with (all those years back in middle school) but they keep me considering structure and language these days. I really try to learn from them. In terms of painting I’ve been very inspired by Kazimir Malevich, Lyubov Popova, and Olga Rozanova for the past couple of years. Recently I’ve been looking into Secundino Hernandez and Helen Frankenthaler. I want to develop my abstraction beyond Suprematism (which I will always go back to but, you know, growth).

O: If you had to describe your work in three words, what would they be and why? 

K: At the risk of sounding pretentious: Complicated, Sensory, Hungry.

I didn’t realize until I broke down my poetry for some people in a Discord that I’m in that my poetry actually has depth. I’m looking at it from my perspective and I was like “Oh damn! I pack a fuckton into that little sonnet.” So it’s more complicated than I thought. I’ll say “Sensory” because my work has been described as sensual, but also because tactility and other senses are very prominent in my work. I think “Hungry” because I am hungry, always hungry, for more growth, for more knowledge, for dialogue, for food. I’m a very restrictive person so I think my hunger comes out in my work. My work wants.

O: What is your favorite part of the creative process? 

K: For a single poem, my creative process is simply the act of doing. I like to just write. I like how it flows from my fingertips, how each poem is an act of grace in concert with myself. For a planned manuscript, I like reading poetry books and philosophy books and getting inspired by concepts and how I can apply that to my obsessions. I like conceptualizing and planning it out. For painting, I like visualizing. I like imagining where shapes and colors go, moving them around like puzzle pieces in my mind, I like sketching it out with pastels in my book.

O: Your traditional artwork is captivating, complex, and dynamic. Where does your inspiration come from? 

K: Thank you! My inspiration comes from that which I love. The painting I showed you was inspired by a character from a book I love called The Hands of the Emperor and the painting is based around the emperor’s character, on his inability to touch things, on his restrictive life. I’ve painted my dog in cubist form twice. I painted a woman I was in love with a few times. I did a study on a Bacardi bottle (my favorite run and hard liquor in general). And I think I’ve come to paint my own feelings, which I’ve also come to love. This may seem silly but I like being passionate about passion.

O: What is your favorite piece of work so far and why is it your favorite? (Please include a link if you have one, we’d love to include it on the website!) 

K: I wrote a chapbook for the Suffering the Silence We’re Still Here Grant. This is my most recent published collection, free and accessible to the public. https://www.sufferingthesilence.com/kwamedaniels

And then for my traditional art — there is a work I painted in 2019 I think, which was the painting I first started to feel intent with. I’ve made art since then that I like but this is probably my favorite. https://www.instagram.com/p/B1RgWpvltt6/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

O: Of course, we have to extend our congratulations on your new book coming out with Perennial Press! Could you briefly take us through your publishing journey—starting with how you decided that you wanted to publish with PP to where you are now?

K: I tend to look through a platform called submittable to be on the lookout for indie presses who are accepting manuscripts around the time I complete them. So many presses didn’t want my book! lol! But that’s standard, right? It’s very difficult to get published at all. And I was thrilled when Perennial Press wanted my book. I accepted because I scoped out their website — amplifying marginalized voices is a focus there. I am a marginalized voice. I felt that they would take good care of me, and they have. We worked on this book for a year. But, once I realized my work was publishable, I immediately wanted more. So I worked on another manuscript and another and I’ve been using the drive to have a dialogue with a reader as a reason to improve.

O: Your new book is “an exploration of the body in relation to spirituality, love, itself, and the outside world.” This sounds absolutely exquisite! Could you tell us more about this book (e.g. what inspired you to write it/how you choose this story to be the one you told, and how you found your voice)? 

K: I think I found my voice early on. Even when I was writing edgelord poetry as a teenager I sounded like myself. And I only sounded more me as I continued to write.  So this is a work spanning 2-3 years, my junior and senior semesters in college. At the time I was discovering that I could get serious about writing poetry, that people might actually want to read my work. So I developed mini-projects – the Odes to Things I Have a Difficult Relationship within the book coming out, for example. And I realized my mini-focuses have a narrative flow because they changed and grew as I did. I wanted to explore my connection to ancestry, I wanted to explore my connection to love. What does that mean for a black disabled mad agender lesbian? Not enough poetry by us out there.

O: You’re an Anaphora Arts Residency Fellow! Could you tell us a bit about this residency and how it’s impacted your writing? 

K: It was glorious, it truly was. Run by the wonderful Mahtem Shifferaw, by people of color, for people of color. A ten-day intensive of craft talks, workshops, lectures, poetry readings, peer discussion, and classes. Kwame Dawes was my workshop leader and he gave an incredible lecture on artists and their obsessions. Our obsessions can be anything but learn to recognize them and you can utilize it to further your work. My obsession is identity. Most of my work is about identity and embodiment. Once I actively recognized that, I directly started developing projects surrounding my identity. An amazing thing is that the poetry cohort from the residency still meets! We meet every month to discuss triumphs and how our lives are going and our ideas, and each one of us takes a turn in leading the others in a workshop. Learning how to lead workshops has me taking an analytical look at my approach to writing. I’m a lot more conscientious now about how I begin. And I’m in love with my community.

O: Clearly, you are a super dedicated and talented multi-disciplinary artist. What does it mean to you to be able to express yourself in multiple mediums, and how do you balance your creativity between both writing and making art? 

K: It’s kind of wonderful, actually, to have so many places for me to go. I can write a lyric essay, or a short story, or an aubade, or I can paint. It’s fun! It’s joyous that I can extend myself in such a way. I suppose I balance both by giving time to both. Prose writing in the morning, art in the afternoon, poetry at any other hour I feel like it. If I feel mentally exhausted by writing, I paint. If my fibromyalgia has made me too fatigued or too pained to paint, I write. I suppose the balance is about listening to my body. When it’s tired and/or hurting, I rest. When it’s energetic, I create.

O: If you could give new writers/artists some advice from what you’ve learned, what would it be?

K: Totally dive into your obsessions. You don’t have to marry them (my high school art teacher gave me great advice: Don’t get married to your art) but do right by them. Honor them. Honor yourself. Be in dialogue with your creativity. Feed it. Nourish it. Nourish yourself.

O: Do you have any other upcoming projects that we should look out for? K: Yes! Ethel Zine is publishing a hand-bound chapbook of mine – sonnets on the subject of anorexia – in June! And this isn’t officially announced yet, it’s still in the works, but I have another collection of poetry coming out in January 2023 with Atmosphere Press called the pause and the breath, a black trans answer to the American sonnet exploring the breadth of identity.

Thank you to Kwame for xir time answering all of our most pressing questions about xir inspirations and upcoming works! You can find out more about xe on xir Instagram.