Whenever I attend an event for The Listening, Inc. I collect names of people who we can profile for artist interviews. Similar organizations send out surveys — a list of questions that they want the artist to fill out. They ask questions like “What inspires you?” and the answers sound like, well, exactly the answers you expect.
To put together my questions, I start by researching the artist’s body of work. Often, I notice themes that the artist has been unintentionally exploring for some time.
These conversations also leave room for smart follow-up questions. They give me a chance to ask for clarification, tease out an example, or encourage a moment for storytelling.
Artist Interview: Aidan Claire Daniel Lets The Birds Do the Talking
Originally Published at Talk That Talk
Cold, cold rain dripped from my rain slicker as I stomped into Dublin 3 Coffeehouse to talk to Aidan Clair Daniel. Waiting under the golden glow of an edison bulb, her warm aura reminded me of finding a dusky feather in the forest.
I had birds on the brain from her recent performance at the “We the People” Open Mic. Ready to talk about her birds of a feather, Aidan nestled in to chat quietly about poetry and performance.
Danielle: Tell me a little about yourself.
Aidan: I went to Liberty University for my undergraduate degree – graduating in 2015. I’ve been working at Randolph College for about 2 years. Also, I’m working on my MFA in poetry at Randolph.
D: So, how does one decide to do an MFA in poetry?
A: I was writing for a while but, I felt like I had reached the end of what I could figure out on my own. It just felt right to receive proper instruction. It was the right time for me. I felt like I’d been out of school for so long. Then, looking back, it was just a few years.
D: How did you land in Lynchburg?
A: I came here six years ago for school and just stuck around after graduating. I love Lynchburg. I live with three great roommates and two cats.
D: So, who are these cats?
A: The cats are Jo-Jo and Patty Lemon. They consider each other enemies but, we love them.
D: Sounds like you guys belong to them.
A: It’s just their domain and we’re living in it.
D: Where are you from originally?
A: Tricky question! My dad was in the Army. I say I’m from Williamsburg, Virginia because I lived there the longest. Now, Lynchburg is getting up there.
D: I take that your dad travelled for most of your childhood.
A: Yes. Until highschool, we moved around — from Arizona to South Carolina to Georgia to Alabama.
D: How did you start writing?
A: I started writing in high school — on and off — as a way to process emotions. When my dad passed away almost five years ago, writing took on a new meaning. He passed suddenly from a heart attack during my junior year of college.
I turned to writing to process everything. Even now, when something happens, I must write it down. I must talk to people. But, that experience with my father was just too much to talk about. I needed to write it down to get it out of my head.
I kept doing it and realized how much I loved doing it. That’s what got me here.
“I always thought it was “creative nonfiction.” I thought of them as essays. But, it was really poetry the whole time. ”
— Aidan Claire Daniel
D: At the time, were you writing poetry?
A: I always thought it was “creative nonfiction.” I thought of them as essays. But, it was really poetry the whole time.
D: Because you were writing in a stream of consciousness.
A: Yes. I would write things like, “My grief is like a hometown…” And I would build out the metaphor — not realizing it was really poetry.
D: How did you move from just writing down thoughts on paper to actually performing them?
A: I think the first time I performed was with The Listening. It was after the 2016 Lynchstock Music Festival and I was excited by the idea of performing. For the next year, I decided to audition. At that time, I thought all poetry had to be spoken word. I still really like performing spoken word. But, it was after that I realized I wanted to share even more. I wanted to write more things.
D: Tell me about the other ways you share your writing.
A: I found myself recently working with visual forms. I asked myself, “What would it be like if a poem looked like a game board or a poem looked like a telegram?” I do like reading and performing because you get to connect with people. Other forms tend to feel isolating.
D: Do you blog and post on social media? Or do you need that face-to-face interaction?
A: I used to post a lot more on Instagram with my poetry. I have since shied away from that.
D: It can get performative.
A: Exactly. I found I wasn’t doing it for me. I was doing it for other people. It diminished the quality in my eyes. Instead of making things I believe in, I didn’t feel good about them because I felt pressured to work fast.
D: You spoke about what got you started writing. What kicks you into writing gear?
A: I was just talking to my mentor about this. I write things down if I am afraid I will forget them.
Also, I write things down when I feel overwhelmed by detail. For example, I read a poem at the recent Listening Open Mic Event that focused on a bird – the “butcher bird.”
It’s technically a shrike. The shrike is called a butcher bird because it takes small animals and it impales them on spikes or thorns to kill them. At first I thought, “Maybe that makes sense if they don’t have claws that can kill.” But, I realized that isn’t necessary. They have huge claws. I researched why they do it.
I became more overwhelmed with that detail.
I get kicked into writing a poem when I don’t know what to do with information. I figure things out by writing through them. Most of the time, it provides a sense of closure.
I say to myself, “I’m satisfied with this information now.”
D: It almost draws comparison to when a visual artist does a study and they must work through all the details as they sketch the parts. What they’re left with isn’t something you would ever frame. But, you’ve explored it. You’re doing that process with words.
A: I like that.
D: I did see you perform and I have to ask. What is going on with the birds? When did that start? You’re even wearing an embroidered bird on your collar right now.
A: I’ve always loved birds. My dad was into ornithology and bird watching. He would always point out birds to me. I don’t remember the details of what he pointed out.
But, I’ve always just liked birds. I like birds and flowers because they feel so innocent. They feel very pure. Untouched.
As I’ve explored birds more, I find details.
I looked up this article about Zebra finches and their songs. All zebra finches learn their songs from their fathers. Only the males perform them.
So, the son bird learns a song from his father. As he is trying to court a lady bird, she will compare that song to her own father’s song. It helps her evaluate him.
Can he care for her? Is he a good match?
Birds have secrets. You can only find them by researching. And I want to tell people who have no interest in birds about the cool things they do. I want people to think about what it means for us, as people.
D: That’s part of what fascinates me about birds. They’re symbolic creatures throughout art. Some of it’s accurate and some of it’s not. It’s what we’ve projected onto them.
A: It’s subjective – the meaning we ascribe to things.
D: You think of crows and ravens as these solemn figures— as dark omens. But, they’re really playful and noisy.
A: They’re silly birds. They like shiny objects. I have so many thoughts about crows as well. Have you ever heard of crow funerals?
D: No. I am not familiar with crow funerals.
A: I thought, on first hearing it, that people may be mourning crows. I thought, “Well, that is sad. I would throw a bird funeral.”
Actually, crow funerals are when one of the birds finds another dead crow. It mourns. It gathers up other crows around the body to pay respect.
D: They acknowledge their species.
A: Corvidae are so intelligent. Comparing them to primates and whales, they’re so bright.
If you want more science behind our unscientific evaluations of bird intelligence, try reading these articles.
Crows Are as Intelligent as a Seven-Year-Old Child from Good Nature Habitat
Year of the Bird from National Geographic
D: Aren’t they as smart as dolphins?
A: I think so. Like a young child.
See — I get so excited about this. And poetry gives me something to do with that energy and information.
D: You mentioned your father would point out birds to you. I know birds have several identifiers. How did he identify birds?
A: He mostly used visual cues. As much as I love them, I’m a bad bird-watcher. But, I have little tidbits that still enthrall me. For example, I love spotting female cardinals because they are a very soft tone compared to the males. They have a little bit of red. I remember the first time my dad explained that to me.
And the tufted titmouse is my favorite.
D: To keep on the bird theme – outside of your own work, can you think of another piece of art that you feel encapsulates birds.
A: I have a favorite poem by Paige Lewis about bird watchers. It talks about the people gathering together in someone’s house to watch a bird. She turns the perspective around.
Also, I love the Audubon Bird Guide Illustrations.
More on Paige Lewis
Paige Lewis at Poetry Foundation
D: What other themes tend to show up in your work?
A: Recently, I’ve noticed that I focus on diminutive or passed-over things. It’s become a way for me to talk about womanhood — not something I intended to talk about.
Back to that “butcher bird” poem, it turns into a persona poem at the end. That’s when you write as another person or a group of people. The poet’s voice still comes through. It allows me to say things I can’t say otherwise. I find myself saying things through small voices.
D: It reorients what matters to you.
A: That’s why I started writing in the first place. I wrote about my dad and tried to sort through all the things that mattered.
D: You mentioned that one of the first times you performed was with The Listening. Talk about what that was like — getting ready to perform for the first time.
A: I was still in school and The Listening was doing a casting call. The theatre department at Liberty University has practice rooms for performers and musicians. My friend reserved one and set up the camera.
They’re not soundproof so, my big poet voice carried outside the room.
In front of people, my legs always shake. It’s getting better but, I have to contain that.
D: Your name was on the poster – you can’t shake!
A: That’s how I felt. I was so nervous and excited. Right before I thought, “Why am I here? What am I doing? I’m just some lady that wants to talk about my birds.”
I had expressed that to my mentor and she said, “No. There is no room for that. As a woman, you can’t do that.”
D: Your mentor challenged the feeling of, “I don’t belong here.”
A: I always feel like I am doing something wrong. Like I get up on stage and I should apologize.
D: It’s so disproportionate. I think people only paid $5 to be there. And you certainly gave them more than $5 worth.
A: Yes, I owe it to them. The whole $5.
D: Not that it’s trivial but, it is interesting to think how obligated you feel to deliver. It’s a pretty friendly crowd.
A: In a lecture, one of my teachers spoke about performing poetry. He said, “Anxiety is just another form of excitement.” I believe that.
D: Anxiety doesn’t always come off as nervousness to the crowd. It often looks like passion.
A: I try to be casual — just a person.
D: When you were thinking about meeting up for this interview, is there anything you hoped we might talk about.
A: Well, I have always loved strange things. I love talking about “what ifs.” The author, Shirley Jackson, is my favorite. She changed my life.
D: What’s the first Shirley Jackson story you read?
A: The Bus. I heard it read on “Selected Shorts” by Paul Giamati. It was beautiful. I was so scared and uncomfortable.
Then, I discovered “Showdown” where the main character lives his day over and over again. It made me consider “what ifs.”
It brings me back to Stephen King’s advice in “On Writing”.
D: One of my favorites — that and “The Elements of Style.”
A: I have a red, cloth-bound edition.
D: Every time I do one of these interviews, it turns into a lot of homework for the reader. Lot’s of backlinking of things they need to read, watch and listen to.
A: That’s comforting to me because I came to literature through theatre. So, I don’t have a wide base of literary knowledge. I’m always encouraged when I can make those connections for both myself and others.
If you liked this
If you enjoyed this interview, you can see more from Aidan Claire Daniel on her Instagram account.