I contact Daniel Sluman on my iPad. The iPad acts as a portal into his house, much in the same way his collection single window provides the reader a glimpse into a year he and his wife spent unable to leave a room in their house due to severe chronic pain and mobility issues. My look into his home gives me some interesting details; there’s a frozen face on the television in the background and, strangely, a single roll of toilet paper sat next to him.
I start by asking him where his interest in poetry began.
He emits an ‘Ooh’ noise as he thinks back on where he started. ‘I remember being in maybe Year 8 of English and I had a really inspirational English teacher, and they read out Keats’ ‘Eve of Saint Agnes’. I remember very clearly for the first time feeling the tactile possibilities of language when we read that poem. Even though it didn’t start me writing straight away, it gave me the kind of influence to know there was artistic possibility of language in that way.’
Sluman worked in editing for a few years at the publishing houses Iota and Dead Ink. I asked him if that was an influence on how he writes his poetry. ‘I think editing is a really good apprenticeship. To look at lots of different poems from lots of different people and work out what works on the page and what doesn’t. It teaches you the rules of language, ninety percent of which is taking away rather than adding on. I did a few years editing for different things and I think when you help edit a journal and you get hundreds or thousands of poems in and go through them one by one, that has to on some level help inform your own understanding of language. That has to come through to your own process as well. I think editing helps strengthen the muscle of using language myself.’ An excellent metaphor he came up with on the fly there, I thought.
I asked him if he was troubled by creating such a personal work: ‘I know so many writers with different takes on this and I find it very personal. But I’ve only ever really found any interest in myself for writing about or from my experience. That is my bread and butter for how I write and what I’m interested in writing. If I’ve experienced it personally or I’ve experienced it with my wife, or it’s something I’ve seen or touched then it’s something I feel is enough currency that I can write about. I’ve always written confessionally, this book is definitely the most autobiographical though. And whilst other people have lots of different takes on this, which are all one hundred percent valid and we need lots of different types of poetry, for me I can only really write through my own experience.’
Danial Sluman has thus far released three poetry collections, Absence has a wait of its own (2012), the terrible (2015) and single window (2021). I asked him if he felt he has evolved over the course of his writing life. He responded with a glib ‘I hope so’ which made me chuckle. He then elaborated: ‘I think that always has to be the aim. In this last book I did things that I’ve never done before, I’ve used photography in the work. I didn’t use poem titles because I felt they can be quite arbitrary in a lot of respects. I like to think with each book I’m trying to push myself to do something different, not just in the individual poems but in terms of the book as an artefact. How we read that in different ways, that arranging content can help produce different effects for the reader. Yeah, I hope that I’ve evolved. I know my taste in poetry has certainly changed. And I know that I’m writing with a different approach than I used to. And the exciting thing is finishing a book and then thinking about what you’re going to do in the next one.’ I can absolutely understand that. I’ve not had anything published yet but I can understand the satisfaction of finishing a creative project and the excitement the next one brings.
Sluman discussed the photography spread out across single window that shows the reader what could be described as almost voyeuristic scenes of him and his wife during the year they spent trapped in a room together. I felt that added a tactility to the collection, so I asked him about their inclusion. ‘I’ve always written broadly autobiographically but in single window there’s more of a narrow kind of memoir aspect of it because it is written over the course of a year. Everything is written from personal experience; everything is written pretty much from within the same four walls. When I was writing the book I was very aware that even when you read poems that seem autobiographical and are written from a very firm eye, it wasn’t for me going far enough in showing the life that myself and my wife were leading. The idea with photography was to give another aspect, another form of meaning in the book that really centres it very directly in the domestic, in the banal, in the day to day experiences that me and my wife were living through.’ I think the photos do exactly that. Daniel continued. ‘The photographs didn’t come afterwards. They were things that we had just taken photos of during that year on our iPhones. I never thought until towards the end that they would be used in the book. And even when we did use them in the book I was incredibly nervous about using them because it’s a completely different medium that I have no training in. It would be very easy to use photos and for that to distract from the meaning that’s already in the text. So, it was a difficult decision but I’m glad I did it and I’m glad I took the risk. And yeah I’m glad [of] the way it turned out in the book.’ I admire the honestly about his uncertainty, and the photos are very effective.
As I asked him if single window was written during the course of the year in question, I stop myself partway through my question when I notice Daniel nodding: ‘It’s not precise by any means so again there’s a little bit of artistic licence there. Some of the poems were certainly started before or after the year we had but the majority of them were written within that timeframe. There’s a lot of material that was excluded because it wasn’t narrow enough. I really wanted to make sure the poems were very, very firmly set within that idea of a year. So, the ones that made it definitely came out of that experience.’
I brought up the idea that what happened to Daniel and his wife was similar (although by no means identical) to what many people experienced during the lockdowns of the Covid pandemic. I asked if this made single window more pertinent to a general audience than Daniel would’ve expected a few years earlier during the collection’s production. ‘I think so, yeah. I think one of the bits of information that tells me that is even when I’ve spoken with people who I’ve done podcasts with or I’ve done interviews for, a lot of them have mistakenly said at the start ‘oh this book comes out of lockdown’ and I’ve had to say (pausing for effect here, Daniel continues) ‘No, it doesn’t come out of lockdown, these are the lives that disabled people have lived for centuries.’ Daniel is injecting a much-needed shot of perspective into the proceedings there.
He then remarks, ‘I do think that having lockdown and having the experience with Covid has definitely given a lot of people who didn’t have it before that taste of isolation, and what it is to be living very much fixed within your property. So, I do think, and I hope that maybe that has travelled across and that has helped some people understand a bit more about the disability experience. Yeah, it was an odd thing that we would write this book about isolation and then the Covid experience came along and maybe that helped in the way that the book was received. Maybe that made it easier for some readers to understand it, I don’t know. Hopefully.’
single window is split into four sections, each chronicling a season of the year. Of the choice to segment the collection, he says, ‘I always preferred books that have sections as a general thing anyway when it comes to poetry. I think if you’re going to have a book of sixty-plus pages of poems, if you can have any way of grouping, separating or organising them to make it easier for the reader, that’s great. It can also create another layer of meaning for the reader too when you use sections. One of the reasons why I used seasons in the book is because I really found there was an intimate connection between the passing of time, the seasons, weather and the human body. The human body and our internal experience of it is so unpredictable and changeable I found a lot of metaphorical currency with representing that against weather which again can be framed as a very similar thing. It’s this unpredictable, changeable collection of ever-moving attributes. So, I thought pairing the seasons with the body was something that would create another layer of interest for the reader potentially.’
Since reading single window I’ve wondered about something. On page 28 is a line about ‘you, me & her’, the ‘you’ being conspicuous in a collection about Daniel and his wife in isolation. This piqued my interest and so I probed. Daniel replied, ‘That poem in particular is addressed to my body.’ Suddenly it all made sense. ‘Our own perception of our self is connected to our body but in language it is interesting to disconnect those two things because often they are very disconnected. Often the connection between our body and our mind is hardly as coherent as we hope. So that poem is I guess about—especially with disabled people—how difficult it can be when what you want to do in your head is different from what your body can do.’ This struck a chord with me. I have a vivid imagination; my mind will create images that I would love to draw but I have a disability that makes drawing difficult. And that’s just one example of what Daniel is talking about here. ‘It is good in a lot of disability studies that we kinda got this phrase ‘Body/Mind’ because the mind and the body aren’t separate in terms of many of the functions—in terms of pain, in terms of how emotions can manifest themselves in the body as well. Everything is connected. But in that poem, I guess there’s a general rule as well; I like to imagine or kind of exercise the idea that they are two separate things. And I guess that’s an exploration of that.’
Sluman uses very interesting terms to describe disability in single window, for example, ‘cripples love best because love is an assembly & we have always been broken.’ I asked him if he felt he had to be careful about the terminology he used in the collection. ‘I think no two people’s experiences are the same even when it comes to the lens of disability and chronic illness. I could speak to another person and with my exact same amputation and we’re maybe 1% of all amputations but our experiences are going to be very different. The fact that not just that but when disability intersects with gender, race, sexuality, that completely changes things as well. So, it was important for me to represent my experiences but not narrow it down in language so much that it would create a stumbling block for other people.’
I asked him about his disability activism and the shape it takes. ‘I’ve been involved with doing the first UK based disability anthology, Stares and Whispers, that came out in 2017. I’ve been doing some projects since then and I’ve got one I’m currently working on that hasn’t been made public yet. Apart from literature-based stuff it’s mainly about I guess trying to educate and help promote other people’s views and experiences online a lot in the last few years with the whole Covid situation.’
I asked if Daniel had advice for disabled writers. As he said, disabled people are very diverse so any advice can’t be universal but I thought his advice would be worth hearing regardless. ‘It’s difficult. With social media now as well, there’s so much pressure, implicit pressure to produce, to have poems out there, to get published. There’s a kind of quasi-competitive atmosphere that’s created with a lot of social media because social media’s all about ‘content’, it’s all about ‘now’.’ There are sarcastic air quotes implied in the use of these buzzwords as Daniel says them. ‘And often becoming a good writer, becoming a good artist, like any other profession requires a lot of time to yourself and a lot of crafting. And I would say, for disabled writers, try not to get too caught up in this cycle of producing because a lot of us are not able to write all the time like able bodied people can. A lot of us don’t have that privilege of just being able to say ‘Well I’m going to write for an hour tomorrow’ because we don’t know whether we’re gonna be in a situation with pain, with medication or cognitively whether we can do that. So, trying to disconnect from expectations, from social media is a bit of advice I’d recommend. And also, turning your disability or chronic illness into an advantage, using that as a way to really think about your body, really think about the experience you’re having at any given moment, and really try and write through that experience. If you’re experiencing pain, try and use that as a way into a poem, try and describe it. It’s easier said than done but I do think that disability throws up some interesting advantages that we do have over people who maybe don’t have quite as intimate a connection to their body/mind as we can access.’ Wise words.
single window was published by Nine Arches Press; Daniel Sluman will be appearing at StAnza, 12th March.