Greetings, Powell's readers. My name is Daniel Nester and I will be a guest here for the week. Thanks to the fine people Powell's for having me here and letting me talk about vaguely and explicitly inappropriate things.
For those who might be unfamiliar with me or what I do, here's my life in a few sentences. I live in upstate New York, where I teach nonfiction writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. This semester has been a doozie: I currently teach a blogging class, another on interviews and oral histories, and another supervising internships. My wife and I have a three-week-old daughter, Beatrice Elsie, and a feisty two-year-old, Miriam Lee. Oh, and I have a new bookout as well. So, doing these "virtual book tour" things like this, from the privacy of our daughter-filled home, comes as a relief. Before that I lived in Brooklyn, before that Philadelphia, before that I grew up in the southern region of New Jersey.
Since I am here as a writer and a lover of books, I figured I would also use this first post to tell you about my loves and influences — my family tree, as it were, which I tried to draw for you (see Fig. 1).
I divided my tree up into four general areas: prose, music, poetry, and comedy.
In comedy (Fig. 2), I am afraid I am outing myself as a low-brow hick from the start. All things seem to stem from the broad, gross-out comedy Caddyshack, which I've circled. As a kid, I fell in love the comedy albums of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and Eddie Murphy, on up to Michael Ian Black and Jon Stewart.
Then, in the middle-right area (Fig. 3), we have the conceptial portraitist Cindy Sherman, the sorely missed monologist Spalding Gray, first-person documentarian Ross McElwee, artist Tracey Emin, Lester Bangs, Chuck Klosterman, and Sarah Vowell. Wayne Koestenbaum and Cynthia Ozick, both aesthetic essayist heroes, stand alone. How could they not?
I started off as a poet, and that's our lower-right-hand corner (Fig. 4). My main poetic tradition starts up with Walt Whitman and his wing of the family. New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams (my favorite, circled) follows, onto Beats Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka, followed by Frank O'Hara, Sylvia Plath, and Sharon Olds. Outlaw-prophets Anne Waldman and John Giorno join Charles Bukowski to beget "slammers," slightly out of view; it's put in quotes, since I am not a slam poet but love what they do.
Music rests in the bottom-left-hand-corner (Fig. 5). My first two books were prose hybrid collections that centered around my borderline-psychotic obsession with the rock band Queen, so that forms the center there, along with all four members. It wasn't a stretch to write a prose piece on every song the English band ever recorded, along with selected solo work; rather, it opened the door to writing essays and memoir.
Proto-alternative bands Hüsker Dü and R.E.M. take up a lot of this space (start with Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life if you don't know this stuff). Jazz titans Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane sit in their own corner. Joni Mitchell standas alone and apart, as she does in the real world.
And finally, on the top left-hand-corner are the essayists and the prose-ists. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Montaigne, to my mind, mother Baudelaire and Matthew Arnold, who adopt Jean Baudrillard and Susan Sontag there in the middle, out of view. Current heroes Alain de Botton and Phillip Lopate lead up to my ultimate prose stylist, Joan Didion.
Whew. And there's "me" in the middle. If I knew how I got there, I suppose I wouldn't be a writer. Everyone has their heroes and influences, some are more obvious than others, but there it is. I love to see what your other people's family trees look like, so maybe my attempt here will get you started. Drop me a line if you have more tips — the tree is always growing.