Spotlight on Faculty: Mary-Alice Daniel, Mary Routt Chair of Writing

A photograph of Mary-Alice Daniel, seated. She is a Black woman with shoulder-length hair wearing a black and white long-sleeved dress.

Each spring, Scripps invites a nationally recognized writer to serve as the Mary Routt Chair of Writing; over the duration of their visit, they will teach a semester-long course in their specialty, deliver public presentations, and arrange for other acclaimed writers to visit campus for readings. The Mary Routt Chair of Writing for spring 2024 is Mary-Alice Daniel, a poet and author born near the Niger/Nigeria border and raised in England and Tennessee. Daniel describes herself as “a Hausa-speaking Fulani, an American, a serial immigrant, a solo traveler, a dual/global citizen.”

Mass for Shut-Ins (2023), Daniel’s first book of poetry, won the 117th Yale Younger Poets Prize and was a finalist for the California Book Awards. Her tricontinental memoir, A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing (2022), was named People’s Book of the Week and one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Nonfiction Books of the Year. To take a closer look at what Daniel’s spring 2024 writing course involves and learn more about the forces that drive her as a writer, Scripps’ Office of Marketing and Communications connected with her for an interview.


MC: What does the course you’re teaching this spring as the Mary Routt Chair of Writing focus on?

MD: With the unrelenting upsurgence of artificial intelligence, the literary world arrives at a moment when innovation is utterly essential. My class is a craft course on Originality. Our objective is ingenuity.

Together, my students and I will invent a sequence of original poetic creations. We will pull apart “formal” poetry—including subverted, subversive, corrupted, contradicting visions of form—treating texts as evolving entities that we need now engage. We will survey techniques giving rise to a new aesthetic, a radical approach. We deliberate the constraints of form, then we dream. We will intuit models to “map” form: discerning patterns, architectures, textures. We shall follow a directive: “Write only what only you can write.” All the while, we will foreground the cultural dimensions of craft and consider its transnational contexts—studying globally underrecognized formal innovations in conversation with an eclectic range of poets.


MC: What do you hope students take away from the course as they continue their education?

MD: The culture of this class encourages writing with audacity. One objective in my syllabus asks students to take risks: to surprise me and themselves. As the semester progresses, we continually practice implementing and investing in a personalized, lifelong practice of reading, writing, and revision. We also practice identifying our writing “comfort zones”—then stepping in and out of them. One unique hallmark of my class was inspired by a requirement of my alma mater, Yale, in which each English major memorized and recited the opening of Chaucer’s General Prologue in The Canterbury Tales. In my class, students will memorize Anne Carson’s “Town of My Farewell to You.”


MC: What unique challenges did you encounter while writing and publishing your coming-of-age memoir, A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing?

MD: When a person dies anywhere, much of what they know dies with them. This occurs to a much greater extent in my native area—in rural West Africa. My tribes center an oral tradition, and there are various reasons why some stories are never written down. The task of writing my memoir was made more difficult by the lack of relevant records and archives in Northern Nigeria and by my inability to access the few that do exist. Too many texts written about Africans were written by biased colonial-era anthropologists, and they are wildly inaccurate—often based on race pseudoscience. Since college, I’ve been compiling recordings during interviews for various oral history projects—the sessions were an excellent way to pass nighttimes with no electricity in Nigeria, and they allowed me to create my own resources as a writer.


MC: How does your approach to writing prose differ from your approach to poetry? Do you find that working within a different format opens up new ways of engaging with certain topics?

MD: My motive behind writing poems is to speak to them and hear what they have to say to me. One genre cannot suffice: diasporic writers follow a tradition of pushing boundaries, challenging the limitations found within languages and canons. Like my prose, my poetry also expresses clash and rupture but instead of trying to order my chaos, it embraces it. In poems, my comfort zone is chaos.

My poems are not autobiographical: they are autopsy and experiment.  

I always consult several dictionaries, often the Oxford English Dictionary. Maybe my instinct to perform autopsy on paper stems from the fact that words in my mouth feel like stones in my slipper. My first language, Hausa, is a lingua franca of West Africa: the sand-faring Hausa herdsmen dominated commerce as they did desert. During the 19th century, when Hausaland was a caliphate conquered by scholars and soldiers, our ruler reported mystical visions. His literary armies violently taught people to read—by force. He loved poetry as much as property. Our empire of 99 years was the site of revivals of Sufi verse. My second language is now my favorite.


MC: While many writers tackle the concepts of belonging, otherness, and the ways in which identity is multifaceted, each individual’s relationship with these phenomena is different. What does your work have to say about these broader conversations that is distinctly your own?

MD: My writing life is compelled by confluence, conflict; I look to reclaim connections, recalibrate convention. I am a nomad of many homes and no home; a “true” native nowhere; the heiress of alienation. My inherited practices are idiosyncratic and syncretic, admixed with superstition. I write through incongruence. I write—and dream—in a second language I had such difficulty learning. I have no idea where I belong. I consider myself a poet of place, despite—or, more accurately, because of—my struggle to find my own place. Myths are my modern muses.