Skip to main content

Poetry Across Three Continents

Everyone has a story. Mary-Alice Daniel’s has taken her halfway across the world.

A photo of Mary-Alice Daniel
Photo by Mary-Alice Daniel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“Write what only you can write.”

Mary-Alice Daniel opened her English Reading Series presentation on February 23, 2024, with this quote. A piece of advice given to her by her poetry teacher when she was 17, it’s shaped her writing journey for the past 20 years, leading her to explore her upbringing, her identity, and her religion through writing. “I was blessed to come from a place where I have a very singular, unique story,” she said. “I write to literally put the stories of my background on the map.”

In her memoir, A Coastline is an Immeasurable Thing, Daniel writes: “A concoction of three religions, four languages, and thirty-two addresses across three continents made me who I am . . . . Answering the question ‘Where are you from?’ has never been easy.” As a girl, her family left behind nearly everything they had to escape political unrest in their native Nigeria by moving to England. After living in England for a while, they immigrated to America when she was a teenager. While her parents and siblings eventually found places to put down roots, Daniel remains unmoored, living with a restlessness she ascribes to her nomadic heritage.

Having encountered so many ways of life, it’s little wonder that Daniel’s writing focuses on the conflicts and contradictions in different cultural intersections. She read poems from her first poetry collection, Mass for Shut-Ins, on topics ranging from her people’s ancestral traditions to religious syncretism (the blending of different forms of belief or practice into one). This religious aspect features heavily in her writing because her poetry stems partially from a need to figure out what she believes. She said, “[This is] something that I’m still grappling with, still unsure of, still hesitant . . . . I come from an area that’s just rife with religious extremism, and this struggle is very evident in my work.”

At first glance, Daniel’s poetry seems to directly represent her life experiences. But while some poets prefer to write directly about their lives, Daniel isn’t one of them. Instead, she keeps a level of separation between herself and the narrator in her poetry, who often takes misanthropic stances that differ from Daniel’s naturally optimistic, friendly personality. She said, “I find it an interesting way to explore the boundaries of morality as someone who’s detached and not confined by my own sense of morality and my own sense of decorum and propriety. [It’s] much more interesting to adopt this persona.”

Mass for Shut-Ins won the 117th Yale Younger Poets Prize and has been described as “Flowers of Evil for the 21st century” by Rae Armantrout, while A Coastline is an Immeasurable Thing made Kirkus Review’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2022. Daniel is currently working on her third and fourth books. You can find more of her writing on her website here.

Check out who’s presenting next at the English Reading Series here.