CMU’s Jim Daniels Pens “Birth Marks,” an Unflinching Look at Urban Life Through Poetry

PITTSBURGH—Growing up as the son and grandson of auto workers in Detroit has left an imprint on Carnegie Mellon University Professor Jim Daniels’ life, and it frequently shines through the award-winning writer’s work.

In his new poetry collection “Birth Marks,” Daniels captures the gritty culture of working-class urban life. He uses the 39 poems to take readers on a tour of post-industrial Detroit and Pittsburgh to tell the tales of cities and their residents who came out swinging when the economy collapsed around them.

“I have always been interested in ordinary people in ordinary circumstances and the small moments in their lives that create a subtle shift in perspective,” said Daniels, the Thomas Stockham Baker Professor of English in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “Place has consistently been a big part of my work, and it is again. I hope the title ‘Birth Marks’ reflects this – hope we are marked by the places we come from. I try to bring these cities and people to life in a way that may make readers see beneath our cultural stereotypes.”

Published by BOA Editions, Ltd., “Birth Marks” focuses on how the urban landscape affects its residents as they struggle to establish a community on streets that can easily be tainted by distrust and the threat of random violence. Topics range from parenting and addiction to baseball and music, and Daniels uses longer poems with more juxtaposition to tell sharp stories about difficult situations.

Martín Espada, an award-winning poet and tenant lawyer for Boston’s Latino community, said in “Birth Marks” Daniels “speaks for the fallen, from the company men who played by the rules and lost anyway to a child killed in a hit-and-run accident. Yet, the poet finds dignity and redemption in the grace of baseball or the consolation of human touch, spirituality in spite of churches, love in the mist of pesticide.”

Daniels has been on the Carnegie Mellon faculty since 1981, and his work frequently crosses different genres. His previous poetry collection, “Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry,” won the Independent Publisher Book Awards 2012 Gold Medal for Poetry and the 2012 Paterson Award for Literacy Excellence from the Paterson Poetry Center. “Trigger Man: More Tales of the Motor City,” his most recent book of short stories, was the 2012 winner of the Midwest Book Awards in the Short Story category.

“Birth Marks” is Daniels’ 14th collection of poetry. He has published four books of short stories and has written three films, including 2010’s “Mr. Pleasant,” which appeared in more than a dozen film festivals across the country. Also in 2010, Daniels collaborated with CMU professors Jane McCafferty and Charlee Brodsky on “From Milltown to Malltown,” a combination of photography and poetry that explores the transformation of Homestead, Pa., from the once thriving steel-producing capital of the world to an area now dominated by an enormous shopping center.

In addition to his latest awards, Daniels has won the Brittingham Prize for Poetry, the Blue Lynx Poetry Prize, the Tillie Olsen Prize and two fellowships from both the National Endowment for the Arts and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. His poetry has appeared in the “Pushcart Prize” anthology “Best American Poetry,” Billy Collins’ “Poetry 180” and Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” series. And, his poem “Factory Love” was reproduced on the roof of a racecar.

Daniels encourages Pittsburgh-area high school and college students to explore personal experiences with race and discrimination through poetry and prose through the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards, which he founded and still directs.

Watch a video of Daniels reading seven poems from “Birth Marks” at

For more information about “Birth Marks” or to purchase a copy, visit

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