A Truly Lived Life

Kait LeonardBy Kait Leonard      December 11, 2020

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A Truly Lived Life
Above, Daughtry’s latest book of poems, “Runaway Angels,” a vivid autobiography in verse, available at spdbooks.org. “Daughtry’s works spring from his lived experiences [that] encompass the globe, various mythologies, and decades of history.”
The life and work of local poet and author Philip Daughtry, who “left no part of myself unlived.” Dressed in western duds that would do his ancestors, the outlaws Frank and Jesse James, proud, Philip Daughtry sauntered up to the bar and surveyed the offerings. “What’s your sweetest drink,” he finally said. “Probably a mocha,” said the barista. “I’ll take one of those. Make it decaf,” he said. I have to admit, it’s not what I expected my cowboy companion to order. When I set out to profile poet and prose writer, Philip Daughtry, I knew I was taking on a lot. Where do you begin when the first thing that comes to mind is There are no words to explain Daughtry? I had a job to do, so I plunged into the project. I read and reread his work, especially his most recent collection of poems, “Runaway Angels” (Mercury House Press, 2020). I researched and studied. I made pages of notes, which I brought to our meeting. As we sipped coffee on the patio of a trendy Malibu café, I periodically glanced at my list of questions about writing strategies, literary inspiration, and future projects. But glance was all I could do. I found myself drifting into the Daughtry world, as the poet and storyteller lured me down a winding trail of tales from a life filled with horror and beauty, savagery and sophistication. When the early evening mist from the Pacific Ocean rolled in, I walked to my car, not so much ready to write, but with a deep appreciation for Philip Daughtry, both the man and his work. In spite of his love of everything Western and his connection to the famous James brothers (half brothers, he corrects, pointing out that he resembles Frank), Daughtry was born in a mining town on the northeastern coast of England in 1942. His father served in the military during World War II and was eventually discharged after an injury. The family moved into a British prison camp for five years because housing was in short supply. During this period, young Daughtry witnessed the suffering one might expect to see in a POW camp, terror, sickness, and broken spirits. When Daughtry speaks about these early years, and in many of the stories he tells about his father, he speaks in a distinct Geordie accent. The accent and dialect seem to be intrinsically tied to certain times, themes, and ideas. His Northumberland roots may be hidden under his cowboy duds, but the dialect of his birthplace emerges when needed. It is the Geordie lad in Daughtry who writes in “Doon Pit” (1981) about men who spend their lives “shullin coals frae National Coal Board/excivatin devil’s arsehole tae make rent/.” The poet seems to hold in his creative memory a specific place for the stories of these miners. That piece of him speaks in Geordie dialect as if choosing different language would strip something essential from these men who were used for their labor, regardless of the toll it took on their spirit. By writing in their dialect, the poet refuses to take anything more from them. The harshness of the coal mines seems to haunt Daughtry. Even in his most recent collection, “Runaway Angels,” he returns to this topic. In “Pit Ponies,” he again sets free his inner Geordie to tell the story of feeding the ponies “…who gave and gave/and wake, afraid from haulin heavy coal/ so deep inside oor mithor earth, I’ll die/ an nivor live te kick the sky.” Here the ponies represent the despair of those whose lives are consumed by the mines. The ponies do not fear their impending death. Rather, their hopelessness comes from the knowledge that they will die without having ever lived. This is the fate of anyone forced into the maw of the mines. And it is clear through his work that, to Daughtry, an unlived life is the worst fate of all. But the poet/writer is not only the Geordie lad. In fact, he moves on at eleven years old when the family emigrates to Canada. According to the brief bio at the end of Runaway Angels, once in Canada, young Daughtry worked on a pig farm before moving onto a Cree reserve to live with a Quaker aunt. Still just a boy, Daughtry’s life already seems bigger than it should be for the short number of years spent living it. And it doesn’t stop there. In 1956, he makes his way to New York, where he hangs out in Greenwich Village. Then, following in the footsteps of Kerouac, and perhaps drawn inevitably by the Wild West blood flowing through his veins, he heads west. He lands in Colorado where he lives his lifelong dream of becoming a cowboy. This love of the West, its history, its mythology, its devasting natural beauty, all of this will nourish his art. As is true for many writers and artists who find themselves mysteriously drawn to the West, for Daughtry it is both real place and metaphor. It is the actual land that must be tilled and where cattle get moved about by men on horses. It is the physical territory where Native Americans fought to survive the western migration of the European settlers and where the two cultures continue to struggle to find harmony. It is also a place of a stark kind of mystery, where people and animals live in a landscape of deserts that seem intent on destroying them. For Daughtry, the West is a place where “Paiute eyes saw further than luck.” The title poem of the new collection speaks of the spiritual hold the West has on the poet. Runaway Angel One spring morning Walking the pasture I fell into a horse’s eye. I’m still there. The horse has gone. Sitting across from Daughtry, every bit the image of a cowboy, though he now resides in Topanga Canyon, there is no question that some part of him will always be in the mythical West. But just as the Geordie lad continues to live deep inside him, the road does not end on a Colorado ranch either. From there, he moved around, picking up work on ranches from the western United States to Belize but, again, hearing the call of Kerouac’s road, Daughtry hit the trail and made his way to California. It’s hard to imagine how he went from childhood in a prison camp to cowboy riding the range to graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, but that’s what he did. His readers should all be very grateful because it was at UCI where Daughtry attended a Robert Bly poetry reading. It was Daughtry’s very first reading, and it changed the course of his life. On the spot, he decided that he would become a poet. This decision was so unexpected that after he announced it, his father asked if he had sexual issues he needed to talk about. Daughtry went on to receive an MFA, and from there he spent several years teaching. But it should come as no surprise that the travel bug bit Daughtry again. He took off and spent the next 10 years or so criss-crossing the globe. Finally, in the early Seventies, he moved to the Bay Area during what is known as the Second San Francisco Renaissance. He took his place among the group of poets sometimes called the “post-Beats” or “Baby Beats.” He was in good company with poets like Thomas Rain Crowe, Kay McDonough, Jim Dallesandro, and several others whose work was informed by their Beat predecessors. But I resist this label. Undeniably, the Beat influence is clear in some of his early work. Still, I reject this and all other labels for Daughtry’s work. His poetry and prose can no more be contained in a movement than by genre, time period, dialect, or national boundary. Daughtry’s work springs from his lived experiences, and those experiences encompass the globe, various mythologies, and decades of history. I began writing about Philip Daughtry by admitting that I don’t have the skill to truly do the job. I don’t know how to get at the essence of his writing. I have presented some facts and shared a few opinions, but the subject is too big for me. I think it is better to let Daughtry speak for himself and for his work. In his novel, “Night Ride with Dahlia,” he perfectly expresses the spirit that runs through his writing: “Standing in the road’s dusty sunbeams my senses were wondrously charged by the conviction that I had left no part of myself unlived.” With profound generosity and a cowboy’s abandon, Philip Daughtry shares with each reader the wonders he has encountered throughout his richly lived life.
When Philip Daughtry wrote as Philip Suntree
Philip Daughtry at a North Carolina poetry reading, 1995.
The Stray Moon, 1975, was Daughtry’s first published book. Harry Reese of Turkey Press won a letterpress award for its fine printing quality. “I was married to Susan Suntree (her name was Susan Stout and we invented the name, Suntree, together but after we broke up, I returned to my birth name Daughtry.” November 3, 1975.
Kait Leonard

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