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Ridiculous Rhymer 

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“I am in this world of academia, but I want to be read by living people, breathing people,” vows poet Jeffrey McDaniel. “I don’t want to just write for someone who’s got a degree. And I sometimes write poems that are sincere, that have real feeling in them! Or sometimes I write a poem with real ridiculousness in it!”

On May 10, McDaniel will read at the Chapel of Our Lady Restoration, a former church on the banks of the Hudson River in Cold Spring. This will inaugurate the Sunset Reading Series.

May 10 is Mother’s Day, so McDaniel may include some of his “mother poems,” such as “Renovating the Womb,” which begins:

Dear Mom, thanks for giving birth to me
and not having an abortion. 2% of my time
on Earth has been spent inside your body—
more than all my girlfriends combined.

McDaniel also might read from the 700-page manuscript of his first novel, the coming-of-age story of a poet who struggles with drugs and alcohol and eventually becomes sober. One possible title is 4000 A.M.

David Bowie and Richard Pryor were his first poetic influences. Later McDaniel began reading the French Surrealists, and confessional poets like Anne Sexton and John Berryman. Currently, he is inspired by Zbigniew Herbert, Walt Whitman, and Marina Tsvetaeva. He has taught creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College since 2001.

McDaniel has performed in 11 countries and over 40 American cities, but nowadays spends a lot of time with his two-year-old daughter, Camilla Wren. He is rewriting nursery rhymes, to amuse himself (and her). “So I do, ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,’ but it’s a rap version. And I’m working on ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm,’ and instead of having animals, he has various kinds of deranged people,” McDaniel explains.

“Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” isn’t his first foray into rap. McDaniel wrote a hip-hop song in the voice of George W. Bush, titled “They All Want to Know What the ‘W’ Stands For!,” which he performed a cappella at poetry slams, to rousing acclaim.

Two years ago, McDaniel and his pregnant wife moved to Cold Spring, from New York. “I think I would’ve lost my mind in Brooklyn,” he observes. “The stroller would have taken up half the living room!” McDaniel was impressed by the physical elegance of the Hudson Highlands: “There’s something semi-enchanting about being on the Hudson and near the mountains—that combination of water and stone.”

Ivy Meeropol, one of the Sunset Series organizers, is the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the director of the film Heir to an Execution, about her grandparents. She knows McDaniel from Sarah Lawrence, where his readings were already “big events.” “This was not ‘Let’s hear our friend read, and clap politely,’” she recalls. “This was ‘Let’s pack ourselves into the coffeehouse!’ It was very rowdy, and the audience would talk back.” Meeropol remained a fan of McDaniel’s writing, and chose him to initiate the Sunset Reading Series. The inaugural season will also include memoirist Nick Flynn, novelist Valerie Martin, and poet Edwin Torres.

Jeffrey McDaniel will read at 4pm on May 10 at the Chapel of Our Lady Restoration in Cold Spring. (845) 265-4555; www.chapelofourlady.com.

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