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This Lawrence Writer Makes Poetry Out Of America's Suburbs And Chain Stores

Jason Dailey
Raven Bookstore owner Danny Caine has just released his first book of poetry that plays with imagery from the suburbs and the consumer-driven culture.

Danny Caine is in an awkward position. On the one hand, as owner of The Raven Bookstore, he really loves all the independent shops that define downtown Lawrence. On the other hand, those big box stores and chains that threaten local businesses like his feel an awful lot like home.

So, he wrote some poems to try to sort it all out. That became "Continental Breakfast," his first collection.

"The theme I keep returning to is just the idea of forming an identity in a world that's controlled by brands and capitalism. Whether that's falling in love or traveling or forming your religious practice, it's in the shadow of all these brand names," Caine says.

The poet grew up in a Jewish family in Cleveland, or, more precisely, Solon, Ohio.

"That's another thing. When you're from the suburbs you always say the name of the biggest city nearby," he says.

The collection rocks from the achingly backward-looking "Jaycie," which stares down two supermarket employees' young love, to the eye-rollingly hysterical "The Ideal Budweiser Customer Watches a Budweiser Commercial."

The narrator in "Jaycie" admires his coworker's ability to punch in produce codes and asks if he can be her bag boy.

"I'll show you my Eagle Scout badge if you'll show me your Gold Award," he says.

The narrating bagger appeals to the girl (who he says listens the Christian rock) insisting that he's vulnerable and really only half Jewish and suggests: "Let's watch Seventh Heaven and eat Baked Lays together under your home ec blanket."

Poet Danny Caine lives in Lawrence, Kansas, but grew up near Cleveland, Ohio.

"Ideal Budweiser Customer," meanwhile, was inspired by Clydesdale Super Bowl ads. Caine says he tried to imagine the "22-year-old dude who gets so worked up and emotional about this commercial that he just needs to have a beer."

It begins:

Oh shit I love "Landslide."
I was going to get up to piss but then
I heard me some Fleetwood Mac.
Hey that’s a pretty farm, too. Farms are dope.
Wait, oh goddamn, it's a
baby horse
lying in some f-ing sawdust.

That baby horse is so cute I can't even
handle it right now. I am
unsure how to proceed. And now the horse
is being fed from a
bottle? The hell am I supposed to do
with that?

The motivation behind all of the poems is love and nostalgia for place. It's not that the places he's writing about have changed much since his formative years; if anything, suburbs across the nation have become more homogenized over the past few decades.

"It's a weird kind of love," he admits.

For instance, the title poem "Continental Breakfast" comes from Caine's genuine love of hotel breakfasts. It includes such tips as: "Never get in line for waffles behind a family with more than two children;" and "The key to those little milks is really squeezing hard before you push up."

When he dives into writing about his family, that love is even more evident, even if the tone and the suburban setting stay consistent.

The section about his family seems to have been written in the tradition of David Sedaris' writing about his own family, both in jest and with a great deal of sensitivity and feeling. Like Sedaris, Caine works hard not to veer into sentimentality.

That portion of the book is titled "Uncle Harold's Maxwell House Haggadah."

Since the 1920s, he explains, Maxwell House has given out free Haggadot, or Passover prayer books, with sales of its coffee.

Caine writes about family members who died, married, and had a child in the year since the family last gathered — and the brands that accompanied all of those momentous occasions.

"Any other night we may eat either leavened or unleavened bread, but on this night only Wavy Lay's Kosher for Passover," he writes.

While tragedy and grief are a part of the Passover holiday, both intrinsically and within Caine's family, it's still a holiday of joy and a lifelong part of his emotional landscape, he says.

And because he so much loves the landscape of downtown Lawrence, the landscape of his adult years, he's ultimately critical of what's trying to destroy that. Yet the malls and the big box stores and the hotel chains mean something to him as well.

"It makes me miss my home. It makes me miss my childhood," he says. "So almost everything I write, especially in this book, comes from a feeling of ambivalence. Not ambivalence as in feeling nothing, but ambivalence as in feeling kind of love and disdain at the same time."

"Continental Breakfast" release party with Jim McCrary and Megan Kaminski, 7-9  p.m., Tuesday, March 19 at Eighth Street Taproom, 801 New Hampshire Street, Lawrence, Kansas 66044.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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