Danny Caine's Continental Breakfast

by Kyle Teller, creative writing Ph.D. student

A photo of poet and author Danny Caine eating a waffle in front of a vending machine.

Capitalist landscapes, Anthony Bourdain’s influence, and writing while fathering, Danny Caine discusses his new poetry book Continental Breakfast with me at his bookstore in Lawrence, The Raven. Caine, formerly from Ohio, has put up roots in Lawrence after obtaining his creative writing MFA degree from KU. Caine’s latest book release, Continental Breakfast, explores capitalism’s effects on the Midwestern landscape through a careful balance of “critique and ode” of such big (and likely familiar) names as Bono and Budweiser, among others. Danny and I set up to talk about how his book grew during his MFA program and how his poetry speaks to the Midwest landscape he knows and loves.

We sit down at the back of his bookstore in Lawrence, The Raven, after the shop cat graciously allows us to use her chairs. I ask Caine to tell me about Continental Breakfast and how he worked on the manuscript.

“I came into KU with a bunch of these poems already cooking. I have been working on this project for 6 years—first books take a long time to write,” Caine says, a statement that he, and most writers, will cite as “conventional wisdom.” He adds that a lot of revision at KU was “polishing it, discussing the sequencing, and making sure it was ready to go out” with the help of his adviser, Prof. Megan Kaminski.

While discussing the book’s sequencing, Caine describes how Continental Breakfast is divided into three sections: Where the Streets Have No Names, Where the Streets Do Have Fucking Names, and Uncle Harold's Maxwell House Haggadah.

“The whole book,” Caine says, “is about what it means to exist in a Midwestern landscape that is basically controlled by brands. That’s the elevator pitch—late-capitalist Midwest. Branding controls everything, whether that’s the celebrity or whatever.”

“What is the Midwest? What is it not?” I ask, aware we are in a Midwest bookstore with customers milling about. It's a Friday afternoon and there's light traffic in the bookstore throughout our discussion. But I want to know: "How is the book speaking to those definitions of what people commonly call ‘flyover country'?"

“A lot of people pay attention to New York or L.A. and don’t pay attention to Lawrence, Kansas. I’m doing my best to combat that,” Caine says. “When you’re driving through the Midwest it’s often these vast stretches of interstate. The distance between spaces is bigger. So much of what you see is the McDonald’s and the gas stations nearby the exits...Even if you’re not flying over it, it’s really hard to experience the Midwest and avoid those landscapes. Part of me is like, well, I’ve got this nostalgic connection to that landscape. That’s the landscape that formed me, that I grew up on, so I enjoy driving through the Midwest. I don’t want to simply say 'this is bad,' 'this sucks.' In a way, that’s like trying to knock down a building by yelling at it. I’m not going to do anything to change that landscape by writing poems about it. Instead of wearing myself out, let’s try to celebrate this a little bit, too. Let’s critique this and write odes for this at the same time. That’s the most interesting poetic mode for me.”

Caine clearly knows his Midwest, but I’ve planned a stump question: “Olive Garden or Applebee’s?”

“I definitely think Olive Garden,” Caine says and laughs. “But it’s upbringing. Olive Garden was special where I lived. I grew up in Solon, Ohio; Solon had an Applebee’s, but to get to Olive Garden you had to drive to Cuyahoga Falls, so it was borrowing mom’s car, driving on the freeway—as a sixteen-year-old, these are big things. And it was more expensive too.” 

Caine grants Applebee’s a bit more credit by noting the restaurant appears in his second book, El Dorado Freddy’s, coming out in spring 2020 through Belt publishing.

“Is there communication between Continental Breakfast and your second book coming out, El Dorado Freddy’s?” I ask.

“In my mind, I’m working on a trilogy,” Caine says. “Continental Breakfast is the first, El Dorado Freddy’s is the second, and the third is the book I’m working on currently called Flavor Town. It’s three angles toward the same question, and food increasingly becomes a part. El Dorado Freddy’s is just about food, but the questions of branding, of authenticity, in terms of food is often a problematic notion or misused, and that’s what Flavor Town is about.” Caine adds that El Dorado Freddy’s shows his move “from being not-father to the father of a young child.”

He laughs and says, “One of the few surprises of having a kid is that my writing career actually started going better.”

“Really?” I ask. "Is it insomnia that helps the writing?"

“Part of it was [insomnia], and a lot of Flavor Town comes out of staying up at night and watching Anthony Bourdain on Netflix. In these drowsy, early morning hours, [my son] won’t fall asleep unless I’m holding him so I’ve got Netflix playing the entire series run. Jack was born four days before Bourdain killed himself. Sometimes these events have completely nothing to do with each other, but they are completely tied together forever. It will always be Jack born, Anthony Bourdain dying. Those events are tied forever in my mind. And in part, it’s just because of these drowsy nights watching Anthony Bourdain. But Flavor Town is still a work in progress.”

When I ask for Caine’s writing philosophy “in a nutshell,” he says, “Personally, I don’t want to speak for anyone else because I don’t think I can. It's important to think about who is telling what stories. But it's also the ode and the critiqueWriting from a place of ambivalence has been really rewarding for me. In a very real way, part of my writing philosophy is I think this is funny or weird so I’m going to write about it—sometimes it’s not more complicated than that. That’s where the poems about beer commercials came from [in Continental Breakfast]. It’s a funny idea that I tried to write about, and then it ends up being interesting, and that’s fine."

“Which beer commercial did you write about?” I ask. 

“There’s a Budweiser commercial and a Bud Light commercial in the book. The Budweiser poem is called “An Ideal Budweiser Customer Watches a Budweiser Commercial.” It’s about one of the Clydesdale commercials which I think are ridiculous, but it has to work on someone. If watching beautiful cinematography of these horses didn’t make people want to buy beer, they wouldn’t do it.”

“The Clydesdale commercial didn’t work on you?”

Caine laughs: “No!”

“What about the Budweiser dog commercial?”

“No, it’s cloying,” Caine says. “You’re not going to make me want to drink this beer just by showing me animals. You’re going to have to work harder than that. But I imagined someone on whom this commercial would work watching this commercial and getting very excited about these horses and ultimately deciding to drink the beer...It’s not always a theoretical place I start writing from; sometimes it’s just funny."


Caine's book tour starts on March 19th. Information about Caine, his book tour, and his work is available on his website: www.dannycaine.com

Danny Caine’s Continental Breakfast is available now through Mason Jar Press and The Raven bookstore in Lawrence.

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