A Life’s Work

Kate Daniels has built a writing career—and an acclaimed MFA program—by combining a focus on healing and artistic expression

Buttrick Hall

by Ann Marie Deer Owens

Kate Daniels has long been captivated by the connection between writing and the healing process. After earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia, Daniels worked as a nurse’s aide at UVA Medical Center while she was in the process of applying to graduate school. The job was grueling, physically and emotionally, and she found herself writing poetry in the staff break room to decompress from the intense hours spent helping care for terminally ill patients. She did not realize its therapeutic benefit until years later. “I would write poetry about my patients, and my thoughts and feelings about them, and I would somehow feel better,” Daniels says. She was also deeply affected at the time by her grandmother, who suffered periods of severe mental illness.

Kate Daniels stands outside Buttrick Hall
Kate Daniels, Edwin Mims Professor of English, Emerita, outside Buttrick Hall (Vanderbilt University/John Russell)

The process proved not only curative to her personally, but also offered an abundance of visceral, intimate themes that inform many of her poems. “I’ve always been pretty obsessed by what people come up with to get through the difficulties of their lives,” Daniels confided in an interview about her fourth poetry collection, A Walk in Victoria’s Secret.

She continued to explore this intersection between health and written expression as a poet-in-residence at Duke University Medical Center, before taking on a similar role at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in 1995. That year, she also joined the English department, where, over the years, she helped launch Vanderbilt’s highly regarded MFA program in creative writing and was named the Edwin Mims Professor of English.

Her writing and scholarship have earned national recognition, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry for a writing project in the health humanities, a relatively new field of study that combines the arts, humanities and social sciences as portals to new understandings of medicine, health, healing and illness. As an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Medicine, Health and Society, Daniels has taught writing workshops and seminars in the health humanities. Among her six collections of poetry is In the Months of My Son’s Recovery, written while one of her children was going through treatment for substance use disorder. “My poetry has always been autobiographical and personal and has been made from the materials of my life,” Daniels says.

Daniels once again explores the contours of her inner life in a newly published book, Slow Fuse of the Possible: A Memoir of Poetry and Psychoanalysis, reviewed recently by Chapter 16. It draws on her experience of psychoanalytic treatment more than 20 years ago when she was severely depressed. After each session, she would sit in her car filling notebooks with transcriptions and reflections that form the nucleus of this latest book.

Book Cover of Kate Daniels A Walk in Victorias's Secret
Book Cover of Kate Daniels Slow Fuse of the Possible
Book Cover of Kate Daniels In the Months of My Son's Recovery

“Psychoanalysis—with its emphasis on language and communication, speaking, listening and silence—has many parallels with the creative mental experience of writing poetry,” Daniels says. In the book, she writes, “In psychoanalysis as in creative writing, the only rule is: if the language can be found, it can be said.”

Like Daniels’ other books, the publication of this memoir has coincided with a series of transformative events in her own life, including her retirement from Vanderbilt this past December and the end of her marriage to Geoff Macdonald, Vanderbilt’s longtime women’s tennis coach. Most painfully, Daniels’ oldest son, Sam Macdonald, died tragically in May 2021, a loss that has shattered her family.

Vanderbilt’s supportive culture has lived up to its reputation during this difficult period. “Sam grew up on the Vanderbilt campus,” Daniels says, “roaming between the English department and the athletics department from poetry readings to lifting weights with the football team. The compassionate outpouring of faculty, staff and students has helped all of us cope with Sam’s death.”

Yet, in many ways, it is Daniels herself who has helped foster an empathetic environment on campus—in terms of her writing, her close work with faculty colleagues in multiple departments and by serving as a trusted, caring mentor to young writers.

To move poetry into health care and actually use it as a healing agent is extraordinary.

MFA Mentor

Tony Earley, the Samuel Milton Fleming Professor of English, doesn’t know anyone else accomplishing what Daniels has with her writing. “To move poetry into health care and actually use it as a healing agent is extraordinary,” Earley says. “She is wonderfully brave because she is willing to share her own experiences to help others. She can walk into a room with people who are hurting, and they will know by her life stories that her empathy is real.”

While serving as an associate dean in the College of Arts and Science, she worked closely with longtime faculty colleague Mark Jarman to establish Vanderbilt’s highly ranked MFA program.

“It all began as a ‘gleam in Mark’s eye,’” says Daniels, who was part of the proposal process for an MFA program at UVA in her first teaching job after graduate school. In addition, she had taught at two other institutions with MFA programs, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Louisiana State University. “Mark and I knew that Vanderbilt was an obvious choice for a graduate program in creative writing, given the university’s deep history of respect for the literary arts and the many renowned writers who have been part of Vanderbilt.”

Jarman, now Centennial Professor of English, Emeritus, says Daniels played a vital role during the MFA program’s growth. “Kate understood how to accomplish things that for me were just metaphysical possibilities,” he says. “We started out with minimal support, but she secured approval for our MFA students to earn part of their fellowships by mentoring undergraduates at the Writing Studio. Kate also worked tirelessly to identify funding sources to recruit some of the most promising creative writers in the nation.” Tiana Clark, MFA’17, remembers that Daniels would often work behind the scenes to ensure that her students had their expenses covered for professional development, such as procuring funding for them to attend Middlebury College’s famed Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences “She was a fierce advocate for everything we needed,” says Clark, who is now the Grace Hazard Conkling Writer-in-Residence at Smith College.

Group of people standing in an art gallery
Kate Daniels with a class of MFA students (Steve Green / Vanderbilt University)

Vanderbilt’s MFA program, which has become one of the most selective in the nation, admits only six talented writers each year—three in poetry and three in fiction. With strong support from the College of Arts and Science dean’s office, the MFA program recently expanded to three years, providing students vital time to work intensively on their creative theses.

Daniels provided abundant guidance when Clark needed to trace her literary heritage for her thesis. “She helped define the purpose and place of my poetry in the world, and I’ve continued to draw from my graduate thesis in my current work,” Clark says. Among Clark’s honors is the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for her poetry collection I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood. That was the same prize that Daniels had been awarded three decades ago. “It felt like a full-circle moment to receive the same recognition as my beloved mentor.”

Matthew Baker, MFA’12, says that one of his most rewarding experiences at Vanderbilt—teaching a writing class filled with cancer survivors—was made possible through Daniels’ contacts at VUMC. “She was always thinking about ways to create professional experiences for her students beyond the university classroom and into the community,” says Baker, an award-winning fiction writer who has sold several of his stories to media companies that include Netflix, Fox Searchlight, Makeready and FX.

Baker and Clark have fond memories of Daniels welcoming the MFA students and faculty to her home for hearty dinners and welcome conversation. “My appreciation has deepened for all the time and attention that Kate invested in me,” Clark says. “As a mentor, she helped shape me into who I have become as a poet and professor.”

As she moves into her emerita role, Daniels looks forward to continued connections with Vanderbilt as her daughter completes her doctoral program in special education at Peabody College, and her son prepares to marry an alumna of Vanderbilt Divinity School. She also continues to write poetry on issues close to her heart and to teach writing at the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis.

In anticipation of her departure, Daniels helped recruit the renowned poet and essayist Major Jackson, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English, to guide the MFA program into its next chapter.

With the “elders” of the MFA program—Mark Jarman, Lorraine López, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English, Emerita, and herself—all retiring within the past two years, Daniels wanted to ensure that the program continued to evolve in a way that was reflective of this era. Just as in her writing, she can’t help but think in terms of caring for the health of the program she helped create.

“So much has changed in the literary scene in both poetry and fiction during the past 20 years, it’s time for the program to find a new stream of energy that will help it connect with a younger generation,” Daniels says. “I am excited about and incredibly confident in Major’s leadership and know that with strong faculty engagement, even greater things are to come for our beloved MFA program.”

Close up of Major Jackson

Major Jackson leads extraordinary MFA program into bright future

Last fall, as Kate Daniels was preparing to retire from teaching, she transitioned her leadership of the MFA Program in Creative Writing to Major Jackson, an accomplished poet and essayist whom she had helped recruit to Vanderbilt. Jackson, who joined the faculty in January 2021, is now working closely with the College of Arts and Science leadership to develop the program’s roadmap for the future.

“The Vanderbilt MFA is distinguished by an almost ‘guild-like’ quality with faculty support that propels early career success for our graduates,” says Jackson, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English. “In addition, I’ve always applauded the diversity of the writers that emerge from the program. It is something to celebrate and continue.”

With three former directors of the MFA program retiring within the past two years—Mark Jarman, Lorraine López and now Daniels—Jackson has made a priority of recruiting new faculty.

Guggenheim recipient ZZ Packer, whose fiction was included in the New Yorker magazine’s 20 Under 40 collection and is author of the acclaimed short story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, and Pushcart Prize-winner Lydia Conklin, whose Rainbow Rainbow story collection will be published in June, will join the program this fall.

In addition to adding new faculty, Jackson says he wants to expand nonfiction writing. “I think about the excellent work of Margaret Renkl, Peter Guralnick, Camille Dungy, the late Randall Kenan and other nonfiction writers who have taught as visiting professors over the years,” he says. “Literary nonfiction intersects with so many areas of our lives. It would be wonderful to be able to expand our MFA program with a permanent hire to teach nonfiction.”

Undergraduate students have also become increasingly interested in creative writing, with strong demand for classes in both fiction and nonfiction.

“We need to pay attention to this,” Jackson says, “as creative writing has become an important vehicle by which today’s generation actively addresses issues that matter to them.”