A CONVERSATION WITH DANNIEL SCHOONEBEEK
Schoonebeek also writes a poetry column for The American Reader, curates your favorite reading series in Brooklyn HATCHET JOB, and edits the PEN Poetry Series.
Early this year, Danniel and I split a Google Doc (which lacks the immediacy of splitting a beer, but does give space for responding at length) to chat about his new book, our old country, and what poetry might have to do with anything at all.
This is the first of two parts of that conversation.
Wendy Xu: When I think about barricades I sometimes think of Les Miserables, and suddenly am in Paris. But your first book is called AMERICAN Barricade, and I am interested in anything called “American.” What is American about this book, or, what isn’t? What is or isn’t American? How do we even talk about american-ness in 2014? Is it geographical? How does poetry construct a lens (or does it?) through which you bear witness to an America? How do you understand these poems as navigating an idea of “american-ness,” a quality of being, an abstraction of american selfhood?
Danniel Schoonebeek: The heritage of art in this country, especially when it comes to literature and film, is one that tells you the story of America is a blank check and you write it yourself. But we don’t grow up learning that we can write the country’s story itself. We learn that we can write the story of ourselves as Americans. Call me Ishmael, if you will. But the life I’ve lived in America has never felt that way. Get a job, go to school, get a job, go to school, get a job, pay your debts, maybe die. That’s one charcoal sketch of life in America today, and one example of the icy fatalism surrounding how we think about ourselves and about American history.
The obsession with names in American Barricade is my way of speaking back to Ellis Island, where a lot of people volunteered and didn’t volunteer to have their names changed in order to become more American. “United States” is a name with a fatalism and a failure written into it. Our name says we’re together, but we all know that’s false.
I think of the book’s second act as my life in the American workforce, a bit of a kiss-off to Fitzgerald’s claim that there are no second acts in American lives. These same poems put their hooks into empire and family and want to talk about how they’re one in the same. The job and family for me are just as inescapable as they are inseparable.
The self too is inescapable and inseparable from the poems it writes. Call me Danniel, if you will. Which is why I sometimes think of this book as depiction: certain of the poems depict and believe in the very idea that one can invent oneself in America in order to expose how false that idea is.
When it comes to geography, I mean for the poems in American Barricade to be clash after clash after clash. That’s why the title is the title. I was born in a poor, rural village, but I’m a Brooklyn guy who is assumed to be European and not speak English, some people even assume I’m a woman. I’m unnerved by family and capitalism and then I write a book where I play in both of their sandboxes the whole time. The self disgusts me but the self is all I’ve got. In a lot of ways Barricade tries to internalize the geographic discordance of this country. Our founding principle as a nation is absurd, which I can’t help but love. We’re several hundred different countries, climates, dialects, and histories, all living under the roof of a name that tells us we’re one nation. This is an idea I respect because, for one, it’s doomed to fail, and, for two, it’s exactly how people are. My name, this Danniel, is my version of “United States.” My clashes and contradictions are what fail to make me me, and that’s what makes me me.
WX: “geographic discordance,” that’s a good thing to say. Much of my experience inside AMERICAN BARRICADE was of this discordance, a dissonance, and the tension between this book’s geographies–when you name New York City, for example, and it pushes up against the more ephemeral landscapes of other poems.
If I make the claim that not only is this book populated by SPACES, but also abstraction and assemblage of CHARACTERS, how does that resonate with you? How is yr America more often made up of “Father,” “Mother,” “Son,” “Sister,” “God,” as opposed to, say, any of those nouns with the definite article preceding? How does this relate to the mode of self-mythologization you mentioned? When we return again and again to this long poem in parts throughout the book, “Family Album,” what does it mean to say this very amazing thing you say: “he swore off god / by this time son was 16% / made of silence” ?
DS: Silence is a character in these poems, as I hear them. For me it’s silence that grows and spreads like a blight. I’m not talking about that dead old loss-of-innocence narrative. Because there’s no innocence in this book in the first place. I come out of the womb wearing a stolen suit and just as soon that suit is ruined. The blight I’m talking about is the blight of reconciling yourself to not having the life you dreamed of living. In some ways this book begins in media res, after innocence has been sloughed off, and the poems are obsessed with telling you how that loss occurred. You’ve tried out life, money, having a pet, praying to god, glory, and then one day you wake up in a hospital bed. That’s the nature of silence in America. Your failed attempts at milk and honey come washing over you like a pall and they shut you very much up.
The other major characters in these poems are the desire to be king and the lust for destruction of power. But let’s stop for a second, because characters mean narrative and narrative means you can say what happens. Do you want to try to write a brief synopsis of what happens in this book with me? Like the movie poster sales pitch of the poems. Here’s two of mine:
1) A young boy rises to power and destroys his own rule.
2) The life you live as a child will turn you into a dictator.
1) America begets shame, begets America
2) People are born and die of love
3) America, in its old age and decay, tells a young boy its mythologized history
4) A man is made by power and unmade by longing
5) A man who has amnesia sits with a lover and imagines his own history
DS: With the exception of a few poems in this book, which take place in either New York City or the Catskills, I have a difficult time placing these poems in locations I can see. The main reason I’ve loved movies my whole life is because movies, when they are great movies, disembody the voice in ways I wish could be my existence.
I know Terrence Malick is derided by a few cineastes lately, but his scripts, specifically Badlands, Days of Heaven, and Tree of Life, have informed the way I want the voice in my poems to be placed. Which is to say nowhere. The voice speaks up out of the ether and disappears, enters the body, disappears again. This is somewhat of a ridiculous thing to say about Malick, because his films feel so rooted in places, but I think what people miss about Malick is how seriously he considers nature a character.
I spend a lot of time thinking about nature’s violence and indifference, and violent and indifferent are also ways of describing America, which is so massive that it’s almost nonexistent, which is also a way of feeling about god, at least how we understand god in a Puritan tradition. And this accounts for some of the geographical discordance in the book. At first I considered it a problem that the book had no setting. Over a period of years, I began to feel that it was truer for the book to have every setting a reader could pinpoint, because that’s how America feels. It’s so unwieldy that half the time we don’t feel we are even a part of this country.
What’s your sense of America? Like do you think about this word while writing your poems, or is it just a fact? We have (somewhat) similar stories, onomastcially speaking, in that we both have names that identify us as one thing or another. And I think it’s also worth remembering that using the very word itself, America, is offensive to history.
WX: I think my sense of America is a lot of the reason this book resonates with me–I was born outside of it, truly un-American, and the experience of going towards it (as like, a mass of actual land, a through-and-through PLACE that an airplane carrying my physical body had to land and set me down) bred in me a lifelong fixation with “american-ness.” Perhaps this is every immigrant’s experience. And my name, as you mentioned, leads with its foreignness. Written or spoken, there is no way to notice any other aspect of it first. My own book of poems, though it does not even come close to explicitly navigating “identity politics” or the immigrant experience, is by default listed as Asian American Studies as a sub-genre to poetry. So when I, as a reader, approach America and/or a version of america in poetry, it is with this weight of outside-of-ness, and the weight of a history I both long to embody (and fail at) and am repulsed by. I like the idea of linking America and God via their mutual nonexistence, their enormity that creates a sort of disappearance.
Which is all related to the below, I want to quote one of my favorite poems, “Little Wheel,” from your book here, which appears just about halfway through AMERICAN BARRICADE, and point especially to the final five lines, you write:
So. The god comes for me with a hole in her négligée.
And I throw her out of the bedroom and finish my tea.
So ends the scene that begins when I write you a history.
The tea, it is gunpowder. The bedroom, it represents me.
The history is one of men boarding up their windows.
And here comes Mayakovsky kicking his hole in the wall.
He hands me his boot and his father’s sawed-off shotgun.
Bite yrself off! he screams. Fire what lives in belly represents you.
I say, don’t you see all this gunpowder tea I’m drinking.
I say, why do you think I barricade the bedroom, Vlady.
And he finds my cleanest shirt and tears off the sleeves.
Not enough holes, he says. Now a few words about me:
Beyond wall, is trenches. Beyond trenches—is jackals.
Tell Lily, he says. I am waiting like child for my haircut.
Tell her I wait in bedroom and worship her like bombshell.
And he shows me the hole where he lost his first roulette.
And I throw him out of the bedroom and finish my tea.
So ends the scene that begins with no way out of history.
I worship a hole in the wall. The wall, it represents me.
The history is one of men plotting against a little wheel.
One bet means orphans. One means neighbors of zero.
One bet means men throwing themselves out of windows.
And all this time you are failing to write your love poem.
You are waiting like a child for a word superior to me.
You are finding what’s left of the tea too bitter to finish.
The god you refuse, she stands at your door and smokes.
The hole you worship is false. False as a god and it closes.
So. You take stock of your inheritance: shotgun, fire, boot.
Then your belongings too: gunpowder, barricade, sleeves.
So ends the scene that begins when you say I am history.
This poem literalizes something for me that the book as a whole gives the sense of, which is a worshipping of emptiness, which is both 1) possibility, and 2) the void, the abyss, whatever you want to call it. It also relates to how I would simultaneously describe AMERICAN BARRICADE as “really historical” and “ahistorical.” Can you say some things about these things? In either the poem above, or, more generally. What is yr relationship or this poem’s relationship to history, inheritance, idolatry, and the fantasy of all three?
Subsequently: I am interested in units. How does the unit of a film (the scene) which you use above, interact with the units of a poetry book (the single poem) in AMERICAN BARRICADE?
A literal translation of the word roulette is “little wheel,” and “neighbors of zero” and “orphans” are the names of areas on a roulette wheel. To talk fatalism again, I’m a little dogged by the idea of the wheel of fortune, especially when it comes to history and inheritance. You now, O fortuna, one simple turn of the wheel is the difference between being an orphan and parent of the year. O fortuna, one turn of the wheel is the difference between riches and clinging to a sack full of pennies. The poem was written in April, and in New York there’s an especially riotous and harrowing two-week period every year in April. You wake up and the sun is not only a fact but a feeling, and it’s a feeling of protest and a taste too, and everyone seems to agree upon this taste and say it with their bodies, which means people are eating outside and loosening their ties and wearing sun dresses, and nothing smells like hot garbage and it still gets cold at night among the flowering trees. It’s a disturbing time to desire. And it’s a disturbing time to file taxes in America, especially if you find yourself reading about suicide rates during this time, as I was in April of that year. A lot of this reading was about men throwing themselves out of windows, which itself has become an iconic, almost cinematic, image in the last thirteen years of New York history.
If I say I don’t believe in the myth that Americans can make themselves into whoever they want to be, I think it’s because Americans in my experience are obsessed with gaming the system in order to express their outrage at the impossibility of the free market. One of our overwhelming narratives as Americans is the story of the outlaw. From the Boston Burglar, to Billy the Kidd, to Stagger Lee, there’s this romance surrounding the outlaw. The terrifying part to me is that this has become the defining narrative obsession of our media. Scarface is probably the most American movie I can think of in this sense. And there’s thousands of examples of movies in which men (why the hell is it always, always, neverending men) break the law in order to make themselves in America.
I like this idea, that you have to defy America in order to cash in on the promise of America. I mean look at your Madoffs and Snowdens. And interestingly I think we’ve begun to culturally abandon the worship of sleek, infallible men as outlaws, and this is happening everywhere in teevee. Whether they are bootleggers, meth cooks, or corner boys, we’re beginning to see outlaws who are vividly human, primarily because they’re both good and horrible people at the same time. Mad Men is the most infuriating television, because on the one hand it’s a beat-off fantasy of male privilege, and on the other hand it’s realism that no other teevee show has touched. History was in fact this fucked up and horrible and it continues to be this fucked up and horrible and there’s zero redemption story here. It’s a moralist yarn by way of (purporting) to teach us to be better by showing us the worst.
I think American Barricade dances in this ring. Scene after scene, poem after poem, the book is people cheating the system, getting rich quick, craving power, slacking off, jerking off, failing at sexuality, failing at family, falling into love with corruption, falling out of love with those who love them, thinking of themselves as men and not people, thinking of themselves as Americans and not people, and thinking of their story as the story of America and not one story that composes America.
To Be Continued ///////////////////////////////////////
Update: Read Part II here!
Danniel Schoonebeek’s first book of poems, American Barricade, is out now from YesYes Books. A chapbook, Family Album, is also available from Poor Claudia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, Tin House, Boston Review, Fence, BOMB, Indiana Review, Guernica, jubilat, Gulf Coast, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. He writes a column on poetry for The American Reader, hosts the Hatchet Job reading series, and edits the PEN Poetry Series.