Part II: A CONVERSATION WITH DANNIEL SCHOONEBEEK
Part I of this conversation with Danniel Schoonebeek, author of AMERICAN BARRICADE (Yes Yes Books, 2014) appeared in March of this year. This is Part II, and begins with a question posed by the author.
Danniel Schoonebeek: I want to ask you what you think are some of the defining narratives in America, especially female narratives, but can we leave out television. I’m asking because I think Barricade meddles with a lot of identifiable male narratives. For instance, “Nectarines” is a mashing together of an urchin narrative with pastoral sexual narrative, peppered with a bit of a black sheep narrative.
Wendy Xu: I feel like a pervasive female narrative in America unfolds along similar lines as the one you described above–if the figure of the outlaw, usually male, must defy or subvert America to achieve the promise of it, then I might say that we often see the archetype of an American female figure who must defy or throw off the influences of maleness to come into her own selfhood. To leave out films, I’ll just say that films sadly sell us the opposite, that a woman’s life is fulfilled by her finding of heteronormative male love. To be female is political in America. To lay claim to inherent selfhood as a woman in America is political.
I want to ask you about AMERICAN BARRICADE’s relationship to a socio-cultural performance of masculinity, and this very productive verb-ing of the noun “wife” which appears, to “wife” someone or something. In whatever way makes the most sense to you, can you say some things about America, poetry, and maleness? I’ll offer that as the book went on, I found its understandings of gender very fluid and dynamic, and I wonder if this is something you have thoughts on…
God said a few words about the woman I want to wife.
She tastes like my wife but she isn’t.
She’s fromage and baguette and ham in her mouth.
And she wears her black négligée and bouffant.
Proud like the Croix de Guerre’s a brooch in her breast.
She’s a minx on gin she’s a gin sling isn’t she.
She’s liberty leading nobody.
And she tastes (when she talks) like she fucks (like my wife).
Like a nom de plume on my tongue that means you’re disgrace.
God says her hands on the headboard tonight like she’s beating down
God says I dick her and pluck the strays from her scalp.
Saying she wifes me.
She wifes me not.
DS: What you’re saying here rings for me because it stitches together America and maleness as forces that must be gotten rid of. I think American Barricade is insurrectionist at heart. It wants to deliver coup d’etat after coup d’etat and the state it wants to deliver it to has a stockpile of ammunition.
Early in the book I think there’s a revulsion at being beholden to another person, to a mother, for the fact that one is alive, and the fact of existence itself is a state one desires to overthrow. I find myself aiming at my own subconscious a lot when I write. I find myself dredging up the glimpses, the scenery, the traumas I tell myself I’ve forgotten. Especially in “Poem for Four Years,” I wanted a poetry that was a child’s bewilderment as he first discovers who rules his world, which is why the poem genders the mother wrong and calls her king. This is also why there’s no father in the poem. For the very reason that a mother pushes us into the world, a mother is the emperor of the child’s world and she blots out all other rulers.
The kid in “Four Years” exists in a welter. He plays his part as the hand of the king, taking the mother’s word as gospel and fretting to keep her happy. He’s got some prince in him, he’s expected to produce a next of kin for his people. And I think this is the first poem in the book that realizes its narrative is one of fatalism and is a state that must be overthrown. I’m obsessed with what comedians call “callbacks” (jokes that appear late in the set and refer to jokes earlier in the set), and I think the lines “nobody asks / where is mother” (from “Bildungsroman”) work as a callback to the idea of escaping this narrative. The moment in “Four Years” when the child desires to overthrow the king, who is mother, is itself a callback to the very beginnings of the book. Which is to say it’s no mistake that the first word of this book is “men.” I think part of the beauty of “Song of Myself” is that the poem’s first word is “I” and its last word is “you.” It abandons the self for the people, so to speak. Barricade’s first word is “men” and its last word is “falling.” It abandons the state for the dissolution of states.
When the book begins it believes the fraternity of men to which it belongs is an act of protest. I knew “Genealogy” needed to be the first poem because it both knows and doesn’t know that this fraternity is a matter of inheritance brought about by family. As the book continues, it begins, in its own ways, to protest the tenets of family. It begins to protest work, capital, laws, inheritance, history, hetero-”norms,” the American dream, god, and ultimately the self, which is the last king and usually the last god left standing.
This is what’s happening I think in “Bouquet.” It’s a punch line, a horrifying one, to say that my delusions of grandeur manifest in god telling me to get married and have kids. Chase women, god says, that’s what you’re here to do. And there’s disgust all over this poem when I read it. Disgust with self-esteem and sex and earning enough money, and even god becomes disgusted with me while I’m masturbating in the shower and rips out my eyes. To answer your question, I think I use “wife” as a verb because in this poem I feel like family and marriage are states that are being inflicted upon me. “Briefcase” is there at the end of the book as a stated protest of the “striking out on one’s own” narrative in the form of a poem that fires the American dream back at itself in order to overthrow the self, briefcase in hand.
into the heart
of our American
you’re the first
shot I fire
Or the last sequence in “Poem for a Seven Hour Flight” is, when I read it, the poetry in which everything is being torn down. I don’t know what survives, and the book’s final line is my way of saying that even overthrowing the state is a state that must be overthrown. So I don’t know what survives in the end. Love, I guess. Which is why everyone still reads Jesus.
WX: The callback joke is my favorite kind too, and I find that most comedians close a set with one. It draws a circle in the mind, which is a good way to signal anything’s end.
You might also totally already know this, but the two words on Emily Dickinson’s tombstone are “Called Back.” How wonderful is that. I didn’t know until I moved to Western Massachusetts.
Related to what you’re saying about protest, and all the normativities that American Barricade means to protest, let’s talk about the Superbowl. For one, it feels about as American(a) as we get. This year’s game was also the first time I had a lot of serious conversations about boycotting it as a form of protest against the myriad of NFL perpetuated awfulness. I’m not particularly proud or embarrassed to say that I didn’t protest the game, I watched it, and you and I happened to talk about it briefly afterwards. Then you told me about your yearly superbowl advertisement note-taking. It seemed to me, this year, that most poets I knew watched this gigantic American spectacle, 4 million dollar advertisements and all, yet with a sense of being somehow outside of it, as if our watching was different than the watching of others. And your note taking feels related to this for me. Can you talk about what ideas you have about the positioning of yourself as a poet in relation to mass culture? Related to your ad-notes or not. Or the positioning of your community in general? A poet said to me the other day that being a poet in america feels like being constantly locked out of yr apartment. Which is to say, you do HAVE an apartment, but you’ve perpetually forgotten the keys. What do you think about this, or DO you think about this?
DS: Dickinson is maybe the only poet I can think of where I’ve never met the woman, don’t love love the work, but every time I think about her I grin. She lived a life of protest in her own way. She understood that being absent is one of the most powerful ways to present yourself in the mind of another.
Maybe this is part of my fascination with Super Bowl adverts. I love watching the ways corporations try to manipulate the collective American conscious by insisting they are necessary and therefore almost invisible. It’s the same reason we love the coming attractions—we love the seamless pitch before the main feature. I’m convinced at this point that each year’s commercials are defined by a theme. I imagine men in suits from competing corporations agreeing upon these themes behind closed doors.
2007 was the year when the defining thread of the commercials was violence. The one that gleams in my mind is a commercial for a popular tortilla chip that’s spraypainted with flavor and often gives people headaches because it contains MSG. I refuse to say the names because I refuse to say the names. In the commercial, two tortilla chips are boxing each other. The crowd is composed entirely of tortilla chips. At one point, one of the tortilla chips punches the other tortilla chip in the face, splits its respective head open, and these same tortilla chips come flying out of its head, like blood, and fly into the crowd of tortilla chips, who open their mouths and devour themselves. It’s a fascinating devolution metaphor when you think about it.
But I like to ask myself why, why is this the theme. That’s the point at which I get sullen, because all I conclude is, we’ve had a few defining national tragedies in the past 15 years, they were violence, and now it’s money. This year was a bit of a dark horse because the commercials felt more insidious. The defining ones went for this deeply earnest, underdog mode of selling us products. The narrative of Detroit’s automotive industry rising from its own ashes, for example. Or Bob Dylan, the troubadour, asking us what’s more American than America. In a way that commercial felt great because I’ve always thought Bob Dylan was a shill and well look at us now, America. The other defining commercial attack was self-reference. I think this one is lethal, because the window of time that elapses before we begin to feel nostalgia is getting smaller and smaller. There was a commercial for an electronics chain that’s known for being irrelevant these days, and they spun this on its head by doing a veritable roll call of bullshit from the 80s that we all remember being glorious, much like the chain itself. “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend” is playing in the background and Teen Wolf is looting a store.
Don’t know if being an American poet feels like locking yourself out of your apartment. Like can’t you just break in? Maybe being an American poet feels more like breaking into your own apartment. Personally I feel a bit like a turncoat when I say I’m a poet in this country. And the next night you’ll find me tearing up in front of a statue.
One quote I love, and which is itself a bit of a kiss-off to a lot of artists these days, is this de Kooning quote: “being anti-traditional is just as corny as being traditional.” To me being anti-American is just as corny as being American. You have to participate in a nation in order to protest the ground on which it’s raised itself, don’t you. And to me you have to protest America in order to participate in the ground upon which it raises itself.
WX: How does the making of poetry protest America (or AN America?) if we go ahead and assume that it does? Or how do you hope it does … ?
Sometimes I think about the lives of people and ideas and art before they become money. The life of cadmium red, for example, before it enters the studio of a painter who is represented by a gallery in Chelsea. The life of a melody before someone puts it on the radio. The life of a dancer before he’s enlisted in a troupe. The life of not making money and living your life wholly inside of art before this too became something that was marketed to us.
Most of the time I believe that poetry is an act of protest in America because the finished poem, if a poem is ever finished at all, divests the raw material, the language, of its value in this culture. Language is itself a form of currency in America, and currency is impossible without trust, and when we speak to one another in the language of orders, and bills, and what costs what, everyone understands the values inherent in the language and agrees upon them. We trust each other, and in god we trust too. This is why we call them trust funds and why we call it the federal trust. Poetry is a very untrustworthy sapling in this culture. For evidence of this, try to purchase a sandwich by reciting a poem. Poems are language stripped of their capital energy. A poem is composed of language that will do zero work for you, and by this definition it has no capital energy in this culture. It’d be like placing the entire world of seeable colors in front of a painter and she creates a painting you can’t hang in a gallery. Poets are writing works where language won’t do anyone’s bidding. But you tote this kind of logic down to the milk factory, like the one in the town where I’m from, where they say there’s always a river of spit-up chewing tobacco on the ground two inches deep, and the men working there, because it’s only men working there, they’ll laugh you out of town.
So maybe poets in America need to always remember that they chose poetry, and most of them could always choose to abandon poetry, and that you could build a second America populated by people who never had a choice about whether they’d like to choose poetry or dance or painting or philosophy. When I think about it this way I don’t know if writing poetry is an act of protest, as protest to me always strikes out in refusal of an institution as opposed to having the privilege to separate oneself from one. When I first moved to New York I thought all the poets were going to be intellectual punk kids slumming around talking about these issues and causing an uproar. What continues to blow me away is how blithe so many poets are in this town, how little we tend to say to each other about the questions that trouble us, how willing we are to work with corporate media. But that’s not to say we don’t have poets writing protest poems in this country. We have heaps and heaps of them, and they are writing a lot of human microphones.
WX: I have become increasingly obsessed lately with asking people to share with me a specific recent moment/ experience of human empathy, big or small, witnessed or felt, that they feel meaningful to share, and then speculate how poetry helped that moment occur. Between them or others. Do you have one?
About six months ago I went on tour, giving readings around the country and traveling from city to city by train. I called it the House of Suffering Tour, a wry nod to Henri Michaux that was meant to underline how exhausting I imagined the tour would be. Within the first night, I felt this vague glimmer that I was doing something, to myself, that was either corrosive or crucial. As the dates pushed along, and even as early as DC, it started to become clear to me that the most beautiful part of the tour was witnessing the lives of so many poets, Americans, friends, husbands, workers, mothers, strangers, and detractors, and over time the tour became defined by the empathy I felt toward people in all these different cities.
A friend in New York telling me he still can’t find work in New York. Saying goodbye to two Brooklyn lovebirds whose relationship was crumbling while they held their dog in the street. Watching a child actor help a man up a water tower in Philly, a nervous friend letting loose on the people who’ve wronged her in Baltimore. A mother and daughter touching the snout of a devastated horse in the rain in Virginia. In Atlanta a stranger picked me up at the train station and let me into his apartment, handed me his keys, then went to work for the day. There’s a kind of empathy you feel for the people who are taking a risk on you. The people who welcome you into their houses and pray that you’re not going to make a mess of their lives. The people who tell you they went to school for journalism and they’re angry about being laid off.
In New Orleans I was introduced to my niece for the first time, and raising a family is a point of contention for me, but I did feel a grueling empathy for the toll parenting takes on my sister and her husband, and the same goes for how little the child understood and cared about the world. The next morning I watched a teenage mother strike her son in the train station. In Houston a bartender x’d out my tab and gave me money for the road, which was a touch of reverse empathy. Austin is where a man gave me his wedding ring, from a previous marriage, for the reason that he didn’t want it around the house anymore, dredging up that past now that he’s in a better world.
At this time I was struggling to exist in the life of a person far away, and I could feel a tax being exacted upon that person day by day. In Los Angeles a friend took me onto her roof and she was scared to live by herself beneath the palms. We watched Rocky Horror in a motel in San Francisco and I think we both felt empathy. I was in Portland when an old friend wrote to say she was getting a divorce. And the taxes grew larger and larger. When I finally made it to Denver the cold was leveraging a tax upon everyone and it was impossible not to feel empathy for everyone outside. For the hundreds of men and women dressed up in santa outfits and wasted in the zero degree weather. I think it will go down in my personal history of my life as the period during which I stopped trying to dictate my own life to myself. I was terrified when I was flying back to Brooklyn, because I knew some of my friends would have new vocabularies, new beards and skin, new problems, new ways of unstitching each other inch by inch, and sure enough they did. So I tried my best to feel what they feel and I put on a warmer coat for the winter.
WX: Death and taxes and poetry. Sigh. Yes. I want poetry, ultimately, to breed empathy like all this you’ve described. I also want it to help us all cheat death. As a final question then: What’s the first thing you can’t wait to do in the impending Spring, that’s helping you not die in this current winter?
Strangely I’ve always loved the cold and snow, and a lot of the poems in Barricade were written while walking home in the winter, late at night, when the orange streetlights are doing their business. Salt and pepper socks, scarf, pea coat, head down. The world’s shot in black and white during those hours.
Summer is actually the warfare time for me. It’s like the city is a pile of decaying potatoes and spinach. But we’ve got those two weeks in Spring when everything is halcyon. It’s the time I love to read sinister works, which for me at the moment are the Russian and Japanese folk tales.
I’m a person who likes to surround himself with people who clash and I like to get them all in one room. Like war veterans and poets and fashion people. But I like to clench into myself when it gets warm. Or spend all my time studying the entirety of one or two people, the ways in which people can be sinister works too. It’s the time I think one is at one’s most dangerous as a writer, because everything feels ineluctably possible. Staring at a tree feels like a student protest is about to break out any moment. Staring at a spider on the windowsill feels like you could play the piano with your eyes closed. Staring down from a tall building at the working class heading home with their briefcases feels like there might be a way for everyone to shake hands some day.
I wonder if the first rule of empathy isn’t telling yourself that everyone’s felt this way, wants to feel this way, can’t feel this way, feels this way, won’t feel this way, felt this way, will feel this way, wants you to feel this way. And we spend our lives trying to thresh outward from there, and some of us thresh and some of us don’t, and the difference is there’s no difference between threshing and not threshing.
WX: What color does Danniel Schoonebeek take his coffee?
I’m gunpowder tea until I die.
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.