Danniel Schoonebeek’s first book of poems, American Barricade (YesYes Books, 2014), was named one of the year’s ten standout debuts by Poets & Writers and called “a groundbreaking first book that stands to influence its author’s generation” by Boston Review. In 2015, he was awarded a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and his second collection of poems, Trébuchet, was a 2015 National Poetry Series selection and is forthcoming from University of Georgia Press. Recent poems appear in The New Yorker, Poetry, Tin House, Boston Review, Fence, Iowa Review, and elsewhere. He hosts theHatchet Job reading series in Brooklyn and edits the PEN Poetry Series. Poor Claudia will release his latest book, a travelogue called C’est la guerre.
Photo: Trod Koch
Barbara Claire Freeman is a literary critic and professor of literature who has recently turned her full attention to writing poetry. She is the author of The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women’s Fiction (U.C. Press), among many other works of literary theory and criticism. Formerly an Associate Professor of English at Harvard, she teaches creative writing in the Rhetoric Department at UC Berkeley. She is the author of Incivilities (Counterpath Press, 2009) and two chapbooks: St. Ursula’s Silence (Instance Press, 2010) and #343 (Chapvelope Press, 2014). Selections from these collections won the Boston Review/Discovery Prize and the Campbell Corner Prize (Sarah Lawrence College). Every Day But Tuesday, her second collection of poems, is just out from Omnidawn Press (Fall, 2015). New work is forthcoming in Fence, Lana Turner, and Prelude. She is the publisher of Minus A Press.
Barbara Claire Freeman: I finished reading the proofs for C’est la guerre and I’m awe-struck: congratulations on this amazing book. It begins in 2013, just after you’ve been laid off from your job at a New York City publishing house; that same day you begin booking a national tour in support of American Barricade, your first book of poems, which is due out the following year. C’est la guerre tells the story of what happens during the seventy-two days that you travel the country, primarily via Amtrak train. It is at once a travelogue, an epic, a memoir, and a searing portrait of American cities and life, dislocating generic distinctions even as it arises from and describes experiences of dislocation: “…and when they lay you off in America you’ll disappear into the very liver of the country. What’s the pickled gizzard of late capitalism taste like in Georgia, how many pounds of dead skin can you leave in the Texas desert?” So tell me: how many pounds of skin did you leave in Texas? What would you like readers to know about this book?
Danniel Schoonebeek: I’m glad we’re starting with Texas. Texas was a hinge moment during that tour, which I only realized after it was over. A few of my convictions about myself broke down in Houston and Austin, I made a few decisions I didn’t necessarily want to make, and the generosity people were showing me was jarring in a way. I met a stranger with whom I became close in less than 24 hours, I met two poets who are both still friends, it was almost perversely intimate, and I reconnected with a person I loved very briefly a year before.
Leaving all that behind, for more heat and landscape, took it out of me a little bit. I’d say I left a lot of dead skin in Texas. The train from Austin to Tucson was the longest ride of the whole trip, something like 27 hours. In the back of my head I thought I might just never go back to New York, it would be such a middle finger to all the forces that crossed me, you know, poof he was gone and he found a better life. I think Texas was the state where that feeling was at full throttle. But I say this sitting in New York, so you can see how that turned out.
What do I want people to know about this book? It’s me, it’s the person I am, but it’s also a person I’ve ceased being, or an incomplete version of myself that I didn’t want to be anymore, which is part of how the decision to write the book came about. The book is written in a form called auto-portraiture, with Edouard Levé playing my Virgil, and there’s a lot of emphasis on being exhaustively candid, not flinching in the face of your worst thoughts and sensations. I don’t think I ever speak disparagingly of anyone in the book, but I tried to do justice to the conflicts I felt in the present, including the uncontrollability of memory and the flaring up of doubt and suspicion. The book is all about portraying the present, the mind unfolding in real time. If I were to write a sequel to this book, I’d write entirely about deliberation, and it’d have to be called something like After Spending A Lot of Time With My Thoughts I’ve Decided This is In Fact the Very Reason I Love All of You.
BCF: Great title! That would also be a book I’d like to read. Tell us more about the book’s two parts and what happens in Part Two.
DS: Part One is written in second person, which is anathema for some people, especially devout fiction writers, but the decision came about deliberately. When I first moved to Brooklyn, back in 2008, I carried this notebook around with me everywhere I went, and the idea was I wrote about every address that I visited in the city, whether it was a bodega or central booking or a house party or a job. From day one that journal was written in second person, so in a way I wanted to continue that tradition, because CLG wouldn’t exist without that previous layer of writing.
I guess I’d call myself an argumentative guy. I like to sit in repose and suss out the angles of an issue or an idea, and when I argue I always use the rhetorical “you.” C’est la guerre’s first sentence, “the question is whether you vanish when they lay you off in America,” is a rhetorical opening. Rhetorical questions are by nature the most aggressive questions, I think. “When they kick down your front door / how you gonna come / with your hands on your head / or on the trigger of your gun,” that sort of question. But I don’t mean for the second person to be anyone other than me, I don’t mean for Barbara Claire Freeman to feel like she’s being told what she’s doing. The second person in CLG is how I chose to cordon myself off for examination, which I think is something I learned from Frank Bidart’s poetry. He’s always speaking to a former self, or a self under fire.
Part Two shifts abruptly to first person, and even though there’s only about five readings as part of the tail end of the tour, chronologically the book still covers about a month of time I spent in Portland, a cabin in the middle of nowhere for a few weeks in Oregon, and about ten days in Denver, with a few other cities in there as well. Part Two zeroes in and tries to answer the rhetorical questions laid out in the first part of the book. The writing is still discursive, but I think it’s also determined to account for its shortcomings. A close friend asked me recently if I think the book is a penance, and no, I still don’t. I think the book is a record of who I was, and what the poetry community was, and those are both things that continue to evolve.
BCF: I’m struck by your emphasis on a personal and collective “was-ness” that may or may not be carrying on into the present. As editor of the PEN Poetry Series and host of the Hatchet Job reading series in Brooklyn you’re attuned to the changes in the landscapes and soundscapes of contemporary American poetry. Are there changes that seem particularly striking to you since the time in which the book occurs? In other words, why did you choose the past tense to describe this project?
DS: It’s a sad coincidence that the first and last readings in C’est la guerre happen at Mellow Pages Library, which recently closed after a pretty amazing run. It’s a New York feeling, being in this meat grinder where vital parts of your community and your culture emerge and even as they’re happening you feel them drifting away. In New York you hear people wax elegiac about neighborhoods, architecture, the closing of a beloved bar or restaurant. I do that pose a little bit in CLG when I’m talking about Dumont, which was my favorite restaurant in Brooklyn. I don’t know if anyone else found the place romantic, maybe I just went there with a lot of old sweethearts. On the surface it was this labored, brazen success. And then you find out beneath the façade that the restaurant is deeply in debt and the owner of the place commits suicide in a parking lot in Pennsylvania. That dynamic feels like an accurate analogy for the CLG tour, albeit darkly, and also an accurate way of scoffing at America, at least from an insider’s perspective.
Seeing series close down, spaces close up, journals disappear, presses fall apart, poets move away, I pause each time it happens. The PEN Poetry Series was slated to decompose after I was laid off. I believe in what the organization has meant to poets over the last ninety years, and I’ve seen firsthand what it means to living poets today. So the series was basically my severance package. I realize, answering this question, that I have some issues with longevity, permanence, legacy, posterity, the big questions. CLG is about disappearing, both as a threat and as a deep, embodied fear.
This generation of poets refuses to take shit, both in and out of poetry. We’re politicized, and no one seems to want to discover the soul anymore, at least not in the work that people send to me. That very 90’s aspiration of looking at a trio of piebald mares and unearthing some nugget of wisdom about yourself is maybe dying. It’ll come back, it’ll die again, that’s the war. But right now all the work I read is written by people trying to unfuck themselves, that’s maybe the best way to put it. I think when I left in 2013 a lot of poets were funny, and then the world intervened. I see a lot of funny poets trying to unfuck themselves now too.
BCF: I’d love to know more about “auto-portraiture.” Who is Edouard Levé and how are you adapting his work? And I’m intrigued by your reference to Virgil. Is CLG also a hellscape?
DS: Edouard Levé was a French writer and photographer; actually I’d never heard his name until a friend gave me a copy of Autoportrait for my birthday. With the notebook mentioned above, I’d already been documenting myself before I read Levé, but I loved Levé’s insistence that his book was automatic. I think he means something very different from “automatic writing,” which lionizes the “first thought best thought” mantra that’s always seemed like sloganeering to me and has nothing to do with writing. I think Levé’s sentences are in fact very sussed, very honed, and people say the same about my sentences sometimes. Levé’s whole emphasis in Autoportrait is on depiction: he’s obsessed with automatically portraying the self, that is, not trying to revise the portrayal of oneself for an audience. Which is of course impossible, but Levé really drills into himself in that book, and with all the events that take place in CLG, I knew I needed to drill too. Emerson’s journals, which I studied a bit in college, should also be on the record here, they’re an interesting study in performance of the self. The famous example is that his son dies of scarlet fever and a few minutes later, before the kid’s even cold, Emerson goes and records his experience in his journal. That’s a version of drilling too, though I’m not sure I buy what Ralph’s selling. I prefer Levé because Levé is a little too real. This is the same guy who wrote a book called Suicide and then killed himself a few days later.
So I wouldn’t say I’m adapting Levé so much as Levé is pointing a way through the grass, which is why I call him my Virgil. Up until saying that I hadn’t paid much lip service to the hellscape analogy, but it’s all there isn’t it, I’m with you. I also like that suggestion because writing a book that’s only divided into Part One and Part Two inevitably means I only rack up hell and purgatory in CLG, which, as much as I might be joking when I say it, that’s actually my vision of how this book passes. There’s no paradise at the end, there’s not even a Satan frozen in ice. There’s just the path you traveled and there’s just you looking back at it, in other words a life. I’d be remiss not to give a huge shout-out to Eileen Myles’s Inferno, which queers Dante more overtly and is also broken into three movements more explicitly. Eileen, I think more than anyone, along with maybe James Agee, has taught me a world about sentences. Refusing the sentence, I mean.
It’s important to me that the social, cultural, and economic glimpses of American life poke through the personal narrative in CLG, but I was aware from day one that that wasn’t necessarily the story. I didn’t set out to write a political exposé, though I do speak pretty disparagingly of Amtrak, but the book is meant to be more of an exposé of the self, “the American self” included. We’re a very anxious country, which pays off big when we manage to be generous and open. I wanted to shine a light on how run down everyone seemed in 2013, myself included, but also show how much people can toss their anxiety aside.
BCF: The title C’est la guerre reminds me of American Barricade, the title of your first book of poems, (YesYes Books, 2014). Here “la guerre” takes the place of “Barricade”; both books portray the divisions and barriers that populate this country and its subjects. America, barricades, love, and war (or “la guerre” since the word appears in French): these topics seem central to your work as a poet and as a cultural critic. You cite the title near the end of part one. The narrator is at a reading in Los Angeles with a former lover/poet/war-buddy: “For months you needed to shuffle the papers and recite the lines to yourself: she’s open marriage, not poly, ex-drinker, no, sober, seven years your elder, obsessed with black holes, writes poetry a hundred white dwarfs away from your own. Told yourself that’s a riot list of ways you’ll never love a person. And yet here she is standing above you in a town you could never love, split New York almost the same day they laid you off, and she’s walked you into yourself as into the red fog once more, building a solidarity out of toothpicks, season upon season. C’est la guerre, you tell her. And so what if you’re war buddies.” Families and the barricades that do and don’t bind them; love, lovers, and the wars that disrupt and connect a community of poets—is this one way of thinking about the links that connect your first and second books?
DS: Close friends know me as an occasional talker, and one of the things I love to talk about, painting big broad strokes, is how artists’ bodies of work evolve and speak to one another across their chronologies. You’ve got me to dead to rights that C’est la guerre, as a title, points directly at the title of my first book of poems, American Barricade. First I’ll say that I wanted to fuck with the established narrative of when a writer is permitted to write the memoir, which is usually around book three or four, or like immediately after you win the Pulitzer or Obama asks you to read at his inauguration. Even then my suspicion is that no one wants to write the memoir, there’s just an editor who convinces you to do it, it’s big five marketing. To that end there’s kind of a wryness in CLG, because the events of the book all take place during October, November, and December 2013, before American Barricade was even out, which was another kind of meddling, doing the book tour before the book is published.
The CLG title itself comes from the script of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. That becomes explicit in Part Two, as I saw the movie for the first time, on the big screen, in Portland. American Barricade, the title, is also lifted from Portland, I’ll leave that ambiguous, but that’s another way the two titles talk to each other. The phrase itself, “c’est la guerre,” comes from the first World War. The strain on resources caused everyday French life, from the trains to the factories to the electricity, to malfunction or function like garbage. So the phrase, much like “c’est la vie,” which is a phrase that feels somehow American, probably because of Chuck Berry, is a kind of resigned toast to a greater, incalculable sorrow. You’re an hour late to meet a friend because the trains are transporting troops to the front, that’s the war. You’re laid off from the dream job you landed at age 26, that’s the war.
BCF: What’s the relationship between your prose in C’est la guerre and your poetry?
DS: I like not knowing the answer to that question and I like working through that question. When I write prose I can feel myself trying to squirm free, like my shirt is on backward. Other times it feels like trying to fire a round in a very small room, maybe the bullet just goes into the wall, maybe it’ll ricochet for an hour. That scene from The Shining, where Jack is bouncing the tennis ball off the wall in that huge, echoing room, that’s another sad but true analogy. I’m obsessed with false starts, failed attempts, repetitions, and that comes out a lot in my end-stopped poems and my prose too. In the prose I feel that impulse most vividly in the anaphoras. Sometimes I like to try a sentence three or four different ways, with the reader privy to the different tries, before moving along. I do that because it’s how I talk—I’m a person who needs to poke an idea from a few different vantage points—but I also do it because I used to play music every day before I started writing every day, so I think it’s habit. I love that music continues to fail to drive the band crazy, even though a big chunk of music history is bands playing the same phrases over and over, from verse to chorus back to verse. But there’s a momentum that builds through repeating phrases, and I think that’s the other thing my prose has in common with my poems, they’re both pushed along by a beat you can’t hear. I love James Agee’s prose because Agee gets so sincerely overwhelmed inside his momentum that he often loses control of the sentence and stops making sense. Faulkner too, though his prose has always felt way more atmospheric to me, sort of like shoegaze music, like the sentences are delirious, whereas Agee is ripping up floorboards faster than he can build them. Momentum, especially in American Barricade, is a fact of the poems, and I often say that a lot of my poems are just sentences with the punctuation completely ripped out, so the ear has to locate the momentum without any signposts to help the reader.
BCF: Have you continued to write poetry while composing CLG?
DS: All the time, yeah. I’m finishing the manuscript of my second book of poems, Trébuchet. That title occupies an interesting place in the discussion of the chronology of titles above.
What I love about writing prose is that the studio feels roomier, at least to me, and I can walk around the space and pick up this object and put it down or look into camera 2 or lie down on the floor or swing around a rope if I want. All while writing the sentences. I do a version of that same thing when I write poetry, but it’s physical, I pace around the studio thinking over the lines. In prose the pacing is the prose. And I love doing things like making a smash cut to dialogue without giving any context. At the end of a long, tangential passage about the heritage of Puritan maniacs, someone shouts, “who gives a damn!,” but the quote isn’t attributed to anyone (it’s actually the name of a Sham 69 song), and that interruption forces the camera to change direction and focus on something else and the momentum halts and picks up again.
For whatever reason, that’s not at all how I write poetry. Off the top of my head, I’d say it’s possible I write prose in a New York School poetry lineage, ponging all over the place, but that’s not my poetry lineage. Whenever I write poems I want them to be hotly focused on the matter at hand, kind of like someone telling a story around a fire. If you’ve ever witnessed a great fire story, it’s not exactly that diversions aren’t allowed, they’re very much a part of the art, but everything is exact, almost like telling a joke. You have to nail it. Prose to me is a loving space because I can smash it and the threads can show. Prose is like throwing a watermelon off a roof.
BCF: Seems to me that “This Neverender,” the poem that’s included below in this interview, does an amazing job of “throwing watermelons off roofs.” What occasioned it?
DS: I’ve talked about this strange fact a bit before: I write a few poems that are, to me at least, ongoing collaborations with Lorca and Mandelstam. Neither poet is necessarily a towering poet for me, I love their work and I have problems with their work, but whenever I read their poems there’s this hallucinatory aspect to my reaction. So I set up this schema, which is still evolving, where I try to distill myself through certain of their poems and also write a poem of my own in the process. With “This Neverender,” which was originally published in Bat City Review, I recorded myself reading Mandelstam’s “[Limping like a clock on her left leg],” the Merwin translation, and layered the recording with a series of audio patches, some of them pitch modulators and some of them distortion, until the recording became indecipherable. It’s an eery clip, it sounds a bit like a black box recording.
“This Neverender” was written by playing that recording over and over again and trying to “translate” the indecipherable sounds into a poem, with the ear more or less grafting the language it hears onto rhythms and tones. The title, in my personal memory bank, was taken from a punk band I remember from about ten years ago—I don’t think they lasted very long—and I believe they snipped it from another band as well. I liked the idea of the title being passed along like that, and I felt some kinship with the phrase, like it claims ownership over something that’s infinite, either a burden or a tradition. It’s both sad and defiant, which is also kind of my vantage point on love poems, of which I write very few, but for me “This Neverender” is also a love poem, or maybe rather a breakup poem, and not just because of the overt mentions of love. Every now and then when a relationship ends, one of the most painful aspects is that it occurs within the vacuum of late capitalism. Like you still have to bundle up your tools and your weapons and lug yourself back to the grocery story or the casino and keep accumulating experience and going to church and paying your taxes.
BCF: Thanks, Danniel. Perhaps we should let the poem have the last word and begin to end the conversation here?
DS: I’ll talk about the poem a bit and then let the poem do the talking. I remember there being some mystery, in the town where I grew up, around whether or not I was baptised as a kid. I have zero memory of it ever happening, ditto for my parents, but there was this boy who always swore there was a picture of me being baptised on a corkboard in his church. I never saw it, but I think growing up the looming question of god, or maybe the looming over-the-shoulder presence of god, was something that troubled me. I remember a few childhood instances of walking by trash on the side of the road, not picking it up, but then stopping a few paces later, turning around, picking it up and carrying it with me to a trash can. I don’t think I did this because I thought it was the right thing to do, I think I did it because I feared the butterfly effect of not doing the right thing.
These god-concerns have carried over into some of my writing, especially in the American Barricade poems, and I think they’ll always be there to some extent. The word “god” is a kind of pixelated smear, or a weird burnt-hair smell that follows you around. I’m obviously compelled by problems within power-driven economic systems, family dynamics, and even the arts, and “god” in some ways, however you define that word, can be defined as the endgame of a lot of those pursuits. I have no idea if I “believe in a god,” no one cares if I do or don’t, and furthermore the words have always melted apart in my mind when I try to think them through. I’ve always been drawn to phrases like “god’s land,” “god’s glory,” “the wealth of god.” They all reinforce a simpering capitalist urge to me.
The last line in “This Neverender” calls back to the earlier “stranglehold” line, in which a sense of doom is tossed forth by suggesting that a choking, as foretold by a mob, is coming one’s way, but the fact of the choking is the least of one’s troubles. The poem ends—I suppose this is quite bleak, if not sardonic—on the thought that maybe the glory of god is one in which god has the mercy of just choking you out and that’s in fact the most of your problems. Thanks, Barbara.
There’s a saw discontinues the loved who are void I have seen it.
I have seen it as I have seen from the mess hall
their seventh-degree burns rise again.
As I have seen in the bagnio my consumption it rises again.
This existence in which I blame god on the tree line through which you no longer intrude.
This ending in which I withdraw myself from your banks but I’ve seen it.
When I return from you like a failed occupation.
And I stalk your geese who make laughingstock of my enemies.
And into their villages.
And the clothes I wear gasoline.
There’s a love that persuades you I’ve seen it:
beating to death a politico
on the steps of the white house for another half century
will equal a riot
on behalf of the strange who were loved
who are void
but I’ve loved it.
I have loved it as I have loved the mobs who are coming to disfigure my liberty.
Who say a stranglehold’s coming for me
that cares least for my throat.
And this existence in which I blame money on the lowland into which you won’t cloud.
And they tell me god’s wealth is my throat within reach but I’ve seen it.
I have seen it as I have seen you bed down in a pauper’s grave
and the worms tell you god is sketch.
I have seen them announce
the airstrikes are here for your mess halls
but I can’t say if I felt the compunction.
If I did I was young.
Or if I did I was you.
And god’s wealth was my throat within reach.