Interview with Danniel Schoonebeek
Mar 27, 2014
by Colorado Review Editorial Assistant Katie Naughton
Danniel Schoonebeek is a friend, a former coworker, and one of my favorite poets. The first thing I knew about Colorado Review was the Summer 2012 issue, which included Danniel’s poem “Bildungsroman (Spare American)” and some of his Torch Songs in collaboration with Allyson Paty. I’m pleased to have had this opportunity to reacquaint CR readers with his work, on the occasion of the publication of American Barricade (YesYes Books, March 2014), his first full-length collection. The poems of American Barricade are confrontational and generous and are asking all the right questions and in what voice is available at this late date to the people of America, of American families, of American jobs. I feel keenly aware in these poems of the forces of place and history that whip around us like stormwinds, how we hollow out a place for ourselves and our loves to continue to exist by bellowing back into the gale.
Danniel kindly agreed to field some questions I had about America and about poetry, and tell us what we need to know about violation, punctuation, mother geese, editors, Texas, liberty, and pushing a rock forever up a hill.
KN: Your poems are made out of lines, but some of those lines are also sentences. What is the relationship between a line and a sentence?
DS: I’m infatuated with the sentence, how policed the sentence is by the person reading it. But what infatuates me most about this is disgust. I decided a long time ago, when writing the Barricade poems, that punctuation was a small tyranny to me. I want a poem to have tensions. And one of the tensions I love in a poem is when punctuation is absent and the words clash while still pushing ahead. It’s a meddling with how we’re taught to read language. I’d love someone to take American Barricade and punctuate it, because so many of the poems and the lines are long, meandering sentences with the commas and dashes and colons thrown out. Not all of them though, because sometimes there’s no other way, and you have to be smarter than your own laws. Another tension I love in a poem, and one of the major forms of the Barricade poems, is when an utterance is violated by punctuation. The violation I’m talking about happens when punctuation is used in the wrong way. These are the poems in the book where a period end-stops a line in the middle of its utterance, and the next line continues that utterance as though it were a new sentence. The poem in the book that commits this crime the most is called “Genealogy.” This isn’t how we’re taught to talk, taught to read, taught to hear. And that’s what I mean when I say the sentences are policed. The punctuation is enforcing the poem and the language inside it in a way that we tell ourselves is far afield of the rules we agreed upon.
KN: Some of these poems tell us in their titles that they are genealogies, ledgers, alibis. Some claim to be from an album of family photos. Others remind us they are poems. Why do they do this?
DS: Expectation’s pushed to the forefront of how we live our lives in this last decade. Our names, what we look like, who we surround ourselves with, what we photograph, what we listen to, where we go—we tend to collect these scraps about a person before we ever meet them, which makes the moment of meeting a person boil over with expectation. With the possible exception of acting, I think expectation occurs in poetry more than any other art. American Barricade, from its title, to the name of the guy who wrote it, to the poems inside it, is a book that wants to defy expectation. I don’t mean evading or thwarting expectation. I mean introducing the reader to a wrongness, an unfamiliarity, that allows a rift to open up in the poem and the experience of reading it. For instance a poem that announces itself as a genealogy is also halted, in a jarring way, by its end-stopped lines, as though the lines of the family tree are being cut short. This same poem thinks it can ignore matrimony and motherhood and fails in ways that expose its own jackshit thinking. But then a poem that announces itself as a “lullaby” will physically take the form of a family tree, while the words that compose the poem are about a violent government overthrow. If this is a lullaby, it’s a failed lullaby at best. The failure of names, our failure to live up to the names we are given—whether those names are son, father, friend, sonnet, United States, mother, wife, lullaby, husband, America, you name it—is a thought I can never shake loose. Like as soon as you name a thing you begin to mark it with its own incommensurability to what you’ve called it to do. I think this is what the poems that announce themselves as “Poems” in the book are depicting psychologically for the voice that speaks them. The titles are suppressions, in a way. There’s four of them: “Poem for Four Years,” “Poem in Three Deaths,” “Poem Four Years Too Late,” and “Poem for a Seven Hour Flight.” These titles all try to pack themselves down into numbers, into units, which is an attempt to hammer the trauma in the poems into something measurable and digestible. They each try to announce themselves as “poems” as a way of saying, I’m not writing about my life, I’m writing a poem. But what becomes clear as you read these poems is that they’re failing to fool even themselves and they are in fact very autobiographical and break the barrier on their own attempts at suppressing their trauma.
KN: Many of the poems in this book were published previously in journals, including the Colorado Review; the Family Album poems were published in a chapbook last year from Poor Claudia. What are, as you see it, the relationships between the poet, poems, and publications?
DS: 49% of me loves how rabid I feel when editors grin and show their fangs at a poem like they want to rob the nest and change the work in order to fit their editorial vision. The reason I say 49% is I’m comparing myself to a mother goose defending her young ones from wolves, which is an insane event if you’ve ever witnessed it. 51% of me loves collaborative editing, and I’ve been lucky to work with editors, of journals and chapbooks and books, who understand that I’m not the kind of writer who just turns in a pile of poems and says, Okay you make it a book.
I think you have to feel that rabies toward your work. It’s not kill your darlings for me. It’s more like: nobody’s killing my darlings unless I kill my darlings and I’ll kill any wolf who thinks otherwise. I’m sorry to use this language of violence but it’s violent, isn’t it. Probably nothing could be less urgent than an argument over a hyphen, but I’ve twice landed myself in wars of attrition with editors over hyphens. They threw the books at me, I waved my dirks at them. One of my best friends in poetry became one of my best friends in poetry because we chewed each other out for days over the final line of a poem. She wanted the last line to be the first line and I said, Do you know this is like you’re asking me to call in a bomb threat on myself. I try to maintain 49% of this confounding hostility, because editor to me, as a concept, has always been a position of authority toward which I feel resistance. It’s another job where someone can police your work. It’s another job where someone legitimizes you. “Don’t lose your arrogance yet,” Berryman tells Merwin in a poem that I love. And because I’m an editor of a poetry series too, I do encourage people to feel this same confounding hostility toward me, to feel arrogance toward me. I’ve called for line edits and title changes before, and I’ll have nothing but respect for any poet who says, Do you think this is some sort of parlor game when he answers. What works for me, I’m grateful to say, is never forgetting that editors are people and not forces of resistance. They want to introduce people to art that moves them, but none of them can write your poem or steal your eggs.
KN: You traveled a great deal this fall reading from American Barricade, including a reading in Denver. What is the most American place you were this year? How did you know?
DS: When I think about the time I spent in Texas, it’s always the blue hour and it’s filled with sundown light, like the summer kind. Which is strange because I was there in October. I can hardly say what it was about Texas, but Texas was the place where I felt most dislodged from myself, my citizenship, the country itself. And that isolationism, oddly enough, was the feeling that was most strikingly American to me. I mean the beauty of that word is we have no idea, any of us, what it means. It’s a glimpse of a world that doesn’t exist. And Texas was a lasting glimpse. Talking trash with a taxi driver, drinking in the sun with poets. A bartender handed me some road money, I turned off a shower faucet and a pianist was playing Chopin in the next room. I saw old New York friends there, I drank a glass of wine in a sports car. Saw the bats in Austin and I wasn’t ashamed and I ran in the cemeteries and ate the eggs. One of the headstones in the war memorial says this: out of tragedy we were formed, out of love we continue. I’m not sure how one knows. It’s all a fiction, and when you’re unaware you’re writing it you’re hallowed, or sanctified, or doomed, but it’s different than fooling yourself.
KN: What is a family? What is a job? What is an American?
DS: I resist the question, if only because the answers I would give would just as soon crumble in the face of how beautiful and unwieldy these questions can be. I’ve witnessed a few families, on the blood and kin level, who did arrive at that apotheosis of love and money and poise that we tell ourselves is the goal of this country. Which is to say maybe the question for me is what’s an American family, what’s an American job, what’s America. All of which are answerless questions. Where my own family is concerned, it was a strange and wondrous upbringing, full of walls and art and silence and mystery, full of bamboo and war and divided nations, and my upbringing taught me what I don’t want to inflict upon the world. I feel an immense, fatalist debt of gratitude toward my family, because the way in which I was raised has led me into a life where I’m answering this question, and I’m grateful to answer this question. I don’t feel the same gratitude at all when it comes to jobs in this country. I remember learning the definition of energy in grade school: the capacity of a body or system to do work. I was a wily kid, and hyper, and the teacher pointed to me laughing and said, well you’re going to make a great worker. I say this to carve a distinction between work and job. Over the years my definitions of both words have hardened around art and money. A job is what you do to earn a living, maybe. But work is what you do to live. Or a job is what you do to make money. And work is what you do to make life meaningful. I’ve never felt any kind of freedom inside a family or a job because I was never given the freedom to choose. The work you’re undertaking when you make art is the work of making decisions, choosing language and brush strokes so you can say how you hear and see the world, which has felt to me in the past years like what liberty means. Though I still have no idea what an American is, what America is. And maybe that’s where I’ve arrived: an American is someone who is always asking what an American is. And never finding an answer, because there’s never freedom inside his answer. Which is of course what makes this whole fiasco absurd and beautiful and it’s our version of pushing a rock forever up a hill in hell.