Interview with Danniel Schoonebeek on Trébuchet — June 20, 2017

Danniel Schoonebeek is the author of American Barricade (YesYes Books, 2014) and Trébuchet, a 2015 National Poetry Series selection (University of Georgia Press, 2016). A recipient of a 2015 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from Poetry Foundation, recent work appears in Poetry, The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.

Christopher Nelson: Your book reminded me of the paradox of the fantastic: that by directing us to the unreal—the dead dancing to American Bandstand, the blood of a wounded buffalo becoming the first child in the kingdom—we are able to better understand the real. Can you tell us how you came to the style in Trébuchet?

Danniel Schoonebeek: When I wrote the poems in my first book, American Barricade, I wanted them to feel agitated by a certain political itch, capitalism writ large you could probably call it, and I wanted that itch to infect the family power dynamics within the book and ultimately poison the well. The engine for agitating the poems in the first book was a hostile, police-like grammar, which often made the poems feel pushed around and forced into lyric sequences they never asked for. With Trébuchet, which I think of as an answer to American Barricade (this book being the apparatus that breaks through the barricade of the first book, so to speak), I wanted the poems to break through those same lyric barriers and create a kind of whirlpool into which all the stylistic driftwood of my poems got sucked. That’s the kind of poetry I find myself needing the most right now: a work that defies its own borders in real time and follows itself through the lines with attention toward the abandon it needs.

As I was writing the book, I also couldn’t stop thinking about Kate Bernheimer’s essay “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale.” She talks about how readily we accept the absurd logic in folk tales and fairytales as though it’s gospel truth. Once upon a time, a wolf climbed a bean stalk to heaven, and so on. It’s a beautiful idea when applied to the mythic tradition. It’s a terrifying, scummy idea when applied to politics and civilization. So I wanted to write a triptych of poems in which that absurd logic takes over a world and has terrible consequences for civilization. In “The Dancing Plague,” a young girl with a flare for collecting spoons comes back from the dead to dig a tunnel that helps a group of so-called “hostiles” destroy the community of husbands who raised her. In “Red Smear,” a drop of blood that falls from an animal’s snout becomes a young girl who can’t stop growing and eventually turns the whole world red herself. In the book’s final poem, “Dark-Eyed Junco Was Her Name,” a woman who sweats pure alcohol outlives a community of men who are addicted to her perspiration and kill each other over the last jar of alcohol when she suddenly stops sweating. Though they’re spread across the entire book, these three poems are supposed to tell a single narrative, and the girl / woman in each poem is the same person. 

Nelson: The triptych has such a fascinating and horrifying mood. “Dark-Eyed Junco Was Her Name” is formally quite different from the other two, being spread across many pages with very short lines—sometimes one line on a page—and disorienting syntax. I read the hostiles as a kind of chorus, amplifying the drama, speaking en masse and often at variance. Are you interested in writing for the stage or screen? I think the triptych could be a blueprint for an unforgettable play.

Schoonebeek: I’m crazy about television, which I tell myself I watch because the formal obstacles are so compelling to me—casting ensembles that work, editing episodes down to 23 minutes or 56 minutes, plus storyboarding and soundtracking and location scouting and season arcs and callback and call forwards. I love scripts, especially comedic scripts, and often read them before I watch certain shows. I’m also fascinated by the serial demands of tv, specifically the 21st century desire to write and film shows that are compelling for season after season, which is probably why I’ve written two books of poems that are so deliberately in conversation with each other. The books are maybe season 1 and season 2 of my work.

What interests me most about film is the self-contained scene, and I’m constantly asking myself questions like “where is the camera in this poem,” “how many cameras are filming this poem.” I wanted “Dark-Eyed Junco” to read cinematically, single-camera, like a poem made up of 42 scenes, and the page-breaks themselves could be the jump-cuts between those scenes. What I’ve loved about poetry over the last few years is that it exists outside of the horrible bureaucracy of tv and film—casting actors, finding producers and studio money, endless 30-second publicity pressers—but it can still create the same lightning those two art forms create.

All of that being said I’ve never written a script, and I’m appalled when great writers fail at writing screenplays so brilliantly that it’s almost hypnotic. But maybe I’ll try one day.

Nelson: The world of Trébuchet—as I read it—is a world of ruin or being ruined or post-ruin, but your language is remarkably creative (in the most denotative sense). Do you see poetry as a redemptive act for our world(s)?

Schoonebeek: I don’t, no, and I wouldn’t say that’s specific to poetry for me either. I don’t think any art should demand of itself that it tries to be redemptive, and I don’t think art should necessarily aspire to redeem. I think medicine and shelter and clothing and food and love are redemptive. But poetry to me is inciteful, which is not to say insightful. The poetry I love, like all the art I love, incites something in me, as I hope art does for everyone. Sometimes what that work incites is emotional empathy, which makes us love each other (and ourselves) better as humans, and sometimes what that work incites is political outrage, which makes us hopefully get out in the streets and act better as humans. The greatest works of art I’ve experienced in my life have not allowed me to heal any cuts or cure any ills or pay my rent, but they’ve pointed to a clearing through which I can heal those cuts and fight those ills and fuck my rent. That pointing in itself isn’t redemptive—at least not for me, especially since I’m also wary of the monetary connotations of the word redeem—but it’s an inciteful act through which one might work to alter one’s course for the better.

Nelson: I feel that during the writing of these poems—with their atmospheres of violence and threats and promise of nightmare—you intuited the American political reality of early 2017. What do you think is in store for us in the next couple of years?

Schoonebeek: An earlier version of this book was titled Ruin Value, named so after fascist architect Albert Speer’s theory that buildings should be designed and built in such a way that they leave ruins that are beautiful to look at when they fall. It was an idea that sickened and fascinated me—creating something by starting from the vantage point of its destruction. Ultimately I decided it was probably a bad idea to title my own book of poems after a fascist design theory (and ultimately I went with a weapon that might destroy a building built with ruin value in mind), but the book’s epigraph is a made-up, destroyed version of some of those ideas.

I hadn’t known this Dickinson poem at the time when I was writing the book, but I’ve been unable to stop thinking about these lines of hers in the past few months: “Ruin is formal—Devil’s work / Consecutive and slow— / Fall in an instant, no man did / Slipping—is Crash’s law.” I’m wary of saying I can see down the road for this country, that’s a trap for any writer, but I think we’ve begun traveling toward a ruin that’s formal and slow. And I think there’s shades of ruin value smeared all over the administration that’s currently hornswoggled its way into power. The sense I get is that there’s a denial, an outright disdain for the idea that we should leave the planet, the countries that populate the planet, the states and regions that populate those countries, the cities that populate those states, and the communities that populate those cites, with an inhabitable world after we are long, long dead. There seems to be this hysterical, cash-grab, fuck-all mentality that’s risen to power. The misery behind it is deafening. And it’s a total ruin value mentality. They don’t want to leave behind a legacy that can allow other people to live, they want to leave behind a pile of ruins that their own select kin can look at and say, well look how well we did while we were in power.

Nelson: The Dickinson lines are haunting, and they resonate with the themes of Trébuchet, which opens with the line, “These poems were written to land you on a government watch list.” You mentioned previously that you are drawn to poetry that “incites something in me.” What do you hope these poems—or your poetry in general—incites in readers?

Schoonebeek: My work, at least for me, comes out of (and breaks away from) a punk tradition, which often places provocation and agitation at its forefront without being prescriptive about what it’s meant to provoke or who it’s meant to agitate. That always endeared me to punk: the music was both a slap in the face of public taste and and a wake-up slap for the people who loved the songs and went to the shows. I’ve left so many of those same shows with a livewire sputtering around inside my head and gone home and asked myself what happens next with all that energy. And it’s not like it’s unspent, leftover energy. It’s energy that didn’t previously exist in its place.

So I try not to be prescriptive in my work about what the work is meant to incite, though the title poem, as you point out, is extremely prescriptive about what it’d like you to do about the work. Steal the book, fire the book out of a catapult at the White House, burn the book to keep your house warm. I’d love my work to incite any of those events, and I’d love if someone read the title poem and it incited them to write a poem or attend a rally or quit their job or tell someone they love that they love them. The conflict between those two incisions, so to speak, is something I try to embrace. I want to write my poems and read them in such a way that people hearing them or reading them go home with an energy that didn’t previously exist.

Nelson: I see that sort of ambiguous agitation and provocation in your poem “Neutrality,” where your bio is obliterated—most letters missing, as if the page were shot-gunned or somehow violently erased—and interwoven with descriptions of a torturous interrogation. I appreciate how much you leave implicit in your work; neutrality, for example, can suggest complicity in terror, or neutrality could be a kind of ghost’s existence, as if the unwillingness to take sides is an erasure. Does that resonate with you?

Schoonebeek: I’d first say that writing a poem where you splice your own bio with fragments from a declassified government document about torture is inherently absurd, and to that extent I wanted the poem to be explicit, almost like an intentionally failed work of visual art, where a person might see the poem and register a total sense of wrongness about it. To the degree that the poem is implicit, I was drawn to this font that artist Ben Sisto had created: it’s called Times Sans Neutrality, and all the letters in the phrase “network neutrality” are omitted from the font itself, which causes it to appear as an erasure in real time when typing. To me that font beautifully demonstrated the erosion of self that the internet inevitably creates.

To take a side road: I was always struck by Faulkner’s insistence in his writing that violence and brutality not only destroy the victim but also destroy the victee, thereby poisoning everyone involved—obviously not in the same ways or to the same degree, but poisoning everyone involved undeniably—and I wanted that to also rest implicitly within the poem. Something as mundane and navel-gazing as crafting one’s bio could be inherently destroyed as a piece of language by the fact that one is a so-called American poet, living in a country that is committing atrocities in service of pretending that it wants artists, and humans writ large, to flourish.

Nelson: How do you navigate that contradiction?

Schoonebeek: I get asked this question a lot, and for me it’s the essential question writers and artists should be asking themselves right now, regardless of genre or school or form. I’ll start by saying that over the last few years I’d begun to feel myself turning away from beauty as an end-goal of making art. I also started refusing l’art pour l’art as a slogan as I became more and more determined to think of poetry as a living, a labor through which one creates a life’s work. If you treat l’art pour l’art as a kind of equation, and you try to solve that same equation via other forms of making a living, an unsolvable problem quickly arises, since no on earth is doing back-breaking roofing work for the sake of doing back-breaking roofing work, to use one example.

Some might say that’s a false equivalency, but it nevertheless created this obstacle for me, this problem where “the poet”—as a laborer, a worker, someone making a living writing poetry—was an inherently privileged position that was cordoned off from other parts of the country and encouraged the poet to privilege beauty over creating work for the people whose selfsame work helped the poet live in that country. It hurts your brain when you start to wrestle with it. So I found myself wanting to write poems that are in service of people who work—defined extremely widely—and could maybe, maybe stoke a fire for them.

Nelson: I am fascinated by how, in many poems, through omission of punctuation, unexpected word orders, and conflation of clauses you create a voice that is at once broken and authoritative—and spooky. Can you speak about this style of syntax and lineation?

Schoonebeek: I think that’s the first time anyone’s called my poems spooky and I want to stop and say thanks for that. I get gloomy a lot but this is my first spooky. Were there any lines or poems in particular that you were thinking of?

Nelson: Yes, I’m thinking of the style of “LaGuardia,” “Avellino,” and “Dark-Eyed Junco Was Her Name.” For example:

                        Began once again
                        past the barrier
                        & her work
                        was prowling
                        for apricots
                        & the cockscomb
                        when it sang      
                        the red song
                        of her prowling
                        she tore out
                        the cockscomb
                        with both fists
                        to quiet it.

Schoonebeek: As I said earlier, I wanted this book to feel like a whirlpool in which some of the poems were polemical and straightforward and then some of the poems, like “Junco,” felt like they were almost muttered through a scrim or heard through a garble by the writer. Of all the poets I love, I think Lorca hammered this idea into me the most. In his poems it’s like he’s always trying to free himself from the grip of something he’s heard in a fever dream and he can only squirm free by committing the feeling to lines. I feel the same way about Cocteau’s Orphee trilogy—to say nothing of the brilliance of the filmmaking, the lines of dialogue in those films seem to radiate off each other and occur organically, almost improvisationally, like they are caught in their own gears. Which of course makes Lorca spooky and the Orphee trilogy spooky.

I guess our modern day example of that particular spookiness is David Lynch, on whom my jury is still out. I just can’t decide if I love the work or hate the work, but maybe that’s why I like the work. What I do know I love about his work, especially the Twin Peaks remake (superfans of the show like to call it a revision or revisitation like it’s not a tried and true remake), is this feeling that something cinematically, vocally, and visually is off. It’s like a framed photograph hung askew but you can’t reach out to correct it.

This is also, to a much greater extent, what I love about Roberto Bolaño’s work, particularly 2666. The whole novel feels like it occurs in the wake of an apocalypse that no one will acknowledge publicly. I wish I could say that Bolaño influenced “Dark-Eyed Junco,” a poem that definitely exists after a kind of apocalypse and whose principle male characters try to live in denial of this fact, but I wrote the poem about two years before I first cracked the novel. But novels find us in that way, like we’re a strip of flypaper, which I will always love.

Nelson: In David Lynch’s work, an entire paradigm is out of synch with my assumptions about what reality is. I walk away from one of his films feeling—in addition to being wildly entertained—that I can’t be so certain that the world is this way or that. Trébuchet has a similar effect. One of my pleasures when reading it is the mysterious wondering about what has happened to the world to make it so different from the world I thought I knew. “Perhaps nothing,” I speculate. “Perhaps this is the world I know, and I am ignorant of it.” And I read on, stupefied.

You mentioned earlier that your books are like seasons in a TV series. Can we conclude by hearing a bit about your current work?

Schoonebeek: To the surprise of no one who’s read to the end of this interview, I’m working on a few different poems about work. One of them is a takedown of William Russell Kelly, one of the entrepreneurs behind the so-called “modern staffing industry” of the 1950s and 60s, which was essentially a racket in which male-run staffing companies farmed out underpaid, uninsured women to perform short-term work in offices around the country, after which their jobs were terminated. These women came to be known as Kelly Girls, and in particular I’m writing about a 1971 ad for the Never-Never Girl, in which the work of women is advertised to clients on the grounds that these women will never undertake any of the actions that help keep working people alive, like taking a sick day or asking for a raise or collecting unemployment. It culminates in the ad claiming these same women “never fail to please” and you don’t pay if they do.

I’m also working on a poem written through the eyes of Alan Lomax, the American ethnomusicologist, as he travels through the south with his father—John Lomax, a self-proclaimed “collector of field recordings”—while the two of them record one of the first known iterations of the “Stagger Lee” song. It’s a difficult poem to write, as the younger Lomax contributed such a tremendous wealth of recordings and ephemera to our historical archive of folk music and field recordings, but he nevertheless learned to perform this work under his own father, who had much more imperious and colonial motivations. As a poem it’s trying to peel away at some of those contradictions between work and art that we talked about above. 

I’m also at work on a book-length poem called “Record”—a poem that I’m hoping will feel like a tracking shot does in film—which takes place in and around New York City and Brooklyn on May 3, 2011, the day after the United States killed Osama bin Laden.

And last I’m working on a novel called C’est la guerre. It takes place in 2013, during the first government shutdown in seventeen years, and follows an American poet after he gets laid off from his salaried job in New York City and takes off on a book tour across the country via Amtrak.