Over the past few years, I’ve seen Danniel Schoonebeek read three times, mostly from poems that appeared in his book Trebuchet. At every reading, I got the kind of spiritual and political catharsis that I’m always looking for in great writing. In both American Barricade (YesYes Books, 2014) and Trébuchet (University of Georgia Press, 2016), I was thrilled to find poetry that engaged critically and assiduously with the country we’ve inherited. His work is unafraid, concerned for the well-being of our world and the people in it, and aesthetically pressurized. I had the privilege of interviewing him over email about his previous work and the novel he’s currently writing.
As a poet, you’ve used a variety of modes: you’ve written poems grounded in a scene, like “LaGuardia” and “Whole Foods,” and poems that allude to events but revolve around a premise, like “Glasnost.” How has the transition to the novel been? Do you feel a relationship between the poetry-making muscles and the prose-writing ones?
Scene, the word you use, is a good place to start. I’m a television junkie. I spend a lot of time thinking about the episode and the scene as forms, and because I grew up with a father who is a photographer and a brother who is a painter, I spent unruly chunks of my childhood looking at the world through viewfinders and frames, little scenes frozen in time. I love the way an episode frames time and a scene frames the characters within it. I love when characters act differently from one scene to the next, different frame, different behavior.
When it comes to poetry, I often think of poems as episodes, which maybe means the books are seasons in that analogy. That could account for some of the convulsive shifts in tone and behavior in my poems. Some poems are season openers, some poems are bottle episodes, some poems are finales. An episode is built from a series of scenes, much in the same way that a poem is built from a series of lines. I often ask myself, in a given poem, where the camera is located. Whose perspective is being forced?
I think all of this thinking broke me in for writing a novel, or at least broke me in for writing the novel I wanted to write, which is a book composed of scenes. I’ve said in the past that I wanted to write a book about nothing—an obvious homage to another television show I love—but I also wanted to write a book in which every scene captures a feeling, whether that feeling is paranoia or obsession or doom. I also want every sentence to be interesting, much in the same way that every line in a poem should be interesting and every scene in an episode of TV should be interesting.
Tell me more about wanting “a book about nothing.” It seems to brush up against the standard form of a novel.
Maybe a book about nothingness is a better way to put it. In the novel, I use an epigraph from the French writer Edouard Levé, author of a punishing book called Autoportrait, and though I wouldn’t call the book I’m writing autofiction, I do think it’s handcuffed to a specific problem, which is the question of what happens to a person when he gets laid off in the United States.
If we want to use The Inferno as a corollary: quitting a job is sort of paradise, getting fired from a job can be literal hell, but a person who finds himself laid off from a job in the United States often finds himself in limbo. It’s an in-between state whose setting is nothingness. I’m trying to speak to this problem, and while I think the story I’m telling offers some answers, it’s probably more honest to say that the answer is the story itself.
I like when TV critics describe the stories they love less in terms of narrative and more in terms of the atmosphere or vibe they allow their audiences to live inside. The question for that audience becomes whether or not they want to hang out inside that world, with that voice, for three hours or 30 minutes or a few hundred pages. As much as I’m writing a book about nothing, I’m writing a book that wants you to hang out with me for a few hundred pages.
Much of your work is fiercely political. Many of the poems in Trébuchet, for example, pick up a kind of force that makes them feel almost like songs shouted at a rally. Should readers expect a similar kind of political fervor in your novel?
I’m writing a book that wants to be a good hang, but I’m also trying to write a book that’s a snapshot of what it felt like to live in the United States in 2013. Within that, I’m trying to depict the American workforce and the publishing industry at that time. Six years ago feels like twenty years ago, doesn’t it? We were at a tipping point in 2013, both culturally and artistically. Issues that are now at the forefront of our cultural thinking—whether that’s Black Lives Matter, MeToo, fascism, gender fluidity, intersectionality—were not a part of the everyday dialogue in 2013. The mundanity of that year is staggering, and yet it was only six years ago.
In that sense, if we want to call it political, I think my two previous books of poetry are kin with this book. American Barricade and Trébuchet, now that I look back at them, were both books of poetry written with a non-singular voice in order to capture a singular feeling, which I think is also true of this novel. But I’m a much different storyteller than I am a poet. With this book I want to tell a story about a white person of some privilege watching his scaffolding crumble around him, and I want to depict how corrosive the universe of unemployment can be under late capitalism.
Something I found remarkable about Trébuchet was how relevant it feels to our culture today, despite being written during the Obama years. A writer who is drawn to specific political issues seems to risk the possibility that their work will become outdated as quickly as our society changes. I guess it’s safe to say that you’re willing to take that risk?
There’s this audio clip of Joe Strummer [lead vocalist of The Clash]: he’s being needled by a journalist who keeps asking him if he really thinks his music can change the world. Partly because of bad teeth, and partly because he grew up in Surrey, Strummer was famously slurry. His response to the question is staccato and angry, and he says, “I’m sick of being asked this question, of course my music can’t change the world…but it might be ‘a changing of the bkjaskdjf.’”
It’s unclear which word he’s using: a changing of the mind, the blind, the mold? What I love about that clip is that all possibilities are true. Artists aren’t presidents, nor are they lawmakers. Artists choose to write about politics or failed love or a toothbrush they find in the grass because they’re compelled to do so, but if they bring a certain inevitability and fury to any of those disparate subjects, a change can be enacted in anyone within that blast radius.
I’d also like to be clear that I don’t think making “political” work is more noble or ethical than making work that decidedly isn’t. There’s no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism, and there’s no such thing as ethical literature under capitalism. Look at the tags on your clothes or the food you eat or the social media you populate. Everything is snared in this trap and the publishing industry is not exempt. I just happen to be a writer who is particularly interested in throwing gas on that fire, in both senses of the phrase.
To your question, I’d say no, I feel no risk. If anything the writing itself is the risk. However long this country lasts, your question will be the one that tells our story. I reject the idea that writing is political in and of itself in favor of the truth that participating in United States culture is political in and of itself.
Do I think writing a poem about assassinating the president will compel a person to do so? I don’t think I do. But do I want to make work that drags that question into the room?
Many of your poems focus on interrogating contemporary life with contemporary language, but I really sat up in my chair when I saw them move into more imaginative modes. Fantasy, hyperbole and imagination do a lot of work with regards to the political substance in Trébuchet. The book starts with the line, “These poems were written to land you on a government watch list,” and in the same poem, the reader is told that, “The time of writing books that don’t send us to jail is dead.” In “Glasnost,” we’re dropped into the head of someone planning to assassinate the president. I also recall one of my favorite poems in American Barricade, where you imagine a riot at a Whole Foods. In other poems, you invoke a pre-modern world, with pastoral allusions and direct references to Greek warriors and poets. At one point there’s a mysterious red woman making prophecies. The weapon that gives the book its name brings to mind medieval and even fantastical realms. What drew you toward using the language of fantasy to capture political realities?
If there’s a poem, at least for me, that has all the feeling of Trébuchet baked most potently into it, it’s probably “Archilochos.” Imagining the Greek polis is unfathomable, so it demands some fantasizing to arrive there. It’s crazy to me that we have a living record of a warrior-poet, a spearman who executed people in service of the state, writing poems against the state. So I wrote a poem in which I imagined him yelling at the government in the 21st century.
It’s been said that many of the great Eastern European post-war poets—whether that’s Vasko Popa or Zbigniew Herbert, or even Charles Simic—turned to surrealism as a traumatized reaction to the atrocities of WWII. I’m compelled by this thought, that we beat back into the imagination when the narrative in front of us is too atrocious and destructive to play a part.
Although we haven’t dealt with mass global war in the United States in this century, we have been experiencing a slow-burn, relentless brand of destruction that makes us beat back into the imagination all the same. I think maybe it’s because the imagination is one of the only rooms into which no one can violently enter with a weapon unless the imagination allows it.
Who are you reading these days?
One book I’ve been reading for years, and which was indispensable toward my thinking about Trébuchet as a book, is W.S. Merwin’s The Lice. I have a bizarre relationship to that book: I carry it around with me, often without reading it, on the off-chance that I think I’ll need it in order to dispel the incoherence I feel around me in the world. I had the insane fortune, while I was a plucky young poet at a state school, of meeting Merwin and Adrienne Rich on the same day. They were visiting my school for a reading and were gracious enough to drop in on a class I was taking. Merwin told us he’d been re-reading Faulkner, which was weird fortuity, because unbeknownst to him he was sitting in on a class about Faulkner.
He said he was moved by the affection he feels toward certain books when he knows, in his memory, that he loves them, but hasn’t read them for decades and then courses back through them and falls back in love with them in a new way, a way that’s separate from the first way he loved them. I remember I’d read a story in which he was asked, before a reading, if he was planning on reading one of his most famous poems, “Separation,” and Merwin just kind of shrugged and said no, indicating that some poems get trotted out for so many years, and strike upon such a particular nerve, that you just lose all emotional ability to read them aloud. Which is true, I think. When it came time for the Q&A, I asked him if it was possible to have the same relationship with one’s own work that one has with works by authors that one hasn’t read in decades, if it was possible to return to one’s work and find something in it that one didn’t love in the past. If I remember correctly he sort of stared into the middle distance and then turned to our professor and told him he had a good crop of students. That was his answer: the kids are alright.
They [Merwin and Rich] were two of the least pretentious poets I’ve ever met. What I’ll never forget is how much they respected and seemed to genuinely love each other. They sat onstage together that night while they were reading—which is uncommon if you think about it—and I can still see how intently and affectionately they listened to each other’s readings. It’s bewildering to me that they’re gone, which isn’t news to anyone, but I’d always felt that the world was a place less vulnerable to madness while they were breathing the air.