Daphne Gottlieb is the author and editor of nine books, winner of the Audre Lorde Award in Poetry and the Firecracker Award, has performed cross-country with the likes of Lydia Lunch, with Slam America and Sister Spit, at South by Southwest, Lollapalooza (when it was worth claiming) and so many others, was the poetry editor of Lodestar Quarterly and Other Magazine, and her work has been adapted into theater and mixed into music. She is an institution of revolution. Recently, she released her latest book, 15 Ways to Stay Alive (Manic D Press)—you can watch footage from her release party here.
We talked for about an hour, at the beginning of April, in Dolores Park. What follows is part 2 of a 2-part, near-verbatim transcription of our conversation. Read part 1 here.
EK: Yeah I don’t know; talk to me more about that [how “poetry is giving poetry a bad name”]. I feel like that’s true. I mean—it’s really for at least a long time all that I did slash do, is go to readings, you know? And there’s a lot of smart people who understand how to wield the language in certain ways, but I feel like most people don’t have an agenda at all. Like they don’t know why they’re creating or what they’re trying to say even—they’re just trying to express themselves, which is
DG: It’s OK.
EK: admirable in itself and obviously something I support as often as I can, you know.
DG: Right, right.
EK: That’s pretty much what I do. But at the same time I think it’s important that there are people who—
DG: I think that language evolved because we had a need to communicate with each other; language is about communication, and if we didn’t have the need to say Hey your face is on fire, we’d still be grunting and pointing at each other. And I think that in this culture who gets to speak and about what is incredibly politicized, and it has to do with luxury time and luxury topics, and what are prevailing concerns, and so on some level I find some fronts of the avant-garde offensive. I mean it’s fine if you want to talk in language that approximates word salad, but I’m not gonna sit around for it.
EK: Yeah. Some of the poems that I’ve read in here it’s refreshing that, you know, they just don’t seem like poems a lot of the time, which I don’t know. It makes me smile. Because they are poems.
DG: Can you say how you mean that?
EK: Yeah I mean like for instance the language is not trying to be poetic. It’s not poetic. The message of the language is by far the most important thing, and it’s doing something straightforward at least, and it’s—I feel like there’s so much poetry that doesn’t attempt to do anything or to communicate directly that it sticks out as something that does. You know it’s like Woah What Is This, it’s not … it’s ordered like a poem, you know, I mean it’s structured like a poem, and it’s definitely not like a polemic…
DG: Well I think everything’s on a continuum. On one end language is completely transparent, and at another language is completely opqaue. And I think you can have poetry all along that continuum; is it about a topic or is it about the language, or is it both? But I think those choices have ramifications.
EK: Yeah. What’s the process for you, does it vary for every poem? For poems for instance that aren’t collections of items that you’ve come across. Do you find yourself starting with an idea or like an image, or?
DG: So it’s like an idea, it’s just external.
EK: Do you find yourself often leaving rooms and situations in passionate Must Go Write This Down or react to this on paper?
DG: No! [laughs] Rarely. If ever. Yeah I don’t carry a notebook, I don’t do any of the good writerly things that you’re supposed to do.
DG: I don’t write every day. Someone actually said with five books of poetry you must be really disciplined. But I’m really not. They’re like You’re prolific, but I’m really not. I go in and out of season. I won’t write for months and then all of a sudden I’ll write like I’ve got a fever. …
This week I’ve been getting all these emails from kids, because it’s forensic season. It started with just getting emails saying What year were you born with no context, and I was not gonna answer. Like why do you want to know? [laughs]
EK: People you don’t know?
DG: People I don’t know. From Texas and Arkansas and South Carolina and I’m like Why do you want to know? They’re like Because I’m a high school student and I’m performing your work in forensic competition, and it needs to be a poet born after 1960. I’m like well I was born after 1960, you’re fine. And that’s been a little odd.
DG: Yeah. It’s been great.
DG: Somehow I’ve offered something to the culture where high school girls are reading about killing men. [Laughs] My work is done.
EK: Wouldn’t your parents be proud.
DG: My parents would be very proud. My parents would be very proud.
EK: What were some of the—I don’t know, tell me some of the moments you’ve had, like whether you were performing your own poetry that stands out as amazing, or lackluster, or … that’s gotta be a watershed moment when some high school student across the country is like I’m choosing your poem to represent who I am, you know.
DG: Yeah. Yeah. That was pretty great. Um. I don’t know! On good days, I feel so privileged to be part of the conversation that’s happening, and to be engaged in it and allowed to be engaged in it; that’s the high part.
EK: You definitely talk about that some, in this book, at least. You talk about the privilege of expression. There’s a war going on and you’re allowed to feel emotions even, that are just personal, whether it’s about love or, you know. […]
This is going to be a weird question.
EK: How do you balance the feeling that you’re influencing the conversation that is spanning at least the confines of this country, right, and you go into a small bar in your neighborhood to do a reading for a lot of people that you know or, who maybe are in various stages of this conversation, you know, or not even in it at all. They’re just wanting to have some drinks or something.
DG: It’s poetry—it’s a few people talking to a few people [laughs]. I mean that’s the other side of it, right? I mean we’re talking really low stakes. Really low stakes. I mean a bestselling poetry book in America sells about 2,000 copies, and that’s why a lot of presses won’t and don’t publish it. And there are no poets in America today who make a living simply off writing poems and publishing poems. They’re all teachers or speakers or something like that. So economically it makes no sense to be a poet. Given poetry’s reputation sometimes it’s hard to admit you’re a poet. What do you write? Poetry, and all of a sudden everyone thinks of high school girls and their notebooks. Little hearts on the cover.
EK: Talking about horses.
DG: Talking about horses.
EK: Well have you considered doing the tour thing again?
DG: You know, I have. I don’t think I’m gonna do another 6-8 weeks on the road, going all over the place, which is too bad because it’s like the Ashevilles, and the Baltimores and all these places that I’m not going to get to that are really interesting and exciting to me. But I know I’m going to do New York and Boston, I think Amherst. I’m hoping to do LA and Chicago, also. It’s really a matter of time off work and finances.
EK: Do you have moments when you just wish you weren’t a poet; you feel like people are born poets and some people think that—maybe speaking more generally about writers—some people believe that anybody can be a writer. But I disagree with that and I think some people would say that you’re born with something that, whether it’s keen observation, abilities to observe things, or a need to express something that is more integral to who you are …
DG: I think if you’re writing or if you’ve written you’re a writer. Like I said, I believe language is communication and that’s sort of the point. But a lot of the days it’s hard to know if that’s the best use of my time. I mean I don’t know if I want this in the interview but now I work with the homeless, and that’s really changed the way that I feel about my time and activism and making change in the world. I think the poetry is a lousy form of activism; it doesn’t really change much. And maybe we can point to one or two historical times when a poem has started a revolution or a rebellion or an uprising, but it doesn’t happen that often, and if you consider the odds of—if you put the number of poems next to the number of political acts, it would be pretty slim.
I think poems can offer comfort, like you know the prisoners from Guantanamo, there’s a book of poems from them out, which I haven’t read but I’d be interested in reading. But in terms of trying to repair the world, in terms of trying to make change, in terms of spending my time and what’s the best way of making change in that amount of time is, I don’t think it’s writing poetry. So it becomes harder and harder for me to justify.
… You were asking about highlights.
DG: Someone told me that they read my poems to their new lover in bed. That was a highlight. Someone told me that their house was on fire and they grabbed my book. That was a highlight. Um.
DG: and that she took the time to tell me that was a highlight.
EK: Damn. I remember so proudly last June at that Neighborhood Heroes show, I was so proud to tell Sarah Fran that hers was the only book I bought all year. It was like literally, I don’t have money for coffee; I bought your book. I took a lunch break, I rode my bike to SPD and I bought it from the warehouse, and then I went back to work, totally poor. She was just like, Wow, thanks. That doesn’t really hold a candle to grabbing your book from the flames! Fuck.
DG: YEAH IT DOES.
EK: What are you working on right now?
EK: How did you get involved in that?
DG: A friend of a friend needed an editor for the project, and contacted me. By virtue of my poetic obsessions, actually. They were like, Daphne would be a really good fit.
EK: Wow. How’s that process been?
DG: Amazing. Really amazing.
EK: So you have just a box of letters, how did that—
DG: PDFs of letters.
DG: Yeah. The originals are still safely tucked away.
EK: Yeah. And so your job is to compile them. What’s the process like?
DG: There are so many letters that need to be—there were more than a million words there.
DG: Yeah. She wrote multiple letters a day—she didn’t really have much else to do—and rather than deciding which letters to use we decided to edit down the letters, to condense them, and it’s been a process of weeding them, of deciding what are the most important preoccupations of hers, how to be true to her voice in a condensed fashion. How to let her get her truth out. Because that’s really the point of this whole project. She has been overwritten by everyone from Hollywood to the tabloids to documentary filmmakers. And this is a chance for her—if we do our job right—for her to speak for herself.