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 1 of a 2-part, near-verbatim transcription of our conversation.
Evan Karp: Let’s start with: What makes somebody a writer? Or why do you write? —some crazy terrible question.
Daphne Gottlieb: Those are awful questions.
EK: Maybe I should start with something more direct.
DG: Well I can tell you why I write. That’s actually kind of easy and kind of direct, which is that I think I write to make sense of things that don’t make sense to me. And I think that’s why I write about death so much and I think that’s why I write about sex so much. And I think that’s why I write about love so much. And gender, actually; I think those are sort of—violence—I think those are sort of the prevailing preoccupations in my work, and I think they’re all things that I’m sort of speechless around, and so trying to find the language, trying to parse out the limits of what these things are. And also I make things that I need that don’t exist. There are things that I’ve looked for that I’ve needed; there are certain specific times in my life when I’ve needed somebody else’s words to explain what I’m feeling. Or I’ve needed my own words to explain what I’m feeling, and things that I’ve never seen that I don’t recognize, that I’ve had to build.
EK: Yeah, do you feel like—your poetry, it feels like it is violent in itself to me, a lot of the time. I wonder if that’s a response to the violence you see, or if you think that maybe it’s not worth doing if it’s not as violent and as strong as the things around you.
DG: I don’t really have a good response to that. I think that all language in some sense is violent because all language is an exclusionary act: it means this and not that… I mean, the other way is as an act of building and positing things that aren’t there. I like that you hear violence in my work; I never considered it as such, particularly. I think in representing violent things you use violent language. Maybe that’s it.
EK: Right. Yeah, I was thinking most recently just because the poems are with me, but—and I’ve only looked at them once a piece, but—you say something like ‘this is a grenade,’ and you know it’s kind of like a staccato language, some of the things are short and the imagery is dealing with the war in Darfur. And so it’s appropriate, obviously. And then the other poem about – “Poetry After Auschwitz” – also. Was it you who was telling me Tuesday night that these were remainder poems?
DG: Occasional poems.
EK: Right. I like that. I don’t know, tell me about putting this book together. Was it a different process because you had a different publisher? This is the first new publisher you’ve had for a long time, right?
DG: Yeah, yeah. I’ve worked pretty much with Soft Skull for three books, and before that with Odd Girls, and Soft Skull decided that they weren’t doing poetry anymore, sadly, this past year, so. But I’m really, really excited and proud to be working with Manic D. And I think Manic D is probably the best match that I can think of.
EK: I was excited when I found out this was going to be Manic D. It makes sense to me.
DG: What was the question?
EK: Well what was the process? Did that effect how the book formed in your head?
DG: Not really. This book is different in that it got re-envisioned at least twice—it was something and it wasn’t quite right, and it got completely overhauled a couple of times and I’ve never done that with a manuscript before. And it finally sung, it finally got where I wanted it to. But it was other things before it was this, and they weren’t right, and now it’s a right thing.
Usually I start writing poems and I find them aggregating around an idea or ideas… I mean, I’m fairly consistent in my obsessions. And then when I’ve got maybe 60% of it in place I start writing into the fissures and gaps that are there, and filling it out. And this book was different in that I started by gathering poems that I’d never published that I wanted to see in print, that had never been part of a collection. So that was really different in process. And I also had this series of breakup poems and to me there was this huge connection between history and history, you know the personal and political—political apocalypse and personal apocalypse—and going on, rebuilding, you know.
EK: Right and you—that’s interesting because you had breakup poems that had not been collected before, but you were putting this together when you were falling in love. Right?
EK: So how did that help you see those old poems complete, or did you revise them at all, or was it—
DG: Well I revise everything, I think in part that falling in love made it safe enough to touch them, and made me want to collect them, because it gave me more perspective on them, and it stopped feeling like these dirty things that I scrawled about someone in my notebook to be like, This is a legitimate thing, and it’s legitimate to make art about this. And, you know, somebody said to me You already paid for these poems in blood. Because I think I’ve been protecting the experience and the people and I felt sort of dirty about the whole thing, but I was given permission to publish them by a bunch of people.
EK: That’s something to think about, for me, that you have to pay for your art through experience before it’s legitimate enough to share with the world.
DG: I’m not sure that’s true because that would mean that you could never write a persona piece, if that was true. But I do think some poems you do pay in blood for. That you have the perspective you do by virtue of having been through something.
EK: Yes. I’ve only read a couple of your books but I feel like that could be applied to both of them. You know I read Why Things Burn. … Talk to me, I guess—kind of tangential to that – to me at least – is these endnotes. I think it’s really neat that there are multiple poems in here where you take lines exclusively either through emails or from various popular culture outlets. And how do those fit in with these very personal poems that you had? Are you able to find personal relevance in these outlets, or is it you trying to deal with the culture as a whole?
DG: Well I think both. I mean I think that we are the scrims that we read culture through, so you can’t really get away from that. But also … I lost my train of thought, sorry.
EK: It’s alright.
DG: I think I’m entranced by the idea of reading the culture back to itself, because I’m conscious that we as people and also as a culture are myth-making machines. So I’m interested in a resistance to that: what we can bend, what we can break. And by using the detritus of the culture in my work it’s a hope to somehow, you know, put a virus in the system – to use Burroughs’ language – to try and monkey wrench cultural memory.
EK: It definitely read different, you know; I mean instantly I see the culture in an entirely different way. … Do you, when you’re making those, do you, is it just, you know I guess the way I see it: I’m reading one of these poems, for instance, and I think about you putting it together, and I imagine you probably just bookmark, so to speak, things that stick out to you and then put them together. How do they form?
DG: It really depends on the piece. Usually, I start with an idea, and have to research. In an earlier work, in Why Things Burn—because I think that’s the clearest example—I was working with … I was TA for a class on Early American Literature and I started noticing that Anne Bradstreet’s Communiques With God sounded like a battered woman, so I went and I got actual texts by battered women and I added those in, and then the battered women texts reminded me of the learned helplessness texts by Seligman, where he shocked dogs, and the three of them together seemed to me to speak of a particular experience of American womanhood, the psyche of American womanhood, in a certain way. Definitely a poetic psyche of American womanhood.
EK: I remember where I was when I read that for the first time, and it blew me away. […]
DG: For “Black Beauty” and this book it started out … I don’t remember why, but I really wanted to investigate horses: you’ve got barebacking, and you’ve got horse as heroin, horse as little girl’s obsession, you know with unicorns and horses, and you’ve got all sorts of different connotations and resonances to that and cultural referents, and so I started teasing them apart. You’ve got the game of horses in the McMartin daycare trial, you’ve got, you know, it’s such an incredibly rich overdetermined province, and you start pulling apart and you can keep pulling apart and pulling apart and what you finally have is a horse made of language, and the horse isn’t there at all. You know it stops being this big animal that can bring you somewhere, or run free ‘cause it’s so laden with expectations and circumscriptions.
EK: Just say stuff [laughs]. Um,
DG: I think, I think I. What I like about this book. How bout that?
DG: What I like about this book is, I sort of have an agenda in that, you know you were talking about the End Notes before and how I make it … It’s really important to me to make my methodology clear, for my poems to be approachable. For everyone to feel smart and not dumb by my poems, because there’s a key there; whatever I am doing there’s a key there. You can figure it out. Like, it’s not arcane. It’s not obscure. There’s no attempt to slide anything by the reader, or make something more beautiful by making it fuzzy. Everything should be, if I’m doing my job right, available.
And what I like about this book is I think American poetry is in trouble; I think it’s a question of who is talking to whom and why, and I think so often it’s a conversation between the elite. So when I talk about ways to stay alive it’s also about ways to keep poetry alive, and to make it vital. And hopefully the poems in this book are all vital, whether it’s about a breakup or it’s about a protest or about a love; these are all things that are absolutely essential to everyday life in one sense or another. Or feel urgent and expedient, like the death of Anna Nicole Smith was an obsession for a day, you know, culturally.
EK: Really I mean even so much longer than that. I mean who you are and how you digest the culture—
DG: The trial—
EK: I know for instance my mom, you know, she watches TV every day like a decent bit, and I remember it just being this topic—this national topic—for weeks and weeks and weeks, and it seemed like forever. It seemed like a whole year. In fact I think it changed my perception of time. It was such a widespread topic, like everybody knew about it and talked about it that it seemed to distort my sense of reality, and it’s the kind of thing that I have a hard time coming to terms with and don’t really even have maybe the notion to try to deal with it because it’s like, in one way, I don’t really care about this person. Or her life. It’s not relevant to me. Which is of course not true.
And I also don’t, you know, want to buy into this media circus about why this is important, you know; there’s all this media about it but it’s not talking about what it actually means, you know, it’s talking about all these trite details, and it’s good to have people talking about it from another perspective. […]
What other … what poets are you reading that you feel do that for you, that make poetry important and relevant to …
DG: Ahh, there’s no safe answer to that. I mean that feels like showing you my underwear. Hm.
EK: Well you don’t have to.
EK: Tell me about your involvement in politics or in any kind of, you know I don’t want to say movement, but there’s a lot of political awareness quite intensely in your poems, I think, and I admire that; that’s not something I’m very in touch with. And I wonder if you engage in any forms of activism that are more overt—
DG: My lawyer would advise me not to answer that question.
EK: OK. Fair enough [both laugh]. I want a lawyer [laughs].
DG: No you don’t.
EK: No? OK. Good response to that.
DG: I think over time I’ve vacillated between whether any sort of activism is expedient and I still vacillate, but um… but I want to believe that, I do believe there are moments at which resistance to cultural events is absolutely essential. I feel like I’m using the same words over and over: essential and vital.
EK: Well I think that that comes through just in your persona and in your poems, also. Essential, and vital.
DG: I think there are points where the only moral thing to do is smash a window. I don’t think property damage is violence. I had a whole argument with a friend of mine, and I was like You can’t be violent to a chair.
DG: No, I’m sorry, I’m just visiting.
Guy: Where are you guys from?
Guy: You been to The Stud?
Guy: That’s a famous, famous bar here in San Francisco.
Guy: I guess maybe you’ve been there or something?
DG: I have to check it out; I found it in a thrift store yesterday.
Guy: Oh yeah it’s a famous bar, it’s been around since the 70s at least. I believe The Stud—I believe The Stud is around Harrison and 6th.
Guy: There used to be these 2, one was The Endup and The Stud, so you went to The Stud and then you ended up at The Endup. Something like that.
EK: That makes sense.
Guy: But it’s been around for decades.
DG: Right on. Thank you.
Guy: You have a good one!
EK: You too. Thanks!
DG: Stud is 9th and Harrison.
DG: [laughs] My stock response is I don’t speak English. People get very confused.
EK: That was a good response. This is all gonna make it into the interview.
DG: Oh OK.
EK: That guy. Yeah. […]
DG: Can I see a copy before you…
EK: Oh absolutely.
DG: I reserve the right to say stupid things and then change my mind [laughs].
EK: Yeah that’s OK. The main thing with these is I like to keep it conversational. I want it to be: this is 30 minutes with this person. You know? And a lot of times it shows kind of how ignorant I am—I should be more prepared, I should have … I don’t know, read all your books, and analyzed them and have specific questions for you, but I feel like part of it is I want to know why you do this and how you do it, and that’s what’s important to me as an aspiring artist and just as a person who—I want to express myself, and I want to express myself truthfully and in a way that connects me with other people.
EK: I’ve read a tiny bit. I saw him on MLK.
EK: And I was a little disappointed because he told this like hour-long story about MLK…
EK: He read like two poems and then he launched into this story that just never ended. It was like, I want to see your poetry, dude! I should have known better
DG: I think that’s one of the things that bothers me when I see poetry, when people are like Here’s what you need to know about this poem. It’s like I’m sorry couldn’t you just say that in the poem?
DG: What’s the poem doing then?
EK: I very much agree with that. Like if this is gonna be dangerous, or like powerful, then it shouldn’t be—or should it be just dangerous or powerful to a certain elite amount of people who understand it for whatever reason, you know I think that goes along with what you were saying earlier about being accessible, and having a key to everything.
DG: I think I probably have a weird enough habit of mind that nobody’s gonna follow me everywhere. You know, and that’s OK. But hopefully there’s something for most people that they can get at least on a visceral level that they can connect with. I mean I’ve been told before that I write poetry for people who don’t like poetry, or in a review—it’s not something I said about my own work, but I’m really happy to have that distinction. I used to a long time ago I thought that I wrote novels for people with really short, short attention spans, like page-long attention spans. And that’s grandiose, but I think it points again to what I sort of see as the crisis of poetry, that poetry is giving poetry a bad name.
DG: ‘Cause it’s really wonderful stuff, but it’s got all this baggage now.