I had a brief encounter with Danniel Schoonebeek in Seattle around AWP this year. I didn’t know the guy was reading and at the evening point of an AWP day such a fact is meaningless. Danniel had a FUCK ‘EM tote bag over his shoulder and it caught up the crook of my mouth as a reflection of my mood. I was even compelled to say, “hey nice bag man.” I interrupted his conversation for such; as also reflected my mood. Danniel caught my attention again when it turned out he was reading for YesYes Books. Not everyone who gets up to read poetry commands your tired attention.
When Danniel read I pegged him for a Yankee. Through my biased cultural experience, I interpreted his presence, confidence, good posture, etc., into “he’s from somewhere round New England town, maybe Boston or New York. No accent though; too well-read.” So my accompanying thought was that he was highly educated because his poems are just as confident and striking as his presence; with the feel of being built as secure as a barricade against something – impenetrable and unmoving with a few words I had never heard, but what I did recognize was a kind of American blues standard piece constructed with words and a voice, difficult-to-name sentiments I somehow know better than any golden oldie.
This voice he has written is so strong. The weight of this man’s words are to be heard, river stones falling out of the guy’s mouth. As he read on I considered Ivy League potential and how cultured the man’s parents must be, but why was I busy thinking such petty things?
I’ve traveled America extensively. I’m 31 years old and I’ve just started to discover talented poets of my own generation. I am ecstatic to learn that American Millennials even have poets. I want to know where they came from and how they managed to grow up in this country, in the dusk and dawn of the 21st century. The cultural influences of one American are not the same for another; apply the dramatic issues at hand for my generation of peers and the possibilities are endless. A lot of my peers, the intelligent, the creative, the passionate are going mad in really boring ways, or sad, or both, or maybe they’ve held on to some moral ground despite all evidence to the contrary. But either way we are in great need, just as every generation, for our own poetry. Given this century’s level of cacophony the authentic is difficult to find in anything.
I grew up thinking the old tomes of my public schooling (or in my case Military Kid schooling) inferred somehow that this type of culturally relevant and revealing writing didn’t really happen any more. In high school, cling nostalgically to the beats, Salinger or Hemingway if you really need. Observant girl? Sprinkle in some Plath and Sexton. Not that I don’t love most of these things; I am, after all, a product of that education and this country.
All of my biases being thus stated I think the interview below will reveal why Schoonebeek’s work deserves your attention. I was happy to find out that most of my assumptions were wrong. Schoonebeek is a publicly educated man and recognizes the decision to be so, a large, often moral question amongst my peers when considering the state of educational affairs in this country. The refinement of this poetry with its salted and dusty storytelling I have found to be a balm against a deep personal and collective concern for my position in time and country: here I have intelligent, relatable validation for a worldy existence that is too often too awkward. Danniel’s instinct is impressive, but instinct is a difficult thing to get into so you should probably read the man’s words, though I refer more to his poetry over anything including the interview below:
Darby Laine: I want so badly to call your book Millennial Americana. I will do so partially tongue-in-cheek, until we’ve discussed those terms and I figure out just exactly what the hell I mean. It’s important to me because the flailing culture I was born into concerns me very much. Your poetry lacks the easier attitudes of cynicism and sarcasm that so many of my intelligent peers have given into by mere force of culture, by being raised in late 20th century America. Are you actually a part of the so-named Millennial Generation? Could you tell me a bit of your personal history, your upbringing, surrounding culture and influences?
Danniel Schoonebeek: I’m a Millennial by definition, yes. Born 1986, though I’d never call myself by that name.
I lived eighteen years of my life in a village in the Catskills, population 3,008. Sometimes calling it a gasoline town or a cow town—three gas stations within a quarter mile of each other and at one time there were more cows in the village than people. There’s a powerful milk factory. Often it felt like the town was ruled by a kingpin, a wealthy man who made his money selling astroturf. I found a castle in the woods there once; it burned down a few days later.
This was the west bank of the Delaware River. A racist and homophobic and mostly poor community. But also filled with liberals, anti-frackers, people who held conscientious objector workshops in their furnace rooms. A village drunk named Tater.
I grew up listening to punk, hitting drums in bands. That’s part of how I learned to be in conflict as a praxis.
It’s a village that feels like something washed up on the shore of the culture. The nature there feels a century behind. Railroad tracks that have fallen out of use and crumbling barns. Bad winters, violent. It was an upbringing where everyone wanted to break out. The world is happening elsewhere, that’s how it felt for seventeen years. And then some of us returned, got married, lost our jobs, became drunks, had kids, put down roots. In some parlance the word for this is townie. All of this, to say nothing of books, was an education.
DL: How did your early environment influence how seriously you could pursue literary goals?
DS: It was an arts family, growing up. Father was a painter, now a photographer. Sister was a poet herself, now a mother. Mother read, still reads. Brother is a painter to this day. All three of the children played instruments. Flutes, cellos, guitars, drums, an alto saxophone rusting in the basement. Parents were baby boomers, hippies with beards and accents, and I think they moved the family to the Catskills to stay morally stubborn and raise children in a place that wasn’t all money all the time.
We weren’t a family with money, so I never attended the money schools. But my English teachers in high school were goading and critical and they created room for me to become arrogant, which I think’s important.
Around this time I started stealing a lot. One teacher got a kick out of this, and every Monday when we saw each other I’d say something like, I stole Neruda this weekend or I stole 99 Poems. When I started writing poetry everyone seemed to respect it, maybe in the way one respects an animal with rabies, but my friends also mocked me for writing poetry and they really don’t support me to this day, which is an adversity I try to be grateful for. Family sometimes asks why I don’t write music anymore, you had such talent. Strangely I think these conflicts helped me bolster conviction about the work I was making. Every now and then they still do.
DL: And I am absolutely assuming that you have a degree (or two or three), and correct me if I’m wrong, but where did you continue your studies and what did you study?
DS: I don’t hold any master’s degrees, if that’s what you’re asking. I finished with academia about six years ago, with degrees in literature and poetry from a public institution, and I haven’t paid money to study since.
DL: The way you make the written language function through form is impressive:
“You’re a runt with a mouth more foul than gash father told me
you’re a curse word
The culture and vernacular you draw from keeps the reader at home yet the overall effect is not necessarily comfortable; the poems individually and the book at large create feelings of tension. Is this your typical style of writing, or is the tension created between form and language particularly relevant to American Barricade?
DS: I try to stay in a place where I’m a stranger to language, like finding a pile of weird sticks in the woods, so there’s improvisational energy, a kind of conflict of propulsion, in seeing how one picks the words up off the ground and speaks them ex nihilo. One premise of capitalism is that you can solve the word problem if you traffic in wares that people want, and they want your wares because your wares make their lives more comfortable. That’s why food is fascinating in this country. The food we love most in fact makes our lives terrible, but there’s gratification in punishing yourself with fast food. Maybe good art to me is like slow food that doesn’t kill you, drinking a soda over the course of a year but it actually teaches you empathy.
To arrive at that place you need to be agitated. That kind of thrumming string. Whitman, of all people, gets tossed around a lot when people talk about the poems in Barricade. Not sure if it’s because he’s a poster-poet for American roughshodness and the book plays its hand, so to speak, as early as the title. Might just be lazy forensics. But maybe what people mean when they say Whitman is something about ecstaticism. If his was an ecstatic poetry in the throes of threadbare optimism, I think maybe the Barricade poems are ecstatic poetry in the throes of the end of “America.”
DL: Even if the observers are guilty of lazy forensics they manage somehow. You just explained the Barricade poems’ relation to Whitman precisely:
“Maybe what people mean when they say Whitman is something about ecstaticism. If his was an ecstatic poetry in the throes of a brusk, threadbare optimism, I think maybe the Barricade poems are ecstatic poetry in the throes of the end of America.”
My compliments to the poet for taking over on that one. From the author’s position I can see how moving away from labels (such as Millennial Americana) is valuable, yet you step out of the shadow here on the Whitman references.
Do you feel a responsibility to your subject matter, was it rooted out consciously: given the political, and cultural climate of our generation’s landscape, these “throes of the end of America”?
DS: There’s a moment in the book where I say that I’m “guilty of my beard.” It feels a bit closer to me to say I’m accusing myself of my subject, or charging myself with the injustice of what I need to say, or I’m guilty of what I do say. In part this is a depiction of Puritan heritage in this country. We’re always a little hung over about our moral bloodline, always a little disgusted by our dirt, which makes one of the most compelling symptoms of modern life to me the sensation of belatedness. The great wars are over, we’re late to the party, but in some ways the country’s still a teenager.
These poems have a hard time with language as damning evidence, with belatedness as a barricade that pushes you apart from yourself. I mean, who wants to be a nation? For me the poems happen more as a pushback against the idea that American is not a choice, and neither is son, neither is employee or love.
I’ve noticed something that happens in art now and then, but I think I’ve only seen it in music and writing. It’s a way of performing what destroys you in a way that makes it feel like you’re celebrating it. In some cases partying it. A song like, I don’t know, “Careless Whisper,” for example. He’s really hanging his head in that song, and that noir saxophone, it’s so sad bastard. But if you think about a song like “When Doves Cry,” it’s exponentially sadder, and yet you dance all over that song.
The Clash were probably the so-called only band that mattered because they did this so beautifully. They have so many songs about being poor, threatened, alone, and those songs are some of the most fun music ever written.
Maybe that was part of what Whitman was poking around inside too. We think of him as the bearded godfather, but I also think of him as an incredibly sad man who just decided to dance.
People always want to say “anthem” is the word I mean, but I think that’s wrong. It’s something more like “fight song,” but that’s still wrong too. I haven’t been able to find the word I want. I’m writing the poems and hoping someone very smart will point at the word.
DL: What you “notice happens in art sometimes” is, to me, an indicator of authenticity; is what you describe not the heart of every human and our collective condition? To me this implies one of the greater conditions and motivating origins of art. I instantly think of the blues as an entire cultural phenomena, a vast amount of the massive and ambiguous “folk” music genre, meaning our origins and history. To authentically and genuinely describe and express one’s own mental autonomy from one’s time and place, to do it in an empathic voice, to make the struggle beautiful, isn’t this what all truly good art such as The Clash and American Barricade accomplishes?
DS: I hate to say this, sort of feel like I’m not supposed to say this, but it’s also what happens in the art that lasts. People will tell you that not all art wants to endure, that the aspiration toward endurance in art is itself a recapitulation of a capitalist desire, and some days I believe that, but I can’t say I believe that today. Even the art that meddles and pranks and fucks with art wants to endure.
In art made out of words especially, empathy is one of the deathless questions to me. The Greek root of the word is more like “affection,” which is troubling. And the German Einfühlung, which is something like “in-feeling,” has only been with us for about 140 years. “In-feeling” is also suspect to me, it has its hint of violation.
I was talking to a few poets the other day about this concept of the radical given, which is the term Frank Bidart uses for certain lives, tragic lives especially, out of which art emerges. Your Hamlets and so forth. He says every tragedy starts from an irremediable radical given. But it bothers me that he says tragedy. Because really every story starts with an irremediable radical given. Birth of course being at the top of that list. And I think this happens at the outset of every piece of art too. Sound, the voice, language, color, the body—across the arts these are all radical givens. But I’m suspicious too of this word given. On the one hand, what’s given to you doesn’t mean you necessarily have to keep it. The freedom to leave the room is important to me in art. Because on the other hand, you don’t always ask for what you’re given. Life, again, being at the top of that list. And work that endures tends to be work that writes into life.
My own mom is going to hate me for this, but I think the argument can be made that life inherently contains a thread of the tragic because it’s the defining part of our existence over which we have zero freedom to choose. We’re born how we’re born, the pop songs go. And one of the poets was throwing mud on Bidart for his poem “Ellen West,” saying here is another white man taking over a woman’s body, a woman’s voice, a woman’s life. I’d love to hear Bidart answer that question, because to me it’s one of the deathless questions about “in-feeling” itself. Is empathy a delusion of grandeur?
But I think you can also make the argument that one human being writing into a radical given that we all know exists, in this case anorexia, is an attempt to decommodify pain in a way that works toward a commons. When I say decommodify pain, I mean place it in a voice that no longer tells itself we need to pay for our pain. And we don’t need to trade our pain either. Our pain can just do its one job, which is existing.
Get American Barricade from YesYes Books.