The Rumpus Interview with Danniel Schoonebeek

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I’m willing to bet: before you knew the name Danniel Schoonebeek I knew the name Danniel Schoonebeek. Growing up in Delhi, New York—a town of 5,000 on the western fringe of the Catskills—I knew Schoonebeek’s name, in the way I knew everyone’s name. We went to the same small public high school. Schoonebeek was six years older; I heard his name from teachers, and from the older siblings of friends.

These days I hear Danniel Schoonebeek’s name more and more often. His first book of poems, American Barricade, was published by YesYes Books in 2014. It was named one of the year’s ten standout debuts by Poets & Writers and called “a groundbreaking first book that stands to influence its author’s generation” by Boston Review. In 2015, his second book of poems, Trébuchet, was selected as a winner of the 2015 National Poetry Series and will be published this year by University of Georgia Press. Schoonebeek’s recent work has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Kenyon Review, The Believer and Tin House. He hosts the Hatchet Job reading series in Brooklyn and edits the PEN Poetry Series.

We corresponded over email and talked about the “very rural life” and “very city life,” Amtrak, work, and the frustrations of re-reading “The Dead.”

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The Rumpus: Reading American Barricade I have the feeling of running against something fully-formed, something solid—the book feels like a place you’ve arrived at. How did you think about that collection? About the process of grouping those poems?

Danniel Schoonebeek: Place agitates some people who read the American Barricade poems because it’s like this fully formed void. The book’s two years old now and in all that time I don’t think I’ve gotten any closer to answering for place in those poems. I’m being a little coy here: the reason people probably latch onto place in Barricade is because the poems root themselves, in language and in attitude, in two places that we think of as opposed to one another. There’s the very rural life and the very city life, but that’s been my life so far and my attitude so for so that’s the poems.

The act of gathering is important to me, though it’s just as important to differentiate that from collecting. It’s been said more than a few times that my poems gather their materials at the beginning of the poem and like to dispense and return to those materials throughout the poem. I think that’s true, and I also think collecting—both the word and the act—strikes me as much more pernicious. I love talking about the album as the defining unit in music, so obviously I also love talking about a book of poems like releasing a record. I think it’s undeniably true that we’re a culture that thinks in singles in music and individual poems in poetry, but I also feel hostile toward curator culture and listicles and this idea that art can pruned and catered to bolster our genius individual tastes.

Rumpus: I haven’t seen you read, but I know you toured around the country for the publication of American Barricade. You also host a reading series in Brooklyn. How important are readings to you? Are there certain “live poems” that always make your set list, and, if so, do these poems have something in common?

American Barricade FRONT COVER (2) (1)Schoonebeek: Readings are one of the proving grounds for poems, for the poet and for the person listening to the poetry. Hearing how the poems work or don’t work for a crowd, hearing people lean forward or shift in their seats, maybe they belly-laugh or shudder, that time to me is the adolescence of the poem.

What you hear discussed less is whether readings are a proving grounds for the poet. I personally love being on tour because each day, in front of different people in different towns, you get to audition for some part of yourself. You prove yourself to yourself. You’re finding out which shoes, which pitches, which banter and which handfuls of poems are the ones that are most yourself.

And everyone has their hit lists, including me, despite my feelings about lists and collecting and pruning. It’s always great to see poets near the tail end of a tour, when the band is tight, so to speak. They’ve sussed out how to open, all the registers and small fires they want to light throughout the reading, whether they want to close with a bang or a whimper.

Rumpus: You mentioned the “very rural life” and “very city life.” I’m curious how location affects your process—what’s the difference between writing in the city and in the country? You’re upstate, lately, right?

Schoonebeek: I’m a lot of places lately, which I think is deliberate, I want to be itinerant and unrooted right now. I’m softly recording my answer to this question on my phone in the corner of a restaurant in Brooklyn and there’s a woman screaming at another woman about (these are her words) the other woman’s shitty outdated ideas concerning 1940s cinema. I think maybe that’s the point of choosing uprootedness and moving around a lot; you’re always forced to listen to a different kind of song.

Living-wise I’m keeping a small and unassuming artist studio in the Catskills right now, which I share with my partner, who also keeps an apartment in Brooklyn that’s home to us too. I try to read and live around the country as much as possible. I need to see how not united these United States are.

Occasionally I think of each city or town as a place with a distinct emotion or timbre inside which I place myself and become sort of tinged regardless of where I am or who I’m with or what I’m doing. When I think of travel writing or writing about place, so much of the work I love is really about the writer within that place, not necessarily the place itself. That’s a thought that became important to while working on the book I’m writing now, a travelogue called C’est la guerre: it’s me who’s the setting of this story and the landscape that gets traveled through.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about C’est la guerre. While the poems in American Barricade are full of pauses, full of negative space, the prose in C’est la guerre is solid, unrelenting—the movement down the page reminds me of the Amtrak trains, where so much of the book takes place. How did you arrive at this style?

Schoonebeek: What’s important to me is that terrific word you use, unrelenting. Part One of the book, which covers about fifteen readings across sixteen cities, is written entirely in unbroken prose blocks that are squeezed, on the page, into these columnar, downward torrents, and the prose is also written in second person.

The second person, I think, comes from my fascination with rhetorical questions. “You’re trapped on a desert island; how do you survive?” And a lot of the book is argumentative like that, looking and yourself and saying, let’s hear your answer. I have no interest in the second person as a way of instructing someone. I wanted to place myself under surveillance instead. The first month in which the book takes place was a nonstop, under-slept, manic period, a blunder of joy and fear, and I wanted the writing to have that same freewheeling stress placed upon it. Every day I’d wake up, check how much money I had left, check if I’d lost any belongings, check my phone for messages from hosts and loved ones, and then get on a train to the next city.

In order to place that pressure on the writing, I decided to pinch the margins, almost like the writing’s trapped inside a pipe or drilling down into the solid white mass of the page. I want it to feel like a round’s been fired off in a bulletproof crawl space, I want the clauses—I’m in love with the clause like I’m in love with the line—to ricochet and ricochet within their confines.

Part Two shifts abruptly to first person and the prose blocks start to break apart and the self-scrutiny intensifies. The artifice of the writing in the first half of the book starts to strip away and the person at the middle of it runs out of places to run, points of view, money, people to call, people to scrutinize other than himself.

Rumpus: You call the book a travelogue. In addition to the lyric prose, there are photos, essays, movie reviews. Was the project this varied from the start? Or did it begin as a collection of poems and fragments and expand?

Schoonebeek: In some ways it began as a poem: while I was riding the trains I was writing one long monostich line each day for each city I visited. These later became the poem called “C’est la guerre,” which will be in my upcoming book of poems, Trébuchet. The horse mentioned in the poem was visited at Tin Pan Farm and has since died, as I understand it.

I was also, during that same time, writing prose about the cities I’d visited, which I’ve done for a while, going back as far as ten years, and those decade-old passages were always written in second person. I put a few of the new vignettes online, along with pictures I took on my phone, and after talking in Portland, about a month into the trip, with some friends who’d been reading them, they urged me to do a book, which hadn’t really crossed my mind until that time.

From there it took on a whole new life, starting with the decision to include more of the moving pieces and ephemera that are essential to a person traveling alone. That’s where the photos and the movies came in. I love movies, I love the noise and clutter of them, and I love talking about Hollywood lore and the mythos behind films. It’s difficult, from a money perspective, to produce a long book with photos and asides and frivolities like that, so it’s hard to say what the book will be when it’s finally a book, but I’ll also always have the director’s cut, so to speak, in my possession.

Rumpus: When I was last home, I was shocked to see, on Main Street in Delhi, a new storefront with poetry chapbooks in the window—across the street from Tractor Supply. The non-profit space is called Bushel, and you’re one of the founders. Could you talk about the space? Who had the idea, and what do you all hope to do?

Trebuchet - final cover (1)Schoonebeek: Bushel actually started on Halloween 2015 of all nights. I was at this party in the woods and ran into my friend Anna Moschovakis, whose poems I love, and I was also introduced for the first time to our other three co-founders, Sunnie Joh, Tianna Kennedy, and Mary Skinner. People were kind of partying and chain-smoking indoors around an ashtray while the Mets lost the World Series. Anna started telling us about this empty storefront space in Delhi, and a lot of ideas get broached at parties and die before the sun comes up, but this was one idea that came alive instantly. Turned out the space was this old video store in Delhi where I used to rent a lot of horror movies growing up. That part felt right.

All five of the founders have these ranging areas of expertise and interest, from poetry and design to film and farming activism and architecture, bird rearing, photography, cocktailing, body healing, shape-note singing. We’re a non-profit collective by name, funded by donations from the community, and we’re also supported by local breweries, bookstores, friends, goods-makers and food-makers. We’re there so people can engage with art, people in the town are hungry for that.

It’s been an incredible run so far—people come to us with ideas and pitches all the time, we’ve incorporated a few dance classes and massage classes, and we’ve got an upcoming show by upstate-downstate artist Izumi Inoue, who makes woodcuts of the zodiac calendar each year. We sort of have an unofficial bowling league; we just made some pencils and notebooks. And we’re selling poetry books from Canarium Books, Argos Books, Ugly Duckling Presse, and Siglio Press.

Rumpus: The project has a great communal bent to it. Do you feel like you belong to a community of poets and writers? Who are you reading right now?

Schoonebeek: Community is a tough word, especially when you think of the ways it’s been co-opted and disabused by politicians. Every time I hear it, I can’t help but hear the echo of that Clinton line, It takes a village to raise a child. How did that work out?

I came across this Valerie Solanas quote the other day, via Olivia Laing’s book on loneliness (The Lonely City):

A true community consists of individuals—not mere species members, not couples—respecting each others’ individuality and privacy, at the same time interacting with each other mentally and emotionally—free spirits in free relation to each other—and cooperating with each other to achieve common ends.

In some ways all you have to do is read that quote to answer the question of whether or not we have a poetry community.

I’ve loved Solmaz Sharif’s Look and Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War for a few weeks now, and I’m still working through C.D. Wright’s new book of prose-about-poetry, The Poet, the Lion etc., I read it about one page a week, as it’s still hard for me to think about her death. Everything Lo Kwa-Mei-en writes gives me blisters, and I really like her new book, The Bees Make Money in the Lion. Also really love Brian Blanchfield’s new book of essays, Proxies, and Olivia Laing’s new book, mentioned above, The Lonely City, which is a kind of treatise on being lonely and making art in New York City. I’ve also, as part of the work I do for money, been rereading quite a few canonical texts, and I still hate “The Dead,” for what that’s worth.

Rumpus: Come on, you don’t like “The Dead”? I think it might be my favorite story. Convince me I have horrible, misguided taste?

Schoonebeek: I was being a bit salty, I’m sorry; I do like parts of the story. The ending I’d say is undeniable, and I do feel a flutter in my heart when I’m reading prose and a scene is written so vividly, which Joyce does with that snowfall at the end. It was cracking me up reading it this time around (which I haven’t done since high school) because I was having the same trouble that I had more than a decade ago: it really grates on my nerves, and my politics in some ways, to slog through pages and pages of rich, upper-crust people throwing shade at each other just to arrive at this brilliant ending. To me there has to be another way to do it. I just can’t hang with these long prose works where wealthy people are shitting themselves about propriety and feeling doleful about their lives. It’s like who cares, you still own a horse-drawn carriage and probably have a butler, go fuck yourself.

Rumpus: You mentioned the work you do for money—is it crass to ask what this is? For so many writers—especially poets—academia can seem like the only option. Do you have advice for younger poets trying to make it?

Schoonebeek: I usually need to talk about work by first stating that it’s been necessary for me throughout my life. Which is to say it’s always been an imperative, not a choice.

When I was much younger, growing up in the Catskills, my father from an early point in my teens was strict and sincere about the fact that I needed to get a job, like now. I remember despising him for it at the time. My brother, who is older than me by a few years, had been working a cashier job at the local Grand Union. He’d walk there each day from our house, kind of a far, embarrassing walk for him, and he had to wear the whole uniform and the pins.

So I stupidly resented my father for impressing work on us at the time. I worked two jobs then: after high school I’d walk to the local paint shop and mix the expensive, brightly colored tint with the white base paint. That was always a troubling experience for me, watching this beautiful tint disappear in a gallon of white paint. But it was also thrilling: you’d vice the paint can into this insane shaker machine and mix it up, and you had to crack it open afterward to make sure you didn’t get the color wrong. Seeing the new color was always a thrill. It was a little taste of alchemy. And I do think that job, to this day, has informed some of the ways I think about colors in my work. I was also at the time, every Friday, a delivery boy of weekly newspapers, and my friends and I would go and secretly smoke cigarettes and see if we could chuck the papers onto people’s porches from the road. I think it might have paid $5 a week.

What I’m trying to say, in a meandering way, is that work has always been urgent and ever-present and despised for me, but it’s also a double-bind insofar as that same work has taught me more about myself and my aesthetics and my ethics, about what I love and what I can’t stand, than anything else in the world. And it’s also allowed me these moments of camaraderie and friendship that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.

I worked all four years of my undergraduate college education as an ESL tutor in order to help pay for food. When I graduated with a BA, I was so embarrassingly shocked by my debt—which pales in comparison to most of the people I know—that graduate school was never even really a question. I just moved to Brooklyn with three of my childhood friends and started worrying about money. I was stealing a lot during that time, cans of soup and beers and rice from bodegas. I got the shit beaten out of me once in Harlem, after spending the night with a person at the immaculate Columbia campus, when I tried to steal a can of soup from a bodega. They locked the door and slapped the absolute shit out of me.

I worked as a server at the Bowery Hotel for almost a year. That was one of the more corrupt places I’ve ever been, but I still loved the employees, and the shadiness, and I saw a lot of celebrities embarrass themselves. Sometimes I’d sneak out the uneaten food—the hotel strictly insisted on throwing it away instead of giving to employees or people in need—and walk down Bowery to the J train at 2 a.m. and give it to some of the regulars who slept outside the Mission, waiting for the doors to open. Those two kinds of work always stood glaring out to me.

Sometime after that a friend helped me land a job at a university press in New York, where I worked for 2.5 years as an editorial assistant and later as a copywriter. It’s a brutal industry, and the horror stories are true. The pay is insulting and the environment is stealthy and breeds resentment. Somewhere during that time I realized that capitalism not only forces but encourages good people to be cruel to one another and that was the day I stopped forgiving capitalism.

I moved from there to a job as editor at a non-profit literary advocacy organization. They laid me off from a salaried, full-time job that I loved, and I actually still work for them pro-bono as poetry editor after the fact. When people ask me why I say the work needs to be done. That period of time altered terms like career and quality of living for me, and I think in some ways I gave up on the narrative and never really returned.

Nowadays I work more jobs than I can count, but I’m not unhappy anymore. You don’t realize the extent to which stress, social climbing, sleep deprivation all wear away at you until you push outside a little. I’m a contributing editor to an arts and culture publication these days, I teach workshops outside of academies, I consult on websites for writers and help build them too, I represent writers for speaking engagements, I do photo research, I line edit. I’ve been very lucky in my late twenties to publish some work in some magazines and been invited to read at some venues that have paid me money to be a poet. So in this strange way the careerist world spit me out, and I quit the careerist world and was somehow able to become a writer full-time. I doubt it will last; talk to me in two years and I’ll probably be back in the belly. Which is why I never give advice. There’s absolutely no way to know where you’ll be and yet you have to fight to be where you want to be every day.

Rumpus: I’m planning an Amtrak trip in the South, and since you’re the Amtrak expert, I have to ask: any recommendations or warnings?

Schoonebeek: The trains, like everything else involving travel in this country, are dictated by wealth and class. I couldn’t afford the sleeper cars overnight when I traveled across the country via train, so I did all my sleeping in coach. If you take that plunge, bring a sleep mask, earplugs, maybe download that app that plays rainfall. All of that you can knock out for about $6.99. You’ll want something to drape over your body at night. I learned this by way of a fellow poet’s mother, who gifted me a yellow flannel sheet that I carried with me everywhere. The trains are BYOB so long as you don’t get shitfaced in the observation cars, but even then I never saw a person get kicked off the train. On the long rides some people smoke in the bathroom, or between cars; that was never for me. The food is awful, so I also usually had some bag of disheveled nuts and fruit in my hand. In many ways—and maybe this is just me and points to my own misanthropy—the people are the most disruptive and difficult part of long-distance train rides. Everyone told me I’d meet this world of fascinating, outlier types on the trains, and maybe this was partly because I made myself unapproachable in order to document and write about the experience, but I found that most people I talked to on the trains felt intensely wronged by the trains. There wasn’t enough Internet, their cell phones wouldn’t charge. It was almost like the trains were a sentence placed upon them. And then there was this whole other squad of people who seemed aggressively blasé, like they were in some American limbo. I’m remembering two people who had an hours-long conversation about where to buy wallets, hours and hours, while outside the window the most beautiful Texas desert I’d ever seen was roiling past.

Rumpus: How would you describe Trébuchet, your upcoming collection?

Schoonebeek: A trébuchet is by definition a machine and a weapon, it’s the catapult that was used to break down walls and barriers during medieval wars. It’s also my second book of poems, the follow-up to my debut, American Barricade, and I think it’s deliberately clapping back at my first book. There’s the barricade and then there’s the weapon that breaks through the barricade. Trébuchet is a departure from the obsessions that defined AB, which was invested in the politics of family dynamics and the insistence in this country on obtaining power and wealth. Trébuchet is more combative and incendiary. It tackles contemporary politics in a more direct, personal way. It addresses gun violence, poverty, fascism, surveillance, white privilege, the protest movement, the failures of the poetry community, censorship, ahistorical America, technology, torture, net neutrality. If American Barricade was a book that wanted to kick open a door, Trébuchet is a book that wants to pry that door off its hinges.

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Author photograph © R. Bagheri.


Ben Sandman was born and raised in the Catskills in upstate New York. His stories have appeared in Stirring, The Susquehanna Review, The Allegheny Review, which awarded him its prize for prose in 2014, and Stone Canoe, which awarded him the 2015 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize for Fiction. He contributes book reviews and interviews to Full Stop. A graduate of Vassar College, he is an MFA candidate in fiction at Oregon State University. More from this author →