The Rumpus Interview with Daphne Gottlieb


Daphne Gottlieb is a badass, who released her fifth collection of poetry on April 1, 2011. She is the winner of the Audre Lorde Award in Poetry for her book Final Girl, which was also a Village Voice favorite book of the year. She has toured the US performing her poetry a good-god number of times now. Her work has been frequently anthologized, has been translated into Turkish and Greek, and has inspired theatrical adaptations and DJ-remixes. Daphne’s aesthetic has been fervently imitated by generations of slam poets and other writer/performers. Never, ever duplicated. Longtime Daphne Gottlieb knockoff, poet Corrina Bain, interviews her about her new collection, 15 Ways To Stay Alive.


The Rumpus: So, seriously, how many times have you run away with circuses? Which ones were best?

Daphne Gottlieb: Honey, I *am* the circus.

Rumpus: Tell me about this collection! What is new for you, in this book, in relation to your other books?

Gottlieb: Here’s what the PR blurb says:

15 Ways to Stay Alive is an extended meditation on resistance, struggle, and joy. From the excruciating roar of the broken heart to the roar of the crowd in the streets, 15 Ways brings together bearded ladies, killers, anarchists, St. Augustine, Anna Nicole Smith, and, most of all, brutally careless lovers, to celebrate the strange miracle that we exist, and that we persevere. These poems fearlessly cannibalize current events, the media, and even the author’s email in an attempt to make sense of the death sentence we all live under.

What’s new for me? 60 poems. Or so. 60 whole worlds, I guess.

Rumpus: Do you have ideas of what does and does not make a good poem?

Gottlieb: Yes.

Rumpus: Your work has always had a feminist politic to it, but this book seems to involve the world in a more overtly socio-political way. Do you think that’s true? Do you think about art and social justice differently, as you develop in your work?

Gottlieb: Yeah, I think it’s true. This book might be more directly political, which is funny — I think poetry is a lousy form of activism — it doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t DO anything, it’s just palliative, the sound of one hand patting itself on the back.

I have gray hair and love and art haven’t saved us yet. And maybe sometimes we just have to scream, even if we’re screaming at the wall.

Rumpus: Talk to me about process. How do you get started? How do you get finished? How do you know things are done?

Gottlieb: I get started because something sets me on fire. I’m finished when I am out of breath and am covered with ashes, sitting on charcoal.

I like what Valery said about poems never being finished, just abandoned. So a book of poetry is like a really, really big box of kittens at the supermarket. They’re not done. They’re just free to a good home.

Rumpus: I know you have done some writing around art as survival. Can you talk about that connection and whether that has changed for you over time?

Gottlieb: I think for a long time, I thought that art could save us, could save all of us. That our capacity to create beauty was enough to buoy us above the tide of bullshit.

I thought being visible for others who had to experience the god-help-us-all or worse that we had to experience – I thought this could give comfort, company, solace in desperate hours.

I saw it all in relation to the book-of-all-books, the book of everything that’s ever been written, that has the weight of history in it, which is always written
by those in power, which is likely not the side anyone reading this is usually, overtly on. It felt really important to testify, to enter into the record that we were here, that we resisted, that there was dissent. I believed that art could save lives.

Part of me still knows that art can save lives, change minds, bear witness. But it’s not enough to talk about ending homelessness, ending rape, ending war. We need to be out there – however we can do it. Making things happen on more than just a linguistic level. Because words just aren’t enough. No one has died for lack of a poem. But people die every day for lack of food and shelter.

Rumpus: You use a lot of found text in your work, in the form of collage. Do you have a process around finding material for that? Or does it just come upon you?

Gottlieb: I find that the material sort of finds me. I guess it’s sort of like crime. I go into bad text neighborhoods and flash my text wallet around and see what comes to bump me on the head. More seriously, I do a lot of research, but a lot of the time, the research takes me somewhere other than where I thought it was going. Probably somewhere more interesting.

There’s a lot of sex in your work. Thank god. Do you have an objective or mission statement with that, or does it just come up? Do you ever write to get laid? Do you have thoughts about writing to get laid?

Gottlieb: I have always kind of attempted to be on a search-and-rescue mission, to play with the forbidden and the arcane, whether writing about battered women or writing about sex, and playing with the obscene, the transgressive, and sometimes the distasteful.

The other side of that is that I also write to make things that I need but can’t find. And there are a lot of love poems out there, for sure, but sex poems — whether utopian or dystopian — are harder to find. So I write them.

I’ve only ever written get-me-laid poems about people I was already sleeping with. They work, but it’s cheating — it’s kind of like going hunting in a petting zoo. The chances of failure are, um, greatly mitigated.

You have such a stunning, solid, consistent body of work, but I often feel like that doesn’t matter much to you. Did I make that up? Can you talk about that? I guess another part of this question is, what do you want your work to do?

Gottlieb: These are such dangerous questions you’re asking. Does my work matter to me? My entire identity has been predicated on it for a very long time, so of course. I keep meaning to get a big “American Poet” tattoo across my back, only I’m not sure about the “American” part. I mean, I know I’m American; I’m just not sure I want it all over my back in big flowery script.

Does my work matter to me? Of course. But what I wish it could do — any poetry could do — is save the world, whether by recuperating American letters and horror movies into a feminist construct, for example (Final Girl), or by re-membering female historical figures (Kissing Dead Girls), or documenting the
prostitutes killed by a serial killer (Why Things Burn), or striking out at injustice in Gotham. But it won’t work. I only have a very small cape. And there is so much to write.

Rumpus: Is there a next thing? Do you know what it is?

Gottlieb: Is there a next thing? Of course. Apart from 15 Ways to Stay Alive (due in April, Manic D Press), I am co-editor (with Lisa Kester) of Dear Dawn: Aileen Wuornos in her Own Words, due in August. It’s the letters of the “first female serial killer” Aileen Wuornos to her best friend from childhood, Dawn Nieman, written on Death Row.

Rumpus: Tell me about some things that you love right now.

Gottlieb: I love all the things that keep me warm right now. It’s cold outside. There is a small black cat who is the center of the whole world. We fall asleep holding hands. My electric blanket. I am in love with my electric blanket. It is the color of a burnt-siena crayon. Bi-Rite Creamery’s hot chocolate, which is like hot chocolate pudding. I’m pleading the fifth on the rest. I’ll protect the innocent.

Corrina Bain is a genderqueer writer-performer living in Brooklyn. She has toured throughout the United States reciting her poems. She is currently working on a manuscript about death and the feminine. Reachable via facebook, myspace, email at [ androidhime (at) yahoo (dot) com ], and occasionally through other, more corporeal means. More from this author →