This interview focuses on Paty and Schoonebeek’s collaborative poetic project Torch Songs.
Kristin Maffei: When did you begin working on Torch Songs together? How did the idea first come about? And how did you decide on the form the poems follow, with two complementary poems of five lines each?
Danniel Schoonebeek: I’ve always been prone to antagonism. One of my few childhood memories is writing nonsense on a wall with crayon in the house where I grew up. So it follows, I think, that I want to aggravate forms. “Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.” Camus wrote that. And nowadays when I look at a wall I think, how can I undermine this with language? How can I take my own body, my own name, and aggravate it with words? I remember reading the first poem in Cummings’s 99 Poems when I finished grade school. Here was language, a poem, that couldn’t be read aloud. I loved that, a way of undermining the voice. Or the way Beckett uses “[silence]” not as a pause or lack of sound in his plays but as a beat. I suppose I also owe something to Magritte’s pipe. I was writing these poems that assumed the form of the fortunes found inside fortune cookies. They were each three lines. I think I was trying to combine the brevity of haiku with the voice of the fortunes. I was compelled by the way those pieces of paper undermine us. It’s a very antagonistic voice. You will have many friends. Doors will be opening for you. So I was trying to write poems that tell you what will happen to you, whether you like it or not. The first one stole a detail from Melville’s Bartelby, who is, to me, the great undermining and undermined character in American fiction: “Fired from love this year / you will feed / the furnace at the dead letter office.” Not too shabby, but I considered them failed poems insofar as I felt like the form was still dictating the terms. I was talking to myself when I needed to be speaking across a chasm to another person. So I abandoned them for a time. Over the next few months, I was reading the aubades of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu and listening to a lot of Nina Simone and Patsy Cline, both legendary torch singers. I’ve always loved the aubade as a form in poetry because it begins with a fundamental misrepresentation: This song is a poem. What it shares with the torch song is urgency. And I was fascinated by the misrepresentation of calling a song a “torch.” Ceci n’est une chanson, if you’re Magritte. So I felt I’d found two forms that aggravated each other well. I pitched the idea of a collaboration to Allyson about three years ago and she said sign me up. And I realize now that the form needed that second voice, with its own experiences of womanhood, geography and loss, to speak to and undermine and aggravate my own voice.
Allyson Paty: As Danniel mentioned, the aubades of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu were one important point of departure. These are five-line poems. They tend to be very direct and implicate a reader. At the same time, they are aubades, poems of separation. While the presence of a reader is keenly felt, it is felt as silence. Here is one of Ono no Komachi’s poems, for example: “How sad that I hope / to see you even now, / after my life has emptied itself / like this stalk of grain/ into the autumn wind.” That one comes with an inscription: “Sent to a lover on an empty seed husk.” I love the way the husk frames the poem as a practical form of communication from one person to another. I think of it as a stand-in for Komachi’s body—the physical entity that delivers her words. But when the husk is animated in the poem it is as a display of emptiness. In the end, it’s the absence of the body that the husk enacts. With Torch Songs I think we wanted the same kind of tension between urgency and distance. We knew we needed brevity such that nothing that happens in one half of the poem has a chance to become so established that it’s impervious to whatever happens in the counterpart. At the same time, each half needs to be enough of a distinct entity that there is something at stake when the counterpart exerts its influence. Likewise, I think the silence between the two halves needs to be palpable. The five-line Komachi and Shikibu poems exhibited that balance between autonomy and vulnerability, so we used that length as a model.
Torch song: Notwithstanding
I wanted to tell you the grass
today when it trembled it looked
like a crowd of women white
bonnets all of them shaking
their heads saying no you will not
There’s a word for the smell of rain
after a dry spell not for how it burns
slowly off what is there to tell you
the way stillness interrupts a field
once the horse who sees fire has fled
KM: What is your process when you work on Torch Songs, both collaboratively and individually? Do you let the work unfold organically, or do you have goals or a schedule you like to follow? Does every first poem get a second, or are some left unfinished?
AP: Each torch begins differently. Most often, one of us will send a title and the first five lines, but there are other possibilities. Sometimes they come without titles, sometimes it will be only a title, or most diabolically I think, the final five lines. We never write in each other’s presence. That’s important because when a new part of a torch shows up in my inbox it’s an independent entity that comes with this charge to reckon with it in some way. It’s also important to note that although we independently produce a draft of one half of the poem, after that I stop thinking of the poem in terms of “Danniel’s half” and “my half.” The editing becomes more directly collaborative, yes, but also one indication that a torch is close to completion is I stop feeling ownership over whatever half I contributed and am able to read the entire poem as a freestanding whole.
DS: I’ve said to Allyson that I know I admire a poem when it makes me want to throw a rock. When it shakes up my nerves. Which is to say: maybe the best definition of poetry for me is when language unsettles me. So my process thus far has been to refuse process. I never want to be comfortable in my head or my body or know where the writing will happen. I write at my job on Madison Avenue instead of working. I write in the shower, in my head on the train. I wrote a poem in the dark on an airplane this year. And then shivering in a studio in France. I never write drunk and almost never write longhand. I want to memorize the lines first, walk around and listen to them, spit them out and kick them around. Frank Bidart has a poem, from his new book coming out in late April, that ends with a quote from Heath Ledger: “Once I have the voice, I have the line, and at the end of the line is the hook, and at the end of the hook is the soul.” Soul or no soul, I want to hear the voice until I feel I have to write it. Since I tend to compose longer, more convulsive lines and poems, Torch Songs allows me to memorize and live with a poem in the same way that a song’s hook or chorus will lodge itself in my head. The part I love most is trying to commit that poem to a page. Because you immediately see how you’ve deceived yourself. This word I loved won’t work. This line is too rigid or pleased with itself. And because we try to compose lines that don’t outstrip each other in length, we end up burning a lot of our own crops.
KM: Have you collaborated on any other works? What is it about the Torch Songs that keeps you both coming back to them?
DS: Unless you count cocktails or workaday blues, I believe we’ve kept it to torches. People are often a little nonplussed when they find out we don’t write these poems while barricaded inside a cabin or staring each other down in a barn. But for me that’s what keeps the collaboration vital. If you have ten seconds to speak, your words have to work harder to impact the silence that follows them. It’s the same burden Komachi confronts with her seed husk. Your twenty-five words have to travel farther than the wind that scatters them. So each time a torch arrives from Allyson, I try to treat it like a dispatch. And that’s often my sensation while writing them. At times the urgency of an occasion dictates the language and forces it to barrel through without punctuation. That’s something I learned from Williams. He has a poem, “An Exercise,” that ends: “how / shall we / escape this modern / age / and learn / to breathe again.” Torch Songs is one answer to that question for me. You send communiqués to a poet whose work compels you to create your best work. You hold a torch, to use the phrase, for the friends you love. That’s not to say there isn’t a certain competitive spirit, a certain conflict, between the two of us. But I don’t feel it’s a desire to outwrite another poet. It’s a desire to write poems with a poet whose work informs your sensibility and whose sensibility you want to equally inform and enrich with your work.
AP: I think a question of audience is also at work here. It’s easy enough to accept on an intellectual level that no audience is passive. To see, to hear, to read—all of these are creative, even constitutive, acts. I confront this much more directly with Torch Songs than with anything I write independently. We read and respond to what the other writes from within the poem. And though intimate, it’s not a closed-circuit exchange. While each half of a torch song points at the other, the poem also points outwards to another reader.
KM: Have any of these poems turned into larger works for either of you? Has working on the project influenced your individual work as poets?
AP: You know that cartoon sequence of someone sitting and jumping on an overstuffed valise? Occasionally when I’m writing a torch song, the five lines feel like an impossibly small container into which I’m trying to wrestle my poem. Sometimes it’s a matter of making cuts, but more often it means whatever I’m writing requires a longer form, and what begins as a torch song either gets trashed or evolves into something new.
I do think writing the torches influences my other work in a more general way. And as Danniel and my respective poems and interests evolve, the torches begin to reflect that in some way, too. I don’t know that I could isolate a specific change, but in the process of writing anything, I hope to challenge my poetics and grow as a result. When writing with another poet whose work I admire, that challenge is often more direct, and the effect perhaps greater.
DS: I’ve stolen once or twice out of my own pocket. I can think of one torch song, which we still haven’t finished, where I took the lines and casted the words out as a monostich that ends a much longer poem. I’d never steal from Allyson in that way though. It’d feel too much like turnpike robbery. More often than not, I think we snatch glimpses from longer, larger works and smuggle that language into the poems. I don’t like the term found language though. It’s more like confronted language to me. I’m also not against calling it stolen language. I know we’ve confronted or stolen from Pessoa, de Kooning, Ted Berrigan, John Cage, Camus, Tom Waits, anyone who makes the mistake of talking to us—Ovid, some Neruda. In one poem I steal twenty dollars from my father. We’re ruthless.
Torch Song: Hickory
History began with an apology
Andrew Jackson staring up at me
from the twenty my father is missing
saying sorry men about tomorrow
I was thinking an apology like that
My sisters peeled spud after spud
for a meal we couldn’t stomach
The paring knife was deft beneath
their fingers don’t worry they cooed
to each other it was nobody’s fault
KM: Given that the two traditions you follow, American torch songs and Japanese aubades, have often fallen into the realm of “women’s writing,” how does gender play into these pieces?
DS: I don’t think men, neither poets nor musicians, are disallowed from writing torch songs. Sam Cooke will testify to that. Mandelstam, too. I don’t think it’s exclusive to Americans either. The Clash’s “Train in Vain,” for example—that song belongs in the torch song pantheon. Where the Japanese aubades are concerned, the energy of those poems is established by the fact that women just weren’t allowed to speak that way to men in ancient Japan. The poems are protests both in this sense and in the sense that they protest failed love. They stand as personal missives that otherwise weren’t intended to be read by an audience. I think that’s a conflict that we try to inherit. We don’t concern ourselves with fulfilling a man’s or woman’s role in any given torch song, but we do attempt to honor the sense of urgency and risk that generates a poem one might not intend to shout from the rooftops. If you’re loathe to say it, you should say it. I’m always reminding myself of that.
AP: Just as I never frame Danniel’s contributions as the man’s part as I read, I never think of myself as contributing the woman’s part as I write. However, when we started sharing these poems with people a couple years ago, we found that our audience—sometimes these people were relative strangers, sometimes total strangers to our individual works as poets—would often immediately guess which of us contributed which material and would do so very accurately based on what they identified as a male voice versus a female voice. I recognize, of course, that all sorts of personal and cultural histories as well as other identifying markers get stitched into our individual experiences of language, so it wasn’t exactly surprising, but I was definitely taken aback. As we mentioned, we are interested in writing across fractures and gaps—writing across the physical space that separates two halves of the poems on the page; writing across silence and voice; writing across the public and the private mode, as Danniel just mentioned; and certainly, writing across what separates Danniel and I as two separate individuals. That definitely includes, among many other things, our distinct experiences of gender. We’re not interested, though, in just enacting or affirming these as binaries, so it was somewhat troubling that it was the initial impulse for readers to designate the poem along those lines. That didn’t change anything in our approach to writing them, but we did stop getting that reaction after a little while, which hopefully indicates that this form has found its own language through which to speak.
KM: When I heard you read these poems out loud a few months ago at Poets House, you each read the halves you’d written. When reading these on the page, though, there’s less indication of who wrote what. Is this anonymity intentional? Are these oral or visual poems?
AP: I’m not so interested in indicating who wrote what, but I’m also not interested in intentionally obscuring that. What I like about reading The Torches aloud is that each torch is a single poem with two voices, and anyone listening to us read them can hear that and see that directly. On the page, the poems are clearly diptychs, but a reader may not encounter each half as a distinct voice in communication with the other. But there are other formal qualities that are equally important to the Torches—especially the lineation and the way they take up space on the page—which become apparent when the poems are seen in writing.
DS: I don’t know if I do it intentionally, but as a person who’s prone to antagonism I will admit that I love complicating my own identity. I refuse to say my poems have a speaker in them who isn’t me. And I seldom write anything that doesn’t draw upon the personal life. I expose myself above anyone else in my work, but I don’t necessarily mean autobiography when I say the personal life. What I mean to say is: my life or yours, it makes no difference, because I’m interested in the personal life’s stitching, but only insofar as the stitching comes apart or gets tangled together. I love slander, defamation of character, libel, misquoting. Appropriation strikes me as a terrible word because I’m not here to make anything appropriate. I’d much rather make everything inappropriate. I think I pissed Allyson off once because I encouraged her to make up a quote and attribute it to a real person, to meddle with the historical record of the language. If it makes people uncomfortable or offends them or sends them off on a scholarly witch hunt, I find all of those responses valid and meaningful. The compelling part of writing poetry for me is what Faulkner called the human heart in conflict with itself. I’m only interested in writing about my life if the language itself can challenge and thwart and broaden the definition of what that life is. Sometimes that means weaving a tale, a mythos, out of a fact as small as an old flame who liked to eat almond butter. Sometimes that means being so unabashedly autobiographical that the unadorned fact of a life is unsettling. So I’m invested in the conflict a reader feels when she can’t gender the lines in one of our poems. And I’ve written from the perspective of Allyson before, from several men and women who aren’t me in fact, and I’ve addressed other men and women with those voices while still mining details from my own life. If our voices have begun to blend, I think it’s because these poems are concerned with fear and dread and love and protest and troublemaking, and they don’t give much of a damn about personhood. That’s why we need such a rigid form. It’s the skeleton on which we hang the skin and the life, the clothes and the names. But then, of course, one still has to undermine the skeleton.
Torch Song: Godelieve
I loved a man once he was almond
butter smeared on my teeth he spoke
man o’war when he kidnapped me
my father the insurance baron wept
I sewed his name into my chemise
Found a bandana in the mud today
I sucked the water from it shook
it out saw it was a map your fingers
at one corner lips at the other I tied
my hair back and made for the X
Allyson Paty is author of the chapbook The Further Away ([sic] Press, 2012). Her poems can be found in Tin House, Best New Poets 2012, Handsome and elsewhere. She is from New York, where she is an editor of Singing Saw Press.
Danniel Schoonebeek’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Boston Review, Fence, Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review, Guernica, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, The Rumpus, Crazyhorse, Drunken Boat and elsewhere. In 2012, he was an Emerging Poets resident at Poets House. He writes a monthly column on poetry for The American Reader, hosts the Hatchet Job reading series in Brooklyn and works as associate editor at PEN America.