Q & A: American Poetry

Q & A American Poetry: Danielle Pafunda

Where "American" is descriptive of "poet," that's me. 8 hours of a television a day! In first grade, my music collection consisted of Cyndi Lauper She's So Unusual, Madonna self-titled Madonna, and Michael Jackson Thriller. The Shining, Mommie Dearest, A Chorus Line. Loved! Somebody's going to say, oh, that's "pop culture" as though it was less real (to me) than other things—family, the pastoral landscape, science.

Designer jeans, junk food, Cornell boxes, New England in the fall, VC Andrews, Twin Peaks, valley girl slang, Riot Grrrl, the Beat poets, Headbanger's Ball, new wave, fashion fashion fashion. I'm made out of this stuff. I'm made out of other stuff, too, of course (gobs of Russian literature, Japanese horror flicks, gelato, macabre Irish tall tales), but this is the stuff in which I felt/feel at home.

The modern poets' vernacular: Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath. LeRoi Jones. Gwendolyn Brooks. Frank O'Hara. Gertrude Stein.

The tension between the Puritan and excess. From Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative, "[a]s we went along they killed a Deer, with a young one in her, they gave me a piece of the Fawn, and it was so young and tender, that one might eat the bones as well as the flesh, and yet I thought it very good." This is how a nation is born.

That particular American gothic, the kind that relies on fresher corpses, penitentiaries rather than castles, slang, barnyards, sprawling urban desolation. See Elisabeth Bronfen on Plath and Sexton, Erin Forbes on Poe, Kate Bernheimer's ghost hunt interviews. See the bottomless underside of your bed, the dark of your closet, the howl in your yard at night, coyotes, little children, mill towns on the skids, skeletal farmlands, lovelorn swamplands, cornfields, the economy.

We get giddy creating genealogies, mapping stuff. Each one has his/her/hir own Spoon River Anthology.

All that baggage. Our people came here under duress. My people, all Jews and Catholics, running from hunger or running with money from death or just running round.

Delia, oh Delia. How can it be?

Most of our poems come out under duress. We want to take pictures, feel happy, drink a lot of coffee and have ideas. I'm writing this and watching the poet's film, the filmmaker's film, the poems. Everything's so multi, which annoys, makes my teeth hurt, but also exactly what I wanted. I'm wearing a lot of makeup and a cocktail hat. When you see me.

The cheerful nihilism, or the morbid optimism. Yippee-ki-yay. Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely is a great American lyric. It's for us, for the President, anyone can read it. You can hear the television. The static. You can practically wrap that twisting thread of hope around your finger—that thin, metallic thread twisting through all the grim recognition. The hope in the hopelessness. It's not goofy when she does it.

I'm guilty of our solipsism, ethnocentrism, consumerism. I'm guilty of the mall.

Second wave feminism. Our civil rights movement. Our gay rights movement. Our punk, our avant-garde. Mine mine mine. When did we stop making film strips? When did we give up on the nostalgia of click shudder click click?

Donna Haraway is cheerier than Derrida. Anna Tsing embraces the maggot-strewn border Kristeva recoils from. Judith Butler, Judith Halberstam, Sianne Ngai. All those Ugly Feelings.

I'm living out on the high plains, now. The last vestige of frontier. Beth Loffreda, in Losing Matt Shepard: "[r]ecently some researchers have argued that the old frontier persists in America, demographically speaking anyway. If you categorize as 'frontier' counties with fewer than six people per squre mile, then 77 percent of Wyoming still falls into that lonely condition…" Who settles here? Broke-down wagon trains? Military units? Laramie wasn't habitable, by American Indians or settlers, year-round until the technology made it possible.

Not entirely possible. We lose people. What's frightening or deadly, just outside the picture window, but a thing we can ignore every day. The snow comes down. I hold the baby. The baby looks up at me with his big American eyes. I've made more Americans.

Diner breakfast, insomnia, anxiety. All the bad feelings about how big and beyond my control this place is, the big mess of government, the cruelty. The poverty and bad health care, the kind of diseases we get here.

My fibromyalgia. Such an American disease. Chronic pain, unglamorous pain. Too much substance P in my spine, whatever that is. And yet I can't stop being cheerful. I can't stop rushing headlong into the "future" looking for improvements, every little item designed right down to the pins.

Isolationism and ethnocentrism, or exoticism and ethnocentrism. We're tourists. A little Mayakovsky here, a little Artaud there. Do you know the names of women poets from other nations? Have you been reading the whole book? We love the foreign writers who love us, those wastrels in some terrible cell, or dusting it up in a bar fight abroad. This is, in case I'm being unclear, not cool. But our bizarre inbreeding tendencies aren't without fascination.

There's something distinctive about the way we adapt forms. The prose poem or Oulipo-type projects, haiku or the sonnet, they all pull a bit of the newscaster accent. That is, our Amerispeaks gobbling things into the machine in omnivorous fashion. And there's the delight with which we stumble on the new and co-opt it. Say what you will about the capitalism, American poets are all thieves who at heart believe property is theft.

At home in or at odds with artifice. Poetry as the medium or strategy, and pop culture as the product and plastic. Susan Bordo:

[...]in my view, feminist cultural criticism is not a blueprint for the conduct of personal life[...]and does not empower (or require) individuals to "rise above" their culture or become martyrs to feminist ideals. It does not tell us what to do[...] It's goal is edification and understanding, enhanced consciousness of the power, complexity, and systemic nature of culture, the interconnected webs of its functioning. It is up to the reader to decide how, when, and where (or whether) to put that understanding to further use, in the particular, complicated, and ever-changing context that is his or her life and no one else's.

We're all DJs these days. So, I'd say anyone who got any significant airplay, s/z/he's in the lineage. And there's more coming. The "American" may very well become a less crucial qualifier, but the national attachment to poetry more intense. Yes, the stodgy and buzzkill will continue to flip out about the dangerous volume and difficulty of sifting through all the "bad" poetry (on the Interwebs!). How impossible to get to the "great" poetry, whatever that is! The haters, within and without, are no longer relevant. Whew. Poems and films are becoming less distinct one from the other. Poems and cyborgs have intimate rhizomatic connections. Poetry will still be written about everything about which it is already written, but also everything about which it has not been written. Those of us who conceive of the poem as otherworldy architecture will be grateful for holograms. I'm a little worried that there will be actual ghosts in poetry, but in the "future" maybe I will be 1. braver, or 2. ghostlier. The body is a construction, the poem is a construction, the self is a construction, and in triangulation they allow us access to the "real" the "artificial" the "artificial real," that is—the spectacle mishmash! And each other. I love poetry. I really really adore it. Thanks for inviting me to this survey, because, seriously, when the aliens or the future babies or whosoevers find this document, I want them to know POETRY WAS LOVED. Happy birthday, PSA.

Published 2010.

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