Daniel Poppick on End Times

Art's amiable cruelty

Maggie Millner
Portrait of Daniel Poppick

Daniel Poppick’s second collection of poetry, Fear of Description, was selected by Brenda Shaughnessy for the National Poetry Series and published by Penguin Books in October. The book follows a millennial narrator through a series of contemporary American landscapes, where symbols of late capitalism prompt oblique meditations on property, death, and labor. Every scene is laced with a heady sense of the uncanny—both because Poppick is a gifted defamiliarizer of quotidian experience and because his narrator, like many of us, has begun to see everything through a lens of preapocalyptic dread. What happens when the onset of adulthood coincides with an age of ecological catastrophe? When corporate jargon suffuses our most intimate social interactions? Rising to these questions, Poppick never loses his equanimity; he delivers even the worst of news with waggish wit, rhapsodic delight in the possibilities of language, and great stores of tenderness for his friends. “A sentence turns to you in the starlight and stares into you with an amiable cruelty that only art achieves,” he writes, and it does.

The Hell Test (Seven Springs),” one of the book’s longest and most thrilling poems, appears in the New American Narrative Poetry folio in the latest issue of The Yale Review. Poppick and I spoke in an apartment in Bed­­ford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, as friends of mine prepared for a Democratic phone-banking event in the background. We talked about omens, coyotes, and writing at the end of the world.

Maggie Millner, senior editor

Maggie Millner A few of the poems in your new book, Fear of Description—including “The Hell Test”—are long haibun, a seventeenth-century Japanese form that combines prose poetry with haiku. How did you start writing haibun?

Daniel Poppick My friend Chris Schlegel, who appears in this poem, was writing a lot of haibun a couple of years ago. Reading Chris’s haibun led me to Bashō’s The Narrow Road to Oku, which I think is one of the early instances of the form. I had been reading Dana Ward’s books and Jennifer Moxley’s memoir The Middle Room and all of this narrative prose poetry, or prose that was very invested in talking about where poetry came from. When I read Bashō, something sort of clicked; I realized that I had been thinking about this particular strain of narrative poetry as a relatively recent phenomenon, but that it actually took after a very traditional form.

Linebreak and enjambment were for a long time the primary features of poetry for me. The fracture in syntax and the fracture of the linebreak, or the enjambed phrase, were sort of what I was in it for: those seemed to me the things that poetry had, formally anyway, that weren’t available elsewhere. But then finding the haibun, and realizing that there was a narrative form that had this fracture built into it, just allowed me to say things that I would have been embarrassed to say in a different form. Knowing that there was this pressure building up that was leading to the linebreak allowed me to pretend that I was just writing one very, very, very long line, all culminating in this moment of enjambment. That opened up a lot of possibilities for me, and I think it felt truer to life somehow.

MM One of the threads here involves the president; “The Hell Test” features an adolescent speaker as he trespasses on Seven Springs, this neglected old Westchester estate that belongs to Donald Trump. But your poem manages to capture the gravity and surrealness of the present moment precisely because it’s not a poem of argumentation or ideology. Can you describe how you incorporated overtly political material without writing polemically?

DP I just don’t think it’s interesting for me to say that I hate the president in a poem. I’m more interested in why. I’m also frankly not interested in a poetry of self-flagellation, and I’m not interested in a poetry of moral purity, because I don’t think that it exists. As I was writing this, I began to realize something about the book as a whole, that it was a book about poetry’s relationship—or art’s relationship—to going to Hell and coming back. Or just to going to Hell. So what can we learn about art, and ourselves, by going to Hell? For me, that is an ideological question, even if the poem doesn’t articulate an explicit argument.

I can say this poem took by far the longest to write of any of the poems in the book. I wrote the rest over the course of a year—more than half of the book I wrote in two weeks during a residency on Norton Island, Maine. But then this poem alone took me almost a year to write, and I didn’t write a single other poem during that time. It was very slow-going.

MM What is Hell to you?

DP My friend Chris Martin has this book coming out called Things to Do in Hell, which is predicated on the question of whether we’re living in the worst possible Heaven or the best possible Hell. Personally, I have come to see the world that we’ve created for ourselves, right now, as the best possible Hell, which will only get worse from here. In the last few years and especially when I was writing this poem, I was trying to ask myself what it actually means to oppose the state in poetry, whether that’s even possible for someone like me—who grew up in such close proximity to places like Seven Springs, this very concrete example of late-capitalist rot. I wanted to find a way to articulate how deep you need to go—within yourself—to speak back to this moment. Because to oppose the state right now, I think, is to oppose yourself as an American.

I’ve been thinking about this incident at Seven Springs—when I found the dead coyote—since I was a teenager. I knew when it happened that it was an omen. I think I had been waiting for more than fifteen years to figure out what it meant, or what it was leading to, or to feel some kind of closure about it. And during the rise of Trump’s cult of personality and his administration—along with everything that was happening, the growing sense that we really are living at the end of something ecologically, and as I was coming to the end of my youth and beginning something else—that’s when a narrative started to crystallize. I’ve never experienced that kind of sustained narrative delay before.

MM How did you know it was an omen?

DP Part of it has to do with this physical place in the landscape. There are some spaces, just as there are some kinds of language, that have a mythos to them. This space has it. Part of it has to do with where I was in my life when I found it. As a teenager I think I was always looking for that—looking for the mythic, even though I couldn’t articulate what that meant at the time. And I found it in this place, and that’s why I kept going back to it. There was something uncanny about it.

I had some vague, buried awareness of the coyote’s significance as a kind of messenger between worlds in certain mythic traditions. And then when I saw it, it was just so sad. I had no idea how long it had been there, but the corpse was in perfect condition—like it had been preserved somehow. It had clearly survived the fall into this shaft because there were paw prints by the door. It had probably starved. I don’t want to suggest that this was the defining moment of my youth, but I do think that there are moments that narratively tie multiple disparate strands together. And multiple different selves.

MM This book feels like it’s constituted by a series of omens, in a way—if you’re defining an omen as some kind of emotionally powerful event that resists, and keeps resisting, narrative closure.

DP It resists resolution. I don’t think it resists closure.

MM What’s the difference?

DP Let’s say resolution is the feeling that the event has ended; the conflict has been fixed; we’re moving past it. Closure involves an opening-out. It leads directly into something else, which in turn continually redefines and frustrates the answer to the problem that you thought you’d just solved.

MM So what makes something an omen is that it won’t resolve: it forecasts and continues to inflect all these experiences that happen after it.

DP Absolutely. It resists resolution and invites narrative. It invites you to project many different narratives onto it as you continue to accrete experience.

MM I’m also thinking about how all of the haibun in your book have some kind of totemic animal in them: the coyote, the dog, the chickens, etc. Was including these animals—all of which are dead or dying—a conscious commentary on the ecological dimension of our contemporary Hell?

DP I was not conscious of that thread when I was writing it. I was conscious of trying to write in a way that entertained narrative, to tell these stories that I hadn’t felt comfortable putting in poetry before, laying them out and seeing what kind of constellation would form. Only after the fact did I become aware of that.

Going further than that, I think the way that certain friends have entered the poetry feels uncomfortably similar. It’s really hard to be facing the prospect of a global extinction right now and not see everyone I care about as kind of a totemic figure. As you approach the end of things, people, events, books, art, everything becomes narratively overdetermined, a little bit too much to bear. You can’t think of your friends as symbolic figures, because then you wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with them. But I think that in this book, on many levels, there is a kind of struggle to take the world at face value and also to look at the world in its mythic, granular, sparkling detail and overlay those two senses.

MM Were you worried as you were writing that you were making your real-life friends into narratively symbolic characters?

DP I wasn’t when I was writing it, and then as I was editing it and thinking about it actually appearing in the world, it was a huge concern. In the case of Chris Schlegel, who plays a large role in this poem, it felt not only OK but right to give him this treatment, because this book was written as a dialogue with him. So the composition of each other’s poems became part of the poems themselves. And because these poems are sort of markedly, strangely personal for both of us, I think the construction of selfhood in one another’s poetry became a subject of the poems, too. The construction of selfhood in life and in poetry can be very slippery, sometimes in really wonderful ways and sometimes in very scary ways. And this feels true to that.

MM Why do you think you both found yourselves suddenly writing these strangely personal poems?

DP I can’t speak for Chris, but on some level I think I just identified so strongly against autobiographical writing that I was bound to try it eventually. I had no interest in the confessional or post-confessional poets for a long time. I can be very slow on the uptake, and when I first discovered poetry it took me a minute to figure out that there were people writing about their own lives other than Robert Lowell. I did like Sylvia Plath and John Berryman but for reasons that had zero to do with their status as confessional poets.

As I said earlier, my thought had always been, “Why would you talk about yourself in poetry when every other kind of creative language-making does that?” There’s so much more that you can do in poetry than that. Poetry allows anything. It’s a laboratory for pushing the language forward. Why would you talk about yourself? But if you resist something long enough, guess what happens?

Maggie Millner is a poet and a senior editor at The Yale Review.
Originally published:
February 12, 2020


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