Daniel Poppick is the author of Fear of Description (Penguin, 2019), a winner of the National Poetry Series, and The Police (Omnidawn, 2017). His recent poetry appears in Harper’s, LitHub, BOMB, The Yale Review, PEN Poetry Series, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, where he works as a copywriter and co-edits the Catenary Press with Rob Schlegel and Rawaan Alkhatib.
Keith Kopka: Daniel, first, congratulations on being selected for the National Poetry series! Fear of Description is such an interesting and challenging puzzle for readers. It was a really pleasurable read.
Speaking of challenges, this is a book that confronts readers’ preconceived notions of poetry and, more specifically, poetic form. It’s a book that often engages with the poetic line in a very traditional way. However, you also take huge risks in working against poetic tradition by writing in what could be considered a strictly prosaic form.
You announce this deviation very early in the book, and I think some readers might be startled by the scope of the prose blocks throughout the book. One might even begin to ask the cliché and ever-ephemeral question, “Is this poetry?” about a piece like “Rumors,” which, ostensibly, is 3 pages of prose that concludes with a more traditionally “poetic” tercet. Can you speak to your formal choices in this collection, and how you would like your readers to approach the challenges that you’ve presented to them?
Daniel Poppick: Thanks so much, Keith. I don’t think “Is this poetry?” is necessarily a cliché question—I think I’m actively courting it these days, actually. But the prose poems here are definitely, emphatically poems, even as they push hard toward something else. Around the time I began writing Fear of Description I became aware of these uncanny little moments in my life—ranging from the mundane to truly creepy shit, say from putting together a jigsaw puzzle with my friends while feeling depressed about the 2016 election (“Rumors”) to communicating with a dead dog through a Ouija board (“A View of Vesuvius”). I felt that if I were to try to put these into a poem, I would somehow falsify and ruin the moment. As I turned 30 I recognized them as guideposts, and I sensed that in sum they mapped some territory that I couldn’t define—but for a variety of reasons I was utterly uninterested in writing in a traditionally confessional or post-confessional lyric mode. So I was at a bit of a loss.
Around this time I came across Bashō’s long haibun, The Narrow Road to Oku—a prose travelogue broken up by a series of haiku. I’d been reading prose like this by living poets for a while, people who narrate their own experiences in ways that feel alive to something outside of themselves—Dana Ward’s books, Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies, and Jennifer Moxley’s stunning portrait-of-an-artist memoir, The Middle Room, just to name a few—but until reading The Narrow Road to Oku I’d never thought about narrative prose as something that could be an explicitly lyric form.
Anticipating the break into lyric at the end of a “story,” or whatever, as Bashō does, was liberating. It allowed a pressure to build up that was productive rather than restrictive, and it mirrored the way I experience poetry in my everyday life—a rupture with everyday tediousness that makes everything feel more electric, or a wake-up call from my own reflexive, quasi-narcotic responses to the horror of our political reality. I need that sense of possibility from poetry, otherwise what’s the point? So, “Is this poetry?” In insisting that it is, I suppose I’m actually insisting, in a roundabout way, that life is worth more than the trash fire of our present.
KK: This is so interesting, Daniel. When you talk about tension, I’m also seeing some connections to Hass, and his deployment of the prose form in a book like Human Wishes. As more general follow-up question to this line of thinking, I’m curious about how you view the relationship between form and content. What do you see as the distinguishing factors between “poetry” and “prose”? Are there any?
DP: I think if a writer calls the thing they wrote a poem, then it’s probably a poem. And while I love novels, I don’t think the novelists I know would necessarily say the same is true for what they write. Poetry’s formal capaciousness and endless protean possibility on every level might be, for me, the name of the game. The fact that what looks and sounds like an essay or a parable or a list of demands can be a Trojan horse for poetry is why I will always come back to it—and maybe why I still believe it’s the kind of language-making that can most fundamentally explode our ideas of what is possible. A friend recently suggested that the line break is basically the only thing poets can really claim as their own—that it’s all we have. That just about sums it up. If the line break is all we have, then we’re naturally going to want more.
The relationship between form and content might be a slightly different issue. If a poem has a narrative arc, that’s a kind of formal motion, isn’t it? And if you’re choosing to write in a traditional form like a sonnet, you’re placing that poem in a lineage defined by its content and rhetorical tone (love and persuasion, say) as much as it’s defined by metrical rules. And on and on. At the same time, I’m aware that it’s way too easy for me to reflexively fall back on Creeley’s idea that “form is never more than an extension of content.” I mean… Never? I’m only half joking. Just this morning I was reading a lecture on poetry and color by Dorothea Lasky from her book Animal, where she offhandedly points out this brilliantly obvious thing that I’d never articulated to myself: “intensity is relational.” Duh. If we’re using a distinction between form and content as some kind of byzantine gate-keeping device (which is exactly what poets like Creeley and Olson were trying to combat, at least on an aesthetic level), obviously that’s strange and tired bullshit. But if we’re using it to delineate real differences between states of being alive, or to create tension, then maybe we don’t have to think of form and content as being inherently unified. They might just coexist, and sometimes uneasily.
KK: I love this idea of delineating between “states of being alive” moving towards coexistence. I think that really challenges the divisive crutch that the form vs. content argument has become in some ways.
Beyond form, yours is also a book that is asking readers to unpack thematic connections across multiple poems. The Easter eggs throughout the book, especially in the later pieces, really help the reader to connect with the idea that the speaker in these poems is one unified voice. How did you approach voice in the composition of this collection? Was this unification a consideration from the start, or did the thematic elements of the poems begin to demand that you find ways to make your speaker feel more constant?
DP: I should say here that the speaker in this book is me, or a version of myself from that time—roughly 2015-2017. The approach to voice was to accept that I could write from my own life, which felt very embarrassing at first and then clarifying. That really wasn’t the point so much in The Police, which I wanted to be polytonal, so I’m glad that this one sounded unified to you. Everything fell into place very quickly during a couple of weeks in June 2016, during which time I wrote about half the book. I still feel like I tricked myself into it. I was also listening to The Goldberg Variations and J Dilla’s Donuts a lot during this moment and wanted to play with an idea that I recognized as being technically incorrect but generatively useful about what those pieces of music were doing—ending in the middle and then beginning at both the beginning and the end. I saw how this could work, structurally, with what became “A View of Vesuvius” at the center, and basically filled in what I could around it. That probably also helped unify the tone. Then the last poem, “The Hell Test,” took about a year.
KK: “The Hell Test” is one of my favorites! Speaking of hell, there are a number of themes that run throughout this collection (fear, music, etc.). However, one of the most intriguing recurring themes to me was the concept of Hell. The speaker in these poems is continually engaging with and reimagining this archetypal image but doesn’t seem to fear the idea of Hell. Instead, there seems to be a fascination and an acceptance that culminates in the final poem where the speaker literally descends into the underworld. What did you intend with this symbolism and what do you see as the thematic function of Hell across the collection?
DP: All of the really great hells or underworlds in poetry—from before Dante, up through Alice Notley—are just mirrors. They depict a version of their present, or ours. Other than those, the only hells I believe in are the ones we fashion for ourselves and one another. I saw the poet Chris Martin give a reading recently where he wondered whether we’re living through the best possible hell or the shittiest heaven. I’m an optimist, so most days I think it’s the best possible hell. In Fear of Description hell is more of a euphemism than a symbol—a euphemism that blends the mundane with the mythic. And I’m definitely afraid of it! But it’s also all we have, other than line breaks, so I love it too.
KK: It’s interesting that you use the word “euphemism” when you’re talking about hell, since, generally, euphemisms operate as a means of narrative distancing. The poems in this collection are fascinating in that some of them engage deeply and clearly with narrative while others seem to be consciously resisting it. In fact, the title of the book announces a resistance to narrative immediately. Still, it seems that the tension that is created by this juxtaposition is one of the driving forces of the collection. How do you see the tension between the lyric and the narrative functioning in these poems? Is this tension a function of the speaker facing their titular fear, or is that too narrow of a lens?
DP: Hell is absolutely euphemistic. It’s an inherently poetic construction of morality—or a moral construction of narrative, if you want. Hell is fun. It’s fun or at least comforting to imagine justice, for example, working algebraically—everyone who behaved badly on fire or eating someone else’s brainstem. It distances us from what we’re doing to the planet, which may be one reason why the right loves it so much. The consequences of climate change are going to be much worse than anything in Paradise Lost or the Bible. At this rate even the idea of hell will be erased soon, because we invented it for our pleasure and humans will be wiped away. The sad irony is that one of the only ways around this fate is somehow convincing Republican politicians that hell is real, and that as things stand that’s where they’re going. But Mitch McConnell is a nihilist and Mike Pence already worships Satan, so—
Does that also answer the question about the tension between lyric and narrative? Just kidding.
KK: I’d argue that this tension is continued in the way in which the speaker is identified as poet in the collection. There are some noticeable moments of meta recognition where the speaker talks about writing other poems in the collection, as well as descriptions in which the speaker is specifically identified as a poet. In some ways these moments put these poems in conversation with the “confessional,” where the speaker is identified as the poet. Still, there is a lot left unsaid in some of these poems, especially in the lyrical asides. Do you believe these poems are engaging with the confessional tradition? You said before that the speaker is you. But are you consciously subverting or toying with the identity of speaker as poet? If so, what do you hope to gain from this decision?
DP: The speaker is me, but a performed version of myself—standard stuff, the way someone’s life on Instagram is a performed version of their actual life or the self you present to your co-workers is different than the self you present to friends. Is that confessional? It would be silly to completely deny it, but honestly mostly no. Poets wrote about their own lives long before and after Robert Lowell, whose writing has never really done much for me. I’m more interested in how that aesthetic performance of our own lives changes us than I am in personal revelation.
KK: I like this idea of crafting a performed version of self. I’m always curious about a poet’s editorial process, and this is a collection that achieves a great deal in a fairly short amount of time. In fact, there are only ten poems total in the book. Was this brevity always a goal? Or did you find yourself pairing down the collection through different phases of editing? Either way, the brevity feels important to the themes of the book. How do you see your editorial choices, especially with an eye towards brevity, as an extension of theme?
DP: Concision was definitely the goal. The goal in The Police was to go down every fork in every road at once and to unify everything by juxtaposition and mass. The boiled-down versions of that book that I tried to make never felt right. So I knew that I wanted whatever came next to be leaner and meaner, because I wanted to learn how to do something else. Any sense of expansiveness had to come from within the poems themselves. There’s a lot of mirroring in this book, and I think I was processing the fact that for every choice one makes there’s another life that you don’t get to live. In a way the title Fear of Description refers to a fear of the infinite fates you might inadvertently sign yourself up for—living the wrong life by putting it down in writing.
KK: The construction of Fear of Description, as a collection, feels very intentional. Are there other collections of poems that were influential to you as you were shaping Fear of Description? What are some of the ways in which you were able to find connections between these poems? Did the recurring image sets happen naturally, or did you find ways to insert these threads as you were writing or editing?
DP: Beyond the ones I mentioned earlier, I learned a lot about scale from Nick Twemlow’s Attributed to the Harrow Painter and Robyn Schiff’s A Woman of Property—by scale I mean how those books modulate between longer and shorter poems, but more importantly in the way each confronts the looming, outsized portion of life that can be consumed by a relationship to art. Lisa Robertson and Ariana Reines’s books were incredibly important to me during this time too for similar reasons. And while they sound nothing like one another, I read Peter Gizzi’s Threshold Songs, Simone White’s Of Being Dispersed, Sara Nicholson’s What the Lyric Is, Hanif Abdurraqib’s music criticism, and too many others to name here through that lens. But really, Fear of Description was written in dialogue with and often in direct response to the friends who appear in the book as characters or sketches of themselves.
KK: Without giving away any spoilers, the collection ends with a very striking image that leaves readers with a satisfied but unsettled feeling. In fact, you achieve this in many of the poems in this collection. It is often said that the ending of a poem is the most impactful and also the most difficult part of a poem to compose. Can you speak a little bit about your strategy for ending/exiting poems? Does this strategy also apply to exiting a collection in which the poems are thematically linked?
DP: I wish I could claim I had one, but I don’t. I just want my poems to step beyond their own outer edges—which should be impossible, and is until it isn’t. Unless longing for what’s impossible is an exit strategy.
KK: Daniel, thank you so much for having this conversation with me. I’ve really enjoyed your insights, and I’m going to go back and read Fear of Description again.