Daphne Gottlieb is a hard working poet whose performances are electrifying. She has three published works of her material and has read/performed her work all over the country, grafting eloquent combinations of thought and emotion that can be breath taking. I interviewed Daphne at her San Francisco Mission District home in July 2004.
S: We were talking to Daphne Gottlieb about David Lee Roth becoming an EMT and other things. You have three books?
DG: Final Girl, Why Things Burn, and Pelt. The latter two are on Soft Skull Press and the first one came out in '99 on Odd Girl's Press.
S: Do you define yourself as a writer, poet or performer?
DG: Specifically for what you're talking about I define myself as a writer though I think that is a very mutable definition. At the moment I define myself as someone that is trying to get her bearings straight. I moved about a month ago and I'm trying to pick up the thread where I left off.
S: You have been featured at a lot of spoken word events. I know that you read at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur and around the country but it doesn't seem like poetry and spoken word -- outside of hip hop and pop lyrics -- gets that much respect in the United States. Do you think that this is true or not?
DG: That depends on whom you ask. There's a culture outside of the academy that appreciates poetry but it's a very quiet culture. The breadth of the audience is also very narrow. You can sell something like 2000 copies of a popular poetry book compared to tens of thousands of issues of Rolling Stone or The New York Times or even something like Thrasher Magazine that has a rapt, enthusiastic culture it caters to which will buy it.
S: Have you been in Thrasher?
DG: I haven't been in Thrasher. I've been in Punk Planet though.
S: How did you get into writing?
DG: I started when I was very young. I think that we all respond favorably to praise -- especially as kids. So if I had drawn pictures that got everyone saying "Oh wow you're so amazing!" maybe I would be an illustrator like Lynda Barry. In my case it was my writing that people responded to. My first poem was published at age 8. Of course responses weren't always favorable. During junior high, I got sent to the guidance counselor because of a poem I wrote. They were afraid I was at risk for suicide -- which I wasnıt. In this climate -- given incidents like Columbine and everything else -- I probably would have been sent to jail or something who knows? This incident, nevertheless, didn't dissuade me from my creative path. I majored in creative writing in college and went on to graduate school and never stopped writing altogether. I would stop time to time because of various circumstances in my life but I never lost the recognition that my writing was a vital thing.
S: There seems to be a lot of incidents these days with people taking everything very literally. There was a controversy at the SF Academy of Art very recently concerning a student writing a really violent story which the Board of Directors and members of the faculty had problems with.
DG: I think we live in a climate of censorship. I think that it's very important to encourage freedom of expression and encourage people to write their truths without sanction. I feel that a writing instructor's job is to encourage students to create effective work. If the result is disturbing, then that is a certain type of effective, and maybe the responsible thing to do is explore how this controversial writing is disturbing and why it's effective in this way. Don't try to curtail this process.
S: You talk about "text DJ-ing" There seems to be some overlap between what you do and the whole performance culture. This is true especially inasmuch as the performance culture was infused by punk rock -- the whole theatricality of Lydia Lunch or Diamanda Galas and the methods employed in the world of pop/avant garde music. Do you want to talk about your text DJ-ing?
DG: It's actually a term that Greg Gillam of Chicago came up with. Text DJ-ing employs the cut up method of putting text together from different sources into a new structure -- though it's a little more than that. Let me back up to the beginning. Why work with found text? Why make poetry at all or this kind of poetry? I have an aesthetic bias in that I want poetry to matter, to mean something. If language wasnıt meant to communicate, weıd still be grunting and pointing at each other. We need language in order to express higher communication, even though that higher communication may be, "Hey your face is on fire!"
The idea of being a text DJ comes in when you take things from the current culture and remix them to make what's going on a little clearer, sort of load the dice in order to expose the con. I want to make things self-evident rather than just write about them. The truth of the matter is already embedded and encoded on the surface of what's being talked about. It just takes a little push, torque, bending and force, to get things to reveal themselves. Text DJ-ing may be something as simple as putting two articles that were side-by-side in a magazine and splicing them together so that they can be read grammatically, as one work. This changes the meaning of both original works and points out a cultural hypocrisy. The process can involve putting two things that "should not" be together but are related, like somebody's diet list and a love letter. These are not new ideas certainly this is not something I invented. This approach has been around since before William S. Burroughs utilized and promoted cut-ups in the 60's. By default this is a postmodern method: the result is feeding the culture back to itself by making an artifact. What I like about the term "text DJ" is that in reference to spinning records as entertainment and culture turn tablism takes two elements by other artists and recombines them and thatıs what working with found text in this matter does. If you work with that process, you take poetic language back from any sort of ivory tower syndrome.
S: Let's talk about the ivory tower for a minute. You went to Mills College and you said that you're bridging the gap between the street and the academy?
DG: The gutter.
S: The gutter and the academy.
DG: The ivory tower and the gutter.
S: That's a blurb on the cover of Why Things Burn. Could you elaborate?
DG. "Ivory tower to gutter" is a very tongue-in-cheek statement that plays with what people think I am. Sometimes, however, it doesn't matter who you are when you walk in the door. The fact is, poetry is still seen as an elitist art, despite the Black Arts movement and any number of other populist poets before and since. So itıs a way to try and reconsider, blithely, the positioning of poetry. Itıs also what Iım trying to do - marry sophisticated aesthetics to topic matters that the mainstream would rather we ignore or avoid -- rehumanizing people the media would have us dismiss, including sex workers, transgendered women and men, rape survivors, the working poor, the mentally ill. There's a certain joy in taking what is hegemonically suppressed and recentering it in discourse.
S: Can you tell me about your interest in certain female media icons? You've got one poem about Marilyn Monroe and another that is indirectly about Jamie Lee Curtis.
DG: Those are two different topics let me start by talking about the book Iım working on now Kissing Dead Girls. We use celebrity in a similar way that the Greeks used their pantheon of gods as a way of making sense of our culture, occupying identities we need iterated. Just like the Greeks did with gods we have a pantheon but it's a pantheon of celebrity that we graft meaning onto. This is a superimposed meaning -- a palimpsest. We do this with Marilyn Monroe, we do this with Harriet Tubman and we do it with just about anybody who has ever been famous and it's a way of making meaning out of our culture. (This doesnıt happen specifically with women we also flatten out and rewrite our male icons, but the way the genders are handled is different -- we sexualize our female icons.) These people become icons and symbols that we can manipulate in order to do our bidding and act things out. Monica Lewinski is a great example of this right now. Even after Clinton's been out of office for years and the scandal is over and done with she attracts attention. I think that we needed her to exist so we willed her into being regardless of who she actually was/is. We need her to exist in a certain way because she does something for us as a culture. She occupies a certain space.
I think a lot of the female icons that I'm interested in, specifically Marilyn Monroe, have been colonized, their personas have been rewritten. Their true identities have been subverted in service to this culture. So perhaps it reveals something about the myth and also something about the use of women to make new myths.
S: What about Jamie Lee Curtis? She's the girl who is asexual, kills the monster in the slasher film and survives.
DG: Well the poem isn't specifically about Jamie Lee Curtis. It's about anyone in the position of the "Final Girl" in a horror movie. The "final girl" is an idea based on a theory by Carol Clover in a book called Men, Women and Chainsaws. She sets up the theory of the "Final Girl" who is the one who goes through everything. She watches all her friends die, she's chased, she screams, she falls, she screams, she runs but she survives. The final girl is also coded as an adolescent boy because she doesn't have sex. She's non-threatening. These films were supposedly manufactured for adolescent boys so this makes the transference easier for the viewer watching them. The final girl was a figure they could identify with -- a pre-sexual androgyne was preferable to a mature woman or, say, a sex kitten type. The villains in these films are coded as uncomfortably gendered as well. While the final girl is coded as an adolescent male, a lot of slasher film villains are semiotically female. Norman Bates identifies with his mother to the point where he needs to become her. Dracula can be fit into this understanding. So there's gender confusions being worked out in these films where everything must be set right. They represent stages of cultural anxiety about gender and that's what I was interested in.
My girlfriend would prefer that I not fuck you/That's what she said./I love a woman speaks her mind
and most of all I love her./In the interest of keeping my promise,/I will just lie here and let you
do all the work." -- Devotion Daphne Gottlieb
S: What are you working on right now?
DG: For the future? I'm working on an anthology for Soft Skull Press called Home Wrecker that is all about adultery. We live in a culture that tells us that love conquers all but our culture also tells us that honesty and truth and fidelity are the measure of a person. These messages come in direct conflict under monogamy and marriage. I'm interested in the sort of pathology that this causes us. What does it do to us to live under these mutually exclusive myths that we have? This anthology is going to be fiction, non-fiction and poetry. It's going to come out in the fall of 2005.
S: There's a lot of pressure, both financial and psychological, on people, especially in their thirties, to fit into a nuclear family, but it also seems like adultery is frequently built into that. There's a lot of that in Catholic cultures. According to the Lonely Planet tour guide to Mexico it's common in upper class families for the father to have a mistress. The mothers deal with it by dotting on their male children who will grow up to be their fathers. This happens in the Irish culture I come out of too and may be a common thing in Latinate patriarchal Christianity in general. Of course the Catholic Church forbids all of this but it's been there forever. It's just there.
DG: It's funny. I was talking about this anthology to a friend of mine and he said "Isn't 'monogamous' anything you can get away with?" I think that's sort of an American operating assumption even though nobody will admit that. I think that the painful truth is we get implicated in these impossible loves that are more compelling, or at least as compelling in a completely different way, than the love we have with those we want to spend our lives with and grow old with. I think that it's problematic when we're told this is not an acceptable way to live because I think it's a real human thing. I'm personally looking for other ways to live.
S: I think when you get your basic needs satisfied -- food, shelter -- all that -- then you want danger because without that danger impulse life can get boring.
DG: I think that explains a lot about TV shows like Fear Factor. I think what you said is true and I wonder what the Third World must think of shows like that if they are even aware of them. "Wow I can get that walking down the street in the morning." I think this material can only be offered as entertainment to people who live in a position of privilege -- where danger is not an aspect of everyday life. The same is true with Temptation Island -- adultery being offered as entertainment. It's awfully strange and I don't think badly of this but I do think that America is going through a strange adolescence right now. I don't know if America has ever been an adult country. We're always told what a young country we are.
I'm not a prognosticator. I don't know where this or the country is going. I'm the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and a man who grew up really, really poor in the Bronx. I was always told that every generation thinks it has it worse than the last. During World War II with the bomb and everything else they thought it was Armageddon. With the Bay of Pigs in the sixties they though it was Armageddon. We're not really that special. Maybe the media is a little better at obscuring things. I think our government is terrifying.
S: Well the Republicans understand TV and the media a lot better than they did in the Nixon era.
S: Do you think that you're subverting dominant paradigms?
DG: I would love to believe that. What I'm probably doing, since I'm working in poetry, is preaching to a few converted. Once in a while, though, someone who I haven't met will find my work and contact me. This year an anti-war poem that I wrote about the protests was read in Kansas to a high school class. So these 17-year-olds found something in my words to connect with and shared it and it's now valuable to them because it became theirs. Their teacher wrote to tell me this which was hugely rewarding. It's less strident than "Wow that tract changed the world!" but these few minds at a time were exposed to my words. Speaking something that someone else didn't give voice to or couldn't give voice to is absolutely vital.
I really believe in the Akashic book -- the book of all books -- where what you are doing is entering something into the greater record. I feel strongly that this is what I am doing, at least on really good days when I sit down to write. Then I feel like I'm going to change the world, challenge a lot of the records that have been written. At other times, when I get up in the morning and go to my day job I feel like I haven't got a chance in hell. That doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying.
S: Do your metaphors just pop into your head? I remember you reading a piece about picking hand grenade pins out of a daisy from Why Things Burn that was very striking. Can you talk about your metaphor process?
DG: I don't think that I can. It's an insensate sort of sense that allows me to come up with my imagery. That particular poem is about that absolutely frightening gasoline on fire feeling that someone can give you when you know nothing will ever be the same again and you breathe in because everything is about to ignite. So it was working with that feeling. What does this feel like? Well it feels like pulling a pin out of a hand grenade in my mouth to give someone a bouquet. That's where it starts. Trying to explain what you're feeling to someone else in the most honest language you can find.
S: Yeah it can be difficult. The sand in the oyster that leads to the pearl. Have you ever written any plays?
DG: That's funny I was just asked to write one. I haven't. I've arranged pieces that I've written for performance but I've never written a play.
S: You seem to actually perform your writing as opposed to just reciting it. How did this approach develop?
DG: I started doing theater when I was in junior high. I went to theater school and was fairly serious about it but I felt that I was too tall and too funny looking to ever be an actress so I gave up the dreams of doing that early on. In college there were all these readings though and being a writer I went to them and read my stuff. If you were expressive you got better reactions. I would read aloud the way my writing sounded in my head and on the page. That was the way it would sound on my breath.
S: Do you write prose?
DG: Yep. A lot of what I've been writing lately is prose but you can't tell because of the way I read it.
S: How about a novel?
DG: I don't have that kind of attention span and I don't have that many intricate things to say. I work associatively rather than along a linear track. I want to be able to tell you one story that leads to another episodically. I want to work like a slide show rather than a movie.
S: Okay. Do you think that in these times of information overload that it's difficult to get people's attention because they're distracted by so many things?
DG: That's one reason why I think poetry should be the form of choice -- because you've got three minutes and you're on the toilet or on the bus and you should be able to grab content quickly. The persuasive language of advertising can be very beautiful language. I think advertising can be sublime sometimes. That can seem like a ridiculous statement but advertising inspires and can attract and be effective and I think that poetry can also be that attractive and that integral to our daily experience.
S: Tell me about your experiences reading around San Francisco.
DG: There was a great series of readings at Red Dora's Bearded Lady that Kris Kovik curated. Kris Kovik was a local legend and daddy to the whole dyke spoken word scene in San Francisco. Sister Spit kind of grew out of that. Michelle T and Sini Anderson were both fixtures in that scene. LunaSea Women's Performance Project was really hot around then too. I was.going to a lot of these events and saying "I can do that. I used to do that" and I started doing it again.
S: Sister Spit [predominantly dyke poetry group] toured around the country. Did you go with them?
DG: I did but I didn't do a national tour with them. I did the Pacific Northwest leg of one of their tours in the fall of '98.
S: Have you toured on your own?
DG: Oh yes. I've done at least three full laps around the country and into Canada and at least three regional tours.
S: What places have left strong impressions?
DG: Oh God. Albequerque, New Mexico because that's where I was given a concussion by poets I was on tour with when they accidentally closed the van door on my head. Olympia, Washington because I got to go to the Olympia brewery with ten dykes. The Nuyorican Poet's Café in New York because that was the epicenter of spoken word at the time in 1999. The Nuyorican was like a pilgrimage. The Green Mill in Chicago was memorable because that's where the national poetry slam started. At the New Orleans Book Fair, they made me read in a school bus (because thatıs where they were holding readings) when I was really hung over and I was terrified of getting ill on the bus thanks to youth flashbacks. In Americas, Georgia, I got to shoot hand-guns for the first time and that was very memorable. I liked Montreal because it was such a beautiful city and a very beautiful punk rock boy told me I had beautiful knees. Dallas, Texas left an impression because I got to read at an all-gay high school.
S: There are all gay high schools?
DG: There's a few. There's one in New York and there's one in Dallas. That's all I can think of off the top of my head.
S: When did you start touring?
DG: Probably '98 or '99.
S: And how did you approach it? Was it terrifying or exciting?
DG: Well there were a few people touring who I really admired and I thought well if you're doing this I want to do this. Also I wanted to see the country and I wanted to see people that I had met briefly so it was a great excuse to see people and to travel and share work -- expand community beyond San Francisco. I also got to listen a lot as well as read.
S: You mentioned people who inspired you. Who inspired you primarily?
DG: As far as taking it on the road? Justin Chin primarily. Beth Lisick and Jeff McDaniel also.
S: Is there anything that you'd like to do that you haven't done?
DG: I'd like to be paid to not have to work a day job.