Arts & Culture

Daphne Gottlieb: Kissing, Fucking, and Hanging with Lemony Snicket

Daphne Gottlieb writes poems that are the opposite of what most of us think of when we think of contemporary poetry: wildly readable, deathly powerful, and devilishly funny. Without attempting to make a watered-down mainstream crossover, her voice hasfound reception … Read More

By / March 15, 2009

Daphne Gottlieb writes poems that are the opposite of what most of us think of when we think of contemporary poetry: wildly readable, deathly powerful, and devilishly funny. Without attempting to make a watered-down mainstream crossover, her voice hasfound reception in the most random and prestigious of venues. Her last book of poems, Final Girl, was named one of the 25 best books of the year (books, not poetry books) by the Village Voice. Her remix of Walt Whitman’s poetry into a sestina — subtitled "killing the father of free verse" by McSweeney’s. And she had a cameo alongside Charles Simic and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. The thing about Gottlieb, though, is that no explanation can quite manageto contain it. Much like Nine Inch Nails creates violently nihilisticmusic that is somehow palatable for the masses, she writes poems thatmanage to be thoroughly their own creation, and yet be understandable to the rest of us — like mixing proclamations by Catherine the Great together with quotes from Animal Farm and turning it into something both funny and evil. In the darkly sweet "Everything She Asks of Me," she dates Marilyn Monroe: Last week, she was obsessed with cantaloupe and Eartha Kitt.  As I gotready for work, she jumped up and down on the bed, singing, I Wanna Be Evil.  When I came home, she’d tried to dye her hair black.   The dye wasspattered on the walls, the couch, the floor, sticking to everythingbut her hair, which shone like a canary in a coal mine.  It didn’t work right, huh, she asks.  Do you hate it?  Her face crumples.  I hate it,she says.  I rubbed toothpaste on her hair until it was back to blonde,and we ate cantaloupe in bed, gently scooping the calm flesh into ourmouths. Daphne GottliebIn some way, everything Gottlieb writes is autobiographical, fromthe giddiness of a new relationship to the death of her mother. Inanother, less ephemeral way, though, it’s about all of us. And in thatway, it gets under our skin and shivers our spines until we are bothprofoundly scared and profoundly grateful. In Final Girl, you dealt with the genre of slasher films, focusing on the "final girl," the last woman standing. It was a powerful statement about feminism – that combination of fierceness and fear, mixed with the sober and depressing reality of being confronted by the immediacy of death. When were you first like, "I’m going to write about being in a horror movie?" How did it play out?

I was reading Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chain Saws, a deconstructive reading of slasher movies, at the same time as I was TA-ing a class in American Literature. I realized that one of the oldest forms our country has – the captivity narrative – is the same form as the horror movie. It sort of went from there.

A lot of these poems are about other people — Karen Carpenter, Anne Frank, JonBenet — but you aren’t afraid to characterize them and take risks with their personalities. How do you get into their heads? Has anything ever made you stop and question, or recant one of your characters?

I’m actually not concerned with getting into their heads. One of the things I’m most interested in this book – we think we know these "people" so well by how they’ve been portrayed, when we really only know their media construction. I was interested in trying to insert a "private" life into a "public" figure and seeing if it altered the myth at all – did it bend? did it break? Did it do nothing at all?

I remember you saying you were consciously avoiding writing about Mia Zapata, the lead singer of the Gits, who was  one of the first distinct riot grrrl singers, when she was murdered…

I honestly don’t remember that, but it makes sense. For the most part, I was looking for "dead" girls – people that are well-known, and we don’t have a strong emotional reaction when their name is mentioned – it’s either been a long time, or it’s sort of a muted feeling. And in a particular subculture, there’s a particular stake in Mia Zapata, a passion and a fury – so although she’s dead, her legend is hyper-alive.

Kissing and Fucking: two of Daphne's favorite books and activitiesFound texts are a sort of necrophilia with you — you seem to enjoy taking newspaper articles and essays and turning them into poems, subverting the original intention. Isn’t that a weird preoccupation for poetry, where the credo usually goes, "Do anything"?

How so? I *am* doing anything!

True enough — which probably makes this the point where I should ask about your other new book, Fucking Daphne, an anthology of "mostly true stories and fictions" which you both edited and star in. What was it like, reading accounts of people having sex with you?

Honestly, at first it was a little weird – mostly the weird part was asking people to write stories about having sex with me. By the time the stories came in, most of the time, I had a pretty thick skin — it was pretty apparent that these stories weren’t about "me" but about a character that bore a passing resemblance to me. Most of all, across the board, these stories were about the authors; their hopes, dreams, self-images, ideas and nightmares.

What was the single act that surprised you most?

[San Francisco poet] Justin Chin wrote a story from the perspective of my cat. I said yeah, okay, write me that story, but I was skeptical that it could be anything but a cartoon. But the story is rich, moving, and funny, and by far transcended the cute story of a house pet that I feared.

Fucking Daphne: a "mostly true" book by and about Daphne GottliebDiablo Cody, who’s doing a horror film now, has been speaking about horror films as a feminist genre — echoing, in my opinion, a lot of what you’ve said. Do you think the mainstream can change, even with cool people helming it?

Oh, argh. See, I don’t think that horror movies are a feminist genre – I think it’s possible to make a feminist reading of a horror film, even in a misogynist culture. So do I think that low culture can affect the mainstream? Probably, but I think it’s in a really difficult battle of swimming upstream. I do think things trickle up, but I also think that they get re-read in ways that serve the dominant paradigm. I’m not sure this is a great answer, but it’s as far as I can get.

If one of your poems was turned into a movie, which would you choose?

Just to be perverse, I’ll say any poem without a clear narrative line. Though one has already been turned into a film – it’s not in any of my books, but "Somewhere, Over," a poem that splices together images of my mother’s death with fragments of The Wizard of Oz, was made into a short film last year.

The most autobiographical poem in the collection is "Living Legend: "being james dean/isn’t easy./even james dean/couldn’t do it for long." You’ve just hit 40 — past the age of James Dean when he died, and you’re still passionate and talented and rocking out. Do you feel like we get wiser as we age, or just come up with new and innovative ways to fuck up better?

Ha. I don’t think that’s the most autobiographical piece in the book – not by a long shot. On aging, I guess that piece is a tribute to those who didn’t survive – because of addiction, suicide, or all the reasons we lose our lives – and a shout-out to all of us who never expected to be here this long. I don’t know what to say about aging, only that it’s not what I thought it was, and that, unlike James Dean and as you suggest, the price of passion isn’t dying (though it can bring you pretty close).

Which piece do you think is the most autobiographical? Do you feel personal connections to any of these women that you’ve written about in retrospect, as if you’ve seen a side of them that nobody has before — or all of them, or none? 

They’re all autobiography, since they’re all projection. There are some I feel closer to than others, but for some reason, I feel that’s too vulnerable a question to answer — like it would expose things about me that I can’t — otherwise, I’d write memoir.

I *will* tell you that "you make me feel like the whole world is singing" about Shanda Sharer, age 12, killed by three teenage girls, and "heavy the head," in the voice of JonBenét Ramsey’s killer, are two of my favorites in the book, because for me, they deal with desire and loss, which I think crop up in my work over and over — I guess that’s an obsession of mine. That love can’t make anything stay, that love can destroy.

This is a hard question, but what kind of impact do you want your work to have when an alienated little goth girl first hears you or reads you 200 years from now? What do you want to be remembered for?

Maybe it’s already happened. I got an email a few years ago from a girl who was a cutter. She said she’d read my work and she’d stopped cutting. (She didn’t see that this was her achievement, not mine, but if she thinks my work stopped her cutting, great, as long as she’s not cutting.) I said, wonderful. Write me back in a year and tell me you’re still not cutting. About a year later, I got an email: "You probably don’t remember me, but a year ago, you told me to write if I still wasn’t cutting…" I told her, wonderful! Write me back next year!