March 30–April 5, 2020
Daniel Poppick is the author of Fear of Description (Penguin, 2019), a winner of the National Poetry Series, and The Police (Omnidawn, 2017). His work appears in Poetry, Harper’s, Lit Hub, BOMB and the Yale Review. He lives in Brooklyn, where he works as a copywriter and coedits the Catenary Press with Rob Schlegel and Rawaan Alkhatib.
Paradise has a limited vocabulary. Hell is more eloquent,
Letters drop off blackened boughs and splash
Into a stream that feeds down to a fluid realm where poems
Speak for stones. A little ripple spills
Into a honking syllable’s bill, green scum snapped up from
The surface of Narcissus’s phone. Then it is still.
Interceptor, that face before yours
Locked in a razor-thin, liquid cell
Bears the first fungus: a duplicate life
Whose harmony is not your own.
You open your mouth, and in the water an empty suit
Turns his head, information and defense
Spilling from its pit
In the shitty willow’s boundless shadow.
—From Fear of Description, Penguin, 2019.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
“Ecstatic Zero” is the oldest poem in Fear of Description, and was probably the one I used to pivot directly into that book. Wendy Xu published an early, different version of it back in 2016 over at Hyperallergic. The shift from the original opening line—it went from “I’m totally not you, but figuring this illness can’t be eradicated” and ended up in the book as “Paradise has a limited vocabulary. Hell is more eloquent,”—pretty neatly sums up one of the ways in which my instincts changed between 2015 and 2019. When I wrote the original version, I had been focused on syntax-level fractures and conversational oddities in the line as a way of casing the edge of what it was possible to do with a lyric voice, and I think I zoomed out and took a more panoramic view in this later version. I wanted to be more direct. The uncanny resonance in the line about illness in the old version is not lost on me this week as I hunker down in quarantine mode for the pandemic. I know I’m only registering the obvious when I see that the world has transformed in the last week or two, but sometimes what’s obvious is surprising.
What are you working on right now?
A long book-length poem comprised of monthly notebooks that I kept from 2017 to 2019—containing a handful of discrete lyric poems but also parables, dream records, dialogues, short essays, aphorisms and jokes. I’m editing right now, and I’m learning that that’s going to be a bigger lift than writing in this case. It’s a mess!
What’s a good day for you?
Two weeks ago I probably would have said reading a book or writing in the morning, taking a long walk in Prospect Park in the afternoon, and seeing music or getting a drink with friends at night—but at this particular moment I’m pretty thrilled just to be able to go outside.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I was living in Iowa City, and five years into that life it was starting to feel small. Most of my writer friends whom I had met there in grad school had moved to Brooklyn, and I have family in New York, so it made sense. I did not like it at first, but it grew on me. If I can’t be in fluid conversation with other poets, I start to feel nuts. Brooklyn provides that conversation.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I’ve spent most of the last five years or so in Fort Greene, and my favorite part about it is the park and the giant London plane trees. When I first moved there, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, the one with the giant red clock at the top, was by far the tallest building around, and now there are luxury high-rise apartment buildings mushrooming around it. But right now I’m not there. I’m riding out the pandemic in the extra office-bedroom of two poet friends, Chris Schlegel and Rachel Mannheimer, based upstate in Germantown in the Hudson Valley. We’re working from home, going on runs, making lots of legume-heavy dinners, watching movies at night, reading each other poems, doing our best to ward off despair and getting weirder by the hour. It’s snowing heavily right now. I feel lucky to be healthy and with friends.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
A decade ago, before I moved to Iowa, I was living in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. I was coming home late one very cold winter night—I think it was 3 AM—and as I walked up Nostrand to my apartment I saw a guy running and pushing a baby stroller. At first I was just alarmed for the baby, because it was so cold, but then as he got closer I saw that he was being chased—literally chased—by a giant rat. It was lunging at his heels as they ran. This scene made an impression.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
For me, a poetry community is a group of people with whom you share a frequency—work, ideas, a language, heartbreaks, maybe politics and an aesthetic sensibility. You go out of your way to see these people because you like them. But a poetry community is also composed of the people whom you run into over and over again by accident. There has to be at least a low-grade serendipity that brings community together, otherwise it’s just social habit. I had the first thing when I moved here, but it’s taken longer to notice the other thing. New Yorkers can see each other every day for years without making conversation.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Since moving to Brooklyn, I’ve been meeting once every couple of months to share work with a group of poets I met in Iowa who now live here. Rawaan Alkhatib, Colby Somerville, Bridget Talone, Callie Garnett, Sara Akant, Katie Fowley and Adrienne Raphel. Jessica Laser moved to Berkeley. Ashley Colley comes in from Maine sometimes. This collective has had as profound an impact on my writing as anyone.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve had several great poetry teachers, but my friends are my mentors.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Ariana Reines’s A Sand Book is incredible. It feels seamlessly unified even as its constituent parts are in opposition. It’s scary, absolutely brilliant, and at 400 pages utterly riveting all the way down. I was waiting for it for years, and then there it was. I don’t know how she did it.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I’ve never read The Canterbury Tales, except for a couple of selections here and there. Maybe now is the time?
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
One book at a time, though sometimes I can read a novel or a book of essays and a collection of poetry at the same time. Always physical books. And yeah, lots of weird notes. Reading and writing often happen for me at the same time.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I have a soft spot for what I guess you could call “notebook poetry”—books that perform a kind of cultish privacy even as they are obviously written with an eye toward public readership. Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book is a classic example, arguably Jack Spicer’s whole body of work, Lucy Ives’s The Hermit and Aaron Kunin’s Grace Period more recently—but some of Dickinson’s letters do it too, and Keats’s. I love this genre for lots of reasons and I want to write my own version of it. I’m working on it right now.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love reading and writing in Fort Greene Park—or really anywhere with just a minimal amount of ambient drama and noise.