An Interview with Danniel Schoonebeek of Brooklyn’s Hatchet Job Poetry Series
The Roots Café’ on 5th Ave. is the perfect creative enclosure near Park slope; a low-glowing hole-in-the-wall where the creative idols who normally flee backstage are instead sharing drinks among the stools and ‘talking shit’ about their own performances afterwards.
Danniel Schoonebeek was among the poets having a beer with old friends when I first got to greet him. A graduate of the SUNY Purchase Creative Writing Program, Danniel Schoonebeek is the author of American Barricade, his first collection of poems. Two years ago, Daniel founded the Hatchet Job poetry series in Brooklyn, which he has hosted ever since.
Schoonebeek, joined by fellow writers Paige Taggart, Jen DeGregorio and Allison Geller, shared some of his newer work with the Roots Poetry Series at Roots Café on 5th Ave. this past month, and is currently being published as a part of the newly released anthology Please Excuse this Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation.
Speaking to a generation ruled by anxiety, Schoonebeek’s reading was a little freedom from that worry by joining in it and sharing it among the stools and floor of Roots Café. While powerfully direct and sparing no detail, there was an ironic strength to Schoonebeek’s voice that stemmed from the audible vulnerability in his low tone, matched by a familiarly anxious fidgeting posture with every crescendo. Between his daring narrative on class and his expository reflection on origin, Schoonebeek ideally personifies the hesitant yet intimate magic of a poet.
The only thing as special as being a part of the audience was to meet Schoonebeek again at Sisters on Fulton Ave. the next night to find out more about Hatchet Job Year 3 as it begins,and as a fellow Purchase Creative Writing student, the barstool interview was more like an unexpected reunion.
How did you enjoy the Roots Poetry reading in Brooklyn? First time reading there?
Danniel: Yeah it was actually my first time, and I loved it. I was saying to someone it had actually been so long since I read in a café, as opposed to a bar or art gallery. It was cool to get back and kind of have that boxed-in but awkward kind of feel.
Awkward but intimate?
Danniel: Yeah, and the reading was fun. Paige is a friend and we’ve read together a bunch of times, so it was cool to read with her again […] I don’t think I’d ever been to a reading in Park Slope, which seems like it can’t be true, but it is right now. It was new. I haven’t really been enjoying readings for a while, and it was good to get back into enjoying them again. I think I was just doing it so much that I was starting to get tired of it. It was starting to get mechanical, but I’m excited to be reading a lot of new work now.
What’s it like hearing several of your pieces spoken as opposed to written?
I guess my preference as a poet is work on the page, but it’s not like I wildly prefer one thing or the other. Poems are very visual for me. I tend to work with either very long lines vs. short lines, or these super-short poems […] I have to be able to visualize a poem to write it. I have to see it before I can even finish it. So many of my poems, especially poems from American Barricade, started in my head. I would walk from 35th Street, where I worked at the time, to Union Square, and those walks were often times I’d start writing poems in my head. When I got home I started writing, and the beautiful thing about it is that it immediately changes. It’s a weird, complicated dynamic for me. A lot of my poems start spoken and then transition to text and then readings are so bizarre because you originally do all this stuff in isolation. Then you stand in front of a crowd and do it, and it’s so disingenuous in some ways, but I love reading. I like being in that position where I’m uncomfortable. My hands still shake every time I’m holding a piece of paper. I’ve done it so many times I know I’m not scared, but the energy of doing that is so great.
Something you’ve learned to ride on?
Danniel: Yes. I’m a person who, in life, deals with anxiety, so figuring out it was possible to go up there and transition that energy from anxious into spoken and bodily energy was a breakthrough, or even just the energy of hitting the nuances of your own language in interesting ways. All my favorite people in the world are anxious people.
Do you feel like you’re a part of a poetic community? How do you feel about your generation of poets and those you’ve gotten to meet, especially here?
I feel like when I first moved to New York it was on everybody’s mind a lot, it was a weird time, because New York has such a legacy in terms of literature. The New York School loom so largely over poetry and poets, and also it was one mode for how New York poets could interact with the arts community. So when I first moved out here it seemed like everybody wanted to be a part of a school or a movement, and people kind of bent over backwards to start collectives, which is fun, I admire that. But it seemed like people were straining really hard to self-define the moment, which you can never do. It was exciting, and I really felt like I was a part of something crazy that was about to explode. It’s been an honor, to grow up with a lot of the people I’ve met, but it’s also been tough because attitudes collide and compete and people are really hard on each other’s work […] The people with whom I’m still friends I’m grateful for, but the people I’m not still friends with I’m also grateful for. In terms of community, it’s really tough for me to currently pin down what that means. I feel like every poet and every writer has to fight so hard to get their work into peoples’ hands. I haven’t felt an immense amount of support from New York as a community, I have to say. I hate to say that, but I’ve started travelling a lot more, to other parts of the country, and I’ve seen how other poetry communities function. And I should also say that I’ve felt tremendous support from individuals within New York, but not necessarily from community writ large. Because of New York immensity, there’s communities within communities within communities, which gives New York its integrity. It’s part of what makes it beautiful and part of what makes it ugly at the same time.
What were your overall thoughts on the recent Hatchet Job readings in Brooklyn? How have you felt starting Hatchet Job inside the New York/Brooklyn community?
I started the series because I wanted to address something that I didn’t think was present in the poetry community at the time, which was what I would call deliberation. I wanted to feature writers whose work I’d read completely and loved, and when the series started I would give these short but elaborate introductions. Very studied. So that was great for a year while we got on our feet and then it started to feel like that was no longer lacking and the series itself was lacking in other ways.
And then “Year 2” came along?
Yes. What really defined the second year was making it less about New York and telling people that if they were in town, touring, or needed a gig, then we’ll build them a reading around that. Which was great, and I was so much happier with the second year than I dreamed of being. We had people from the UK, California, Iowa, Texas, Australia, all over the place. But we still feature a lot of New York poets too. Now that we’re moving into the third year, I’m still trying to figure out what needs to be addressed, what’s lacking now. There’s an incredible conversation happening in poetry right now and I think all series need to address it on their terms […] Part of what I’m thinking about is bringing on different hosts and collaborating with different organizations, like the Belladonna Collaborative, Cave Canem, the Asian American Writers Workshop, make it more about collaboration and less about me. The conversation is shifting, and I’ve always wanted the series to address that conversation and adapt to serve the community.
You will be hosting for “Year 3” still?
Yes. There is no definite plan to step down or anything like that. The first year, we were doing it once a month, and it was an incredible amount of work. So it started being bi-monthly, and part of serving out-of-town writers was this prevailing feeling like, “Well, we’ll do it whenever we want.” I’d like to stick to that model because I think it’s made the readings better. We’ve technically already done two readings for our third year, but at some point this year I know I’d like to implement some changes.
American Barricade revealed a lot of interesting views on modern America. I wanted to know how some of those views have changed since you’ve released other works, met other poets. How have your views changed or stayed the same?
I love that question.
Since you’ve gotten to view more of America, I mean.
The tricky thing is—and people who have reviewed the book have picked up on this—it’s really tough to place where the book takes place geographically. I think part of that is because I grew up in a very rural town, kind of in the middle of nowhere, more cows than people. I lived in a village for 19 years, population 4,000, and its politics were very confusing. I remember going to a conscientious objector workshop in my friend’s living room. I was politically involved from a young age, but I was also exposed to a lot of homophobia and racism and sexism at a very young age […] To me American Barricade is so greatly informed by growing up in that cow-town and then living in Brooklyn, but when you read the poems it’s almost impossible to say “this took place at this location” because the poems feel kind of southern but they’re very metropolitan, whatever you wanna call it. The poems I’ve been writing now are very different […] The age-old joke is that every poet’s first book is about their parents, and I’m interested in family dynamics and will continue to be forever, but I feel like I wrote through that subject in all the ways I could.
How old do you see yourself as? If poets often perceive themselves as either older or younger than they are, what age do you see yourself as?
Does anyone consider themselves as exactly the age they are? I don’t think anyone’s gonna say they feel exactly the age they are. I’ve always gotten along much better with people older than me. I feel older than I am. I’m not always happy about that fact, but that’s the way I identify. I feel like I’ve said this somewhere else before, but to answer your question honestly, if also ridiculously, I feel like I’m about 300 years old. Realistically I’m probably a third of the way through my life if I’m lucky. I’m in awe of people who stay in poetry their whole lives.
Do you see yourself as a person who can write and perform poetry for the rest of his life?
I think there’s no other way the scenario works out. It’s just that if I live to be 87, I’ll probably feel like I’m 3,000 years old. That’s kind of a shitty answer and I’m not trying to romanticize my jadedness but yeah, I definitely feel older than I am. I’m grateful for adversity and difficulty, but no one is in the present. It’s more of a retrospective gratitude.
What’s the greatest adversity you’ve ever overcome?
Well I’m a straight white man and that’s the definition of privilege in a lot of ways. The answer to your question, for me, has been about class. I come from a very working class background, lower end of that spectrum, and I got a job when I was ten, worked a lot of jobs that a lot of people who know me well still don’t know about, on my hands and knees in fields. I feel that reconciling that fact with being a writer has been one of the hardest things to do. People form so many assumptions about you as a person without knowing anything about you […]If there’s a one sentence way to answer that question: being okay with people not having any idea who you are. Being at peace with your own life.
In contrast, what has been the greatest benefit to being a poet?
That’s also an awesome question to be asked. In a lot of ways, I gravitated towards poetry because of its place in the world economically. There is definitely an economics to poetry, but it’s outside a lot of capital models in a lot of ways […] I think it’s so beautiful to be a part of something that exists outside of money-making, because there’s almost nothing you do that functions in that way. People spend the majority of their lives working, and I think working is a beautiful thing, but I think working for money in order to exist is also a terrible thing.