Daphne Gottlieb, author of Why Things Burn is a bard of change. Her poetry bypasses the cliches to get right to the heart of matters. Using ingrained models of feminism, fiction, history and idealism, she presents us with girlhood in all of its forms. Using the sometimes violent imagery of rape, manipulation and exploitation, she twists the reader into a question delivered with a ration of hope. Her poems are not so much about taking sides in a battle of the sexes, but about looking at our perceptions and recognizing things for what they are in an attempt to bypass and change them.
The POEM inside of Bucky's lower lip
D.S.'s forearms know
it's a girl
it's a boy
and one bicep is NOT CRAZY
Claud's arm is
3AM: Tell me a little about your background. Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
DG: I grew up in Upstate New York, about a half-hour outside of Syracuse, NY. Got my BFA from Bard College. I moved to San Francisco in 1991.
3AM: Everyone brings something personal to his or her read, so forgive me for doing so.
DG: I wouldn't have it any other way. :)
3AM: You leave the reader with the feeling that the only answer to female oppression is to burn the institution down. It's as if the only logical course of redemption for the age-old female psyche is to create a destruction of the collective subconscious; a blood-letting and cleanse that would erase everything prior. This is terrifying and relieving simultaneously.
DG: I think that's great. I work a lot with the abject, (what society has to repress in order to function), and try to torque things that are obscure to make them visible. I'd much rather have people read the book and have them feel like setting things on fire than just nod smartly to themselves. I can't think of a finer compliment.
3AM: Using your poetry as your vehicle of opening that wound and creating that violent destruction, do you find your own course for exorcising these demons?
DG: I absolutely use my work as a place to figure out things I don't understand, but it's not all about exorcism. There's a lot of love poetry in there, too, a lot of reaching for connection, a lot of desire, and even some elation.
3AM: Should we play with Barbie or discard her in your fire?
DG: I think we can absolutely have big tits and wear a stethoscope. I don't think there's any contradiction there. The contradiction happens in the contrast between the fantasy and the real. There's a huge chasm there. In this piece, what I was working with was playing with the icon of the "perfect" beauty standard, as well as the "perfect" childhood role model against the lived experience. I'm hugely interested in how we're betrayed by cultural fantasies.
3AM: I had two men over for dinner the other night. One was a man who I respect for his feminist sensibilities. The other was a gay male friend whom I respect artistically. I showed them some of your poems and they both reacted with fear. How do we get into the skin of people like this who run away from your flame?
DG: I don't even know where to begin responding to that. I'm kind of amused by it, actually. To me, the goal of activist art is to provoke reaction, get people to consider the issues I'm addressing. So to me, it's less important that my work upset them (and some of it is really upsetting) than they gave time and thought to the issues at hand.
If there's a strain of the tragic or the harsh in my work, it's because it's already out there. I don't make this stuff up.
3AM: In your poem Just Now 18, we come upon an email being written by a man to a porn site. It's supposedly from a girl who has come home with a strange man and is giddy for his attention. And then she suddenly grows fearful as she notices the man is going to hurt her. And the last line of your poem shows this girl frantically trying to type the word "help", frantically trying to reach out for rescue. And then we find out that this is a letter written from a man to a porn site.
DG: I don't think sexual attention is bad. I don't think that flirting, or cruising, or objectification is bad or damaging. I think that feeling sexy and getting affirmation is really hot. And I think that's something different than exploitation. If it feels flattering, that's great. That's light years away from exploitation or harassment.
What I wanted to play with was this fantasy voice, like in porn magazine letters. There's always the question, "Did that really happen, or is it just fantasy? And I was interested in the way these letters are voiced, and also the voices women are given in porn, whether it's an interview or a list of "turn ons/turn offs" -- it's a purportedly female voice that bespeaks male desire. In this case, the voice was male though being "written" by a woman, and it's a letter gone horribly wrong.
3AM: Are your love and desire poems written for particular people or a way to describe those universal human emotions?
DG: It depends on the poem. "Why Things Burn" was written just out of an episode actually having to do with trying to learn to blow fire rather than any sort of more focused desire.
I had to quit my fire-eating career
when I could no longer tell
when to spit
and when to swallow
That said, the poem is absolutely about that feeling of desire. "You have one new message was written because of a message left on my answering machine that inspired the poem. So often, it's the feeling that inspires the poem rather than writing a poem for someone in particular.
However, there are also a number of poems -- mostly in "Pelt," my first book, which are written for my girlfriend.
3AM: Is there hope in this world? You have started a seething fire Daphne. Do you see redemption at the end of the tunnel?
DG: I'm not sure there's hope per se. Buddhism would have us release both hope and fear. I'm not a Buddhist, but I think the whole idea is fascinating, provocative -- releasing what we believe things are going to be in service of what they are. So rather than hope, I put great faith in the belief that things can get better, and that one's actions matter. If not, why would we bother getting up in the morning? I think that the ultimate activist action is love. I think meeting a world that is full of institutionalized hate with a heart full of love and a dedication to change it is a powerful thing. Do I see redemption? Sure. There's redemption in the fact that we can connect to each other, that my work has helped break silences, and that I love and am loved. That's about the best I can ask for.