Interview with Diana Goetsch
by Ann van Buren
Diana Goetsch is an American poet, author of eight collections, including In America (a 2017 Rattle Chapbook Prize selection), Nameless Boy (2015, Orchises Press) and The Job of Being Everybody, which won the 2004 Cleveland State University Poetry Center Open Competition and contains her poem “Young Italians.” Her memoir, This Body I Wore, is scheduled for publication in fall of 2021. She will be presenting her work, via Zoom, on May 31st, 2020 at 4PM. This interview was conducted via Skype by poet and writer Ann van Buren. It is presented in part.
Ann van Buren: I wanted to ask about your beautiful essay in the New Yorker. In it you commemorate your friend, William Zinser. His inability to go beyond certain boundaries of liberalism is notable. I was wondering what you would say about intersectionality at this time. Do you think that it is possible to cross those boundaries of race, class, and gender? Do you think that it is possible to find common ground in the experiences of being marginalized?
Diana Goetsch: I do. My orientation is very much about how minorities need each other. That’s why it’s extra nauseating when I get mis-gendered by feminist women. What I see minorities do to one another can be absolutely sickening. When I was eleven I watched some television talk show. I didn’t understand what this person was saying but he was James Baldwin, the most compelling speaker I had ever seen. I had never visually seen someone like him. There was a recognition so deep—I think it had to do with the fact that this man had a non-standard body and as a result spoke the way he was speaking. It all starts with bodies. That doesn’t sound so profound and I don’t care. You have a female body. I have a trans female body. James Baldwin had a gay black body. As soon as you recognize a difference in a body, everything else comes from that. Murder. You name it. Someone sees that my body is non-standard. That’s why mis-gendering is so unbelievably painful to trans people. Folks who are often older or simply old liberals don’t get that. They think it was just a verbal mistake but what happens to our bodies when we hear mis-gendering lights the fuse to every bad thing that can happen to a trans person. It’s the same for any minority. It all begins with an ocular mistake. I don’t want to oversimplify but it starts with bodies, not calling things by their right name. All evil comes from not calling things by their right name. Confucius said that. I’d include the death camps in Germany. If you don’t call things by the right name in the beginning— everything starts from there.
AvB: Do you have a problem with the phrase Social Distancing? Shouldn’t it be physical distancing?
DG: I was thinking about that. You gotta get in early on the language. I like Social Spacing. Although it does capture the kind of counter intuitive nature of what’s going on. Nothing says Love like a pair of rubber gloves! That’s our time. If you want to kill someone, just hug him! It’s counter intuitive. The thing that makes us so human is to be gathered. If you want to take away someone’s humanity, isolate them.
AvB: Yes. But isolation can go two ways. There’s the freedom to be isolated. Your books reference Maine. That’s a pretty isolating place, but people choose it. Do you go to Maine often?
DG: Only a few summers as a child. They got magnified in memory. I had very positive associations with Maine. Later I was associated with the Stonecoast Writer’s Conference where I worked with Stephen Dunn. I was co-teaching but really was just listening to Stephen Dunn. He was my secret mentor. He didn’t know it until I wrote an essay called Secret Mentor. Mentors are everything. In the great book “The Gift” by Lewis Hyde, he points out that being gifted is when you have a mentor you cannot possibly repay. What that person gives you can’t be measured by the market economy. The only way to repay it is to become fully who you are. Or if you take the Zen tradition to defeat or transcend them. But mostly it’s just fully becoming a writer. When I published Nameless Boy, a couple of weeks later I got a phone call from Stephen Dunn. He left a voicemail and I kept that voicemail on my phone for a long time! Stephen does not lie. He’s tough. And he said it was one of the two best books of poetry he read! I called and asked him what the other one was.
AvB: What was the book?
DG: It was Cynthia Huntington’s book that included a poem called “Shot Up in the Sexual Revolution: The True Adventures of Suzy Creamcheese”, an amazing poem about women in the sixties.
AvB: Why did you like that poem?
DG: I loved how human it was. It was about the body. She was coming into her sexuality at the same time that she was associating with the freedom movements. You had a lot of sex and drugs and rock and roll and all the rest. But it was not yet a time for feminism even though it looked pretty free and flower child and stuff like that. Women’s rights were still waiting in the wings. But these women were in this liberation movement and coming into their bodies. In the poem she beautifully captures the full complexity of what it was like. The speaker is absolutely tough as nails, even though she’s honest and vulnerable. It’s an amazing homage.
AvB: You must feel really good that you’ve gotten it all out there. It takes bravery for any writer to write. I’m interested in the persona in your early books—speaking of male and female personas—it looks to me like you were that guy in high school who was a real jerk! Sort of discarding and making fun of women.
AvB: But knowing who you are today, it made me wonder if you were struggling to fight it back. Alternatively, I wondered if you were writing as a “mean girl”. As I thought about it, I wondered if it was actually the guys in high school who cared about the awkward girl. I think they just ignored the awkward girl. I think it was the girls who couldn’t stand that person. It really ruffled their aesthetic to see the girl who didn’t quite care or wasn’t aware of all of the things that one was supposed to do in order to be one of the “in-crowd”. Were you writing from the perspective of the guy, or were you a mean girl?
DG: Well, I’ve had a lot of criticism for being an asshole. I’m working on a memoir and just wrote a chapter on being an asshole. I actually go into it. We all know what an asshole is. Creep is different from an asshole.
AvB: Creeps nobody wants to be around; assholes can sometimes gain popularity.
DG: Assholes. There’s the inability; there’s being pedantic; a certain kind of unpredictability. An older poet who I’m not going to name said You write as if you were ripped- off by life. I actually think that’s the center of being an asshole. Every asshole believes and acts like this is a rip-off. They are the people who ask to see the manager.
AvB: Ok. So not having enough gratitude is part of the problem.
DG: Yeah and you probably have a right to be angry, but you’re probably not being accurate. I became much more accurate about my anger when I transitioned.
AvB: So what is the source of your anger?
DG: Nothing. But when it comes up I address it. What happens when you’re an asshole, you offload anger on the wrong person. You’re just being an asshole and that just perpetuates anger. If you can pinpoint what and who is the issue, usually they’re not around anymore and then you need to work that out. That still pinpoints the anger. The problem with the asshole is a lack of accuracy I think.
AvB: Very interesting. I’m just thinking of the assholes I know…
DG: That’s a great title. The Assholes I Know.
AvB: Ha-ha!!! It would! You can have it. But seriously, you’re right, they really were ripped off, and yes, it is misplaced anger, but I don’t know how possible it is to get them to look at the anger or to take responsibility for their responses to their wounds. You can respond with anger or you could respond by focusing intensely on something productive. You could call that repression, but also liberation from that thing that has hold over you.
DG: Or sublimation. You get into those “i-o-n” words. I get emails from students I taught at Stuyvesant high school during this previous period of my life and there’s so much gratitude it surprises me, because when I was writing the asshole chapter it was about the same time. I was just glad that I was able to be of use at a time when I was not always in good shape. I had this unbelievable job of being a high school English teacher with these gifted kids and they remembered me well. A lot of the ones who got to know me are not much younger than me- I was a young teacher- and they marvel at the fact that they had no clue at the time of what was going on in my life. We saw each other for 40 minutes a day, but every day, and we knew each other and they knew me deeply. I’m grateful to them for showing me another side of myself.
AvB: I was a high school English teacher too, and in looking at your pictures and reading your books I thought, this was probably everybody’s favorite English teacher. You’re so cool!
DG: The guy I supposedly replaced was Frank McCourt.
AvB: Oh my!
DG: Yes, all the secretaries and administrators would say OH you’re Frank’s replacement. But the kids never heard of Frank. It was so hard I couldn’t worry about who I was replacing.
AvB: How long did you teach at Stuyvesant?
DG: I was there for 14 years and then I moved to a school in lockdown in the South Bronx and taught there in juvenile detention. For six years I ran a writing program there. So it was 21 years all together I taught in NYC schools.
AVB: I wanted to talk more about transitioning. We’re always trying to read gender into people’s writing. Do you think you write differently as a woman?
DG: All you can do is become yourself. You just make a transit to what you really are. They’re changing the term ‘gender transition’ to ‘gender reassignment surgery’. I don’t care so much about the name as long as people understand you don’t make a transit from one thing to another; you make a transit into who you are. Nobody ever changed from a man to a woman or a woman to a man. That is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, zombie, Hollywood transphobic talk, I’m sorry to say. People are absolutely dead wrong about us. No one ever changed from one gender to another.
When I started to write poetry is I found a filter through which I could express myself in small facets. People who valued the poems could probably see facets of themselves in the poems but they could not see me. I think this happened very much in American song. You had all these homosexual composers in Tin Pan Alley giving America its songbook of heterosexual love and they’d say honey they’re playin’ our song. Well your song was written by a gay man. You know here’s Cole Porter writing these love songs and it was a complete filter he was using. Everything he knew about love was a homosexual context because that’s who he was. In a similar way the poems for me were a filter for all kinds of things. They were a way to avoid speaking much about myself, although it looked as though I was.
AvB: Thus the poems about the guy who was a jerk.
DG: An asshole.
AvB: Okay, an asshole.
DG: One of the columns at The American Scholar that you referred to was about teaching. I kept on saying in the article We teach with our state of being. I am already bored by my own opinion. By the word activist. What I can do as a writer. I have a certain platform and a certain skill and I think one of the things I can do is just be me. One of the things I can show people is a writer who writes about every subject under the sun.
DG: People can, if they choose to be with me, be with the writing, the poems. Whether they want to think about how my body is configured or not, they can spend the time with the work and see if it gives them what you get from literature; some way of being in the world so that when you look up from the page it’s changed. Whether the person did that is trans or black, or white or gay, is secondary.
AvB: That’s the ideal world for sure.
DG: It’s not to bury my identity, it’s just to put it next to all these other things just in case you had a doubt it’s quite human and quite ordinary. That’s the really bizarre thing that I never quite understood. I have felt like the most ordinary person in the world. All who I ever wanted to be is just ordinary. I mean ordinary in the highest sense, in the Buddhist sense of “ordinary mind”.
AvB: Did you spend time at Naropa? Is that how you ended up following Trungpa?
DG: No. I wasn’t a student at Naropa. I got involved with a teacher who was one of Trungpa’s close students. I learned a lot in his community and became a reader of Trungpa. In fact, I’m the lead editor of a group that is putting out his newest book. It’s going to be called Cynicism and Magic. I’m working on a memoir of my own and also editing a book of Trungpa’s teaching. It was the first Naropa talk that we’re finally editing into a book.
AvB: It must be exciting to be working on that book and you’re lucky to be in the mindset of a practicing Buddhist.
Tell me about Jane Street Press. Are you still publishing? Has the business been affected by the pandemic?
DG: So Jane Street Press is a press that goes in and out of existence with each book I publish. It started off with a friend of mine who is exceedingly rare and good American poet who I just said let’s do your book. He thought for political reasons a lot of people weren’t looking at his poems. I knew they were fantastic, so we cooked up this scheme. I already knew design and layout and Quark Express because it I taught it in high school journalism. I designed a logo called The Jane St. Press, and he bought ten barcodes. ISBN’s. You just buy them. It was made to look like a book any book from any press. Before the book came out—this is Angelo Verga—people said, Hey Angelo, whose doing your book? and he said Jane St., and they said That’s a very good press. It sounds like an old press. So we did Angelo’s book. Then the writer Kurt Brown said When’s your next book? We said there is no Jane St. Press and he said No, there is. So we did more books. But there was no distribution. Poetry distribution is a contradiction in terms. They’re hand sold. Nobody buys a poetry book off the shelf. So basically I make zero money. I’m a conduit for them. They pay the printer and hold all the inventory. They profit enormously because there is no middle man. They just hold the inventory. I design the books, help them edit and shape as a labor of love. Many, many people send me manuscripts but you know, I choose. And it’s very rarely that I choose because when I do we have to become Jane St. Press again. In fact, we took down the whole website a while ago.
AvB: So it’s sort of an early iteration of the self-publishing world.
DG: Not really. It’s not a vanity press. I did not work with just anybody. In fact, Stephen Dunn worked with me. I did his edits. He did a chapbook that looks gorgeous. He put it on special paper. It’s called Falling Backwards into the World. But no, I choose the books. It’s not vanity.
DG: A lot of people I say no to. In fact, everybody. I’m an asshole again.
AvB: Oh man. I wanna be more like you!
DG: The press is this one thing the virus can’t touch!
AvB: You also teach workshops. Are they still going on online?
DG: Actually, the really happy story for me, since about three weeks ago, is that I’ve been offering these webinars every Thursday night. I partner with Paragraph Workspace, the physical workspace that has been taken out by the pandemic. But they’ve gone online and they have this genius who sets up these writing sessions. We’re getting like 70-80 people every Thursday at 7. They come from all over the world. South America, Chile, Argentina, California, Australia, Italy. I teach the free writing intensive that I was going to teach in Iowa this summer for five days and they’re getting 90 minute segments of this course I’ve actually been teaching around the country. It works extremely well in the sessions and then they donate to a cause. So the first week I gave to Paragraph, the next week to the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. This week I want to give to the Trans Youth Education Fund because they’re getting hit hard. These kids need to be going to safe schools in the fall. The pandemic is hitting different populations. It’s free or pay what you want and it has been a pretty good model. People have enjoyed it. Every week there’s more and more. I’ve never taught to 80 people in a class.
AvB: They must be on mute, right?
DG: Yeah but then when we read back and there’s somebody in a kitchen in Buenos Aires reading to us from a kitchen. You can’t get enough people to show up physically in one place. And it’s cheap and free if they want. And most people take it for free and some donate and we raise money.
AvB: So where would readers go to sign on?
DG: At this link.
It added rhythm to my life and to the people who meet there.
AvB: Crises are sometimes a boon for poetry don’t you think? I’d like to ask one more question about this particular situation. You say that everything begins with the body, and here we are, disembodied. What is this going to do to us in terms of gender identification now that we’ve all become portable objects in a laptop?
DG: I would never say gender is socially constructed. But part of the experience of gender is social. So it does change when people are isolated and when trans people are isolated, especially people who are newly transitioning, they’re having a hard time because the social aspect of gender that helps them has been removed. People in general are getting really horny! So there’s that. I do think about bodies in terms of people’s needs. What are alcoholics doing?
AvB: Drinking of course!
DG: I guess they’re allowing liquor stores staying open because they’re essential. What are sex workers doing? What are some of these people actually doing? We know what musicians are doing. They’re performing for free. They’re seeing that they can’t monetize this so much. So we’re getting free concerts. All these different people, in their reaction, the side stream interests me a lot. In terms of what we do with crisis and this particular crisis, as the Dalai Lama once said, I don’t even know what I’m eating for breakfast tomorrow. We can’t predict. But I’ll venture that like any other crisis, a certain number of people are going to grow and a certain number of people are going to regress.
AvB: Some people are strong and some are checked out.
DG: It’s enough to make you Buddhist. There are ways of checking out. You can call everything an addiction other than being present with what is really real. Discursive thinking is an addiction. Drugs are a giant obscuration. An exit strategy. Ways to cycle yourself into thoughts and dependencies and all kinds of addictions. Everything you point to that goes wrong with people is because they exited basic reality, a world that was either far more peaceful than they ever imagined or far more troublesome than they ever imagined. Whatever the case they’re exiting.
AvB: Well. It’s been wonderful to hear you share these insights and I’m especially happy to go to that Buddhist place.
DG: Well, people are reaching for that too. They’re reaching for poetry and the arts. When the chips go down we need a poet. Poetry is like “Step back dear, we need a plumber.” “Step back, get the paramedic” “Step back, here comes the poet.” I want to write a book called Stunt Poet. Stunt poet who can come in for any occasion.
AvB: Well you’re an engaging poet and conversationalist with a lot of important things to say. Thank you for reading your poems with us online on May 31, 2020 at 4PM. We’ll get the word out on how to log in on Zoom.