In each of our “Boo’s Hollow” issues, Associate Poetry Editor Lea Graham invites writers and poets to reflect on the role played by place in both their own work and poetry in general. This month, we’re proud to share the thoughts and work of Danielle Pafunda.
Lea Graham: I like your initial reaction about the lack of influence that place has had on your work. You refute that, of course, but I’m curious as to why you felt that way at an earlier time in your writing life? Do you think that having grown up in “the outskirts, the sticks, the places less valuable to developers/more valuable to deer and skunks and chickens” had an impact on even the way you understood geographical impact?
Danielle Pafunda: I think growing up on the edge of the suburbs, in a thoroughly unstable family, often in poor health, I always felt marginal. Like we didn’t live the way real or regular people did. Like people on TV (ha!), as many kids from messy homelives say. The creek, my bedroom, the oak tree, the swimming pool were my lean-tos. I had a rich inner life. I made myself at tentative home in other people’s houses. I wished I were more part of the woods (a fairy, whatever, it was the pixie-chic era!), but I wasn’t. As it turns out, a lot of my childhood was… soundstage, falsified… family secrets abound! Anyhow, as an adult, I still have trouble feeling part of the places I live, though I try very hard to integrate myself. So: I think yes, the outskirts really influenced the way I thought about my relationship to space, location, occupation. I think I also imagined, for awhile, I’d gotten so far from home that I was immune to place.
LG: Can you talk a bit about growing up in the “sticks” of New York and how that is connected and disconnected from your current home in Wyoming? Do you have moments where you walk out your door and feel like its upstate New York? Or is your current landscape a place unto itself?
DP: This question made me cry. Sometimes I miss that New York landscape so badly; the only landscape in which I recognize myself. Wyoming looks a bit like Arizona, northern New Hampshire, places I’ve spent time, but it’s also distinctly its own prairie self. I admire its fierceness, its refusals and odd combinations of baroque and bare. At a county fair or scrambling on boulders with my kids, it feels familiar enough—I know how to live here, how to appreciate a cord of wood and a well-insulated wall, how to plug holes so mice don’t get in, how to hike the snowy streets to one of the few bars and greet whomever’s there. The view from my picture window looks like the set of a television show—The Wonder Years or some such. I can see far down the street. I watch the leaves turn, the snow come on (early, September), I watch the trees bud (late, June). Cars turning, kids biking, students walking in pairs to campus. It’s lovely and it gives me those simulacra I longed for as a child in less pleasing simulacra! But when I was lucky enough to be granted some time at the Millay Colony in upstate New York, it was all I could do not to beg to be repatriated. I’m not very outdoorsy, but I miss those sticks in particular, as badly as I often miss the city. All the places that I step into and click.
LG: The body as “a place of boundaries” is interesting in that, I think, it takes aging and/or illness to really know that. Can you talk about coming to that realization that the body was not boundless? It seems that that understanding has a real impact on the imagination.
DP: Very young, I developed a to-this-day undiagnosed governing autoimmune disease. The neurologist and rheumatologist still bounce me back and forth, not unkindly, none too worried. Anyhow, when I was hospitalized in 1980, there were bone marrow extractions, blood tests, x-rays. It was early on enough in the study of autoimmune disorder that it took the family vet in concert with my hematologist to determine that I had Severe Secondary Neutropenia (a symptom of whatever captain illness I’ve had). The hospital was terrifying and painful. I was in the isolation ward. I was jacked on steroids. When I got out, I often contracted infections I couldn’t fight off. I’d also developed migraines around the time I started speaking. Over the years, I improved, stabilized, but my body bound me from the get-go. I’m very lucky that though I’m disabled—and I use this term, this agency-removing term, because it is the culture and environment that so often disable those of us with non-normative bodies. I do have a disability and illness and pain, but more so I have a community that hasn’t begun to provide for my well-being, or apply my resources more effectively… Though I’m disabled, I’m lucky to have a very flexible disability and a flexible (as the academy can be, anyhow!) workplace. I found a way to navigate this normative world in my unusual embodiment. I often wonder, though, if some other crisis were to arise, how would my illness burden me, my family? Weirdo confession: I worry daily about the apocalypse (zombie, climate change, Outbreak monkey situation, whatever) in which we survive, but I can’t run for the border fast enough or I can’t carry a fifty-pound child out of harm’s way. Would adrenaline cancel out pain and weakness? I’m in chronic pain. You wouldn’t notice it on me, and it’s not very fancy. Maybe 3 or 4 on the scale most of the time. Pain is a fascinating border between personhood and motion, between body and space. It asks me to occupy my own self in a challenging fashion. My body is an additional member of my household, in many ways. All our bodies are! Surprise! When you, for instance, take a lover, you also take his/hir/her body, and that body will not always act in concert with that lover. A body is a resource and a burden and a community of non-human actors (literally! biology!) with whom we must negotiate. I’ve always known this, so I live and move through space with, let’s say again, an unusual preoccupation.
LG: I love your love of the All My Children docks “where many bad things happen,” places for dumping or burying bodies, places of passion crimes. Why do you think these trouble places call your imagination?
DP: The kitsch manifestations of deeply-rooted cultural violence has always called me hard. VC Andrews books, murder mysteries, detective shows, soap operas, horror movies—I loved these from way too tender an age. And this is a problematic affection. The staged versions of sites of violence are often patriarchy’s cheesiest masquerade and at the same time the real—the lived-experience—markers of literal violence. Docks, ravines, shallow graves are all so real in that people, often women and children, meet their grievous end there. Blows so terrifying I cannot imagine. And yet it’s threaded through our television, films, literature, through the high- and low-brow (which I don’t actually believe to be distinct categories). The killing fields are all around us and the ground of our popular imagination. As a Unitedstatesian actor, complicit in my nation’s acts even when they horrify me, as a bourgie “homeowner” on stolen and bloodied land, as a woman who walks swiftly with the 9-1 dialed, as a child who sometimes hid in such spaces to escape—minor, don’t get me wrong, I would’ve survived, and hardly born a mark—violence, as someone who sees a so-called hobo camp on the prairie and feels both its protective lures and threats… I said recently on a panel at New School University—I was talking about my new book Natural History Rape Museum (Bloof Books), “It feels good to conduct the world’s violence on the page. It’s my response to violence without doing or incurring much violence. It’s how I navigate through it.” I meant that.
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