Trust School: Donald Dunbar by Jonathan Aprea

Donald Dunbar on the power of language, circumventing systems, and his new book Eyelid Lick.

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Sharon Lawless, #1, nail polish on gessoed paper, 8 × 8. Image courtesy of Pierogi Flat Files.

I don’t know a lot about Donald Dunbar. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page yet. His bio can only be found in a few places online, including at Fence, who released his first full collection, Eyelid Lick, as the 2012 Fence Modern Poets Prize winner. I do know a lot about Eyelid Lick. I’ve been reading and thinking about it for over a month.

Stylistically, Eyelid Lick is a surreal text whose poetry is anchored by its syntactical coherence. This allows it to be able to diverge and digress, confusing and swapping nouns and pronouns, describing abnormal situations, all while never seeming to really lose the reader.

This is to say that the collection is fun, and that it feels good. It feels like being given a driving tour through someone’s dream, and the dream is continually re-centering and referring back to itself. And the car you’re sitting in is very fast and swervy. And the driver is both dementedly funny and insightfully sincere, and the way he talks to you is refreshing and colloquial and personal and a little bit sensual.

While doing all of this, Eyelid Lick also confronts some rather serious cultural, political, and philosophical predicaments. Through an email exchange, Donald and I were able to discuss some of these issues.

Jonathan Aprea It’s common in your poems for names to change and for one character to be swapped out for another. In “The Exact Same Line,” two characters, “Alicia” and “Dreamer # 3” can sometimes be read as the same person. And in the author’s note, one name beginning with a “C” changes over and over again, and “Fe Hu Chan” is replaced by “you” (the reader). I felt a slight sense of abduction or manipulation, especially when you involve “you,” and this was both exciting and attractive to experience in a poem. Can you talk a little bit about these choices, especially your direct inclusion of the reader?

Donald Dunbar Language is mind control. We don’t get the choice to hear what we want to—if someone’s talking, our brain is processing it—and by reading a thing we’re surrendering our mind to the system of meaning the author has arranged. This doesn’t mean that we’re not able to later make decisions about what’s being said, but that analysis happens at a much higher level than the initial processing of things. We naturally feel everything we hear or read. Using the second person just makes this more explicit.

“He takes pleasure in torturing puppies,” is easier on the reader than, “I take pleasure in torturing puppies,” is easier than, “You take pleasure in torturing puppies.” In each of these we’re still processing the same information—puppies are still being tortured—and we understand the torture is fictional, but when we’re signaled to process information in relation to ourselves, our tendency is to do it.

Then using various levels of realness for “you” (from the most-real reader “you who owns this book” to the apostrophe “O! you muse or angel or country” to a character addressed as “you”) maybe further flattens it out, so the reader is being asked to respond as the characters, as America, as his or herself, and to feel as all these people too.

Have you ever been hooking up with someone in front of a television in an otherwise dark room, and the shifting glow seems to rearrange their face into the exact same face of a different person? Or like how a lover will have the same mannerism, or facial expression, or turn of phrase, or scent, or way of kissing, as someone else. I love this feeling—and the almost, and the hints of, and the sorta—especially in a situation that’s mostly about discovery. In the discovering of this other person, and you in relation to them, to find some shared aspect, not only between the two (or however many) of you there in the room, but between people elsewhere in space/time and memory, and versions of themselves these people are and were … This seemed like a fine thing to write poems about.

JA A memorable / important point in reading Eyelid Lick occurred for me when I realized early on in your author’s note that I wasn’t reading what I thought I was reading, that the author’s note read more as a poem than as a note. And the table of contents that follows the author’s note reads like a poem also, and its numbers don’t seem to refer to anything. But even still, some might read your note and table as fulfilling a similar purpose as more traditional versions. Would you say that Eyelid Lick challenges conventional structures found in other poetry collections?

DD For sure. I want my book to be a Pokemon or a secret lover or a cyanide pill.

I have a deep distrust of inherited systems and values that extends from the political to the cultural to the poetic. I think this distrust is an increasingly common thing, especially in people who’ve come of age in the last decade or two. The Internet makes it too easy to figure out who’s lying to us, and it turns out most of the people with most of the power are doing most of the lying. Poets have little power in today’s world, so the lies are less frequent and more innocuous and less likely to end with a drone strike.

But the habit of distrust that one learns from political, religious, and macro-cultural authority will, I think, increasingly carry over into the poetry world. This is where the small press scene comes from, this is where the CLMP code of ethics comes from, but I think there’s an aesthetic in it too.

For me, the aesthetic is not one of reaction—it’s not activism—and it’s certainly not one of submission. It’s a refusal to engage with the often-dichotomous arguments of the world and subvert them into some unrelated purpose, or ignore them. For me, this means trying to show people that even the musts of the world are open to revision, and are ultimately based on the consent of everyone. It’s a long ways from “Maybe a table of contents can be a poem” to “Maybe we shouldn’t base our valuation of other people on how much money they have,” but it’s a lot easier for my mind to get from A to B that way than through a Mary Oliver poem, however much she might talk about such things.

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Donald Dunbar. Photo courtesy of the author.

JA I sense that some of your poems, the ones structured as letters between Assam and Bri for example, may tie in to this discussion of political and authoritative distrust. The pages of this exchange contain violent details of torture (reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse accounts in 2004), and they also describe letter writing as a calculated form of affecting someone’s thinking. This makes me feel a little nervous, although some letter-poems aren’t as bleak as others. I’m wondering if it was a concern over cultural issues that mainly guided your writing of these letter passages?

DD Yes, and for me it’s important that the speaker and thereby the reader are complicit in the violence. I feel, as a taxpayer, complicit in the evils that happen as a collective manifestation of our fear, and I think everybody is complicit in the evils that result from our individual and collective failures to take care of each other. I don’t think this makes us “bad,” but I think if we don’t acknowledge our own part in the current shape of the world, we’re not likely to try too hard to change it.

The language of prisoner abuse is mostly from accounts of things that have happened within US prisons, and yeah that’s a for real cultural issue—how we view criminals, what we criminalize, and how we “correct” them. But I try not to get too caught up, whether in my poetry or in my head, with too many particular issues. We’ve got nested cultural diseases—paranoia, greed, nihilism, schadenfreude—but rather than “fighting” them, or the myriad symptoms of them, I think our time is best served supplanting the aspects of our culture(s) that are vulnerable to them.

I don’t have interest in writing a “let’s stop the wars” poem, even though I’d very much like the wars to stop, but if I know I’ve got an audience feeling vulnerable and open, why not let them feel, briefly, what it’s like to be collateral damage? Or to at least make an audience acknowledge that each “collateral damage” is a person?

If we aren’t our own toughest judge—personally, tribally, nationally—we invite other people to do that work. And until the world’s a lot better, I don’t think we should, as many Americans do, pride ourselves for simply being alive in it.

JA Even though I felt tricked and then kidnapped (but in a good way) by your author’s note, it does give the reader some important things to think about regarding the rest of the book. Specifically, trust is something that I found myself thinking about a lot. The book begins by telling us, “The title of this book was Trust School. It was supposed to be a text book for a fictional ‘trust school.’” Is there any truth to that original statement?

DD The short answer is that “Trust School” was the title of a poem I wrote with this guy Andrew Lundwall, who I still have never met, during a time we were both going a little crazy with heartbreak, at moments over the same woman.

But trust is maybe my favorite subject. It underlies every communication, and it’s a wildly helpful lens to enter a social situation with.

JA Thinking about that, there’s a recurring idea in this book of people or things being “inside” of other people or things. Passages about digesting someone’s heart (p.68), having another set of eyelids close over your own (p. 71), thinking the same thoughts as someone else (p. 83)—I read the closeness in these situations as relating to communication, or at least to a breaking down of solipsistic barriers. Would you say that the ideas of interiority and things inside of other things also relates to trust?

DD Absolutely. There’s the physical and emotional interiority of sex—that’s a big one. There’s also the living-within-a-society, which is a form of trust. We trust our co-workers, our leaders, our etc. etc. etc. But then most fundamentally, our identity is pretty totally dependent on other people, as is much of our perception of the world.

Like if one day everyone you see is smiling and checking you out, you think the world’s really fucking dope and you’re the shit. If everyone you see all day is frowning at you, the world is shit and you are shit. And the people you really trust affect you way more and more variously than that. And vice versa.

Communication has three major purposes. But communion is what we’re really looking for, and our whole machinery—language, sex, identity, complementary specialization, our inability to survive on our own—seems designed to facilitate it; it’s the ur-purpose. Trust is such a big deal for us because letting the wrong things in, or being the wrong thing for someone else, can screw everything up, and not just the involved parties.

JA The fact that you use or have used psychedelic drugs has gotten some attention. You mention one acid-induced experience in an interview with Draft Magazine, and Seth Abramson wrote for the Huffington Post(in a very praising review) that your work is “a psychedelic poetics likely to be most appreciated by those with appetites that likewise lie in the direction of the pharmacological.” What are your thoughts regarding this appraisal?

DD A couple of my friends were pissed off at that review, being protective of me, saying they thought it might pigeonhole my work. I don’t see it that way at all. I really loved the review, and a lot of the things Abramson wrote about are things that I have thought about.

As for the drugs angle, I made, and continue to make, a conscious decision to be open about something that is still considered kinda taboo even in poetry circles. I really dug that Abramson didn’t put the standard disclaimer in there—“Now of course I would never hee hee … ”—and I’m always glad to have opportunities to help normalize psychedelics.

It’s always struck me as really odd that poets of all people would be adverse to the notion of exploring the mind, taking a break from their built up systems of meaning, from their ego. I think most of it’s just that there was a lot of fear created in the last half-century by the powers that be around drugs, and a lot of embarrassing shit created by people who did way too many drugs, and the easiest way to erase that is to just be open about things. Give people your best information sincerely, and once they see you’re not a lunatic, you’ve changed their minds.

JA Last question—are you at work on anything that we can look out for in the future?

DD A small book called Slow Motion German Adjectives is coming out from PDX-based Mammoth Editions in March. It’s very club-pop. I’ve got a couple different word documents accruing pages, but nothing that’s really taken shape as a project yet. The working titles are “Sweet Shop” and “Venus Edamame.” I’m also working on a thing with recorded voices.

Donald Dunbar is the author of the chapbooks You Are So Pretty (Scantily Clad Press, 2009) and Click Click (Gold Wake Press, 2010). He currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where he co-curates the reading series If Not For Kidnap and teaches poetry to future chefs at Oregon Culinary Institute.

Jonathan Aprea is a writer and a photographer. He lives in Brooklyn. You can visit his blog here.

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