By Betsy Housten
“Danielle Pafunda abolishes the stereotype of prissy, dainty girls in her thrilling poetry collection The Dead Girls Speak in Unison,” writes Brittany Capps of Pafunda’s 2016 book. “Set in a surrealistic underworld, [it] takes on the collective voice of empowered female corpses” and “leaves readers craving more of its ‘rotten pages.’ ”
Pafunda has published five other books of poems, including Natural History Rape Museum (2013) and Manhater (2012). Her work appears in the Best American Poetry series and many other anthologies, including Beauty is a Verb: The Poetics of Disability (2011) and Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics (2010).
She is the 2018 judge of Bayou Magazine’s Kay Murphy Prize for Poetry, and we’re grateful that she took time to talk with us about the architecture of poetry as well as the forces that incite and shape her work.
The poems in The Dead Girls Speak in Unison unfold in a numbered sequence that is interspersed with chants, fragments, a hymn, a lullaby, a fable, and a chorus. How did that structure come about for you?
When I wrote this book, I worked from my constant indignation that we don’t believe women when they, still alive, report violation and abuse. The number of women who die at abusers’ hands in any given year, who get raped or beaten or go missing, particularly in more vulnerable communities, overwhelms me. We know it’s an epidemic, yet the epidemic proportions serve to normalize the abuse, and any woman warning us she might be killed is read as hysterical or attention-seeking, called a liar or shrugged off. I wanted to find an irrefutable form, a style of delivery that preempts disbelief. The first was Greek chorus. I love a Greek chorus’ authority to pass judgment. The chorus can be sentimental or snarky, but we don’t question whether it’s truthful. Why would people lie in unison? Why would the play’s observers lie?
The second form, which I mined more deeply, was the beyond-the-grave monologues of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, which sort out mysteries for the living that would otherwise go cold—who raped or betrayed whom, who thought they were doing right at the time. These monologues lend dignity to voices that in life might’ve had none. Honestly, if murdered women came back from the dead to testify in court, we’d probably still fail to convict their killers, but my poems imagine we might yet be mortal enough to bow to the authority of the grave, to grant the dead the righteousness we couldn’t apprehend when they lived. But I didn’t want to create discrete speakers like Masters does. I didn’t want my dead isolated in their graves, as they were in their lives. They’re not dipping into the material plane from a heavenly afterlife, but tugging our faces into the underworld. Each time a voice rises to tell a story in the numbered poems, it could be the story of any hundred other dead girls, so they tell stories in unison, in clumps of we. I wanted to keep the volume—the great number, and the loudness—of the voices tangible. When there’s a chant or fragment or chorus, the we coalesces, raising its voice in punctuation and community.
I love these poems for their grotesqueness, as well as the girls’ vengeful fury at a world that renders them both dead and eternally fetishized. I also appreciate their humor and casual diction, with phrases like “extra deathy” and “ewwwwing from.” How does the collective voice of the dead girls evolve throughout the collection?
These girls refuse to be polite about their deaths. They play with the audience, sometimes making fun of our aversion to death, or our pearl-clutching tendencies, or the reverence we show people only after they’ve died. There are times when a subset of the we is on about something the rest don’t care about. While my dead girls are honest, they’re not there to be virtuous or edifying, or purify the culture. They’re sardonic, sometimes vengeful, sometimes filled with perverse glee. They get bored in death as they did in life. They remember their object-status in life and are amused that in death they might be received as tropes or objects rather than people. They want to mess the objectification out of the living. They scatter and coalesce several times, and they don’t bicker. If they disagree, the we splits, but it always reunites to terrorize the living.
How do you see your poems in conversation with Emily Dickinson and Joni Mitchell, both of whom you invoke in the book?
I think my poems are always in conversation with Dickinson, or at least that strange and gothic lineage descending from her. Her graves that coincide with gardens, her coffins that might be our rooms or our minds, were useful architectures for me to consider as these poems transmitted themselves into the living world. As for Mitchell, I think I was listening to her a lot writing this book. I love how unpredictable a songwriter she is, how, like a poet, she sets up a call that seems to expect a logical response, then deftly swerves away from that response, and in the swerve produces the only response that will satisfy us. She also writes a deeply pretty, lonesome line that the dead girls hum in the ground. There’s some Mina Loy in there too: human cylinders.
In your other work, what do you find to be the greatest opportunity afforded you by prose poems versus lineated poetry?
I’m not sure I think of it as opportunity, exactly. Sometimes the speed and volume of the language overflows its container. Or, since my poems are voice-driven, I often think: what (plat)form does this speaker require to deliver their speech? Sometimes they need the emphatic disruption to logic provided by line breaks and stanzas, sometimes the furious liquid state of prose.
In The Dead Girls Speak, I conceived of the poems as coming over an erratic connection. Like a worm line from the underworld, running through the soil alongside roots. A landline! That led to sparser poems than I usually write. They declare what they need to and ring off.
Do you still think of the poem as “otherworldly architecture” as you wrote in a piece for the Poetry Society of America in 2010?
I do still think that! You enter a poem and wander around inside it. There’s not necessarily a rule about how to proceed through it. You neither start at its beginning, nor finish at its end. You inhabit it, you climb its stairs, and maybe it’s haunted, maybe it’s housing exhibits, maybe it’s filled with memories. It’s a time machine; it preserves a live and multi-sensory intensity. It has a pulse. The poem is an organism one can inhabit. Maybe like a mother, or a monster. Maybe like a planet, a universe, something with a lot of fibers. A phenomenological space that could otherwise only exist in its moment as connective tissue between sentient figures.
I’ve been thinking lately about projective verse and what exactly the energy it sought to communicate might be. I’ve no doubt whatever it is, whatever it’s made of, poems can hold it. Poems can hold things you can’t otherwise touch. They house ectoplasm, they operate with an awareness of two-headed time. If your dear friend dies, as mine did recently, you may meet him in poems. They’re not like other things we know.