David Herrle interviews Bunny Goodjohn, author of BONE SONG

published by Briery Creek Press, 2015
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Bunny Goodjohn’s official site 




DAVID: From your “Hotel” poem:

In a room with flock paper and a dresser
whose drawers had never held anything
precious for more than a few nights,
I used sex—illicit and fumbled—
to wreck a marriage.

Let’s talk infidelity. There seems to be a growing laudatory regard for it as a kind of “empowerment” or a necessary rite for triumph against identity crisis. Such is shown in a lot of TV shows and films (though keener works such as Adrian Lyne’s devastating Unfaithful and Fatal Attraction, Liv Ullmann’s Faithless, and Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz depict cheating’s wretched fruit). Really, in most cases, it’s impulsive rebellion against boredom (a terrifying state) and the natural diminution of passion, a basic mishandling of powerful and brief desire that sows emotional destruction and kicks off a continuous series of highs and abysmal disappointments. Thoughts?

BUNNY: Jesus, it wasn’t lauded when I was doing it! I think you nail it when you title infidelity as a “mishandling of…desire.” I never knew how to handle the rush that came from being wanted – intensely wanted – by another human being. Don’t get me wrong: I grew up loved, but my parents were busy working and earning enough to pay the rent and to feed and clothe us kids. One-on-one attention was in short supply. I also think that my lust for attention (and it was lust) and for its “continuous series of highs and abysmal disappointments” was a prerequisite for the alcoholism that kicked into overdrive in my 30s. Of course, all addiction feeds on those highs and lows. It’s the perpetual motion of craving.

DAVID: Sticking with the infidelity topic, in “Fragments,” one of my favorite pieces in Bone Song, you write “There is never a fantasy of husband, children,/a yellow dog. Just these flints, these edges/of desire…” This is why the courtly love literary tradition has premarital or extramarital affairs as its requisite: the coupling’s success lies in its brevity, intensity and unfamiliarity. Reality and routine spoil the illusion of everlasting ecstasy. Painter John Currin said in a recent ArtNews interview that “good melancholy comes from a thwarted joy, which is another way to describe parenthood or marriage or being alive.” What do you think of the nature of infidelity, especially as portrayed in different kinds of art? Has the pendulum swung too far from the old-fashioned shame of it, or is there more positive power in it than I perceived? “Ah, Love–a golden disintegration” is the closing line in “Fragments.” What do you mean by that?

BUNNY: Ah, three big questions! Currin understands the value of misery. Doesn’t most good art (and action) come from “thwarted joy?” Undoubtedly some art comes from that “it’s good to be alive” feeling, but more has its feet in the bleaker “Why the hell is this happening?” place. Currin talks about “good melancholy” and, for me, the value of melancholy comes from the way trouble – either its grip or its resolution– makes us step back and consider. We step back in order to work out how we came to be standing on this edge, and maybe to work out an alternative route to where we want to be. Back to infidelity. I think it comes from fear and an inability or an unwillingness to persevere. What are we all afraid of, really? Probably death, and given then that marriage is predicated on a commitment “until death us to part” and is often entered into before we’re really old enough to understand the enormity of time, I am unsurprised by infidelity. Perhaps with marriage being put off until later infidelity is less rife. But given our current tendency to prolong childhood, our thirty-year-olds are likely less mature than the twenty-year-olds of the 1970s and 1980s.

I’ve dodged your question about the portrayal of infidelity’s shame/bravado in art. I don’t know much about art. I know I love certain paintings and painters. Currin, of course. Paula Rego, for sure. Rego is all about disintegration: of love, of fidelity, of family. She doesn’t imagine disintegration: she represents it on canvas. Love is a disintegration: of the self, of autonomy. One just has to decide whether love’s reward is worth its cost. The speaker in “Fragments” has come to understand that for her, any kind of love – either the standard husband, kids and dog variety, or the lone woman indulging her own sexual fantasies without any regard for convention kind – requires a certain disintegration of self. But, hell, she hasn’t worked out yet if the price is too high. (“Ah, Love…”)

DAVID: I mention John Currin in the previous question because your “Chronology” poem is inspired by his splendid Pink Tree. A sample from the poem before we go on:

At first glance, I thought Currin had caught us
yesterday in the sculpture garden—see the way
the morning sun gilds your hair like honey
through glass, the way your fingers cradle
the coral branch: petrified blooms in a bright
bone nest. He’s captured the way my eyes
forever scorch the things they crave.

I thought he had caught us before our secrets
crowned last night, before the waitress—
all hennaed hands and glass rings—brought
the tray of kinche, kikalicha, those grotesque
sheets of injera, before you took my hand,
traced HIV upon the tablecloth.

This piece is beautifully composed – and pretty esoteric. Much of Currin’s work is quite erotic, so I wonder if there’s a hazy Sapphic core in “Chronology.” Currin’s been called a sexist, but I think such accusations are often over-simple. In fact, he has reduced his provocative stuff due to being tired of worrying about puritanical scolding. Your thoughts?

BUNNY: You know, David, I think the act of writing allows me to approach myself sideways on. I remember seeing Pink Tree for the first time at the Hirschhorn in DC. At the time, I was firmly married, vaguely unhappy and in what would be the last year of active alcoholism (so far, at least).  I remember looking at those women and feeling something shift within. I realized I was terribly lonely inside my life, inside that life’s choices. I didn’t know what these women had, what relationship they shared but I felt myself lusting for it. I knew at that point that my life was about to jump the tracks and crash. I was at the end of a series of scorchings.  I think I’m still in that “Sapphic haze” and it is a haze. Ten years on and I’m not really sure what I crave now. But the poem allowed me the space back then to consider another life, another love, another direction for my scorchings.

Currin the Artist is a bad boy. He’s quite brilliant and stops at nothing in order to connect with audience. And connection isn’t always comfortable. I don’t think he really cares about that discomfort, or maybe he didn’t when he was younger. But being provocative is exhausting. I don’t know anything about Currin the Man. But I do wonder if his work is representative of his private or of his public self.

DAVID: Your blog is literature in itself. Would you ever consider compiling the best posts in a book of accidental essays, so to speak?

BUNNY: Thank you. I’m not sure about creative nonfiction. I mean, I love it. The tiny essays in Brevity have always drawn me to the genre. But I’m not sure I like the constriction of nonfiction. I mean, I can use my truth in poems and fiction and then deny it. When I’m pushed as to whether the poem is “about me,” I can do the knowing smile thing and avoid. Creative nonfiction lays you bare. I do it as the blog attests. But it makes me worry about my family and how they might feel flayed by my recollections. I don’t know that I have the right to do that, and I could see some flaying taking place if I ever really ran with CNF.

DAVID: You were crushing on – no, “lusting for” – John Wayne, at least his character in Hondo, in a poem called “Falling for Mr. Lane.”

I felt a rush of sap for John Wayne,
a man I had always dismissed
as too old for sex. But
there he was, strutting around
the prairie, patronizing Mrs. Lowe
and puffing out his chest at Indians.

Here’s what Marlene Dietrich said to director Tay Garnett when she saw John Wayne for the first time: “Daddy, buy me that.” Katharine Hepburn also expressed visceral attraction to the man in spite of their polarized politics, which is good, because sudden, palpable attraction shouldn’t be polluted by biography. I suspect that the whole “only beautiful on the outside” thing is for show, and, as artist Marilyn Minter said, “nobody has politically correct fantasies.” Think back to Paula Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” song from the 1990s, which includes a hankering for John Wayne and even the Marlboro Man. (I reject that the song and stuff like it are regressions from feminist progress.) Since John Wayne is an unlikely sex symbol for you, what do chalk this up to?

BUNNY: It’s all about Daddy. I hate to be cliche (and maybe weird) about it, but John Wayne is a sexual father figure. My experience of growing up was that when you were little, you ached for your dad to spend time with you, to play with you, to buy you sweeties. When you got a bit older, maybe pre-adolescent, you vied with your mum for time with dad. Your dad was the first male you flirted with in order to get what you wanted. But one minute you could be sweet-talking your smiling dad in order to get out of eating cabbage and cold gravy (“Daddy, have I told you how much I love you?”) and the next minute you’re grizzling in bed because he’s turned into Grumpy Dad and sent you away so he and your mum can watch Come Dancing in peace. So John Wayne as Hondo, as Rooster Cogburn, as John Chism, is the same character: one minute throwing you over his horse so he can have his way with you (“Ma’am”) and the next minute leaving you behind in the dust because he wants to run after Indians.

DAVID: Alcoholism – your alcoholism, to be exact – is an obvious concern in Bone Song. I wonder if the alcoholic sees a deeper irony in the parallel suffering of fellow alcoholics that “clean” folks may miss. In one of many heartbreaking poems in the book, “Cirrhosis,” you sit by a friend (a former rehab colleague?) named Zed, who is apparently dying of the title disease. A masterful but very sad juxtaposition of images comes in the closing stanzas: “Your tremors cease then shudder/on through a waltz of wasted muscle” and “a memory:/you, in a tuxedo, uncorking champagne;/silver bubbles spinning across the room.”

Films such as Kubrick’s The Shining, Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, Betty Thomas’ 28 Days, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend and Blake Edwards’The Days of Wine and Roses revolve around alcoholics. How do you react to such portrayals? Do you know of any books that deal poignantly with alcoholism? Also, a popular sentiment these days is the insistence that diseases “don’t define you.” But they do – at least in part, don’t they?

BUNNY: Oh, gosh. Such a huge and constantly morphing subject. When I got sober back in 2005, it was a shit-or-bust moment. I had got to the blackout stage, so I was drunk and doing crazy stuff that I had no recollection of. My liver had stopped being reliable in that sometimes one drink would push me to blackout and other times, I couldn’t seem to drink enough to reach the place I craved. So I spent the first three years of sobriety inside AA. I went to meetings every day, sometimes twice a day. It saved me. I watched all those movies, even The Days of Wine and Roses! I had been lonely for so many years, locked inside my drinking. I didn’t know how to be a friend. I didn’t know how to navigate friendship’s boundaries. I practiced with other drunks and addicts in church basements, and they taught me how. I am an alcoholic. I’m not drinking today. Being an alcoholic is part of my definition. Add to that other truths: I’m female, British, liberal, a loner, an introvert. They all begin to explain who I am. They are the shorthand for Bunny. Of course, I am a host of other things, but those are at my core.  I’m more comfortable if everyone knows my truths up front. It saves time.

DAVID: The book’s title poem happens in rehab, and the experience seems more like a cynical countdown to completion more than a fully embraced spirit-cleansing therapy. Your incorporation of the “bone” theme is quite clever: “Day breaks sharp as bone,” “promissory/pills to splint each brittle hour’s bones, “then bare-boned/Gratitudes,” “we queue for Lunch, silent and bone/weary,” “When addiction’s bones/sing to me,” “to watch day’s/end send home the shrinks to rest their own weary bones,” “Red-boned night and birds roost” and “more promises: each one bleak, black, weak as bone.” 
After all those iterations, why, finally, “weak as bone,” considering how much bone is used as a metaphor for strength and durability? Was rehab a nuisance, a breaking of a wild stallion, rather than a benign therapy?

BUNNY: The sestina “Bone Song” is the hinge of this collection. It looks at what happened when my train finally leapt its tracks. Rehab was a necessary part of the process for me. And yet, when I left, after some 15 days when my insurance ran out (oh, how I wanted the full 28!), I still didn’t realize that my life was in my hands. I felt life was a series of transactions: you do this,and then I’ll do that; you be nice, and I’ll be nice; you touch me there, and I’ll touch you there. So I came out thinking that I would make promises about my sobriety (I’ll go to meetings, I’ll get a sponsor, I’ll read the Big Book and so on) and you (my husband, my employer, my friends) would make promises in return (I’ll still love you, we’ll hold your job open, I won’t fuck your husband any more). I came to realize that all promises have their fault lines, their weaknesses. You can deal in fractured promises without realizing it. A promise can be the hip bone that gives way when you’re walking on a sunny morning to the mailbox.

I loved rehab. We had to go down to the hospital basement for a weekly AA meeting. The room was also used for the rehabilitation of stroke patients. So it was full of padded mats and weird benches and equipment. I used to sit there in group and fantasize about living out the rest of my life in that room.

DAVID: Child molestation and rape pop up in Bone Song’s “First,” “The Saginaw Ladder” and “Point of View.”  And, judging by the breath-catching phrase “Daddy’s way of loving us,” one of your experiences of it was incestual. Sexual violation has got to be the worst crime that leaves the victim alive. Though it’s almost too obvious to trace addiction and self-destructive behavior back to such early trauma, can you expand on this unsavory subject?

BUNNY: So, I have to say that not all these poems are autobiographical. But “First” is: I was sexualized at the age of nine. But it’s tricky, David. It wasn’t until my late 30s and a rainy afternoon with nothing better to do than watch Oprah’s show that I realized that much of what happened to me during those years between nine and maybe fifteen would be seen as abuse. I had iced that particularly cake with Love and Romance and Desire. I think what happened (see? still can’t use the A word) skewed my view of the world and of my role in it. The poem “Point of View” is about incest, but it has no direct connection to my own life. However, Paula Rego’s painting Family pushed me into a space where I was able to examine my feelings about my own experience and to compare it to this more standardized “acceptable” face of incest: of Daddy diddling the kids and Mum being oblivious. Again, that wasn’t my experience. But my ongoing questions about what happened to me and what to call it come out in the “remember, there are two sides / to every story” chime. Was I harmed by what happened to me? You bet I was. Does it continue to harm me? I don’t know. I do know that my experience shaped the way I have lived my life. On reflection, I have loved that life, and there is little I would want to change. If someone offered to erase those four or five years, I think I would have to decline. I am who I am today because of what I have done, where I have been, and who I have met. I like who I am today.

DAVID: What about you and dogs? Dogs are the direct focus in “How to Train a Dog” and “Negative Capability,” but they also appear in “Separation,” a piece about how you and your estranged husband continued to share some habitual interaction, and in “Bone Song” you write down “DOG” for a Gratitudes exercise. Tell us about you and dogs.

BUNNY: My oldest sister was allergic to fur when we were growing up. I desperately wanted an animal to love. But this allergy and my mother’s fear of all the extra work a pet would bring (she was already exhausted) meant I never had a dog or a cat. My grandma used to let me play with her fox fur. That was as close as I got. So in adult life, I have made sure to have animals around me. I’ve had two husbands and seven lovers. I’ve had two dogs and nine cats. Today, I choose to live alone with animals. I have a dog called Bubba who is the love of my life. He’s the one who makes me leave the house and walk every day. He’s the one who makes me care for something other than myself. He teaches me about living in the moment, about not caring too much about any one “toy.” I have a cat called Dora who reminds me on a daily basis how heavy I find the burden of affection (that realization – arrived at just now and sideways as ever – just made me cry).

DAVID: “Negative Capability” contains a denial of the common belief dog owners have in their pets’ reciprocal love. You point out that your dog, despite all of the amenities and care you provide for him, prefers to loaf outdoors “with the scrubby grass and all its insects.” Then comes an appraisal of humanity’s alienation from nature, which casts the dog’s preference in a nobler light.

And I am sad. Not because I feel he doesn’t love me
enough to come in, to settle on the bed alongside me, to give me
his paw, but more because I am merely human and

have somehow lost my place in all this, my ability to be still,
to set aside my machinations, to be quiet with beauty,
to love all this like a dog.

I would call humanity’s partial alienation from nature transcendence rather than decadence. Maybe this is our “place in all this.” Oscar Wilde’s Vivian warned of Nature’s destruction of art, and painter James Whistler said that “to say to the painter that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player that he may sit on the piano.” I do appreciate and occasionally share your wish “to be still” and “be quiet with beauty,” but could the common dream of a return to nature be a mistaken panacea? Also, why the title? Is it based in any way on John Keats’ treatment of Negative Capability: juggling contradictions without forcing wholeness and stuffing the world into a proper box? Please expand on your thoughts on nature and human alienation.

BUNNY: It is about Keats’ Negative Capability. That extract from his letter to his brothers is pasted to my wall. For me, it’s not so much a yearning for nature or simplicity or for the ease I think those things would bring to my life. More, I wish I were more willing to “embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity.” That’s what Bubba manages to do. He is absolutely in the moment. He doesn’t worry about upsetting me by staying outside. He’s regularly mystified by the fact that the front door and the back door both lead to the same place…but he’s okay with that mystery. He licks me as if I were ice cream…and wants to tear the throat off the mailman. I think Keats would consider Bubba as having aced Negative Capability.

DAVID: In Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” Strephon explores his girlfriend Celia’s boudoir and discovers that she isn’t the goddess she appears to be. Besides learning the painstaking lie of cosmetics and apparel, the truth of her full toilet confounds him: “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!…Should I the queen of love refuse,/Because she rose from stinking ooze?…Such order from confusion sprung,/Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.” The unavoidable necessity of excretion overwhelms our sense of dignity, says Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death: “Nature mocks us, and poets live in torture.” (It’s no wonder that the Nazis themselves nicknamed Auschwitz the “world’s anus.”) I drag us down into the chamber pot in order to roundaboutly ask you about your view of inevitable entropy, death and decay. Do you believe in a transcendent side to the coin of existence? Must “poets live in torture” after plumbing the depths and sharing in Hamlet’s ponderation of the skull?

BUNNY: I’m fascinated by death and damage. Today, in an email conversation, my sister said she would hunt out examples of “deprivation as grist for my mill.” We were talking about my desire to return to a seaside resort from our childhood, which has fallen on hard times, economic and social. I want to rent a cheap caravan on the clifftop at Jaywick and write for a summer. She cannot think of anything worse.

I don’t think we poets opt to “live in torture”…or at least I don’t. But I want to see some torture. I am the rubbernecker at crash sites. I am the Yik Yak lurker in search of suicide voices. I would have attended public hangings in Hackney. I would have paid my penny at Bedlam’s turnstile in order to watch the lunatics at play. I am fascinated by this side of the coin. My interest in the other side, the transcendent side, is another example of those sideways glances. I am convinced that this grubbing around we do day in and day out cannot be all there is. And yet, in these days of not drinking, I am more drawn to Keats’ Negative Capability than to the endless hours of whiskey-fueled questioning of human (and inhuman) nature. I would rather lie outside in the dark grass with all those insects. 

DAVID: If you’ve the luxury of time, lucidity and relative comfort right before your death, how might you summarize and evaluate what you look back on?

BUNNY: I worry that in those moments I’ll wish I had taken more risks. Perhaps that response comes from having lived the past ten years in sobriety and a place of relative calm. I can contrast this life now with that of my teens and twenties when I was desperate to be accepted, to be normal, to be Everywoman. It was a maelstrom managed only by numbing: with men, with sex, with alcohol. The alcohol solution was new to me in those years and therefore damaging but exciting. My thirties were a hot mess of leavings: relationships, lovers, continents, bad moves and worse ideas. I began to write in my forties. And I began to settle. As I move through my fifties, I can feel some chaos at the edges of this calm life, and I wonder if those risks I think I might wish for if I were to face death today or tomorrow or next week will come to pass in this next decade.

I would not change a thing. Not a liaison, a drunken blackout, a bad marriage. Nothing. Although I might have flossed more.


Read excerpts from Bone Song here