"Cryptopedia" - An Interview with Andrew Demcak by Josh King
Andrew Demcak’s “Cryptopedia” is a collection that lives up to the mystery and intrigue promised by its title. “Cryptopedia” succeeds with that most fundamental and pleasing of poetic ideas: finding harmony between form and content. The 2017 Anzaldúa Poetry Prize finalist is a poet, a novelist, and, as he says, a “content creator in various forms.”
Demcak is a Renaissance man who works in unusual ways, cutting up blocks of text from a variety of sources and rearranging them, to create his poems. In “Cryptopedia” he mixes this method with the murky, monstrous and mysterious to create something unsettling yet genuinely moving and thought-provoking. Demcak’s success comes from his pitch-perfect subject choices and his ability to turn a seemingly random selection of lines and quotes into a twisting narrative, a short, emotive gut-punch. It takes talent to write poetry, but Demcak has proved he is not only a great talent, but a true craftsman.
Demcak’s poetry has appeared in a range of journals and we were lucky enough to have him share his craft, as well as some words of wisdom, with us at Newfound.
Josh King: Would you tell me a little about your writing life in general? Have you always considered yourself a poet? Did you study it, or just happen to fall into it?
Andrew Demcak: It’s funny now because I did consider myself to be primarily a poet until I wrote my first novel (“If There’s a Heaven Above,” JMS Books 2013) and I was already happy just writing poetry. Now I see myself as an author, a content creator in various forms. I have an MFA in English (Creative Writing/Poetry) from Saint Mary’s College of California. I studied with Brenda Hillman and her husband, Robert Hass. I’ve always been interested in language. I grew up in a house full of limericks, dreadful puns, and Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs. I love pushing words around on the page a making them do things they don’t want to do.
King: Does this collection signify a change of form or focus for you, or would you consider it part of the Demcak canon?
Demcak: It’s an extension of the canon. Many of my poetry books are collections of cut-up poems I created from various sources.
One of the things I love about history is: what we used to call magic, we now call science. – Andrew Demcak
King: It’s such a fun and unusual idea for a collection; people are undoubtedly going to focus on the idea behind it as much as the words themselves. Did this idea germinate while reading Wikipedia articles and discovering their innate potential for poetry? Or from a desire to find poetry in this unexpected place?
Demcak: I was thinking about classical myth and modern myth, the urban legend, when I stumbled upon all these entries in Wikipedia in my search for source material to cut up. I was more than thrilled to see so many of these subjects represented in Wikipedia. I’m glad that the Chupacabra has an article, for example. I’m intrigued by cryptozoology. No one in the West believed pandas were real when they heard stories about black and white bears in the 1920s.
King: Could you explain the process of creating this? What did a typical day’s work look like while researching and writing “Cryptopedia”?
Demcak: It’s a rudimentary process, I must say. I print out the Wikipedia article, cut it into pieces, place the pieces into a paper bag, shake them up, and then draw out a few scraps at a time and see if the random words inspire me to write a line.
I love using a finite set of language (the article itself) because the word choice is already limited by the subject matter. It helps when I edit the poem for meaning because the word choice keeps the poem within the subject (for example, I’m not going to find the word “subarctic” in an article about the Chupacabra. I’m going to find the words: blood, chickens, nightmare, goat, glowing red eyes, sucking, etc.)
King: During the writing process, were you tempted to release the poems without saying that they were cut ups from Wikipedia? Or is that too much of an innate, important part of this collection?
Demcak: I’ve published the poems both ways, but I think the process is interesting. I like to be honest about my work. Plus, it’s a fun way of creating content. Maybe I will inspire others to try cutting up their own work or the work of others.
King: At first I was tempted to think that you’d used Wikipedia’s “random article” button, but there are definite themes and connections running through “Cryptopedia.” There’s this triangular back and forth between scientific ideas, religious figures and mythological or folkloric creatures. Is this reflective of your own diverse beliefs, or simply a result of trawling though such a diverse website?
Demcak: My beliefs entirely. One of the things I love about history is: what we used to call magic,we now call science. I also love the line between myth and reality, especially in a spiritual sense. Belief makes the unreal real, because belief is real. It’s all a testament to the human mind, as with my poem, “Brain in a Vat.” What is reality to a brain in a vat?
King: There’s another unsettling theme that runs throughout, that of creatures which are famed for kidnapping or attacking children or instances of children going missing or being sold. To generalize more, “Cryptopedia” seems to run on themes of absence, both domestic and cosmological, hidden threats and unexplained conspiracies or myths. Reading your poems alongside the original articles themselves made my stomach turn more than once. What made you seek out these vicious characters and create a book dripping so heavily in the world’s mysteries?
Demcak: I think our mythologies are maps for the human psyche. These scary characters show up in stories whichever part of the world you are in and in every time-period. We’ve always known them. They are nearby, sly and illusive, waiting for us. I’ve always liked the darker side of things (I was a goth as a teen!), so I naturally gravitate to that. The dark side of the human psyche is fascinating to me.
King: You’ve included a sort of cheat-sheet at the end of the collection, with brief explanations of what each subject of the poem is. I think it offers a great palette cleanser and anchor point for the work. Was this always the plan? Why not just leave the reader to linger on the poetic summations, or explore at their own leisure?
Demcak: Part of the fun of this collection is discovery. But I worried that some of the lesser known subjects might confuse readers and put them off. The notes about the poems are like a guardrail so no one skids off the road and doesn’t come back.
King: What place do you think poetry has in today’s world? As an artist, do you feel any duty to confront the world’s problems, or do you feel, perhaps, that it’s your job to distract people from them?
Demcak: Poetry moved into popular music and then came back on its own to the stage in poetry slams. It’s in every culture and every language. It has always had a place, even if it’s just scrawled in a personal journal. As an artist, my response to the question “Do I confront or distract from the world’s problems?”—I do both. But I like poetry most for its language. For me, I write a novel to know what happened, what I felt, but I write a poem to hear the words rubbing up against one another.
King: What are you reading at the moment? As the year comes to an end, are there any books or works that have stood out in 2017?
King: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received regarding the writing life? Do you have any words of wisdom for a writer embarking on their first collection?
Demcak: Best advice: Don’t compare your work to another’s work. You are on your own path, on your own journey, and it, like your work, is unique to you.
Words of wisdom: Be your favorite author.
If it’s criticism, it’s petty.
Believe in editing.
Always move forward with your writing, even if you are moving blindly forward.
Be brave with your work; do the thing you are the most afraid of doing.
Bonus mantra: Each time I touch my work, it gets better.
Listen to BlogTalk Radio Interview from 2009
February 01, 2016
Q: (coughs, wipes nose on sleeve) So tell me, Andrew – Night Chant, how did it all begin for you? A bolt of lightning, a vision of some kind?
A: Night Chant (Lethe Press 2011) began with the leftover poems that didn’t fit in with the tone of my first collection, Catching Tigers in Red Weather (Three Candles Press, 2007). Around 2009, I became interested in the idea of “hidden,” which logically leads to the idea of “discovery.” I was still experimenting with poetic voice and narrative in my work, (e.g. who is the speaker, to whom is the poem addressed, etc.) and playing around with burying poetic forms within line breaks. The poems in Night Chant all have very formal metrical structures and/or rhyme schemes, but the forms are embedded in the line breaks to conceal them. Once the true line is discovered, the reader can see that these poems are in the tradition of French syllabic verse. For example, here is the poem “Announcement” with its “true” lines revealed:
A baby’s pink squeal for the tit, its hunger*
insolvent, obstinate country. Or
the snarl of sated fox, the expunger,
after its banquet of rabbit femur.
Mountains open upon their dependents
a volcanic outrage. Magma aglow
like the mind’s light, orange-red, resplendent.
Over lifeless men, the screech of sea birds,
the fins of mermaids the drowning have heard.
*my sloppy division of syllables (count 11, the next line 9 = 20 for the two lines.)
The end rhymes are more noticeable this way and the ten-syllable lines become apparent. So began Night Chant.
Q: I’ve heard a rumor that you’ve cut-up Sylvia Plath’s Ariel into tiny pieces and scattered it all over your iMac.
A: (Stares at ceiling, then at Swatch. Doesn’t make eye contact) Well, not really scattered, but I did tear out the pages, one by one, and cut them into word fragments.
Q: Any reason for that, apart from the sheer joy of it?
A: The poems in my next poetry collection, Lazarus, are cut-ups of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel poems. I created these original works for Lazarus using the 1960s cut-up process that William S. Burroughs used in creating such works as The Ticket That Explodedand Nova Express, among other novels. My process, however, includes additional steps: editing for meaning/subject matter/clarity, and the injection of poetic metrical count, and/or insertion various rhyme formulae. I was focusing on manipulating the “poetic voice.”
The idea came out of a “Poetry in Translation” class I took in grad school at St. Mary’s College of California. I wondered why it was that only voice and no other poetic device could be translated. What was so unique about “voice” that it remained when all other poetic elements have disappeared? Was it simply a matter of a poet’s word choice, or is there something else? To use an example from another medium: why was it that when I looked at a painting created by someone who tried to paint like Vincent Van Gogh, I saw only the “Van Gogh-ness” of the work and nothing of the actual imitator’s hand? My experiments with cutting up the work of other poets had provided many insights into the transcendent nature of what we call “the poetic voice.”
Q: I’m sure Frieda Hughes’ (Plath’s daughter) lawyers will be contacting you soon…
A: I doubt it. These new poems are all original texts. There would be no way to trace them back to their inspirations. In fact you would never know that they were cut-ups unless someone told you. I promise you, this is a legitimate form of art, not a copy.
Q: D. A. Powell mentioned to me when I saw him that you bake amazing banana bread.
A: The secret is sour cream, and that’s all your getting out of me!
Q: But seriously, what influences you?
A: Right now: Florence + The Machine’s Ceremonials and Christopher Hennessy’s marvelous poetry collection, Love-In-Idleness. I love how Florence is obsessed with drowning and Hennessy’s lyrical stanzas are wonderful.
Q: Chunky or creamy?
A: Smooth and creamy Adams All-Nautral, of course!
Q: Lady Gaga or Madonna?
A: (Sits up, brushes hair from forehead, then pats it down again) You mean which is more annoying, or tired?
Q: Or, over. Whichever.
A: Either? Both.
Q: Final question: Which book did you bring to the desert island?
A: The Oxford English Dictionary (unabridged). I can read it, build a hut from the 20 volumes, or burn it, if need be. Maybe build a raft from it, too.
Author Spotlight: Andrew Demcak
scott January 31, 2016
Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today, Andrew Demcak – Andrew Demcak is an award-winning poet and novelist whose work has been widely published and anthologized both in print and on-line, and whose books have been featured by The American Library Association, The Lambda Literary Foundation, Verse Daily, The Best American Poetry blog, The Nervous Breakdown, and Poets/Artists. He has an M.F.A. from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA. He is currently Senior Librarian at Oakland Public Library. He lives with his husband, Roland, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Thanks so much, Andrew, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?
Andrew Demcak: I don’t really know; I’ve always written since an early age, plus I’m a great liar, which also helps if you want to be an author. I suppose I knew I was good at it when a piece of mock pornography I wrote called “Meat Man” (yep, it’s all that) at age eighteen was accepted by a college comparative literature journal. So I was already publishing in snooty academic places as a teenager.
JSC: How would you describe your writing style/genre?
AD: I write what I write. My work tends to bend/blend genres but not by any forethought from me. That’s just the way my brain works. My ex-agent, Carolyn French, said that my first novel, If There’s a Heaven Above, which was nominated as Outstanding for older teens (17+) by The American Library Association, was a new genre she’d never read before – at the time there was no New Adult genre. So she pitched it to editors as something totally new.
JSC: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
AD: I was primarily a poet when I started writing. My first published book, Catching Tigers In Red Weather, won the Three Candles Press Open Book Award, judged by the amazing Joan Larkin. It was a book of experimental writing, Ten X Ten poems: ten syllables per line, ten lines per poem. Here’s one published in DMQ Review:
Handhold (for a Zygote)
Welcome. You’ll be good. A jaw infused
with appointed energy, and a brain
the diameter of a crown. You will
not have paradise — not yet, right angles
and endless repairs of etceteras.
The world will be a lover’s apple to
fuss about, your heart an adding machine
with zero to solve. What it is to be
made of feelings. Somewhere ceiling tiles
fall out and break. See how it will happen —
you’ll lose your lovely coloring, and your
tiny spine will have to bend, bend, and bend.
Copyright © 2005
JSC: What’s your writing process?
AD: I write all the time in my head- I got the idea for a new novel yesterday when I was at a meeting. I spent three years thinking about my first Teen novel, Ghost Songs, before I wrote a single word down. Then it took me four weeks to write it and another year to edit/revise/beta test. I write in the morning; afternoons and evenings are out. I’m too tired then.
JSC: Tell me one thing hardly anyone knows about you.
AD: I can see the spirits of dead animals, mostly pets around here.
JSC: Do you write more on the romance side, or the speculative fiction side? Or both? And why?
AD: Depends on the story. If I need to tell it romantically, then romantic, etc. I don’t usually think about my work like that. I’m more like: this is the plot-complication story, this is the emotion-driven story. But speculative fiction, as well as horror, are two genres that I love seeing GLBTQ authors claiming as our own. Viva Michael McDowell!
JSC: What pets are currently on your keyboard, and what are their names?
AD: I have three lovely cats, Cindy, Woji, and Delta.
JSC: Are you a plotter or a pantster?
AD: A bit of both. A novel is sort of the hole in the doughnut – I know where it begins and where it ends but I have no idea what happens in between until I gather up the characters and see what they do.
JSC: If you could create a new holiday, what would it be?
AD: Okonomiyaki day – Hooray for the Japanese savory pancake!
JSC: What are you working on now, and when can we expect it?
AD: I finished an adult paranormal novel, The Girl Beneath The Water, which I am looking for a new agent to represent. I also finished a first draft of the sequel to A Little Bit Langston, called Alpha Wave. I am also working on my revisionist mythology novel, Lampwick’s Tale, a retelling of Pinocchio from the point of view of his rebellious pal, Lampwick (or Candlewick as some translators have called Collodi’s character.) It’s a GLBTQ sci-fi love story set on another planet in another dimension, in another time.
And now for Andrew’s new book: A Little Bit Langston:
Being different is a challenge, especially for James Kerr.
He’s no average teenager. James begins to channel a dead writer’s poetry and then discovers he has the power to manipulate electricity. At the same time, romantic feelings for his best friend, Paul Schmitz, make him realize he’s gay. But he has little time to explore the drastic changes in his life before heartbreak strikes at the hands of Paul’s violent father. James is sent to The Paragon Academy, an institute specializing in juvenile paranormal research. There he meets Lumen Kim, the mysterious daughter of a famous Korean actress. Lumen’s psychic ability might just be the thing that helps James unlock the secrets of both his poems and the origins of his supernatural talents.
“I’M GLAD I can keep my Halloween candy here at your house. My mom would just throw it all out when she found it,” I said.
“I can’t believe she still does that,” Paul said.
“Every year. Now she says we’re too old for Halloween anyway.”
“Too old? No one is too old for free candy.”
“Anyway, my mom thinks sugar is bad for you at any age.”
“Sounds like a bunch of bullshit to me.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
An enormous pile of miniature Snickers, Mounds, Milk Duds, Junior Mints, Mike and Ikes, and Almond Joys spread across Paul’s twin mattress in front of us. Paul and I were both ninth graders at Hardwick School, which, I admit, really did make us too old for trick-or-treating. I guess I was feeling a little bit guilty that we’d just fleeced the neighborhood of all this candy. We began to separate it into colorful piles.
“Ouch!” I said as Paul’s hand brushed mine and a green spark of electricity snapped between us.
“That must be from the carpet.”
“Or my electric personality.”
“That’s so weird too. It always happens to me.”
“Yeah. I wonder how many volts it was,” I said.
“Who knows? Let’s finish this up.”
Paul was fifteen already, a year and two weeks older than me. He’d been held back in the second grade at Silver Star Elementary School, and ever since then, we were both in the same grade together. Paul had grown much bigger than me too: puberty kicked in early, his vital glands making him taller, broader, and more muscular. In spite of his size, his dad still wanted to toughen him up. He made Paul lift weights three nights a week on a rickety exercise bench in their overpacked garage.
“What the hell are you two doing in there?” Paul’s father shouted as he banged his angry fist on the locked bedroom door.
Paul and I jumped up off the bed, startled by the loud sound. The doorknob rattled, turning left and then right, again and again.
“Nothing, Dad!” Paul answered as he rushed over to unlock the door.
“Open this goddamn door!” Paul’s dad yelled and pounded his fist again.
Paul’s father stood in the hallway staring daggers down at us, an open beer can sweating in his left hand. He looked big for a short man, tough and muscled. He had a tanned, leathery face from standing in the sun selling cars all day. On top of it all: he was just a mean son of a bitch.
I waited next to Paul’s bed paralyzed with fear.
“I warned you not to close this door when you had someone over!”
“Yeah, Dad, I know, but I didn’t want Tiffany to see what we were doing.”
“What’s your little sister got to do with it?”
“She’s always stealing things from me. I didn’t want her to see all the candy.”
Paul’s father looked at me, the candy, and then at Paul.
“No more closed doors, and it’s almost 8:00 p.m., time for your little pal, James, to go home.”
I knew Paul’s dad didn’t like me at all. He walked in on Paul and me constantly, always checking up on us. He was waiting for something to happen. But I could never figure out what. And the way he looked at me, like I came from another planet. I guess he thought I was a bad influence, even though Paul and I had never gotten into any real trouble or anything, at least not that his dad knew about. Paul wanted me to start lifting weights with him too, but his dad thought I was a weakling. Paul said his dad even called me a sissy. So we still hadn’t started any weight training. I doubted very much we ever would.
His dad was a total asshole.
“Well, you heard him. He wants you to go now,” Paul said, crestfallen, as he picked up an empty pillowcase and began herding the candy inside.
“I know. See you tomorrow on the bus.”
“Yeah. See you.”
Harmony Ink Press: Click Here
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Andrew Demcak is an award-winning poet and novelist whose work has been widely published and anthologized both in print and on-line, and whose books have been featured by The American Library Association, The Lambda Literary Foundation, Verse Daily, The Best American Poetry blog, The Nervous Breakdown, and Poets/Artists. He has an M.F.A. from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA. He is currently Senior Librarian at Oakland Public Library. He lives with his husband, Roland, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Ethereal Book Reviews: LGBT MONTH Author Interview: Andrew Demcak 10/02/2014
What made you want to become a writer?
I never really thought about becoming a writer; I have always written since I was a kid. I mostly wrote poetry until about 5 years ago when I wrote my first novel, If There's a Heaven Above (JMS Books). I was a theater major as an undergrad in college. Acting was okay, but I loved my playwriting class best. I decided right then to become an English major with the emphasis on creative writing. I ended up getting a Master's degree in English.
Where do you get your inspirations from?
My life and the stories of those who live around me. It's dangerous to know a writer; you never know if you'll end up in one of his stories.
Other than writing books, what else do you do in your free time?
I love running, hiking, and hanging out with my husband (just got married in July, 2014!) I collect early 20th century and mid century pottery, Grueby, van Briggle, Rookwood, Arequipa, California Faience, Grand Feu, Rose Cabat, etc.
If you could work with another author, who would it be?
Gertrude Stein! I love all of her linguistic experiments!
What are major themes of your work?
Abuse and recovery. I heard a great definition of what a ghost is: an emotion twisted beyond recognition. It will not go away until the wrong is put right. I think that is what Ghost Songs is all about.
What do you think people look for in a book?
Identification. Ego loves its mirrors. Also people want emotional release.
Are there any recent works you admire?
I loved Sharon Olds' most recent book of poetry, Stags Leap. It is devastating in its honesty.
Questions About the Book (Ghost Songs):
Which character in the book do you think you can relate to the most?
I identify with both Todd, the lead, and his mother, Eddie. But there is a little bit of me in all the characters. It's a bit schizophrenic to have so many people in my head at one time!
How did you come up with the character's names?
Todd came from the idea of a generic boy, an "any-boy" so that he wouldn't be seen as different. Eddie's name came from Absolutely Fabulous. A tip of my hat to the marvelous Jennifer Saunders.
What gave you the inspiration to write this book? This book is based on the true stories of several people, including myself. I grew up in a haunted house. To me, haunting is a psychological state. The idea that things will happen to you that will follow you around for the rest of your life unless you can heal and purge them.
Interviewed by Didi Menendez:
Do you find a correlation between poets and artists?
Absolutely- my whole graduate thesis was based on an idea of Piet Mondrian’s: to find the pure, plastic medium, one that is endlessly recyclable, moldable. He chose pigment; I chose poetry, more specifically: the nature of the poetic “voice.” Why is it that “voice” is the only thing which can be translated from one language to another when none of the “poetry” remains? That investigation into linguistics is how I got my first Master’s degree (my second is in Library and Information Science.)
Have any of your poems ever been inspired by a painting?
Yes. In my very first book of poetry when I was 22, The Psalms (1991, Big 23 Press) the first poem is called “Les Deux Péniches.” It is based on the painting of the same name by André Dérain from 1906, which I encountered in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, LACMA. I describe 2 péniches, which are boats or barges, crossing alongside one another on the canvas in the autumn, mid-afternoon, leaf-tinted light. It is completely a sexual/emotional relationship metaphor. Such is a poem of a 22 year old.
If you were to pick an artist to represent one of your poems who would it be?
Mondrian, without hesitation I choose him. I essentialized my work to the bare elements of language through the use of OULIPO cut-up: word and line. He essentialized painting to its primary elements, color and line.
How do you feel about print vs online publications?
At first I wondered who read online publications. Then I familiarized myself with what was out there and I made a concerted effort to establish a web presence a few years back. It has paid off. Someone from New Castle UK added me to Wikipedia and the last Google search of my name I did turned up 10,000+ hits. So I have infiltrated the web and published quite a bit there. More people will see work online than will ever see the printed versions.
Would you submit to a publisher if they used a blog for their publication?
I have several blogs myself, but I like blogs as news disseminating tools, not publication spaces. A real website is nicer for publishing than a linear blog.
Do you consider the aesthetics of a publisher before submitting to them?
Absolutely, and no. Sometimes I send out blindly (most of the time) and when I know the person/people behind a publication and his/her/their aesthetics I send there too. For example: the American Poetry Journal. I met the editor, J. P. Dancing Bear, when he asked me to be on his radio talk show @ 91.5 KKUP to promote my book, Catching Tigers in Red Weather, which he really loved. I didn’t know anything about his publication, but because I got to meet him for the show and now I really admire his work- I submitted some poems to him and had 2 of them accepted.
When was the last time you read a poem you wished you had written and if so, who wrote it?
I can’t remember the most recent one, but the very first poem I wish I wrote is “The Black Snake” by Mary Oliver. When I met Ms. Oliver for the first time years ago, I told her how much I loved that poem. She didn’t even talk to me about the work- she wanted to talk about when she found that black snake “looped and useless” in the road. Wait, I know, the most recent poem that I wish I wrote is “Broken Girl” by the fabulous Joan Larkin. I love this poem. It is from her second collection, A Long Sound. What a gorgeous poem about Recovery.
Are you working on a new manuscript?
Yes. My two new collections of poems are: "A Single Hurt Color" and "Night Chant." I have been working with minimalism: I love the idea of something winnowed away almost to the point of uselessness, but with some meaning or universal truth remaining. I am also simultaneously working to complete my novel, Limboville, which I have been writing for the past 2 ½ years. Will Sally Moon ever get out of the Underworld?
Who would you like to see featured in Oranges & Sardines?
Kaya Oakes, Joan Larkin, John Vick (of Shy Fag & Adroitly Placed Word), Steve Mueske (Three Candles Press), my buddy, Richard Siken, and of course, I wouldn’t mind it, again.
An Interview with the Multifacited Andrew Demcak by Jory Mickleson
Jory Mickelson: The first poem I read by you was your e-chapbook “Pink Narcissus.” It references an experimental gay film by the same title. I saw this lush and hypnotic film for the first time at the Hide/Seek show in Washington D.C. Where and when did you first encounter "Pink Narcissus" and how did your chapbook grow out of that experience?
Andrew Demcak: Hmmm. I'm not sure where I first heard about the film, "Pink Narcissus," but I rented it from Netflix, loved it, and then asked for the DVD for Xmas. The over-saturated colors, the dreamy quality of the 16mm film stock, the sexy Bobby Kendall, and the paper butterfly beguiled me. I really wanted to write something about it. It kept nagging at me, but the idea hadn't gelled yet.
About the same time, I purchased my buddy Matthew Hittinger's fantastic chapbook Narcissus Resists (GOSS183/MiPoesias, 2009) which has a poem that references the film "Pink Narcissus" in it. It really urged me to create something. I thought, "I've wanted to write a about Pink Narcissus. I must do it - Right now!" And so I did.
Then I approached Didi Menendez (the super genius creator/editor of MiPoesias, Ocho, Poets & Artists magazines, among many other projects) since her publishing house put out Hittinger's chapbook. I thought, maybe she'd want to produce a companion piece, an echo of Narcissus Resists? I also wanted to dedicate the chapbook to Matthew since his poem was my prompting. He is such a wonderful poet and a gracious man, too. Didi loved the piece and agreed to put it together as an e-chapbook with accompanying audio of me reading the poem. How digital! Of course, the end product literally speaks for itself. I love the fact that the chapbook is so very, very pink! Here's the link to the Issuu.com version of Pink Narcissus (GOSS183/MiPoesias) by Andrew Demcak.
JM: I have been turning over the phrase "paper butterfly" in my mind. Poetry might have some of that, the ability for a single page to suspend you, to hover you in another space momentarily. Where did poetry begin for you?
AD: My parents started it. They love word play and puns, patter songs from Gilbert & Sullivan. I grew up in language. Then, Alice in Wonderland and Shel Silverstein. Free-To-Be-You-And-Me with Marlo Thomas, the stories, poems, and songs. The rhymes from Maurice Sendak's Nutshell Library books. I remember Sharon Olds, at a retreat she hosted I attended at The Esalen Institute, talking about her poetic rhythm coming from a childhood Protestant hymnal. I think it's the earliest exposure to language and its properties that starts it. At least, for me it did.
JM: I can see how a protestant hymnal could give rhythm. The King James Bible’s diction has inspired and informed many poets with its cadence. Most recently, I am thinking about a poem by Joe Wilkins on Slate titled, “The Gospel According to Kelly, Night-Shift Manager, Forest City Fuel & Foods.” I know that your new collection of poems, Night Chant tends to have some very formal elements. How did this come about?
AD: On the surface, the poems in Night Chant appear to be simple free verse, but there is a tremendous amount of deep structure to them. I think there is a backlash against formal poetry starting again right now. Perhaps is it the beginning of "Occupy Poetry" - taking poetry back again from the establishment, the traditions of social exclusivity and academic barricades (see the current poetry establishment's scathing NYT book review of Rita Dove's Penguin Anthology). So the poems in Night Chant are masquerading, but that is part of the theme of the book: what is hidden. I am a total bug about repeating words in poems; I won't do it. My poetry is the most boiled-down version of language. It is crème anglaise. I am always counting syllables, too. I do like playing with the natural cadences of English. It's so bouncy. I love a good story, but for me, poetry is about resetting language, as with Paul Celan's work, making words do new and exciting things.
JM: Talk to me about Paul Celan. I have found his work to be beautiful, but also difficult to penetrate. How does his work “reset language?” How has he influenced your own work?
AD: As a grad student, I studied Paul Celan in a “poetry in translation” class at St. Mary's College of California. I remember the uniqueness of the students in that MFA program: each student was fluent in a language other than English. (I wasn't, but I had access to people who were, which helped when I had to translate the work of surrealist poet, Jules Supervielle.) The main point of that class was for us to decide what could one actually translate from one language into another that would still be "poetry." The rhymes and cadences of the original language were lost; what remained except the poet's voice? I remember a fellow student who knew Celan his original German. He described Celan's use of German as if it were another language entirely; Celan stretched it sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility, or at least personal obscurity. My classmate called it "Celanese." I recall that it really impressed me (impressionable twenty-something that I was.)
I like ambiguity in art; that's the place for the observer. That's where the personalization occurs. The reader makes his own connections in the work. I like writers who push language around. I love Stein's Tender Buttons. It's a celebration of the plastic nature of language. I think I have always been looking for what Piet Mondrian called "the pure, plastic medium;" one which was endlessly recyclable and reformable. That's what I try to do with my own writing; write what has never been written. I, too, find some of Celan's work impenetrable, but I like to watch his language happen in front of me, just the same.
JM: So far, you have talked about queer cinema, experimental expatriate writers, and a proto-minimalist painter. Are there contemporary or popular cultural influences in your poems as well?
AD: Oh, yes! I dedicate any poem to any poet who has influenced me. "Pink Narcissus" is dedicated to Matthew Hittinger; "Laramie" (about Matthew Sheppard) in Night Chant is dedicated to Charles Jensen. I also have a poem I wrote and dedicated in celebration of Didi Menendez's birthday called "Havana."
My new unpublished manuscript, A Birthday Present, is a William S. Burroughs-influenced cut-up of Sylvia Plath's Ariel poems. Take that, Post-Modern Literature! My two other work-in-progress manuscripts, The Excitable Gift, and, Cryptopedia XXIII, are both the result of two different influences. The former, Anne Sexton, and the latter, Wikipedia articles, that I am versifying, about strange & supernatural things.
Cinema and music are very influential on my work. I love gritty films. Ratcatcher by Lynne Ramsay (1999) is what I would want one of my poems to look like if it were filmed. Debussy's Preludes, Book 1, no. 10, la Cathedrale Engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral) is what one of my poems would sound like. Debussy is considered the father of modern tonality because he pushed its conventional limits.
But you asked me about pop culture: I adore Florence and the Machine. Florence Welch's obsession with drowning is marvelous! Did you know I have written three novels and a children's picture book, as well? I have a New York literary agent, Carolyn French, who is trying to place two of the novels, If There's a Heaven Above, and, Ghost Songs, at major publishing houses right now. Both are Young Adult novels, both autobiographical. We're waiting to hear back from Bloomsbury (J.K. Rowling's publisher) about Ghost Songs. Fingers crossed.
JM: I didn’t know that you also wrote novels and children’s books. Looking through Night Chants I noticed that there were quite a few dedications to other poets. You said that many of these poets work have inspired your own. Have you formed personal relationships with these other queer poets or do you primarily relate to them through their work?
AD: Both. Didi Menendez (MiPOesias/OCHO/Poets & Artists/Casa Menendez Press) started to collect poets and painters in her magazines/literary journals sometime in the mid-2000's. It really began what is now quite a tight on-line literary community. I think that's when I became aware of the work of Collin Kelley, Amy King, Charles Jensen, Dustin Brookshire, Eduardo C. Corral, Richard Siken, etc.
By the time my first book of poetry, Catching Tigers in Red Weather (Three Candles Press, 2007) came out; I was already getting publishing advice from several of these authors. Richard Siken (Crush, Yale Series of Younger Poets, 2005) in particular took me under his wing. He called me "Doodle" for some reason whenever he emailed me. Eduardo C. Corral (Slow Lightning, Yale Series of Younger Poets, 2012) featured my second book, Zero Summer (BlazeVOX Books, NY, 2009) in its entirety (.PDF) on his "Lorcaloca" website.
We're all Facebook friends. We rate each other's books on Goodreads & Library Thing. We seem to get published in the same literary journals and by the same independent publishers. Maybe it’s just that we are The Velvet Mafia of Poetry.
Last year, I was visiting Atlanta, GA, at a library conference (I'm a librarian) and I was able to get away to meet both Collin Kelley and Dustin Brookshire. It was the first time for me that two on-line friends became real people. It was nice to abandon our avatars. I was chatting on Gmail with Matthew Hittinger last week, and what was the topic of our conversation: Was it how Rimbaud influenced our poetic styles? No! I wanted to know how tall Charles Jensen is (He's 6' 3", taller than both Matthew, 6' 1" and me, 6' 2")! See? Just the important stuff!
JM: These interviews have helped me develop friendships with some of the authors. I am continually shocked at how generous many poets and writers are with their time and advice. There are always exceptions, but seeing this generosity makes me humble. Let’s talk about a specific poem in Night Chant. I like ghost stories and I really like “Dorothy Parker at the Ouija Board.” What was this poem’s genesis?
AD: I loved Jennifer Jason Leigh in "Mrs. Parker & the Vicious Circle" - and I began to read more and more about our "Constant Reader," Dorothy Parker. She had all the talent, sadness, and pluck of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, but much, much earlier. Plus to have been involved with all those amazing writers at that time; she was so lucky. Also, I relate to the way alcohol destroyed her life. It's so dreadful to see how many people's lives have been decimated by addiction.
Ever since Whitman showed up in Ginsberg's supermarket, I've always liked to imagine the lives of other writers, the immortal icons. A Ouija board seemed like the sort of thing that someone like Parker, in an advanced state of alcoholic decline, would have turned to for advice. I just wanted her popping pills, sipping a civilized martini, and calling up the spirits. I also wanted to conjure some of the horrors of DTs - the hallucinations, the insanity. But this is mostly my subtext - Parker is just drinking and pushing the planchette and most likely spelling out the messages herself for her rapt audience.
JM: I am curious about the title of your book. You open with an invocatory Navajo prayer called a Night Chant. At the end of section three you also have a poem by the same title.
AD: As you will see from the poem cycles/sequences in the book, Night Chant was a cathartic experience for me. A Navajo Night Chant is a nine-day healing ceremony. That felt like a perfect title for this book. Also, I like the idea of a "night chant," a kind of communication in the dark, a hidden message, a secret. I was definitely playing around with "hiddenness" within the book. The poem called "Night Chant" is my own version of a night chant; the final result being death. "Finished" means death to me. Just like perfection means death. The poem is a meditation on the "insubstantial" - of a molecular deconstruction. What it would mean to step out of one's mortal self and become atoms. And as a librarian and storyteller, I am fascinated by Native American religion and myth.
JM: Which contemporary poets or poems do you admire?
AD: I really enjoyed Eduardo C. Corral's two poems in the December 2011 issue of Poetry. There is a whole group of my contemporaries I admire: D. A. Powell, Richard Siken, Charles Jensen, Justin Chin, Matthew Hittinger, Collin Kelley, Amy King, and many others.
Poets I obsess over: Stanley Plumly, E. E. Cummings (his sonnets), Wallace Stevens (Harmonium), Gertrude Stein (Tender Buttons), Anne Sexton (Transformations), and Sylvia Plath (Ariel), just to name a few. I first read Stanley Plumly's Summer Celestial as an undergrad in college and it blew me away completely. Then I read Out Of the Body Travel that I still consider to be Plumly’s masterpiece. I tend to like poets whose work is very different from mine. I do love Sharon Olds' work very much. And Galway Kinnell; he's marvelous. Weldon Kees I discovered recently whom I totally adore.
My dirty little secret is that I'm a big Mary Oliver fan. I remember the first time I met her after a reading she did at Cal State Los Angeles, years and years ago. I must have been 19 or so. I told her that her poem "The Black Snake" made we want to be a poet. It was funny because she didn't talk to me about her technique, the metrical devices she employs, the counted syllables, and forms. She talked to me about finding that black snake dead in the road; how she carried him gently into the leaves on the shoulder and left him there. That poem wasn't about poetry at all, not about the words or structure; it was about that moment of connection with the black snake. Totally amazing.
JM: Where is that connection for you today? That is to say, what are you capturing with your writing right now?
AD: I have three completed poetry manuscripts I will be shopping around this year for publishers (watch out Sibling Rivalry Press!). The first is a cut-up of Sylvia Plath's "Ariel" poems called A Birthday Present. The next is a standard collection of work with a tip of the old fedora toward Anne Sexton called The Excitable Gift. The third is a selected poems collection drawing from all of my published volumes called Blood's Tongue. But the work I am most occupied with right now is titled Cryptopedia XXIII - It's a series of prose poems based on Wikipedia articles of high strangeness (Mothman, Gray Goo, Mellified Men, etc.)
I'm playing around with the poetic "space" by abandoning line breaks and focusing on words. Paragraph form draws the reader's attention into the language and the story. The prose is still very formal, with rhyme formulae and various metrics. And I'm working on a couple new YA novels, In the Sundial’s Shadow, and another called A Little Bit Langston, as well. Busy, busy.
JM: Any last words?
AD: I wanted to add a few thoughts for the new writer: Keep going in spite of everything. Move forward, even if you move blindly. Only you will know when you have arrived.
JM: Thanks for the great chat!
AD: Any time
An Interview with Andrew Demcak
(originally published @ elimae 03/2009)
Demcak: My writing process is 3-fold: 1. Pull scraps of cut-up poems from a bag, see if the words on the scrap inspire me to write a line, 2. After all the lines have been written, determine which ones "are" the poem and which "aren't," and delete the "aren't the poem" lines, 3. Edit by putting remaining lines into a form (usually with a syllabic line and varying internal rhyme structures); this becomes the whole editing process. It is in this last phase that I play around with things like puns. I "hear" a poem continuously as I work on it. I add things which I think "heighten" the language -- what I mean by that is: I use devices that call attention to features of words and deep language structures. I sometimes have a completed poem (by my standard -- I am tired of working on it; it's done) or I continue to kick it around for a few weeks while it is still "wet" -- a final draft is one that feels like it has solidified or fossilized. It becomes unchangeable, fixed. If I can't add or subtract anything from the poem, it is completed.
Wahlgren: You integrate a lot of situations & characters, as if snippets of a moment or lapse of time. Where do these sources originate? Are you very perceptive? How do you deal with the personal?
Demcak: All my poems are cut-ups of other poets' work. The very nature of the cut-up is fragment. That is why my images jump around so much. But that is not to say that I don't allow them to do that -- it is completely by my command and by my choice. Sometimes when I work on a cut-up my own story begins to emerge from the poetry fragments -- then I continue to write the lines bending them in the direction of my story. Sometimes the words themselves decide another story, which I also bend towards that subject by editing my lines. How perceptive am I? I suppose I am as perceptive as any poet, but I am particularly keen at observing language.
Wahlgren: I noticed Catching Tigers in Red Weather has poems dedicated to poets who are dead. Do you dedicate poems based upon style or topic? Which takes precedence?
Demcak: My dedications are completely subjective. It could be that I think the dead poet would have liked this poem, or maybe it is in the style of that poet. I also like to dedicate poems as a way of saying "Thanks."
Wahlgren: In Zero Summer, you take on the role of Weldon Kees. Do you feel as if the poet is an actor, replacing the scenes of other's lives?
Demcak: In a way, poets of the past are like actors, or characters. Ginsberg meets Whitman in the grocery store. I was just imagining a suicide note that Weldon Kees might have left. Or the events that led up to writing of a suicide note.
Wahlgren: Are you a pop-culture poet?
Demcak: I am a pan-cultural poet, "Pop" being just one part of the whole. I am fearless in terms of subject matter. I will write about anything.
Wahlgren: When submitting poems to magazines, do you preview the magazine's style & look for certain parallels between your poems & the magazine's content?
Demcak: Yes and no. I think magazines/e-zines which feature only one "style" are boring, like The New Yorker, for example. When people can identify work as "The New Yorker style" of poetry, that would be a time to stop writing; the work would have been homogenized to the point of anonymity. When Georgie O'Keefe was just a beginning watercolor painter, she came across a glut of paintings which all looked just like her own. She instantly stopped painting in that way, and her thinking was "Why do what has already been done?" Editors either like the way I write or they don't.
Wahlgren: Why did you end Zero Summer & Catching Tigers in Red Weather on different notes?
Demcak: Again, it was very subjective. I felt the weight of Zero Summer was in the first section because it was edgy, in terms of subject and style. It's not to say the other 2 sections don't have weight -- the third section has my usual collection of death and disease. But I wanted to play into the over-arching theme of Zero Summer which is "longing." Having an achingly beautiful lyric as the last poem felt very wistful and "Romantic" to me. It filled me with longing. Catching Tigers in Red Weather was much more structure driven. The whole book is strict formalism in action. It had to end with death. That is logical. But I ended it with a guardian angel lamenting the failures of humans. It was like listening in at a 12-Step meeting for angels. It contradicts the title of the book, and I like that kind of contradiction, the impossible vs. the actual.
J Michael Wahlgren edits Gold Wake Press. He is author of Silent Actor (BeWrite, 2008)