An Interview with the Multifacited 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 at Verse Daily, The Lambda Literary Foundation, The Best American Poetry blog, and Oranges & Sardines. His fourth book of poetry, Night Chant, was published by Lethe Press, 2011. His other poetry books are A Single Hurt Color, GOSS 183::Casa Menendez Press, 2010, Zero Summer, BlazeVOX [Books], NY, 2009 and his first poetry book, Catching Tigers in Red Weather, three candles press, 2007, that was selected by Joan Larkin to win the Three Candles Press Open Book Award. 

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 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!
Posted in about poetry, andrew demcak, interview, lethe press, mary oliver, nigh chant, paul celan, pink narcissus, sylvia plath.

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