We recently had a chance to catch up with speculative poet Bryan D. Dietrich!
He is the author of a book-length study on comics, Wonder Woman Unbound, and six books of poems: Krypton Nights, Universal Monsters, Prime Directive, Love Craft, The Assumption, and the previously mentioned The Monstrance. He is also co-editor of Drawn to Marvel, the world’s first anthology of superhero poetry, and he is a previous president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association.
He has published poems in The New Yorker, The Nation, Poetry, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, The Paris Review, The Harvard Review, Yale Review, Shenandoah, Open City, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Witness, Weird Tales, and many other journals.
His awards include The Paris Review Poetry Prize, a “Discovery”/The Nation Award, a Writers at Work Fellowship, the Isotope Editors’ Prize, an Asimov’s Reader’s Choice Award, a Rhysling Award, and the Eve of St. Agnes Prize. Bryan is a five-time finalist for the Yale Younger Poets Series and has been nominated multiple times for both the Pushcart and the Pulitzer. His 2012 collection, The Monstrance was a nominee for the Elgin Award for Poetry Book of the Year. He is currently based in Kansas with his family, working on his next book! Be sure to visit him online at http://bryandietrich.com/
Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how did you develop an interest in poetry? What was it like studying poetics at the University of North Texas?
I first fell in love with literature when I watched the original Dr. Dolittle and wanted to know more about the giant pink snail and the giant Luna moth. I wanted those stories! So I told my parents I wanted to be a writer. The next day, they pulled an old end table out the garage, my sisters gave me some paper and pens, and I sat down to write, the tunes of Gordon Lightfoot playing in the background.
They were horrible stories of course. Horrible.
They would be so for many years, but between the giant Luna moth and all the monsters I wanted to see Carl Kolchak fight, between the superhero tales that never seemed to get told and the longings of a gargantuan geek stuck in Oklahoma, dreaming black and white dreams of Universal Monsters I first learned about from trading cards I fished out of bags of sliced Wonder, I cemented a desire to write.
Poetry came eventually, first from a gifted program in Memphis when we moved there and I read The Martian Chronicles, but also from the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute when we moved back, then from Tolkien and Eliot and angst and hooking up with the just right wrong girlfriend in high school. She dyed her hair purple and made up her own celestial name. She was amazing and paradigm-shifting and a little crazy and introduced me to half of everything that matters.
I suppose I’m still writing about Mars.
Somewhere in there I also went to USAO and USC and studied with Ingrid Shafer and Fritjov Capra and James Ragan and Hubert Selby and W. S. Merwin and learned to be poor and stupid and hungry. I learned that I wasn’t the most important person in the world. I learned words are eternal and love is all that matters.
As for North Texas, studying under Scott Cairns was like sitting at the foot of Solomon. He helped hone what was dull, straighten what went crooked, sent back all those moments I would say “just came to me.” He taught me what kinds of poems would “send me to hell” and he’s the only teacher ever to tell me I wrote like an angel. Of course, some days, depending on the poem, I’m sure he meant the fallen variety.
I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without that program, those teachers, those fellow travelers and friends, without that city. Denton was a magic place back then, like Middle Earth. Though much of the magic has gone away.
How do you like your coffee?
I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my Orange Crush.
What’s your least favorite trend in modern poetry these days?
Poems about small lumps of green putty found in one’s armpit one midsummer…
No, seriously, I find many poems these days to be engaging on a subject or story or character level, but unless there is a true love for and engagement with the language itself, it’s just a sermon or a memoir broken into lines. When I teach creative writing, I often start with two pieces, “A Woman Is Not a Potted Plant” and “The Farmer’s Wife.” Both talk about women’s lives, women’s suffering, objectification, longing, love… But only one is a poem.
I leave it to your readers to decide which.
How do you feel about the upcoming remakes of the Universal monsters?
What’s a direction you’d take them in, if you had a chance?
I would find Mel Brooks, take out his funny bone, and have him direct them anew and seriously. Of all the sequels and prequels and horrible remakes, only Young Frankenstein gets it right. I’d never laughed at shadows and angles and music cues before, but because I’d seen all the originals, Brooks had me with chromatics.
Part of the problem is that the first films were black and white and should stay that way, because the best horror is in black and white (except for The Shining and The Exorcist). Part of the problem is that we have grown up and out and into new horrors, and the old ones simply cannot be revisited, not since 1968 anyway. And part of the problem is that I’m a true-believer geek who wants those kids off his lawn or he’s calling the clown!
When you introduce someone to your poetry for the first time, which poem do you like to start off with lately?
It changes month to month, year to year, but lately? “I Imagine My Father’s Death” or “Atlantis,” or “I Wonder.” I figure if I can’t win them over with melancholy, lost love, or bawdy humor, I might as well recite some Rod McKuen or Jack Palance.
What’s a skill you picked up which was unexpectedly useful in writing your poetry?
Probably performing with the Entertainers, the vocal jazz ensemble in high school, basically being part of Glee. If I hadn’t learned to get up in front of people and sell myself as a voice with some sort of melody or rhythm or presence, I’d never have developed the courage to stand up before three hundred people at the 92nd Street Y and read Lois Lane poems.
Recently, after I returned to school to get an art degree, painting and sculpting and art history have also begun to creep into my poems. I always wanted to be a comic book artist, so there’s some sort of weird overlap there I suppose.
When are you most satisfied with a poem you’ve written?
When it surprises me.
When it does something I never do.
When it loses control and runs rogue, only to come back to the pack.
When it makes me cry.
When it reminds me why I started writing poems in the first place, which is to say when it lives up to the debt I owe to the language I love.
George Orwell once famously said that a poetry reading is “a grisly thing.” How do you feel about poetry readings?
Well, I think reading about a man having his soul broken in a locked room with a locked cage filled with rats attached to his face is a pretty grisly thing too, but then who am I to judge?
Seriously though, any showpiece of someone’s deepest held love can go horribly wrong and become grisly if there is no talent, or at least not enough to make it leap from page to performance. Again, this is why I joined choir and later the performing jazz group. It’s why I enrolled over and over again in forensic speech classes and competed in college.
You can’t just go from ivory tower to grassy knoll without practice. If you do, expect snipers.
If you could do a poetry reading anywhere in the world, where would you like to perform?
Mile High Comics.
Amphitheater in Athens.
From the top of an orange crate in a restaurant on main street in Newton, KS.
If you could be killed off by any classic monster on film, which one would it be, and how do you imagine it would happen?
Dracula’s brides, secret boudoir, deep in the recesses of the forbidden parts of castle Dracula, owner gone hunting.
I could specify details, but I’m not sure I could get a PG-13 rating. Think Coppola or Curtis.
What’s your starting advice for anyone thinking of getting into writing poetry seriously?
Read everything. Read the old dead poets, the new living ones. Read the journals. Read poetry everywhere you find it. Read novels and short stories and comic books and graphic novels. Read the backs of cereal boxes and newspapers and strange pamphlets left on the bus by a crazy woman who believes in Atlantis.
Then write. Write everything. Try form. Try formlessness. Imitate. Copy. Steal. Go back to the beginnings of everything you ever loved and write about that. Cannibalize your life. Tell stories to fill in the gaps of other tales, other people, other times. Rewrite fairy tales, rewrite myths.
When you’re ready, find a mentor and hope they hate everything you’ve written.
What’s next for you?
I suppose I should admit that, after twenty years of writing almost exclusively poetry, I’ve returned to prose and have written two novels and eight short stories over the past few years. I’m working on another novel right now, as well as several stories and a screenplay. The prose is hard, like poetry on Prozac. It takes more time, a different kind of time, but it moves me in ways poetry can’t. That’s not to say that I would ever give up poetry, but I know now that I wasn’t ready thirty odd years ago when I first started sending off prose submissions. I suppose I may still not be ready, but I’m going with it anyway.
Alice Sheldon didn’t start publishing prose until she was 52.
I want to be her.
My first short story publication will be coming out in Cemetery Dance soon. It’s about, surprise, Jack the Ripper.
As for poetry, I have a new book forthcoming from WordFarm Press in early 2018. It’s a hybrid reprinting my first book Krypton Nights alongside it’s sequel Amazon Days. Titled Single Bound, it’s basically a 100-page sequence of Superman and Wonder Woman poems that addresses everything from Paradise to Parasite, Grod to God.
Spoiler, MEMBERS OF JUSTICE LEAGUE FALL IN LOVE!
Beyond that, I am shopping my more confessional collection, Starting to Nod, to various presses. It has received rave reviews from early readers, including Alfred Corn, Bruce Bond, and Tania Runyan.
And finally, I am currently co-writing two collections of speculative poems.
The first, The Demeter Diaries, is a series of poems written with Marge Simon which imagines love letters moving back and forth between Mina Harker and Dracula. The poems are wrong, truly wrong, but I hope in all the right ways.
The second, The Wine Dark World, is a series of poems written with Steven Erikson which imagines a dialogue that develops between a dead denizen of a lost civilization on Mars and the anthropologist who discovers it.
Ultimately, nothing has changed. It’s all about Mars.