From Sheet Lightning to Paranormal Writing: An interview with Denise Dumars

We recently caught up with long-time SFPA member Denise Dumars, who will be attending LOSCON 44 this week in Los Angeles. She’s worn many hats throughout her prolific writing career, including providing a variety of consulting services for emerging and established authors. Denise Dumars has written and published poetry, short stories, articles, and reviews in journals such as Terra Incognita, Cinefantastique, and Talebones. 

She is a columnist for Star*Line, the journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and a peer reviewer for Coreopsis: A Journal of Myth and Theater. She has also published two collections of short stories; two non-fiction books, including The Dark Archetype (with Lori Nyx), and numerous chapbooks of poetry, the most recent of which is Letting in the Dark (Yellow Bat Press). Denise teaches a variety of English courses in Southern California colleges. Be sure to visit her online: http://www.denisedumars.com/


Tell us a little about yourself. When did you realize you were passionate about art and literature? What was one of the most difficult skills for you to learn in this process?
I can’t remember not loving reading; my parents both love to read and I was taught to read at home before I started kindergarten. I formed a taste for dark literature early on. I remember reading Poe as a very young child. I took to science fiction, too; Jules Verne ,Ray Bradbury, and children’s SF and horror authors intrigued me as well. I fell under the spell of Lovecraft’s work when I was in the 6th grade—I remember giving a book report in which I used vocabulary words like “batrachian” and “eldritch.”

A difficult thing to learn was that people thought you were weird if you liked to write. I made up stories and some of them were scary to the other kids and I had one teacher who told me not to tell scary stories. That stopped me from writing for a couple of years. Just getting through the rejection by authority figures and the sense that I was somehow different from non-writers was the hardest thing to learn. Everything else was easy by comparison.

Looking back at your first poetry collection Sheet Lightning to now, what’s changed most about your process in putting a manuscript together?
I rarely think in terms of “putting together a manuscript” when it comes to poetry and short fiction. The poems come one at a time, and rarely do I have a theme for a collection. My most recent collection is an exception to that rule: Paranormal Romance: Poems Romancing the Paranormal was a themed volume; more than half the poems dealt with paranormal research of the type that I find really funny—you know, the ghost hunters and all their gadgets. But the other half of the book is more serious as it deals with New Orleans and the paranormal. Every collection is different. Right now I have a collection of haiku that I’m trying to figure out where to send—it’s call the Punk Rock Picnic Haiku, as it was written over time as I went to punk rock concerts with the rest of my elderly punk set at Liquid Kitty, a club that was recently bought by someone who turned it into a rich businessman’s lounge. The haiku series is a memorial to a time and place. I keep meaning to create a collection of specifically science fiction poems and a collection specifically of horror and dark fantasy poems.

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As a writing coach, what’s a common bit of advice you find yourself unexpectedly giving to emerging writers?
Read. Listen. Read everything, not just your own poetry! And listen when others critique. You don’t always have to implement their suggestions, but you should listen. This may seem obvious, but believe me, it is not. It’s one reason I don’t like teaching creative writing. Too many people taking creative writing classes aren’t looking for advice or seeking to learn by helping others with their poetry; they’re just looking for praise. Don’t do that!

When is the best time for someone to seek out a writing coach in their careers?
It depends. Some people just want someone to correct their grammar and sentence structure; it’s cheaper and better to take a composition course than to do this, but some people prefer to spend the money rather than learn to do it themselves. Others want advice on actually making the book better and advice on getting an agent and/or finding a publisher. This applies to novelists and nonfiction writers; as far as poetry is concerned, a good poetry workshop will do you more good than a writing coach. A coach can help you see who you are and what you do, and hopefully advance your technique and give you a sense of the wider world of publishing out there. But you need to already be at a place where you can do some of these things for yourself, and just need a little lift to get the rest of the way. A coach should be someone who knows the kind of book you write well and who has experience in publishing. I was a literary agent for 12 years and repped not only science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers, but also those who wrote metaphysical nonfiction. You want a coach who has learned from experience in the real world or writing and publishing, not someone who just got an MFA.

What’s a poem you usually suggest for a reader who wants to read you for the very first time?
Oh, wow…this one threw me. You can listen to “The Wood” on the 2016 SFPA Halloween poetry reading: http://www.sfpoetry.com/hw/16halloween.html. Or here’s a short poem I’m happy to share for someone to see my lighter side (heh heh):

Steampunk Noir

He wasn’t
a coin-operated boy
until he met me
and my toolkit
at the laundromat.

In what ways does California influence your approach to poetry?
I’m a lifelong resident of the South Bay area of Los Angeles County. I’m certainly influenced by the natural world of California; we have the beaches, the deserts, the mountains, and the valleys, which is why much of the film industry relocated here from New York. I’m also influenced by Hollywood, of course, having grown up around the film industry, and also the aerospace industry, so between the two industries you have all the material for fantasy and science fiction that you need. I have a lot of very dark poems about very brightly lit places—think of the ending of the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Jane’s sister is dying right there in broad daylight on the Santa Monica beach with people all around her having fun and not knowing the tragedy that is unfolding. Now that’s scarier to me than a dark, dank haunted house in New England. I also grew up in the shadow of the Manson Family and the Patty Hearst dramas, and of course I’ve lived through two urban uprisings. There are other types of horror that come from living here; I’ve known people who committed suicide because they didn’t make it in Hollywood, and I once interviewed Lana Clarkson, the woman that Phil Spector was convicted of murdering. This is a dark and pathological place in many ways, as the disgusting behavior of recent Hollywood honchos has revealed.

In the middle of so much media for expression, film, television, novels, etc. what advantages does speculative poetry continue to have for readers that we should consider?
There’s a big difference between seeing something on a screen and seeing it in your own mind, and a big difference between prose and verse. Plus, poetry means different things to different people. Reading speculative poetry is a completely distinct experience from any of the other examples you’ve listed; to not include speculative poetry along with the rest of media in the genres is like saying that once you’ve had ice cream you don’t need to try cake. Why not try it all?

denise dumars

What’s been one of the most challenging poems for you to write over the years?
Poetry about family is always hard, especially if you didn’t come from a happy one. A poem that I often choke up when reading is called “What is Forgiven.” Ostensibly it’s about the Day of the Dead in Mexico; it was published in two of my collections, both Letting in the Dark and Paranormal Romance. But it’s really about letting go, about realizing that you can’t change some things and then coming to terms with that fact.

What’s your favorite music to listen to as you write?
Creepy rock music. As I’ve mentioned, I’m an old punk rock fan. The blues. Weird stuff, like “Far From any Road,” the theme from the first season of True Detective; anything that makes me feel that the world is a mysterious and enchanted place. “Friends on the Other Side” from The Princess and the Frog. “Nature Boy” sung by Nat King Cole. I don’t know what happened to my great list of links to songs on magick, vodou, and similar themes that used to be on my Rev. Dee’s Apothecary website, but if you want a copy I can send one to you.

You’ve been a regular at LOSCON for years. This year’s themes are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Star Wars and Urban Fantasy. What do those themes mean to you personally?
Is that the theme? It didn’t seem to have a theme when I looked at the website, and the panels I’m going to be on have little to do with those themes. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Star Wars. It was also the first videocassette I ever bought. I have no interest in the newer prequels and sequels. However, I am going to be writing a tribute to Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher for the online scholarly journal Coreopsis, so I am going to see The upcoming Star Wars film just to see Fisher’s performance. I could say that Princess Leia was the first movie princess I’d ever seen who had attitude and didn’t simper around men. It was very refreshing. I’ve always hated the Disney princesses, but I love Maleficent. I always tell people that Disney made me a witch; I saw Sleeping Beauty in a big movie palace when I was around 6 years old and I decided that if someone like Maleficent can turn into a dragon, then that’s the sort of person I wanted to be!

As for Urban Fantasy, well, that’s a broad term. It can mean fairies and pixies in modern day Baltimore or Chicago, or it can mean the struggles of gods and monsters amidst the crowds of London or New York or Los Angeles. I like dark fantasy, so although I appreciate work by the likes of Terry Pratchett and Charles de Lint, I prefer some of the darker works of Neil Gaiman and of course Clive Barker, Stephen King, and Anne Rice, but I worship at the altar of Nalo Hopkinson. Urban fantasy is an ill-defined genre that includes a lot of horror, although you’re not allowed to use the “h” word nowadays, and it also includes a lot of magic realism and even steampunk. After all, you can take “urban” to mean anything set during or after the Industrial Revolution. The term exists to distinguish it from epic fantasy like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones or any fantasy set in a pre-industrial world.

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What are you looking forward to most at LOSCON?
Relaxing with my friends. Loscon is the best thing to do over the Thanksgiving weekend in Southern California if you don’t have family that you want to spend more than one day with. The parties, the costumes, the beer or whiskey tastings, the short horror film program, the panels on interesting topics by people who know what they’re talking about! And it’s a friendly con. No one’s going to have a bodyguard keeping the fans away from the panelists. I also do some holiday shopping there, as I prefer to patronize small merchants rather than huge corporations.

If you could have any creature, fantastic or real, for a traveling companion, what would it be?
Probably a vampire. They stay up late, unlike a lot of Southern Californians; they roll up the sidewalks at 9 PM in L.A.! Also, they dress well, so we wouldn’t get thrown out of the best places.

Coffee or Tea?
Both, really; in fact, I drink more tea than coffee, especially iced tea, but I cannot start my day without a cup of coffee. I drink coffee with milk, and prefer Starbucks to any other; the fact that they have a version of the orisha Yemaya/Olokun as their mascot may be part of the attraction. But as a steampunk I also like good teas; come visit and you’ll have a choice of about a million types of tea, black, green, white, and herbal.

What’s an unexpectedly useful skill you picked up as an artist?
Skills transfer: good writing skills will help you in any writing situation, no matter what the format or content of that writing.

What do you think you’ll need most to keep going as a poet in the future?
The belief that if it satisfies me to write it, that should be enough. You can’t expect anything else realistically.

What’s next for you?
A colleague talked me into participating in NaNoWriMo. And to think that I’ve always made fun of people who did that! So I’m working on a novel this month. I think it’s speculative fiction but people will probably call it literary horror. But isn’t that what I always write?

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