Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love how “with clean hunting boots” and “with complications” use spare details to evoke much larger themes such as friendship and nature. For you, does a poem begin with an idea, an image, or something else?
Darren Demaree: It really depends on if it’s a stand-alone poem, a poem that’s part of a larger project (like the two “with…” poems here), or if they’re part of a numbered sequence.
Most of the poems I write without any established connection to another piece emanate from an image or emotion or event that I’ve been unable to shake without addressing it. The last couple years those have mostly been political prose poems that speak to a specific event.
Larger project poems are normally working within a particular theme I want to see if I can exhaust by approaching it from as many angles as possible. The “with…” poems all began from an idea of clinging to joy or separating out pain from joy or directly attacking pain with the purposes of ginning up some positive energy. Sometimes writing poetry is good just to rally the spirit a bit, get the blood flowing in the right direction (or any direction at all), and if it works on me, the hope is that it might work for the reader as well.
My numbered sequences all begin with a phrase or vague idea that I think I can elongate into a deeper exploration (sometimes narrative), and they take a lot of mapping and preparation before I even write the first poem.
RR: Both poems are written in tercets of three-syllable lines. Can you talk a little about how you approach form and constraint?
DD: The idea of play in poetry is highly underrated to me. Playing with sound and music. Playing with form. Playing with the text as visual. Playing with vernacular and abstraction and framing. This project I wanted to work with a specific format for each poem, and it took on the specific syllable and line count. It was a lot of fun to see what that did to the voice in those poems, and how potential abstractions might explode into bigger things. I’ve never been a formalist or worked in many traditional forms, but it’s important to me to keep finding different challenges to push what I’d consider to be my default poetic setting.
RR: The syntax in “with complications” is wonderfully both cryptic and lucid, as in the opening: “certified / rock-true push / across all // ridges”. The lack of punctuation and the enjambment give us so much multiplicity and possibility. Do you have specific ways you’ve found to push language outside of its normal bounds?
DD: I think the language decisions are just a blast to make. Clear and concise or push things past traditional syntax or how much music to use or when to slam on the breaks and have the reader running after they’ve long abandoned the cliffside. One of the reasons I write as much as I do is it really is one of my favorite things. It’s a profession and a hobby, because I love exploring the foundational pieces of it so much.
RR: We understand your new book, Unfinished Murder Ballads, has just been released—congrats! With as many books as you have written, do you find that your writing projects frequently overlap, or do you take breaks between pieces and projects?
DD: I’m always working on something. It used to be that I would be editing one book for publication while I worked on new poems for a different project while I mapped out the framework for a long sequence, but the six years I did that really wore me out. It led to some really big swings and misses on my part. I know it might not look like it from the outside, but I’ve really slowed down the process in the last two years. Some of it is life stuff (three kids), some of it is professional stuff (library work), and some of it was necessary to find new ways of experimenting with the art. I’ll never produce new work like that again, and that’s okay. Writing as much poetry as possible at all times for those years really helped me out with some personal things I was working through, but that general panic has subsided for the most part now. I’m not writing for my life anymore. I was for a long time, and I’ll get to carry those poems forward with me. I don’t have to carry that practice with me anymore, not if it’s no longer useful.
RR: What advice do you have for aspiring writers looking to get into the profession?
DD: Become fascinated with the small parts of writing. Make a routine and a process that works for you. Nobody should write thirty poems a week for six years like I did, but I did it because it was what I required to calm down the rest of my life. Read all the time in every genre. Language is fascinating. Read translations most of all. Translated work written from every angle of this world is a life blood to my practice. Make it big or make it small, and no matter what don’t feel obligated to make your practice like anyone else’s. Dedication is not validated by production. Production is not validated by publication. Be curious and have fun. These are serious times and this is serious work, but nobody needs to be smothered into nothingness because of all this weight.
Darren Demaree’s work in Issue 8.1: