In February, “David E. Cowen”
David E. Cowen is the author of “The Madness of Empty Spaces,” (Weasel Press, November 2014), which was on the 2014 Bram Stoker Award Preliminary Ballot and was nominated for the 2014 SFPA Elgin Award as well as listed on Ellen Datlow’s Best of Horror Recommended List for 2014. His other volume of poetry is “Sixth and Adams” (PW Press 2001). His work has appeared in the 2014 and 2015 editions of the Horror Writers’ Association’s Horror Poetry Showcase, The Horror Zine, Literary Hatchet, Degenerates: Voices for Peace, “Dark Matter” (UH Downtown), Harbinger Asylum, Texas Poetry Calendar, Isotropic Fiction Magazine, the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Outfront Radio series and many others. David has been named the Editor of the 2016 Horror Writer’s Association’s Horror Poetry Showcase. David also serves as the president of the Gulf Coast Poets Chapter of the Poetry Society of Texas.
HWA: Where do you see the state of poetry in the horror genre today? Where do you see it going in the future?
DEC: In 2002 and 2008 the National Endowment of the Arts conducted a survey to determine literary reading levels of the American population. While reading trends were on the rise, reading poetry dropped from 12.1% of those who read in 2002 to 8.3% in 2008. My impression is that poets tend to mislead themselves because of the number of MFA programs and the many poetry groups that seem to populate the landscape. They look at these and consider poetry to be thriving. Currently I am president of one group with over 60 members, including several Texas Poet Laureates. Unfortunately, the audience at almost all of the meetings and readings consists of the same people, almost always poets. One despondent poet came up to me once and asked “What’s the point when it’s always the same people?” The one arena that seems to get unique audiences are “Slam” poetry events. Often they are competitions and almost always the quality of the performance is as important as the quality of the words being spoken. But there is a lesson to be learned from the street dynamic of Slam poetry. There is a potential audience. People will listen to poetry if it is accessible to them.
Dark Poetry offers an alternative to the tiresome “Is Poetry Dead?” discussion. How? It is easy to forget that the current form of the novel is a relatively recent construct in literature. Poetical narrative was a popular form for centuries. The stories of Odysseus, Beowulf, and King Arthur were all narrative poetry. Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost still inspire writers today. Horror and poetry have shared a bed since words were first written.
Speculative poetry – horror and dark – can build an audience. Dark poetry goes beyond inner rantings of self-doubt or reflections on a daffodil. It tells a story; a dark story of the human condition. I believe horror is an allegory, adding in a “monster” or supernatural cause to the everyday terrible things that can happen – war, murder, atrocities, crimes unimaginable. These are not dark fantasies but reality. Horror takes that reality and adds a fantastic to it. Even in splatterpunk the villain often possesses an almost magical ability to survive in order to commit horrendous acts. Horror can be cathartic or just entertain. But the genre stirs something in readers. There’s something extraordinary and exciting about entering into these dark places.
Unlike fiction though, dark poetry has no surplus of words. The poet does not always give a backstory, a flashback or even an explanation. The poem is almost always a photograph capturing a few seconds of some ongoing saga of ill winds; the reader has to be drawn in and held. The poet chooses – do I release the reader with the last words or do I continue to hold them with some emotional jolt? There is a lot for an audience to enjoy.
Even so, poetry is the poor stepchild of most fiction writers. Like the general population, reading poetry doesn’t seem to be high on the list of most. Selling 500 to 1,000 volumes of a work makes you a “bestselling” poet. Actually, selling 50 to 100 volumes may as well. Book publishers often publish verse as an act of love, not economics.
So where does dark poetry go from here? First, poets have to convince members in associations such as the HWA, the World Fantasy Convention, and the SFWA that poetry’s historical roots in fantasy and horror give it a place in their groups. I am very grateful to the HWA for recognizing that. HWA members who belong to other organizations need to push on them to open up award categories; even if it is only one time “special awards.” Poets should be given panels and reading forums in these groups. It is incumbent on my fellow poets to try to take poetry out of gatherings of devout followers preserving some ancient craft. We have to bring poetry to as many venues as possible. I see it as an uphill climb to regain even equal footing, but if horror poets remain accessible they can garner an audience.
HWA: Would you feel like sharing a poem or two? What are you working on now?
DEC: I just completed my next project, The Seven Yards of Sorrow, which I hope to see published later this year. The good folks at Weasel Press are very excited at this project. It is a collection of poems and black and white photographs taken of the Old Galveston Cemetery which, since 1836, has been the resting place for 10,000 souls all in six small city blocks on Galveston Island. Due to the Great 1900 Storm, the cemetery was raised several feet forever covering the graves of those in the Potter’s Field and those who did not have families with money to raise their stones. Later, a third layer of soil was added and the plots resold again. Those buried there range from earlier founders of Texas, Civil War heroes, yellow fever victims and mass burials from the 1900 Storm. The poems center on the lives of those buried there now trapped within the walls as restless spirits who cannot be released beyond the gates; but what actually lies beyond, as with us all, is unknown. The photographs of the broken stones, weeping angel and really creepy areas add to the overall work. I hope to evoke emotional responses from the reader – for the lives of the persons in the poems as well as the readers’.
I am also working on another collection of dark verse including poetry published over the last few years. I hope to find a publisher for it for a 2017 release. And, of course, I do have a day job as a trial attorney, so it’s the labor of a true believer to get these out.
This first piece I want to share was originally published in Literary Hatchet published by Pear Tree Press in 2015 and is a modern telling of the Faust saga:
Faust Waiting for Midnite
four flat screens
two silicone molded women
sleep in the round bed exhausted
the clock is ticking
the latte machine needs cleaning
the blender still slushed with green ice
and tequila and limes
four trays of cold food sit
on dark green granite
opening to view the fire place
in the window lined den
the cityscape sparkles
with a new year’s dawning
the clock is ticking
the credit cards still sit on the table
next to the red MAC
cycling Bluetoothed symphonies
through the wireless speakers
surrounding the flat
the clock is ticking
sixteen minutes left
and the blood words end
all the wish lists
all the appliances
all the gratification
all the things that could have been done
with this bargain
the old guy did keep his promise
the clock begins to chime
–David E. Cowen
This next poem is currently nominated for the Rhysling Award presented by the Science Fiction Poetry Association and was published in Jeani Rector’s The Horror Zine:
a yellow wind bellows orange rain
pounding folding sidewalks
the clocks drip
time flows through the street burrows
catching on weirs
built to slow its flow
but still clocks melt in the trees and drip
a man with the black coat
eating a persimmon while a raven pecks his eyes
blind to the loss
he will suffer
his servants walk down the upstairs case
leading to the lower levels
between tri-positioned pillars
ever winding from end to beginning
alpha to omega
I am the light of the world
then looks down
to see the flow underneath his soles
undermining his footing
a frost bears down in a frozen fog
searing the leaves
holding the clocks
the drip carries on
nothing can freeze the flow
thirteen men at a table
wait impatiently for bread
until the doomed one says
the one who gets this piece
will die by hanging
because he did what I told him to do
they scatter when Rome calls
with its message of bloodied wood
and dripping bread
the ground shakes under a darkened horizon
a solitary man hangs from a tree
noticing the two next to him are clocks
realizing that he too is dripping
with his blood and breath
washing him into the gullys
over the dam
nothing stops this passing
the man with the guilty bread
hoisted on a hill
watches the faces he knew
the father he thought he knew
why have you forsaken me
the clocks in the trees
the man drips
until he is flushed away
remembered for all time
believers open their veins
to feed the clocks
the yellow wind returns
to an emptied globe
hot from carbon
melted from abuse
the clocks fall from the dead branches
unable to hold
the weight of their swollen mass
the table of the thirteen is cleared
for the next supper
–David E. Cowen
HWA: How vital do you find organizations like HWA to horror poetry? Is there anything you’d like to see HWA do to promote horror poetry?
DEC: I have published poems in a number of mainstream literary journals all over the world. Payment? Well, if I’m lucky I get two copies instead of one. Audience? Well, maybe the editors’ mothers read the anthology. That is the economics of mainstream poetry.
The HWA has worked very hard to do several things with poetry in this regard. First, the group strongly encourages journals and magazines to publish poetry. When I first began to submit dark poetry I was surprised at the number of opportunities that existed. Groups like the HWA opened those doors. Second, the HWA tries to convince the publishers of poetry to pay the authors. It may not be much by others standards, but receiving even a small payment for published poetry is very important to the poet. It also dignifies poetry as worthy of payment. Further, the HWA actually promotes poetry. At StokerCon we will be able to choose between a number of panels and workshops devoted to poetry. What other speculative organization does that? The HWA offers a scholarship in dark poetry and of course recognizes poetry with its own category in the Bram Stoker Awards.
The other interesting benefit of the HWA is helping poets find and grow an audience. The solicitation process for the Bram Stoker Award which many fiction writers deplore is actually a boon to the dark poet. Here is a group of over a thousand writers that the HWA allows us to present our work to. It opens the door for us to give a lot of people the chance to see what dark poetry is about. There are some really good poets in the HWA; much better than I ever expect to be. This process allows us to be able to share a volume, typically from a very small press, with a very large group.
Finally, HWA members may be the most accessible group of writers around. If I simply sent an email to a poet at a major university or a poet laureate, the likelihood of a response is slim. HWA poets such as Peter Adam Salomon, Marge Simon, Bruce Boston and Linda Addison all of whom have been incredibly open and helpful. I am very grateful for the support I’ve received and I hope to pass that on.
So, I am very grateful to this organization.
HWA: As the new Editor of the HWA Poetry Showcase coming up in April, are there any changes in store for this third Showcase?
DEC: First, I’ll trumpet the cliché with my appreciation in being named this year’s editor. I consider it an honor. Peter, you did an amazing job for both the inaugural volume and last year’s second volume. The proverbial shoes that need filling are large indeed.
The major change for the Showcase this year is that it will only be open to HWA members. Last year, as I understand it, slightly less than 1/3 of all submissions were from HWA members. This change will alter the dynamic of the selection process for the Poetry Showcase, but in the end not the quality of the upcoming volume.
The rationale for this change, as I understand it, is based on the belief that the Showcase should be exclusively for members as a benefit. This allows the volume to be a true showcase for the talents of HWA members. What is hoped is that this will encourage HWA members who do not normally try their hand at poetic forms to explore the genre. Neal Gaiman is a wonderful example of this. His “journal” collections of various works, such as Smoke and Mirrors, include a number of pages of poetry. Every member writer of fiction has a poem in them. The Poetry Showcase is their chance to share that.
My job, or die trying (it is horror after all), is to encourage as many HWA members as possible to submit. To reach out to fiction writers who have their clandestine journal of verse they don’t share because they either don’t want to admit they write verse or are a bit hesitant to share it with others. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have some of these many horror fiction writers share a poem; even a “ditty” of dark, sardonic verse they’ve been hiding from the world? I am very excited at this prospect.
For more on David E. Cowen visit his website at http://www.decowen.com