Poets of the Dark: Interview with Austin Gragg
Austin Gragg is a queer writer, poet, and stay-at-home dad. He’s been a finalist and multi-honorable mention in the Writers of the Future Contest, and Publishers Weekly has praised Austin’s dark fantasy as “decadent”. Austin spent four years working on the venerable Space & Time Magazine (Est. 1966) and closed his time there with a two-issue run as editor-in-chief. Formerly, Austin has been a public librarian, digital literacy instructor, and IT guy of all stripes. He studied creative writing at UMKC and lives in his hometown of Independence, MO with his partner, daughter, and four lovely, obnoxious cats.
What sparked your interest in horror poetry? Was there a particular event or work that inspired you to delve into the darker side of poetry?
It’s cliché, but I’ll be specific to offset. My mother’s copy of A Golden Illustrated Classic: Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (1979) was my gateway into unsettling verse. While not everything inside is poetry, most of Poe’s work has such an intentional ebb and flow, I’d call it boundary-blurring. Most vividly, I remember my mother reading “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” across a bedtime or two—and likely only because I was born a child who would demand something terrifying before I slept.
My relationship to poetry, however, isn’t all dark. In fact, most poetry I write doesn’t focus on any genre, but rather zeroing in on a particular image, idea, or experience that’s been eating at my brain like a bad bacterium. For me, poetry is using language of the highest elevation to express the otherwise inexpressible (or unspeakable).
Can you describe your creative process when writing horror poetry? Do you have any rituals or techniques that help you tap into your darkest fears and bring them to life on the page?
Poems come, for me, either all at once or a tiny bit at a time. Sometimes I have the whole small poem come to me and reciting it to myself while looking at, meditating on, or experiencing the subject of the piece results in a natural revision of sorts. Most often however, there is a draft. It may be one which came quickly and easily or maybe I had to pull hard until the membrane tore and the colors began seeping or rushing forth. Regardless, there is a draft, and that draft is crap. Like most first drafts. It needs to sit, steam in its own juices until its purpose and aims are solid in my mind. Then each stanza, verse, line, and word are considered. I make it clay and ask the hard questions: what’s working for me; what isn’t?
When I arrive at a place where I believe the poem holds several different potential conversations within it, maximizes the emotions, themes, and ideas I want to convey, and most importantly: is something I’m proud of, it’s ready to send out. Or keep for myself. Regardless, through the whole process, there needs to be some music in the work. I need to hear the song only I can hear, and shape it in words alone.
How do you balance the need to be evocative and disturbing with the constraints of poetic structure and form? Are there any particular strategies you use to create tension and build suspense in your horror poems?
Tension and suspense aren’t something I consider in poetry as much as I do in prose. In poetry, I’m much more concerned with the raw, immediate replication or evocation of the subject. My drafts typically start in free verse, and if there is a form which lends itself well to the task at hand, I try that road and see how it travels. Sometimes, but not often, will I start with a form.
My first publication, “Interrogation on Starship Death” (The Weird and Whatnot, 2019) is a generation ship eco-centric piece on the politics of punishment. I never intended for it to be acrostic — a form many consider childish as it, at least in the US, is often one of the first kinds of poetry we have children write (if they’re lucky enough to have some education on poetry early on). But I saw the letters. I saw the title itself sitting in the potential arrangement and went with it. After selling the piece, the editor was curious about the capitalization in the piece, and after I pointed out the title hidden in the piece, I was rather proud to sell an acrostic with the form calling almost no attention to itself.
Who are some of your favorite horror poetry inspirations? Are there any authors or poets whose work you admire and draw inspiration from when crafting your own dark verse?
Some of my favorites? I’m a fan of early American poetry (1776-1900) because living in the past is horror. The future is almost always a better place to live. So, I suppose quite a bit of the grim reflection in my poetry is inspired by that era. If someone is seeking a collection from that era, I’d highly recommend American Poems edited by Augustus White Long (1905). Regarding modern poets? Kevin Prufer’s Churches (2014) has some stellar pieces seeping with tension and dread born naturally of the world we live in, without explicit speculative elements. A friend of mine, Andrew Reeves, recommended Prufer to me. Andrew’s own work, his MFA thesis in particular, Tollbooth at the End of the World has had a massive, lasting impact on me. It’s essentially a study of “apocalypse” on the personal and external sense. I’d highly encourage folks to see his editorial work at The Bear Review.
As a bonus, I feel I should mention some favorite bands with great “epic” themes, as they’ve absolutely influenced my own work. Coheed & Cambria, Thank You Scientist, Rush, Guns & Roses, Ghost, and Blind Guardian are a few that come to mind instantly.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring horror poets who want to explore the genre? Are there any particular challenges or pitfalls they should be aware of, and how can they overcome them to create truly terrifying poetry?
Write! Be true to yourself and never stop. Read, read, read! You are the only one who can kill your dreams. You’re also the only one who can birth them into the world. And lastly: whatever genre, category, or aims you have for your work, understand the difference between art and entertainment, how they intersect in publishing, and the different hats you need to wear (artist/poet/writer; editor; business owner) to be successful in whatever you pursue.