Poets of the Dark: Interview with Denise Dumars
Denise Dumars has published hundreds of poems in journals, magazines, and anthologies, as well as authoring several volumes of poetry. She has been nominated for the Rhysling Award for speculative poetry several times, the Dwarf Stars award for poems of under 10 lines, and her book, Paranormal Romance: Poems Romancing the Paranormal, was nominated for the Elgin award. She is currently nominated for the Pushcart Prize. A retired college English professor, Denise is a fulltime writer now, writing fiction and nonfiction as well as poetry. Denise speaks on poetry and reads poetry at various conferences and conventions, including the The Eaton Conference on Science Fiction Poetry, The World Fantasy Convention, Westercon, Loscon, The Stoker Convention, The Gaslight Expo, and many more. Every weekend in April 2023 she is performing at one poetry event or another in Southern California. She lives in Los Angeles’ beautiful South Bay region, but her heart is in New Orleans. Find her at www.DeniseDDumars.com, and Rev. Dee’s Apothecary: a New Orleans-Style Botanica, www.DyanaAset.com. Her most current chapbook, Cajuns in Space and Other Speculative and Fantasy Poems, is available from her for $5 and is eligible for the Elgin Award. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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?
We horror folk aren’t made, we’re born. I truly believe that. For example, I remember a poem in a book of spooky fantasy poems I owned as a small child. “Overheard on a Saltmarsh” by Harold Monro (1879-1932) is about a goblin that covets some nymph’s beads. In the last stanza the goblin says “I will howl in a deep lagoon/for your green glass beads, I love them so.” Such drama! I loved that poem when I was about 6 years old and I remembered it well enough to find it again online recently. I think I discovered Poe in maybe 3rd or 4th grade. To me, poetry and the scary, moody, speculative and the fantastic are synonymous.
Between all my reading as a child and the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, which I saw in its first run from 1966 to 1971, I think I was fated to write this stuff. I think I started writing poetry at around age 10. I was first published at age 19. I never had any support in what I was doing; I lived in a blue collar area and none of my teachers knew what the hell to do with me.
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?
To me, horror poetry begins with an emotion. After all, horror has been described as a mood, not a genre. A fear, a dread, a longing, a desire—any feeling, good or bad, well, it must be there. And sometimes the perversion of feeling—that terrifying state of ennui, existential angst, anhedonia, whatever. It can happen anywhere, any time. But of course there are specific things one can do to inspire horror poetry. Wander graveyards, for one thing, and here in L.A. there are lots of famous dead people to hang out with. For example you could wander through Hollywood Forever cemetery and mausoleum waiting for the Woman in Black to show up at Rudolph Valentino’s resting place, or go to Westwood to observe the lipstick prints on Marilyn Monroe’s crypt, or visit the grotto in Culver City where Bela Lugosi is buried. We have an embarrassment of riches here in terms of the gothic. People tend to think of California in terms of bright sunshine and think, “How could horror come out of L.A.?” Well, watch the end of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, which takes place on the beach at Santa Monica in bright sunlight, and then tell me the beach in daylight can’t be horrifying.
And I’ve done all the other things they suggest for inspiring horror poetry, some of them rather stupidly dangerous. A friend and I drank a whole lot of absinthe in Tijuana, and then decided to walk back to the U.S. at midnight. Yeah. Don’t do that. And because I’m part of the occult scene, I’ve had some interesting experiences with that, too. I’ve been to services at Santa Muerte temples in L.A. and in Mexico. I study New Orleans Voodoo whenever I’m there, and got to be in a second line parade for the Anbla D’lo ritual one time. Covid has kept me away from travel, but I hope to get back there soon.
I think horror is all about the contemplation of death, not something I do a lot of now that I’m closer to the end of my life than to the beginning. But up until recently, yeah, if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s what it is. All the inspiration you need comes from the romanticizing of death, and also the rather theatrical mourning we tend to do when we’re young and someone or something that we love dies. It could be a pet, a grandparent, or nowadays—sadly—a classmate or three or twenty. You know what? If I were born in the 21st century, I wonder if I’d be a horror poet at all. I might want to run away from the horrors young people face today and write about happy things instead.
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?
I am not a formalist. Never have been. So for me there are no constraints, really. I’ve published maybe a few rhymed and metered poems. I guess I’m just old fashioned as I prefer free verse. I rarely write poems much longer than 40 lines, and rather than writing mostly narrative poetry as some genre poets do, I write a lot of atmospheric, imagistic poetry. If I want to tell a story, I’ll write a story. Poetry to me is for images and emotions. As far as technique is concerned, I’d say watch your line breaks. That’s one of the best ways to create tension and suspense. Go for mood and image. Less is more. Want to write a 500-line narrative horror poem? Go lie down until the feeling passes, then write the idea as a short story rather than a poem.
The one exception to my usual free verse is haiku. I got into the haiku scene here in L.A. by way of Deborah Kolodji, well-known SF/F/H poet and internationally known haikuist. Writing good haiku is extremely hard for me, but it’s a type of discipline that gets me out of my daydreams and into paying attention. Poets must pay attention. I consider writing haiku an intellectual exercise, and I was very flattered to be asked to read at a big haiku gathering on April 1st.
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?
Yikes. If I start listing people writing now and I forget someone, I’m afraid they’d never forgive me! And I am very forgetful. So, my first inspirations were Poe and Lovecraft and Emily Dickinson. Of course, the scariest poet out there is Sylvia Plath, and in second place, Anne Sexton. And of course the Victorians, Romantics, and Pre-Raphaelites. And I love the Decadents. They are our ancestors in the scary dark and dark romantic poetry genre. And I like to get out of the U.S. and Western Europe in my reading. Of course all that cold weather makes Eastern European poets particularly dour, and I am quite fond of Latin American poets—lots of cosmic horror poets there—and when you encounter some of the darkness of South Asian, East Asian, and Middle Eastern poetry…well, yikes! I haven’t read much African horror poetry as much of it is just now reaching U.S. readers, but I’m really looking forward to it.
But Ok, I will name a few contemporary poets that inspire me. Ann K. Schwader and her cosmic horror poetry, which is mostly formalist verse. Linda Addison, whose work I have used in my classes. My old friend and fellow Lovecraftian punk, Wilum H. Pugmire, who left us scant years ago, and my dear friend Corrine DeWinter, who died last year. I am still in the throes of mourning her. She could write a dark romantic poem like no one else! And of course Charles Simic, who left us earlier this year. I guess I’ll be safe if I say that all the poets who are members of HWA and SFPA inspire me.
Arkham House published not only the poetry of many of the Lovecraft circle—and you really should read Robert E. Howard’s poetry, which I think is better than his fiction—but also published a couple of really good anthologies of horror and speculative poetry, Dark of the Moon and Fire and Sleet and Candlelight. Your local library will have them. I recommend them highly.
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?
I’ve published in a lot of literary magazines as well as genre markets, and my advice would be to paraphrase Scott Green’s dictum: If you don’t tell them it’s genre poetry, they won’t know it’s genre poetry. Of course if you read my column which appears in each issue of Star*Line, the Journal of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association, you’ll get good info on writing poetry and finding markets in unexpected places.
A real challenge in being a horror poet is that mainstream poets will put two popsicle sticks together like a cross when they see you coming. I ran a poetry reading series along with Nancy Ellis Taylor—another great in horror and SF poetry—for five years. We featured every type of poetry. Yet I am consistently ignored by the Southern California poetry scene, which has irked me for the past 40 years or so. This will happen to you in your home town as well. And you won’t be considered a “real writer” by most fiction writers no matter what kind of poetry you write. This is one reason why HWA is so damned badass—they dare to promote poetry, even knowing that it doesn’t make a ton of money.
But while I’m complaining I do want to give credit where credit is due—if I had a mentor it would have been Robert Peters, poet and professor at UC Irvine. His books Ludwig of Bavaria, about the truly eccentric king whose castle is the model for Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and The Blood Countess, all about Erzebet Bathory, inspired me. The fact that he encouraged me meant a lot; I didn’t attend UCI, but he treated me like an equal and had me read to his class. Other local supporters of mine were exemplary poets of the Bukowski/Beat school Joan Jobe Smith and the other editors of the journal Pearl, and more recently Don Kingfisher Campbell who always invites me to submit to his journal Spectrum and who published me in his anthology Top 30 Bards of Southern California. My point is to be open to those who might want to mentor you, and be prepared to find them in unexpected places.
I do want to put just a few links in here that are helpful to horror poets, including one to the poem I mentioned at the beginning of the interview. Here they are:
Ashley Dioses’ blog with pro horror markets: http://fiendlover.blogspot.com/
Terri Jane Dow’s “8 Poetry Collections that Double as Grimoires,” https://www.cunning-folk.com/book-club-posts/words-for-conjuring-8-occult-poetry-collections.
Famous Absinthe poems: https://www.poetrysoup.com/famous/poems/absinthe
Theodora Goss’s Site: https://poemsofthefantastic.com/
Richard Hell’s article on punk poetry: https://www.richardhell.com/punkpoetry.html
Monro, Harold. “Overheard on a Saltmarsh,” https://poemsofthefantastic.com/overheard-on-a-salt-marsh/
Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association: https://www.sfpoetry.com/
Ten Creepy, Captivating Horror Poetry Collections: https://bookriot.com/horror-poetry-collections/