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Poets of the Dark: Interview with John Claude Smith


John Claude Smith has had three collections and two novels published, along with tales and/or poems in Vastarien, Pluto in Furs, the HWA Poetry Showcase series, and many more magazines and anthologies. His debut novel, Riding the Centipede, was a Bram Stoker Award Finalist. He is presently shopping two novels—one weird horror, one a non-traditional spin on vampires and werewolves—and an apocalyptic, music-based horror novella. Another novel is in final revisions, while there’s a fiction collection and a poetry collection in the works, too. Busy is good. He splits his time between the East Bay across from San Francisco, and Rome, Italy, where his heart resides always.

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 less about horror poetry than simply poetry, which has been with me since I was a teenager writing bad lyrics that eventually turned into bad poetry. Over the years I would dash off a poem here and there, but never consistently. My interest was brought more into focus with my current girlfriend who is a poet and curator of poems in a few anthologies in Italy. But, considering my interests veer toward horror in all its myriad forms, it was only a matter of time before the two merged. Mind you, even when not specifically “horror’ based, my poetry often goes quite dark. As I type this, I am putting together a poetry collection while mapping out a series of poems that would definitely fall under the banner of horror, perhaps cosmic, all while I deal with fiction as well. 

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?

Writing whatever pops into my head with a pen into a steno pad—these are the best, because I just flip and keep going—taking the spark and putting whatever words and images down there, is the first step. Transferring the barely legible scribbles to a file on my laptop is where it really takes shape. I usually end up tweaking it over the next week or two before I call it finished. 

I have found art and music are key elements in inspiring the words to flow with poetry. Seeing a dark painting that triggers something within me that I need to express, or with music in setting the proper mood, something I can hold on to, something that begs I open the door to someplace within that I probably shouldn’t explore, that’s the fun of horror poetry of this sort. More about ambience and mood than bloodletting, though I have gone there as well. 

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?

Since I write free verse, it’s less restrictive. I just put whatever the poem needs into those lines, usually with the intent of creating a mood of dread, a whisper of unease, while looking to end the poem with a potent kick. That said, as noted above, one of the best ways for me to keep the tension taut is with music, primarily dark ambient music, though lately even music with lyrics has worked, which would seem a deterrent to the process. Oddly enough, this only works with poetry as I don’t utilize music while writing fiction. A rather fascinating development for me over the last six months or so, what with the influx of poetry I’ve been writing while wrapping up a novella and, right now, at the last stages of revisions for a novel. 

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?

Because I haven’t been writing poetry with this much focus ever before—it used to be I would write a few poems then get back to fiction writing—I have found music and art my primary inspirations as I explore more of the who’s who out there in poetry in general and horror poetry, specifically. An anthology such as the HWA Poetry Showcase series has been a boon, as many of the writers in those volumes stop me in my reading tracks! It’s a process I look forward to expanding on this year. Something has really connected with me with horror poetry and I Need More. I’ll have a firmer answer with specific names beyond the obvious next year, if we’re doing this again. 😉 

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 have no strict advice. Read widely, not just horror poetry, but all poetry, and fiction, of course. I’ve even found lyrics inspiring some poems lately, so maybe my advice is to be open to however poetry wants to present itself…and write whatever comes to you without limitations. Straighten it out in rewrites, if you are so inclined. And make sure to wipe the blood off your fingers when you’re done. 

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