Horror Writers Association

Poets of the Dark: Interview with K. H. Vaughan


K. H. Vaughan is a refugee from academia with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. In that life he taught and worked in a variety of settings, and was particularly interested in the methodology and philosophy of science, decision theory, forensic issues, mass violence, and psychopathology. He is a writer of dark fiction and poetry and Director of Programming for NecronomiCon – Providence.

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?

I had little interest in poetry of any kind for a very long time, because the poetry they made me read throughout my education wasn’t written for me. It was written, largely, for the Anglophile intellectual elite, excepting the Beats, who I never took seriously. There are exceptions, obviously, but that was my experience for the most part. If I had taken an English degree, I’m sure I would have discovered the broader world of great poetry out there that speaks to me. And, to be frank, there is an awful lot of bad poetry out there which turned me off as well. It’s like making electronic music. Anyone can make something, but it’s really hard to do well. I was reviewing for Hellnotes.com and a submission came in for a poetry collection: Demonstra by Bryan Thao Worra. I wasn’t reading much poetry but the blurb sounded intriguing and I loved the cover, so I took it. And it’s amazing work! I was hooked within the first lines. As a bonus, he’s a great guy and dear to me. Years later I signed up for a six week poetry workshop at a public library in my neighborhood taught by local friend Rosalynde Vas Dias. I went with the idea of disrupting my prose style, which is something worthwhile to do regularly, I think. And it was wonderful to talk craft and write poems. I’ve continued to do so, although I submit much more prose than poetry. As I said, it’s hard to do it 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?

Do something related to what you want to be every day. I try to free-write something every day, even if it’s just a scrap or stub. Sometimes I will use a prompt, although most of them are pretty generic. Importantly, I try to read a couple of poems a day – either from a collection or from a site like the Poetry Foundation. I like the latter because I don’t know what to expect and get broad exposure. Poetry should be disruptive, and it’s easier to be surprised and outside your comfort zone when you don’t know what you’re getting into. The other thing is to try and go out into the world and experience things actively – try to really look at things and see them with fresh eyes. There’s a lot of juice in trying to describe something in a very specific way. I don’t know that I tap my darkest fears. I’m a reserved sort, clinical and academic by temperament and training. I tend to want to keep those things for myself. Poetry tends to work against that, which makes for an interesting struggle.

Now if you want a more nuts-and-bolts answer I think you take a draft and the real magic is in the editing phase. I doubt a lot of good poetry is done on the first draft. You go through and examine each element and non-element -words, punctuation, line-breaks, white space – and ask whether it pulls its weight. What is its function? How does it relate to the other elements? Is there a better alternative? This is what I like about writing poetry – the longer a work gets, the harder it is to do that, and I want to, which means writing prose takes a very long time for me. You just can’t work at that level of detail on a novel, can you? But good poetry requires it; otherwise you just have a collection of evocative phrases with bad grammar. [NB: this can also be a valid choice, as long as it is a choice.]

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 generally favor free verse over specific rhyme and verse schemes (although my piece in the Showcase is a Spencerian sonnet, until it isn’t). A lot of good ideas die because of the use of the word that rhymes instead of the word that’s right. That said, I think structure is still critical. But that structure can be anything, so it’s never a constraint in my mind. One of the wonderful things about poetry is how the structure is plainly there and an obvious part of what is being communicated. What structure is chosen, when does it change or break, and how does that relate to the meaning of the words? Patterns of organization and disorganization. Contrast and movement. Positive and negative space on the page. These aren’t limits, but tools. So, that’s the structure part of the question. Balancing the evocative or disturbing? I see the contrast of those elements as lying against the more mundane language or elements. The ordinary that defines horror and is threatened by it. I think, generally, less is more in terms of the proportion of lines devoted to those disturbing elements. Make the contrast as sharp as it can be. Fifteen lines of “disturbing” imagery is probably less disturbing than twelve lines that are not and three that pack a punch. It might make another point, of course.

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?

Bryan, of course. T. S. Elliot. I think I’m more interested in reading great poetry that speaks to me than in seeking genre-specific work. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of Louise Glück, Robert Bly, and Adrienne Rich. I also like to look at art a great deal.

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 had a professor when I was an undergraduate who always prefaced his advice with “Never take advice, but…” First of all, ask yourself why should you listen to anything I have to say? I’m not famous or broadly published; I just think about this sort of thing a great deal. Maybe my advice isn’t what you need. That said… read and experience broadly outside the genre. Study the technical craft. Be a poet first, instead of trying to be a “horror poet.” I think a pitfall of not doing this is that one can lock in on tropes and overused imagery. When you read slush fiction, you can also tell the writers whose entire understanding of horror comes from movies, and it’s just too stereotypical and conventional. We all imitate when starting out, but the point is to get beyond that and find your own unique voice. Good horror poetry isn’t just purple verse referencing superficial Goth trappings (needs more skulls and black roses!). It’s about the emotional core – vulnerability and empathy, not being clever or stereotypical imagery. It’s about technical skill in conveying meaning(s). And success in all writing requires lots and lots of writing, and lots and lots of bad writing, before you become good. You have to do the work and get quality feedback. You have to submit and get rejected. That process can and will suck.

Don’t quit.

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