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Poets of the Dark: Interview with Madison McSweeney


Madison McSweeney is the author of The Doom That Came to Mellonville (Filthy Loot), The Forest Dreams With Teeth (Demain Publishing), and the poetry chapbook Fringewood (Alien Buddha Press). Her short fiction has appeared in anthologies like Zombie Punks F*ck Off (Weirdpunk/CLASH), American Gothic Short Stories (Flame Tree), and Nightmare Sky (Death Knell Press). She lives in Ottawa, Canada, tweets from @MMcSw13 and blogs at www.madisonmcsweeney.com

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?

The first poem I can remember writing back in primary school was super spooky, so I think I’ve always been this way.

I was definitely interested in horror before poetry – I was into gore and monsters and ghost stories from a very young age, so I naturally gravitated towards poems with a darker edge. (It actually took me a long time to see the utility of poetry that wasn’t sinister in some way).

How I got into poetry in the first place, I don’t recall. I had elementary school teachers who read us Robert Frost and Shel Silverstein (now there was a creepy dude!), and I remember becoming obsessed with writing couplets due to a subplot in A Series of Unfortunate Events. And my parents played a lot of music around the house, so I was always a big lyric person.

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?

This was actually a tricky question to answer because my method has changed a lot over the years. Back when I was writing poems more frequently, interesting phrases used to pop into my head all the time; but that rarely happens now, and it can be a fight to dig up the words.

I usually start with a central idea or image that I want to immortalize (or corrupt). For instance, Tunney’s Pasture is a transit station just outside downtown Ottawa that I’ve always hated; in my Fringewood poem of the same title, I imagined it as a farmer’s field where unnatural livestock are born.

Most of the time, I try to link the central idea with an unrelated theme. My poem “Cannibal Mutant Man-eating Spider” weaves together my lifelong fascination with an iconic sculpture (Louise Bourgeois’s Maman, a massive steel spider displayed outside the National Gallery of Canada), with my impressions of living and working in a government town.

If I’m really stuck, I’ll try to compose something based on a story or character I find compelling. My favourite poem of mine, “Holy War,” is a retelling of a scene from my novelette The Forest Dreams With Teeth, and my most recently completed one was inspired by Mexican Gothic.

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?

It’s important to pay attention to the “rising action” of the poem, the same way you would be deliberate about building suspense in a story. Make sure your opening is strong, gradually ratchet up the drama with each verse, and end on something revelatory: a discovery, a twist, or something that makes the reader see what came before in a new light.

(Or not! It’s a poem, you can do whatever!)

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?

As far as horror poets go, Edgar Allan Poe is pretty unbeatable – perfect fusion of imagery, rhythm, and tone.

I love William Blake and Leonard Cohen (who both portray religion and human nature in iconoclastic, sometimes cynical ways). Patricia Lockwood does as well, in a surrealistic and whimsical style I find very compelling.

I’m a big fan of Sara Tantlinger and I don’t think I could ever write a book as macabre and evocative as Cradleland of Parasites.

I admire Kristin Garth’s ability to produce boundary-pushing and challenging works using traditional forms (her Flutter: Southern Gothic Fever Dream is a hallucinatory family saga told through sonnets).

I also savor good rock music lyrics. My writing style owes a lot to Courtney Love and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. Not to mention all the metal bands who kept the horror narrative poem alive.

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?

Because horror imagery is inherently cool (bones! graveyards!), there can be the temptation to lean too heavily on it. References to graveyards and skeletons don’t add up to a compelling poem on their own; visceral and surprising imagery is key, as is rhythm. Use vivid language to bring the reader into the graveyard; make us see the skeleton differently by comparing it to something that is not a skeleton. Make sure the poem looks interesting on the page or flows nicely when read aloud (especially if your diction is more bare-bones, pun intended).

Also (and this is advice for any new writer): be careful who you work with and be mindful of scams and predatory contracts. 

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