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Poets of the Dark: Interview with Naomi Simone Borwein


Naomi Simone Borwein is a poet and academic. Her work appears or is forthcoming across a spectrum of publications: Space & Time Magazine, HWA Poetry Showcase IX (featured Poet), Beautiful Tragedies III, dancing girl press, Ghost City Review, Grim & Gilded, Ghostlight, Farside Review, Superpresent Magazine, Soliloquies Anthology, and elsewhere. Naomi is a past head poetry editor of Swamp Writing (2018-2022)—and a reader for Thanatos Review. Her academic writing spans from Horror and the Gothic into Experimental Mathematics education and mathematical philosophy.

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 have always been morbidly curious about the darkness within the quotidian. The everyday. The cabinet of horrors behind the kitchen pantry. Long before I had any notion of a definition, my poetry was darker. 

It has been a lifelong affinity. 

To contextualize this…

A copy of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights hung in the architectural building that housed my father’s office when I was two. I was fascinated by the grotesque materiality of the images in the triptych. A cavernous alabaster body carved into an edifice… A few years later, I was five, and on a trip through the South of France, exploring museums, art galleries and cathedrals, archeological sites. We came to a church where a guide showed us a large grave with a lichen-speckled tombstone. They recounted how a five-year-old boy had been buried alive with his parents as part of a practice of ending lines of succession. Right under my feet. Transfixed, I stared at the eroding names and dates on the old grave marker. At the Prado not long after, I saw Francisco Goya’s “3rd of May,” depicting the massacre of Spanish resistance fighters, and it fascinated me. Haunted me, on many levels. Later we went to Masada, in Israel, up on a giant chalk and dolomite pillar under the acid sun, and scoured by wind, a vast plateau looking down onto the Dead Sea. A guide described the mass suicide of its ~960 inhabitants, a choice made in order to evade capture, crucifixion, or enslavement by the Romans. The little catacomb-like antres in the side of the plateau where people, long dead, once slept… The precarious, terrifying ramp that the Romans built to reach them, only to discover they had already been dispatched. I was a gothic child, but I was also inspired by nature and the natural world; organic, interlocking, deteriorating. Particulate, washing away. 

Many years onward, I had a conversation with a post-graduate supervisor about theorizing and epistemology, and it became clear to both of us that my own lens or ontological perspective was one of existential horror—at the human condition—finally articulated. Such a lens is, not unexpectedly, suited to the genre. Additionally, one of my academic areas of research is Horror and the Gothic, the grotesque and the undead alongside the lived experience of horror realism evinced through cultural historiography.

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?

I use walking as a meditative process, observational exercise, and catalyst for writing. If I have a nightmare, I take the time to jot it down while it is fresh and seething in my mind, even if it is two in the morning. Sometimes I simply start with an internal visualization as a capture of horror—an abstract or amorphous dread. This I translate into a complex metaphor, on which I then hang a given poem. Weaving together two threads. There are times when the creative process is a purely visceral experience, and the poem just appears on the page.

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 use a variety of poetic devices. One of these is quasi-structural: experimenting with structures, with breath, pacing and pauses; through white space and syntax, or even the inversion of tenses. Though, some editors miss this active poetic innovation (decision) and label it a typo! The line between actualizing structure/form and content is blurred.

I think of a poem as a musical score—the lineation, internal assonance, enjambment, and white space working in tandem with those symbolic images and words; lyricism, parataxis, all become pieces of an apparatus. A good poem is a beautifully orchestrated assemblage of parts—in a Deleuzian-Guattarian sense—as a conceptual space.
I borrow this vision of poetry from the Imagists—the antecedents to what I think of as the new metaverse aesthetic. I also use pareidolia to create trans materiality and supernatural horror elements and to build jarring juxtapositions.

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?

Many poets inspire me, though they do not fit neatly into any given movement, category of style, or aesthetic. 

How do I define horror poetry as a genre? As an aesthetic it has great power to move between media/mediums and forms while retaining its essential features as an effect or multi-sensory style. I appreciate the darker elements (horrors) in poems from various traditions for very different reasons: “And Thou art Dead, as Young and Fair” by Lord Byron (George Gordon), Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” Robert W. Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman,” “The Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll, Isaac Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches,” Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar” and “Lies,” W. H. Auden’s “Crisis,” or Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Panther” (which is bleak and existential modernity). I also find a frame of reference in a broad spectrum of contemporary Dark Speculative poets.

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring horror poets who want to explore the genre?

Embrace fatalistic or moribund thoughts to wield in your poetry like an apparatus. When they surface in your mind, write them down. In catharsis. Then edit, and edit, iteratively. Read broadly, but develop your own unique voice, and don’t bend to vogues.

Are there any particular challenges or pitfalls they should be aware of, and how can they overcome them to create truly terrifying poetry?

Avoid cliches. Make unique metaphors or extend universal ones in an innovative way. Write with emotion, with pain, with fear, but don’t be afraid to put a poem away, in a dark place, and come back to it later with new, objective eyes.


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