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Poets of the Dark: Interview with Sumiko Saulson


Sumiko Saulson is a Bram Stoker Nominated poet for their 2022 collection The Rat King: A Book of Dark Poetry (Dooky Zines), and an award-winning author of Afrosurrealist and multicultural sci-fi and horror whose latest novel Happiness and Other Diseases is available on Mocha Memoirs Press.

Winner of the HWA Scholarship from Hell (2016) BCC Voice “Reframing the Other” contest (2017), Mixy Award (2017),  Afrosurrealist Writer Award (2018), HWA Diversity Grant (2020),  HWA Richard Laymon Presidents Award (2021), Ladies of Horror Fiction Readers Choice Award (2021)

Sumiko has an AA in English from Berkeley City College, writes a column called “Writing While Black” for a national Black Newspaper, the San Francisco BayView is the host of the SOMA Leather and LGBT Cultural District’s “Erotic Storytelling Hour,”  and teaches courses at the Speculative Fiction Academy.

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 started writing poetry when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, and by 7th grade I was reading Edgar Ellen Poe so that would have been the start of it. A bit later on, as a teenager, I was a fan of Lydia Lunch, and she was on this compilation album reading poetry with Alan Ginsburg and William Burroughs. As you’ve probably figured out by now, I was a goth. I mean I’m still a goth but I was already.

I had a lot of trauma in my childhood, and we were living in Hilo, Hawaii and Pahoa, in Hawaii, as well as Kalapana which was later swallowed by lava, and these were known to be haunted places. However, I am pretty sure that a lot of the things that felt like ghosts score results of personal trauma. My grandmother died shortly before I moved there and my mother went to prison in Thailand just before I turned 12. And so I was literally experiencing PTSD flashbacks even though I was a child, and it was pretty scary. I guess the horror poetry was a way to process things.

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 think that there are 2 main ways that I write poetry, there’s poetry that I write because I’m experiencing an immediate emotional need or drive to write it, and there is poetry that I am writing because there’s a call for submission somewhere and that’s coming from a much calmer state of mind. But in both cases, there’s a lot of reading aloud involved. 

I started doing open my poetry when I was 17 years old, and I was listening to a whole bunch of spoken word poets before then. So I really have gotten in the habit of writing poetry as though it is intended to be read aloud. There is a thesaurus source involved. I have been using one since is a kid, and I always want to use different types of words to communicate the ideas. Especially since I write a lot of poetry, and like anyone else, have a tendency to lean into words that are In my personal vocabulary. But when you rhyme, which I do, Trying to find a more elegant way to say the same thing can make your poetry more interesting and less repetitive.

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?

When I first started writing horror a lot of people told me I had a gift for the gross out. I have since learned to pull back a lot because not all stories warrant visceral gore. Depending on the nature of the character and the story complement there might not be any gore at all.

I don’t find that it’s very difficult to be evocative and disturbing within the constraints of poetry. I mean, viscous fluids are disturbing whether they are in poetry or prose. So I think that creating tension and building suspense are the more challenging parts of the poetic form.

In short form prose such as a 5000 word short story, I can envision a timeline which is something like a 30 minute or 60 minute episodic television program. But with poems, everything is going much faster. You’re using a lot fewer words. so it’s sort of like flash fiction. The economy of words makes it so that you have to create a story arc in a period of time that’s more like a television commercial or maybe a music video.

Whenever I write horror I literally do envision it as something like a work for film or television. And I have done work as a video editor come to think of it. That is how I do my plotting. With a poem, though, storytelling is not necessarily linear. You can create suspense and drama just by changing which character you are having to tell the story, for instance.

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?

Edgar Allan Poe was the 1st horror poet that I loved and I feel that still shows in the way I write. Then as I said Lydia Lunch, and William Burroughs. I also started reading the poetry of Alice Walker when I was a teenager and I’m very deeply saddened by her decision to defend both anti-Semitic and transphobic writers in recent years. Maya Angelou is another poet I have been inspired by. 

I really love Warsan Shire a lot. She’s an Afro-British poet born to Somali parents in Kenya who most people are familiar with from Beyonce’s Lemonade video. Her poetry chapbooks “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth,” and  and As an Afrosurrealist horror poet, I really connect a lot with African and African Diaspora poets, including Linda Addison, and James Baldwin. 

Rain Graves is a personal friend and a mentor. I have heard her read in purchasing a number of times and definitely have been inspired by her. I was inspired by Serena Toxicat, another local poet from here on the Goth scene who sadly passed away early in the pandemic. Her Paper Wings are especially beautiful. Rain did a Book called Four Seasons with Charlee Jacobs, Linda Addison and Marge Simon, that’s how I got acquainted about their work and with them personally. So I have been inspired by all of these people.

As far as poets I admire go, I have read some remarkable poetry by Maxwell Ian Gold, Jamal Hodge, and Jeff Oliver this year.  Jamal is brilliant and very clear and intentional in his voice and what he is putting out into the world. He has the rare gift of being able to be deep and uplifting at the same time. Maxwell writes this very layered and nuanced, authentic queer horror poetry. His horror romance poetry is hot stuff. Jeff Write this sort of dark metal/black metal horror poetry that is very contemporary. He has a very modern voice and is insanely prolific.

Those are three poets who I think that you will be seeing amazing things from in the years to come. And I would be remiss not to mention my beloved girlfriend Emily fcomma and my talented niece Francesca Saulson, both of whom are working on their first poetry chapbooks. Emily’s is called “Like All That Lives We Eat Death.”

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 would advise aspiring horror poets to practice reading aloud. If you have any local open mic poetry venues, challenge yourself to go to them. I have learned a great deal going to open mic poetry. Check into a good thesaurus and get lost in it.

If you want to write truly terrifying poetry, try riding in the middle of the night when everyone is asleep. And there’s a lot of creepy sounds going on. On rainy, dreary nights. In the middle of storms, both literal and figurative. The stormy parts of your life make for very terrifying stories in poetry just as they do in prose. But most of all remember if it scares you, it would probably scare someone else as well.

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