Demi Richardson's arresting poem in DecomP, California Burn Barn, recently caught my attention. Its walk through the long halls of memory wastes no space, filling the page up achingly at every point. By its ending I was breathless, that's the power of the poem you don't see coming. Demi was kind enough to answer a few questions I had. We talked about the difficulty of working with memory poems, (one of her strongest poetic traits, the ability to dig into then and make it breathe into the sacred space of now) observing along the way that while "the past is important, we can't live there" alone.
James: A lot of your poems feel deeply attuned to the past and to the memories of a much younger you. First loves and heartbreaks, first and perhaps lasting questions. In one of my favorite poems, California Burn Barn, you're asking your father to describe your mother and there is a sense of pain that one is perhaps too young to fully articulate then. It isn't easy to write about painful experiences that happened to us when we were young and lacked so many necessary internal resources to help navigate and make sense of them. How do you process the emotions as they come up for you through the workings of the poem and the memorializing or holding of the event?
Demi: I think writers/artists/musicians, etc., are often surprised by emotions that come up when working on a piece that’s rooted in a specific memory. Going back to a moment again and again for inspiration can be really overwhelming. I’ve walked away from a lot of pieces because I felt that in the process the moment was becoming something different, changing from what it originally was in a way I didn’t like. I do like the challenges that come with certain pieces, though. I think sharing difficult work with a loved one you trust can be helpful, too. I write about my family quite a bit and have brought different drafts of poems to a close friend who will listen and talk through what I’m trying to work out. It’s tough when working with memory poems because you want to honor what you experienced in that moment, but not let it take over. I think the past is important, but we can’t live there. I don’t want my work to be all about those spaces and times, so I try to strike a balance between what I felt then and how that moment is affecting me now, as I write about it. It can take years and years and years before you’re ready to write about a certain event, or it can take a week. It all varies.
Another part of processing emotions while writing is digging into the subject. I think painful memories are the easiest ones to draw on, but easy does not always mean good. I think a real challenge artists face is tapping into the root of a moment and seeing it beyond what’s on the surface. It’s easy to look at a painful breakup or a sudden loss and think, oh, I’m writing about heartbreak. But heartbreak isn’t just sadness and pain. Regret isn’t just wistfulness or remorse. That’s something I have to relearn with every poem.
J: What do your most favorite poems do for you, the one's you've come to love most throughout the years? Beyond the poems that we think are really great pieces of literature or the ones we feel obligated to read, what are those certain poems that have filled a space inside of you or touched old hurts in the way salve is applied to a wound? Who are the poets who have moved mountains in you?
D: “I Go Back to May 1937” by Sharon Olds is such a big one for me, because it so beautifully ties different beliefs and perspectives in time together. I’m drawn to pieces of writing that center around family, not just romantic love. I appreciate how this poem illustrates the reality of our own lives and choices spilling over into the lives of our children. Having to go back and forgive our parents for the decisions they made. Recognizing them as human beings who are imperfect and complicated.
“Litany In Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out” by Richard Siken brings me back to a college classroom that I loved, and the delight I felt the first time I read it. Siken takes such simple imagery and turns it all into magic, every time. He breaks my heart.
Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” is one that I have taped to my mirror at home. It’s such a hope-giving poem; it holds such a tender space in my heart. I’m happier whenever I see it.
J: It feels to many like we are currently in our darkest hour, politically, ecologically, economically. Our culture machines are moving faster than we often have time to process, our response synapses are often flooded to breaking point. Given the fragility of our times, and the poet’s ability to stand back a bit and try and sort through the rapid onslaught, (although one is never completely removed from the world) to slow time down just enough to get a glimpse of things underneath the hood of the everyday, to find the inner and outer reprieve of soul, the breathing room for something more endurable than the artificial and the fleeting, where do you locate the poet's task in the face of these uncertain times? Is resistance and outcry an ethical imperative for the poet, for the all too quickly dismantling and diminishing world?
D: First, I do want to acknowledge the badass artists using their mediums and platforms to incite change, bring awareness of important issues, and demand a response from their audiences. They are fierce and they are doing good work. That being said, I reject the idea that poets or artists in general have any responsibility to society with their work - when I’m writing something, the last thing I am trying to feel is weight or pressure from outside expectations. That ruins good art, I think. Maybe other artists and writers work better under those conditions, they need outside pressure to push harder in their work, and that’s great if it works for them. I write about what I feel or experience, but I don’t think I’d ever consider any aspect of what I do imperative. I think my only job is to keep writing. I would encourage every artist/writer/musician/filmmaker, etc., to just keep creating and not worry about whether they are doing it right, whether their work is serving some great, higher purpose. It already is, because you’re choosing to create. You keep showing up for yourself and your work. I don’t hold myself or anyone else to any other expectation.
J: Natalie Merchant once said something that, as I get older, I find to be true, 'You have to have lived a very long time before you can find your voice.' She hinted that it was only now in her fifties that she could write and say the things she couldn't say in her art her whole life. This is a frustrating realization to have. Of course we always hope that we are growing and becoming our wiser, more compassionate selves as we get older, but to spend the majority of our lives knowing somewhere deep down inside of us that we've yet to arrive at that place, the place of absolute truth telling, of our best work, in the meantime that can hurt like hell, searching for the thing that eludes us.
What is your take on the poet's voice, young and older? What advice would you give to especially young poets, beyond staying the course, how to grapple with the time that they must wait for? It seems to me that to be a young poet is to be in between a real rock and a hard place, limited access to our insides, to our truths which are constantly evolving new psychic and emotional skin, new soul muscles.
D: (Love the idea of our truths evolving new psychic and emotional skin. Soul muscles is a cool phrase. Stealing that!)
Rather than view it as “I haven’t reached my place of absolute truth telling yet” and constantly wondering when they will, I would encourage writers to spin that perspective a bit and instead think, “How exciting that I have unlimited potential with my work. I have my best years ahead of me.” Wouldn’t it be unfortunate if, in your twenties or thirties, you believed that you had already created the best art you will ever make in your entire life? I’m in my early twenties and I am stoked for the writing I’ll be doing when I’m fifty or sixty. I’m excited to see how I grow and change as a writer. But the idea of waiting for that is not one I take seriously. I’m not waiting for anything. The older I get the better my writing gets; I grow more comfortable with myself and my voice. I’m not waiting for my voice to arrive *someday*. I have my voice. I use it. I’m not waiting twenty or thirty years to come to the realization that I have something to say. I’m saying it now.
My advice to young writers is: Creative work loses a lot of its impact when you view yours as less important or influential than another’s, especially if you are basing that assumption off of your age. Some of the most incredible movers & shakers on this planet were teenagers, right? Everyone, in some way, is creating art. It’s all important and it’s all good. There will be enough room and space for art to happen as long as we keep *making* room for each other. Feeling as though you’ve found your voice may take a long time, sure, but that idea shouldn’t take away from the fact that you have a voice right now and should be using it. Please, please use it.
J: What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
D: Nothing - literally nothing - is guaranteed. Everything good is just icing.
That, and: You are responsible for what you create. No one else gets to determine your work ethic.
J: When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
D: I don’t like turning to other poets or artists for inspiration once I start something, because eventually my piece will feel inauthentic, or I’ll start playing the comparison game and can’t make any progress. When I’m stuck I try to remove myself from the writing - I’ll stretch and listen to music, or go sit in my living room (which has the best windows), or walk downtown, or cook a meal with a friend. Distraction, even for a few minutes, helps, and usually I come back to my writing with a clearer head. There are certain songs I listen to when I’m in a writing slump that get me thinking about a certain time/memory I love, so I’ll try to put those songs on when I can.
J: What fragrance reminds you of home?
D: I grew up by the beach, so probably the smell of sunscreen or sea salt.
J: Are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
D: Music and visual art are definitely big influencers for me. Poetry is very similar to music - look what Andrea Gibson is doing, and Mary Lambert. I love crossover work. I also dig urban and industrial art, murals and random street art that I come across unexpectedly. Oddly enough the first ever piece of writing I had published was influenced heavily by astronomy trivia I had randomly Googled one day. I’m honestly not sure if anything that appeared in the final piece is factual... hmm...
J: What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
D: I recently finished “So You Want To Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo. She’s astonishing. I’ll reread that again and again.
I tend to rewatch a lot of my favorite movies. I think with questions like this there’s pressure to say something profound, but honestly the last thing I watched was Superbad, which I do think qualifies as a great film ;)
J: What are you working on at the moment?
D: I’m working on a full length chapbook! Which is an exciting and somewhat miserable process!
Demi Richardson studied creative writing at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her work has previously appeared with decomP, Construction Lit, The Adirondack Review, Strange Poetry, and Broken Tooth Press, among others. Links to all of her published work can be found at www.deminicolle.wordpress.com.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.