Devil’s Lake


Interview with Nick Demske

Q: Humor is obviously a distinctive feature of your writing. Why do you think so many poets, even funny ones, are afraid to be funny in their writing?

Trying to be funny—for a poet or anyone—is scary because there’s so much that can go wrong. For one thing, you can end up just not being funny. That always sucks.

But, also, humor is so weirdly and inextricably linked with awfulness that it is often at risk of offending. Offensiveness seems almost necessitated by humor, for me. If one person finds it funny, there are probably ten that take major umbrage to it. Or maybe vice versa, I don’t know. We all have different experiences and, via that, different sensitivities. And it’s not a one to one ratio. It blows my mind that people who’ve experienced sexual abuse can find rape jokes funny. But, then again, I suppose experiencing something can make you more or less sensitive to it. Who knows why some take it in one direction and some the other.

Even though it causes me trouble and I have to keep it in check, I feel very privileged to be what others might think of as a radically sensitive person.

I would like to think my work offers a lot of interpretability, where the same line might be read one day as hilarious and the next day as crushingly sad. But it’s scary to be walking that line. When I say “DO these priorities make me look fat, these scars, these explosives beneath my sweatshirt?” (there’s a line break in there somewhere, but I can’t remember where), there’s so much there that could be viewed as just me being insensitive and flip. And it’s not that I didn’t see the humor in that when I wrote it or don’t recognize it as funny. But I’m actually pretty radically sensitive, by most people’s standards. People wouldn’t guess it from the book maybe, but it’s true to the point that it causes me problems all the time even. I think it might have something to do with me having so little exposure to TV and other media. So sometimes even when I’m reading to an audience of a bunch of people cracking up, the only laughter I let out is usually from nervousness, just because I feel so much more in touch with the tragedy of the work than the humor, at least right now in my life. That’s not something I regret, though. Even though it causes me trouble and I have to keep it in check, I feel very privileged to be what others might think of as a radically sensitive person.

Q: What do you feel the relationship is between poetry as performance and poetry as written word? When you’re writing, at what point do you begin thinking about how the poem will sound when it’s read out loud? Or are you thinking about that right from the beginning?

Linguists say our communication is made up of something like 55% body language, 38% paralinguistics (volume, voice inflection, emphasis, tone, etc.) and 7% the strict meaning of words. I imagine this is why I find myself more often moved to tears by music (including instrumental) or film—or especially the combination of the two—than I do by words. I try to honor that in my poetry, communicating as much through the sound or texture of the words, or other characteristics, as I do through the actual meaning. That’s kind of easier—or more intuitive for me, anyways—to do when you’re reading aloud because you have your body and voice to communicate with. Someone who doesn’t even speak English could watch me give a reading—even if they couldn’t hear me—and probably immediately and correctly assume that this guy is fucking pissed. You really do lose that on the page, though of course then you gain a huge set of other characteristics or advantages to communicate with instead. When I’m reading aloud, for instance, no one can usually hear that the poems in my book are sonnets. But it becomes evident to people who know the tradition pretty quickly, if they read it on the page, and I try to manipulate that tradition from there to communicate different things. So form and font and the body of a poem are some of your advantages there.

I pretty much never leave a line as it is if I don’t feel I know how I would want to say it out loud.

I try to be thinking about this duality—the performance and the written, as you say—from the start of a poem (once I actually think I have a poem), but not really while I’m just exercise writing. I pretty much never leave a line as it is if I don’t feel I know how I would want to say it out loud.

One thing about all this, though, which I was just discussing with a friend: Even though the spoken and the written have their respective non-literal-meaning advantages for communication, I think the sphere of the page is more difficult because, even if a writer understands many of the page’s advantages as a medium (which seems to me more often not the case), so few readers in this culture seem to access or even notice those qualities. With body language, even if it’s subconscious, people definitely at least recognize it, if not understand it. But when I break a line mid-word in a poem, people who aren’t steeped in academic poetry traditions seem so unaccustomed to it that they try to ignore it, like maybe it was a mistake or something. It seems to so obviously communicate a disruption, to me, but print is so omnipresent now, with usually no consideration for anything but the meaning of the words, that I think we have been really desensitized to its tons of subtle complexities.

Q: You use a lot of pop culture references in your poetry, including a lot of references to black culture—Michael Jackson, Public Enemy, Dead Prez. What makes you gravitate towards these influences rather than, say, Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman?

I don’t think it is a question of rather, an either-or kind of thing. I haven’t read much Dickinson, but I actually reference Whitman a lot and, in general, I feel like I’m a very literary poet—which I’m not necessarily even proud of because it perpetuates the problem of a poet only being accessible to other poets. But I definitely feel that way, even though I don’t usually get labeled that way.

For one, why not reference Michael Jackson and Public Enemy if they’re as important influences to you as Shakespeare?

In regards to race, I reference tons of white poets, too. Part of the formal limitations I set for myself for my first book was that I could only use epigraphs from dead white men. But I would say it’s true that most of the canonical writers I reference are either white anglo (Ovid, Shakespeare, Hart Crane) or black American (Audre Lorde, Robert Hayden, Melvin Tolson), just because my knowledge of the English canon doesn’t include much from outside of those demographics. With contemporary writers, on the other hand, I’m much more multiethnic American influenced, and even more internationally influenced as well.

As far as why the pop culture references also crowd my work—it seems to me something a lot of contemporary writers are doing, for many reasons. For one, why not reference Michael Jackson and Public Enemy if they’re as important influences to you as Shakespeare? I have way more Michael Jackson memorized than I do Shakespeare and you can’t help but be influenced by something you’ve internalized that much, for good or bad. Beyond that, referencing pop culture seems like the (d)evolution of traditions like the haiku masters referencing the four seasons. They wanted their writing to relate to anyone in the world so they wrote about what they felt was a global culture. We’re removed form nature now—desensitized to many effects of the seasons. Instead now, if anything is recognizable globally, it’s Michael Jackson or any of the other interchangeable icons of mass media entertainment. And don’t get me wrong—I deeply love Michael Jackson’s music. But I’m also confident that my love is arbitrary, in that I would probably learn to love any music that saturated my environment from birth. No matter what it is, if you play it enough, you’ll associate it with a million memories and many of them will be good. The music industry obviously has understood this for a long time. But regardless, in that way I hope the pop references and lit references complement each other and balance the work out somehow.

Last thing about that: if I’m writing about pop entertainment culture, I think that inherently means I’m writing about black—specifically black American—culture … if you can call it that. Many writers believe—and I am in firm agreement with them—that the tradition of minstrelsy and black exploitation in the United States is alive as ever, albeit with a different approach. The new manuscript I’m writing, Starfucker, is all about mass media and the military entertainment complex. As I was writing it, I realized it was unintentionally becoming a manuscript almost solely focused on black Americans—men, especially. Michael Jackson, Magic Johnson, Mike Tyson, Old Dirty Bastard, Chuck D, Nelly, Lil Wayne, Denzel Washington—rappers and athletes, mostly, but also actors. Tons of money, violence and super-sexual posturing for all three. Chuck D says “It’s always been about Black Death.” Of course, everyone—everyone, and definitely women—is suffering in the conditions the entertainment industry is currently upholding. But the disproportionate amount of black Americans to black American entertainers is pretty hard to ignore. So that’s at least one reason, anyways, why that figures so largely in my poetry.

Q: On your website, you express admiration for poets, like Philip Metres, who confront the politics of war and capitalism. Do you feel there is a lack of poets willing to engage with the serious problems of the world? Is there too much navel-gazing in modern poetry?

And, the only way you can get to be brilliant in something … is by researching it into the ground.

I feel like there’s certainly no lack of poets engaged with political problems, but so few of them seem equipped to even try to articulate them, let alone work towards something better. Politically engaged poets, like Phil, for instance—he’s a fantastic poet, but that’s not just because he’s great with words. It’s because he’s brilliant in the area of politics and war/peace history, especially as it relates to art and poetry. And, the only way you can get to be brilliant in something—the way Phil did—is by researching it into the ground. He’s soooooo done his homework on that stuff. He’s read so much. So his stuff is intimately engaged with details, which makes it just crazy dimensional and complicated.

You can’t even go into an open mic without hearing at least a few poets that are talking about politics or the problems of the world. But so few of those poets ever get past “the government lies,” “TV makes you stupid,” “we should all unite and work together,” and all the other tired, patronizing mantras of superficial political discontent. I’m not trying to bash these people … I admire them. They’re really trying. But, without a ton of direction (like a huge costing higher education, for instance), it’s so difficult to ever get into why you don’t like the government, or TV, or war, or whatever. Phil, on the other hand, spends his free time reading accounts from the Abu Ghraib tragedies and does the incredibly important cultural work of processing it into something horrifically beautiful. His chapbook is staggeringly even-handed and accountable.

And his prose book, Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Home Front since 1941, is one of the foundational texts for me that spurred on this new manuscript I’m writing. It’s a stunning book … really educational. And it’s not just Phil, of course. Cathy Wagner, Rebecca Wolff, Ito Hiromi, Arielle Greenberg, and Rachel Zucker all have published intensely politically engaged work pertaining to motherhood. Duriel Harris, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Ronaldo Wilson of the Black Took Collective are all writing work that’s especially engaged with racial, sexual, and gender politics … extremely poignant stuff and often deeply disturbing. Eric McHenry and Daniel Bosch are both writing about to-the-minute contemporary issues while still employing rhyme and traditional forms. Rae Armantrout—her book Money Shot can ruin a person.

… if we dig, there are more poets who are valiantly trying to address human problems than there is time to read them.

Aaron Kunin, Tyrone Williams, Cathy Park-Hong, Ben Lerner, Nick Twemlow, the Gurlesque poets, especially Lara Glenum, Robyn Schiff, Johannes Göransson, Ching-In Chen, Daniel Borzutzky. Douglas Kearney—god, Doug Kearney, for sure! Amaud Jamaul Johnson is writing a manuscript that deals with black face and minstrel entertainment right now. I met a lot of young, barely published poets on my recent book tour who are taking on huge, serious issues in their work. Amanda Smeltz, in Brooklyn, is one that immediately comes to mind. And people forget that many poets with huge bodies of work, who are primarily known for more personal poems and things like that, often have tons of poems, which are given less attention, that grapple with some gruesome, detailed social diseases. Aafa Michael Weaver comes to my mind immediately. He’s often written off by writers I know as pandering to accessibility or something, but dude has published like eleven or twelve books and the work in those books runs the gamut, from confessional to experimental and personal to super-specifically-political. I think Aafa grew up in the neighborhood they filmed The Wire in, or something. The man has seen so many different angles of the world and the richness of his work reflects that.

All this rambling is getting at is, if we dig, there are more poets who are valiantly trying to address human problems than there is time to read them. Of course, having said that, I think it’s also true that for every poem doing that work, there’s a much greater number of poems fine with self-indulging themselves into stupors. I don’t really see people only writing one or the other usually, though. There’s room for both, I guess. I just hope I end up producing more of the former.

NICK DEMSKE lives in Racine, Wisconsin, and works at the Racine Public Library. His self-titled manuscript was selected by Joyelle McSweeney for the 2010 Fence Modern Poets Series Award and was published by Fence Books. Nick was featured in 2011 as one of fifteen emerging poets to watch for by Poets and Writers magazine, and his book was chosen as one of the 10 Best Books of Poetry in 2010 by a Believer Magazine reader survey. This past fall, he completed a month-and-a-half-long book tour that traveled over 10,000 miles across the whole of America. Nick curates the BONK! performance series in Racine and edits the online venue boo: a journal of terrific things. You can visit him online at his blog, (Photograph by Angela Malone.)