DMR : If you could begin this interview, what question would you ask yourself?
DD : I would ask myself why in the hell I thought I could do an interview this badass in the same week that I have final exams.
DMR : Do you have any writing habits or rituals? Any particular routine you follow when crafting a piece?
DD : Gah. For years I never even thought to identify my process. I just kind of wrote and ended up with something, and it always seemed like a bit of a miracle with no rhyme or reason.
My process is pretty sporadic, but it’s absolutely identifiable. I usually vomit a whole bunch of stuff on paper, thousands of words, and then I go through my notebook, highlight what’s working, type that up, print it out, and start dissecting it and treating it like an erasure or a found poem. Whenever people come across drafts of my poems, they’re always a little shocked by how colorful they are. I highlight, circle, underline, cross out, rewrite, draw arrows, blocks, etc. I tend to write in very busy places, and I try to write as much as possible before I even look back through it. I am of the mind that one should always work to cut and not add; so I try to get it all out on the front end.
From there, I work through many, many drafts. I try to pay attention to language economy, word choice, consistency of metaphor. Lately, I’ve been trying to treat poems as individuals, and I have been trying to give every poem exactly what it needs and nothing more.
DMR : Do you find you write more so when “inspiration strikes” or do you force yourself to write whether it’s there or not? Which do you advise to fellow poets?
DD : I think that I used to tell myself that writer’s block was a thing, but I don’t really think it’s a thing. I think, for me, I’ve got to go after it. If I don’t go after it, I’ll watch Netflix all day instead. I definitely have things that I know I can do to help me find inspiration, and sometimes it comes to me. I do believe it is for me to force myself to write, because 9 times out of 10 that’s what it’s going to take to crank out some work I’m proud of.
DMR : Do you believe in finished pieces or do you believe all pieces are open to later editing when revisited?
DD : I think it’s weird to pick a piece back up that has already lived a life. I don’t feel like I can come back and edit a piece, and it remain the same piece. It’s like sewing a blanket with 2 separate fabrics. My writing style and my content move around so much, that it’s very difficult for me to pick a poem back up after I’ve memorized it, or submitted it. I work on most of my poems for months, and then I just have to tell myself it’s done, because if I didn’t I would never stop working on it. So for me, a poem is done when I convince myself it is. That being said, there are many poems that I’ve been working on for years, and they have never seen the light of day.
DMR : Do you keep an audience in mind whilst writing?
DD : It depends. I mean, I’m always aware that someone will read or hear a poem that I write, as that is what I do for a living. I know that my work will live outside of my computer or my notebook. I’ve never had much of an issue with sharing my work with folks. So, I guess I am thinking of an audience. That audience may be folks attending a poetry slam, the audience may be my mother, the audience may be folks that read my poems in print. For me, audience doesn’t affect my writing all that intensely- it definitely used to! I am so grateful to have moved past the point in which audience dictates my writing, but it definitely did at one point. I guess now I just always am aware that I always have an audience, so I’ve tried to tune them out.
DMR : I think there is always a risk when sharing work on a writing platform that eventually you begin writing what you believe will get a reaction rather than writing what is important to you personally. Have you ever fallen prey to this? Do you have any advice on how to separate the public’s value of a piece from your own?
DD : That’s a tricky question. If we believe that art exists to create social change, then of course we want a reaction! I believe art is a political act, and I think it always should be. This doesn’t mean that one must write all their poems about rape culture or white supremacy, but I think we have to see our art as revolutionary. When I write about my brother, I am writing about the prison industrial complex. When I write about my mother, I am writing about womanism, LGBTQIA issues, class issues. I would hope that one can find the sweet spot, what works for you AND works for your audience. Obviously, what works for the writer is the most important thing, but I think it can coexist with getting a “reaction”. I hope all my work gets reactions! When people are not reacting to my work, then my work has no business being in the public sphere.
DMR : You mentioned in our first exchange that the process of writing your poem One Side of an Ongoing Dialogue with Sharon, My Therapist was specifically challenging. Can you elaborate on that? What about that poem provoked you?
DD : Oh, boy. When I wrote that poem, I was 22 and almost literally going crazy. I was in an awful relationship, and I felt incredibly isolated. I was spending a lot of time alone and removed from people and things that I loved. It originally started as an apology letter to the person I was dating at the time, and then one of my close friends/colleagues was like “Hey I like that line about your therapist. Have you ever tried to write a letter to her?” and it was like a light bulb went off. I wrote about 4,000 words, and then I just kept cutting away at it. I had the poem printed and taped to the walls of my apartment. I cut the poem up, I highlighted, blacked out, rearranged. The process was invigorating and very, very active (I am a real lover of processes more than products). I sat with that poem for weeks. The video of that from 2012 (also) is when I had just memorized it. I had not performed it in a slam memorized, and when I watch it or hear the audio I have some serious envy of that performance. When I hear that specific performance, it sounds like I want to jump out of my skin- and I did. So overall, that process was one long, angsty edit after another. It was one of the most rewarding to write, and it was the first time I really wrote something that had a fire under it on stage. It was the first poem that really moved folks, and it really made me believe that art can be transformative.
That poem is a snapshot of me in one of my darkest places. Reliving that is a privilege, and a great task to do again and again.
DMR : Richard Siken recently mentioned that what helped him find his voice was recording himself reading his poems aloud and revising toward how the poetry sounded verbally rather than revising toward the page. As a spoken word poet, do you have any similar techniques? How do you create a rhythm in written words that translates to a spoken performance?
DD : Hmm. That’s interesting. I don’t know. I am a harsh writer, and I use harsh letters and syllables in my writing. That’s something that really plays a role in my performance, honestly. I usually try to cut as many words as possible, which makes sentences jumpy and jagged. I don’t change poems from the stage to the page, and I write many poems that I don’t read aloud. I believe that poems can exist exactly the same in all the spaces that an author wants them to.
I don’t have any techniques, really. When workshopping performance, I try to move from my natural tendencies to other parts of voice. I whisper, recite poems in an accent, stare at myself in a mirror while I read a poem monotone. I want to find the valleys in the poem, find the syllables that want breath and the ones that don’t. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and read the same way again and again. It’s important to me to work to be intentional and aware of my voice. This same thing translates to the page- but for me, I play around with punctuation and line breaks and such. Again, I like sharp looking poems. I like poems to have a lot of enjambment or a lot of odd punctuation. It’s also important to me to guide the reader to read the poem how I would, and this comes with finding the voice of a poem.
Long story long, I’m not sure that I do write for the stage or come up with a technique to make the transition seamless. I really try to pay honor to a poem’s voice, and sometimes it takes me a while to learn it. My goal is to always give the poem what it needs, not what I want it to have.
DMR : On the topic of your spoken word poems, do you have any tricks/tips for performing? Eg: memorisation, confidence, portraying emotion without allowing it to overwhelm you.
DD : Oy. Get the poem in you. That’s when it comes to life. Memorize. Live the poem. Let it be inside of you, and recite it everywhere. In the car, to your garden, on the treadmill, whatever. Let the poem live everywhere. It will tell you what it needs if you let it.
Audiences want to be a part of a genuine moment, give them that moment. Don’t fake it. DON’T. FAKE. IT. The audience will know, and your poem will be pissed. Do what you have to do to give the audience an authentic moment. That is when the magic happens. Don’t be scared to lose it on stage- Lord knows I have. If it overwhelms you? Great. My motto, you have to cross the line to know where it is. Break down in rehearsals, break down in your home venue. Let it out, and then dial it back.
DMR : Your poem Real Sex Tips, with Kaycee Filson, is fierce as lion roar. What does the process of collaborating with another poet look like for you? How do you accommodate including another person into your process?
DD : Collaboration always looks different for me, depending on the other folk/s in the equation. I am someone that does a bulk of writing, and then I whittle it down to its most potent parts. For me, the process looks like lots of notes, lots of reworking, lots of conversation, many many drafts. Working with Kaycee was interesting, because we are close friends. We have a chemistry and shared understanding already, so it was just a matter of focusing that energy. It really took us months to write that poem, and it started from a very different place than it ended up. We also memorized that poem like 2 days before Nationals, haha. So those videos floating around the internet are actually some of the first times we performed that poem memorized, so it still had a lot of its urgency and nervous energy- which I think is really important for a poem.
DMR : To finish, this question isn’t about your writing process, but it’s one I always like asking fellow poets. My favourite quote by you is, “nobody wants to develop my negatives in their dark room.” Which quotes/excerpts of your own work do you take most pride in?
DD : Haha, what a question. All of my poems mean a lot to me. The line that means the most to me in this moment today is probably “And is that not living?/ Being so close to death you paint it on your skin?” That is from my poem SINK. That poem took me my whole life to write, and now it’s living.
Check out more of Desireé’s work on her blog, including this list of videos & the merch on her sidebar that includes two chapbooks & a broadside of her legendary poem “Thighs Say”! :
You can also find her work in Words Dance 13 : 2013 Summer Issue!
Thank you, Desireé!
Donna-Marie Riley currently resides in the South West of England. She is author of the poetry collection Love and Other Small Wars, published by Words Dance, and also featured in Between Sentiment and Sensation: Vol I, published by Red Paint Hill. She romanticizes cold coffee and bitten nails and she likes her poetry shaken, not stirred.