The Dance Interview Series with Sierra DeMulder

Photo by Michael Gröessinger

Sierra DeMulder is a reigning champion in slam poetry- and I mean that both in the figurative sense of this girl is a total badass and in the literal sense of she’s won the National Poetry Slam twice. Her poetry soothes and stirs, shakes and shelters. When you search Sierra’s name on Youtube, the first video is of her reciting her poem “Today Means Amen” where she looks straight into the camera (and your soul, let’s be honest) and says: “You are both hiding in the dark and walking through the door, this moment is a hallelujah. This moment is your permission slip to finally open that love letter you’ve been hiding from yourself. Do you remember the moment you realized they were watching, when you became ashamed of how much light you were holding, when you first learned how to unlove herself?” We were lucky enough to peer inside the mine of the brilliant woman behind these words. Here’s what we found.

Fortesa Latifi : If you could begin this interview, what question would you ask yourself?

Sierra DeMulder : Hmm…I’d probably ask myself why I don’t start my taxes earlier. Come on girl, get on that!

Fortesa Latifi : When did you start writing poetry? Did you ever think it would become a full-fledged career? What was the first step in your career?

Sierra DeMulder : I started writing poetry in high school. At the time, I considered myself mostly a visual artist. I created a lot of 2-D art and majored in painting and art therapy in college. However, once I discovered spoken word, it was like my creative energy redirected completely. It sounds a bit cliche but I say that poetry is my heart’s truest language and visual art had just been a placeholder. To be honest, I never really anticipated making a career out of writing. I just followed my passion, worked hard, kept putting myself out there, and was luckily/thankfully rewarded. My first “professional” step was probably submitting to a book contest which led me to publish my first full-length manuscript The Bones Below (Write Bloody, 2010).

Fortesa Latifi : What does your writing process look like?

Sierra DeMulder : I write at home, either in my office or in my bed. I tend to write out loud and dictate to myself, which makes it hard to work in public. Like many other poets, I write best when inspired but try to always produce work regardless of my emotional state. Writing is work after all and sometimes you just have to clock in, even if you don’t feel like it.

Click here to watch on YouTube

Fortesa Latifi : Tell us about your poem “Today Means Amen” and what inspired you to write it.

Sierra DeMulder : “Today Means Amen” is the title poem of my most recent collection. It was written in response to the hundreds of messages I’ve received from people who found solace in my poem, Werewolf, about my struggles with depression and self-harm. In “Today Means Amen,” I’m not attempting to conceal or hide this difficult history but instead celebrate how far I’ve come. I want those who find comfort in “Werewolf” to know that they’ve made it through something, whether it was just last night or last week or last year. You’ve made it to this moment and that’s worth celebrating.

Fortesa Latifi : I recently read your book We Slept Here and was so struck by how personal and raw the writing was. (Also, small secret: your book’s minimalist title inspired the title of my second book.) I don’t know if that book is based on personal experiences or not but if it is, or in your general writing, do you ever worry about people being upset about what you write about? Have you ever had negative reactions from people reading something you’ve written about them? If so, how has that affected your writing?

Sierra DeMulder : Honestly, by now, I think the people closest to me kind of know what they’re getting into. Don’t get me wrong, I am wary of the effects of my writing and how incredibly personal it is. Before sharing a piece, I contemplate whether I am sharing too much or something too private. There have been a handful of poems that have never seen the light of day or, better yet, a YouTube channel or publication. My general rule is to write it out first and then censor it for world if needed. I try to be sensitive and respectful but remember that my experience of something is mine to process.

Fortesa Latifi : I know that you’ve collaborated with To Write Love On Her Arms on multiple occasions with your “Today Means Amen” video and $1 from each pre-sale of your most recent book Today Means Amen going towards TWLOHA. What has been your favorite part of collaborating with TWLOHA?

Sierra DeMulder : My favorite thing about collaborating with TWLOHA has been working with their wonderful team (they have an incredibly kind staff) and witnessing the powerful merging of art and mental health advocacy. Self-expression has always been a tool of self-empowerful and social change. Poetry saves lives–I’ve seen it and it’s been privilege to engage with both sides of this intersection.

Fortesa Latifi : When was your first slam poet performance? How has your style changed?

Sierra DeMulder : My first slam performance was about 9-years ago. I was terrified! I was shaking and reading really fast and bouncing up and down on my heels. But…I was instantly hooked. It would not be hyperbolic to say that day changed my life forever. (Eventually, my first spoken-word mentors made me practice reading in high heels to take away my bounce!)

Fortesa Latifi : Which writers inspire you?

Sierra DeMulder : Sharon Olds will forever be one of my favorite writers. She was the first poet I truly loved to read and recite outloud. Other writers that inspire me include Danez Smith, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Kim Addonizio, Fatimah Asghar, Rachel McKibbens, Jason Shinder, Matt Rasmussen, Amy Gerstler, and all of the youth poets I’ve encountered EVER. This list could really go on forever.

Fortesa Latifi : What is your favorite novel?

Sierra DeMulder : The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich. I named my dog after one of the characters. Beautiful, poetic, bittersweet. It has taught me so much about storytelling.

Fortesa Latifi : You’re one of the founders of the Button Poetry. What inspired you to found Button Poetry? What was your original mission? How has that mission grown?

Sierra DeMulder : Button Poetry started almost five years ago. Our original mission was to just act as a distribution company between local and national spoken-word communities. We had no cameras or YouTube channel, but instead, would host recording parties at which poets could record a poem or two for free for professional distribution later. At that time, it was hard for a performance poet to really market themselves. Although I have since stepped away peacefully from the inner workings of Button, I still do various contract work with them. Their mission–to create an effective system of production, distribution, and promotion for performance poetry–is comparable to what we started with.

Fortesa Latifi : What is your favorite part of being the curriculum director of Slam Camp at Indiana University? What is your favorite memory from slam camp?

Sierra DeMulder : My favorite thing about running Slam Camp is watching a terrified young person read their very first poem out loud! I cannot stress what an honor it is to be in the room at that very moment–when the poet shares a piece of themselves with a room of supportive and encouraging peers. Slam Camp is place of growth and self-empowerment. Witnessing this continually fuels me to do better and work harder. One of my favorite memories will always be from our second year. At night, we circle up and share our favorite moments of the day. One girl, a fantastic, kind-hearted ball of joy, shared through tears that she didn’t get many opportunities to feel powerful but she felt powerful here. I will carry that with me for the rest of my life.

Photo by Hillary Olson Photography

Sierra DeMulder is an internationally touring performance poet and educator, a two-time National Poetry Slam champion, and a thrice-published author of The Bones Below, New Shoes on a Dead Horse (2010, 2012, Write Bloody Publishing), and We Slept Here (Button Poetry, 2015). A 2014 McKnight Fellowship recipient, Sierra’s work has been featured on NPR, Huffington Post, The Advocate, and more. In addition to performing, Sierra is the curriculum director of the Slam Camp at Indiana University, an annual writing summer camp for high school students, and one of the founders of Button Poetry, the largest digital distributor of spoken word in the world. Her latest full-length collection, Today Means Amen, was released early 2016 by Andrews McMeel, publisher of Calvin and Hobbes, The Oatmeal, and NY Times bestselling poet Lang Leav. Sierra lives in Minneapolis with her dog, Fidelis.

Check out more of Sierra on her website, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & you can buy her new book here!

Thank you, Sierra!

Contributing Editor

Fortesa Latifi is a 22-year old poet. Her first book, This Is How We Find Each Other was published through Where Are You Press in 2014. She hopes you find something good here. She knows you will.