Sustained Attention: An Interview with Darren C. Demaree

Conducted with C. Derick Varn 

 Darren Demaree is one of the most prolific poets out of Ohio.  He has released nine collections in almost as many years as well as many unrelated and individual work for various journals.  His works are often sustained and book-length cycles of poems that requestion sustained attention from both himself and his audience.  Somehow he finds time to be the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry. He is also the winner of the Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press, the Nancy Dew Taylor Award from Emrys Journal, and the recipient of ten Pushcart Prize nominations.  Beyond all that, Demaree is a brave poet who is willing to focus vision on politics and locality without becoming overly didactic or sentimental. 

Darren-C.-Demaree

C. Derick Varn: You are a poet that is both prolix but also given to writing in collections that have clear unifying conceits. What attracts you about book length cycles of poems that are clearly composed as a singular work?

Darren Demare: The book-length sequences are born out of a topic or idea or phrase I very much want to explore.  After the initial spark, I spend a month or so mapping out exactly how I think different arcs and themes might interplay during a large number of poems.  This gives me a general idea of how many poems it will take to create an appropriate tether from the initial rush of enthusiasm to a project that resembles a fully-formed poetic endeavor.  It never works out exactly how I think it will, but that gives me a framework to return to.  If I didn’t have that then I would get wrapped up or lost in that many poems.  I also make sure to create a musical playlist for each sequence, so that I can use particular songs as markers during the writing process.  All of this has produced various levels of actual success, but if I didn’t put this much effort, planning, and trickery into these long projects the final product would never resemble anything other than poetic gibberish.

You average a book a year. Do you see limiting yourself to conceits and exploring as part of how you produce so much work?
I’m sure the idea of approaching and expanding upon an initial conceit or an interest in a particular bit of language or an image and doing so with not just one poem but many poems increases my output.  To be able to do so without repeating myself or the original idea over and over again takes a lot of planning.  This is where the mapping of any sequence before I ever start to write it keeps me out of a lot of trouble and a lot of wasted writing time.
Having many of your recent collections–I believe six–I noticed that while you have a penchant for conceits and sometimes quite long poems. You seem to also like the constraint of shorter poetic lines. Is this an accurate observation? Is there a particular aesthetic reason for this?
I prefer short lines to allow more potential for the interplay between language and image.  The pivot that a short line followed by a short line can produce holds a great value to me.  I have more recent projects that utilize prose poems, but in those projects, I end up playing much more with punctuation and word repetition to create the same energy I aim for in more structured poems with short lines.
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Your most recent book,  Bombing the Thinker, while not without social commentary, seems more abstract and impressionistic than Two Towns Over.  Was this a deliberate shift in concerns?
Two Towns carries with it the very stark and hysterical landscape of addiction in Ohio. Abstraction was the absolute enemy of that project.  Bombing the Thinker took a historic event, and approached it from three different vantage points.  The first was the events that took place, and an attempt at understanding why they happened.  The second was meant to explore the worth of art, the artist (Rodin in this case), the relationship of that art to the artist, and ultimately how we manage to consume all of those things as witnesses.  The third (most abstract) tether were the “Damaged Thinker” poems that gave a voice to the statue after the bombing.  Obviously, giving a voice to a piece of art isn’t an entirely new device, but my feeling was that I could better explore the trauma of the event through those poems.  I balked at the idea that this was a victimless bombing because no people were hurt by it, and those poems helped me explore that more completely.
How much do find that Ohio as a community and geography influences your work?
In earlier poems, like the “Ohio(s)” sequence from “As We Refer to Our Bodies” I dealt a lot of with geography and Ohio as a landscape, ‘How glad I am / to be so simple / as to write love poems / for a state shaped / like a swollen heart”.  My interactions with home now are much more combative and explorative.  I am wary of Ohio now.  I still love Ohio, but it’s an active love.  I have expectations for Ohio, and when it falls short (as it has many times) I feel the need to bring Ohio nose-to-nose with my writing and see what happens from there.
How do you feel your work has grown since one of your earlier collections like Not For Art Nor Prayer?
The assumption is always that with more reading, more practice, and more experimentation you will grow as a poet.  I can’t point to a project I’ve worked on since Not for Art Nor Prayer that shows marked “growth” or skill, but I’ve definitely kept working at it.  Poetry, thankfully, has no real finish lines.  I’ve written a lot of poems, some more important to me personally than the work in my older projects, but that’s a personal qualification.  I’m confident enough to keep exploring, so maybe that’s the growth in my writing.  I have no fear of taking big swings on projects that might have zero hope of being published.
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Of your early works, what still feels like it has the most resonance for you?
There are some individual poems that jump out to me, but in terms of larger projects “Temporary Champions” was a leap for me in terms of content/research.  Pushing the vantage point away from myself opened up a lot of ideas for me.  I don’t think I write “Bombing the Thinker” or “Lady, You Shot Me” without forcing myself to learn how to bring research into a poetry project.  “The Crowd” sequence from “Temporary Champions” and the “We Are Arrows” sequence from “Many Full Hands Applauding Inelegantly” are still a lot of fun to break out at readings.
How do you see your work changing in the future?
I’m starting to play more with language, repetition, and abstraction.  So, we’ll see if that continues.  I’m taking 2019 off from poetry to work on some other projects.  I need a deep breath poetically-speaking.  We’ll see what form and what practice kicks in when I get back to it in 2020.  It could be all new, or I could use some of the old moves as a crutch for a bit.  I’m hopeful that I’ll find new angles, new language, and new ideas after the year off.
Anything you would like to say in closing?
I appreciate you taking the time to read my work.  Thank you for that and thank you for your questions.
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