by Sarah Dean
Sierra DeMulder is a Pushcart-nominated touring performance poet. In 2009 she won the National Poetry Slam, was awarded Best Female Poet at College Union Poetry Slam Invitational, and ranked 9th at the Individual World Poetry Slam. She lives in St. Paul, MN.
SARAH DEAN: Well, first off, congratulations on graduating from college and congratulations on diving back into full-time writing. How does it all feel to you?
SIERRA DEMULDER: It feels good. I originally was studying when I was your average college-aged student, and that’s when I discovered poetry. My heart was somewhere else; it wasn’t in the classroom, so that’s when I became a full-time writer. But, at the time, I didn’t have the experience to be a full-time writer. I’m thankful for the time I’ve had between then and now to learn who I am as a writer. I feel like I’m ready this time. I know how to be diligent. I didn’t recognize it the first time I went to school. I’m really happy in the place I am now in my professional and creative life.
SARAH DEAN: Let’s talk about your poem, “Today Means Amen.” It has become a mantra of sorts for so many of your fans. What’s the story behind it? What brought that poem to life?
SIERRA DEMULDER: I love this story. I’m glad you asked. It has longevity.
One of the very first spoken word pieces I wrote and performed was called Werewolf. It’s about struggles with depression and self-harm. It was recorded and uploaded to YouTube back when YouTube wasn’t what it is today. All of a sudden, it’s on the internet where everyone – my friends, family, future employers, significant others – can see. Choosing to share a poem in front of an audience of strangers is one thing; at least you choose that, at least you have autonomy. But all of a sudden, I have this one poem a click away from people. I felt very vulnerable and anxious. I thought about asking for it to be taken down. I thought, People are going to think I’m crazy. Then, one of the most serendipitous things happened to me. I started getting emails and messages from people across the world. They said my sharing made them feel like they could share. It was a great reminder that none of us are ever alone, even if we think we are. I was gaining more and more publicity in the National Poetry Slam scene. I kept getting more and more messages.
In time, I went through my own journey of healing. When I step back and look at my life, I see a venue of people who followed me. When I wrote “Today Means Amen,” I thought, What would I say to them now? What would I say to myself? Those people who found me in the darkness, who found solace in this dark place. With my poem, I just wanted to say to celebrate the moment that you made it right now. I feel very passionately about that.
SARAH DEAN: “Today Means Amen” is such a genuine and honest poem. It’s very easy for poetry, for writing as a whole, to lack authenticity. How do you reach that certain level of authenticity in your writing, that specific something so many poems do not possess?
SIERRA DEMULDER: I genuinely love what I do. I love the opportunity that “Today Means Amen” gives me. Perhaps some of the genuineness you feel in that piece is that I also feel it so much. There’s an emotional aspect to it.
Technically speaking, as a writer – in terms of craft – I often think of topics we think are cliché: love poems; broken heart poems. Those things are cliché not because they’re bad but because they’re so universal. They’ve been done before. But if you can write a good love poem, you take a cliché and make it new again. So much of my work is about communication, an exchange between the audience and performer. I think of the things I want to talk about and how I can relate them to my audience. I feel genuineness in everything I put out there.
SARAH DEAN: Many seem to steer clear of poetry because it appears inaccessible or too metaphorical. How do you strike a balance between defamiliarizing your audience while still writing accessibly? Do you think poets have a responsibility to write accessibly or be straightforward to a certain extent?
SIERRA DEMULDER: I try to have accessible topics or entry points for the audience or the reader. So, maybe I’m writing a poem about my sister. The audience doesn’t have my sister, but they may have siblings. But to freshen it and make it new again, I try to use startling or innovative images. I always say in the classes I teach, “Make it weird” because then it’s exciting.
If it’s the poet’s responsibility to write accessibly: professionally, every poet’s relationship to their own poems is a personal one. However you want to deem your responsibility to the audience is up to you to gauge. But, if you choose to not purposefully think of your audience when you write, then you cannot hold them responsible for disengaging from your work. If you don’t invite them to the party, then you can’t hold them responsible for not showing up.
SARAH DEAN: How do you ensure that your poetry rises above the individual? Applicable to many instead of just you, so a poem won’t seem like nothing more than a diary entry?
SIERRA DEMULDER: Trying to find that entry point, whether it’s a specific memory or something you can just imagine. In a poem, if I say, “I walk into a room. I feel sad. My mom is in another room.” Sure, I can relate to that, but there’s no personal entry point. Adding details, which may only be specific to my life, make it real. It’s making sure my story is one people will listen to.
Let’s say you can’t relate to my poem, you can still feel empathy, that human connection. I’m giving the audience and the readers a way to enter the poem, even if it’s not about their lives at all.
SARAH DEAN: I want to talk a little about your work in slam poetry. You’ve won the National Poetry Slam twice. Is slam your preferred method of sharing your writing? If not, what is?
SIRRA DEMULDER: I’m lucky enough to be able to perform regularly in a noncompetitive setting. I’m so lucky that my art is also my job. I love performing; I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t love it. I love the theatre of slam, the energy exchange between audience and performer. That being said, I think I have a different relationship with each of those things. I covet the image of a young writer reading my book late at night. I remember the first time I read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I wanted to eat it, to drown in those words. I remember holding it so tight. Especially to the venue of audience I have, I am honored by the image I have of people who read my poems and hold them. I so often think of those people, so many young women, who hold my books late at night.
Right now in my career, I’m moving away from the slam poetry scene. I’m trying to get into the academic/publishing world. I owe everything and all of my respects to poetry slams and the art of my performance poetry. Even with the success I’ve found in the academic poetry world, I believe slam and performance is how I got started. I was at a very uppity poetry reading last night, at a country club. The audience was, maybe, sixty years older than I am. But, still, I found a connection to that audience. I think that academia can turn up its nose at things that the Average Joan doesn’t automatically understand. I work a lot with high school students. So often I hear that they don’t like poetry because they don’t get it. That’s the poet’s fault for not reaching you; that’s not your fault as a reader. Of course, this can vary. I still feel that poetry can be this aristocratic thing you can only get if you’re smart enough to get it. The purpose of slam was to bring poetry to the people. You aren’t saying that if you don’t get the poem, then this poem isn’t for you. Slams bring people together to listen to the arts. It’s such a fascinating cultural experience. I believe in the human aspect of it and how it’s influenced my work going forward.
I am constantly in awe of how magical my life is sometimes. This magic is just communication, open hearts. I still get those messages about Werewolf. But it’s not even about me; it’s about the poem. When I speak with these fans, I forget what piece we’re even talking about. I only know that we make each other feel less alone and more alive and okay.
SARAH DEAN: What books do you reach for when you need inspiration or when you simply need to get out of your own head?
SIERRA DEMULDER: Louise Erdrich. I actually named my dog after one of her characters. She really taught me how to tease out characters, how to make day to day life a poetic act. Also, one of the first books of poetry I was given and read and therefore changed my relationship to poetry, was Sharon Olds’ The Dead and The Living. It’s really a gift for other writers to see how a writer evolves and is able to write for so long. It was published in 1984, and her newest was published in 2013.
And Jason Shinder. He’s passed away, but his last book was published after his death. It taught me to let go of some of those formalities of writing – the accessibility – and the audience will follow because of the authenticity. Also Kevin Young, Rachel McKibbens, Toni Morrison, Cornelius Eady–the first person who taught me that a book of poems can be a series, the whole creates something more than the pieces do. I also have a Must-Read Spring list which includes the following:
Danez Smith: [insert] boy
Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz: The Year of No Mistakes
Hieu Minh Nguyen: This Way to the Sugar
Franny Choi: Floating, Brilliant, Gone
Rachel McKibbens: Mammoth
SARAH DEAN: You’ve talked a lot about human connection with your audience, your readers. One of the easiest ways for writers nowadays to keep connected is with social media. And you’re quite active on social media. You update your Tumblr and Facebook page, you announce shows, and you share first drafts of poems on your blog for National Poetry Writing Month. A lot of writers feel social media is detrimental to their craft. What’s your stance on that?
SIERRA DEMULDER: I think that has to do with your relationship to your writing. I am very lucky enough to say that my job is to be a writer. I never thought I’d be able to make a living off of this.
The two parts of your brain have to work together: an emotional artist who needs to create work, and the other half is a business, saying, “This is my job and I’ll be damned if I don’t work hard.”
I see a level of pretention from a lot of artists, too. And I see a lot of creative people who don’t want to put their work out there. Why can’t we be our own biggest fans, our own biggest advocates? To quote Ru Paul, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love anyone else?” If you can’t treat yourself with the respect you deserve, how will anyone else? I have pride in my work and in my ability to reach people. I want people to say that they deserve success, too. I’ve been thinking of why we hide from pride. We teach humbleness as if it is the only option, especially for women and especially for artists. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted Talk on nurturing genius, which everyone should watch, says that as artists we’re trained to hate ourselves. If you write the best poem of your life at 30, how do you keep going? She’s the author of Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a huge bestseller; it was made into a movie. Obviously, the pinnacle of her career, they said. She says that that’s the type of thought that makes her want to wake up and drink gin at 10:00 AM. I feel very strongly that self-love and art can exist at the same time.
A lot of my social media work is really enjoyable. I like connecting with people online over poetry. A huge motivation for me is trying to be as professional as possible, and that means having a social media presence in the 21st century. I think I have a broader audience because of it. I really love connecting with people. I don’t want people to think that I wake up in the morning looking beautiful and then write a beautiful poem and get a million messages form fans who adore me. I work 50 hours a week, promoting and writing, being my own tour manager and publicist and bookkeeper. Social media can definitely be a distraction. For example, after we get off the phone, I really need to write some new poems.
SARAH DEAN: Besides writing a few new poems after we get off the phone, what exciting things are coming up for you?
SIERRA DEMULDER: I have several. In three weeks, I’m flying to Germany to perform for a week in different cities in Germany. The department of Urban Culture in Munich is paying for my flight. I’ve got a series of shows following that trip which you can see on my website. I’ve accepted a teaching residency at Get Lit in LA. It’s basically a nonprofit to increase literacy for young people with the use of classic poems and spoken word. And, Write Bloody will be publishing a new chapbook of mine soon.