Sara Crow Interviews Bryan D. Dietrich
Sara Crow: When did you start writing?
Bryan D. Dietrich: I stared writing the day I saw the original Dr. Dolittle on TV. I was probably seven or eight. I wanted to write stories about what happened to the giant moth, to the great pink snail. A year or so later, watching Kolchak: The Night Stalker, I decided I wanted to write stories about all those monsters, tell the tales the TV series didn’t.
The fact of the matter is, I guess I’ve always told stories (my desk was always the one at the front of the classroom, next to the teacher’s desk, moved there so she could keep an eye on me, keep me from talking), but the actual writing? Dr. Dolittle. I asked my parents for a desk and paper even. I didn’t get a real desk until junior high, but that’s where it started. I wrote a story about a mad scientist who made zombie jack-o’-lanterns that ate people. It ran in the school newsletter. I’d give anything for that first mimeographed publication.
But the first “real” writing? Eighth grade, Memphis Tennessee, in an advanced English program called CLUE English. I’d just read Lord of the Rings and a graphic comic called Warriors of the Shadow Realm. I thought I would write my own fantasy, illustrate it, and started creating characters. By the time I had several notebooks full of beginnings, maps, sketches, my English teacher, Mrs. Gibson, told us we had to write a short story. All my friends got upset, told her it wasn’t fair that I already had material written, so she made me start fresh, find something at the Pink Palace Museum to write about. I chose a sculpture that reminded me of a robot, ripped off Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” and wrote, god help me, a story called “If Only a Robot Could Cry.” Wrote several poems too. Unbeknownst to me, she turned these in to a competition and I won my first awards for writing. They gave me books for prizes: Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes. The former I’d already read, the latter changed my life.
When I got to the scene where Will Halloway comes home and Bradbury writes, “And like a fall of timber, Will chopped himself to bed,” I knew this wasn’t just a pastime; it was a calling. I could draw. I could paint. But THIS, this was something else; metaphor, a true understanding metaphor took me over for the first time, it spoke to me, called my name, and words became my life.
SC: There are so many poets publishing successfully that choose a more free form with their poetic structure. Why do you prefer structured poetic forms, even if that structure is a scaffolding you create for yourself?
BD: Prose is about story, character, narrative. Poetry is about the mind, about thought, about moments in time made large by smallness. Prose is about space. Poetry is about time, about bending the rules of spacetime.
One way to force a reader’s confrontation with the sublime is to pack poetry with a multiplicity of meaning—as opposed to prose’s singularity of meaning. When one multiplies meaning, connects words and ideas to the continuum of the tradition, one moves beyond simple narrative and comes close to encountering the infinity of the nous.
Word choice, line breaks, the tools of sound and syntax…finer and finer manipulation of these things allows the poet to break the reader free from linear thought. Form is just one of many tools that let us monkey with the margins of experience and force the reader to experience real time, beyond what space the form itself implies. The more dense the language, the more it pays attention to its own substance, the more the reader loses track of singular meaning and is let loose among the stars.
Like prayer or song or mind altering drugs, poetry sends us on our dreamquest to find god. For me, form is just one of the many ways I see to help that process become more intense, more unexpected. The stronger the form, the more unexpected the results, the more frightening our confrontation with all that is important. Form is poetry’s sweat lodge. Form is the holy of holies. Form is the hermit’s cave at the top of Mont Blanc.
SC: What does your process mean to you? Is it therapy or does it open up a Pandora’s box for you as you progress that digs more deeply into pain? If the latter, why write?
BD: This question is really “Why write?” I don’t write for fame or fortune. I’m a poet; I’m not crazy. I don’t write for competition. Mozart and Amy Clampitt have already won, respectively, for youngest and oldest. Greatest? None of us can know, not in this lifetime, not in many.
I don’t write for therapy. While I understand how it can help, I had the words already wiggling to get free long before I was educated enough in life to be really fucked up.
I write because it is what, who, I am. It is what I was called to do. It is the passion I serve that feeds those needs I mostly don’t even know I have, unless I’m not writing. If I were a vampire, poetry would be blood. In the Star Trek universe, poetry is my dilithium.
Even before I knew what was trying to get out, even before Dr. Dolittle, I remember on Sunday in church. Some puppeteers had come to perform several sermons for us using felt and sticks and googly eyes. After their performance, they talked about their walk, about their call to preach, to spread the Word. They had us bow our heads and asked for a show of hands. How many of you believe you’ve been called to spread the word they said. I raised my hand. Being maybe six, I couldn’t resist and also peeked. My hand was the only one.
SC: What impact do you want to have on your readers?
BD: If the poem is melancholy (and they usually are), I want my readers to be sad. If it’s funny (rarely), I want them to laugh. But, honestly, I don’t write for an audience either. After all, once more: poetry. There IS no audience.
Now, having said that, I do enjoy reading my poems to an audience nearly more than I do writing them, but not because of the audience. I enjoy this, I think, because when it goes well, when I serve the poems well enough, I can feel them moving through me and moving through the audience. I can feel the same feeling I felt writing them, only now it is multiplied by all the other creators in the room, all of them serving the same master, the same mistress. Together we bring god into being.
SC: What would be the greatest compliment you could receive from a reader?
BD: You made me want to write.
SC: I know you get this one a lot, but I think the answer is important. Why Star Trek, Superman and Universal Monsters?
BD: Why Star Trek, Superman, monsters? Because they are our modern myths. Myths make us who we are. Story and poetry is how we know the world. Language, sign, symbol…this is all we’ve ever had.
The longer a story stays, the more meanings it has evolved to mean, the more important it is for us to engage it, wrestle with it, make it mean even more. At some point someone had to ask Homer, “Why this Odysseus guy?” And Shakespeare? Why Hamlet? No, I’m not Homer or Shakespeare, but we all drink from the same well. When we get there early, the water may seem a bit brackish, shallow, dangerous even. But once we’ve drunk, once we’ve transmuted that water through ourselves and our vision and our service into something else, others, I hope, can finally see what the water has always already been: holy.
Frankly, even getting there early is really impossible. Star Trek isn’t new at all. Wagon Train and, well, The Odyssey form some of its headwaters. Superman? Dare we go all the way back to the Zend Avesta? To Herakles? To Moses or Christ or Arthur or Elvis? I don’t really think I work with pop culture at all. I work with tropes from culture, period. The current form? Where do we think all that bottled water comes from anyway?
SC: What aspects of this modern American “mythology” do you think will endure? Do you think kids in the year 2300 will know Superman, Scully and Spock?
BD: Kids in the year 2300 will no longer read stories or poems. Kids in the year 2030 may no longer read. That’s what I fear anyway. But, for the sake of argument, IF reading is still around. If any stories or symbols or signs are still significant, Superman and Spock will indeed remain.
Scully? Not so much, alas. X-Files creator Chris Carter took too much pride in not maintaining a bible for the show. He didn’t take enough care with his characters. He did not serve with humility. His characters, thus, cannot survive.
My only hope for the others, for the future, is that we, continue to believe in the greatest strength of our species: our ability to imagine what isn’t in order to praise and prepare, prevent and preserve what is.
SC: The Assumption, your last book, was much more philosophical than it was personal. What inspired you to return to the more impersonal headspace of philosophy after a couple of much more personal works?
BD: Actually, the order in which my books have been published is misleading. I wrote The Monstrance first, then Krypton Nights, then The Assumption. Universal Monsters was next, then Amazon Days, then Prime Directive, then Love Craft. The philosophical books actually came before the more personal ones (if we don’t count The Monstrance).
Regardless, I do tend to vacillate between modes. Again, though, none of this is a conscious choice, not finally. I write what is ready to be written, what calls me to its bosom, what moves through me at the time I’m writing. Some ideas are more ready to be seen and judged than others; when they are, I let them run rampant on the page.
SC: Religion, or at least the experience of the Sublime, is one of the threads that is weaved throughout almost all your poetry. Can you speak a little to the impact of religion on your writing—both your experiences in your childhood and how your current philosophical and religious structure impact your poetry?
BD: Religion is not what I write about. Faith and our encounter with the sublime is something different; that, I care about deeply, even if I consider myself an atheistic mystic, otherwise known as Zen Baptist.
I believe in belief. I believe in signs. They are about all I believe in. They are all I believe we can believe in.
We know this world only through symbol. “What is real?” “Is that air you’re breathing?” “There is no spoon.” Plato believed in forms, in light beyond the cave of our imaginings. I believe the cave is more important than the sun. I believe our signs are our light.
My old Baptist minister would probably have me burned, but I believe in his belief too. Stories, signs, symbols move matter in the world. That’s real enough for me. What lies beyond the world? I want to believe, sometimes, there might be more. On the other hand, isn’t this world enough? Doesn’t believing in “after” make “during” mean less? I can’t say. But, wait, I can. That’s called poetry.
SC: Your next book, Monstrance, is due out this summer. Could you describe what this book is about and where it originated?
BD: The Monstrance is a book of poems, my first book of poems, that I wrote when I was falling in love with the woman who would become my second wife. It retells the story of our love through a kind of allegory that isn’t an allegory, not really. It attempts to explain how the free falls in love with the chained. How the monstrous becomes enamored of the sublime.
The Monster becomes a metaphor for how I see myself, and the Gypsy, how I saw the woman I loved then. The Master, Henry Frankenstein, is also me. So too the Lame Priest. All the characters, even the Gypsy, attempt to speak about the sublime, about love, about making love out of the nothing it comes from.
Can a monster love? I think, since the book is loosely based on the 1931 James Whale film, the answer must be yes. I cannot watch that film without crying. I have always been the Monster, and I have always been in love.
SC: This book comes back to the monstrous after a couple books away from the subject. What draws you to the monsters and the monstrous?
BD: I love monsters. Monsters love me. All my life I’ve returned again and again to the melancholy, to the monsters of the mind. It’s not that I am, myself, melancholy, but that I see it all around me and I find it beautiful.
Probably my mother taught me this. She has always been a sad, beautiful woman. I remember her at the dinner table, when I was six, talking about how she wanted to be buried.
But then, it wasn’t just her. My sisters showed me monster movies by the gross. They, too, turned up sad sometimes. And my father? He still lives with my mother, he still loves her. She wants anything but him. This is both beautiful…and sad.
I’ve been raised by melancholy, breastfed by it, groomed and guided by its dark and lovely light. It has, I hope, not made me, the man, a melancholy beast, but it has, I hope again, given me enough insight to make it mean something miraculous when to that darkness I attend.
SC: Do you have a publication date and information for readers about where they can get the book?
BD: The Monstrance will be out sometime in the next month or two. The book will be coming out from Belfire Press and it will be available through their website or on Amazon.
SC: What’s coming up next for you? Do you have releases that are on the horizon beyond Monstrance?
BD: WordFarm, the press for my most recent book, The Assumption, appears to be interested in reprinting Krypton Nights. However, this won’t simply be a reprint; it will be a double book, pairing Krypton Nights with its companion volume, Amazon Days. One book about Superman, one book about my wife, my new life, Gina. If all goes well, in about a year, they will appear under the title Single Bound.
SC: What are you writing right now? Any summer projects you want to talk about?
BD: Right now I am revising a manuscript of poems titled Another Reel, I’m finishing a collection of Batman poems titled Gotham Wanes, I’m still shopping around my scholarly monograph on Wonder Woman, and I’m just beginning the second draft of a science fiction/horror novel titled At the Latitudes of Lohse. I also have a children’s epic poem, The Lost Sea of Sighs, that still needs a home. So many projects, so much time. I couldn’t be happier with the way things are going.
The biggest project on my plate, of course, is revising the novel. It’s a re-imagining of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, set in space. It tells the tale of a man who has lost his father, who regains him (if only as an implant in his head), and who faces losing him again to aliens intent on stealing the minds of every human on Earth. Ultimately, like much of my personal writing, it’s about my father who has Alzheimer’s, but it’s also about books and philosophy and poetry… It’s about space and time and the sublime. It’s been a long time since I started my first “novel” after watching Dr. Dolittle. I just hope I’ve done justice to the words I serve, to the monsters that called me then.
SC: Where do you see yourself as a writer and a poet down the road?
BD: I see myself at a roadside Stuckey’s, buying a plastic alligator and a couple of monster rings. Maybe some pez.