Q: Why do you write poetry?
A: I write poetry for a lot of different reasons. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I don’t talk about my emotions well, and it’s mostly because when I was younger, I was ashamed of what I was feeling, and I was afraid of it, too. As I grew up, I found myself in situations where showing emotion and compassion were met with various stages of physical and emotional abuse. At one point, my therapist suggested that I start journaling so I could open up a conversation with myself about what I was feeling in those moments, and I did, and I took to it, and I haven’t looked back since.
I searched for a really long time about what my subject matter and identity were as a poet, and then I read somewhere (or maybe heard it in the movie Sylvia) that Ted Hughes told Sylvia Plath that she was struggling so much because she hadn’t accepted that she was the subject of her work. It dawned on me then that I could write my horror as an outward reflection of myself while also giving voices to other characters who have fought their way back from their own versions of Hell.
People ask me all the time what poetry is and what my work in horror means, and to me, it’s always been about survival. I write poetry because I love the form—I love the raw, gritty, intensity of the line, and appreciate the silence and the scream of white space—but I write because it lets me breathe and heal, and most importantly, when I finish a piece, it reminds me that some fears and tortures can end, and that there’s always a new beginning around the corner.
I chose horror as a genre for a lot of the same reasons that I chose poetry as my main art form: it’s guttural, it’s honest, and it doesn’t hold back. It lets you see how monsters grow and it shows you why sympathy for the devil exists. Horror isn’t black and white—it’s a gray area, and it makes you question everything you thought you knew was an absolute: your religion, your morals, your heart. I have a hard time giving a firm 100% answer on anything in life because I see things from so many different angles, and I can appreciate the viewpoints and respects of those in those mind frames. Horror doesn’t make me pick—it lets me explore, and it doesn’t judge me if my choices are less than what most people consider beautiful.
Q: In various writings you have referred to Professor Michael Arnzen as a mentor. The HWA is trying to promote a mentorship program for its members. What did Arnzen or others you also consider as mentors help you accomplish? What importance do you place on mentorship in the field of writing poetry? What benefits to aspiring poets do you see from the HWA program?
A: I’ve been working with Mike for almost ten years now, and while there have been countless mentors and colleagues and friends who have helped influence and shape my work, Mike has been, and continues to be, my champion.
I first met Mike in 2007 when I started Seton Hill University as an undergraduate student studying
English Literature. He was my advisor, and I’ve always be the type of person who has to have a plan, so when we first sat down to meet, I told him what my dreams and aspirations were and he handed me a copy of Cemetary Dance Magazine and told me to pick up a copy of Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year so I could start to figure out what kind of horror writer I wanted to be. For the next four years, I studied literature in the scope of horror and wrote almost all of my criticism papers on the darkness that I found in the pieces I was reading. Arnzen introduced me to psychoanalytic criticism and the uncanny. He showed me David Cronenberg films and assigned me Jan Svankmajer. He never let me slack, and he always encouraged me to dig deeper, to look harder, and to never, ever stop writing.
When I started in SHU’s Writing Popular Fiction Program a month or so after I graduated with my BA, Arnzen wasn’t my official mentor (shout out here to William Horner and Scott Johnson!) but he still taught me and mentored me in my writing. I wrote essays for him on Cronenberg, and dissected text on why Norman Bates was one of my favorite psychopaths. We started doing poetry readings together, and soon after that, we started writing together, too. We battle/d prose poems and ran around Greensburg drinking too much coffee, and like all great mentors, he introduced me to some of my favorite authors at conferences and encouraged me to teach and present both my critical and my creative work.
Into my second semester of graduate school, I signed with Raw Dog Screaming Press, and then a few months after I graduated with my MFA, I sold my thesis novel, The Eighth, to Dark Regions Press. Now I’m teaching writing, and traveling, and working/selling my stories, and so much of that is because I had a mentor, and most importantly, a friend and a colleague who constantly told me that I could do it. Mentorship is so important because you have someone in your corner who wants you to succeed, and beyond that, is willing to help you succeed and is happy when you do so. Even now, almost ten years later, Arnzen is still the one person who knows my work and my vision the best, and he’s constantly encouraging me to reach new heights and set new goals. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him, and I hope that someday I can make as big of an impact on someone else’s life in the way that he did for me.
Q: Which poet, or poets, do you believe inspired you to both write poetry and emphasize dark poetry?
A: Growing up, I fell in love with Sylvia Plath and Edgar Allan Poe. I read them voraciously and fostered a true love of their words, madness, heartbreaks, and fragility. I wanted to bring that same torment to my writing.
Q: How do you define speculative poetry?
A: I’ve always defined speculative poetry as poetry that is fantastical in the sense of genre (SF/F/H). It can be formal verse, or free-verse, but an element of the otherworldly, the mythological, or the psychologically improbable should be present.
Q: Some poets claim to write entirely by inspiration, writing when the Muse calls on them. Others will attempt to write on a set schedule, sometimes daily, regardless of inspiration? Which are you and why?
A: I’m a little of both to be honest. I wear a lot of different hats in my life, and I make sure that I’m doing something writing-related every day, but that might not necessarily mean actual writing. I could be reading, researching, editing, marketing, etc., however I will say that once I’m headfirst into a project like I am now with The Widow Effect, that I write every day, and for a few hours a day at that. I don’t need the muse to write, but when she shows up and demands to be listened to, I pretty much put everything on hold for her. The one aspect of my writing life that is however, always consistent, is that I write at night. I’m a night owl and I can’t do anything until I’ve had like 2-3 cups of coffee in me, so I usually feel at my most creative at night when I’m properly caffeinated and the world is quiet.
Q: I have seen a number of references in your social media postings to music you enjoy. With the advent of rock music came the musician poet – Dylan, Tom Waites, Jim Morrison, Leonard Cohen, and so many others. Were you influenced in your writing by any such musician poets and do you believe that connecting with well written lyrical music can inspire a budding dark poet?
A: Oh my, yes. I’m very, very much inspired by music, and the musicians above have been great influences on my work. For each project I work on, I create playlists that further inspire the theme that I’m working with, and right now, my playlist is all of the above, plus Johnny Cash, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, and Patti Smith. Their lyrics are transcendental at times, and I’ve had cool, spiritual revelations while listening to them at different points in my life. I’ve read almost all of Jim Morrison’s poetry, and right now, I’m reading one of Patti Smith’s memoirs. I think, so much as artists, sometimes just knowing that we’re not alone in this world is important, and their work as artists and poets make me feel whole and hopeful and strong.
Q: Given the variety of subjects in your work, how do you set to craft a poem? Do you start with an inspired idea, an image, a concept or some other foundation for the piece? Or, do you put pen to paper and just see what emerges – relying on the ghosts from the Ouija board to craft the initial piece?
A: My process for poetry is usually very methodical, although of course, there are plenty of moments where I just put pen to paper and pour out emotion. Usually though, I craft my collections in alphabetical order because that’s how I write and structure the arc of my books. I write each letter of the alphabet down in a notebook, and come up with five titles for each letter while taking into consideration theme, arc, pacing, etc. It’s a very long, carefully throughout process, and I love doing it that way because it gives me great energy to start writing because now I have all these pieces to think about and it’s not just a shot in the dark for me each night when I sit down to write. I do something similar with my fiction, too, in that I write the poem version of the chapter/story before I actually write the prose.
Q: With an MFA you’ve had to find a place for your dark poetry in the academic field. What has been your experience in gaining academic acceptance outside groups such as the HWA or the Science Fiction Poetry Association?
A. I haven’t really tried a whole lot of avenues in the academic community for my work yet, but I’m working on a non-fiction project and exploring some different avenues right now, actually, that might gain results and open some new doors for me. More on that later!
Q: You are an editor for Raw Dog Screaming Press. What do you draw from that experience that helps you as a poet? Also, as an editor, and judge for this year’s Poetry Showcase, what errors and mistakes do you see poets continually making that you can advise HWA members to avoid in their submissions to the Poetry Showcase?
A: Editing for RDSP is a great outlet for me because I look at it as another way to teach. I get to help clients take a look at their work from another perspective, and in that process, I learn as much as them. We teach other what works and what doesn’t work, and it opens up a conversation about style, content, form, arc, etc.
I think some of the biggest mistakes that people make in poetry are that (1) they think that just because they put a lot of line breaks in something that it automatically makes it a poem and (2) recognizing that yes, while less is more, their words need to be tight, direct, and each one needs to hold as much weight as the other. As with fiction, it’s important to read a lot of poetry to understand the rhythm and styles of the art form.
Q: One of the reasons for limiting this year’s Poetry Showcase to members only is to encourage members to broaden their writing scope to try poetry which has a long and rich connection to horror? What would you recommend to the HWA member who normally writes fiction and wants write a dark poem to submit but may feel that poetry is out of their element?
A: Oh, I love this question because I often feel out of my element when I’m writing fiction, but having said that, I think writing fiction is important and it’s something that I’m passionate about, so I don’t worry about what anyone thinks, and I just do it and try to be the best I can be. If it gets accepted somewhere, that’s wonderful. If it doesn’t, then something wonderful still happens: I have a product to work with and learn from now. I think it’s important to push ourselves out of our comfort zones both in life, and in writing, because that’s how we find our voices and our stories. So yes! Write, submit, and try. At the very least, you’ll learn something about yourself and your writing. Growing as an artist is a necessary and vital part of the craft.
Bio: Stephanie M. Wytovich is an Instructor of English by day and a horror writer by night. She is the Poetry Editor for Raw Dog Screaming Press, a book reviewer for Nameless Magazine, and the assistant to Carlow University’s international MFA Program for Creative Writing. She is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and a graduate of Seton Hill University’s MFA program for Writing Popular Fiction. Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated poetry collections, Hysteria: A Collection of Madness, Mourning Jewelry, and An Exorcism of Angels can be found at www.rawdogscreaming.com, and her debut novel, The Eighth, will be out in 2016 from Dark Regions Press. Follow Wytovich at stephaniewytovich.blogspot.com and on twitter @JustAfterSunset