Interview: DeMisty D. Bellinger
October 1, 2020
Hello DeMisty, Thanks for doing this interview with Middle House. I know you from the literary Twitter sphere, but can you introduce yourself to the readers?
Thank you for inviting me! I’m a Milwaukee native, but now live in New England where I teach creative writing to undergraduate students (soon, I’ll be teaching graduate students when our certificate program opens up). I have an MFA and a PhD, but I still don’t feel like an academic. My chapbook, Rubbing Elbows, is out with Finishing Line Press and I have a full-length collection coming out with Mason Jar Press in 2021. Besides writing, I play viola (I’m pretty mediocre), piano (middling, at best), and video games. And I am happily married with twin daughters.
You write in multiple genres, is that something that you’ve always done? What was your first love as far as the big three (Poetry / Nonfiction / Fiction)?
I don’t know! I’m going to say fiction because I kind of remember writing fiction. I love reading in all genres but if I want to get lost in something, I’m going to grab a novel or a collection of short stories. Poetry is a close second, if not equal to fiction. I make a point to read poetry every day and I have more time to devote to poetry writing because of my demanding schedule and homelife.
I don’t think I’m a very good essayist. Though I love reading nonfiction, I struggle writing it. Nonfiction is the genre I go to when I have something to say as myself and cannot be obscured through fiction or verse, however creative that essay may be. I don’t find myself very interesting as a person or a thinker, so it’s not often that I do want to speak clearly through nonfiction. Most of the time, I can solve what I want to say via Twitter or in conversation.
You’ve talked about turning a short story into a poem in an interview in Speaking of Marvels. Have you always experienced writing with this fluidity to form?
That kind of revision is rare for me. Usually, I stick with one genre—like maybe this short story needs to be a novel or novella. That has happened twice. Or maybe this novel I’m planning is really just a short story, and that happens a lot.
I have been planning to write a novel about a 1920s expat in the Paris jazz scene, but I keep writing poems about or around her. I sometimes consider writing a novel in verse about her, but I’m still trying to figure it out.
When I teach intro to creative writing, which is a multi-genre class, I do invite students to take a piece in one genre and try it another. Some students are successful with this exercise and prefer the second genre.
Often writers are told to just start writing and not to worry about if something is good or not—get the words out. Do you think that when someone is versed in multiple genres, that fluidity is because they foremost let the words (or creativity) flow and rethink form as they work to make the piece work?
I think it depends on the writer. I know that answer sounds pat, but I can’t help that. Writing to write—to get the words out—can be great for some writers. Just like writing with a routine works for some folks. I am neither of those people. I write when I have an idea or premise or a line. Or, I write when people ask me for work (I wrote one of my best essays when an editor emailed me and asked for an essay. I wrote back and asked if they’ll take a short story and they said that they would not. So I wrote an essay). I write when I can.
But it sounds like that question is also about choosing genres. When I do sit down to write, I do have a genre in mind to fit the idea I have. With “Ladybird, Ladybird,” for instance, I was eating with chopsticks and wondered if someone could kill another person with chopsticks. I don’t know if they can and I don’t care if they can, but the second thought I had—why would someone kill a person with chopsticks—was the question I wanted to answer.
With prose poetry, my experience is that I rarely set out to write in that specific form. But my poems (if I’m using longer lines), or micros, settle into a form like prose poetry.
What do you think brings out the concentration of electric words in a specialized short form like short-shorts and poetry?
Rhythm. I think the rhythm dictates whether the poem would be prose or otherwise.
To get started with poems, I often start with a sonnet or couplets because they feel like good starting points. And I’m not strict in either form. If it goes longer than fourteen lines, then that’s fine. If I don’t have an equal amount of lines to fit a couplet, then that’s fine, too. I keep going until the poem says what it needs to say. During revision, I move lines and words around, cut and add, and will more often than not end up with something that is decidedly not a sonnet or in couplets.
I think it’s too daunting to sit down and write a poem without any parameters, so I start with the safety of a form. And in my classes, I introduce my poetry students to forms early on. Of course, a writer can change the form in revision or during writing.
But what you ask about “concentration of electric words” and how these are brought out, I think it’s the rhythm. It’s getting the words to sound out when they matter. We’re trying to get our readers to feel the musicality of our work without notation, and that’s hard. I know I’ve often wanted to put in notation, dynamics, or musical accents over some words, but we only have line and stanza breaks to depend upon.
Lastly, here, I think of prose poems or micro-fiction as little bits of conversation. Like, you’re sitting at a dive bar and the guy who’s twenty or thirty years older than everybody there turns to you and tells you something you didn’t ask to hear and you try not to laugh or shudder as he tells it and later, you’ll be thinking about that story when you finally crash and later still, you’ll remember the story and the guy.
What is a lesson about the writing life that you wish you knew then (as an undergraduate) that you know now (as a writer)?
Dude, it’s not about the money or the prestige of the journal. And as a poet or literary fiction writer, is very often not about any money at all!
Who was your most important professor and their lasting lesson?
Back at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Gianfranco Pagnucci, or as he was called—Franco or Pagnucci—used to ask me, “What kind of trees are growing in your yard?” He’d ask before class or after class or if I visited him in his office. I never had a straight answer and he’d say, “You got to know,” or something like that. He’d take our classes to wooded areas or next to the stream we had on campus and we’d write right there. He gave us rocks for a writing prompt. He pointed out things outside of ourselves. Much later, when I went back to my undergrad to work as an adjunct, he asked me if I remembered his asking me about the trees. He said, “You had to know about the world around you,” or something like that. “You had to be observant.”
What is your first memory, or project, where you committed yourself to writing?
I was always writing something, but in fifth grade, I joined the newly formed writing club. I went to an arts school and every kid had to join a club, which was serious and essentially like a major. There was (and is; the school still exists) music, drama, art, dance, and in fifth grade, they created writing. A select group of students formed the inaugural club of writers. There, I wrote and illustrated a book about a black alley cat who sang show tunes. His “The Hills Are Alive” was a showstopper. You see, I was going to be an illustrator writer and a violist in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, so I was only practicing.
None of my dreams came true. Thanks for the reminder!
Major influences to your fiction writing and do you separate the prose works that inspire you by
Writers? I don’t know how they’ve influenced me, but I enjoyed (and enjoy) reading Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Sherman Alexie, Tracy K. Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Camille Dungy, Langston Hughes, Angela Carter, Raymond Carver, and the patron saint of black fiction writers, Toni Morrison. This list is incomplete. Also, I know some of these people are now problematic, but I cut my teeth on their work. And I know that some of these are poets, but they tell their stories in their verse.
Then there are my parents and my maternal grandmother. They are great storytellers, even if all their tales are true.
Who are you reading lately?
I’m almost done with Friday Black by by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and with Miraculous Medal by Adrian Koesters. Next on my reading pile is Bird Box by Josh Malerman, Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body edited by Barbara Thompson (Hood Museum of Art and the University of Washington Press), and Stray Harbor by Rage Hezekiah.
Favorite Speculative / Horror / Fantasy film?
Alien, The Witch, and The Omen. I think I’m allowed to pick three!
You are very interested in Pop Culture. Do you think genre elements in Pop Culture, such as Afrofuturism, Speculation, Horror, and Fantasy, are challenging social issues?
Sure? I mean, these genres usually address pertinent issues such as racism, sexism, climate change and environmentalism, and fascism. This has been the case in Gulliver’s Travels and the British ruling class, with Godzilla and nuclear energy, Enemy Mine and racism, and The Parable of the Sower trilogy and fascism. A great recent example of a horror novel that addresses class, race, and sexism is Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. Then there are shows that incorporate pop cultural elements and address social issues, such as “The Twilight Zone,” “Black Mirror” and “American Horror Story.”