An Interview With Dylan Krieger
by Kimberly Sheridan
October 24, 2022
Dylan Krieger’s poetry is unflinching, grotesque, and beautiful. Her work tackles trauma, wrestles authority, and is a decadent sonic feast. The New York Times Book Review called Giving Godhead the best poetry collection of 2017 and noted that it “is easily among the most inventive and successfully performative works to appear in living memory.”
Krieger’s new poetry collection PREDATORS WELCOME will be published in 2023 by Limit Zero Publications. She is the author of Giving Godhead (Delete, 2017), dreamland trash (Saint Julian, 2018), No Ledge Left to Love (Ping Pong, 2018), The Mother Wart (Vegetarian Alcoholic, 2019), Metamortuary (Nine Mile Books, 2020), and Soft-Focus Slaughterhouse (11:11, 2021).
Krieger is based in South Louisiana. She earned her BA in English and philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and her MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University.
It was an honor to meet with Dylan virtually where we discussed titling poems, the fake line between pornography and art, publishing with small presses, and why no album pairs perfectly with her new collection.
Read a poem from her new book here.
Your new collection is PREDATORS WELCOME. There seems to be a surrendering to demons, a grim pleasure, and maybe an embrace of nothingness and the liberation in that. Can you tell us more about this collection and the progression from your last book about chronic pain to this one?
Yes, I do think there’s a surrender to demons. I do think that pretty much everything you’ve said in your assessment is true and I would agree, but I guess I would start with Soft-Focus Slaughterhouse to tell the narrative of the progression. I still think that book is maybe the hardest thing that I’ve done as far as writing just because most of my writing has had this intellectual bent: With my first book, we’re delving into the ideas behind fundamentalist Christianity; with my third book, we’re delving into thought experiments and philosophy. So I feel like most of my metaphors come from the tenor of the metaphor being in the realm of ideas and the vehicle of the metaphor being in the physical realm. So I’m using particulars as a metaphor a lot. That’s pretty normal. I know that I’m not weird in that way. But I was definitely kind of disturbed by the process of writing about physical pain because the tenor is also the physical realm. How can you make a metaphor where both are physical and it still makes sense? It was very hard to write in a formal way, in constructing metaphors for the body without just using other bodies as metaphors.
I was also aware of the fact that talking about pain and talking about your specific plight, medically, can get really solipsistic—where you’re only considering your own experience and just recounting it. The way that I felt like I got out of that in Soft-Focus was by writing about how it impacted relationships as well. So I was actually writing a lot about other people who had attempted to fix me, or take care of me, or misunderstood what I was going through and how that damaged our relationship. I felt like that led me naturally to think, Actually pain is not the only thing that impacts my relationships in a negative way; what else impacts my relationships in a negative way? In that pursuit to understand negative things that were happening in relationships at the time, I was thinking about family trauma—and I think PREDATORS WELCOME is really about trauma in many different forms and the reenactment of trauma that we do, where we’re not just simply a victim anymore. Since we’re reenacting, it’s like we’re both the victim and the bad guy. It gets messier as we get older.
The main gist of the manuscript was exploring reiterations of trauma in different kinds of relationships and in myself, but on a larger level, talking about the predatory. I got to a place of heady thinking about the human species in general—that we are predators and our favorite pets are predators and that’s sort of what we understand best. Even when we’re just playing and we’re not doing anything morally condemnable, most of the ways that we interact are kind of this cat-and-mouse game, where one person is really pursuing something and the other person might be on the defense; we just fall into these roles of predation. I became fascinated with this idea that we all kind of have to live with being predators and what that means to us. That’s what carried the manuscript beyond just family trauma, which I feel only goes so far. You don’t want your audience to just be you. Envisioning a larger audience, I started to think of it in terms of the second section of the book, IF YOU WERE RAISED BY THE SAME WOLVES I WAS. If you have this experience in common with me, then you’ll relate. Even if you didn’t, our species is still saddled with this burden in a larger sense anyway. In a way, it comes full circle back to Giving Godhead. Religious trauma is a part of my family trauma, but religion itself is not a huge part of PREDATORS WELCOME. What was the base impulse behind the controlling kind of milieu of home? Going beyond religion, I think it was this kind of predatory game that everyone plays with each other.
In an interview with X–R-A-Y Literary Magazine, you noted that you’d outline a manuscript and have the poem titles first, and you’d use them as prompts. This collection has three parts and the second part seems born out of the same prompt and the poems in the section all have the same title. The third part has beautiful long titles that are like their own one-line poems: “YES, BLACK HOLE, I TOO AM AN ALL-DEVOURING PERVERSION OF STARLIGHT COLLAPSED INTO A SINGLE GRAVITATIONAL POINT.” Tell me more about your titling!
Yes, I did work with the pre-titling technique for many manuscripts and it was very productive. I still would use that as a creative-writing teaching tool. If words are just coming and you’re already being productive, then there’s really no reason to think that far ahead and write all your titles in advance. I had to plan like that because I was not always confident about whether I could make a whole book out of a given idea. Pre-titling is a writer’s block hack to me. I stopped using the pre-titling technique sometime around Soft Focus Slaughterhouse. I had started publishing those manuscripts that had pre-titling, and many publishers saw the tables of contents and were like, “This is a poem,” since the tables of contents were written in advance, and the poem titles flowed into each other…. They could tell that I had written it in advance. It is its own poem.
What are the boundaries of a title? I started thinking about it more as far as what I’m looking for in a book title versus what I’m looking for in a poem title. I even have silly conversations with my friends where we make up fake bands and fake albums and fake songs. And there’s always a tiering process that goes on where the best, catchiest name is the band name. And then, you know, the song could just be a single word. You’re prioritizing and making a hierarchy. I felt like the hierarchy was limiting and I wanted every poem to have as good a title as a book. I felt when I met the “IF YOU WERE RAISED BY THE SAME WOLVES I WAS” title, I was like, This is a really long title, but I feel like I could write to this forever; I could write 100 poems called this or that started this way. So I was like, Yeah, it’s gonna be the title of every poem, but it’s also the project, and it’s also everything that I’m writing to. PREDATORS WELCOME is really a trilogy. I did write the sections separately, not knowing that they would go together until I was done. So the second part, SAME WOLVES, is the section that started to challenge the title hierarchy.
When I got to the third part, AFTER NEVER HAPPENS, I just went in the opposite direction. Instead of making it all to one title, every title would be its own poem. You’re absolutely right to call it a one-line poem, but it also attempts to interact with the poem itself and fails sometimes. That’s important to me: I was trying to get across in AFTER NEVER HAPPENS the way that the past influences and weighs on the present. It can’t easily be summarized by a title or by anything else, and if you try to summarize it, you’ll end up just rambling. And that’s sort of what the titles do. It’s like, “This is how we got here, but I actually can’t explain it.” There’s no reasonable explanation for how we got here, actually; but here’s my best attempt. I had a lot of fun playing with satirizing news headlines, essentially—they’re often long, contain a lot of really surprising details, and are always in the present tense. So yes, I feel like the titles in AFTER NEVER HAPPENS are definitely intentionally unwieldy. I love long titles. I think I’m kind of a maximalist or at least I like maximalism. As much as minimalism is satisfying on an aesthetic level and I’ve nothing against people who engage in minimalism, it doesn’t seem as honest about the time period we’re living in now. If you’re concerned with timeliness, maximalism communicates what we’re all going through. I really like the long line and the long title to the point where it’s hard for me to publish a book in a normal six-by-nine format. I kind of want to publish a short, wide book because my lines just go so long. [Laughs]
You had an OnlyFans where you combined your poetry with nudity and I know from your interview with The Big Smoke that it felt like a symbiotic relationship, a natural outgrowth of what you were up to, and very much part of your literary work. I love that you could integrate parts of yourself and your creativity instead of fragmenting or hiding. Is that a project you have continued? What’s the evolution since that 2021 interview or have you pivoted in new creative directions?
I recently took a university job, so OnlyFans has taken a backseat for now. But I still engage in erotic writing and I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing that. I loved working on OnlyFans. The engagement I was getting there was great. My 2021 interview in The Big Smoke covered some of that, but it was mostly a defense of sex work. What I really enjoyed about OnlyFans is that people, the people who followed me, got it. They really got the aesthetic marriage of eroticism and poetry. They would often tell me they were more interested in the combination of poetry and sex work than in sex work by itself. It was a really interesting marriage because it seems to attract a specific type of follower—one who would never say anything like, “Don’t read poems, I just want to see your tits.” I wasn’t getting that response, which was wonderful. People seemed to really understand that it was performance art. It was fun to explore that platform, because being in academia is great, but it cultivates a critical lens that you’re always looking through at creative work. To be an English teacher, like I am now, I have to read criticism, and I love to read theory. But I do feel like the “inner critic” can be a problem when you’re trying to be creative, because it often just discourages innovation. The critic will be like, “Well, where does this fit in with other literature? What are you doing?” And the creative is like, “I’m making something new, bitch, shut up!” [Laughs] So sometimes I want the critic to turn off and I did feel like that was easier when I was living my art and not really being a critic at all. That’s what was nice about just doing the online stuff. I would often use it as a way to edit; I would go back through a manuscript, edit poems, pick out the sexiest little couplet from a poem, film a quick video for OnlyFans, and then go back to editing. It was a way to live out what the work was talking about. Though having a critic’s eye is very useful, it also can get in the way. I sometimes wish I could delete the “critical distance” of academia and just get uncomfortably close to what inspires me.
I love to hear that you had a good experience. Maybe we think in binaries or in the way society has trained us: there’s sex work here and there’s art over there…. There’s actually a desire for all sorts of different creative marriages. Maybe we’ve created these false categories….
I feel like I got a lot of questions about the sex work that were like, “Why are you doing this?” Like, everyone thought I was more intellectual than this, like it was beneath me or something to them. However, in my mind, it was a natural progression from the theories and poetics I had learned in undergrad and graduate school. I went to Notre Dame for undergrad, and I studied poetry under Johannes Gorannson. In classes, he would talk all the time about this false dichotomy between pornography and art, and how there actually isn’t a distinction—it’s the self-designated “tastemakers” of culture who tell us where this line is drawn, and we shouldn’t actually trust those people to define art for us.
I often contrast art with propaganda, but I don’t contrast it with pornography. There is pornographic literature whose sexual content certainly does not detract from its artistic merits. I feel like the kind of creative writing instruction I grew up with very much aligns with this thinking. Like, I’m not even rebelling. [Laughs] I’m actually doing exactly what all my creative writing professors told me to do in a way. Not all of them, but I feel like Johannes wouldn’t mind me name-dropping him in that context, because he still very much champions poetry that defies traditional “tastemaking.” I don’t think he would regret me remembering the lesson that there’s not a really hard line between pornography and art.
Art is arguably supposed to push boundaries, but often it’s criticized while it’s happening and then glorified later when people come around to that idea. And also, it feels like the old sexist notion that you can’t be brainy and sexy at the same time.
Yeah! That’s another false dichotomy that people have trouble dismantling. [Laughs] Their heads are all exploding.
You have an MFA in creative writing and sometimes writing programs can provoke mixed emotions. Did you feel stifled at times, expanded and encouraged, or just indifferent to their opinions if you felt strongly about a trajectory? I’m curious if you did any “breaking free” of any perceived writing-world expectations post-graduation. It sounds like many of your teachers were on the same page as you, but I’m curious about your experience.
I didn’t feel stifled but I did feel slightly misunderstood at times. With my thesis project, which was Giving Godhead, I got some reactions from people who were not raised with any kind of religious upbringing, so they didn’t really understand why I was dedicating so much air-time to something I didn’t believe in. Like, “Why are you drawing so much attention to Christianity when no one here believes it? Who are you arguing against?” It wasn’t a real issue to them, but fundamentalist Christianity is still alive and well in the US. So I felt like that was the type of person who just didn’t “get” my project. It wasn’t that they were hostile to me or that they did anything scarring. It was more like they didn’t get why I was drawn to the subject matter or who my audience was. I was really writing for my people back home, people like me who had been raised in toxic Christian environments, whether they were homeschooled like me or not, and who still struggle with thought patterns that come from Christianity. Even if you’ve abandoned the actual formal religion and you don’t go to church anymore, you’ll still think this way. You’ll still feel guilty about things even when you don’t have any formal text telling you to feel guilty about them. You’re not reading the Bible anymore, you’re not listening to sermons anymore, but you still feel the guilt. The guilt is internalized. The shame is internalized. Thinking that someone is gonna save you is internalized and you just have to live with that forever. It doesn’t go away. After never happens. So I did think it was still important to write the book, but I had to gain the awareness that it had a rather specific audience. The only fear lurking in that mindset is that I might be forever pigeonholed as “niche” and be denied a broader audience, because that was the conclusion about my first manuscript.
I don’t think that’s true of all my manuscripts—that they’re completely inaccessible to someone who hasn’t gone through religious trauma—but I do think my experience in an MFA program made me think of myself as a bit of a rebel and someone who didn’t fit in. Everyone else was submitting to The National Poetry Series and aiming to be a keynote speaker at AWP, and I felt like that probably wasn’t for me. I dubbed it the “prom queen ambition,” and I never wanted to be prom queen, so why would I wanna be queen of conformists in writing?
I was very happy to just publish with independent presses, which confused a lot of people. They were like, “Why don’t you move up to a university press or something?” And I was like, “Well, I love these people. I found my weird kids’ table.” And I don’t know if I’ll eventually regret that or not. These independent presses are not sugar daddies. They’re not going to pay you hand over fist and you’re not going to get all the accolades immediately. I feel it exposes me as the type of person who would marry for love and not money. [Laughs] I always compare the publication contract to marriage and I always think of it like, “Who would I actually wanna marry?” And it’s usually the weird small press. I started using these prom and marriage analogies in graduate school to explain what made me a little off-mainstream.
Yeah, maybe that’s liberating. I think sometimes the reason MFA programs can give mixed emotions is that it can be paralyzing for people who think in terms of perfectionism or reaching certain goals and then they end up just…not doing things. It feels like you forged ahead, found your people, kept writing, and didn’t fall prey to some of those things which are not always positive for art making.
There are a couple of different avenues that you can go down, right? I have one writer friend who said, “You know, maybe don’t be so prolific—just keep writing as much as you do, but then cut a lot of stuff to make the manuscript your very best poems, and years down the line, submit it to the big dogs.” The only reason I wouldn’t take his advice is that I’ve seen people sit on the same manuscripts for ten years, honing and perfecting the poems, but then they end up having to publish it with an indie press anyway, because it’s still not conformist. So I feel like I would be one of those people who would sit on the manuscript for ten years and try to shop it around—and spend an arm and a leg, by the way, because submitting to The National Poetry Series is very expensive—and then I would probably come crawling back to my home base anyway.
Maybe that’s unambitious of me. I’m a weird mix of ambitious and unambitious because I keep writing and getting ideas for new projects, but I don’t think I’m ambitious in the traditional sense of publishing, where you want to be with Penguin or no one, you know? It’s like a relic of the past, where you basically wanna be on the same press as your heroes immediately. But I don’t think my heroes lived in the same literary landscape that we live in now. We live in the age of YouTube, quick fame, and quick loss of fame, and Andy Warhol predicted it. [Laughs] It’s like a literary post-apocalypse, where you can be hot for five minutes, but almost no one is as famous as Eliot or Ginsberg or whoever.
I love hearing that people taught my work or are reading my work or are telling their friends about the work. That’s great, because no one’s telling them to teach it. It’s not part of the canon that they’re supposed to teach. They just like it, and it becomes this weird monster of guerilla marketing and word-of-mouth recommendations. It doesn’t come with the ethical baggage of being in a canon that by definition excludes other people. You know, I’m not sure if I wanna be a part of some little ingroup that excludes everyone else.
Speaking of being prolific, you release about a book a year. Can you give us a peek into what your writing process looks like? Do you write every day or have any kind of structure around creating?
I really don’t have much of a consistent ritual anymore, but when I wrote PREDATORS WELCOME, I did. For a long time at my old job, I would try to write one poem every weekday. I would still give myself weekends off to recharge. I never found it sustainable to write every single day, except when I was trying to write fiction—then it kind of makes sense because you’re trying to stay in the fictional world. In graduate school, I developed a habit from workshops of writing one poem a week, and I felt like that was much more sustainable. Even when I was writing a poem every weekday, I was like, “This can’t last; I can’t keep doing this; I’m gonna run out of ideas; I’m gonna burn the fuck out.” So I knew I was gonna burn out but I did write PREDATORS WELCOME during that time when I was just full of one-liners that would get me going. I think the titles of AFTER NEVER HAPPENS signal that—this one weird line or idea is all I need and then I can go from there and make something out of it. It was a unique time as far as productivity goes. I feel like I did slow down during the pandemic, but I have still been trying to write that one poem a week. That’s how I maintain.
As far as being prolific, what really helps me is writing toward a larger project. I think I would throw away and leave a bunch more poems on the desktop if I didn’t know that I was writing a project and trying to explore that theme consciously. Even though I don’t have a title right now, I’ve been writing—since I have a real job again—about “work and other purgatories.”
I often write about the idea of authority in one form or another, whether it’s religion, philosophy, a boss, or even nations/governments. I wrote a manuscript during the pandemic called No One Is Daddy. “Fuck authority” is such a mantra in my work, and I’m trying to get much deeper than that, but critiques of working conditions in the US are getting more serious, like the anti-work Reddit phenomenon, and all this increased consciousness about how much capitalism can abuse us as workers. It’s a class-conscious manuscript, hopefully. I always find myself picking on authorities or at least picking on the propaganda that we’re supposed to accept from them.
I can’t wait to read that next collection. This interview is for Abandon Journal. What role does abandon play in your writing?
I’m assuming it’s used as a noun, but I could go either way as far as using it as a verb or a noun. I feel like there’s a lot of abandoning of structures—abandoning organized religion or long-accepted ideas in western philosophy. I’ve always been about abandoning cultural modes of thought that are very common but are no longer useful. How that fits in with abandon as a noun is that it leaves you with a kind of uncertainty, a beautiful uncertainty if you do abandon those structures of thought. There’s a revelry in chaos that I enjoy in art and that I feel when I’m writing. To me, that is the type of abandon where you’re perfectly fine to leave behind all of the structures that you were previously familiar with and just go and see what happens. Fuck around and find out.
What song or album pairs best with your new collection?
This is the hardest question. Nothing perfectly fits. I loved writing poems that were really inspired by songs back when I wrote Giving Godhead. I’m pretty sure I even made a playlist for that book. But now it’s hard to put my finger on. When I was thinking thematically about the wolves, I thought of the old Phosphorescent Pride album. And yeah, thematically that works—but I’m not sure if it’s the right mood. The mood would have to be something more playful because there are moments of comedy in the manuscript even though it’s heavy. It’s also light sometimes.
I think the reason why I find it hard to pair an album to the manuscript, and the reason why I find it hard to write to music, is that the poem is the music for me. If you’re writing music, it’s hard to listen to music without it clashing. In my mind, it’s not a pairing; it’s not an accompaniment; it just clashes.
I used to find it so fun as a teenager to put on some instrumental moody music and then write, but when I would read it out loud later, I realized it only worked with the accompaniment still playing in the background. I was always writing a chant that went with the music and it was only emotionally impactful if you read it with the music. So I abandoned that way of writing because I actually take music too much into account. It leads you to believe it’s perfect, but it actually just would’ve been perfect if they put your poem in the recording of that music.
That said, I am completely surrounded in my writer-friend group by musicians, former radio show hosts, and people who really started in music and then drifted to poetry after that. I was definitely writing songs as a kid before I got into poetry. I think I have some kind of synesthesia problem where often I will hear language and think it’s music or hear music and think it’s language. Sometimes if a musical phrase goes up at the end, I think, “Oh, that’s a question. That’s a cute question that the guitar just asked.”