Interview with Sierra DeMulder
Two-time National Poetry Slam winner, Sierra DeMulder (she/her), discusses her books We Slept Here (Button Poetry, 2015), Today Means Amen (Andrews McMeel, 2016), and her forthcoming collection, Ephemera (Button Poetry, 2023). Since 2004, Sierra DeMulder has dazzled her family, friends, and fans with her raw vulnerability, and radical acceptance of the impermanence of it all—the kismet, the magic, the dirt in every garden—the imperfection. This interview was conducted on 10.04.2022 on Zoom by Lin Flores (she/they).
Lin Flores: You are a poet who has accomplished many feats. From co-founding Button Poetry to publishing four books, including We Slept Here in 2015, and Today Means Amen in 2016. In 2018 you started your hit podcast, Just Break Up available on Spotify and Apple Music. Can you tell me about your journey and how it all came to be?
Sierra DeMulder: In my first year in my undergrad, I discovered spoken word. I was immediately enamored with it. It was live, vulnerable, and performative. I started writing with the stage in mind and this was back in 2004 before YouTube was the global phenomenon it is now. I found my first poetry community when I was twenty. It was magical. My poetry team in Twin Cities, Minnesota went on to win the national poetry slam competition. That was the first steppingstone to what I can now identify as my poetry career.
When we talk about the origins of Button Poetry and of my work, I have to give credit to Derek Brown and Write Bloody Publishing for seeing that spoken word poets are amazing writers first, and then they are great performers.
I went on to make a living as a touring performing poet for five-plus years. In addition to co-founding Button Poetry—it is now the largest digital distributor of spoken word. I went on to publish four books and stepped away from Button. I shifted my energy when I started the podcast, I needed a creative break.
Flores: What has surprised you most about all of this?
DeMulder: Well, you’re getting me at a sentimental moment, I am thirty-six now, just had my first baby this past year and I am realizing how fast time moves. What is most surprising is that I am here! It was what I was meant to do—I was so enamored by the art form that I always equate it to Wile E. Coyote running off of the cliff, and when I was twenty and I discovered spoken word, I ran off the cliff and never looked down. I am surprised that it has taken me this far. I am so grateful for all the opportunities and the stages and the readers that I’ve had.
Flores: So, would you say, you’ve looked down? Or have you not looked down yet?
DeMulder: I feel like I have a little over the last couple of years because when you are a spoken word poet professionally, performatively, you end up having to function like a musician, meaning you have to play the classics. I was disenchanted with performance because I knew in order to pay my bills, to get the shows, I had this setlist of poems I would have to perform and I wasn’t writing the same type of poems that would get me the shows.
Flores: What advice would you give young poets, performative or not?
DeMulder: It’s too high of an ask of yourself to demand your work be perfect before you let other people see it. None of us are perfect writers. It is enough right now in its imperfect state. Our art form is one of exchange—it is an energetic exchange, it’s an emotional exchange, it’s a literary exchange. We need readers and listeners. You are worth reading and listening to.
Flores: So, exploring this idea of vulnerability, I wanted to talk about the book that you published in 2015, We Slept Here. “Uninhabitable” is a powerful poem you included in both We Slept Here and Today Means Amen. This is one of my favorite poems. Tell me about it. It’s fascinating because there’s an epigraph that opens WSH: “the landscape / after cruelty is, of course, a garden.” So why did you choose this? And did it happen before or after you wrote “Uninhabitable”?
DeMulder: I’ll speak quickly about the book—We Slept Here is my third book. It’s more of a chapbook-length, there are only twenty to twenty-one poems in it. It is a themed book all about an abusive relationship that I endured and thankfully survived and me processing through that relationship years later. I talk about the [abusive] relationship in the book, but I also mention my father, my parent's divorce, and where I first saw relationship dynamics that were unhealthy. A reason I wrote this book is that I found myself as a writer, naturally returning to this relationship as if I still had poems left in me. I chose it after I wrote it. I wanted to have a quote at the beginning…this poem is so beautiful and this book is not just a bunch of sad poems, it is the full gamut of grief and healing. This book is about finding forgiveness for myself and understanding myself than the relationship.
Flores: Definitely. So, you included “Uninhabitable” in both collections, can you tell me about that decision?
DeMulder: WSH was my favorite. All my books were published in my twenties. For TMA, the publishers required forty poems from me, it was so many poems! So many poems. TMA reads less cohesively but more like a diary of my life. It talks about relationships, my family, and mental health… with a smattering of other…poems. The finesse I was able to accomplish in WSH because it was smaller and tighter, I wasn’t attempting to recreate in TMA. [“Uninhabitable”] was a poem I thought could stand on its own.
Flores: One of my questions that speaks to what you were talking about earlier, is how this collection unfolded. There had been time between this relationship—how much time had [passed] before you decided this was a chapbook?
DeMulder: It had been seven years, maybe. Again, this relationship kept popping up. Part of the first poem reads: “a poet told me / to write about / you. Write it / out honey. / As if you were / a fever or / a horse to break. / As if you don’t / already show up, / uninvited, / unbeckoned, / into every poem./ Your hand / guides my wrist / as I write this, / even now.” The idea that seven years later this experience that I went through was still dictating my healing, my processing, my poetry, and instead of fighting it, I leaned into that experience to explore more about what this meant to me. Isn’t that life too? You don’t realize the impact something has on you until years later when you’re still unpacking what it truly meant in your life.
Flores: So, let's talk about TMA then. I saw that you moved away from couplets and did some different things as far as the variety. Can you speak to that?
DeMulder: I was trying to create a reading experience as cohesive as it could be with forty different narratives. It was my first time being published in a major press—I was focused on creating a book that had a feeling to it. It was a collection manuscript; the publishers said, “collect your poems and we will put the book out next year.”
Flores: Okay, so now that I know the background to why it is such a thick collection, and what the logistics were, what did you want readers to feel?
DeMulder: I like the cover. If you turn the photo, the original photo was this woman diving into the water, so I designed this cover myself. I liked the idea that you don’t know if she is diving in or out. This book reminds me of exploring and claiming yourself, exploring your depths. It felt like such a spread of me. I think of TMA as a short film into my twenties.
Flores: Let’s talk about TMA versus your new book because so much has changed since you wrote TMA. What can readers expect?
DeMulder: My next book is coming out this coming June! June 6, 2023. It is available for pre-order right now on the Button Poetry website. I am proud of this next book; it is called Ephemera. Ephemera is something short-lived, seasonal, or [something] that doesn’t last forever. I haven’t put out a book since 2016 so, there were poems from years ago that were important to me that I needed to fit into this book even though they were four or five years old.
Flores: Are they poems we haven’t seen then?
DeMulder: There are definitely poems you haven’t seen. There are no spoken word poems in it. It reads much more like WSH. There are four sections, and they follow four different themes. The arch of the book is [movement] from death to new life. The themes are seasonality, nature, death, life, [and] the fragility of time. I start the first section with poems about my grandmother's passing the first section is about endings. The second section is about my wife, who I reconnected with, married, and started our [lives together]. That section is about queerness, love, identity, and any familial tensions that came but choosing to be together despite time and tension. The third section is about when I experienced an ectopic pregnancy loss. This third section is about trying to get pregnant, death, loss, and experiencing what it is like to be someone who experiences a miscarriage or any suffering in the world. How do you move through this very temporary world and navigate all these feelings? The fourth section is about getting pregnant with my daughter who is now six months old. And now that I think about it, there is a fifth secret section that is just one poem which is the title poem of the book, Ephemera. The cyclical nature of life is what Ephemera is all about.
Flores: Accepting that suffering is part of life, that’s one of the principles of the noble truths. So, I was wondering if there were some influences there?
DeMulder: I used to have the four noble truths on my fridge all throughout college, so it definitely has informed me as a person. There was a lot of duality in my life over the last couple of years where I experienced extreme suffering and loss the same year my wife and I fell madly in love. When we got engaged and got married, we were so happy and so joyful while the pandemic was [unfolding] around us. Our first year of marriage, our first pregnancy resulted in a very traumatic pregnancy, loss, and emergency surgery. It makes you remember that to be fully present you have to hold all of this at once. Isn’t that so perfect for a poem? The best poems hold emotional tension in them. The best metaphors have two things that create some sort of tension. It was everywhere around us. It's about signing up to love someone temporarily. Our daughter is temporary, our love is temporary, my body is temporary, and how do you stay present and enjoy the season of your life, the ephemera of it all?
Flores: How did writing Ephemera challenge you?
DeMulder: It was hard to create the sections. It was challenging for me to find the thread, it was there, once I knew what it was. Something about me resisted the linear timeline of it—the death to new life. To open a book with a death is a little opposite of some literary approaches. I think Ephemera reads more like WSH than TMA. It was also difficult because I write about some family dynamics, that I have had to negotiate. And I remember you asking me in class, how do you write about a family member or how do you be your authentic self? And honestly, I have had to edit some of my poems away from their original authentic form to maintain these relationships. It was one of the first times I had to think about the consequences of publishing.