Interview with D.L. LANG
What drew you to submit to RED SKIES?
I appreciate any opportunity where my poetry can be used to support making the world a better place, and this anthology supports two worthy causes in the Canadian Mental Health Society and Native Women's Association of Canada. I’ve had my own struggles with mental health, and I recently found out that I have some Choctaw ancestry, so it’s a good fit on a personal level as well. I was also attracted to the title Red Skies. It reminded me of a day in September 2020 when the skies turned orange here in California due to all the fires.
How has 2020 impacted your life? Has it altered your creative habits?
It was difficult at first, transitioning from performing on stage multiple times a month as a poet laureate to the occasional Zoom open mic, but I’ve found a comfortable routine now. Though my meagre income and performance opportunities were largely obliterated, my writing practice has not suffered. Poetry has always been part coping mechanism for me, so the only way for me to get through hard times both personal and collective is to write about them.
The novelty of new experiences out in the community have inspired many of my poems because I am a social introvert, but one of the ingredients I need for creativity is long periods of solitude where I can follow my own curiosity because it allows me to slow down long enough to hear and transcribe my inner voice, and that has been the unexpected blessing of not being allowed to go out as much. In a world where communal spirituality, communication, and entertainment have gone virtual, I have been cutting back on my screen time since I don’t find the live streaming social media version of life as satisfying as the real thing. When I am not writing I watch the birds in my back garden, listen to music, or take a walk.
In 2020 I released my 13th poetry collection, This Festival of Dreams, yet without any in person readings, my sales languished, so I’ve decided to hold off on releasing another full collection until after the pandemic. Since travelling is out of the question I decided I’d see how many places in the world my poems could travel to via publishing instead. I’ve been super fortunate in that over 30 publications worldwide accepted my work in 2020, so instead of one collection, my poems are scattered across the earth.
What writers or artists are currently inspiring you?
Anything you spend time ingesting whether it’s an experience, music, or written word has the potential to spark inspiration. I read a lot of non-fiction and watch a lot of documentaries—biographies and history, mainly. Both knowledge and experience tends to swirl within and come out as poetry at some point. Poetry can make the mundane magical and demand the impossible come to fruition, so it’s hard to tell what will inspire me on any given day. My first poems were thinly veiled attempts at imitating the spirit and rhyming patterns of music that I was into at the time. I now I alternate between rhyming and free verse, but I am more interested in the message of a poem than its mechanics.
When I was just starting out writing as a teenager I loved those streams of countercultural poetry like the Beats that stretch your mind beyond what the status quo deems acceptable, and I still have a predilection in that direction. I enjoy reading poetry and listening to music that has a social conscience. Different periods of my life have been influenced by different artists. At one point or another the Beatles, the Monkees, Allen Ginsberg, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Weird Al, Monty Python, of Montreal, Dan Nichols, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, all had a large influence on me if not structurally, then philosophically. I am still discovering their many poetic counterparts. In my thirties it’s been a blend of all of that plus the many poets that I’ve been fortunate to know personally.
How has your writing process changed from your first published collection of poetry to your latest? What themes do you pull into your writing?
My first book took over a decade to write. I would write when I got inspired while juggling classes, work, and a social life—usually when I needed to process some strong emotions, but occasionally while daydreaming or meditating. I’d post them on websites, turn them in for school assignments, or they’d languish in notebooks. At the time I was really just concerned with preserving my writing because when I was in junior high I’d lost everything due to a computer crashing, and many of my paper copies had disappeared over the years. When I finally got around to making a proper book, it was very disorganized. I had to collect all these pieces of paper and files from junior high through my early 20s. That formed the basis of my first four books because I kept just finding more and more poetry that I’d written over the years when reviewing old journals or school papers.
Since 2015 my process has been more to collect whatever I have written across a year into one manuscript and when I reach between 100 to 150 pages I will edit and occasionally purge poems. The more well known I’ve gotten, the more discerning I’ve become about what I actually publish. I want to uplift, educate, inspire, and empower through my poetry, so I often toss out the more therapeutic, sad poems these days. My poetry in my thirties, starting with Poet Loiterer, has been a combination of being inspired by music or current events and writing occasional poems for events. In recent years I’ve moved more towards writing topical and protest poetry about the state of the world and less writing about myself unless I think I have something universally relatable or philosophical to say. Overall my work runs the gamut of human emotion and some dominant themes are spirituality, social justice, economics, nature, love, friendship, war, community, and peace.
Is community important to your work? Are there any small presses or magazines that you have a particular fondness for?
Yes, absolutely. I am grateful to be living in the San Francisco Bay Area where I am surrounded by a fantastic crop of poets coming from a variety of different cultural backgrounds who are skilled writers, charismatic performers, and often weave a social conscience into their work. I am going to refrain from name dropping only because between area poets laureate and local open mics, I know over 100 poets and wouldn’t want any of them to feel left out! They’ve influenced me to become more of a free verse performing poet. Prior to the pandemic I was regularly performing and connecting with my fellow poets in person, and I definitely miss that! Zoom will give you a slight performer’s high, but you cannot get the same level of personal connection and joyous energy as you can at a live open mic.
I also would not be as strong of a poet had it not been for my synagogue community who has nurtured and encouraged me to grow as a person over the past decade. I had my first performance at synagogue in 2014 and the musicians there saw something in me and even went so far as to serenade me in order to rekindle the fire of my dreams. I’m fairly new to submitting my work, and 2020 was an unusually successful year in that regard compared to previous years. Since I’d been focusing so much on performing, I’m still getting to know all the various outlets for written poetry, so I haven’t developed any favorites just yet.
Your poetry has been transformed into songs. What is that process like? What is the relationship between the two mediums?
My earlier poetry was structured with more traditional rhyming couplets and quatrains. I was very influenced by the musical rhyming patterns of song lyrics, so I think a lot of my poems lend themselves to becoming songs. I’ve always been really into music as far back as I can remember whether it was watching the Elephant Show as a kid in the ‘80s or delving into my parent’s record collection. As a kid I played the violin for five years, but I wasn’t tremendously good at it because I spent most of my spare time playing Beatles songs from a piano book instead of the classical I was supposed to practice for homework. I also used to be able to pick out popular melodies by ear using an electronic keyboard, and make electronic music on my computer. About a dozen of my poems have come to me as songs with a melody in tact, but while I am somewhat musical I don’t possess the necessary skill set to grow them beyond simple a cappella melodies myself, so I usually just keep the lyrics to publish as a poem, and the melodies fade away, and leave the music to the professionals.
I am blessed to know several talented musicians, some of whom were inspired to add melody to a few of my pieces. One such poem, “Last Chance Disaster,” came to me as a song circa 2004 as I was between classes at university. Later on my friend Jon Carrube took that and added his own melody, rhythm guitar, and tweaked the lyrics a little. We had recorded our own demo with Jon on guitar and I added some keyboard notes using Garage Band. That original version sounded more like an alt-rock song. In 2011 when I came back to Oklahoma for my high school reunion we reached out to my friend Greg “Grey” Perkins, an artist whom I have a long history with. I used to design his album covers for and hung around recording studios filming him for various documentary projects and music videos. Grey now owns a recording studio, and Jon and I came together to sing a duet for “Last Chance Disaster.” Though I love to sing, I’m certainly not a professional singer, so it took a few takes, but it was a lot of fun. Grey produced a few different versions of the song with fellow musicians Steven Harwood on piano and Mikey Harbour on drums, but my favorite version is just the simple folky one with Grey on guitar and Jon and I singing together.
Grey is currently working on a full length album of songs based on my poetry which will be out in a few years. A few years ago Grey had taken four of my poems and made a medley out of them called, “Oh, my Chameleon Perceptions.” Though I certainly have my favorite styles of music, I’m leaving him the creative freedom to transcribe whatever melodic visions he hears in his head associated with my words. Another friend Fred Ross-Perry who I know from my synagogue read one verse in my contributions to Juan Felipe Herrera’s 2016 communal poem La Familia, and transformed them into a cool Pete Seeger-esque peace song called “Peace will Come.” You can hear all of these for free by visiting poetryebook.com if you’re interested.