“The grotesque is what repulses and attracts you at once”: An Interview with Dylan Krieger

Clare Welsh

In Metamortuary, Dylan Krieger explores the grotesque in regard to modern transformations, whether it’s the gender binary, the environment, or the transformation of self. Krieger is also the author of The Mother Wart (Vegetarian Alcoholic 2019), No Ledge Left to Love (Ping Pong 2018), dreamland trash (Saint Julian, 2018), and Giving Godhead (Delete 2017).

In this interview, we discuss Krieger’s writing style, the need to express the grotesque in today’s political climate, and her thoughts on her seemingly boundary-free writing.

Metamortuary is a modern-day reimagining of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” an epic poem that tells the story of the creation up to the death of Julius Caesar. As a reimagining of Ovid’s piece, what was your goal writing this book? How does it relate to this original text?

When I started writing Metamortuary, I wanted to craft a catalogue of uniquely modern kinds of metamorphoses—industrialization, global warming, plastic surgery, etc.—that Ovid couldn’t have foreseen. In this way, it’s less a reimagining than a shared framework or taxonomy. Where Ovid seems most concerned with preserving a literary body of myths, Metamortuary is more concerned with transformations that challenge or feel impossible to reconcile with the cultural myths on which we were raised. 

In more than one of your poems in your new book Metamortuary, you mention the idea of “twoness” in regards to identity. For example, in “girl, overdetermined,” you write about “ a double-sexed child”; in “the uncloset,” you write “i arrive doubly baptized”; in “yasss tiresias,” you write “your form may be born twice”; and in “girl, self-determined,” you write “i never swim the same self twice.” Can you talk a little bit about the twoness of identity?

The first section of Metamortuary (“DANGEROUS MEAT”) focuses specifically on bodily transformations, which include grappling with the grossly insufficient “gender binary” most of us have internalized. Ultimately, mutually exclusive oppositional binaries don’t serve us well—whether in gender, politics, or ethics—because they breed divisive and often hateful thinking. However, I think it’s important to recognize that, when you’re still trapped within the binary mindset, the most powerful tool you may have is exercising a sense of “bothness.” 

For example, after I lost my religion in college, it took me several years not to think of myself as “lost,” “immoral,” or “sinful” for renouncing my former beliefs. I was still thinking according to an oppositional binary, so I started taking back the language and embracing my “lostness” as a virtue in its own right. It, like us, can be both. This helped me ease off the self-criticism until I was deconditioned enough to see there were more than two sides. 

The poems in Metamortuary are split up into four sections, DANGEROUS MEAT, RAW WAR, QUIET CATASTROPHES, and ETERNAL END-TIMES. What was your thought process in setting up these four sections? Was there a system that you had in order to categorize the poems that went into this book?

I started writing Metamortuary directly after The Mother Wart (Vegetarian Alcoholic 2019), which also has four subheadings and betrays a temporary obsession I had with outlining books of poetry in advance of actually writing them. I’d essentially write the entire table of contents before writing a single poem. That method actually fell apart in the final section of Metamortuary—a final ironic transformation of the text itself–when I started reorganizing and rewriting the titles in my original outline.

But originally, the four sections were organized according to types of transformation: the physical individual (DANGEROUS MEAT), the cultural landscape (RAW WAR), the physical landscape (QUIET CATASTROPHES), and the psychological individual (ETERNAL END-TIMES). The titles encapsulated the types of small-scale and large-scale transformations I wanted to explore in the book.

I especially find myself intrigued by your poem “to love is to fail.” It has such a different tone than a lot of the other poems in Metamortuary. Even though it is about love, it has a very realistic, non sugar-coated feeling to it, which is really honest.  What made you choose to put this poem here? What do you think it helps contribute to this overall collection of poetry?

As corny as it may sound, the final section of Metamortuary may have gone off the rails of my outline thanks to something rather embarrassing: I fell in love. Of course, there are many psychological transformations I initially planned to explore in this section, but falling in love, accepting powerlessness, and thereby accepting death turned out to be the major themes. “To love is to fail,” in particular, was born as an actual love letter, and it sets a tone of bold vulnerability I don’t think appears in other sections. In a sense, the text itself “matures” and looks beyond the playful lyric “I” of earlier sections to a more serious supplication of an epistolary “you.” 

Although this maturation may fight against the book’s internal unity, it seems apt for a book dedicated to transformation. 

I personally identify as a sort of confessional writer. I write a lot about my personal life, and things a lot of people consider “taboo,” and find myself having a hard time setting a boundary in what to write about. I see that you do something similar in your writing. You write about explicit coming of age stories, as well as topics including uncensored sexuality.

Do you consider yourself a confessional writer? Do you find yourself setting a boundary in what is “okay” to write about? If you have a set boundary, how did you find one in which you were comfortable with? 

I don’t usually identify as a confessional writer, but only because I think it places too large a burden of truth-telling on the poet. I absolutely intersperse my poems with extremely personal stories and details, but to call them confessional would seem to guarantee their “truth,” or nonfictional status in waking life. Poetry feels too thickly symbolic to guarantee historical accuracy. But maybe that’s just what I tell myself in order to keep my writing process boundary-free. There are certainly topics and types of language I find boring or otherwise unstimulating in poetry, but I don’t think I have a personal boundary on “what not to write”—as scary as that may sound. Luckily, the people who are most likely to be hurt or offended by my overly personal poems—my parents and my exes—don’t usually read my work.

In a previous interview with Kenyon Review, you say that you consider your poems fitting into the “Gurlesque” tradition.  Gurlesque has been defined as poetry written by women who perform and react to their femininity and push the boundaries of expected female behavior. What is this tradition to you, and how do you see your work fitting into this tradition?

When it first emerged, the Gurlesque was everything I ever wanted in a poetry movement: Funny, sexy, boundary-pushing, and punk. I emphasize “punk” not only because Gurlesque was a term coined partially to pay homage to the Riot Grrrl movement, but because the punk mentality of making art loud, playful, and passionate rather than “tasteful” is so refreshing in the literary world. I don’t think all my work would fall under the Gurlesque label anymore these days, but I’m still not afraid to say “fuck,” “pus,” or “cunt” in a poem, so punk isn’t dead quite yet.     

I’m an ambitious person planning to one day publish my writing. I see your output of having published five books within the last three years, and find this absolutely amazing. How do you find yourself publishing so frequently? Do you find that each of your books tackle a different topic or time within your life? How do you decide what poems go into a book?

After I got my M.F.A. in 2015, I was deathly afraid I wouldn’t find time to write anymore, so I made sure I continued to write at least one poem a week. In the beginning, these poems often stood alone and weren’t clearly designated as belonging to any larger project. But compiling my first book changed my creative process forever. There were so many issues with sequencing and transitions that could have been avoided if I had been writing with them in mind the whole time. That’s when I started outlining and trying to plan ahead for each new project, which required defining the scope of themes and major conceits.

My next book, Soft-Focus Slaughterhouse (11:11, forthcoming), for example, chronicles my personal experience with a chronic pain condition, which I hadn’t written about explicitly before. When I try to write an entire book “in order,” the ending feels obvious—I simply have nothing left to say. However, since writing Soft-Focus, my process has changed again to be even more “zoomed out,” as in larger than one book: I’m writing a poetry trilogy!

Metamortuary starts with a quote by Adrienne Rich that reads, “The moment of change is the only poem.” What is the idea of change in this case since you write about a lot of modern issues that many people tend to be desensitized from?

We’ve already touched on the punk roots of the Gurlesque, but this quote speaks to me about another of its forebears: the grotesque. People often think of this term as equivalent to “gore,” but that relegation tends to ghettoize an otherwise richly versatile and politically potent aesthetic tradition. The true through-line in the grotesque is exactly what Rich names: “the moment of change.” The grotesque body expands and contracts and secretes and absorbs and metabolizes and copulates. Far from a poreless marble statue, the body is volatile, permeable, and (on a long enough timeline) unsustainable. And maybe most surprising of all, that’s what makes it beautiful. The grotesque is what repulses and attracts you at once. I can only hope my work participates in that. 

On a related note, as you write about these modern controversial topics including the apocalypse, hints towards the #MeToo movement, and much more. I feel a sense of strong emotions towards the world in the tone of some of these poems. Do you see your poetry calling out today’s political world? 

I do, but print publishing is limiting in that regard. What’s timely today may not be timely tomorrow (try 1-2 years for a book), which forces me to push past the news headlines and ask deeper questions about what today’s “hot topic” movements actually represent—both personally and in a larger historical context. #MeToo is a buzzword, but rape doesn’t go away, and we need to keep talking about it loudly and in solidarity, which is what #MeToo is all about. 

Rape is depicted again and again in Ovid, it’s in my books, and it will keep appearing in literature because it’s a fundamental cultural tool of patriarchy. It reminds us that physical enactments of love and hate can overlap, which is so uncomfortable to admit we almost can’t bear it. And what better to both repulse and attract than the American standbys of sex and violence? For me, the grotesque is highly political, because it spotlights bodies normally shamed for their very existence. 

Sam Zimmerman is an aspiring writer and a junior at The College of Saint Rose. She is the current president of the English Club at the college, where she spreads her love for the English language. She reads anything she can get her hands on, even the boring stuff, and in her free time she writes poetry and starts to write novels she never finishes.

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