Andrew Demcak’s “Cryptopedia” is a collection that lives up to the mystery and intrigue promised by its title. “Cryptopedia” succeeds with that most fundamental and pleasing of poetic ideas: finding harmony between form and content. The 2017 Anzaldúa Poetry Prize finalist is a poet, a novelist, and, as he says, a “content creator in various forms.”
Demcak is a Renaissance man who works in unusual ways, cutting up blocks of text from a variety of sources and rearranging them, to create his poems. In “Cryptopedia” he mixes this method with the murky, monstrous and mysterious to create something unsettling yet genuinely moving and thought-provoking. Demcak’s success comes from his pitch-perfect subject choices and his ability to turn a seemingly random selection of lines and quotes into a twisting narrative, a short, emotive gut-punch. It takes talent to write poetry, but Demcak has proved he is not only a great talent, but a true craftsman.
Demcak’s poetry has appeared in a range of journals and we were lucky enough to have him share his craft, as well as some words of wisdom, with us at Newfound.
Josh King: Would you tell me a little about your writing life in general? Have you always considered yourself a poet? Did you study it, or just happen to fall into it?
Andrew Demcak: It’s funny now because I did consider myself to be primarily a poet until I wrote my first novel (“If There’s a Heaven Above,” JMS Books 2013) and I was already happy just writing poetry. Now I see myself as an author, a content creator in various forms. I have an MFA in English (Creative Writing/Poetry) from Saint Mary’s College of California. I studied with Brenda Hillman and her husband, Robert Hass. I’ve always been interested in language. I grew up in a house full of limericks, dreadful puns, and Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs. I love pushing words around on the page a making them do things they don’t want to do.
King: Does this collection signify a change of form or focus for you, or would you consider it part of the Demcak canon?
Demcak: It’s an extension of the canon. Many of my poetry books are collections of cut-up poems I created from various sources.
One of the things I love about history is: what we used to call magic, we now call science. – Andrew Demcak
King: It’s such a fun and unusual idea for a collection; people are undoubtedly going to focus on the idea behind it as much as the words themselves. Did this idea germinate while reading Wikipedia articles and discovering their innate potential for poetry? Or from a desire to find poetry in this unexpected place?
Demcak: I was thinking about classical myth and modern myth, the urban legend, when I stumbled upon all these entries in Wikipedia in my search for source material to cut up. I was more than thrilled to see so many of these subjects represented in Wikipedia. I’m glad that the Chupacabra has an article, for example. I’m intrigued by cryptozoology. No one in the West believed pandas were real when they heard stories about black and white bears in the 1920s.
King: Could you explain the process of creating this? What did a typical day’s work look like while researching and writing “Cryptopedia”?
Demcak: It’s a rudimentary process, I must say. I print out the Wikipedia article, cut it into pieces, place the pieces into a paper bag, shake them up, and then draw out a few scraps at a time and see if the random words inspire me to write a line.
I love using a finite set of language (the article itself) because the word choice is already limited by the subject matter. It helps when I edit the poem for meaning because the word choice keeps the poem within the subject (for example, I’m not going to find the word “subarctic” in an article about the Chupacabra. I’m going to find the words: blood, chickens, nightmare, goat, glowing red eyes, sucking, etc.)
King: During the writing process, were you tempted to release the poems without saying that they were cut ups from Wikipedia? Or is that too much of an innate, important part of this collection?
Demcak: I’ve published the poems both ways, but I think the process is interesting. I like to be honest about my work. Plus, it’s a fun way of creating content. Maybe I will inspire others to try cutting up their own work or the work of others.
King: At first I was tempted to think that you’d used Wikipedia’s “random article” button, but there are definite themes and connections running through “Cryptopedia.” There’s this triangular back and forth between scientific ideas, religious figures and mythological or folkloric creatures. Is this reflective of your own diverse beliefs, or simply a result of trawling though such a diverse website?
Demcak: My beliefs entirely. One of the things I love about history is: what we used to call magic, we now call science. I also love the line between myth and reality, especially in a spiritual sense. Belief makes the unreal real, because belief is real. It’s all a testament to the human mind, as with my poem, “Brain in a Vat.” What is reality to a brain in a vat?
King: There’s another unsettling theme that runs throughout, that of creatures which are famed for kidnapping or attacking children or instances of children going missing or being sold. To generalize more, “Cryptopedia” seems to run on themes of absence, both domestic and cosmological, hidden threats and unexplained conspiracies or myths. Reading your poems alongside the original articles themselves made my stomach turn more than once. What made you seek out these vicious characters and create a book dripping so heavily in the world’s mysteries?
Demcak: I think our mythologies are maps for the human psyche. These scary characters show up in stories whichever part of the world you are in and in every time-period. We’ve always known them. They are nearby, sly and illusive, waiting for us. I’ve always liked the darker side of things (I was a goth as a teen!), so I naturally gravitate to that. The dark side of the human psyche is fascinating to me.
King: You’ve included a sort of cheat-sheet at the end of the collection, with brief explanations of what each subject of the poem is. I think it offers a great palette cleanser and anchor point for the work. Was this always the plan? Why not just leave the reader to linger on the poetic summations, or explore at their own leisure?
Demcak: Part of the fun of this collection is discovery. But I worried that some of the lesser known subjects might confuse readers and put them off. The notes about the poems are like a guardrail so no one skids off the road and doesn’t come back.
King: What place do you think poetry has in today’s world? As an artist, do you feel any duty to confront the world’s problems, or do you feel, perhaps, that it’s your job to distract people from them?
Demcak: Poetry moved into popular music and then came back on its own to the stage in poetry slams. It’s in every culture and every language. It has always had a place, even if it’s just scrawled in a personal journal. As an artist, my response to the question “Do I confront or distract from the world’s problems?”—I do both. But I like poetry most for its language. For me, I write a novel to know what happened, what I felt, but I write a poem to hear the words rubbing up against one another.
King: What are you reading at the moment? As the year comes to an end, are there any books or works that have stood out in 2017?
King: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received regarding the writing life? Do you have any words of wisdom for a writer embarking on their first collection?
Demcak: Best advice: Don’t compare your work to another’s work. You are on your own path, on your own journey, and it, like your work, is unique to you.
Words of wisdom: Be your favorite author.
If it’s criticism, it’s petty.
Believe in editing.
Always move forward with your writing, even if you are moving blindly forward.
Be brave with your work; do the thing you are the most afraid of doing.
Bonus mantra: Each time I touch my work, it gets better.
Josh King received his MFA from Adelphi University in New York, and now lives in the UK. His fiction has been published in BlazeVOX magazine and The Matador Review, and he divides his time between writing articles, plays and drawing comics.