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  • Writer's pictureMarías at Sampaguitas

Interview with Cecilia Deer

Cecilia Deer is a Danish poet writing in both Danish and English. She has had five books published in Danish under the name Cecilie Lolk Hjort. Two of these were also published in a small number of copies in her own English translation (both now sold out).


In the English-speaking poetry world, so far she has had work published in Umbel & Panicle and Turnpike Magazine. She is most active on my Twitter profile @Cecilia_Deer

She may always be reached at deerpoetry@gmail.com


When did you first realize your affinity for poetry? What is your “origin” story?

I was a very creative child and teenager and dabbled in pretty much everything – painting, drawing, photography, writing, singing, playing various instruments. When I was 16, I bought a bass to learn to play (I already had a piano, two guitars, a harmonica and a flute), and my stepfather at the time told me that when he was young, he played in a band and dreamed of doing it professionally some day. He could play a bit of bass, a bit of guitar, a bit of drums, sing a bit. It worked really well for if one of the other band members was sick, because he could just take over and do two things at once. But it also meant that he wasn’t investing his time into learning to play one instrument really well. He eventually had to realize that he had spread himself so thin that he just wasn’t good enough at any one thing to go pro. So he told me: If you want to do this professionally, don’t play a little of this, a little of that. Pick an instrument.


I didn’t want to be a professional bass player, but I knew I wanted to be an artist of some sort. So I went home and thought really hard about what ‘instrument’ I wanted. And I chose poetry.

It wasn’t that I was way more passionate about poetry than other art forms so much as I just wrote out a pros and cons list for everything, and poetry had the most pros and the fewest cons. I remember a big pro on the list was that I wouldn’t have to spend any money on materials or gadgets. Money was tight when I was growing up, so I wanted an art form that didn’t cost me money to make, so I could always afford to do it.


Which is your favorite genre to read? Which is your favorite to write?

I don’t really think about genre when it comes to poetry, and I honestly probably couldn’t guess the genre of most poems either. I’m really terrible at telling the difference. I tend to just like poetry that has something to tell me.

I’m also bad at telling poetry apart from other writing genres. I think of a lot of short prose as poetry, and I also think of some novels as long poems, like most of Pär Lagerkvist’s work and some of J. P. Jacobsen’s novels and short stories. It’s a gut feeling thing that I couldn’t explain in any existing terms.


Do you feel like your poetry falls under a certain category, such as experimental, contemporary, etc.? If you could have your work associated with another poet, who would it be and why?

I think I’m too genre-blind to know what category my poetry falls into. But for my longer, more emotional poems, I suppose I’d find it really cool if someone were to think of Allen Ginsberg when they read them. He has this wonderful mix of something intimate and warm and quiet with something shouty and rambling and furious that really speaks to me.


Do you participate in spoken word/slam poetry? If so, where can we find your performances? How is writing spoken word different from ‘traditional’ poetry? No, I don’t. I do the occasional poetry reading, but the slam scene is a bit foreign to me, and I’ve never written in the specific genre of spoken word. I think of it as sort of halfway between rap and poetry, and rap doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m too mellow, I think.

I have done a few video poetry readings that can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL20E7E424F868CDB7



What is your ‘process’ for writing poetry?

My poetry is very research-based. It’s probably about 80% research. I just read about a given topic, and talk to people who are knowledgeable in it when possible, until I get an idea. I often let the poem sit in my head for a while, let the phrases pile up in a word cloud. I tend not to start writing before I have the first and last line of the poem, and preferably also a couple of central ones in the middle. That’s the skeleton I need for building the rest of the piece. If I start before I have those lines memorized in my head, the language tends to turn out very clumsy and eventually crumble. So I’m careful not to start too soon.


Which do you prefer more: writing poetry or reading poetry?

Definitely writing. I know this is strange coming from a poet, but I find reading poetry really hard on the brain. Jumping so quickly into an idea or situation and back out again. Committing to a whole poetry book has always been difficult for me because of that. But I read a lot more poetry after I discovered poetry twitter. Being able to scroll around and land on one or two poems at random and then close the app and go do something else feels like the most natural approach to poetry I’ve experienced. Twitter seems exquisitely tailored to poetry.


When writing poetry, do you write from emotion? What usually inspires you? When putting together a chapbook/collection of poetry, what do you keep in mind? How do you keep it a cohesive piece of work?

My poetry is running along two main tracks right now: On the one hand there are my encyclopedic prose poems, which are sort of pop-academic in tone. When I write those, I’m writing on curiosity and an excitement to show other people the neat facts and perspectives I’ve found. It’s a teacher vibe, I guess.


Then there are my longer, more rambling poems, the ones I call my compact writings. Those are usually written on rage. When I see something deeply unfair or toxic, my immediate reaction is to go home and write a compact poem about it. I’ve been involved in activism a lot and used to be extremely outspoken, and what I found to happen most often when I spoke up was that people would reply in ways that left me even more infuriated, and it tended to turn into a big discussion that just ended with everyone being angry and frustrated. And after dozens of those fights, I’d eventually be triggered at the mere mention of the topic, even when nobody was saying or doing anything wrong. When I write a poem about it instead, not only do I not end up in those fruitless discussions, but I can immortalize the pain and share it in the right places at the right times where people (myself included) are more receptive. That’s not to say I don’t object when someone does something mean, but I don’t start a whole conversation about it anymore, because I’ve got a better outlet.


Which is especially nice when the thing that infuriates me is fiction, because then I literally can’t talk to the person about it, because they don’t exist. I’ve yelled at a lot of fictional characters in my poetry (though I don’t name them).


I get most of my inspiration from nonfiction, and some from music, movies, and comedy.

I think the process of putting together a chapbook is different for each book I write. The one I’m working on now has very specific categories: Poems about being autistic, poems about being a man, poems about having chronic pain, poems about being fat... so that one organizes itself. More and more over the years I’ve starting writing in very specific categories like that, and maybe it is partly to create more cohesion for each collection. I don’t like not being able to answer the question “What’s your book about?”.

What are your methods for overcoming ‘writer’s block’? What do you do when you can’t seem to find inspiration?

I don’t really get writer’s block, because my work is so research-based. If I can’t think of something to write, I research more. I always get to a poem eventually. My biggest writing struggle is actually that I have too many ideas. I’m the biggest obstacle to myself when I’m working on five different projects at once so it takes eons to finish one.



A lot of writers struggle with time management. Do you have a day job? If so, how do you balance work, writing (poetry and your novel), family, and personal time?

Yes, I work part-time as a massage therapist and reflexologist and also with proofreading and translation. Balancing all of it is a constant struggle. I feel perpetually stressed over being behind with one thing or the other.


The one thing I keep reminding myself is to have weekends. For the first decade after my first book came out, I employed every single night and weekend for writing, and that’s just not a sustainable way to live. I’m really trying to learn not to be hard on myself for needing downtime like a normal human. All “you should be writing” memes are banned in this house.


Where do you expect to see yourself (as a writer) in the next five years? The next ten years?

I don’t really care about time frame, but my big dream is to become a full-time writer and escape the heartbreak of leaving a poem in the making on Monday morning and not knowing if it will still be alive when I get back to it several workdays later. I’m also dreaming of breaking into playwriting, and experimenting more with what poetry can be and in what kind of spaces it can be relevant. Oh, and if we’re being really ambitious, I’d also like to write a detective novel, a fantasy novel, and host a podcast with a variety of minority guests. But I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to those last ones. They’re the things I’m dreaming of also doing while disciplining myself to only work on one thing at a time.


Are there any immediate events or publications that you have coming up that you want the readers to know about?

I’m working on a website. I’ll post the link to it on my twitter profile @Cecilia_Deer when it’s up. Update: Ms. Deer’s website is: www.ceciliadeer.com

What do you want the readers to know about you?

My two specialties are interesting animal facts and the specific realities of different minority groups. So if you like either of those topics, my work may be for you.



In Turnpike Issue No.4 and the Umbel&Panicle Corolla Issue, you are welcoming us new definitions of 3 nouns: Cat, Plant and Rose of Jericho. How is the need of defining something “again” plays a role on your writing? Do you think that changing the definitions’ or point of views has an impact on a poet’s imagination?

To me, encyclopedias sort of embody the idea that there’s one right answer to everything. In contrast to that, poetry is very much about finding new perspectives on the things we think we know. I like playing with the clash between those two ways of looking at the world. Historically, humanity has been wrong about so many things. I consider it pretty safe to assume that much of what we consider self-evident hard truths today will someday be considered as ludicrous as the idea that the universe revolves around our planet, or that the size and shape of a person’s head can predict whether they will commit a crime. Sometimes our misconceptions create the most beautiful, fanciful stories that live on long after they’ve been debunked just because they bring joy to imagine. But misconceptions can also be dangerous when we structure society around them. A lot of people have been hurt by what we thought was true. So I think it’s important to keep a limber and pleasurable sense of scepticism, so that we can enjoy the stories we hear about how the world works without being seduced into thinking it’s the one definitive truth. In a way, my encyclopedic poetry is an exercise in that. And yes, I think it limbers up the poetic imagination to constantly be thinking “how could we also tell this story, what other versions could also be true, or maybe just fun to explore”?



Your encyclopedias contains these definitions. So, how do you choose the “right” words/nouns?

Do you mean how do I choose my topics? Honestly, at random. It’s very “hey look, woodpeckers, I haven’t done a poem about woodpeckers yet, gonna go find some books and articles about woodpeckers and read until I find something interesting”.



How is your relationship with English and Danish when writing? Do you connect the languages?

Usually a poem comes to me in either Danish or English first, and then once I’ve written the first draft, I’ll translate it to see it more clearly. Often in translation, a mistake or a weird sentence structure will become more apparent because it turns out to be hard to translate, or I’ll look a word up and realize it didn’t mean exactly what I meant by it. It’s a very useful tool for editing. So many of my poems have been translated back and forth a few times before publication.



We see your poetry in different forms, for example written on folded papers. You transform objects, poetry itself, like the exhibition of couple of objects which have a poem written for that object. How do these paratextual elements help the reader when exploring and expounding your poetry?

Hopefully it makes the physical experience of reading more fun. Reading can be very brain-heavy work – you translate the symbols on the page into sentences and then translate that into meaning and then think about that meaning. The body can almost disappear in that process. For me it’s often a relief to hold a book object that insists upon making me feel and manipulate it and notice its shape and colors, because it keeps me in my body while I’m reading. And I like the toy-like quality of book objects, the way they invite you to play regardless of age. It brings back a toddler-like curiosity in me that I really enjoy. I explore the object from scratch the way young children do.


I try to make the book object’s physical form invoke some of the same feelings as the text. For instance, with Paranoia Poem, I tried to make it a physical manifestation of what anxiety and paranoia feels like, claustrophobic and chaotic and translucent. With Chewing Gum Poems, I wanted the reader to get a similar feeling from unwrapping the poem to what it was like to open a pack of gum from a gumball machine as a child. The intention is for it to be a more immersive experience than when it’s all only happening in your mind.



In your “autistic poems” set, the voice is rebelliously getting stronger from the beginning to the ending of each poem. These “autistic poems” are in gloomy atmosphere and they give the reader an uncanny journey through the lines. There is also a strong rhythm in these. How was your journey like when you started and finished writing these poems?

I hadn’t noticed that progression throughout the poems! But I’m happy with it. I had a very systematic approach where I decided on a specific topic first – say, masking, or partying, or ‘special interests’, or meeting a new person – and then tried to describe these things from an autistic perspective. I guess that automatically creates a voice that starts out fumbling for the words, but gets more and more confident as more and more of the experience is successfully described. I always felt elated at having found all the words by the end of each poem, but also exhausted from all the emotions I had waded through. I try to really ‘live’ the experience in my head while I’m writing, in the hope that the reader will get the feeling of walking a mile in the character’s shoes, taking over their hopes and fears and joys and heartaches for the duration of the poem. Or, if the reader relates to the character, reliving something from one’s own life and feeling strengthened and soothed by seeing that someone else ‘gets it’.



And in “marginalized poems” set, the rebellious voice gets a thorough-minded way and criticizing style. Can we say that your poetics also takes shape with politics?

Even though you’re not the first to ask me that, I think of my marginalized poems – and my poems about different marginalized groups in general – as very apolitical, because their focus is on deeply personal emotional experiences. I don’t write them to persuade people into having specific opinions. If there are opinions in the poem, they’re there as part of the portrait of that character’s inner life. But I think a lot of marginalized groups get almost forced into politics because they don’t automatically have the same basic rights that others get to take for granted. If, say, just walking down the street or going to work or talking to your family is a safety hazard for you because what you are isn’t accepted in society, you almost have to become an activist just to try to live your life. And marginalized people are often treated as political issues in and of themselves. Many people reserve the right to ‘disagree’ with a marginalized person’s existence or needs and treat them like a political statement that can be argued against. So invariably my portraits of marginalized life become about this greater negotiation with the society around you for the right to go about your day. But I think it’s sad that the political has to take up so much space in minorities’ lives. I hope someday I can write minority poems that don’t mention politics at all because minorities will have the luxury of just effortlessly being allowed to exist.




Interview conducted by Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu, who is the Interview Editor for Marías at Sampaguitas. She is an author from Turkey, enthusiastic traveler, Feminist activist, and Mother of four cats and countless animals all over the world. Full-time resident in Georgia, escaped from the oppression in Turkey. Has 5 published books in Turkish. For further information: www.nazlikarabiyikoglu.com.

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