A native of Columbia, South Carolina, DeLana Dameron recently published her debut collection of poems, How God Ends Us, which was selected by Elizabeth Alexander as the fourth annual winner of the South Carolina Poetry Book Prize. Delana is a graduate of UNC – Chapel Hill and currently resides in New York City.
Here’s Part One of my interview:
Obviously, the idea of disaster plays an important part in your book. What made you consider “how God ends us”?
Growing up in the South will definitely make you consider God. I grew up on the perimeter of the church. Namely, my grandparents were extremely religious. My mother more so before grade school. So I had a pretty perfunctory knowledge of the Bible, and the important stories, like Noah’s Ark, which is largely about destruction, and the Garden where it all began. I think, though, my childhood prayer that I was taught to pray nightly, which ends, “If I should die before I wake, I pray, dear Lord, my soul You’ll take,” really made me consider this idea of ending…much later. Much later, I thought, what am I asking? What am I realizing so early on, this concept of death? Most of this I am thinking or remembering while I write, but I have been obsessed with the idea of ending.
In two major points in my life, I lost a significant number of loved ones in quick succession. It is what fueled me to write. This idea, though, that Christians believe, that God created the heavens and the earth, and you open the Bible and there is the beginning. But I knew that. What I wanted to understand – and what I try to understand or grapple with in the collection – was about endings. How God will end us. The first book of the Bible that I remember reading in completion was the book of Revelations. I wanted to start my coming to understanding at the end and unravel the story. And I think it’s an interesting surrender to make – to give even “disaster” over to God. We credit this being for good things, why not let him be whole and complete?
Let me speak to this term “disaster”, though. My attempt to write about endings is also an attempt to grapple with the “big” – death and destruction – and small: personal relationships. How God Ends Us is about death, largely, but it is also about things that do not or cannot prosper in this world made for it. Like love for the speaker in several of the poems. Like the transference of beliefs to the Jamaican children by short-term missionaries in other poems. Like grass in New York City.
I’ve noticed that form influences several of the poems in the collection. Do you ever think of yourself as a part-time formalist?
Funny you should ask. Actually, early on I considered and wrote in form. I was (am still) working on this project that I felt should be largely written in form. I didn’t know why at first, but then I started researching the different forms and writing in them, and felt a certain comfort. I thought: I want to be considered a formalist. Then, the writing of How God Ends Us took over, and while my obsession with form did not translate as largely into this manuscript, it does appear in poems like, “Lament,” “Lynching Mobs” and “Mala is for Meditation.”
While speaking of form, I would like to address “Lament” and its formal DNA. It is what I consider to be the title poem, or at least where the title of the collection is couched. Everyone, when they hear it read aloud, asks if it’s in form because of its repetitive nature. I say it is. They ask what, and I call this poem my experimentation, my hybrid form. I use the term “my” loosely, because maybe it has been done before, but I have yet to see it. My roots in formalism are strongest with the Pantoum and Sestina. I would even go so far as to call them my favorites. So, I was wondering what a poem would look like if the sestina and pantoum met and had a child. Maybe this is a “pantina”? But my thinking was – I’ll have the whole lines repeat (as they do in a Pantoum) in the order of rotation of a Sestina. Then the question came of what to do with the envoi (in the traditional Sestina – a form of six repeating end words – the envoi is a tercet which has two of the six words per line). I decided to “end” – maybe no pun? – the poem without the envoi, both because the form could not sustain such lengthy lines, and because I wanted to represent or show the sentiment of ending. So there you have it. This is also in addition to the meditative qualities of repetition in both the Sestina and Pantoum that make me adore them. I had collected these lines that I adored so. I wanted to see them more than once, and I never thought I could pull off unstructured repetition in a poem. So I used the structured revelation of form, while also taking my own freedoms.