Interview with Laird Barron on Poetry and Cosmic Horror

Originally published here.

Laird Samuel Barron is an award winning author and poet, much of whose work falls within the horror, noir, and dark fantasy genres. He has also been the Managing Editor of the online literary magazine Melic Review. He lives in Olympia, Washington.

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C.Derick Varn: You are one of the few writers that works in poetry and weird fiction, what do you see as the relationship between weird fiction and poetry?

Laird Barron: Poetry is the atom that underlies all writing. A few years ago I concentrated my efforts solely on poetry and in doing so became a better prose stylist. It’s not clear to me that it could work so well in reverse. There’s a profound connection between poetry and the weird–some of the great stories are poems: The Ballad of Sam Magee by Robert Service; Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge; EA Poe’s The Raven; or any number of poems by Dunsany, Lovecraft, or Clark Ashton Smith. Hell, look at the ancient classics such as Beowulf. Poetry and the weird share a circulatory system.

C.D.V.: Do you think horror fiction demands a particularly poetic bend for genre fiction?

L.B.: I scrupulously avoid prescriptions. Many of the great authors of the macabre have succeeded with an unadorned prose style.  Nonetheless, give me the baroque decadence of Michael Shea or Wilum Pugmire; the brutal lyricism of Livia Llewellyn and Joe Lansdale; or the rough and tumble stream of consciousness that emits from Stephen Graham Jones. Lyricism is the sinew of my favorite work.

C.D.V.:  Are there any habits of a poet that can inhibit a fiction writer?

L.B.:  On the contrary, my time as a poet steeled me for a career in prose. I find the discipline and the relative economy of poetic expression to have taught me a set of skills and best practices applicable to fiction and essay writing. The essential lesson of poetry being that every word must have weight. Making those few words count is exacting, and that’s not a bad takeaway for any kind of writer.

C.D.V.: What particular poets have had an effect on your prose?

L.B.:  I don’t know if anyone has directly influenced my style, but several poets inspire me in abstract ways: Mark Strand; James Dickey; Anne Sexton; Charles Simic; Wallace Stevens; Ted Hughes…
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C.D.V.: Do you find that you organize your books of short stories along any of the themic principles that poets often use for books of poems?

L.B.:No, although it’s a concept I’ve toyed with over the years. It might be something to revisit if I were to produce an omnibus of stories down the road.

C.D.V.:  What has attracted you specifically to go back to cosmic horror so much in your writing career? 

L.B.: The notion that mankind is tiny and insignificant against the backdrop of the cosmos is alluring and terrifying. The possibility that sentient life might exist amid that empty space only sharpens the attraction. Cosmic horror is analogous to leaning over a guardrail and peering into the mists of a gulf. Lovecraft’s influence is a culprit, and so too various religions with their depictions of vast and dreadful gods of stick figures. Possibly my thousands of miles traveling by dog team across Alaska sealed it. The landscape up there is immense and inhospitable. You can’t cross the Farewell Burn, or Norton Sound, or plod among the ancient, rounded slopes along the Innoko River without being conscious of your transient mortality. In such places a man is little more than a moving speck. It is probably inevitable that I’d be compelled to communicate that experience through the lives of my characters.

C.D.V.:  Is this the same sentiment that makes place so important in your work? 
L.B.:  Yes. It’s also a manifestation of my reading habits in youth. The landscape as a character is something a number of my favorite authors featured–Howard, Lovecraft, L ‘Amour, Blackwood, Burroughs…

Laird Barron
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

L.B.:  My latest collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All will be released in April. I’m working on several projects. These include another collection, this one featuring stories set in Alaska; and a crime novel. Thank you for the interview.

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