The Aesthetic Turn: Interview with Aleathia Drehmer

Originally published here. 

Aleathia Drehmer originates from a small New England town which served as the home base for an extensive amount of traveling across the country before the age of 10.  Her parents were not in the active military nor were they gypsies, but most likely unsettled in their identities and spent much time searching for them in far off po-dunk towns.

 From this, Aleathia learned the distinct importance of human connection in her life.  She had to learn to extract whatever lesson was given to her by each person she met very quickly before moving again.  This type of life made it easy for her to fall into the lap of poetry.  She would become a collector of small moments in her life, an observer of other people’s lives, and develop a keen eye for things left in the shadows.

 As an adult, she has been married and divorced and left with a darling child to show for it.  Her chosen career is Emergency Nursing, but her love is art and writing.  This dichotomy, though seemingly unrelated, has proved the best platform for writing and editing in the small press.  One job affords the other.

Aleathia Drehmer started her journey in poetry in 1983, but did not find the small press until 2006.  Prior to the small press she had won several awards for poetry and fiction at her local community college.  Since 2006, Aleathia has been published widely in print and online for her poetry, fiction, and photography.

 She spent a good amount of time being one of the many editors at Outsider Writers before landing a co-editor job at Zygote in my Coffee where she was the sole editor of the book, “The Beards”.  Aleathia was one of the original founders/editors of Full of Crow where she managed the poetry department.  In 2009, she branched out on her own and created Durable Goods.  This print microzine has been her crowning jewel since then with a vast readership that employs a grassroots method to distribution.  In 2010, Aleathia created the online flash fiction website In Between Altered States which features 300 word flash fiction that knows few boundaries.

 At the present she juggles home life, work, a relationship and several publications in her rural upstate New York apartment.  She continues to publish her work in small press venues and do readings when she can find them.  Aleathia has many projects on the horizon just waiting to be born.

C. Derick Varn : As both a poet and an editor, do you find your aesthetic commitment similar in both roles or is there some divergence between them in your criterion for your own craft and for selecting others work for an audience?

Aleathia Drehmer: I have had to really contemplate the idea of “aesthetic commitment”, because to me this implies a certain amount of education in the philosophy of art and beauty in order to give a critical reflection of the arts.  Most of my observations and judgments about art come from real life experiences and a more emotionally charged place.  So maybe my commitment to writing and art stem from esthetics, which bases its ideals on a sensorial-emotional model.  Having differentiated between these two studies of art, I can honestly say that there is a certain amount of divergence in my criteria for my own work as opposed to the work I chose for others to enjoy.

When working on my own poems, fiction, or essays I come from a place of deep feeling.  My work is entrenched in my personal life, because it is what I know best.  It would be near impossible for me to effectively write about subjects of which I have no knowledge or viable connection.  Much of what I produce is an attempt to capture the essence of a moment or experience, and translate it into a piece of work that the reader can relate to despite its personal content.

I have a great understanding that the darkest, most moving times of our lives are not singular and significantly our own.  We, as people, don’t own emotions due to their abstract nature, but we feel them uniquely based on what we have seen and felt in our lives and the people that have intersected our paths.

One of the most influential things ever told to me about writing was that as a writer it is my job to show a person the scene I am creating through words rather than tell them flat out.  This makes the reader active and invested in the piece.  It allows them to create their own visuals and place themselves in that space they have created which might be totally different from what the writer saw or intended.  So every poem I approach is internally edited with this ideal in mind.  It doesn’t always work and some poems escape to tell the reader exactly what I want them to know.  At the top, I hold myself responsible for maintaining a depth of imagery that is often laced with metaphor.  I hold myself responsible for creating a brief space where the reader knows it is ok to feel something intense about words.

As an editor, it depends greatly on the magazine I am working on or the people I might be working for.  In my print microzine Durable Goods, I am more relaxed on the work I will choose.  The mission of this publication is to connect as many humans as possible.  The work will not please everyone, but with each one it does, the magazine spreads its circle just a little bit farther.  When choosing work for Durable Goods, there must be at least a line or two that grabs me enough to contemplate the idea beyond reading it.  I want to be transported for just a moment.

For many writers, Durable Goods is a challenge because of its short form and I enjoy being a part of this uncomfortable place.  I believe it is these spots that we learn the most about what our writing can be and how we can learn to shape our own voices under pressure.  This zine is a gathering of writers around the campfire. It is a place writers come to feel comfortable.

When I used to edit for Full of Crow, I was under a more stringent criteria because I had to conform to the overall vision of the magazine and deliver a certain type of poetry which I felt lent itself to intelligence splashed with a great amount of international flavor.  Sometimes I had to alter my own personal criteria for choosing work to consider all of these components.

At In Between Altered States, I look at the work completely differently because it is flash fiction.  These pieces aren’t based on emotional values as much as they are geared towards stretching one’s comfort zone and expanding the boundaries of the mind.  Many of the topics used to theme these episodes are ones that I might not morally agree with, but I have learned that it is of the utmost importance to maintain a tolerance for the differences in intellect, writing style, and content.  I believe in the power of free speech even if it cuts into my core belief system.  I find it much easier to “edit” these types of stories than I do poetry.  I have more confidence to suggest changes that would tighten and improve the work.

I believe as individual writers we hold ourselves to an extremely high standard and keep ourselves accountable for what we produce.  We have to be able to stand behind it without hanging our heads.  This ideal cannot help but spill over into how we judge another person’s work.  I do my best to leave room for understanding that each person writes from a unique perspective and voice that I may or may not understand.

C.D.V.:  Do you think poet’s have a particular social role to play in the larger culture?

A.D.:  This is an interesting question because I believe the standard answer from most writers or artists would be “yes”.  What creative person doesn’t want to think that their art or words have an impact in the larger culture?

We live in a world where there is little honest feedback, especially on social media where most of us present our pieces to the world or link our work up for viewing.  Circles of people are created based on a person’s likeability and it is my experience that people give criticism based on how much they like the person and not the writing.  Sometimes this perpetuates a lower quality of poem, because the writer believes his or her writing has a significant impact on the larger culture they have thrown their words out to.

In the small press, it is greatly apparent that many of its writers aren’t looking to improve what they do and they don’t take constructive criticism well. I would believe those sorts of writers are present to make themselves feel better and to have an impact in their own personal culture.

I have been lucky in my life that despite having swum in the same circles where I get patted on the back for substandard work, I have also met a good solid few writers who are willing to put my feelings on the line and tell me the truth about my poems.  This is painful in many ways, but it is from this pain that I have grown.  It keeps me working hard to achieve a higher level of writing that will allow me to possibly have an effect on the larger culture.

It is general knowledge in this day and age that most people don’t read poetry except the classics and maybe the Beats.  I am not especially sure the poetry of my generation has made enough of a stand to significantly impact culture and society.  I am not sure the work is honest enough yet.  I include my own work in this.  I haven’t reached the full potential of my craft.  I have a long way to go.

C.D.V.:  Which poets do see as being most influential on your editorial process and what superficially did you learn from them?

A.D.: I am going to have to be very selective with this question or the answer could go on forever.  I tend to learn something from each poet that I meet or at least I try to.  When I first popped onto the small press scene in 2006, I met poet Zachary C. Bush.  He was very energetic and had an uncanny ability to think outside the box which I was not doing at the time.  We exchanged emails often and he would offer ideas on how to shape poems or things to write about that would help me push out of my own comfort zone.  I began to look at the world from a different perspective after this meeting of the minds.  I still us my experiences with Zach today.

A year or so later after meeting Zachary, I had the pleasure/displeasure of interacting with poet Ed Churchouse.  I respect his work immensely.  He is a true lover of the word and intensely passionate about the poem.  He was by far my hugest judge and jury.  He was so critical of my work that many times I cried.  Other writers found this to be barbaric, but they were all patting me on the back saying my work was great when it really wasn’t.  Ed was willing to risk friendship in order for me to be honest with myself about what I was writing.  In a previous question I mentioned a person that taught me the “show, don’t tell” tactic, this would be Ed Churchouse.  His influence shows up every time I write and even affected my process as I no longer write down everything I believe MIGHT be interesting.  I let the important images linger in my head a long time before putting them on paper and I find I am more personally satisfied with the work.

In 2009, I met poet and all around great guy, Carter Monroe.  This was a chance meeting at a festival in Kansas City that proved to build a fine friendship that would involve an education in poetry, music, and the art of laughter.  Carter was engaging and often sent me links to articles via email about writers and the history of poetry.  After reading the article we would email back and forth our thoughts.  He was also helpful in guiding me towards great established writers I’d never heard of, all of whom would go on to shape how I attack the poem. The influence he provided me has been profound.  If I had to name someone as my mentor, I’d name Carter Monroe.

Lastly, I feel that Amanda Oaks gave me something so very important.  I was a part of a test group for one of her teaching modules that had very little to do with creative writing and more to do with being honest with yourself about nearly every emotion or feeling you have.  Within this process she sent me a book by Brene Brown on perfectionism and how it serves to drag you down and remove the opportunity for moments of real life from your day.  Learning this allowed me to go deeper into my poems without any sort of regret.  It let me loosen up my grip on my life in order see and feel more so I could translate it into the poem.  I’m forever grateful for that realization and grateful to Amanda for having one of the kindest hearts in the business.

All of these poets moved me in different ways and I can’t really say that I learned anything superficial from any of them, because what they had to teach moved me enough to use the tools they’ve given me every day.  I believe in making my human connections as deep as possible even if I never cross paths with a person again.  They have come into my life for a reason even if it doesn’t make itself apparent until years later.

C.D.V.: Do you think poetry has any necessarily explicitly ethical components?

A.D.:  I think in this generation of poets everything is explicit.  I see more in your face type poetry that comes off like a rant rather than a poem.  These poems often speak loudly to ethical or political situations which carry heavy weight.  My problem with much of it is that the writers use the “poem” as a soapbox and much of it leaves me feeling as if there is little craft put into the work.

If you look at poetry from other heated cultural times like the 60’s you will find that though those poets were in your face, their language wasn’t explicit to the point of vulgarity as it is today. LeRoi Jones comes to mind.  The work was electrically charged and active.  It stood up in a room, but in reading it I never felt like the language was misused or vulgar.  Some poets are able to get down and dirty and use explosive language because it works with their voice and style.  If they can manage to do this in a smart way, I think they still can capture an audience.

In my opinion many poets lose sight of what a poem is supposed to be and in all truth maybe the parameters of poetry cannot be seriously defined anymore.  I do believe you have to know the rules of writing to break them and create a stunning poem that is both moving in its word flow and its ethical content.

I think we do need some poetry with explicit ethical content.  I think it will always be part of our culture because in every era there are those whose voices are louder than others and who are willing to make waves through art and literature.  The ones that can do this in a crafty way are the writers we tend to remember and admire.

C.D.V.: Do you think there is an ethical component to refraining from polemic in poetry and trusting the reader to draw such conclusions?

A.D.:  The problem with polemic in poetry, for me, is that the writer can begin to have an argument for or against a particular topic and try to drag you (kicking and screaming) to their version of the truth, but that is all it is—their version of truth.  Most poetry tends to have an emotional component which is close to the writer.  In poetry that uses polemics I feel this can often be amplified because subjects that people want to rant about are usually ones of significant social tone or have an ethical nature to them.

It is difficult for me to say if there is an ethical component to refraining from using polemics in poetry because each person is raised with a different set of values that draw from their parents, their environment, and the region of the country or world in which they live in.  For me personally, I don’t enjoy argumentative poetry.  I am for bringing up topics in a palatable way.  I want finesse.  To me ranting on about a piece of culture that irritates you isn’t really educational unless it is based in fact and let’s face it….overly factual poetry isn’t easy on the eyes.

I do believe we have to trust readers to make their own conclusions.  If anything, polemics in poetry could start an internal dialogue in the reader to ask more questions about the world and the society they live in.  In art of any kind, we must remember everyone’s opinion is subjective rather objective based on the fact that creating art and poetry is a very passionate and personal process.

C.D.V.: Are there any trends in contemporary poetry that really worry you?

 A.D.:  This can be a bit of a tough question because in some places I have seen the list of contemporary published poets (those well established and known to many) upwards of 280.  This would be poets still living in my time or recently deceased.  I cannot confidently speak to any trends in their poetry, but I can touch on my own generation of poets in the small press.

When I first came on the scene in 2006, I noticed that in order for most women to get published they had to write in a very sexual way, they had to be objects of desire.  This idea that you had to be your most salacious self and be deeply in touch with what our masculine counterparts wanted to read really bothered me.  Did I have to do this to get published?  Would I be willing to write this way?  The answer to both questions was yes.  I dug into the darkest parts of my life when I didn’t really care about myself and looked at the ideas that would let me portray myself in the most disparaging ways.  These poems got published.  These poems allowed me to make a name for myself that I quickly wanted to change before it was too late; before I was labeled as a one trick pony.  I only had so much sex that I wanted to sell.

I see a fair amount of women who make themselves out to be sleazy and who use very shocking language and images to get published and read by peers. This is greatly enhanced by the insurgence of social media in the poetry scene.  Women can add a sexy picture of themselves to go with a sex filled poem and rapidly it has more “likes” and comments than it’s worth. It is quite possible that some of these women have lived these types of lives and this is there true personality, but it is hard to believe they exist in that state all the time and that sex is the only thing they have to write about. I notice that once they get caught up in this expression of poetry they rarely leave it.  They tend to not grow outside the confines of sexuality. We have to really ask why this happens. How do male publishers perceive these women?  Why do they get published over and over again?  What do female publishers think about how these women portray themselves? As a woman and an editor, I look for something genuine and real from all the writers I publish, but especially from the women.  I believe we can prove our equality without degrading our standard of writing and ourselves.  I think giving readers something they don’t expect from us is what changes the tide.

I also find the lack of growth in general to be disheartening.  Retaining your voice and style is one thing, but never challenging yourself to achieve more or to better your craft is pretty relevant these days.  It seems odd to me to still be reading the same poem rehashed from a writer six years later.  As a generation of writers we have to be willing to take it to the next level.  In much of what I have read about the poets that came before us, texts mention a competitive nature between them; they often had meetings to reveal new notions. They took ideas from each other, tried new things, and expanded on them to make them their own.  In these exchanges new forms of poetry were born.  We are competitive beasts by nature.  We are innate achievers.  I see a huge divergence from that nature in today’s poetry.

Lastly, the trend that bothers me the most is emulating a writer so much that the person’s work sounds almost copy-cat.  I wish writers would have the confidence to speak their own voice.  There are many poets I love, whose work I keep by my bed, but never once did it occur to me to want to write just like them.  Their lives were full of things I could never know deep enough to be able to write about from an honest and real place.  As writers we can acknowledge skills in other poets that enhance our own styles, but the writer should retain their own clear voice that is all together separate from those they admire.

C.D.V.: What advice would you give a new editor of poetry?

A.D.:  All advice anyone can give has to be taken with a grain of salt, because as you go through your career you learn to create your own style by trial and error.  You have to find your own comfy seat on the couch.

I can impart the things I have learned:

Always take chances on new writers that you see have potential.  Your acceptance could be the thing that pushes them forward and allows them the confidence to get better.

Be an editor.  This doesn’t mean just run a magazine by taking submissions and choosing poems haphazardly.  You have to hold writers responsible for spelling and errors of space.  These days with experimental poetry space is sometimes considered part of the poem, so be keen enough to ask if they meant to do it.  We are all human.  We all make mistakes, but writers should proof their work before they send it and it is the editor’s job to call them out when they don’t.

If you are editing for a magazine in which you are not the managing editor, be sure to understand that you are choosing work that fits the reader’s scope of interest within that magazine.  Continuity can be key to making an issue of a magazine run on all cylinders.  If you are editing for your own magazine make sure you stay true to the vision of each issue.

Never, ever, ever choose work based on how much you like a writer as a person.  Readers may not know the writer like you do and taking substandard work because a writer is nice is a death nail in your respectability as an editor.  This is hard to do in the beginning, but your career and reputation will thank you for it later.

Don’t be afraid to change your tastes in writing.  As we grow and learn and are introduced to different styles of poetry we find our palate changes.  Don’t be afraid of that.  Don’t care what other people might feel about you when you like work that doesn’t fit the trend or the societal mode.  Don’t be afraid to discover new talent that could inspire the rest of us.

Stick to your deadlines.  This is so important, because when you let them slide your audience begins to doubt your credibility over time.  This may start subconsciously, but it will roll into something they attach to your name in all your future projects.  Keeping deadlines is establishing a line of trust between the writers and the readers of your magazine.

Above all you need to continue to be excited about what you do.  When editing becomes a burden that makes you want to clean the house rather than go through submissions or produce the magazine, then you should think about changing venues or taking a hiatus from editing.  This is important because when you lose your gusto for editing then the work you put out falls seriously flat for the readers.  You owe it to yourself and your readers to find a certain amount of joy in the work you do.

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

 A.D.:  I don’t think so.  It all seems covered.  Thanks so much for the opportunity.


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