Linda D. Addison is one of the most honored speculative poets of all time. Over the course of more than 300 published poems, stories and articles, Addison has been awarded the Horror Writer Association’s Bram Stoker Award six times. In 2001, she became the first African-American to receive a Stoker for her superior achievement in poetry with the collection Consumed, Reduced to Beautiful Grey Ashes. She has since received three more Stokers for superior achievement in poetry—Being Full of Light, Insubstantial (2007); How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend (2011); and Four Elements (2013, with Marge Simon, Rain Graves, and Charlee Jacob)—as well as the Stoker for Mentor of the Year in 2017. Most recently, she was honored with the HWA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.
Addison’s work has been collected many times, and has made frequent appearances over the years on the honorable mention list for Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and Year’s Best Science-Fiction. Her own writing aside, Addison recently co-edited Sycorax’s Daughters (2017), a Stoker-finalist anthology of horror fiction and poetry by African-American women. She is also a constant presence at StokerCon, the Northeast Writers’ Conference, and numerous other gatherings.
First of all, let’s not bury the lede—the Horror Writers Association (HWA) recently awarded you the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement! This is your sixth award—after four Stokers for your poetry and one award as a Mentor of the Year—so how does it feel to have finally won the big one?
It’s a gigantic honor and one that I hadn’t even thought about coming my way. When I first received the email from Lisa Morton, the president of HWA, I had to read it several times before it sunk in. There’s a part of me that’s still the writer who gathered boxes of rejections when I first started sending submissions out in 1975. The journey over the last forty-three years has been breathtaking, and I’m still catching up.
I’m deeply honored for each recognition I’ve received, but it’s the work that drives me. I’m blessed that others are touched by my writing. It’s beyond wonderful when something like this happens!
I look at the HWA Lifetime Achievement Award as a reminder to keep writing.
Although you write both poetry and prose, most readers probably think of you first and foremost as a poet. Could you tell us how you got involved in speculative poetry? I’m curious if you had separate entry points for poetry in general and then speculative poetry as a particular branch, or if it was something that you found your way into and only later learned the name for?
It’s more like what I wrote found the label of speculative poetry. My imagination has always run the not-all-together realistic from when I was a young child. I was much more curious about things that didn’t reflect what we call the real world as I grew up.
In elementary school, I loved reading the fables with talking animals and magic. When I found my way to the library in junior high school, I devoured science fiction and fantasy. I started reading horror in high school and college, but before that, my Mom and I watched horror and science fiction movies on television at night.
Of the first three poems I published in 1994, two were about the process of writing and the third was a kind of vampire poem (reprinted in Animated Objects) called “One Night Stand.”
In the past, you’ve talked about how your mother used to make up bedtime stories with you and your siblings as characters. I was wondering what kind of stories those were, and if they influenced your ultimate direction as a writer? In particular, I noted that a lot of your writing is very sympathetic towards its characters (which isn’t always true of dark fiction), and I was wondering if you think that might have to do with this early influence.
The stories my mother told were adventure/fantasy/magic, like versions of Alice in Wonderland, etc. As the oldest, it was my job to help take care of my brothers and sister except for the youngest baby (who was my mother’s main responsibility). My mother’s strength was her patience and caring with children; she would use her imagination to entertain us when times were lean and mean.
My mother said when I was very young and the second child was brought home, I treated him like my baby, so I was pretty compassionate from the beginning. Each person is completely different in how they process the pain in their lives, but I didn’t see myself as a victim or less than others, no matter what the circumstances of my childhood. No doubt that’s reflected in my writing.
It may surprise people to learn that your educational background was not in English or literature, but rather in math. Although you wrote continuously, it wasn’t until you had graduated college and had a day job that you joined a writing workshop. Out of that, though, you ended up as a founding member of the Circles in the Hair (cith.org) writers’ group (and, of course, a phenomenally successful author). Could you talk a little bit about your path? What did you get from those sort of self-directed workshops, and what advice do you have for people who might be looking to follow a similar path?
I have always been a huge daydreamer, constantly jotting down ideas, scenes, bits of poetry, etc. When I was in high school I wrote back copy for paperback books I had ideas for—not the book, just the blurbs that would be on the back, like the SF paperbacks I saw in stores. I never considered writing as a way of making a living, because that seemed like an extension of the lack in my childhood. I was good at math and science and I knew that would lead to making a solid living, so that’s how I ended up with a BS in Math from Carnegie-Mellon University.
Until I retired, I worked in software development in NYC and made a good living, but never stopped writing or pushing to publish. I was having trouble sitting down and writing each day between the job and family, so I decided to take a speculative writing workshop with Shawna McCarthy at New School near my home. I got more than I expected when I realized that I also needed to learn more about editing my work. Each student had a chance to turn in their writing and then, with Shawna’s direction, given feedback on what worked, what didn’t, with suggestions of how to improve the story.
The writing group, Circles in the Hair (CITH), was born from this workshop in 1990 when on the last day someone stood up and asked who wanted to keep meeting. We began every two weeks, using the same structure for feedback that Shawna taught us. I know, without a doubt, that being in CITH matured my writing by light years. I still send new fiction to them for feedback from Arizona. We’ve known each other a long time and are more like family.
These are the things that work for me, even when I had a day job:
- Write every day (even if only for five minutes).
- Finish the first draft without worrying about editing.
- Try new forms, approaches, and exercises to stretch skills.
- Use workshops/writing groups to increase editing and discipline and get honest feedback.
- Without the day job, I’ve had to make sure my writing is the first thing I do in a day, otherwise it’s too easy to let other projects take over.
- When a piece is as finished as possible, submit it to a market and start writing a new one.
- If a rejection comes back, review the work and see if can be improved; if not, send it back out.
In other interviews, you’ve been very forthcoming about your influences, so I won’t ask you to provide an exhaustive list. Instead, I’ll note that you’ve been very involved in mentorship programs, and that you were awarded the HWA Mentor of the Year Award at the 2017 StokerCon. More than just being an influence, what does being a “mentor” mean to you? When you think back on your career, are there any particular mentors that stand out?
Being a mentor doesn’t just mean being a teacher; more than anything, it means helping another person believe in their talents, dreams, aspirations. That can happen over a period of time or in just one conversation.
None of us move forward in life alone. It’s important to keep that energy circulating. Being a mentor is something everyone can do, because we each have some knowledge we can share with another person. So many people have helped me; from teachers in elementary school through college, to writers who took the time to share their experiences, advice and support with me over the years.
I could write a book on the people who helped me believe in myself and my dreams. A few of the many were:
- My high school science teacher who helped me with my science fair project, and when I won first prize, made sure my award was a year’s subscription to Scientific American Magazine—which I used to borrow from his class to read every month, so I’m pretty sure the award was made to fit me. I used those issues for years as ideas for writing science fiction.
- I already talked about how Shawna McCarthy taught me how to edit, and the writer’s group CITH’s feedback absolutely make me a better writer. And they have always believed in me.
- Gordon Linzner (who I met at CITH, owner/publisher of Space & Time) changed everything for me by having confidence in my writing and publishing my first books, leading to HWA Bram Stoker awards.
- Workshops with Nancy Kress and Terry Bisson were worth their weight in gold. They became friends with me and CITH, leading to discussions and so much valuable advice.
- From the first time that Bob Booth, creator of NECON (the Northeastern Writers Conference) on Rhode Island read my work, he compared my writing to great authors and became a shining light of belief for me.
- When Sheree Thomas accepted my story in 2000 for the first Dark Matter anthology, it changed my life and we became friends. Her continuing support has meant so much to me.
- There’s a long list of established creative people who I admired that have become friends and early supporters of my writing career: Jack Ketchum (AKA Dallas Mayr), David Morrell, Stanley Wiater, Tananarive Due, Charles Grant, Jill Bauman, Rick Hautala, Ellen Datlow, Charlee Jacob, Tom Monteleone, Doug Clegg, Tom Piccirilli, Weston Ochse, Yvonne Navarro, Marge Simon, Elizabeth Massie, Michael Collings. I could go on . . .
- Some who I only talked to a few times but whose words of support were diamonds to me are: Octavia Butler, Ramsey Campbell, Toni Morrison, Joe Lansdale, etc.
In your first collection, Animated Objects, you end the book with excerpts from your journals between 1970 and 1997 (when the book was published). These include sketches of poems and ideas, but also some deeply personal recollections, including one entry summing up your first forty years of life, capped off with “Quiet joy—discovering more love than I can imagine.” What has journaling meant to you—both personally and as part of your creative process? Do you ever have a desire to go back and create another project from old entries?
I now have hundreds of notebooks, fancy and plain, full of bits and pieces of feelings, thoughts, poems, stories, characters, etc. Journaling is my creative life. I learned very early that I couldn’t depend on my memory to bring back an idea, so I started writing everything down. I still love the sensation of pen to paper and carry a paper notebook to write in, especially at night.
Every poetry collection I’ve published was seeded by my journal entries. For Animated Objects (cover art by Brian J. Addison & Majarc Anderson), I went through my journal from the beginning to when that collection was finished, looking for pieces of inspiration to pull out and build on. When starting my next collection, published in 2001, Consumed, Reduced to Beautiful Grey Ashes (cover art by Colleen Crary, interior by Marge Simon), I went through the journals started after 1997, up to 2001 and so on.
My journals are the wild garden I pull seeds from to grow new work. Not everything in a new collection comes from journals, but that is my starting point.
You have two quotes that I found particularly wonderful about the role of poetry and the poet. The first is from a guest blog you did (bit.ly/2kfrkeh), where you acknowledged once saying of yourself: “I exist to sing the song of the Universe.” The other is from your short story “The Power,” in which you describe a poet as one who was “born in a moment of luminosity and had no choice.” How do those relate to your view of poets and poetry?
They describe how poetry is for me. I hear poetry like music in my mind all the time. When I sit down to write a new poem it’s almost like dictation; the words flow through me and I’m in a state of mind I’ve read described as the Zone. I don’t know if that is how things go for every poet.
This might be an odd question, but how do you conceptualize poetry when you are crafting it—is it a visual or an aural medium? You’ve said before that one of the things that encouraged you to work with Stephen M. Wilson on Dark Duet was that his poems moved around the page, which suggests a visual/spatial element. However, I know you read your work aloud while writing and, having heard you read (such as here, bit.ly/2IzVYxE, and here, bit.ly/2keBVG4), I’ve found that knowledge changes my re-reading of your work, as I now hear it with a different cadence and tempo. While I don’t think anyone will dispute that poetry and verse must work out loud, I wonder what you think about the importance of a specific voice and sound? Building on that, I was wondering if your research into the dialects of transcribed folklore that you explored in your post “Genesis—The First Black Horror Writers/Storytellers” (bit.ly/2x0KkpR) has influenced how you think about it?
As I mentioned, poetry is like music—it flows in the back of my mind all the time, like a sound track for the feelings/thoughts/conversation around me. I can plant an image or idea in the flow and poetry will come, as in themed poetry I’ve written for magazines or anthologies. Some poems come with a very specific voice (like Mami Wata, Goddess of Clear Blue), others develop their voice when I practice them.
Before I worked with Stephen Wilson to create Dark Duet, most of my poetry just marched down the page, in line with a few indents. I always loved the idea of concrete poetry; in general I enjoy trying new forms, so I was delighted to work with him to create work that made shapes with words/letters. It was an amazing experience working with him—neither one of us engaged our ego and just found the song for each poem.
The thing is that many years ago when I read my poetry in public, I was so nervous that I read as fast as I could, without looking up, and then left the stage. This was nothing like how my poetry sounded when it came to me, so one day I decided to find teachers and make my performance worthy of the work that flowed through me.
The first teacher was Veronica Golos, a fantastic poet/performer/teacher. After hearing her perform poetry I found out she taught a workshop, which I immediately signed up to attend. She changed how I wrote and read poetry, pushing me to write longer poems, to spend time in re-write developing the images and building my confidence.
The other teacher who completely changed my performance was Jack Ketchum (AKA Dallas Mayr). When he read his work it was like going to a play or movie. One lesson with him, and I was getting compliments on my performances. I often pass his tips along to others and have seen many become better readers.
The research to write the article “Genesis—The First Black Horror Writers/Storytellers” did more to reaffirm how I heard poetry in my head. It was such a learning experience—I look forward to doing more digging in that area at some point in the future.
When a reader first hears your work described as “horror poetry,” they probably have an idea of Grand Guignol blood and guts, or tropes like werewolves and vampires. How do you view your particular type of horror? How does that work in tandem with or in contrast to the science fiction, fantasy, or even non-speculative work that you do?
When I’m selling my poetry in person, I always say that my horror is more moody or psychological as opposed to blood and guts. Readers get the difference when I say this because horror fiction has different approaches.
Because horror has been described as a feeling, I don’t necessarily sit down to write a horror poem as opposed to a non-speculative poem. It’s when I finish writing a poem that I detect that this will invoke some shadow reaction in the reader. If not, then it’s non-speculative, although I think many of my poems are both.
Science fiction poems are a little clearer in that they are inspired by some actual science that I’ve read. I’m happy to be a certified science/math nerd; in 2017 I was a guest at Blerd City Conference in Brooklyn, and it was exciting to be around so many embracing being Black Nerds. Fantasy poetry is often inspired by some factual pieces I’ve read also; I wrote the poem “Mami Wata” after reading about her as an African Goddess.
With your long and prolific career, it might be daunting for new readers to find an entry point, but your 2011 collection How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend is a good place to start. It collects selected previously published works and integrates them alongside new materials into a poem/story/poem/story structure. When you were assembling Demon, did you notice any particular thematic through-lines in your material to that point? Were there themes that had arisen in the past, but which you no longer felt represented you, and so left on the cutting room floor?
How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend (cover and interior art by Jill Bauman) is a good place to begin reading my work since it’s a collection that has horror, science fiction, and fantasy poetry and fiction in it. I actually designed it that way on purpose. I was approached by Bob Booth (founder of NECON conference) to do a collection that had the best of my fiction reprints in it. It was right after my mother died, and I wasn’t really writing finished work (journaling continued). The more I thought about it, the more it appealed to me as a way to return from mourning to writing.
You’ll notice that even the title is different from my previous titles, which were more like lines of poetry, although this title is the name of the opening poem. The ending poem is “How to Recognize Your Friend Has Become a Demon;” I like to joke that the book is entertaining and instructional.
Themes for all my collections develop as I put the book together, including this one. I wanted to create a set of my work that would have something for everyone. At the same time, there is a clear (in my mind anyway) design for how each piece was placed; like stepping stones, one leads to the next. It’s more organic than intellectual when I put it together, but I would describe my themes as evolving light/dark. There are always pieces that initially I want to use, but don’t fit the particular tapestry being spun in a specific book. I can’t say whether it’s because they no longer represent me since where the me and the work begins and ends isn’t obvious. For example, I have a reprinted story, “The Box,” in this collection that comes from my first book, Animated Objects, because it fit in a place of this book.
From recently re-reading your work from front to back, one thing that seems to emerge (at least to me) is a concern with transcendence, often in the form of moving from a position of isolation towards unity. For example, your contribution to the Four Elements collection are structured as “bardos”—you reference dharma in several works—and there are a number of poems that suggest to me of a kind of universal whole awakening to or rejoining its disparate forms. I was wondering if that is a philosophy or mindset that you also see in your work?
That’s a mindset that is in my life, always has been. I was very young when I started wondering what the meaning of existence was, my place in it, and why people behave the way they do. I have studied Christianity, Buddhism, psychology, etc., and taken what made sense to me from everything. My belief system is a bit of a mixed bag, but totally works for me and is ever-evolving. Everything is connected; even in writing fiction, I can’t be separated from the story, no matter how made up it is.
You’ve published several works with other poets, such as the Stoker-winning Four Elements with Marge Simon, Rain Graves, and Charlee Jacob, in which each poet wrote a section inspired by a different element. You also published Dark Duet with Stephen M. Wilson, where you and he co-wrote certain poems, while others you wrote separately but referenced and built off one another’s work. What was it like working on those projects? What kind of energy did you find in them?
Dark Duet (cover by Kiri Moth with us and our favorite instruments, and interior art by Jill Bauman) was like finding my twin, separated at birth. Stephen and I worked so beautifully together. When we did a collaborative poem, we allowed the other to make any changes to the prior section they wanted, and it always made the poem better. Stephen sent me one of our favorites in a card for my birthday, “Bell’arte del canto,” which I have on my file cabinet in my writing office. I’m so deeply proud of this book; working with Stephen inspired me to create work that was an evolution of what I wrote before. Stephen died after an incredibly brave struggle with cancer, which still brings tears to me, but he lived long enough to see it on the final ballot for the HWA Bram Stoker and that meant everything.
What a harmonious dark duet
the Bell’arte del canto sends
Linda and Stephen forever
to dance on the edge of Life!
Four Elements came as an idea between me and Gerard Houarner (a fantastic author), talking about how cool it would be to have a collection by women who had already won HWA Bram Stoker awards. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see it happen. I loved and respected the work by Marge Simon, Rain Graves, and Charlee Jacob, and knew all three of them. When I contacted them about the book they were totally in, even though we didn’t have a publisher. I let each of them pick their element and I was left with Air, which was perfect. I was studying Buddhism and totally fascinated by the Six Bardos (a transitional state between Life and Death or two lives on Earth), so I created my version of them through daydreaming. My section is the journey for an entity from the first poem to the last—I completely enjoyed the trip!
We were blessed with interior section art by Marge Simon and a wonderful cover by Daniele Serra. It didn’t matter to me what poetry/fiction the other authors put in their sections, I knew it would be excellent. Once it was completed, we began the search for a publisher. Bad Moon Books became our publisher and did the most amazing job of creating hardcover and paperback versions of the book with full color art inside. The fact that it won a HWA Bram Stoker was a wonderful surprise, since I’ve never written with the idea of winning awards.
While most of your work has been poetry and short prose, I know that for a while you were considering novel-length projects. How is that going, and do you have any burning interest in doing other forms of fiction or non-fiction? I know that you have a relationship to several film projects, so is that an area you’re interested in exploring further?
I’d always been a little afraid (okay, a lot) of starting a novel, because I thought I’d get lost and never finish it. When I won the HWA Bram Stoker for How To Recognize A Demon Has Become Your Friend, I was at the after party and Rick Hautala and Joe Lansdale (who were both being given the HWA Lifetime Achievement Award that year) cornered me and wanted to know why I hadn’t written a novel. I told them about my fear and they basically said since I know how to write a short story, just write each chapter like a story. I thought about that advice and my fear went away. It was a pivotal moment for me.
It took a while to process the idea, but when I retired from the day job and was writing full-time, I looked at the list of book ideas I had collected (over ten), and most were extensions of stories I had published in the area of SF, horror and fantasy.
It’s a learning curve, but I’m feeling good about the on-going evolution. Right now I’m in SF mode, so we’ll see how that goes. I also have an idea about a series of non-fiction books (more like work books) around my journey to finding balance in my life.
Per film projects, I’m so interested in seeing my work created in a visual form because that’s how I see them as I write, so time will tell how that develops.
In addition to writing, you’re also an experienced editor. Not only are you the Poetry Editor at Space and Time Magazine, but you recently co-edited Sycorax’s Daughters—a collection of horror prose and poetry by African-American women. How did you get involved in that project, and what were your aims and guiding principles with that? What was it like working with your co-editors?
Sycorax’s Daughters (cover by Jim Callahan) was the brainchild of Prof. Kinitra Brooks (who is currently putting together the non-fiction companion anthology). She contacted me with the idea of working with her and Prof. Susana Morris on Sycorax’s Daughters. This project spoke to me on so many levels. I needed the horror community to know that there were many other African-Americans (and other groups) writing horror. The opportunity to highlight Black women sang to my soul since I held this place as being the first African-American/woman to receive a HWA Bram Stoker (although I often remind people that Tananarive Due was on the final ballot for the Bram Stoker years before anyone knew of me).
It was a great working with Kinitra and Susana to gather authors from every outlet: their classrooms, other anthologies, magazines, writers we had met at events. A huge resource was Sumiko Saulson’s book Black Women in Horror which was started in 2013 with sixty authors and now has over 100 authors in it. It was worth every moment to create this anthology (released by Cedar Grove Publishing), especially when Sycorax’s Daughters became a finalist for the HWA Bram Stoker in superior achievement in the Anthology category. I was beyond happy!
As a side note: Kinitra’s book Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror (Rutgers University Press) was also a finalist for the Bram Stoker in Non-Fiction.
You’re a very active member of a number of professional organizations, including the HWA, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), and Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA). Beyond those professional organizations, you’re also a frequent presence at conventions like the Northeast Writers’ Conference (Necon), StokerCon, and other SF/F events. What has it meant to you to be part of those groups and communities?
I spent many years writing alone in my room, but read a lot about the business of writing and the organizations that help authors. As soon as I began to sell to professional publications I started applying for membership because of my need to know more about how other writers worked and the business.
Going to conventions, being around other writers and readers is inspiring and energizing—writing is, after all, a solitary job. I found that making connections to publishers, etc., also was very good for the business side. I take away so much, and hope I give something back in return. Not to mention, I love talking to other people crazy about writing/reading like me.
You’ve also been a voice for diversity in those groups, including being a part of HWA’s Diverse Works Inclusion Committee and the recommendation column The Seers’ Table (bit.ly/2KLpDk1). Do you think that speculative and dark fiction in general have an inclusive community and canon, or is there more that needs to be done?
I’m very committed to the HWA’s Diverse Works Inclusion Committee started by Lisa Morton (the president) and The Seers’ Table column. Exposing the membership to creators (black, women, LGBTQ, etc.) they wouldn’t normally read is EVERYTHING! The column’s purpose is not to make suggestions for awards, just to say: look, here’s someone that may be different from what you’re used to reading—check them out!
How much that helps to open people’s minds, I can’t say, but this year’s HWA Bram Stoker awards were given to work by two Black creators (Graphic Novel: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler and Damian Duffy with art by John Jennings; Screenplay: Get Out by Jordan Peele), happily ending my being the only African-American with a Bram Stoker.
There’s much more to be done to balance things out, but at least the need for inclusiveness is being discussed for solutions. Editors are acknowledging the need to have more diverse editorial staff (ex. The Twisted Book of Shadows anthology edited by Christopher Golden and James A. Moore create an editorial committee that includes marginalized communities), the Black speculative community has created resources and outlets of its own (ex. Black Science Fiction Society, MVmedia Publishing, Facebook groups like The State of Black Science Fiction, Colors in Darkness, Afrofuturism, HorrorAddicts.net, Diversity In Speculative Fiction & Literature and organizing conventions like Blacktasticon (SOBSFCon2018), AstroBlackness and so on).
As an African-American woman who writes horror, I know you’re often asked to comment on your position in these intersectional roles. While those are very important, I’m curious as to how you think about yourself when you’re in the middle of the act of writing? Is there a core “Linda D. Addison” that you’ve found?
The core me when writing is a human being, not woman, African-American, etc. In the midst of writing, I disappear into the Zone and let the words flow through me, but they aren’t separate from how the world sees me, or how I want to be treated.
If the past is any indication, you aren’t one to rest on your laurels. What are you currently up to? Where can we catch you in person and on the page? More importantly, what as-of-yet unrealized ideas are you interested in still exploring?
I’m currently finishing a SF short story collection that apparently is a linked story collection (per discussion with Connie Willis at Westercon in 2017). It takes place in a future I created in a story, When We Dream Together, published in 2010 in Genesis: An Anthology of Black Science Fiction (Graves Sheffield Publishing). Like all my stories, I loved the world I created and always wanted to play in it more. I’m having a great time with it.
I’m a guest at Blacktasticon, June 16-17, 2018 in Atlanta, GA; and Toastmaster at World Fantasy Convention (WFC) November 1-4, 2018 in Baltimore, MD; and panelist, host of Open Mic at TusCon November 9-11 in Tucson, AZ.
For more, check out my site for where to find me: lindaaddisonpoet.com.
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