portrait Danika Dinsmore

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 126 ~ November, 2007

Danika Dinsmore — a screenwriter, novelist, and poet — is author of several poetry collections, including Every Day Angels & Other Near-Death Experiences (2002) and Her Red Book (2004). She also is co-creator of the on-going collaborative writing project, The 3:15 Experiment, with fellow poets Bernadette Mayer, Lee Ann Brown, and Jen Hofer. Two anthologies of the work have been published and a website is created for the yearly participants to present their work.

Dinsmore graduated with a BA in English from California Lutheran University, and also obtained her teaching credential there. She has an MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Colorado, where she explored experimental and performance poetry, and received an Advanced Certificate in Screenwriting from the University of Washington.

In 1995, Dinsmore moved to Seattle, where she co-founded the Northwest Spokenword LAB (SPLAB) and acted as Executive Director for two years. She also directed the Seattle Poetry Festival and the Emerging Voice artists-in-the-schools program.

Currently a resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, Dinsmore teaches at Vancouver Film School and is president of Women in Film and Television Vancouver, as well as Chair of the organization’s annual Women in Film Festival. She has won numerous awards for her poetry and screenwriting, including “Best Fresh Voice” at Toronto’s Female Eye Film Festival. Five of her short scripts have been produced, one of which she directed, and she has also directed a children’s music video. She is presently working on her second novel in a young adult fantasy adventure series.

Derek Alger: You certainly started writing at an early age.

Photo © Danika Dinsmore

Danika Dinsmore: Somehow, I’ve always known I was a writer. Having confidence in myself as a writer was another thing. And for a long while, I didn’t think it was something one could actually do as a career, for a living. I think that’s society talking, not anything my parents instilled in me. So, I “fell back on teaching” as the saying goes. I do love teaching. I love working with students, I just don’t like a lot of the other stuff that comes with teaching, like grading.

DA: Let’s make a deal, I won’t grade you if you don’t grade me.

DD: For a long time I was a poet and it took me at least 10 years of being a poet to understand that I was good at it. Then I became a screenwriter and it took at least eight years to understand that I was good at that and, hey, perhaps I could actually make a living at it. Then I became a novelist, which was the most intimidating sort of writing to me. The novelist is responsible for everything about the work. I couldn’t depend upon actors or directors or producers to bring it to life, I had to do all of that myself. Any weakness would be my own. But I guess the converse of that is that any success and any strength is my own as well.

DA: You credit your high school teachers with encouraging you to write.

DD: I was already writing poetry regularly by the time I was a senior in high school. It was terrible love-sick kind of stuff that I only showed my best friend. We didn’t have access to things like the Internet or Def Poetry Jam or anything that told me poetry could be hip and experimental and wasn’t that traditionally shlock, rhymed stuff.

I also started a novel in high school, about a girl who didn’t think she fit in of course, I mean, what else is there that we write about in high school! I had great English teachers in high school, and some of them were very tough, but I liked that about them. I had an amazing student teacher for one semester of my senior year and she had the unfortunate task of spending an entire quarter teaching Moby Dick to us. I read Melville later in my life and appreciated him much more. In any case, I wrote my final exam essay on Moby Dick in the form of a ballad. The incredible thing was that it simply dropped into my head, in its entirety. It came out in perfect ballad form and I didn’t even realize that was what I was doing at the time. It was my first experience with that kind of spontaneous verse and it felt wonderful and magical. I could tell, as I was writing it, that it was good, but I barely felt like it was my own since it was so effortless. That was the moment I truly realized I was a poet.

DA: In college, you earned a degree in English, as well as a teaching credential, which both seemed to have served you well.

DD: My first degree was a fairly traditional literary path than one might expect I would have taken. That’s because I didn’t have any exposure to anything but a more traditional literary canon. The most experienced poet I had ever read was e.e. cummings, and even that was his more accessible stuff. The teaching credential has served me well. It has allowed me to work in a field where I get to at least appreciate literature and writing, although teaching full-time doesn’t allow much time for my own work. I prefer contract teaching a few classes here and there at the local colleges, or artist-in-residence programs. I also sometimes tutor young actors on film sets, which is a hoot.

DA: You later ventured off to Boulder, Colorado and earned an MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. How did that come about?

DD: I was literally sitting in the English Department at California Lutheran University (where I did my undergrad), wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life after I graduated. Continuing my education was the farthest thing from my mind. I actually didn’t think I was very smart and school was difficult for me. I worked very hard for every grade I earned. I was a slow reader and not a great speller, so it often took me all night to do my English assignments. I was horrible with dates and would get them mixed up in my mind.

In any case, there I was, thinking that I didn’t want to live in Thousand Oaks, so where was I going to go? I saw a poster tacked on the wall about Naropa that said the Writing Program had been founded by Allen Ginsberg. I knew that name, we had read some of his work in one of my classes. It also said the school was in Boulder and I could get my master’s degree in writing and poetics. Someone had told me that I would love Boulder. I too wanted to learn to write better, and I liked Ginsberg’s work. So, boom, an intuitive voice told me that’s where I needed to go.

DA: What was the Naropa experience like?

DD: After my first week at Naropa, I was in tears wondering how in the world I had been accepted into the program. I felt completely inexperienced compared to other people.

I barely knew any of the writers people had read. But I stuck it out and eventually I learned who all the references were because they all visited during the summer intensives. I met so many amazing poets, my mind was blown; Everything I thought I knew about poetry went out the window. I learned experimental forms, I learned about language poetry, I learned about performance poetry. One could not graduate from Naropa without performing. I got a rush from performing. I really dug being on stage and working off the audience’s energy.

I loved the small classes. I loved the experience to new forms. I loved being immersed in poetry, I loved being surrounded by people who discussed and wrote poetry. It was more conservative than the old days at Naropa were, which we were told about by the visiting poets each summer. Naropa had gotten accredited and had to hold certain standards, which went up again when it went from a college to a university. Gone were the days of drugs and nakedness. Haha.

DA: Then you taught for a year in a small mining town in the Colorado mountains.

DD: Yup. Not the happiest days of my life, but I learned a lot about teaching. I learned that I did not want to teach in the traditional public school setting.

DA: And then it was off to Seattle.

DD: Seattle will always have a place in my heart because I really came to know myself in that town. I went through a divorce, which was not fun, and was diagnosed with a chronic illness, also not fun. But I also went far deeper into myself than I had ever done. It was like I suddenly woke up and realized who I was. I became a better poet, a better performer, a better teacher, a better student. It was another kind of education. I studied everything around me, the people, the art, the landscape. I traveled and wrote and tried new things. It was a very prolific time for poetry.

Three years after my divorce, I went to Eastern Europe for a year. That was also an important journey. To travel so far on my own, to be in a strange place by myself, surrounded by a language I didn’t understand. It was amazing and lonely at the same time. I met people, of course, and some of my friends even came to see me, but it was still a very lonely time. That’s not a bad thing, by the way.

Then I was sitting in an Internet Cafe in Prague, again having one of my “what the hell do I do now?” moments and I got an e-mail from a friend saying the Eleventh Hour Productions (a literary arts organization that produced the Seattle Poetry Festival) was hiring a new Executive Director and was I interested. I was on a plane back to Seattle in a month and immersed myself in running the non-profit. It was a good fit. I was passionate about the organization, the cause, about the importance of poetry, and poets.

DA: You may be an accomplished writer, but word is you’re also an excellent facilitator and organizer.

DD: It’s true. I can’t seem to get away from it. My best friends will tell you that I’m always organizing everything. It’s a blessing and a curse. I don’t know what drives that part of myself. I was editor of both college literary magazines and started another `zine with twofriends at Naropa. I moved to Seattle and started organizing poetry readings. Then I co-founded and ran the Northwest Spoken word LAB (SLAB) in Auburn, WA before moving on to run Eleventh Hour. Right now, I’m currently President of Women in Film and Television Vancouver and am chair of the Women in Film Festival. I can’t seem to stop myself.

DA: You also established the first teen poetry slam in Washington State.

DD: Yes, it was an amazing time at SPLAB. The kids had never been exposed to slam before, so they had their completely own forms and styles. They were brilliant and I’m not just saying that to be kind. It was very popular and we had crowds of people who came. They were natural and uncorrupted by commercial voices and the formula that slam poetry had become.

DA: What was The 3:15 Experiment?

DD: The 3:15 Experiment is another organized “event” that I’m sure I will continue to do for the rest of my life. It’s a yearly collaborative writing experiment I started with poets Bernadette Mayer, Lee Ann Brown, and Jen Hofer. Since 1993, a shifting menagerie of poets has woken up at 3:15 AM each morning during the month of August to write. We had a website and two anthologies of work. Right now, it’s where the bulk of my poetry comes from because I don’t write much poetry these days.

DA: Somehow, during your Seattle period, you discovered screenwriting and found time to earn an Advanced Certificate in Screenwriting.

DD: Being a screenwriter was another of those things that it didn’t dawn on me until later that one could become. I had carried an idea for a screenplay around with me for years. It seemed like the best way to get it written. Turned out, I like screenwriting. I kept doing it. I kept pursuing it as a path. It began to feed me in a way that poetry had done for years. It was the next best thing for me and it was a calling.

DA: Now you’re north of the border teaching at Vancouver Film School.

DD: I moved to Canada because I married a Canadian and wasn’t happy with the political climate in the U.S. Little did I know what an amazing film community Vancouver had. It’s not talked about in the U.S. much. It’s casually mentioned, but Hollywood is such a giant. I love Vancouver and I love the industry here. It has serendipity, a perfect match for me. I immersed myself in the community and started getting short films made and tutoring kids on set for big budget American films. Eventually, I ended up at Vancouver Film School due to my teaching background (see, it came in handy!). I teach a story class and a feature film workshop.

DA: You’re also president of Women in Film and Television Vancouver.

DD: Yup, can’t stop organizing things. Some day I’ll learn.

DA: Can you tell us about a couple of your short films which have been produced?

DD: The one that had the most success was a comedy called Stick Up, which did well on the festival circuit and was picked up for a comedy short series on Comedy Network here in Canada. I was really proud of that script because it was funny! Writing short films made me realize that I could write comedy. Usually dark comedy, but comedy nonetheless.

DA: You’re also obviously dedicated to promoting women in the film industry.

DD: Well, right now I’ve found myself becoming an advocate for women in the film industry. I’ve been working with a group called the B.C. Institute of Film Professionals (BCIFP) on a study of the status of women in film and we’re bringing the results to the public’s attention. Our campaign is called Please Adjust Your Set (www.pleaseadjustyourset.com) and the thing is, the studies demonstrate that women are significantly underrepresented in above the line, higher status, better remunerated and core culture/content determining positions. What this means is that if only a small representation of our society has creative control of our media, then the stories being told will not reflect all the varied human experiences. Start counting the number of women in the positions of lead actor, writer, director, editor, director of photography, and producer and you’ll begin to see for yourself.

DA: Anything in closing?

DD: All I can say is that when I become an overnight success, I get to bring my soapbox with me.