Thursday 1 October 2015

Interview with Darius Degher

Poet, musician, and teacher Darius Degher interviewed by Alexandros Plasatis

Darius Degher

Darius Degher is a poet, musician, and teacher. His poems have appeared in literary magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. His 2014 poetry book To See the Sound is a New Formalist collection that’s been praised by poets and scholars in both the US and UK. He teaches creative writing online in the English department of Malmö University, Sweden. He’s the founder and editor of the Shipwrights Review, an international literary magazine for second-language English authors. He has a BA in English from UCLA and an MA in creative writing from Lancaster University in England. Darius is also a singer-songwriter who has released six CDs and performed at iconic music venues around the USA.
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‪AP. What’s your story with the English language?‬‬‬‬‬ Did you find it difficult to learn English?

DD. Well, I’m a native Californian, so I didn’t have to work especially hard learning it.

AP. Oh, pardon… I thought you were Swedish. How about Swedish then? Was that difficult?

DD. Yeah, Swedish took some work, and although I’m fluent, I guess I’ve never become an especially good speaker of Swedish. This is because Swedes are such excellent speakers of English that it bred laziness in me. But yes, although I’m a native English speaker, I find beauty in the English language. More importantly, I find bizarre idiosyncrasy, and this is what makes English so rich and vibrant, it seems to me.‬‬‬‬

AP. You coined the term “decentred English”. ‬‬‬‬‬Tell me about it. And what's the difference with the term “exophonic writer”?
DD. Decentered English is a term that describes the condition of English for the majority of English speakers in the world today. Since the combined number of Second- and Foreign-language English speakers now triples that of native English speakers (1.2 billion to 375 million respectively), native speakers are in the distinct minority.

I coined the term as I pondered this, thinking about how the language will, inevitably, be changing in the future and what constitutes “correctness” in the face of the above numbers. But it’s important to remember that I am not a linguist but a poet. So, the term came from a place more poetic than linguistic. Nevertheless, when my colleague Jean Hudson, who is a linguist, heard the term, she thought it aptly described the situation and encouraged me to use it.

Writers who come from the world of decentered English are usually exophonic writers.
AP. Any advice for decentred English writers?‬
DD. Yes, submit your work to Shipwrights. More seriously though, decentered English writers face the same challenges of craft mastery that native language writers face. But they face additional challenges related to understanding the idiomatic aspects of English, not to mention dialect and other issues. Imagine the challenges of writing accurate and believable dialogue in a foreign language.

I’m continually amazed at some my students’ ability to do this the way they do. Sometimes I’ll read a text and wonder whether the writer is, in fact, even an exophonic writer because of its remarkably high quality. Then I’ll have a Skype meeting with that same student and hear a definite accent in the spoken English. This surprises and fascinates me.
AP. And the story of Shipwrights?‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

DD. I founded Shipwrights some eight years ago. It began as a forum for the students in the writing courses at Malmö University in Sweden, but I hoped it would grow beyond simply that. And it has. We now get submissions from, and publish, writers from various countries. The Internet is a natural home for decentered English, and Shipwrights is open to any exophonic writer on the planet. (It’s also open to the submissions of native English writers who live in Scandinavia, because I felt it would be odd to forbid native English writers living in Sweden.  So, they are the exception.) 

Shipwrights, however, is still growing – and I hope to increase its reach in the coming years.

Every second year we award our Conrad-Nabokov Award to the most promising exophonic writer we’ve published in that period. The award is judged by an outside judge. Once it was judged by Janet Burroway, perhaps the world’s best-selling author of creative writing textbooks. She was surprised by the quality of the writing.

AP. How’s the Creative Writing course at Malmö University going?‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬
DD. ‬The Creative Writing courses at Malmö University are about ten years old. There are three levels. I’ve been told that the introductory course is one of the most applied-for courses at the university. Last term there were more than 1000 applicants for the course, which accepts about 70. Sweden doesn’t have a tradition of creative writing at universities, so it was not an easy sell initially. Now that its popularity is proven, and it generates money that supports other courses, it’s been accepted. Our program of three levels is the only thing like it in Sweden, I believe.
The courses also serve another interesting function: they allow expatriate Swedes living all over the world to be part of the Creative Writing community we’ve started.

AP. Do you have mainly Swedish students?

DD. Yes, the majority of students are Swedish, but there are many who are not, including perhaps 5-10% native English speakers. That these writers blend in perfectly well with the Swedes is a testament to the English language skills of the Swedes.
In a way it makes perfect sense for Sweden to be a host of the decentered English community, because Swedes are pretty remarkable foreign-language English speakers.

AP. Why do Swedes want to study Creative Writing in English?
DD. Why Swedes (and others) want to write in English is a fascinating topic. Of course, many of my students are there for purely proficiency-related reasons; but the ones who are more serious as writers have interesting reasons indeed for doing it in English.  One reason is the same one that inspires Swedish pop artists to record in English: the market is so much bigger. When you come from a language of only 9 million speakers, there is certainly sometimes a temptation to want to reach more people than that. More interestingly, however, I have students every term who claim they feel more comfortable and more inspired writing in English than they do in Swedish. This is really interesting to me. And this population of decentered English writers is not limited to Sweden, although Swedes may be the most proficient. I’m also getting increasing numbers of students each year from places like Russia and Greece who also want to write in English.

AP. Thanks for this, Darius. Can we listen to one of your songs now?

DD. Yes, how about this one?


Darius Degher's website

Sample poems

Shipwrights Review Magazine‬‬

About the interviewer
Alexandros Plasatis lives in Leicester and had short stories published in Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud (2012), Unthology 6 (2015), and Crystal Voices: Ten Years of Crystal Clear Creators (2015).

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