Baton Rouge-based poet Dylan Krieger was 16 years old when she gave her first public reading. She had won a contest for high-school-age writers and was excited to drive from her then-South Bend, Indiana, home to Knox College in Illinois for the event.
She didn’t realize the competition included young children and that elementary school students would be at the reading. Which was awkward, because her story touched on some rather mature themes.
“I basically wound up reading a story about child molestation to a room full of third-graders,” Krieger said.
She warned her audience beforehand, and a few parents escorted their children out of the room. But overall, the reading went over fine. An adult even thanked her for speaking out about a difficult topic.
“It was just shockingly positive,” Krieger said. “I don’t know how I’m so lucky. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop any day now.”
Last year, Krieger published her first book, "Giving Godhead." The New York Times review declared it “the best collection of poetry to appear in English in 2017,” even though the year was barely half-over.
Krieger feared a backlash against the overly effusive praise and the collection’s humorous mixture of the sacred and profane. The title is a pun referencing a generous God and an act best not described in a family-friendly newspaper.
But much like that first reading, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Her small publisher was overwhelmed by demand, and other presses are taking notice.
“Since the Times review, everyone suddenly takes me seriously,” she said.
Krieger, who was home-schooled by her mother for religious reasons, was part of an Assembly of God youth group. She said that at the church there was a lot of “raising of hands” and “speaking in tongues,” although she never managed the latter.
“I felt very left out,” she said. “I was prayed over several times. I just couldn’t get the knack.”
While she wasn’t a bad kid, she felt repressed by her culturally conservative upbringing. She found humor in it, too. She would joke with her friends about potential double entendres in the youth group’s worship songs.
Asked about her earliest work, she admitted to being “a stereotypical angst-y punk teenager who wanted to write about blood, guts, bones and sadness.”
She studied creative writing and philosophy at Notre Dame, where she became interested in “the grotesque,” a literary concept that often involves depicting the human form in exaggerated or abnormal ways to elicit both disgust and empathy.
She wrote "Giving Godhead" as her thesis while earning a creative writing master’s degree at LSU. While in Baton Rouge, she was warned that religious jokes and allusions would be lost on most readers. She realized she was mainly writing it for her youth group friends who “felt duped by their parents for raising them that way.”
“There was a lot of resentment toward the church in that book,” said Krieger, who no longer considers herself a Christian. “(Writing it) was a cathartic experience. I’m no longer quite as angry as I was.”
Her second book, "dreamland trash," was released this month. Its poems portray the fractured nature of American culture using snippets of text from bar chatter and the internet.
“It’s very much about this first-world mentality, knowing that we’re destroying the planet and diving headfirst into that anyway,” Krieger said.
Her forthcoming third book, "no ledge left to love," won the annual poetry contest held by Ping-Pong Free Press and the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Its prose poems are inspired by famous philosophical thought experiments, such as Plato’s cave and Zeno’s paradoxes.
Krieger does much of her writing on lunch breaks from her job as a trade magazine editor. The limited amount of time forces her to write without editing, rather than wait around for the “magical moment of inspiration.”
She edits in the evening after a couple of drinks, recording and listening to the pieces. Much like a comedian crafts the precise wording of a punchline, Krieger refines how she performs her poetry in hopes of making an impact on her audience.
“There’s something about saying a poem in the right way," she said, "that makes it complete.”