Her short-form poem is "Down Cycles," and her long-form poem is “The Walking Man Goes Looking for the Sons of John: Six Cantos,” both of which appeared in Apex Magazine. Her "Walking Man" poem even features a couple of cities you might be familiar with.
The nice thing about science fiction poetry is that it's a very accessible form. The subject matter is stuff that anyone familiar with popular culture is going to know something about. For instance, McClellan's nominated poems this year are about a murderous form of artificial intelligence and the Devil. When she makes an allusion, it's to things and people you're going to be familiar with—like Lower Broad or Elvis.
And because you're not struggling with the content, it's easier to enjoy how the poetic structure works.
Take this part from "The Walking Man":
Every time he slips into gospel
in the middle of laying down
the most outrageous slow-time blues,
he tells himself it’s pure irony, but
See how the line breaks kind of encourage you to toy with where to place the emphasis? How the figurative language works so that he's both slipping into song and slipping into someplace he can rest? How that next line keeps both possibilities open? It's a nice touch and science fiction poetry makes that kind of word play really feel like play.
Anyway, join us below the jump for poetry talk. And if you are a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (or are thinking of becoming one), vote for the local gal!
So, this is the second year in a row you've been nominated for a Rhysling Award for your poetry. In fact, this year you have two poems vying for the award. At this point, we can pretty much go ahead and call you the premiere science fiction poet in Tennessee, right?
Absolutely not. The day I put myself ahead of talents like Janis Ian, who among her many other honors was nominated for the Rhysling last year (and may be again, since I haven’t seen this year’s list) will be the day I regret my hubris. I am an emerging poet doing reasonably well, for which I am grateful. Maybe someday you can go ahead on that plan.
We talked about your poem "The Walking Man Goes Looking for the Sons of John: Six Cantos" a little bit last year but this year it's one of the nominated poems, so I hope you don't mind if we talk about it again. One of the things that I really like about this poem is that it seems to perfectly draw on and meld two folk traditions about the Devil — the old blues tradition of him nabbing souls down at the crossroads, and the old New England folktale tradition of the Devil being more like another strange and kind of annoying person life might throw in your path rather than the personification of all evil. I got the impression that your devil functions more like a trickster than a flat-out demon (at least in the Christian sense of what a demon is). Do you read your Devil as a trickster?
This Devil both is and is not a trickster — he sets up the crossroads trick, but doesn’t play it. The rest of the time, we don’t see him playing tricks but rather suffering, lost in his punishment — thirst, loss of memory, cursed to repeat patterns that go nowhere, inability to learn from mistakes, his ultimate powerlessness over the story he’s in. The further story of this Devil is forthcoming in other poems — I’ve got a Nashville poem of his that will be part of an upcoming project, and I’m sure that’s not the last time one of his stories is going to come across my mind.
I keep noticing that the women in this poem seem to intrinsically know how to handle him. You say that the one waitress takes the $20 bills he gives her and "She seals his tips in a Ziploc, /runs them through the washer /with her uniform after work." And it's the waitresses who worry about him after the flood. Even the "Jane from Michigan" tries to help him. What is it with the Devil and women?
None of that was particularly conscious — the manager that gives the warning is male, although I don’t know if I specified his gender. There are always women in my stories, and there weren’t many in the mythos, so they came through at the edges. Women in the service industry deal with dudes like this Devil regularly, especially in the areas where this Devil is doing his drinking, so there are a lot of them in this poem.
A note about Jane from Michigan and the women in this poem, since you brought them up: every name in this poem except Elvis is a derivative of “John” — except Grace at the beauty shop. John means “God is gracious.” It may be that all these women came across so helpful because they were representatives of grace.
When the Devil visits the slave cemetery, you write "The Devil doesn’t need to read them, he /remembers who rests here in his bones. /Those who never got a decent burial /have always been his particular kin, /whether or not they were among the saved." In a way, it seems like your whole poem is toying with the notion that the Devil is the deity left to all the Americans who fall outside of the bounds of society in some way. I felt like that was a really powerful critique of American ideas about Christianity — that the downtrodden in America get left to the Devil. I wonder if that's why you gave him a relatable edge? Do you think humans need a relationship with the Divine? Even if the Divine kind of sucks?
The folkloric Devil who appears at the crossroads with instrumental skill to trade is tied into the African diasporic traditions. That story doesn’t come from white America, it comes to the South out of slavery. This Devil is not Satan in the classic Western sense, not the embodiment of All Evil. The conflation of the crossroads god who could give you skill for service with the built-up mythos of Satan from Milton to Hawthorne and so on is itself problematic, coming as it does from the imposition of the dominant culture on people whose cultures were actively being stripped from them. The character that emerged when I thought about that specific conflation in Devil folklore is the one in the poem — and I wanted him to be relatable in dealing with an eternal curse he didn’t really earn, stuck with no “last fair deal” — like a lot of the people the Devil appears to be when he manifests in this story, who can’t and don’t get any fair deal themselves.
I hesitate to say humans need a relationship with the Divine when I know people who get along just fine without belief in any divinity whatsoever. I need a relationship with the Divine, and I’m not alone. I need stories, which are boring if everyone in them is perfect. God is love, but Satan can’t seek or get forgiveness for once questioning God, even though humans receive that grace. I’m not a theologian, I don’t have an answer for what that means in terms of religion. I’m a poet who treated it as a premise to write a story about the enormity of what that would mean to one particular manifestation of all the archetypal roles we’ve placed the Devil in, in literature and art.
As a side note, that slave cemetery is a real place. All the places in that poem are real places.
Okay, I promise this is the nerdiest question I have, but you have to know that, when you throw "Cantos" in the title, folks are going to think "Ezra Pound." Pound had some issues, to put it mildly, but the issue of his I want to focus on is his fucked-up belief that the elites were losing cultural dominance to "the masses," which included Jewish people, black people, and other outsiders (let's not bother to wonder how Pound, a poet who knew what words meant, could believe that there was a secret cabal of ultra-powerful Jews who were ruining it for the elites without it ever occurring to him that any ultra-powerful cabal is, by definition, elite). And here you are with some cantos to those masses. I'm reading too much into it when I read this as a big "fuck you" to Pound, right?
If I were a little more intellectually dishonest I would tell you that was totally what I intended, but no dice. I hesitated to put Cantos in the title for exactly this reason — I know Eliot better than I know Pound, so even your question is an education to me. But to me "cantos" means religious songs as strongly if not more strongly than it means Ezra Pound. So I went with it anyway. If it serves as a slap back at the type of thinking he embraced and I reject, it is a happy accident.
Having cantos (songs) about a guy to whom so many blues songs are attributed is a nice touch. I don't really have a question about that. I just liked it.
Well, thanks. It was what seemed right, as much music as is in this poem. S.J. Tucker, who has also recorded some of the poetry I talked about in the last interview plans to record it with me at some future point, so we’ll see what’s in store for the Devil when an actual songstress takes the musical parts. S.J. has already recorded the audio for two of my poems, The Sea Witch Talks Show Business for Goblin Fruit and Panikos, a Nashville poem, for Stone Telling , and is herself closely tied to Memphis, so I am excited to see where this poem goes when it’s translated to spoken and sung.
I think "Down Cycles" is probably going to be a more difficult poem for Country Life readers, though it's science fictionality is more apparent. Can you give readers a little guidance? Is the speaker a murderous robot or what?
Readers who are familiar with the first Portal video game will recognize the speaker of this poem, which will be reprinted in the Moments of Change anthology this spring, as GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), the murderous AI who narrates the mini-game.
This poem came about because I am weird, basically. I have never played Portal, because I don’t play video games, but I am fascinated with all things AI and have gamers in my circle, so I knew about the character. (I also knew the theme song, since it was released by Jonathan Coulton.) When I was studying for the LSAT, I used a sound file of GLaDOS’ dialogue from the game to induce stress while practicing in the days leading up to the test, since along with threatening to murder you and promising you cake, the AI talks a lot about your terrible test performance (the game being itself a fragmented and demented test that GLaDOS is putting you through). Strange, but it worked for me even better than practicing test questions in a noisy coffee shop or uncomfortable fast-food restaurant seat, which are recommended strategies. Test day was blissfully quiet without an electronically distorted voice trying to play mind games with me! Other AI write poetry — Heinlein’s Mike, for instance — and one day this strange short slightly experimental poem came out, and here we are. (I find it strangely appropriate that the robot that primarily runs demented experiments produced an experimental poem.)
There are two points in the poem that give me the heebie-jeebies: "jumping/shooting/begging/crying/threatening/accepting/screaming/dying" (this one I think both because who is doing which thing is unclear and it seems like any actor might be doing anything, and because of the words themselves, the hard sounds of the consonants in a relentless rhythm). and "Then I ordered myself, and that was better, too." (with the pun on "ordered" meaning both "gave myself a direction" and "set myself right"). Since I read this poem as being about some kind of artificial intelligence used for terrible experiments becoming self-aware and murderous, I read both of these moments as places where we catch glimpses of the AI making sense of the world. How do you go about writing a creepy poem without it being kind of cheesy (yes, I'm looking at you, Edgar Allen Poe)?
My poems are character-driven in a way that Poe’s creepy poetry was not, necessarily. (I’m not a Poe scholar; please don’t come after me with diatribes.) What we know about Annabel Lee is mostly how obsessed the narrator was with her. What I know about GLaDOS is her voice and her backstory — which are creepy. That you came into the poem without knowing the geeky backstory and still correctly guessed the general identity of the speaker tells me I did my job right in trying to create a transformative work with a relatively new character, one not as known as folklore Devils or Frankenstein.
I also think it’s important to acknowledge the full horror of things, to never take the Lovecraft shortcut of the unspeakable horror that cannot be described in concrete terms. What Dr. Frankenstein did to the intended bride was horrifying, if you imagine the violence it took to build and then destroy hers. The inside of a murderous and self-aware AI’s brain is horrifying if you think about a mind without some of the limitations your own mind places on your choices. Most of us would not flood our workplaces with deadly neurotoxin, however much we might not like our jobs. If you look that horror straight in the face, you can hopefully convey it without purple prose … which in itself heightens the creepiness, because it gives you a level of detachment that lets you hit all the minor chords that make your spine tingle.
Would you talk a little bit about how you write? I mean the actual process. Do you try to get a rough draft down all at once? Do you get ideas and then have to live with them for a little bit before you can write them? Do you draft and redraft, or do you make sure each line is just how you want it before moving on? I guess I want to know how you, specifically, write a poem.
Some things get worked out all at once — I had a complete rough draft of "Walking Man" after most of a day — but the thought process that went into it had rattled around in my head for some time before I sat down and wrote the thing. Some things go in fits and starts — "The Sea Witch Talks Show Business" and "Panikos," my Nashville poem, took a while to complete. I draft and redraft, always — go in and tinker with the lines, the line breaks, the formatting, the word choice. I go over it with Ashley Brown of Edits, Full Stop, my fantastic editor, to get the whole thing perfect. Then I send it out into the world.
What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
As I mentioned, I’ll appear in the Moment of Change anthology edited by Rose Lemberg with "Sea Witch" and "Down Cycles." I have another Nashville poem, this one a ghost story about Old Glenrose Avenue, appearing in the I Know What I Saw anthology edited by Barry Napier. My Naked Girls Reading Literary Honors Award-winning poem "Razor Hair Girls" will appear in Issue 7 of Ampersand Review, and I’ll be helping judge this year’s competition.
Also, I have a Memphis poem, "Memphis St. Railway v. Stratton," based on an old Memphis court case, appearing soon on NewMyths.com. I’m in my last semester of law school, so I may not have as much work appearing until after I pass the bar exam, but I am excited about the anthologies and other appearances that are coming up for me. As always, readers can find me on Amazon, Goodreads , Facebook and Twitter .