I was delighted to learn that there was such a thing as science fiction poetry, and even more delighted to learn that there's a poet in Tennessee who's good enough at it that she is up for an award. So I emailed her some questions I was dying to have answered, and she graciously emailed me back.
Join us after the jump for a long, entertaining, free-ranging discussion of everything from Walt Whitman to Adrienne Rich, from whether Hart Crane could be a science fiction poet to whether Dr. Frankenstein is a bit of a sexist pig.
And if you are a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (or are thinking of becoming one), vote for the local gal!
You're up for a 2011 Rhysling Award for your poem, “Anything So Utterly Destroyed." The Rhysling Awards are handed out to the best in science fiction poetry. I think I speak for most Pith readers when I ask, "What, exactly, is science fiction poetry?" and "How does one go about discovering that she is a science fiction poet?"
Heh. Two years ago I didn’t even know SF poetry was a “thing,” really, so Pith readers, take heart! There are other worlds than these, as someone said once.
To define science fiction poetry you have to define science fiction. Rather than rehash the (endless and tedious) arguments about what is and is not science fiction, I’ll say this instead. A genre that is broad enough to encompass Octavia Butler’s painfully realistic dystopias, Nnedi Okorafor’s careful blend of nature, magic and technology, Ursula K. Le Guin’s meditations on gender by way of alien species, along with Books About Robots and Spaceships and Aliens and Time Travel, and so on and so forth into the light of unseen suns, is broad enough to encompass all these things in poetry, too. Science fiction tries to tell us where we might go in the future, and what it might mean, and how we might be different (or the same!) when we get there ... and sometimes it goes into the past, puts a different read on how we got here, or how we might have gone. Science fiction poetry, a lot of the time, does the same thing.
Some of the 2011 Rhysling nominees I’ve read that I’d classify as science fiction poetry, just to give you an idea: C.S.E. Cooney’s "Dogstar Men," a lovelorn lament beginning “All the men I might have loved/have gone to Sirius.”; Greg Beatty’s "On Keeping Pluto a Planet," advancing a curious and reasonable argument for not stripping the outermost planet of its title; Geoffrey Landis’ "Rondel for Apollo 11," which is what it sounds like; W.S. Merwin’s "The Chain On Her Leg," about Topsy the elephant, who Edison electrocuted on film back in the early 20th century; Ann K. Schwader’s "Scrapyard Outpost," from the point of view of an inhabitant of a defunct space outpost years after those who built it have gone; Tara Barnett’s "Star Reservation," a story poem that begins with a grandfather giving his grandchild one of those certificates purporting to be title to a distant star. That’s just a few from the first 50 pages of the proofs of this year’s anthology, surrounded by fantasy poems and horror poems and the like.
Hart Crane wrote science fiction poetry — did you know that? Years before anyone went to space, he wrote gorgeous, dreamy poems that talked about space and its promise in a voice full of hope and longing and starlight. Hart Crane’s poems are fresh and lovely even now, when those of us who planned to retire on the Moon, who were promised a personal jetpack when we grew up, are coming to grips with the fact that we’ll be too old even if space colonization happens in our lifetime. But Hart Crane is a Great American Poet. Great American Poets are supposed to write about walking through woods on snowy evenings and Casey at the bat, not rhapsodize about space and stars. I will get up and argue until I die that Whitman’s "When I Heard The Learned Astronomer" is a science fiction poem, albeit one that tells a tale of science and experience and the love of stars with glorious economy of words.
The Science Fiction Poetry Association, whose members nominate and vote on the annual Rhysling Awards, has shifted focus some in recent years (not without resistance, oddly) to embrace the larger genre of speculative poetry, which includes science fiction, fantasy and horror poetry. Last year’s short form winner, Amal el-Mohtar’s exquisite "Song for an Ancient City," (Mythic Delirium) isn’t so much a science fiction poem, but the honor was well deserved. Poets get basically zero respect from the wider world until such time as they have become Ferlinghetti or Nikki Giovanni or someone of that stature. Genre itself gets less respect than it deserves from the lit world — ask me about my collection of snooty anti-genre submission guidelines from lit mags sometime, they’re tragically hilarious. Given this intersection, one would think that the genre poets would hang together in our Not The Cool Kids Corner of the arts world, lest we hang separately. Sadly, not. There’s some sexism to that, too — although it is the stupidest lie I’ve heard recently not voiced by an elected official, SF Is For Boys and Fantasy Is For Dumb Wussy Girls is still a trope that hampers the genre at every level. For my part, I think it’s a good thing that SFPA has broadened its focus. Doing so will hopefully help attract those who want poems about stars and satyrs and Springheel Jack and don’t see the value in overly narrow little cliques in our unregarded corner of the literary arts. Poems about zombies and chimerae need as much love as poems about AI and free fall.
As for your other question, I found out I was a science fiction poet when I wrote a poem taken directly from one of the books recognized as “classic” science fiction and then it turned out one of the best things I’d ever done. I think I’m just meant to be a speculative poet, in the same way that while I read a little of everything, I read more genre than I do anything else. It seems that my output is much the same as my input ... a little of everything, a lot of science fiction and fantasy and horror.
Would you tell us a little bit about your poem? What drew you to write about Frankenstein's female monster?
"Anything So Utterly Destroyed" retells part of the story contained in Mary Shelley’s famed novella Frankenstein — specifically, the second monster’s story. The fright-wigged “Bride of Frankenstein” is a Hollywood creation, while the novella gives the second monster the shortest of shrift. Victor Frankenstein agrees to make her under threat from Adam, the first monster, angsts endlessly about doing so while jaunting equally endlessly across Europe and England, then destroys her before she is ever finished. In my poem, the second monster narrates, alternating between telling the stories of the dead girls from whose corpses she is constructed, and giving her version of the events of her all-too-brief not-quite-life. The poem is nominated for the 2011 Rhysling Award in the long form category. As the Rhysling is considered the equivalent of the Nebula for science fiction and fantasy prose, it’s an enormous honor for me to even be considered.
The story behind the poem is this. I was supposed to do a speculative poetry workshop with Catherynne M. Valente, didn’t have any spec poetry, and was rapidly running out of time to create some. (This is the literary equivalent of not having anything to wear to a Very Important Event, except that instead of just finding something off the rack or borrowing from a friend, you have to sew whatever it is your own self, knowing that the coolest people you know are going to tell you to your face how it looks and what you could have done better. Stuff of nightmares, really.) When I’m stuck for subject matter, I usually go find an old story to file the serial numbers off ... I mean, to reexamine in a new and fresh way ... but nothing I had on hand was helping this massive panic-block I had over needing to write a poem, on deadline, for one of the living writers I respect most to critique. Project Gutenberg kindly provided me with a text copy of Frankenstein for no dollars and no cents, which was about my inspiration budget at the time.
Two things struck me, reading the novella again. First, the second monster gets less screen time in the book than the travelogue that takes Victor from Geneva to the island off the coast of Scotland where the second monster meets her end. She’s treated, invariably, as a hated and feared object; Victor is narrating, so all the story we get of her is how much of a repugnant obscenity her creation is. Meanwhile, we’re treated to pages upon pages of where he went and what he looked at on his long journey, interleaved with Mad Scientist Angst and the menacing presence of the first monster, following him and checking up on his progress. I think as a teenager I just rushed through the travelogue. I’m sure in its time it was the next best thing to the Travel Channel, but it goes on for and ever without really advancing the story, other than getting Victor from Point A to Point B and making sure you know he is Not Happy about making a bride for his first creation.
The sparse treatment of the second monster caught my attention, which brought me to the second striking thing. By the point where he’s working on the second monster, the reader has kind of gotten desensitized to the grotesqueness of Victor fooling around with pieces of stolen corpses. What I had missed, on first read, is the fundamental difference between building a monster out of body parts in your own laboratory in your own city, and doing the same thing while traveling across Europe and England, pre-refrigeration, using the period’s available modes of travel. Once I realized that Frankenstein had to be getting the dead girls along the way, I had my hook. Those dead girls had names, families, stories. So did the undead girl they were supposed to become. Those stories, and that process of becoming, became the spine of the poem.
The character surprised me, alternating as she does between vulnerability, clinical detachment and a thing that would be outrage about the horror that is her short existence if it weren’t so matter-of-fact. There was no way to give her a happy ending, in this poem, not without copping out. (Someone should. It would be difficult, but that’s not to say it’s not doable.) There was, however, a way to give her a real story, as more than an object in the struggle between two arrogant, stubborn dudes for whom she represents two very different futures ... a mate for the one, the mother of an army of monsters for the other. That process had to start with giving her a voice. It was more difficult than I expected to work within the limitations of the text in that regard; her development of identity goes in stages throughout the poem, in subtle ways, and she still gets cut off before she ever gets to be a whole person ... but even with that, she is definitely her own voice, sardonic and alien and yet human in spots.
"The souls toss and turn, seeking to occupy the same space / on the slab" — Holy shit. The image of all these individual souls all trying to fit in the same body, in there with this new soul/personality? That's something that sticks with a person. Is that something that came to you all at once, or did it sneak up on you slowly?
I tend to write my poems chronologically — with a few exceptions, I rarely do major reorganization during the editing process. ASOD started originally, as does the finished work, with Sarah Clark and her right hand. In building my version of the second monster, I assumed from the outset that she was privy to the personal details of all the girls whose bodies were used to make her own, their lives and their deaths. By the time I got to the section you referenced, it had occurred to me to wonder how my narrator knew these things, in her own interstitial place between life and death.
It took Valente, bless her skilled editorial soul, to point out to me what a “deeply Christian” poem ASOD is, how deeply entrenched in Christian concepts and language and idiom. I didn’t think about it as a conscious choice; it was natural to the work. The novella started it — the “against nature” theme of the story is in some ways inseparable from “against God,” and it doesn’t take a master’s degree to see the extent to which the book plays with religious metaphor when the first monster ultimately gets named Adam.
My poem repeats that tension, the divide between the resurrection and the resurrectionists. Once I had her there on the slab, conscious and aware of whose parts were whose, knowing all this stuff by some weird magic, it just came together — of course it was their souls hanging around, invoking some kind of phantom limb syndrome in reverse, giving her their memories by transference. The monster gets all she knows about her creation from Victor’s lab notebook and the memories of women raised in a Christian culture, women who mostly expected to go to heaven — and the way those folks felt about proper burials made it perfectly logical that this horrific thing that was done to them was keeping them from heaven, at least temporarily. It’s ambiguous — the monster herself believes Hannah will rise at the last judgment, for instance, but improper burial is a classic basis for a troubled, unrestful soul to stay stuck on earth. The image came through perfectly in my head when it was time to write it, but it rests on what I had built up to that point, the religious assumptions and metaphors that are integral to the piece. It’s one of the parts of the poem where I looked at it later and went “Damn, did I do that?” Those are the best days.
This poem ends up having a bit of a defiant feminist streak, even as all of these women (the monster included) are destroyed and forgotten, here's their story, here's the half-created monster bearing witness to what happened to her/them. Do you think it's important to go back to these old, archetypal stories and retell them? Maybe reclaim them?
ASOD came very much from a defiant feminist place — I had more than a few moments where I was excessively irritated with Shelley, Feminist Writer Icon that she is, for creating a book with so little respect for its female characters that it could accurately be summed up as “Dudes, Locked in a Dudely Power Struggle, Kill Ladies And Treat Them Like Agency-Free Garbage.” (Yes, I know there’s more to it than that. Go read it again and tell me if you can deny that as an accurate reading of the gender dynamics, I dare you.)
Basically all I do is tell old stories. Every once in a while I write a poem about something that literally happened to my very own personal self; my piece "Context and Confessional Poetry" that appeared in The Legendary in April is one of those. But, particularly with my speculative work, what I almost always do is go take a new look at some old story, tell it differently, tell it the same from a different angle, with or without my own stories and experience apparent on the surface.
In the first section of "A Silver Splendour, A Flame," her gorgeous, sprawling Persephone poem, Catherynne Valente says, “I’ll stop telling this story / Just as soon as it stops / happening to me.” That punched me somewhere in my solar plexus and hasn’t stopped since. Stories become archetypes because they reach down inside us and pull common strings. People change, the world changes, the tuning of our strings changes too ... but we’re all still scared of death and the dark, underneath. Retelling old stories with purpose, drawing out meanings, highlighting different pieces of a tale, reclaiming narratives — it keeps them alive, keeps them vibrant and vital and relevant. The anthology of “villainous tales” — fairy-tale villain stories — that Ellen Datlow edited, Trolls-Eye View, was one of the best things I read last year. Not all of them are Serious Deep Retellings; not all of them take the method of just making the villain the hero of the piece. If the Aristotelian goal of storytelling is to delight and instruct, it managed it.
There’s a hilarious poem by Robert Borski, in the latest issue of Star*Line, SFPA’s quarterly poetry journal, called "Exit, Pursued by a Bear," told from the point of view of Papa Bear of Three Bears fame. “Goldilocks is a housebreaking brat” is a retelling that’s become almost as familiar as the story itself — I want to say I read a children’s book that took that position as a kid. This guy put a twist on it I hadn’t seen yet, one that both shocked and delighted me and may have resulted in me laughing out loud in the middle of a crowded brunch spot, then making my tablemates read it: Goldilocks breaks into the Bears’ house with her film crew and some bear costumes to enact live, streaming furry fetish porn. It’s fantastic stuff. The idea that Goldilocks violated the Bears’ privacy — like I said, that’s an old trope. The poem made me feel the depth of that boundary-crossing, even while I was laughing fit to die. Is that Important? I think so.
The title track of Seanan McGuire’s new album Wicked Girls epitomizes for me why this stuff is important. McGuire takes the stories of Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, Peter Pan’s Wendy, Alice of Alice in Wonderland fame, and Susan and Lucy of The Chronicles of Narnia, and weaves them into a stunning indictment of the good-girl archetype, of the idea that it was a happy ending for any of those girls to return from their various fairylands. The wicked twist she puts on Susan and Lucy’s retelling vindicated something in me that has been bothered since I was a kid about how Susan’s story ended. McGuire’s not the first to do this kind of mythpunk reclamation, of course — Arkansas native S.J. Tucker wrote a three-song cycle based on the idea of Wendy taking Hook’s challenge to come and be a pirate, and beating the old blackguard at his own game. So many of the folks I know connect to these things, take inspiration from them. That can’t help but be important, if it’s getting people fired up about art.
Who influences you? There's a way in which this poem felt like a kindred soul of or maybe an echoing answer to Adrienne Rich's "Diving into the Wreck." I wondered if that was intentional?
Now is the time on this interview where I admit to being an uncultured hack. I’ve never read that poem, so no, it wasn’t intentional. But having gone to read it, I see why you say that, and good Lord, that’s a hell of a poem.
Who influences me? I get my unapologetically long lines from Whitman and Ginsberg, likewise my penchant for 100-plus line poems. I love Pablo Neruda so hard that I have the Neruda Twitterbot deliver me bite-sized chunks of his work in translation throughout the day. I’d like to have half the incredible presence of performance poet Buddy Wakefield, who has taught me so much about hearing rhythms in real time (as well as helping me through more than one sleepless night with his brash and unapologetic willingness to lay out his soul, his flaws and fears with humor and honesty). Goblin Fruit’s Amal el-Mohtar and her gorgeous collection The Honey Month taught me the value of sense perception in poetry. Catherynne Valente, indescribable champion of all things literary, helps me straddle the line between poetry and oddly formatted prose, as well as writing the kind of poems that knock the wind out of me, every time — if anyone, it’s her who got me writing poetry again after a long dry spell, showed me the path to the well of old stories that never runs dry. Katie Moore, the unbelievably prolific poet and author, editor of The Legendary, leads me by example to spit my gut on the page instead of holding back, to be unstintingly truthful always with my work even when I’d rather mask my feelings. If I can ever write a science fiction love poem as good as Bob Hicok’s "Other Lives and Dimensions and Finally a Love Poem," I might just die happy.
While she’s not strictly a literary influence, I have to take this moment to sing the praises of my darling editor, Ashley “Fullstop” Brown of Edits, Full Stop, who busts me out when I need it, praises me to the sky when I deserve it, makes me work harder, tells me when I haven’t communicated what I’m getting at, and generally gets my work clean and shiny for market. Not a single piece of mine goes out without her deft eyes and clever fingerprints on it first.
Do you think living in Tennessee has particularly shaped your work? If so, how?
Lord, yes. We’re all a product of our place, I think, or places, and Tennessee is not just where I live, it is my home and my heart. That sounds ridiculous to say, and maybe it is, but I really don’t care. I’ve spent enough of my life trying to explain to people how it is that I love my state even with its mile-wide blind spots, its often pig-ignorant power structure, to the point that I make no more excuses ... your home is your home and I love my home, humidity and seed ticks and all.
As a poet, your voice is everything I’m a weird hybrid, voice-wise. My people are from Southeastern Missouri, but my parents traveled around a decent bit with the military before they settled in Middle Tennessee in the seventies, so their accents are not quite discernible as any one thing — definitely Southern-infused, but not purely “from here.” When I was little kids teased me for talking like a Yankee. Actual Yankees think my accent’s so thick you could spread it on a biscuit, then laugh hysterically at the fact that I use expressions like “so thick you could spread it on a biscuit.”
The most recent piece of mine in Apex Magazine is my troubled love song for the South in general and Tennessee in particular. "The Walking Man Goes Looking for the Sons of John: Six Cantos" is about the Southern folkloric incarnation of the Devil, the big Black man who hangs around the crossroads and will teach you the mastery of any instrument for a price. The eponymous Sons of John are Robert and Tommy Johnson, the two bluesmen who are widely reputed to have met that Devil and gained their prowess from him. They, of course, were Mississippi men, but in their careers had strong ties to Memphis, where I live now for law school. Every location in that poem is real, from The Rock, Georgia with its one crossroads and the Black cemetery in terrible disrepair a few miles down the road, to the building with the charred roof beams where Blues Alley used to be, before it burned for the last time four days after Elvis died, to both the Shelby Street Bridges. It’s peppered with the songs I used to sing at the top of my lungs in Sunday morning services, all those deeply moving traditionals about the river Jordan and the promise of heaven. Even our complex and dishonorable history of racism is in there, in the fourth canto, the one that talks about Elvis’ wholesale theft of Black musicians' work and appropriation of that rich tradition to make it palatable to a white audience. Smell, sight, sound and setting, it’s Tennessee.
I’m also having fun these days working on pieces drawn from the bits of strange stories I get when I read old Tennessee decisions for my other life as a law student. I have a strange piece in the works taken from a 1920s case where they tore up the street at Third and Poplar to do work on the streetcar lines, and the night watchman who was supposed to be preventing accidents cussed a blue streak at, then pistol-whipped a dude who ran his car into the ditch, another about a shooting that happened in downtown Nashville around the same time period. I’m planning a research-intensive piece for later this summer that weaves together the early 20th century Memphis political machine, the TVA, and the water-focused Lovecraftian horrors like Dagon ... one that started because I got curious about November 6th Street, which has the kind of name that ought to lead one to some kind of unexpected fable. (That being said, I didn’t intentionally pick the Blues Alley fire to get November 6th into "Walking Man" — funnily enough, I was looking for a fire on Beale Street when I found that one, which was so perfect for the story I was telling that the addition of one of my favorite Memphis place names was just a bonus.) When you marinate long enough in the stranger-than-fiction truth of anyplace, you can get good stories out of it. Tennessee, for me, is that place, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Are you working on anything interesting now?
I’m excited about a few pieces I have in the works. I have two long poems going now that are taking me longer than usual to finish. In my typical “tell a monster girl tale” oeuvre, I’ve got one going about the sea witch from The Little Mermaid. Gentle reader, if your brain pulled up a picture of a squid-woman with purple skin trying to destroy some pale red-headed fish-tailed princess with a fork fetish, stop what you’re doing and go read the original story. That Disney mess is a travesty and a crime. The real sea witch is not the antagonist of the Hans Christian Andersen original, but in order to make a piece of mass-marketable inoffensive fluff out of a heavy-handed Christian morality tale, they made her the villain. There is absolutely no explanation (other than “Hans Christian Andersen died before cryogenics and probably won’t come back to reckon with us”) for everything else they did wrong, including why they made it a daddy’s-girl tale instead of a story about mothers, daughters and sisters. I may or may not have pitched a fit in the movie theater as a kid once I realized the movie I was seeing was not the story I knew; it was my first introduction to how Hollywood ruins everything you love.
The other long one I have going dips back into Greek myth and the root word of panic. Panic comes from the root word panikos, “of Pan,” referring to the fear of being alone under the open sky or in the wilderness, which was of course caused by the god of that place passing by. It’s less tied to any particular interpretation than the sea witch piece, but I like where it’s going. I’ll have those done by the end of the month, most likely.
I don’t write a lot of fiction, but that’s been changing recently. I have a few pieces ongoing: a fractured sort of fairytale in which no one’s quite sure who gave the fairies guns and only the wicked witches seem interested in finding the answer; a look at the enhanced psychotherapy techniques available after the first intergalactic war wipes out most of Earth’s population; a convenience store that caters to the 24-hour needs of monster hunters. Fiction takes longer. But I have a short sabbatical coming up at the end of the summer between the end of summer classes and the start of fall, and it’s my goal to get a couple of the fiction pieces substantially complete before summer’s over.