(This interview originally appeared in The Pedestal Magazine, Summer 2002. Reprinted with permission.)Q: I am excited to be featuring you in this issue of The Pedestal Magazine. Let me begin by asking you, What is "speculative" poetry, and what is it about your own work that leads you to consider yourself (as you have on several occasions) a "speculative" poet?
Thanks for inviting me, John. Good to be here. The Pedestal Magazine has become one of my favorites, not only because of the quality of its contents, but because it is one of the few literary journals that is open to speculative writing.
Mainstream and speculative poetry differ in subject matter and the stance of the poet. Mainstream poetry deals with the rendering and exploration of the here and now, reality as we know it, internal and external. The poet is often present in the poem as an "I" voice, explicitly or implicitly. Speculative poetry has more to do with imagination, the world of dreams and the world as it could be. The stance of the speculative poet is closer to that of a fiction writer. If an "I" voice appears in a speculative poem it is usually that of a fictional character rather than the author. Like speculative fiction, speculative poetry often poses and answers the question: "What if?"
If gravity were like weather,
fickle, girdling the planet
in waves and pockets, there would
be days on which we could not move.
We would lie helpless, strapped
to the slowly turning earth.
For hours at a time we would consider
the nature of such an existence,
its underpinnings, its weights.*
There are also poems that are speculative because they experiment with language, the form of poetry, or the content of poetry. When free verse first appeared, or Beat poetry, it was speculative. More recently, in the mainstream arena, post-language poets have stretched the limits of language and the voice of poetry, and to that extent their work can be viewed as speculative.
The above definitions are loose ones. Some mainstream poems have speculative elements and vice versa. My poem, "The City and the Stars" (published in this issue of The Pedestal Magazine), is mainstream except that it borrows its title and to some extent its theme from an Arthur C. Clarke novel. I've also written mainstream poetry that has no speculative content. My work covers a wide range, from what some would consider doggerel to what others might dub literary esoterica. Yet the bulk of my poetry remains speculative, either in content and stance, or in its attempts to experiment with language and form.
Q: In your recent book Quanta, you mention the idea of "inspired poems" or poems that "write themselves." What is the role of inspiration in your work? Does a lot of your work "write itself?"
Not as much as I would like. My poems arise from two sources. One is a conscious, rational process that can begin anywhere, with a scrap of conversation, an experience, a line from a book or movie, some visual stimulus, etc. Any of these can lead me to an idea for a poem or story, which I then set about to write. My collaborative poem with Marge Simon, "Less Than Children in the Night," (Night Smoke) came about from a discussion where we realized that neither of us had read a speculative poem about abortion.
The other process is the inspired kind, almost like automatic writing, where a poem seems to come out of nowhere. Suddenly a line or two pops into my head. If I take the time to drop what I'm doing and pursue those lines, if I'm lucky enough, most of the poem trails after them. I have to be in the right state of mind for this to happen. I've noticed that it sometimes occurs after strenuous physical exercise (endorphins at work?). Alcohol or other drugs, hardly a rare habit for poets, also seem to make me more receptive to the experience. Poems that I write this way take less effort and far less rewriting before they seem complete.
Q: You also speak a great deal about "mastering your craft." You write (in Quanta), "If you spend more time mastering your craft than other poets... it makes sense that you are more likely to write poems that are effective and potent in their impact on readers."
For me, the best writing involves a kind of serious play. But you can't really "play" at writing until you understand its rules and are at ease with its mechanics. Yet mastering your craft is more than a set of rules that you learn. It is an active process.
Musicians I know sometimes talk about their "chops." "To have your chops" means that you have been playing a lot, and as a result, your technical skill with your instrument is at a peak. More than just a physical phenomenon, having your chops is also a state of mind. It can apply not only to playing a musical instrument but to any activity that involves an acquired skill: riding a bicycle, typing, playing chess, throwing pots, writing poetry. When I was playing lots of chess, I was a worthy opponent. Now, by comparison, I'm a duffer.
If I haven't written anything for weeks, the words and sentences come slowly at first, and many of them may be awkward. In contrast, if I spend days at a time writing, and rewriting, it all begins to flow more easily and naturally. Suddenly I've got my chops. What seemed like a rocky climb before becomes a relatively effortless flight.
If you spend most of your life working a full-time job that has nothing to do with writing, if you try to turn out a poem in a spare hour or two you have on the weekend, or before you go to sleep and get up for work the next morning, you are never going to get your chops.
Q: In your career as a writer, what are some of the things you have done in order to try and "master your craft?" And when you compare your early work with later work, do you recognize qualities or abilities that indicate, to you, an increase in mastery? What are these qualities or abilities?
Of course there are the basics, such as knowing correct grammar, word usage, and punctuation. Also understanding the different forms of poetry and how its various elements interact. This merely involves spending some time with dictionaries and the right reference works. I've spent that time, and I'm better at the basics than I was thirty years ago.
Beyond the basics, there is gaining a comprehensive sense of yourself as a writer, and a familiarity with the field in which you are working. Apart from the practice of spending time writing, I think I've learned more about craft (and style) by reading other writers than in any other way. There have been extended periods in my life when I read four or five books every week. I think much of what I've learned as a poet I've picked up at an unconscious level through the reading I've done. From Ezra Pound to Billy Collins, Ginsberg to Plath, from Dylan (Bob or Thomas) to Edgar Allen Poe. And there are also fiction writers, both speculative and mainstream--Nabokov, Lawrence Durrell, Angela Carter, Pynchon, Mervyn Peake, Ray Bradbury, Tanith Lee, to name a few--who can deliver wonderful poetic passages in the middle of a novel or short story. If you expose yourself to quality writing, you begin to recognize whether or not you are producing it yourself, and you also pick up on some of the many ways it can be accomplished.
An ability I now recognize in myself that indicates increased mastery is that I'm capable of writing more ambitious poems than I was at one time, poems that are longer, of greater complexity, and ones that resonate at different levels. Also, when I now confront a blank page, the various techniques (skills, craft) I've acquired along the way provide me with far more options to realize my intent. The experience of knowing what I want to say, but not knowing how to say it, occurs less frequently for me than it did even ten years ago.
Q: Could you speak a little about your educational background? Do you have formal training in writing? If so, how did this training help you in your development as a writer?
I entered college in 1961 at the University of California, Berkeley, as a math major. My "life plan" at the time was to become a mathematician and write science fiction novels on the side. It soon became clear to me that I had neither the inclination nor aptitude to accomplish anything significant with math. I thought about changing my major to English. Two things stopped me. A senior I knew, who was an English major, told me that if I wanted to write creatively, I should not major in English. He claimed that it would give me such a critical perspective on all literature, including my own writing, that it would undercut my ability to create anything without constantly second-guessing myself. The second and conclusive thing that happened was listening to two graduate students have a lengthy and detailed critical/analytical discussion of Shakespeare. I loved Shakespeare's plays, at least some of them, but I was bored to stone. I knew I didn't want my mind claimed by such tedium.
I decided to major in economics because it seemed practical and was a discipline where my verbal and mathematical aptitudes could come together. By the time I received my B.A., I'd had my fill of economics and wanted to write creatively more than ever. I was ready to leave school, but the war in Vietnam was raging, and staying in school was one way to avoid being drafted. I stuck it out two more years and received my M.A. degree in economics in 1967.
The only formal training I received in writing during college was in a speech class I took as a freshman. Yet at the time I attended the University of California, it was rated as one of the top two or three schools in the country. Competition for grades was stiff, and a large part of getting grades was writing papers. If you expected a decent grade, you had to turn out papers that were clear, concise, effective, and in the proper format. I was forced to train myself to write if I expected to survive and prosper in the university environment.
Q: Andrew Joron, in his piece "Language Novas," notes that your work reflects a "utopian longing." This is very evident, I think, in, for example, "The Slums of Atlantis" (published in this issue of The Pedestal Magazine). How important are social issues to you (as a writer)? Do you see yourself, in some ways, as a social commentator?
I was raised in the fifties and, like much of my generation, I was inculcated with an idealized version of the United States and American history. When I came of age, I soon realized that "liberty and justice for all" and the image of America as the ever-virtuous nation were blatant hypocrisies. The civil rights struggles of the sixties, the Vietnam War, and the attempts by the governing body of the University of California to suppress free speech on its own campuses all drove this home to me with great immediacy. I became radicalized well beyond my blue-collar liberal-Democratic background. I put in my time as another body on the line at marches and demonstrations.
As you grow older, you are supposed to become more conservative in your political views. This has yet to happen to me. My views are just as radical and very similar to the ones I held in my early twenties. I think that democracies tend to be the best governments, but I believe that all governments throughout history reflect power structures and cater to the interests of a power elite. If you are not part of that elite, government is to some extent your enemy. I am not a libertarian or an anarchist, but I do see government as it has existed as a necessary evil. My views on specific political issues would be considered by most to be far to the left of center.
So how have these views translated into my writing? Perhaps directly only in my mainstream novel Stained Glass Rain (Ocean View, 1993) and in my mainstream novelette Houses (Talisman, 1991), both of which are set in the drug culture of the sixties and express political opinions on the issues of that time (some of which remain relevant today).
I don't see myself as a social commentator on current issues in my speculative poetry or fiction, nor do I desire to be. Still, I think most poems or stories inevitably embody the worldviews of their creators, including politics and philosophy. If part of the subject matter of a story or poem is sociopolitical, the most speculative writing becomes social commentary, even if only in a general sense. My story "By the Dawn's Early Light" (Masque of Dreams, Wildside Press, 2001), which is set in an unspecified future of an unspecified country, makes a comment on the nature of war vis-à-vis the individual. My poem "In the Filing Cabinets of K" (which first appeared in Talebones and can be found on my website) comments on the relationship between popular culture and art. In contrast, most of the stories and poems I write are more involved with individual human concerns than sociopolitical ones.
I think it would be a conceit for me, as a individual writer, to believe I can have any impact on national or global politics. What I can do (and what will happen in any case) is incorporate my own views and values into what I write and have an influence on the thoughts and lives of individual readers.
Q: Have you ever experienced a period when you were blocked, when you couldn't write? If so, what do you think caused this and what helped you to break out of it?
I'm not sure I can be of much help here. What first comes to mind is an old Saturday Night Live skit. A news anchor is interviewing someone playing Steven King. King is typing away furiously as the interview progresses. All at once he stops with a stricken expression on his face. "What's the matter?" the anchor asks. "I've got writer's block," King exclaims in horror. He pauses for a second, then starts typing again just as rapidly as before. "It's okay," he announces, "it's gone."
Writing has seldom been that easy for me, but I'm not sure I've ever felt blocked. There are times when I don't feel like writing. When that happens, I don't try to force it. You can't expect to always been in the proper state of mind to create a story or poem on demand. I think that what many describe as writer's block is trying to force the creative process when it isn't happening for them. I also suspect that trying to force it and obsessing about it makes it less likely to happen.
Q: I am especially struck by the last two lines of "The City and the Stars": "Stars are strictly for backdrop,/ eclipsed by the neon suns." I sense this theme in much of your work, a grieving over the "eclipsing" of nature, a wariness regarding the effects of civilization, a kind of anti-industrial stance. Do you resonate with this response? If so, I'm wondering if you would be willing to address some of your concerns regarding technological (industrial) growth and development; i.e., "progress?"
I'm mainly a fan of technology. Because of technology, most of the people in the industrialized world live in greater comfort, with more freedom of choice, more possibilities, than kings and queens did a few hundred years ago. I have no desire to return to a so-called pastoral world, and the romanticized ideal of the noble savage has always seemed like nonsense to me. That said, it remains that some of the uses of technology, some of its effects on our world and our consciousness, I find abhorrent.
Industrialization and the spread of technology have always been driven by the desire for wealth and power, not by any abiding interest in the welfare of our species and our world. One of the biggest negative results is the ongoing threat of nuclear devastation. Despite the end of the Cold War, despite some disarmament and the assurances of public rhetoric, I think this threat remains as great as it has ever been.
Another big negative, of course, has to do with the long range impact of technology on our environment. The final verdict is not in, but there seems to be significant evidence that our technology, as we now use it, is gradually destroying the ecology of the Earth. As long as the dissemination of technological advances is determined by the short-range goals of power and wealth, I doubt this is going to change until there is a major ecological catastrophe.
Another negative of our technological wealth concerns the proliferation of consumer goods. Driven by a market economy, the desire for the accumulation of objects seems to me to have reached insane proportions. For certain individuals, and perhaps to some degree for all of us, the need to accumulate objects as a means to personal fulfillment has superceded other values that I believe would lead to richer and more satisfying lives.
Q: If a speculative or science fiction poet is actively looking to publish work, what are some markets he or she should consider? And, in your opinion, has the advent of online publishing opened new markets and created new publishing opportunities?
At first glance, I see the Internet as a leveling of the playing field for all writers. There was a time when the advice given to a young writer who wanted to succeed was: "Go to New York." Up until nearly a decade ago, my advice to young science fiction writers who wanted to advance their careers was: "Go to as many science fiction conventions as possible." The publishing world is an establishment, and unless you can make the right connections in that establishment, your chances of success are greatly diminished. Yet the Internet is in the process of changing all that, not only by offering numerous online publishing opportunities, but by creating a worldwide network of instant communication in which it is possible to make connections in the publishing world without leaving your home.
On the other hand, the quantity and variety of online publishing offers a bewildering array of choices for readers. It is so relatively inexpensive to set up a website and start an online magazine or press that anyone who wants to be an editor and publisher, regardless of qualifications for the role, can do so. Online publishing has also led to an increasing number of vanity presses that will publish just about anything for a fee. The result is that it is too easy to publish online. There is not enough quality control, and thus the danger exists that quality work will be lost in the deluge.
The one thing that is clear is that the Internet is radically changing both the nature of publishing and the way we read. Harking back to Marshall McLuhan, if "The medium is the message," what exactly is the nature of the Internet as a medium? The medium of print is a linear one, and much of that carries over onto the Internet. At the same time, reading as it is offered online is a more spatial experience. Its transitions are more instantaneous, its form often more fragmentary, and for certain, it is more visual and colorful than the experience of reading a book. I think it is too soon to tell where all of this is leading for publishing and reading, but it is a fascinating time of transition for both.
To answer the first part of your question, concerning markets for speculative poetry, rather than suggesting specific publications, I'd refer writers to the numerous free market reports you can access online. Two of the best I've discovered are SpecFicWorld [sadly no longer available] and Ralan's Spec Fic and Humor Webstravaganza (http://www.ralan.com/).
Thanks again for inviting me, John. It's been a pleasure. And I think I clarified a few thoughts for myself along the way.
*"If Gravity Were Like Weather" first appeared in Star*Line (June, 1979).