Speculative spoken word

What to do during a class meeting in which you strongly suspect all the students will be sleep-deprived and unable to complete any assigned reading? Well, snacks, of course. Open-ended discussion, too, of the problems of research writing: my speculative poetry students are, I hope, revising like demons, because version one of their big essay is due tomorrow at 5. I’m also going to show them some speculative spoken word poems and use them to discuss whether speculative poetry is, like, a thing.

I know, of course, that by most measures, it is: fantastic poetry is fostered by multiple communities and has a history that’s decades or millennia long, depending on your perspective. However, some definitions of speculative fiction are potentially very wide, encompassing all kinds of fictionality. It’s “the literature of cognitive estrangement” (Suvin on science fiction). Hume labels as fantasy “any departure from consensus reality.” Calvino identifies fantasy’s theme as “the relationship between the reality of the world we live in…and the reality of the world of thought that lives in us.” Then I think: well, those are pretty good descriptions of poetry by Wallace Stevens, or Bill Manhire, or Mary Ruefle, right? So is speculative poetry just good poetry, or is there a sharper way of drawing the line?

We’ll see what they say tomorrow. Here are the poems I intend to spring on them (trusting that no student reads her professor’s blog to get a jump on the lesson plan). I’ve divided them into a few handy/ spurious categories. My criteria: the poem has to be a performance piece (meaning as much at home in the voice as on the page), and tropes or strategies from sf have to be pretty central (yes, I know that’s even more arguable than the first criterion). A recording also has to be easily available online.

Fan Poetry:

To find poems from fandom—except for “I Am That Nerd,” an influential poem I’ve shown to classes for years—I  ended up scrolling through WAY too many clips of Star Trek’s Data reciting “Ode to Spot” (it’s not the poem I mind, but the extended, painful reaction shots of other cast members). Most of them I found really depressing, but Rostad pointed out a few things about Cho Chang I hadn’t considered.

Shappy, “I Am That Nerd” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJxZfpu-kG0.

Rachel Rostad, “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFPWwx96Kew

Poetry is Magic:

And some slam poets are wizards, dude.

Saul Williams, “Ohm” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJHquOEChRg

Megan Falley, “Long Island Medium” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIHiDjFVplg

 

Dystopian Chronicles:

The scary future is happening right now. The implicit argument: realism IS sf. The world we live in is deeply, damagingly weird.

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, “Crack Squirrels” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngUa9HjKV8o

Reed Bobroff and Olivia Gatwood, “La Llorona” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKxtq1_ebNg

Shira Lipkin, “Changeling’s Lament” http://stonetelling.com/issue5-sep2011/lipkin-changeling.html

 

Thanks to Max Chapnick, who scouted out many of these during a season attending New York City slams, and some friends who made suggestions over Facebook. If you’re not satisfied, enjoy a couple more. I listened to some Tracie Morris recordings because I really admire her sound poetry.  “Mother Earth” isn’t sound poetry, but it’s sf and I like it. And Tim Seibles’ poetry is pretty page-oriented, but “Natasha in a Mellow Mood” is pretty weird and man, he has a great voice. 

 

Instructions for creating England

My speculative poetry students have been asking brilliant questions during the past two weeks: what’s Tracy K. Smith’s attitude towards a posthuman future in Life on Mars? How does assigning a higher priority to the natural world change Marvin Bell’s sense of what death means? How do Jeannine Hall Gailey’s villainesses differ from their counterparts in Ovid and Hans Christian Andersen, and why? What does James Merrill admire in that other weird spiritualist, Yeats, and what does he reject? This is also a course in research writing, so each student is pursuing a topic and teaching some part of it to the rest of the class. Their presentations have been wildly interesting, though, of course, pulling coherent papers out of a mess of tough questions is a hard thing to do—we’ll see next week how well the actual writing is going.

I’m “working” on my own essays pretty minimally right now: using my classes, for sure, to read and think about research, but not putting fingers to keyboard much. My students’ efforts, though, made me want to try. So, briefly: I’ve been dunking my toes in Lubomir Doležel’s Heterocosmica on and off for a couple of years now, interested in his descriptions of how novelists construct and readers enter fiction’s incomplete possible worlds, and trying to figure out how and why poets summon up possible worlds, too. They certainly do in epic and other long narrative modes, but my gut says that lyric poems can also constitute virtual universes, although they’re even more incomplete. I suspect, for instance, that one reason I prefer reading single-author collections to anthologies, and why knowing a poet’s biography deepens my pleasure in the verses, is that increased data helps me fill in more details of whatever place a poem evokes.

That’s a reader’s approach to poetry’s possible worlds; the writer’s involves a series of technical problems. How, in the space of a few lines, do you absorb a stranger into some alternate spacetime? During those class presentations last week, I realized that one of the poets I’ve been teaching addresses that problem quite overtly. As Chase talked about Todorov in relation to Sally Rosen Kindred’s Peter Pan poems—is Kindred hesitating between realities, as Todorov says fantastic stories do, or do her poems inhabit some straight-up version of the marvelous?—it clicked for me how much her chapbook Darling Hands, Darling Tongue concerns literary world-building. Look at this passage from “What Wendy Darling Tells Her Brother” (full version here):

Don’t you remember
the smell of her—lemon and ash—
her skin’s speckle like wrens’ eggs
and the warm wind of her moving in
off the edge of the bed, to hover
by cool sheets and bring her hands
down on your face
like rain?

Kindred’s Wendy, as the stand-in for the poet in this collection, is struggling to create successfully absorbing fictional universes. In this case, she wants desperately to remind her brother about England and the parents he’s half-forgotten. One of her strategies is to call up sensory detail as vividly as possible–sight, smell, touch. Simile and metaphor are portals, too. Michael in Neverland knows what warm wind and rain feel like, so they might help him remember or imagine. From Wendy’s current vantage, England isn’t exactly real (tangible? available? important?), but the storyteller misses it all the same:

And though it wasn’t real
it was home. And though it was in time
it was ours, the mother and father
who draped the air, their bodies strange
and soft with yearning.
It felt right to have a mother, to live
in the lap of a world I hadn’t made.
Don’t you remember?
It felt just like this story
that I am telling you.

Stories transport us, and certain ones transport us to “the lap of a world” safer and better than the mundane existences we often seem to inhabit. For Kindred, reality is relative and fragile. Wherever you are, you might try hard to believe in an elsewhere–maybe that effort to believe defines you–but your longing can never be fully satisfied. Not only do Neverland and England shimmer a bit, mirage-like, but Kindred’s also invoking the universe of oral storytelling from the pages of a handbound chapbook. This gap between print and voice is one engine, in fact, of lyric poetry’s power: nostalgia for sound, or attempts to represent its complexity in little black characters, drive verse’s turns and repetitions. In Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, the loss of a voiced world also entails all the losses of growing up.

Where are we? How does it feel to be not there? I type these questions into a blog-box, writing and not-writing, reading and not-reading, having just tipped from a long winter into a spring with snow in the forecast. I think Todorov is wrong about genre: fantasy is bigger than he allows, and often entails not just hesitating between explanations but understanding that our wildest speculations can be more real than, say, our social security numbers. There’s no knowing what matters, after all, until you lose it or find a way to step away from it. The oscillations of my professorial life show me that, too. Fantasies about writing’s Neverland, viewed through the portal of teaching English, clarify what’s at stake in both universes.

Buried bulb juts up a spear

More sleet and snow in the forecast, ugh, even as here in western Virginia, snowdrops and crocus and even a few daffodils show the shivering woods in bright spring clothes. I feel winter-locked too. Things have been germinating underground that I can’t talk about much: some hopes that have busted, some that may be hardier. Maybe I’ll be able to leap up from the leaf-mulch of half-graded papers and show some colors soon, but not quite yet.

In the meantime, at the risk of seeming really pretty goofy, here’s news of an inner turn, something that happened a month or so ago and has made me feel calmer. I’d been thinking a lot about ambition. Writers, probably all strivers for beautiful outcomes, have to construct this funny balance. On the one hand, you have to be humble and open about the work, because that’s all that matters and the work won’t tolerate some poet thinking she’s the one in charge. On the other, you have to cultivate arrogance: confidence enough to follow the words in the first place, and then the more public chutzpah involved in getting your work out there. Inspired by VIDA and other projects drawing attention to the weaker networks of women writers, our collective tendency to sidestep struggle and self-aggrandizement, I’ve been plagued by ridiculously heroic meta-ambition. I HAVE to strive, I told myself. Any woman who has the means HAS to, otherwise too few of us will ever see sunlight.

I wondered if that was self-deceptive (“It’s not for my own sake, really, I’m staking out those prestigious journals for my sisters!”). I also noticed that these double pressures to succeed were making me feel inadequate and jealous–more hurt by the inevitable losses, less thrilled by the wins. And then I had not just the thought but the sudden conviction I tried to describe in the verse below, drafted on a February day when you could feel a bit of warmth, a hint that spring would eventually, in fact, arrive. I have the feeling it’s a fragment of process, not a poem yet or maybe ever, but putting those lines together helped me. And I went to the AWP and that sense of smallness we all have at that conference worried me less. I just kept writing down the names of women who said smart, moving things at the various panels and readings I attended, and now I’m going to order their books.

Weed Experiences Trite Yet Nourishing Epiphany

A breath riffles my trichomes:
we are all connected. Sudden sense
of the buried mycelium from which
all creatures sprout: shoots reach
through the air while we root
together invisibly. Why this
consoles a godless poet, I don’t know;
I could say what’s good for one
herb greens the whole field, though
hunger is never so rational; still
I feel relief in every chloroplast,
a hot June slackening of fear.

Writing process blog tour plus AWP detox

Maybe, like me, you’re recovering from the AWP and thinking about focusing on writing again, rather than publishing, networking, and collecting bookfair swag. An annual post-AWP occasion for hard work is April, National Poetry Month in the U.S., when some disciplined souls adopt a poem-a-day regimen. I tried it first in 2012 and shocked myself by producing spring floods of poems, many of them keepers; I tried it again in 2013 and found my brain much more resistant, even though I spent part of the time at an artist’s colony—I was just in a headspace for revision, I think, not generation. This time I may use April to work on a long poem, one segment per day. If a big project is on your mind, you might like to follow some of the links below and consider various writers’ perspectives on process.

Thanks to Jeannine Hall Gailey for tapping me for this blog tour. Jeannine, a superheroic poet if there ever was one, recently served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington and is the author of three books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, and Unexplained Fevers. She has been featured in The Year’s Best Horror and Verse Daily, and her work has appeared in journals like The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review and Prairie Schooner. I met her non-virtual self for the first time at the AWP and the evening was a delight—she’s as warm, funny, and open as her poems, and I would have loved to spend more time with her talking about the writing life. One day…

Here are her answers to the prescribed questions. Below are my own.

1)     What am I working on?

I have a new poetry ms, Radioland, under submission. Who knows if the title will survive the process, but like the one-word titles of my first two full-length collections, Heathen and Heterotopia, “radioland” gestures at an imaginary place. In this case it’s not the wild heath where the unchurched live, or the other-place of my mother’s childhood Liverpool, but the sustaining idea of a communal audience, their heads bent towards receivers in dimly lit rooms across a wide broadcast range. Some of the poems were written during a Fulbright in New Zealand, where I felt decidedly distanced from U.S. feedback circuits—and impressed with the reasonable size of the NZ poetry world, its possible comprehensibility. U.S. publishing feels so vast by comparison—so big that outside of little coteries, no one can possess a sense of common enterprise (the AWP convention certainly dramatizes this). Radioland connects to those preoccupations, but the word’s antiqueness also suggests my father’s life, a recurrent subject in the collection. He was born in Brooklyn in 1925 and died in Philadelphia in 2012, and communication channels were never clear between us. Radioland is where he lives now, in the afterlife of memory and uncanny dreams.

My prose project, one-third drafted, is Taking Poetry Personally, described here.

2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Like many writers, I’m trying to produce the kind of stuff, in poetry and prose, that I’d like to read but can’t find enough of. In poetry, I crave transport to vivid alternate worlds—sometimes speculative, sometimes just faintly strange. I want the stakes to be high, each poem conveying the author’s urgency. I admire formal intelligence, whether that means deploying received forms or not, and a sense that deep reading is hovering unobtrusively behind the words. I also like kindness and humor in poems, as I do in people. Are my poems all that? I don’t know, honestly. I just know what I’m trying for and probably attaining only sometimes, in fragments.

Taking Poetry Personally is definitely a beast with an unusual number of heads: criticism, memoir, storytelling, theory, anthology. Here I’m trying to restore or reveal the stakes behind the strange behaviors of scholars: why is reading and teaching poetry so important to me?

3)     Why do I write what I do?

Poetry: can’t help it. Criticism: missionary zeal. All of it: to learn about poetry, other people, and myself by following wherever language leads.

4)     How does your writing process work?

When I’m writing critical prose I’m a prima donna: I carve out big blocks of time, write for hours a day, and guard my attention jealously. I find it difficult to carry all those threads around in my head. Putting together a poetry collection is like that, too: I need to think hard in a sustained way.

I write and revise shorter pieces—poems and blog posts—with desperation, whenever the impulse and a half-hour coincide. Any time of day is fine, but I’m generally not a coffee-shop writer; I prefer to close the door on any possibility of interaction. Sometimes, though, I’ll take what I can get. I’ve drafted a lot of lines during quiet patches in my office hours, some in cafes and on planes, and a few on scraps of paper while leaning on my son’s toybox. The associative thinking of poems and blogs, rather than the linear arguments of essays, is just more congenial, easier. I also need to write poems, which changes the game. If I needed to do scholarly writing, I suspect nothing would stop me squeezing time in at every opportunity.

Next week, look for further entries in the Writing Process Blog Tour by the two bloggers I’ve tagged. I don’t know either personally but I like the literary intelligence, a sort of questing quality, I see in their posts.

Ann E. Michael’s most recent collection, Water-Rites, was published by Brick Road Poetry Press in 2012. A poet, essayist, educator, librettist, and occasional radio commentator, she lives in eastern Pennsylvania where she is writing coordinator at DeSales University. Her blog at www.annemichael.wordpress.com  reflects her multidisciplinary approach to literature, art, science, and philosophy.

Joseph Harker is a twentysomething linguist-poet lately of New York City, where you can find him riding the subways to and fro devouring the works of Kay Ryan (this week). He is a textbook Libra in just about every way. His work has appeared in web/print journals such as Assaracus, Chantarelle’s Notebook, Hobble Creek Review, and qarrtsiluni, but are equally likely to find him at his blog, http://namingconstellations.wordpress.com. Please wipe your feet.