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.

Valentine’s Day in the uncanny valley

valentinesOn Valentine’s Day, I was asking my class about the psychedelic weirdness in Natalie Diaz’s poems about her brother’s meth addiction, when I suddenly realized I felt surreal myself: headache, vertigo, a conviction the last leftover scraps of bo ssam had not been such a good lunch plan after all. I muddled through a few more hummingbird gods and human sacrifices in When My Brother Was an Aztec, stumbled home, and slept through romantic dinner reservations.

I did get out of bed, though, for a dreamlike valentine exchange. I’m pretty sure a heart-shaped card from my daughter read:

Roses are red
violets are blue
I love you a lot
shoe new canoe
(idk how you do this for a living)

My son’s note to me contained the immortal verses: “When you do play Scrabble,/ you’re better than the average rabble.” Aw. My husband, too, typed me an android-themed valentine, each line on its own neatly-scissored scrap of scarlet paper. No problem there—we’ve been watching Almost Human, Äkta människor, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, so we’ve both got artificial intelligence on our biochemical minds. We have a tradition of writing each other sf valentines, like our zombie convergence a few years back; I’m the one going off the deep end recently, writing him verses about narwhals and eighteenth-century brain science. Nonetheless, he presented me with some pretty bizarre sweet nothings, including “I’m half crazy with almost human error,” “more robo-love, more robo-robo-love,” and “I fall upon the thorns of love—I leak!”

I woke up human the next morning and picked up a copy of the New Yorker containing a sort of history-of-atheism essay by Adam Gopnik which, on the whole, I disliked, but a couple of points stuck with me. First, there’s his relabeling of rationalists and believers as Self-Makers and Super-Naturalists, among whom he notes some convergences. For example, plenty of not-very-religious and even outright godless people nonetheless practice holiday rituals. That’s me: I paint eggs come spring and fix a red-white-and-blue pie in July and drag the whole family along with every demented tradition, but I’m a skeptic in most ways. Well, seasonal turns mean a lot to me, and I’m patriotic enough to spend much of my life reading and teaching the U.S.’s damn fine art, but mostly I just like making up weird family activities.

More annoying was Gopnik’s assertion that “nearly all of the major modernist poets were believers.” He cited Auden, Eliot, and Yeats, with Stevens as a counter-example. The first two, sure, and you could add in Marianne Moore, but is it Yeats’ idiosyncratic mysticism really anything at all like Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism? And, ahem, how about the irreverences of Hardy, Frost, Williams, Millay, Langston Hughes, and Helene Johnson, or the syncretic strangeness of H.D.? Oh, that’s right, nearly all of the major modernist poets were also white guys. I love poetry, modernist and otherwise, because it offers an alternative kind of sacred grove, with the worship diffused among every sensation, idea, and syllable the poet attends to.

I’ve been thinking a lot about familial love lately, partly because of Diaz’s powerful book, but also because I’m teaching Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars in another course. I first read her elegies for her father on the train to New York City in May 2012. I was about to give a reading in Bryant Park, and on the return trip, I would visit my father in the Philadelphia Veterans Hospital—not knowing he would die a week later, but suspecting he didn’t have another winter in him. Smith’s father, who worked with the Hubble telescope, becomes nearly godlike in the second section of Life of Mars, which is mostly comprised of a long poem, “The Speed of Belief.” She hated to imagine a world without him. I felt immense pity for my own bedridden, isolated father, but I also thought he had done at least as much harm as good with his eighty-six years. I knew I would grieve but not miss him, and I was right.

I’m currently revising an essay containing the line, “when all-powerful patriarchs run the show, things don’t go well for most of us.” I was raised to be a skeptic, but I do wonder if that intellectual position has remained congenial partly because, for biographical reasons, I just find the idea of a father-god obnoxious, not consoling. I adore Smith’s intelligent, exploratory, deeply felt book not least because it contradicts my pop-psychologizing: her poetry seems agnostic despite its author’s love and admiration for her earthly father. I wonder if my own kindly-fathered kids will continue to feel as they do now—as they have felt ever since they had the words to express opinions. One’s a spiritual seeker and one’s as profoundly rationalist and religion-resistant as anyone I’ve ever met. Well, whatever their future relationship to positronic Christmas elves, both of them can rhyme.

If you need more juice for your poetry battery and your rocketship can take you there, check out two speculative poetry readings next week in which I play a small, humanoid part:

Monday, Feb. 24th, 7 pm, Studio 11 Gallery in Lexington, VA: a night of sf, fantasy, and gothic poetry featuring Sally Rosen Kindred! Come for briefer readings, too, by Mattie Smith, Ted Duke, Brittany Lloyd, Chauncey Baker, and Tamara Lipscomb. Chris Gavaler and I will read from the HOT OF THE PRESSES anthology Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comics.

Thursday, Feb. 27th, 8 pm, Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle, WA (an AWP offsite reading): The Superheroes of Poetry, starring Bryan Dietrich, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Sally Rosen Kindred, Jason McCall, Jason Mott, Evan Peterson, and me.

Incarnation: WisCon

I’ve been a virtual sf author since Aqueduct published The Receptionist and Other Tales last summer: you can conjure me by textual transportation device. At WisCon this weekend, though, avatar and body will undergo fusion.

I’ve given readings from the book all year, but on all those occasions my primary identity seemed to be poet. At the “World’s Leading Feminist Science Fiction Convention,” though, my primary identity will be person invested in speculative fiction. Which I truly am. But I still feel jittery as I pull on the boots.

If you’ve gone to grad school—especially if you’ve been a woman in a fancy program—you probably remember episodes of feeling like a complete impostor. I often thought my admission was an accident or grudging concession: I was offered a fellowship by a state agency so Princeton said oh, all right, dammit, we can let in ONE New Jerseyan. I was the youngest person in my year and one of only two who had attended a public university, so I felt constantly outclassed, outread, and intellectually outmaneuvered.

O miracle: I scored a decent job as I was finishing my dissertation. I worked really, really hard, for years. I caught up. There are still huge holes in my education but I know a lot of stuff about twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry. I’m confident enough that I don’t worry much anymore about the gaps—very few are as well-read as they let on, really, and I plan to keep educating myself for at least three more decades.

I wonder how much of my confidence is rooted in the actual work I’ve done and how much comes from authority being mirrored back at me by other people, especially in classrooms, at conferences, and at the various other places we strut our professordom. I noticed this year, as I read course evaluations and exit surveys, a number of remarks such as great teacher but doesn’t have an enormous ego. This made me laugh, wondering which of my colleagues were being implicitly accused of egomaniacal behavior. Even if I don’t project a sense of overweening self-importance, though, it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the ego-boosts of teaching. I do. I just cited praise from my course evaluations, for heaven’s sake. And I love it when people ask me for advice or an opinion and then listen to the answer as if they expect it to be smart. As my daughter says about herself: being bossy is, like, my favorite thing.

And yet I keep throwing myself into situations in which I really am a green, untutored creature. I guess I like being a student. I’m attending WisCon in part to make the book visible to people and in part just to listen, learn, take it all in. I’m hoping that because it’s a feminist conference—fiercely egalitarian in all its communications with attendees—the whole ego parade thing will be less in evidence than, say, at the AWP. It’s an adventure, in any case, a portal into an alternate universe.

The protagonist of my poetic campus novella, “The Receptionist,” is also a half-reluctant, timid sort of quester. The alternate reality Edna inhabits remains vivid to me. People who know my real colleagues keep asking me who’s who in the poem’s imaginary English department and it really doesn’t work that way. I visualized the elfin Victorianist as someone I met elsewhere years ago. The dragon resembles several distinguished older women professors I’ve known, but physically I was projecting Helen Vendler, whom I’ve never met. Many have said, “oh, the hermit woodsman is totally Jim Warren,” and I get why, but I actually saw him very clearly as a small, dapper, wiry, silver-haired man, a little more formal and courtly than our real Americanist. The problem dean is definitely an amalgam of administrators I’ve known or heard stories about from friends, but mentally I dressed him up like the perfectly-nice-to-me postmodernism expert Andrew Ross as he was photographed for the New York Times in the nineties: longish black hair, bright mustard-yellow jacket (I think this is the article but the picture I remember isn’t attached). See?

Oddly, as far as seeing goes, the only character I can’t visualize is Edna. I would have said that I identified with several characters in my story, but drawing a blank on her features, build, coloring, and clothes makes me realize I was really looking over Edna’s shoulder the whole time, focused on how she saw others rather than as others saw her. She’s probably a good person to think about as I beam out to Madison, Wisconsin. A good watcher and listener, definitely jittery, but when she hears that voice in her ear, she’s willing to leap through a painting into the Narnian ocean.

And off I go to Madison, as soon as we get this batch of too-flattering students graduated. I’ll be moderating a panel Friday, May 24th, 9 p.m., called “Women’s Speculative Poetry Now” with Amal El-Mohtar, Shira Lipkin, Sofia Samatar, and Sheree Renée Thomas (Conference Room 4). And I’ll be reading in an event called “Overflowing the Aqueduct” on Monday, May 27th, at 10 a.m. with Eleanor Arnason, Nancy Jane Moore, and Deb Taber (Michelangelo’s in the Best Western Inn on the Park). If you’re also visiting this particular dimension, please say hello.