David Rees-Thomas: You’ve been a fixture of the spec poetry world for a number of years. What first drew you to writing speculative poetry?
Mari Ness: I’m flattered, but I don’t know that I can call myself a fixture of the spec poetry world – more a will-a-wisp, if anything.
My first attempt was back when I was a small little poet of seven, the triumphant author of a terrible little poem about a clown, and an even worse little three line poem about a heart that I spent a horrible three days struggling over until a teacher kindly informed me that poems didn’t actually have to rhyme, showing me e.e. cummings for encouragement.
That same teacher also suggested that it might be easier to write a poem about something that I was interested in, unlike, at the time, hearts. So, on the dubious strength of those first poems and that advice, when I was challenged to write something for Halloween, I wrote about a witch on a vacuum cleaner. It’s safe to say nobody liked this at all – partly because it wasn’t my original idea, mostly because, as I was loftily informed by my small friends, “witch” doesn’t rhyme with “vacuum cleaner.” I quickly put the witch in a ditch. Nobody liked this either (“Witches FLY,” I was told) but I learned my lesson: it’s easier to find rhymes for things that interest you.
It was years before I tried to write any poems again – these first experiences were not encouraging – but by then, I was quite fond of dragons.
It probably also helped that my first exposure to poetry was to poetry of the fantastic or revelatory: Dr. Seuss, hymns, Lewis Carroll, the psalms, and so forth.
DR: Over the years what changes have you seen in the speculative poetry field? Has the advent of extensive web publishing played an important part in these changes?
MN: The main and most critical change is that now you can easily find poetry that speaks of dragons.
That was not true in my pre-internet high school days. I could find poetry, certainly, but this was rather carefully selected to represent the more realistic strands of poetry, and even then, not much was available in either the high school or town library. College threw more stuff at me, but, again, mostly realistic, except where the unrealistic fantastical stuff slid by under the name of an approved poet. I read the great poets – or, I should specify, the poets accepted as great by the Norton Anthologies, which is not quite the same thing, and looked at the poetry journals. But the journals I could find at the college library and at bookstores all focused on “literary,” “mainstream” work.
Poet’s Market assured me that journals accepting fantastical poetry did exist, but outside of Dragon Magazine, the occasional issue of Asimov’s (which was also not widely available) and Tolkien, I couldn’t find any fantastical poetry post Yeats.
This is not to say fantastical poetry wasn’t being written, just that if you weren’t at the right bookstores or the right conventions, you were unlikely to hear about it or have a chance to read it, even if, like me, you wanted to.
When the internet started up, websites focusing on fantastical and speculative poetry were few and far between – but, in a refreshing change, at least they were there. Literary speculative poetry took a little longer to arrive, more or less creeping in here and there, but now we have several zines publishing speculative and fantastic poetry on a semi-regular basis.
A second change is that it’s also easier to find examples of different poetic forms, especially in structured poetry, which in turn opens up all kinds of new worlds. Before the internet, I certainly knew about sonnets, and I had been accidentally introduced to the rondeau, sestina, haiku and villanelle, but on the internet, I found far more: terzanelles, triolets, ghazals, rondeaus, cinquains, pantoums, septolets…Admittedly, I’m far too fond of this sort of thing and far too apt to waste time playing with forms like this, but on the other hand, playing with forms is one way to improve control and mastery of words.
A third change is the increased ability to interact with readers. Poets could do this at poetry readings, of course, but outside of colleges and urban centers these were fairly well – even my own, medium sized university, with a creative writing program, only managed to scare up about two poetry readings in the three years I was there, and one of those was actually a reading of medieval texts, with mead and popcorn. (I suppose you had to be there.) These days I get emails or comments on my blog a few hours after a poem goes up, allowing me to sense how that poem worked (or in some cases, didn’t work.) And of course silence is its own response.
Naturally all of this abundance has its downside. Poetry in English never paid anyone other than Edna St. Vincent Millay and Lord Byron well at the best of times, but now it’s gone from paying badly to paying only token or nothing at all. And the amount of utterly dreadful poetry has also increased. But we had dreadful poetry before the internet, so I’m not sure how much that’s changed.
DR: The very existence of spec poetry as a separate category of poetry is a somewhat controversial subject in certain circles and has some very vocal critics. What sets speculative poetry apart from mainstream poetry? What makes it unique?
I know we, as humans, have a tendency to want to categorize everything – animals, plants, types of apples, bacteria, and so on, even when life is telling us no, no, we can’t be categorized that way. The more we study and research, for instance, the more we realize how much the species model – the assumption that every lifeform can be assigned to some species on the basis of a few specific guidelines – simply doesn’t work in the real world, and yet, we continue to categorize and name species. We simply can’t seem to help it.
The same thing happens in poetry and fiction. I find it less annoying in fiction, since it can help to guide readers in bookstores and libraries.
Poetry, however, should be, and is, more difficult to categorize. After all, the oldest poetry still extant (which may not be the oldest poetry ever written, let alone created, since so many words have been lost to time) fit the category of what we would now call speculative, since that type of poetry was supposed to explore the extraordinary, the divine, the inexplicable. To describe visions; to praise a divine being that could only be felt or imagined, not seen. To sing of ecstasy and visions.
And sometimes, yes, to explore very well known things – war, love, childhood, parenthood – in an extraordinary context: gods shifting the tides of battles and striking people down with plagues. The flush of love explained as the touch of god or gods. Raising the ordinary to the extraordinary, or blurring the line between reality and unreality.
At some point, poetry learned to explore the ordinary as well, and celebrate the ordinary as ordinary, and I love this. I don’t want my poetry limited to knights and dragons, gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters. I want poetry that also sings of plums, or cheerily tells the tale of a woman who buried five husbands and still thinks enough of love and marriage to look for the sixth. And of course poetry has always told jokes, and I love this as well – it would be a dull world indeed if we only had serious, ecstatic poetry. The world needs limericks.
But what I’m trying to say here, in a rather long winded way, is that speculative poetry is and has always been part of the “mainstream” world of poetry as well, no matter how many critics may wish to forget this. And sometimes, opening to the fantastic can produce some of a writer’s best work. And that flash of inspiration that starts any poem – that’s mystical, right? Fantastic? The thought that the atoms comprising your brain are able to set off just the right amount of electrical charges to swirl words about and create something that will, in turn set off another set of atoms in another part of this world whirling and swirling? Also utterly fantastic and fabulous and completely unbelievable when you think about it. So instead, feel it. In a poem.
And if you are writing of the unreal, the impossible, the only imagined, well, perhaps a better name for that is “dragon poetry.”
I should note that I write poetry of both types, and poems that straddle both. I originally conceived of and categorized “Grandma and the Puka,” for example, as more of a mainstream poem, despite the semi-presence of a trickster figure. Because sometimes fairies and tricksters and magic just slip into things. You just have to watch for them.
DR: You also write short stories and flash fiction. Do these hold a different fascination for you in theme and approach?
MN: I rarely sit down to write either a flash fiction story or a short story – I just hear a sentence in my head and then I decide to see where that sentence goes. Most of my flash fiction, by nature, is written fairly swiftly, around a single narrative concept. Short stories require a bit more plotting and planning, a bit more of figuring out where we are going.
My poems are considerably less spontaneous, and typically for me are more like word puzzles – how can I get this image, this sound, correct?
DR: I particularly enjoyed the poem, “Blood and Scales” (The Harrow, Feb (2009), and “Grandma and the Puka” in this issue of Ideomancer. Is there one you would choose as a favorite and why?
MN: It’s hard for me to think of a particular poem that I’ve found particularly fulfilling, but if I had to, I’d mention “Snowmelt,” in the Winter 2011 issue of Goblin Fruit, which was a rather complex chain poem to put together, and my novella-in-poetry, which I hope to see in print at some point.
DR: What lies ahead for you as a poet and a writer? Any plans to tackle novels?
MN: I have no idea what lies ahead. That’s part of the wonder of working in this field.