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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

News

1. Sample every musical genre

2. The Moon is no longer Earth's sole satellite

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3. Gravity waves from a neutron-star collision.

4. Are you dead when you die?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Weird Wishes: An Essay Series by Daniel Braum

Editor's Note: Dan and I have been writer buddies since we met at Clarion in 2002. He is a fine writer with a verve for strange imaginings. Our tastes converge on all of the writers he discusses here--Tim Powers, Tanith Lee, Lucius Shepard, Ray Bradbury--but that does not prevent me from being critical. Here, for example, while Dan discusses setting, I suspect the success of these writers has just as much to do with an elusive quality of voice as setting. He is correct: These writers do pour themselves into their worlds... but also their words--the way they are told. What do you think? What accounts for the power of these tales? Character, plot, setting, or voice?


Weird Wishes

“Where we had thought to be all alone we shall be with all the world.” – Joseph Campbell

Welcome to weird wishes. This is the first in a series of essays on strange tales, weird fiction, and supernatural fiction I’ve been putting together in connection with my second short story collection. The Wish Mechanics: Stories of the Strange and Fantastic by Independent Legions Publishing.

This first essay is called “Night Marches and Weird Wishes- my journey into strange fiction.” I talk about my experiences creating the book, learning about weird fiction, and one of my favorite topics, setting.

The quote by Joseph Campbell comes to mind writing this and revisiting my “Night Time Logic” written over one year ago for Shane Keene’s Shotgun Logic blog. Here is the link

I wrote the stories in The Night Marchers and the essay in what I now think of as a "weird fiction vacuum.” At the time, I knew little about the history of and the authors comprising the weird fiction genre. This past year following the publication of both the book and the essay has been a delight of learning, exploring, and discovering so many new-to-me writers and stories.

Being a new comer to something long-established has proven to be both an overwhelming and exciting experience. There are so many essential and classic authors I have never read and so many I am just "discovering." The well is deep. And weird fiction is going strong. It has been said we are in a weird-fiction renaissance. Judging from the many exciting emerging authors and publishers and the quality and breadth of the work they are producing I find it hard to disagree.

So where I had thought I was all alone, writing the stories in The Night Marchers, little did I know I really “was with all the world”- or at least with writers, readers, artists, editors, publishers, and academics fueling a phenomenon. The exciting part of this journey of education and exploration is the learning and sharing. I have a lot of gratitude to the authors and professionals (such as my Cemetery Dance editor Norman Prentiss just to name one) who have shared their knowledge, passion, and experience without ego or judgement. After writing and publishing for over a decade and a half I was very grateful to serendipitously learn that there was a “place” in a bigger picture where my work fit in. While following my own writing path I was contributing to and part of a greater whole all along.


Another exciting part of this experience was that my second short story collection The Wish Mechanics: Stories of the Strange and Fantastic (Independent Legions, July 2017) came out quickly on the heels of The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales (Cemetery Dance, May 2016). All of The Wish Mechanics stories were written from 2002 to 2016 at the same time and right along with the stories comprising The Night MarchersThe Wish Mechanics was a book that revealed itself when Norman Prentiss and I were choosing the table of contents for The Night Marchers. I quickly realized I was working with at least two books of material. The core of The Wish Mechanics came together when I saw thematic and other similarities in the stories I had ruled out for The Night Marchers. While these stories were ruled out for the simple reason that they didn't feel right for a Cemetery Dance release; when I thought about them more carefully I noticed that the stories had what we might commonly think of as the Science Fiction and Fantasy elements in the forefront.

Both books contain stories that operate on night time logic and stories of supernatural and literary horror. The Wish Mechanics departs into different terrain than The Night Marchers with stories that steer into areas often reserved for or thought of as science fiction and fantasy. An example of this kind of story is my short story "Sumo 21." (This story is slated for a future project and does not appear in either book) You can read listen to it here at for free at Escape Pod.

While it was originally published in a science fiction and fantasy publication the story also has elements that can be said to be hallmarks of weird fiction and cosmic horror. I mention "Sumo 21" as it illustrates a kind of story found in The Wish Mechanics without spoiling any of those found in the book. Instead of listing the table of contents of The Wish Mechanics  and the different kinds of stories I’ll preview the topics of the forthcoming essays I am working on, the topics of which give a good idea of the terrain the stories in the book traverse:

  • How does weird fiction intersect and interact with other genres? A look at weird fiction through the lens of noir, magic realism, science fiction, fantasy and horror. When does genre transcend genre?

  • The shape of fear and wonder. What are common expectations and structures for a horror story? An examination of stories that subvert and play with expectations.
  • Alternate worlds. A history and analysis of stories where characters cross from one “world” to another.

  • Fairy tales and modern myths. A history of the fairy tale and mythological story. What are these stories made of? How do they use and transcend genre?

  • The ghost story. Why do we love them and why do they work? What are the outer limits, if any, on what constitutes one?

  • The weird monster. A case study. Vampires. Can a classic monster be “weird”? Why do we love or hate them? A history of depictions, tropes, and transformation of the vampire. 

  • The weird monster. Cryptids: A case study. An examination of the fact and fiction of crytpozoology. An examination of the use of crytpids as monsters in supernatural and weird fiction.

  • Music as magic. Magic as transformation. A history and analysis of stories where music is essential to or is the speculative element.

*
It makes a certain kind of sense to me that the subject of this first essay is setting because setting is often the starting point of my creative process of writing a short story.

While I’m not sure why I often start with setting, I could write tons exploring the subject.  What is much clearer to me are the authors and stories that inspired me early on, those who inspire me now, and how I perceive their use of setting. Tanith Lee, Lucius Shepard, Robert Aickman, Ernest Hemmingway, Lee Thomas, Sarah Langan, James Tiptree Jr., and Ray Bradbury come to mind.

I’ve written and published over forty short stories and spent years studying and thinking about dramatic structure. As time passes it becomes harder for me to perceive setting as a unique and separate element from the other essential elements of story. One way to “look at” story is to consider character, conflict, and setting. We’ve all seen countless iterations of this approach. Often the focus is on character and or conflict. ‘Conflict drives character’, ‘Conflict equals plot,’ ‘Drama consists of dynamic characters, obstacles, and change,’ are common discussions.

One of my approaches to story is to create with setting as an initial and essential part of the framework. The setting-centric stories I have read, for lack of a better term, deliver a special verisimilitude that creates the magical and immersive experience I crave as a reader and are what I am interested in writing. I notice stories that fail to deliver a character and conflict grounded in and connected to a setting cause stories to fail or fall short in my opinion. Stories that excite me and transport me often have a character and conflict born from setting. I’ll present a few stories to illustrate and explore this notion.

“Because Our Skins Are Finer” by Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee’s deep catalog of work features settings ranging from fantastic worlds born of her imagination to beautiful evocations of earthly locations. Her short story “Because Our Skins Are Finer” first published in the Twilight Zone Magazine in 1983 and reprinted her Arkham House collection Dreams of Dark and Light in 1986 features a setting that was far away and exotic to my teen-aged self when I first encountered it in a suburban library in the United States.

One of the things setting can do is provide a “kind of” access to places a reader has not encountered. This reading-as-a-way-to-experience-the-far-away-and-the-wider-world was very likely in play and a large part of the appeal to me when I first read it. Now as an adult and as a student (and want-to-be-teacher) of fiction this aspect operates as a gateway or a first layer analysis of setting and story.

Although the story’s setting is a real world one and the “monster” is one closely associated with that place in folklore and fiction, I knew of neither when I first read it. To me the setting was as wild and inventive as her secondary world work and as far as I knew, a fictional place. Have a look at the opening paragraph:

“In the early winter, when the seas are strong, the gray seals come ashore among the islands. Their coats are like the dull silver in the cold sunlight, and for these coats of theirs men kill them. It has always been so, one way and another. There were knives and clubs, now there are the guns, too. A man with his own gun and his own boat does well from the seals, and such a man was Huss Hullas. A grim and taciturn fellow he was, with no kin, and no kindness, living alone in his sea-gray croft on the sea rim of Dula under the dark old hill. Huss Hullas had killed in his time maybe three hundred seals, and then, between one day and the next, he would not go sealing anymore, not for money and surely not for love.”

This paragraph and the story that follows is an excellent illustration of the notion of a character and a conflict born from setting. Both the character and conflict are almost inextricable from the setting we are given in this paragraph. I imagine the story fails or becomes very different if attempted in a different place. I have heard Tanith Lee’s creative process was very organic and her stories are born from instinct or almost channeled as opposed to a “pre-planned” or “thought-out” or analytical approach. Intent and method matter little when the result is successful. I mention her organic approach to place it in contrast to the analytical eye with which I am dissecting the story and the notion of setting. Whatever her approach, the resulting story illustrates the kind of setting-centric story I am exploring.  My initial reaction to the story was visceral. What has stayed with me for all the years since is the visceral connection and belief in the emotional reality. Without knowing the name of the setting or whether it was real or not Tanith Lee (and the setting she chose) achieved something special and rare. It moved me. It became a real part of my personal landscape. I feel the setting and Tanith Lee’s use of it was why the other aspects and the story as a whole remained with me. Perhaps it could be said setting is the element and or catalyst as to why the story succeeds in delivering verisimilitude and a lasting emotional connection.

As a reader I yearn for these kinds of stories with settings inhabited by such characters and their conflicts. As a writer while setting inspires me and comes to me organically I often take an analytical approach in choosing which character(s) and conflict(s) to portray.

“The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard

While I knew the next story to discuss in regard to setting would be “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard I wasn’t consciously thinking that the protagonists of both stories are repentant hunters. But they are.

I encountered The Jaguar Hunter at literally the same time I encountered Because Our Skins are Finer. One day I brought home the Arkham House edition of the Jaguar Hunter collection along with Dreams of Dark and Light from my local library.

Lucius Shepard’s prose style defies convention with elegant, long and flowing sentences that often described tropical locations. While I will always connect the element of setting with Lucius Shepard’s sentences, contained in them are masterful depictions of his characters and the conflicts defining them.

Consider the opening paragraph of “The Jaguar Hunter”:

“It was his wife’s debt to Onofrio Esteves, the appliance dealer, that brought Esteban Caxx to town for the first time in almost a year. By nature he was a man who enjoyed the sweetness of the countryside above all else; the placid measures of a farmer’s day invigorated him, and he took great pleasure in nights spent joking and telling stories around a fire, or lying beside his wife, Incarnacion. Puerto Morada, with its fruit company imperatives and sullen dogs and cantinas that blared American music; was a place he avoided like the plague: indeed, from his home atop the mountain whose slopes formed the northernmost enclosure of Bahia Onda, the rusted tin roofs ringing the bay resembled a dried crust of blood such as might appear upon the lips of a dying man.”

The story is another excellent example of characters closely tied to their setting with unique troubles and conflicts specifically arising from it. The story not only provides that first layer / gateway experience I previously mentioned and a character and conflict born of setting, but also a conflict that deepens as the story moves deeper into the setting.

The editor’s introduction in the F&SF magazine original appearance of the story relays that Puerto Morada, Hondoras is a real place and the story was born from a conversation with a real jaguar hunter the author met. The story certainly delivers on what I call the first layer / gateway by functioning to bring the reader (at least the American reader) to a far away place many may have never been or might never go.

The initially presented conflicts in “The Jaguar Hunter” are Estaban’s external conflict of having to return the appliance and his internal conflict of wishing to avoid returning to hunting. These are certainly very closely tied to where the story is taking place.

After he is forced to go off to “hunt” the jaguar the setting moves from Esteban’s home village to the Honduran jungle and the ruins of an abandoned fruit company farm slated for development. These settings not only add resonant subtext, what is at stake for Esteban is heightened. Both conflicts progress with the setting. Esteban’s life and liberty are in jeopardy but also the very nature of what is means for him to exist. Shepard’s setting choices frame, define, and heighten the conflicts. The way Esteban’s choices have the potential to change the setting and the way his choices are defined by the setting is masterful, satisfying, and unique to the story.

A discussion of what one thinks happens to Esteban and what one thinks may or may not be happening transcends the analysis of setting and lends itself to a discussion of fabulism and weird fiction. The Jaguar Hunter originally appeared in the magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction which primarily presents fantasy stories. It also appeared in Lucius’ first collection alongside stories of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Having hallmarks and elements of each of those kinds of stories it could have easily been presented in a publication of any of those genres.

"The Jaguar Hunter" in my opinion, can also be thought of as a fabulist and or a weird fiction story. Rather than repeat my full discussion of the Swords by Robert Aickman I again direct you to the above link to my Night Time Logic essay where I discuss it more fully.

One of the hallmarks of the Swords and perhaps too of weird fiction is that the stories have a speculative element or supernatural encounter that is not “defined”.

The Swords is one of the best or at least my favorite illustration of this notion. In the story the narrator has encounters with a woman who appears to be immune to physical injury. No reason is given as to how or why the woman is this way. We can imagine reasons corresponding to hallmarks of the various genres mentioned above. For example we could say the woman is “undead”, or the woman is protected by a magic spell, or that the woman is not a woman but a robot. None of these “explanations” is given or even alluded to but I offer them to show that doing so could color or push the story into being closer to horror, fantasy, or science fiction respectively. This lack of explanation lends itself to the story fitting in to a weird fiction classification.

In the Jaguar Hunter, like the Swords, the speculative element is also not overtly explained or defined. The setting and the context of the story steers this reader towards a metaphorical interpretation of the ending, a hauntingly beautiful passage of prose, and thus the story. Metaphorical or not, it is easy to categorize the Jaguar Hunter a work of magic realism.

There is night time logic in play in “The Jaguar Hunter.” What is happening and what happens is felt but not explained. The intentional lack of an explanation prevents the story from fitting neatly into a trope or genre and is a hallmark of weird fiction. The mixing of genres while never landing on merely ones shows how the story could be said to transcend into the realm of literary fabulisim. Whatever story elements are in play or whatever classification or school we might use to analyze the story the end result in my opinion is a work of art that is hard to forget and has the rare effect of touching and creating an emotional reality.

It is hard for me to conceive of these three stories being successful or at least the same in different settings. Even in the seemingly mundane setting of the Swords, the believable way England is depicted is the necessary grounding that allows us to both believe in the characters and the reality of the world presented. Because of setting we are able to readily suspend disbelief when presented with the supernatural and unexplained encounter which is the catalyst to the emotional impact of the story. Tim Powers work also expertly presents the reader with deceptively simple, masterfully rendered real world settings that also serve as groundings for the fantastic and unique supernatural events his characters encounter.

There are so many other examples of unique and effective uses of setting I could explore. Hemmingway’s prose, (perhaps the opposite of Shepard’s in style with its shorter sentences) also delivers crystalline depictions of setting. Even though Hemmingway’s far-away places are not populated with the supernatural and unexplained Aickman, Lee, and Shepard’s settings are and thus no need to ground us in reality, his settings offer the anchor to the emotional places his characters go.

Another noteworthy setting is delivered in the opening line of William Gibsons’s classic cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. In the near future world Gibson creates and presents, our own world is recognizable in it and our own human conflicts are explored.   

Other noteworthy real-world settings can be found in the work of authors Lee Thomas and Sarah Langan. Both authors masterfully incorporate a sense of place in their stories and I feel the places they present define the struggles of their characters.

New Orleans is a setting that recurs in Lee Thomas’s novels. In Thomas’s Dust of Wonderland and Down on Your Knees, New Orleans itself is so expertly depicted it could be said to be a character. Both novels are not only masterful works of character and imagination they are excellent examples of the kind of setting driven stories I am illustrating here.

Sarah Langan’s expertly depicted settings of places we know provide the grounding for the familiar characters she portrays and their struggles with threats born of this world and beyond.  A setting that stands out even among the high bar of her work is the “haunted house” in her modern masterpiece novel Audrey’s Door. The genre transcending novel is one of the finest novels I have read, period; but I mention it here because as it works so well in an analysis of setting in weird and literary fiction.

The settings presented in Audrey’s Door are instantly recognizable as an America we know. Yet  they operate much in the same way setting in “The Jaguar Hunter” do by defining and deepening the conflicts of the protagonist, Audrey. As Audrey moves from one setting to another the conflicts deepen and expand Audrey’s internal and external conflicts. Audrey’s antagonists and challenges are all born from the setting. Like “The Jaguar Hunter,” the setting in Audrey’s Door could be said to shift from something strange yet definable to something undefinable or possibly metaphorical. Both “The Jaguar Hunter” and Audrey’s Door conclude in ways that defy convention and easy explanation. Both through use of their uniquely chosen settings create magnificent resonance that delivers something vital that lives beyond the pages.

As I write this essay I am reading Brabury’s Death is a Lonely Business. Bradbury’s prose which depicts a Venice that has come and gone is not only lovely, controlled, and evocative it adds subtext and layers to the noir style and the protagonist’s conflicts. 

It is hard to imagine the real-world settings of my short stories, “The Night Marchers,” “The Ghost Dance,” and “The Sphinx of Cropsey Avenue” in other places other than the chosen settings. The stories “The Canopy Crawlers” and “The Wish Mechanics” from The Wish Mechanics both contain fantastic worlds (barely recognizable as our own) with settings that I hope deliver characters and conflicts essential to and born of setting.

My forthcoming and recently released stories, “Goodnight Kookuburra” (the Gold Coast, Australia), “Cloudland Earthbound” (Brisbane, Australia) and “Palankar” (Quintanno Roo, Mexico) are among the most setting intensive of my work to date. I hope through them you might find gateways to far-away places and perhaps also understandings. 

Thank you for coming along for this. Forthcoming shortly will be a companion post with discussion questions about setting for The Wish Mechanics for your discussion and or book group to use.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Review with Commentary: Never Stop on the Motorway by Jeffrey Archer

Never Stop on the Motorwayby Jeffrey Archer
St. Martin's Press
General Fiction (Adult)
Diana, successful business woman and single parent, feels pressure on multiple fronts. She still feels the sting of the year-old divorce. Yet she chooses to remain single, partially because the single choices left much to be desired. And the men tend to think of her promiscuous after a single mistake:
"[E]very other man on the premises either smirks behind your back or treats your thigh as an extension of the arm on his chair."
 Driving her Audi suburban and jamming out to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." She does have a good friend, Daniel, who has been married for twelve years with three children, she being the godmother. It is their family she is driving out to visit in the country.

After she accidentally hits a cat and mourns its passing, headlights gleam in her rearview mirror. She tries to let him pass. She slows down. She speeds in excess of a hundred miles an hour, hoping to get pulled over by the cops, but he won't stop tailgating. His bumper won't leave hers, no matter what she chooses to do.

The story leaves one surprise for the end. This pulse-pounder will leave fingernail impressions in the couch. The price for this story is reasonable. If you're into thrillers, you'll want this one. If there's any critique, it's that there feels like we need one more story beat after the surprise--not that it's needed.

END OF REVIEW

Okay, stop reading until you buy and read this for yourself. Commentary with spoilers below for those who like to discuss stories.

Link to Kindle version (available July 4)
Commentary with Spoilers
 You have read the story, yes? It's only a dollar.

Unless there's a nuance I'm missing, the title "Never Stop on the Motorway" suggests this is a thriller, nothing more and nothing less. However, a quarter of the opening text or so deals with the problems women have with men. Yet she goes to a man for help. This may irk some feminists, so I was pondering what more could be meant.

If anything is meant to be said here on the topic of feminism, it may be that men can be allies, not necessarily in the background. And some men only seem to be the problem (you'll have to read the story to know what I'm referring to.

That is an "if"--whether author wanted anything more than to thrill. Nothing wrong with stories that only aim to entertain.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Ivory by Mike Resnick

This was up for the Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, Locus, Science Fiction Chronicle Readers Poll Awards.

Summary:
Elephant tusks get gambled away in an alien game. The last member of the tribe is seeking it. He has employed in order to find it. This novel tracks those movements over the centuries of its displacement.
Commentary:
This is a book I rather love and I have a hard time accounting for it. It's a minor SF masterwork--that illustrious tier when you have read SF classics like Dune and Foundation, etc. and are scratching your head about what to read next. This has nothing to do with awards. This outshines some winners although a few award-losers might might outshine this one. But not many.

Like the movie Red Violin, the story follows the history of an object through time except Resnick's predates the movie by a decade. The risk of such connected stories is that they are merely connected stories. What a book strives to do is become more than the sum of its parts. This achieves that.

This amounts



Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Blade Runner -- analysis and commentary

Note: Work will slow down my posts here. I hope to do one a week, if possible.

The Dilemma
A friend watched Blade Runner while distracted, she admitted, but didn't appreciate it. I looked for a simple webpage to point her to, but nothing obvious cropped up although Wikipedia quotes it as showing up on multiple Best lists (mostly belated as a cult classic). Worse,  Siskel and Ebert panned the movie when it first came out:


They picked the worst scene of the movie to highlight, which allowed them to say it was cliche but with great effects and cinematography. So I decided to tackle the movie myself.

Note that there are multiple versions. Yes, I will ruin the movie. But you have probably already seen it. If not, go see it and compare notes. If you have questions the remain unanswered, you are supposed to ask and see if the work supports them. Yes, you may need to re-watch the film.

The Set-Up
What are Blade Runners? "Blade runners are people assigned to assassinate 'replicants.' "

You have to realize what this film was doing. The old noir movies had a small resurgence. This was an SF version of that. Is that a cliche or an homage? The change of setting, I think, is enough to make it original. Plus, how many other SF movies were noir up to this time? Cliche, on rare occasions, but most of it dealt with the lives of artificial people destined to die in four years. Was that a cliche at the time?

Luckily, few listened to the lazy critics and watched the movie, anyway.

This is an SF mystery. It's easy to miss out on critical details if distracted. Especially, early on, missed details will confuse you. 

The mystery is something of a macguffin for the thriller and speculative aspects, but it asks the viewer to buy into the detective scenario because it will play off mystery expectations and surprise viewers with a different perspective.

It opens with an effective mood-setting scene. It creates a tone of dark futurity, alternating bright and dark. The music does not work as well today as it would have then since back then the sound was fresh, electronic, futuristic although some of it is nearly as effective as it would have been--usually the sexy sax.

Next is a scene that at first glance seems to be an interview with an unintelligent man, but the man reacts with murder. So the stakes are higher than we thought, Rewatching the scene afterwards (yes, you should rewatch it), you realize the man is trying to evade detection through misdirection.

Deckard is taken in to hunt down killer androids who have escaped, learning they have only four years to live since they might become fully human. Deckard doesn't want the job, but their best guy was shot (not dead, after all). Fairly classic scene. 

Deckard interviews Tyrell and his beautiful assistant. With difficulty, he identifies her as a replicant. Along the way, she plants seeds of doubt about who she is and what he does. She becomes a love interest.

Analysis with Spoilers
Basically, the subtext here is that the replicants are effectively becoming human, indistinguishable. They are being killed to prevent that. Deckard buys into his job at first but begins to question it.... even before the movie starts.

The main romance scene left much to be desired (the worst bit of the film). Maybe the point of that scene is that she is too emotionally young (less than four years old and only beginning to feel emotions) and needs to be taught how to love, but the smaller shots/reactions were more effective. There are voice-over clips that spell things out, but I think the narrative does a decent job. That photo of her make-believe childhood, in fact, is what the director uses to show us how he is falling for her as he keeps returning to it. 




We aren't in her POV much, so it is difficult to say why she falls for him, but her vulnerability and her ability to cut him where it counts is what draws him to her. Plus, she saved his life. One can only presume that she is interested in his returning to her. Here is a man who knows who she is--a type he has killed in the past--and not only accepts her, but also finds her fascinating and wants to run off with her.

Batty, as one might guess from his name, is erratic. He establishes himself as such. His whole chase scene with Deckard is a game of cat-and-mouse. Where did the dove come from? The dove came from the rooftop. It is used more as a symbol, but it adds to his strange character. Every time we see him, his behavior is off, so for him to grab a dove should not surprise us any more than the rest of his behavior. In fact, all of these replicants are a little off. Attacking someone via somersaults? The most normal was the snake gal. 

Batty knows he is dying. He drives a nail into his palm as it is clenching up. The dove shows physically and mentally that he has had a change of heart although we don't know that. His speech tells us that he wants Deckard to feel what they feel. If he succeeds and kills Deckard, what does that accomplish? Maybe Deckard's replicant girlfriend has suspected Deckard's heart is good, but I'm not sure if Batty's seen that. Maybe it's a risk he's willing to take. If Deckard can pass on the knowledge, maybe he change the lives of future replicants.

Clearly, Batty is a Christ symbol and one of the best I've seen. The nail in the palm. The dove. His dying instead of Deckard, sparing Deckard's life even though he deserves death.

The unicorn dream is clearly symbolic. I would have to watch again to decide on a more exact significance. The final origami was a unicorn. That may be what she is to him--an impossible fantasy but one worthwhile. But is that your interpretation? That's you're job as a viewer. You have to interrogate the art/text.

It's a good movie with minor flaws. I'm not crazy about that love scene or the Batty's final monologue which everyone quotes, but the imagery is stunning and evocative. The themes and symbols were effective. It's a good SF romp with heart. 

Watch it again.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

"Dragon Flight" -- from the novel by Anne McCaffrey

C
Summary:
Lessa is champing at the bit. She is supposed to be Weyrwoman, which is supposed to mean something, but she's kept uninformed and occupied with busywork. She wants to be out flying her dragon with the other riders. Instead, she's memorizing ballads.

She does get to soar, through the in-between, and learns things about herself she never knew.

Commentary:
This is the section connecting the two award-winning novellas, including "Weyr Search" and "Dragonrider". It is the stitching holding these two tales together. It has wonder of its own, but the stitching bears some of the more interesting parts. This section also matches the title, lending the section additional weight.

The section opens with poetry or verse. Lessa, the narrator, is required to memorize and write them perfectly. She calls them ballads, but ballads have a specific structure, which these do not follow. The form requires an ABCB rhyme, with iambic rhyme and alternating four and three feet. Perhaps these are rough translations from the far future. Or maybe the idea of what a ballad is has changed in the far future.

Here's a sample:
Seas boil and mountains move,
Sands heat, dragons prove,
Red Star passes.
Stones pile and fires burn,
Green withers, arm Pern.
Guard all passes.
The lines are taut with strong enough imagery. It even surprises with the changing of "passes" from verb to noun. Separate from the narrative, the verse--while good--are not especially remarkable. But McCaffrey does infuse these with a mythic power. In one of my first workshop classes, a young woman imitated the use of these verses mixed with narrative. Even should a young poet manage strong lines, it is only when Lessa ponders their purpose that they gain particular significance. Just picking at the lines seems to lend verse more gravity.

Should one want a more mythic quality, one might study the old masters like Ovid or Homer in their invocation of Gods and try to extrapolate that into a new context. Most writers, however, will probably not that interested in poetry, so McCaffrey's method should suit writers well enough.

*

If you've tasted McCaffrey's style before, you already know what I'm about to say and don't care, or you have turned your nose up at her prose and are baffled I am taking her seriously as an artist. As a bestselling author, McCaffrey clearly has plenty of readers where this isn't a problem, but the work tends to explain emotions and motivations, for example:
"Manora regarded Lessa warily. Lessa smiled at her reassuringly."
 Some readers want to be told how to react, some do not.

*

Much of the novel is about Lessa's striving for her place in the world, which is typical for most young people. But here the context can be viewed through a feminist lens: a young woman jockeying  for position among the other, older men. She has cards up her sleeve that she is waiting to play.

*
The large speculative treat is the "between" time-traveling. For award-winning stories that first appeared in Analog, the absurdity of time-traveling dragons must have been a consternation to voters. Despite the novellas garnering attention, the novel received no recognition until years later.

And yet the bizarre idea works with readers. Why? One might suspect that it is well integrated into the narrative. It utilizes earlier ideas and brings things that might seemed like chance and made them sound suddenly more probable (if you are willing to suspend disbelief).

Monday, May 22, 2017

William Stafford

Rumored to have written 22,000 poems, William Stafford won a National Book Award and for thirty or forty years won the hearts of poetry readers across America. You can see his style of simple lyrics full of wisdom bubbling through the boiling cauldron of a particular era in our country's poets.

His "Way of Writing" was associative. Allowing himself plenty of time without distractions, he would get up early to write (a habit from being a conscientious objector during WWII and working in camps in the States before they put him to work) and he would write whatever came--sensory, visual stimuli; words. This seemed to be critical to his process which he called receptivity. He'd let that suggest something else. From there he felt free to use reason/intentionality/eloquence.

In writing "Ask Me", he states that in both the writing and revision, he was following a feeling. [Turner's 50 Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process]

Curiously, his influence as a poet has waned. It's hard to pinpoint when, but sometime after his death, the space he occupied in retrospective anthologies (even ones that expanded) decreased to match the relatively minor poets. Why? Is it the seeming simplicity? Or a desire not to see "The Way It Is" or "accepting what comes"?

If it's his plainspoken simplicity, possibly it has outworn its welcome for a time and may circle back around again.

Here are five of my favorite Stafford poems. Stew on them until they release their savor to you.

  1. "Traveling through the Dark" -- heartbreaking signature poem, emblematic of his perspective: "The Way It Is"
  2. "At the Bomb Testing Site"
  3. "A Story That Could Be True"
  4. "Waiting in Line" (at the end of file)
  5. "A Certain Bend" (The whole poem is there, but it isn't properly lineated. Definitely, look up the original. From the first issue of Missouri Review. 

Great lines from "Waiting in Line":
the nation of the young, like jungle birds
that scream as they pass, or gyrate on playgrounds,
their frenzied bodies jittering with the disease
of youth. Knowledge can cure them. But
not all at once. It will take time. 
A poetry writing book pointed out the attitude toward the young in the first two lines. But zeroing in on that misses out on the larger picture since it is a poem about the continuity. See the title again. Genius. Beautiful, funny and moving.

Hundreds more poems:
Poetry Magazine (their lengthy biography)
poet's website

Saturday, May 20, 2017

"Your job is to find what the world is trying to be."
--"Vocation" by William Stafford

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: A Little Book on the Human Shadow by Robert Bly

Had I known what kind of book this was, I might not have bought it. But then again, I might have. It is a strange hybrid on poetry, writing poetry, myth (fairy tales--not in the pejorative sense, but I'm sure some would like to apply that as well), self-help, and pop psychology. Clearly, Bly saw a deep connection between all of these things, and part of the appeal is how strongly integrated he views them. He takes the entire field of poetry (especially Wallace Stevens) to task for not using these ideas as he has. Most writers consider their field of study as pointless. See my review of David Orr's Beautiful & Pointless, so it is gulp of cool water in so vast a desert to come upon Bly's drinking trough.

Note: I do not tend to write glowing reviews. I try to steer away readers who would dislike such a book. Most books, like humans, are flawed and sometimes those flaws are part of the appeal. I hate to state this over and over for every review, though.

I also bought the audiobook that followed after this edition. It is always curious to read (or hear) how a writer revises his work after second and third thoughts. Bly is uncannily honest and states in the audio that his work has truth and lies, but he doesn't know which is which.

There is a great deal of useful information in here, and a little that rings less useful. The overview: Bly asks that people find balance in their writing and their lives. We have a tendency to blame our failures on others, but Bly states we should take ownership, pull out the aspects of our personality that we've hidden away, and develop our lives fully.

First, a definition, if possible: The shadow is the darker side of ourselves, which we need to embrace. The shadow is not evil, Bly said. Following Bly's definitions requires paradigm-shifting, not to mention accepting squishy definitions.

The book is divided into five sections:

  1. Problems in the Ark. This details the author's own experiences in finding his shadow and dealing with it in his poetry. Later, he points out that some of the things he hated in others (Alexander Pope, businessmen) he had in himself, and he had to accept this before he could appreciate such men. Paradoxically, he mentions politicians he also hated (or at least he suggested he did), so perhaps this is a never-ending process.
  2. The Long Bag We Drag behind Us. Society tells us to hide certain aspects of ourselves. These aspects (the feminine, the masculine, the witch, the giant, the shadow, among others) we hide in a bag and drag it around with us.
  3. Five Stages in Exiling, Hunting and Retrieving the Shadow. We start at birth and, say, hand our witch to our mothers (who expresses it for us) and later hand it to our wives. The witch is what allows us to get what we want. We need to retrieve this by asking for these missing parts back.
  4. Honoring the Shadow. This is an interview with William Booth, the editor, who gets Bly to expand on ideas he mentions only in passing earlier, such as eating one's shadow, etc.
  5. Wallace Stevens and Dr. Jekyll. Bly believes the personality is also a part of the poet and needs to be examined as part of a poet's oeuvre. Stevens, Bly says, brought out the shadow in his poetry, but never lived it out in his own life, so the gifts of the shadow were wasted on Stevens and this shows up in Stevens' late poems.
The positives of the book outweigh the negatives. The main positive is asking people to face themselves, instead of shifting responsibility on others. This could also be a negative since people often create or contribute to a problem, but at some point, we must realize the person who may have done damage doesn't care, and we must work through issues for ourselves. One can read an abundance of poetry where that is its primary failing. It keeps stumbling over the flaws of others as if that were one's only failing in life: other people.

This is where Bly's methodology steps in and tells you to ask for your missing parts, the aspects of yourself you gave away. I keep imagining how this might play out in real life: the puzzlement on the other person's face. 
"Hey, give me my witch back." 
"You want your what? 
"My witch!"
"Oh. Okay. If you lost your witch doll, I'm sorry, but I don't have it."
Still, it is a physical statement, a stance that makes the metaphor real, which is both good and bad. The good is that you are telling yourself that you are changing. The bad is that it is a metaphor:
"Projection without personal contact is dangerous. Thousands, even millions of American men projected their internal feminine onto Marilyn Monroe. If a million men do that, and leave it there, it's likely she will die. She died."
It may be within the realm of possibility that that is why she died, but it seems doubtful. Unless she were part of a hive mind, she probably had her own issues. One of the measures that some poetry readers use to decide the quality of a poet is their personal mythology. It seems likely that Bly's is unique, so maybe he'll remain within the canon for centuries to come.

Unfortunately, Bly does judge Stevens by a measure that maybe Stevens had not considered or might have rejected as part of his poetics. All humans are problematic, so to judge one because he does not follow your aesthetic is dubious at best. If we had a time-traveling recorder to mark our every misstatement, we would all be exposed as cruel. This is where David Orr's "pointless" perspective on poetry gains legitimacy.

No matter. A Little Book on the Human Shadow has plenty to recommend it. The audiobook is similar, covering overlapping territories, but it goes a little further into fairy tales and skips much of the later discussion found in sections four and five of the book. I do recommend both but with caveats, We should be examining our various aspects of personality we may be leaving out.

What book doesn't require caveats? Maybe that is the  measure of a book that takes risks. Flaws are, after all, where the personality shines through.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Star Trek: Season 1, Episode 18. "Arena"

 Summary:
As the officers visit Commodore Travers on Cestus III, Travers request tactical people as he has an interesting problem. When they beam down they find the colony outpost destroyed. After they find life a mile away, they are immediately under attack.

Analysis with spoilers:
Kirk believes the messages he'd received from the Commodore were faked. Red shirt dies. Meanwhile, Enterprise is under attack. If they lower shields to beam up officers, they would be vulnerable to attack, so Kirk orders shields up and retreats.

Kirk dashes and tumbles to an artillery depot. When Sulu's attacks against alien vessel are ineffectual, Kirk advises them warp away. Spock believes, when the aliens are moving, he must join Kirk. They fire a type of grenade that causes aliens to beam away and flee. Kirk decides to search for survivors. Enterprise returns.

Survivor explains ruthlessness of the aliens in battle even though the colonists tried to surrender. He also states that they never sent the Enterprise any messages. Kirk concludes that the Enterprise was lured to be destroyed in order invade their space. The Enterprise pursues.

Spock and Kirk debate over the need for retaliation. Kirk is decided that they must be destroyed. They pass a system that stops them both. The Metrons have stopped both. Federation ship captain must fight the Gorn ship captain. The losing captain's ship will also be destroyed.

The scenario matches the common saying where kings, presidents, and tyrants should fight the wars.

The battle here differs from Brown's. There is no barrier. The Gorn is a lizard (as opposed to a tendriled roller) and stronger if slower than Kirk. Kirk believes he is smarter, but the Gorn listens in as Kirk records his plans. Kirk hunts for weapons while the Gorn builds them. Kirk drops a boulder and thinks he has the Gorn, but it rises. Kirk flees into a trap. Kirk escapes but is exhausted.

The Metrons tell the Enterprise that Kirk is done for and to prepare to die. Nonetheless, Kirk dashes down hill. Meanwhile, the Enterprise watches on screen and suddenly, they understand the Gorn might have been defending their own space against the human invaders.

Meanwhile, Kirk invents gunpowder as the Gorn approaches. Kirk succeeds but decides against killing the Gorn. The Metrons free both parties without killing. Enterprise zapped back toward home.

Quotes:
  1. Spock: "Doctor, you are sensualist."
    McCoy: "You bet your pointed ears I am."
  2. McCoy: "We appeal to you in the name of civilization. Put a stop to this."
    Metron: "Your violent intent and actions demonstrate you are not civilized."
  3. Kirk: "We're a most promising species as predators go."

    Notes:
    1. Red shirt zapped.
    2. Not only is this episode based on Fredric Brown's "Arena", it also alludes to Murray Leinster's "First Contact" as a kind of framing device with slightly different outcomes (Enterprise instantly transported back into familiar space as opposed to swapping ships.
    3. Sustained Warp speed 7 is dangerous.

    Sunday, May 14, 2017

    "Arena" by Fredric Brown

    First appeared in John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Astounding. Reprinted in several major retrospectives by Groff Conklin, Carol Mason, Patricia Warrick, Anthony Cheetham, Stephen V. Whaley, Stanley J. Cook, Bonnie L. Heintz, Frank Herbert, Donald A. Joos, Jane Agorn McGee, Brian W. Aldiss, Harry Harrison, Edward L. Ferman, Barry N. Malzberg, Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, David Drake, Charles G. Waugh, Edel Brosnan, Debbie Notkin, Roger Stewart, Garyn G. Roberts, Winston Engle, John Gregory Betancourt, Ian Watson, Ian Whates. Filmed as a Star Trek episode by the same name.

    Summary:
    After spotting an Outsider scouter beyond Pluto's orbit, Carson almost crashes into a planet. The g-forces cause him to black out. He awakes, naked, on a blue-sand planet--not even a planet, but a hemisphere bordered by force fields.

    A voice enters his mind and tells him he must destroy the alien that is rolling in the sand. Roller, he calls his enemy. Carson makes a telepathic link with the Roller to make peace but fails. The Roller only wants to fight.

    Analysis:
     They cannot get at each other directly, but by the Roller's killing and throwing a lizard, they learn the projectiles work fine. Carson has the stronger throwing arm and forces the Roller back. Carson, already parched, has a gash in his leg. He tries to patch it with local vegetation, but that only seems to make it worse. Meanwhile, the Roller has constructed a catapult. He manages to destroy it, but he is weakening. It makes another.

    Later, he discovers that the Roller's de-legged lizard is actually alive. It was lack of consciousness that allowed through the barrier. Carson uses this information to cross the barrier and hopes the Roller throws a rock at him to revive him through pain. The Roller obliged Carson bides his time to attack.

    Some interesting comparisons/contrasts with the Star Trek episode:

    1. The human is the stronger party in the story, the Roller more agile.
    2. No barrier in the TV episode. This also leaves them nothing but older, primitive technologies; whereas in the story, the barrier becomes a kind of technological tool if not a direct weapon.
    3. The story's lizard who is something of an indirect ally in the story becomes the enemy in Star Trek (although perhaps they are later allies--or at least, no longer enemies).
    4. The Trek episode works better as anti-war theme--both because the captains have a go and because Kirk chooses not to continue the fight to the death.
    5. However, what works better for the story was the importance of the little guy. SF is full of important, epic characters. Here, the little guy gets his chance at the limelight.

    Friday, May 12, 2017

    Star Trek: Season 1, Episode 17. "The Squire of Gothos"

     Summary:
    Colony Beta VI waits for supplies. Officers open with a discussion of deserts. Spock, "logically," fails to see their beauty. McCoy and Kirk smirk at Spock's Vulcan ways.

    Eight days away, Spock demonstrates his Vulcan superiority by spotting a space-displacement reading before the ship's human expert does. An unrecorded planet looms on screen. Radio interference spurs a change in course; however, Helmsman Sulu and Captain Kirk disappear.

    Analysis with spoilers:
    DeSalle requests to search planet; McCoy seconds; Spock, now in charge, denies and pursues understanding of planet first (second point for Vulcans over humans).

    Sulu's replacement, Jaeger (a meteorologist), confirms that humans could not live long on the planet. However, Uhura receives 18th Century messages and font from planet. McCoy and Jaeger and DeSalle beam down. Lush vegetation. They remove masks but cannot communicate to the Enterprise. They spot a castle and enter. Salt creature from first episode frozen in alcove. Sulu and Kirk also green and frozen.

    Figure in long blue coat, lime green pants, and ruffled white shirt [retired General Trelane, now Squire Trelane] appears playing harpsicord. He magically unfreezes Kirk and Sulu. Jaeger points out that this era would have been visible at nine hundred years ago (apparently, they are nine hundred light years away, living in ~2600s). He must have a remarkable telescope: not only to see the surface and fashions, but also the interiors of buildings (not to mention, overhearing conversations).

    Squire, the only character who seems to be enjoying himself, wants to hear of their conquests. He says that they are one of the few species that preys on itself. ["Prey" must be meant loosely in the sense of killing although cannibalism is not unknown. Here is a sampler list of cannibalistic species. Here's another and another and a Wired article that discusses phenomenon,  with some overlap]

    Half of the conversations occur through a large mirror, viewing crew in reflection. Squire catches DeSalle in the act of trying to stun Squire. He removes the weapon, turns it to destroy, zapping the salt creature and a frog with seaweed plumes, human legs in flippers. Despite the impressive display of power, Kirk calls bluff and Squire snaps Kirk to the actual surface temporarily to show who is in charge.

    Meanwhile, Spock has diverted power to sensors in order to spot location of missing crew. Spock hopes to beam up of living beings in rescue.

    When Squire Trelane goes back to harpsicord, crew discuss that Squire doesn't exist at all. Squire taunts he will bring all crew (especially females) to planet until transporter beams the missing back aboard.

    Kirk readies to go warp when Squire snaps himself aboard the Enterprise and promises to bring them back to his castle Gothos (or planet Gothos?). Clearly, this is a Gothic novel in space: 1) trapped in castle with a powerful, attractive figure who is also something of a nightmare, 2) castles, 3) dark moody fog (or poisonous atmosphere).

    When they note that Squire's Earth details are flawed, they surmise that Squire himself is flawed. The focus on the mirror pays off in terms of story. Spock notes this and assumes it is the source of Squire's power. So Kirk challenges Squire to a duel, giving him a weapon. Squire purposefully misses his first shot. Kirk hits mirror.

    After beaming up, the crew dodge the planet Gothos--simultaneously cool, corny, and creepy. The squire zaps Captain Kirk back on his planet as his prisoner on trail. He's found guilty (of what is not explained),

    The camera and Kirk both treat the shadow of the noose as though it were the thing itself. It is a familiar visual--perhaps Hitchcock?

    We return from the commerical break to Squire who is emotionally changed (or returned to his fun-playing self), though, is enthused that he felt anger. Kirk talks Squire into a predator game of Hide-and-Seek.

    As Squire Trelane clinches victory, it is stolen by his "parents."

    Quotes:
    1. McCoy: "In the name of Heaven, where are we?"
    2. Squire: "Oh, come now. We are all military men under the skin. How we do love a man in uniform."
    3. Squire: "Oh, how absolutely typical of your species. You don't understand something, and you become fearful."
    4. Squire: "So many questions. Make the most of an uncertain future. Enjoy yourself today. Tomorrow... may never come at all.
    5. Spock: "I object to you. I object to intellect without discipline. I object to power without constructive purpose."
    6. Squire: "Oh, Mr. Spock, you have one saving grace after all: You're ill-mannered. The human half of you, no doubt."
    7. Spock: "His food had no taste; his wine no flavor? No. It simply means Trelane knows all of the Earth forms, but none of the substance."
    8. Squire: "You stand accused of the high crime of treason against a superior authority, conspiracy, and the attempt to foment insurrection. How do plead?"
    9. "Oh, the absurdity of these inferior beings."
    10. Kirk: "We're living beings, not playthings for your amusement."
    11. Kirk: "There's still not enought sport in just  killing me with a sword."
      Squire: "I know. That will be dull."

      Notes:
      1. The light-hearted debate between human and Vulcan heats up. As a child viewing these episodes, I found McCoy's teasing annoying. As an adult, I see the good-natured ribbing as more complex. McCoy is revealed as stodgy and unable to see outside his human frame although he does illustrate some advantages to being "human" (usually interpreted as "not logical). Spock is an interesting case. In this opening salvo about deserts, he interprets McCoy's seemingly cutting remarks as a compliment, which it is to a degree. While McCoy does not understand Vulcan ways, he does sneak in back-handed compliments. Such remarks, which  existed in the 60s, could not exist in today's political climate. That is, it could, but only the negativity would be observed. Star Trek attitudes still seem more advanced than ours.
      2. This episode provides a nice contrast to the last "The Galileo Seven".
      3. Planets are often numbered. This suggests many colonies, of course, but it also suggests that colonists haven't yet come up with a proper name for their planet. There's a shiny, cellophaned frontier promised on each planet.
      4. Squire Trelane seems to be an early predecessor of The Next Generation's Q.
      5. Likewise, Squire Trelane is preceded by Jerome Bixby's child in "It's a Good Life".
      6. Spock explains his use of the term "fascinating": the unexpected. "Interesting" appears to be a step down.

      Wednesday, May 10, 2017

      "It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby

      First appeared in Frederik Pohl's Star Science Fiction. Reprinted in major retrospectives by Frederik Pohl, Edmund Crispin, Alfred Hitchcock, Brian W. Aldiss, Laurence M. Janifer, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Thomas E. Sanders, Robert Silverberg, Leslie A. Fiedler, Leonard Wolf, Malcolm Edwards, Kingsley Amis, Stuart Gendall, Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh, Richard Matheson, Alberto Manguel, Sebastian Wolfe, Gary Goshgarian, Peter Haining, Syd Bentlif, Joan Kahn, Jean Marie Stine, Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer. It was twice filmed--once as part of the Twilight Zone series and again for the 1983 movie.

      Summary
      In a small town, people unwillingly come to Anthony's house. Anthony is a young lad who can make things happen by thinking about them. A rat bites his tail off. A man on a bicycle wants to bike away quickly, but Anthony reads the thought and sends the man rocketing away only because Anthony was in a good mood. Around Anthony, everyone mumbles and thinks simple multiplication tables so that he cannot read their thoughts. They talk about how good everything is, lest Anthony improve things for the worse.

      Analysis with Spoilers:
      Can there be a spoiler with this? The tale is less a story than a slice of life (albeit, a rather extraordinary one), but there is no plot, per se. Just events. In fact, the tale doesn't seem to have received much notice until Frederik Pohl reprinted it seven years later, followed the next year by Alfred Hitchcock's reprinting.

      There is no one character perspective, either. It hops from mind to mind. Or is Anthony's mind the true observer? If so, Anthony often makes no commentary on or takes no action against the minds that think negatively toward him.

      Anthony goes out into the cornfield to improve the lives of the insects and animals that live out there, which he seems able to do with their simple minds and thoughts. But when he returns, he puts on his own television show. The town is cut off from civilization (or maybe the rest of civilization is destroyed since their world ends a little ways off). Anthony's TB show is little more than abstract figures, but when Dan Hollis drinks too much and gets upset he doesn't have a record player to hear an album he received for his birthday, Anthony picks up on the thought and buries Dan (alive?) in the cornfield.

      That's the climax. The denouement wraps up with everyone thinking in response what a good life it is. Close on irony.

      The tale can be read at least four different ways:
      1. Our society over-caters to youth who control how society is run.
      2. If there is a god, he is capricious at best, unknowingly cruel at worst.
      3. If there is a god, he serves animals well since they are simple creatures whose lives he can improve. Humans are so complex in their wants, that it is impossible to improve their lives without making it into a living hell.
      4. This is the snapshot of a child's mind: how it interprets its influence on the world. The world even stops at the point of his journeys. He sees himself as the deserved center of attention.
      The story also influenced Star Trek (he wrote four episodes though not the ones this story likely influenced). See "Charlie X" and "The Squire of Gothos".

      Monday, May 8, 2017

      Interview with Michael Skau, pt 1

      Image result for michael skau
      Michael Skau is a professor emeritus at University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has written critical works on the Beat poets. He has one book, Me & God (reviewed here), and one chapbook of poetry published, with two more collections on their way. Part two of this interview appeared here.

      *

      Part 1 - Beginnings

      When did you first start writing poetry?

      I first started writing poems when I was in high school, but actually what I was writing then was more verse than poetry. I would be embarrassed now to have anyone see what sappy, simplistic, and self-indulgent doggerel I wrote back then.


      Did you always want to write poetry or did other creative forms call your attention first?

      Poetry was always my favorite genre, though I have occasionally flirted with fiction, probably because my poems have a tendency to lean more toward narrative rather than toward image. Story and humor are like the poles of a horseshoe that attract my creative filings.


      Who are some of your literary models?

      By literary models, I suppose that you mean writers who have most influenced me, a factor which is always difficult to ascertain. Instead, I guess that I would cite the poets whom I most enjoy reading--William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Emily Dickinson.


      Why the Beats?

      When I was a Teaching Assistant at the University of Illinois, I was assigned an experimental course, a Freshman English class taught in the lounge of the dormitory where the students lived. My assignment came too late for me to have ordered books for the class, and so during our first class meeting, I asked the students what they were interested in reading and writing about. At that time they were all interested in the Hippies and wondered where they came from. I explained a little about the Beat Generation, about whom I had limited knowledge myself, and the students decided that they would like to read and write about the Beats. As the semester continued, I found that I really liked and appreciated what the Beats were doing, and so I decided to write my dissertation about them: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso.


      Did you have mentors to help you along the way, or were you formed from the head of Zeus?

      I was certainly not sprung from the head of Zeus; perhaps, however, from the head of Seuss. I did not have any mentors actively working with me as I began to develop in small ways as a poet. In fact, only recently have I joined a writer's group to share my poems in progress. On the other hand, I did extensive research on poets and poetry from the pre-Romantics to the present, English and American, for the courses which I was teaching. In other words, I read a lot of and about dead white male poets--and learned a lot from them.


      What do you think of the writer's group: help or hindrance?

      The writer's group is able to point out problems that I may be too close to the poems to see. The group provides me with some objectivity and distance that often help me to re-view the poems. This is usually very valuable.

      Clearly, you wrote and published poetry while you taught, but you had just one chapbook published. Now you have more books forthcoming. Did teaching limit your writing, and now you're making up for lost time? Or were you writing and published all along, and are just now collecting your back catalog poems into books?

      Yes, I definitely feel that teaching (mostly the grading, but also the class preparations and committee work) limited the time and energy that I could spare for writing poetry, especially for finding appropriate outlets to which I might submit. I had published about a hundred poems in various periodicals before I retired. I have been collecting some of my older writings, but I am not just recycling. I am also exploring new avenues for my writing. For example, of my latest publications, two of them were written to celebrate the late musical genius, Prince, and I have just had a poem accepted today to celebrate the late master Leonard Cohen. As with many other poets, I also find myself gravitating lately toward poems of social and political protest.


      How do you feel about this process? How do you decide the order poems should be in a book?

      I have no problems with the process of compiling collections of previously published poems or of creating new ones. My poems often seem to have a narrative thread to them, and so ordering them is a lot easier than it might otherwise be. One whole section of Me & God involves a road trip, and so I used a geographical organization for that section. Elsewhere, I structured the organization on my imagined development of the relationship between the primary characters.


      What's the process of book publication like for you? How did your first chapbook come about? your first book?

      After hearing me read some of my poems, the wonderfully talented Denise Brady invited me to submit poems for my first chapbook, Me and God Poems, which she crafted into a beautiful hand-set chapbook collection in 1990. I had continued writing poems in that series, and one of the new ones, "Pinballs," was selected by Jim Reese as Paddlefish's Winner of the 2013 William Kloefkorn Award for Excellence in Poetry. Jim suggested that I try to find a publisher for the entire collection, and he mentioned Wayne State College Press, where Chad Christensen accepted the volume and helped to shepherd it toward its final publication.

      Saturday, May 6, 2017

      Interview with Michael Skau, pt 2

      Michael Skau is a professor emeritus at University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has written critical works on the Beat poets. He has one book, Me & God (reviewed here), and one chapbook of poetry published, with two more collections on their way. Part one of this interview appeared (or will appear) here.


      *

      Part 2 - The Work

      Is publication something you pursue like a rabid dog, is it just mad pleasure, or is it like standing on your head trying to stack BBs?

      For me, publication is a very strange animal, a platypus. At times I go for a year without a single acceptance. Then all of a sudden I will have 4-6 poems accepted within a couple of months. I do not know how to explain why publication works in phases like this for me. Sometimes I go for a year or more without sending off any poems, but I keep on writing anyway. I guess that the completion of poems is often satisfaction in itself. On the other hand, publication is important for me too, serving as both a testimony to my efforts and a spur to keep on writing. It is all very confusing to me.


      How does a poem come to you? How do you get it into a shape that pleases you? Do have an example?

      I honestly do not know how to explain the genesis of a poem. Sometimes, I get an idea that I would like to explore; sometimes, the beginning is just a line or two; at still other times, the poem arrives almost fully formed. I wish I knew the process because I would much prefer the poems that arrive needing only some minor tooling. I could give you an example of how a poem takes shape by looking at the way that the first poem in my book, "Pinballs," developed. The poem is written in loose iambic tetrameter. I knew that I wanted to do a poem about pinballs (I even used to own a pinball machine) and me and God, and I knew that I wanted God to win, but not the narrator because the game corresponded in my mind to rebirth/reincarnation (thus, God plays a machine involving "Zeus and other myths"). I set the poem in a bar to suggest that we humans live in a world of darkness ("dark in the mid-afternoon"), finding fitful pleasure ("lit only by the blinking lights") only in intoxicants ("beer signs"), the arts ("juke box"), and the trivial enjoyment of electronic games ("corner pinball games"). God should have created us to be able to find more fulfillment in life, "but he wasn't / the type of guy you could tell what to do." The narrator has not been playing well, but finally has "a good last ball," yet he does not win "a free game." Thus, even if we recover from our erratic past and devote ourselves to "good" during the last years of our life, it does not matter ("You can't win on that machine"). We get no free game: no heaven, no rebirth, no reincarnation. Only God gets "replays." These were the ideas and details with which I was playing when composing the poem.


      One of the things I love about your poems--if the review hasn't already made this clear--is their humility. They step outside of the frame to see the picture. The poet sees himself and the world and god, warts and all. My first question is how do you develop this skill? Does come naturally? Or is this emotion recollected in tranquility, as Wordsworth would have it? Or is this objective revision where the first draft is the mad passion and subsequent drafts resee the events dispassionately?

      How dare you accuse me of humility! No, seriously, what you refer to as the humility in the poems probably comes from my inability to believe that I have all of the answers. In fact, part of the point of the Me & God collection is to raise questions rather than to impose answers. W. H. Auden has said that poetry is the "clear expression of mixed feelings," and I agree with him on this point. Part of the problem in our current society stems from people who feel that they--and they alone--have all of the solutions. We do not need such demagogues.


      What is your perspective of the poem "Wind"?

      The narrator's response is innocent and naive. If "a few... might consider it objectifying," I wonder how they intend to reproduce, and I pity them for being unable to appreciate the beauty of the human body which artists have celebrated from at least the time of Praxiteles up through the time of Picasso. I used to resent having to provide "trigger warnings" in my classes. Everyone has sensitivities and vulnerable areas, but education and society do not have the responsibility to warn against possibly irritating those bruises.


      Why poems about God?

      My Me & God poems were originally inspired during a period of spiritual questioning, when I was trying to discover sense and value in a world that had begun to strike me more and more as meaningless. I would not dare to pretend that I was suffering from the disabling despair of a "dark night of the soul." My difficulties were less like a profound hopelessness than like a nagging irritation.


      Do you see your work addressing one religion or several?

      [There are] references, to cite just a few, to the Arabic "gardens of Yannah" and "Nirvana" in the poem "Entropy," to "Mecca" and "Moslems" in "Beliefs," to the evocations in "Potters" of the the potter fable in the Persian Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and the allusion to a line by the Zen master Rinzai in the conclusion of "Bruises." My objection is not to just the Judeo-Christian religions, but to organized religions in general. The thrust of these religions often seems to be "My Dad can beat up your Dad."


      What books do you have forthcoming? What can you tell us about them?

      I have a chapbook entitled After the Bomb due to be published by WordTech Editions in May 2017. The poems attempt to envision the conditions of a post-nuclear bomb and the efforts of the survivors to regain a sense of humanity. WordTech has also contracted to publish another chapbook of mine, Old Poets, in May 2018. This series of poems examines a variety of approaches to poetry, particularly in its themes and forms.

      Thanks for the good questions.

      My pleasure.