Last year on the Queen Mary, Kate Jonez told me she’d just attended John Lawson’s poetry reading and encouraged me to get him to write a column for the newsletter. I’m sorry to have missed his reading. However, I’m happy to welcome the man himself, co-founder of Raw Dog Screaming Press, John Edward Lawson. John’s novels, short fiction, and poetry have garnered nominations for numerous awards, including the Stoker and Wonderland Awards. In addition to being former editor-in-chief of The Dream People, he currently serves as vice-president of Diverse Writers and Artists of Speculative Fiction.
“I Don’t Like Poetry.”
John Edward Lawson
That’s a direct quote, and the highest praise I receive as a poet.
Another frequent comment in reviews, both online and in person, is “I’m not somebody who reads poetry.” Or, “Nobody told me poetry can be fun!” What then follows is the confession they enjoy my work, and are now exploring possibilities they didn’t previously believe existed in poetry.
Authors are advised to know our audience, and as a poet, I think mine seems to be those I’m not meant to reach. I both surprise and am surprised by these readers as they pass by my signing table in the entrance of mall bookstores, as they search for food or live music at regional book festivals, or even when I send my collections for review in what are traditionally fiction venues.
How do we, as writers of dark and disturbing work, reach these reluctant poetry enthusiasts? Even worse, how can we appeal to those turned off by what they perceive as snobbery in the traditional poetry crowd? Recently I’ve been pondering this, and trying to reverse engineer the path I followed. The answer seems to be my penchant for experimentation.
Poetry is, in its entirety, an experiment for me, so it’s easy to make use of whatever inspiration comes my way. Something humorous? Something macabre? Something that plays with form? I tend to throw it all in together. Here’s an often-cited example from my collection The Troublesome Amputee.
Werewolf Limerick #1
There once was a werewolf from Nantucket
who kept warm viscera in a bucket
With sharpened talons and teeth
he would rend human meat
to get at the marrow and suck it
Reading that inspires a writerly cringe, but I still see the appeal. My limericks took a form so common it’s generally dismissed as literature, and with it delivered the unexpected. Of course, I was a fiction writer and aspiring screenwriter, so what was being risked in terms of reputation? It was easy enough to submit whatever took my fancy, because I had the fiction market to fall back on.
Werewolf limericks aside, horror writers tend to tell stories with their poems. Even non-readers are deeply attuned to storytelling when they stumble across it, be it in commercials or an anecdote at a party or a pre-game season recap or even when delivered in verse. Discovering that novelists like Weston Ochse and Wrath James White began as poets shouldn’t have surprised me. Many of my verse narratives could take five thousand words to successfully deliver in short story form, but when distilled to a poem occupy a single page, as in the following example.
The police in the station
are blank-faced, cold
like the sickly green-cast light
and another suspect’s distant wailing
Sitting across from interrogators makes
you feel somehow old
Even in silence you reach
for this conversation’s brakes
Staring at the photo your chest is tight
You were captured by traffic
cameras, lens after lens creeped
after you as the driver, but …
“Who’s the boy?” you ask, concealing panic
and you learn that he’s gone
missing, leaving behind all his belongings and some blood
You’ve never seen him so the photos are wrong
They have to be, you’ve been alone all along
His visage is sullen, resigned
as if he has already died
But perhaps that explains the cold spot on your right
and the exonerating idea blossoming in your mind:
for them to review the patrol car footage
and discover an unseen passenger coming along for the ride
in the back seat next to you, and later
staring into the interview room camera
on footage that will be “lost in the evidence room” … after all
how can you be expected
to control who hitches a ride with you
after their demise?
Composing verse helped me greatly with both word economy and unexpected approaches to narrative. Such as mingling poetry and fiction. My first experience with haiku was a fourth grade writing assignment. The product was a haiku about two shipwreck survivors adrift at sea, snorting cocaine to stave off feelings of impending doom only to be wiped out by a tsunami. My teachers were not receptive, ending my haiku efforts until sixteen years later, when I read Fight Club. The use of haiku by the novel’s protagonist inspired me to add short form poetry into my writing regimen. This lead to one of my most well-received stories, “Consumable Leftovers” in my fiction collection Pocket Full of Loose Razorblades, in which the narrative is interspersed with haiku. An example: “A shrapnel shower / Does not come with free towels / Wipe your face clean … off.”
Alternately, playing with preexisting narratives has also proven a reliable hook for getting the attention of those otherwise immune to poetry’s charms. My replies to recognizable names in poetry, such as Sylvia Plath, or to well-known films and novels tend to get strong responses.
This is all fine, but naturally you have to be publishing or at least submitting work. A huge part of reaching the audience was recognition by my peers. The first reviews my writing received weren’t for the bulk of my work, the fiction, but for my debut poetry chapbook. Michael A. Arnzen led the way with commentary in Star*Line, commenting that he wished more genre poets pushed boundaries as I did, which emboldened me to continue doing so. Karen Newman was responsible for the first of my Rhysling Award nominations, and Stephen M. Wilson got the ball rolling for both my Stoker and Dwarf Stars Award nominations. These have all lent credibility when I go out on a limb doing concrete performance poems about parasites, and so forth.
That credibility has been stretched about as far as it can go. While working within the bounds of genre each collection has veered toward either bizarre humor or traditional forms with rhyming or twisted romance or postmodernism or outright violence. It’s my hope that finally, on my seventh outing, I’ve got a “real” poetry collection in my forthcoming Bibliophobia. Inspired by Stephanie M. Wytovich’s adherence to themed collections, and her ability to use that approach in freeing creativity as opposed to restraining it, each piece in Bibliophobia relates to a specific phobia. For once, all the elements are blending evenly, and the uniformity of subject itself is the variable that resonates. Test audiences distinctly uninterested in horror poetry are proving receptive to a volume based on phobias. In particular, performing the following elicits a strong response.
the cob is slick between your fingertips slathered with melted fat tissues, drenched in saliva — some of it is even yours — row upon row of enamel as your mouth clamps down on the cob its resistant curved buds crunch, forced loose, giving way to your penetration and you are rewarded with pain splinters of bone — some of them from your own mouth — working their way up and down between your teeth, wrenching them apart with a deep-piercing resonant vibration in the bones of your face where you now realize things do not vibrate, and streaks of heat shoot through the front of your mind’s housing, which is quite unaccustomed to this scorching intensity, yet each bite widens the empty space on the tooth cob, each tooth’s smooth exterior giving way with a “pop!” and the crumbly core still resilient and abrasive as if you were chewing pumice and each time you take teeth from the cob you lose even more of your own, but a common way to deal with this is to employ one’s fork to pry teeth loose from the cob, intact, and jam them up and down into your own empty sockets which are now cisterns of blood overflowing — needless to say you must first stab bolts of pain through your being by digging the cracked roots out of your gums with those spike-equipped cob holders people use in order to avoid holding the cob itself … bone appétit.
Am I a good poet? I don’t know. But, unlike a lot of readers, I know this:
I do like poetry.
I’m somebody who reads poetry.
I’m aware poetry can be fun; it can be filled with horror.
For these things I owe the horror novelists and short story writers and screenwriters a great debt.
If you are one of them, or even thinking about becoming one, don’t be scared. Just take a simple look down at the dark path beneath your feet and know it can lead through poetry without compromise, while improving your fiction and snagging a new audience.
After all, I never intended to be a poet, yet here I am unafraid of poetry.
of large things,
so you endeavored to
keep me small as possible,
confined me to the meat drawer
of the refrigerator, the one dripping
viscous fluid and deadly intent after filling with
my pain. In consideration of your fear,
now that I’m free, I will employ
this knife to trim you down
to a less wasteful