The Word’s the Thing: An Interview with Michael Arnzen
In 2013 a little miffed at a recent rejection I googled the words “bad” and “science fiction poetry” in an effort to see what literature was out there on the art of genre poetry and critical reception of that genre of poetry. I came across an article in Amazing Stories Online by Paul Cook literally entitled “Why Science Fiction Poetry is Embarrassingly Bad.” The title sums up the article. Cook presented a scathing critique of speculative poetry focusing on science fiction. I must have read the article ten times to let it sink in. Cook complains that
Science fiction poetry is literal, realistic, and usually–unless it’s rhymed and metered–lacks any lyrical cadence within its delivery. Putting it differently, poetry is about language. It is not merely about anecdote, nor is it slavishly devoted to the simple tropes that appear in science fiction. These last two make up nearly all of what’s contained in science fiction poetry–to its detriment.
Cook then goes on to try to argue that when compared with the works of Emily Dickinson or Robert Browning science fiction poetry just doesn’t make the grade. The comparison I decided wasn’t entirely fair because one could always compare every poem to the works of a favorite poet and find them lacking because they literally are not the poems of a favorite poet (sort of like comparing vanilla to chocolate and finding the white coldness insufficient due to lacking the dark side of a cocoa bean). Cook also seemed to lump fantasy poetry in his critique, maybe because of the same issues. Both genres need some leap to get the reader to understand what is happening in the poem.
Cook did not address horror poetry in his criticism and I had to consider why not. Perhaps it was merely because of the thematic tilt of the magazine he wrote for. Or maybe horror poetry has more potential.
In everything Cook said in that article, the one statement that I did find absolutely true was “poetry is about language.” Horror poetry is also about language. Language is the key. I have always believed that genre poetry – whether horror, fantasy, science fiction or any other forms of “speculative poetry”) – gets no “bye” for genre. There is no such thing as a “good horror poem.” It’s only good, if it is “good poetry.” For this blog I reached out to an author who has been recognized for fiction, non-fiction and poetry.
Professor Michael Arnzen is both an academic and a practitioner of the use of language. Michael is a four time Bram Stoker Awards and an International Horror Guild Award winner. Michael holds a PhD in English from the University of Oregon (where he researched his non-fiction book, The Popular Uncanny) and he is presently a Professor at Seton Hill University, where he teaches horror and suspense fiction in the country’s only graduate program in Writing Popular Fiction (http://fiction.setonhill.edu). Lawrence C. Connolly, author of Vines (an excellent book by the way) writes of Michael that “Arnzen has achieved what few writers manage in a lifetime. He has become the master of a brand of literature that is uniquely his own.” His many books are too numerous to list here.
I had the pleasure of attending a Horror University class at the first Stoker Con in Las Vegas taught by Michael. His focus was on language; finding the “gore” in writing. He is a perfect poet to focus on the importance of language in poetry.
Q: How important is language in poetry? I realize the question is a bit open ended and hints of a “duh” question. However, there is something that distinguishes the many genre poets from a Marge Simon, Linda Addison or Bruce Boston. The subject matter may be similar but the language of poets of that caliber is just different. You can read many imitations of Poe or The Graveyard Boys, but the handful of poets that truly stand out seem to have this almost magical way of using language.
A: There’s no poetry without language, obviously, but you make a really good point about what distinguishes one poet from another – I’d call it their “voice.” Poetry is a kind of music; the sound matters and it should reverberate in the body and fetch the ear when spoken in a way that narrative fiction cannot. Words are as important as the “notes” in music, but every poet might have an instinctive, experienced and individual way of “singing” or giving shape to those words. But genre poetry is not opera and it doesn’t require a reader to be schooled in anything special; it’s more like pop music. Remember, although we can trace the legacy of genre back to Beowulf, through the Graveyard Poets of the Romantic Period and then Edgar Allan Poe, horror poetry as we think of it today really got its start as filler — a way for pulp magazine editors to put content in the blank spaces on the page of early magazines and fanzines. So some of the best horror genre poets in my opinion are more accessible and reaching readers with more easy to swallow language, perhaps using lyrical forms but not in an overbearing way, while still retaining a unique voice. I’ve read hyper-literary genre poetry, but no matter how interesting it might be, it often feels like its pretending to be something it’s not, and rings false when it taps the emotional chords. So in my opinion language matters, but it really can’t get in the way of the emotional connection in this field. Music is the instinctive part of poetry that just “feels” right, and the best genre poets are the kind who know how to reach the audience — they sing in a way that reaches new fans and experienced readers/viewers/lovers of horror alike.
Q: Cliché seems to be the bane of the horror poet. If I were to try to create a list of “do not use” words for horror poetry there is a long list (e.g., dark, darkness, scary, dread, fear, horror, dripping, cold, derivatives of same and many more) that would easily come to mind. However, avoiding these words isn’t so easy. After all, for many poems the setting is usually at night or in an area with a limited light source (aka “dark), involving a lower and possibly uncomfortably chilly temperature (aka “cold”) and some disturbing and anxiety creating (aka “horrible” or “dreadful”) entity or presence that evokes a strong emotional response (aka “fear,” “scared” or something not nice in your pants). What do you suggest to the fledgling horror poet on how to avoid cliché but still be able to convey the universal ideas and images that make cliché so tempting to use?
A: That sort of thing used to bother me too, and it gave me my fair share of frustration over the years… it can lead to block when you feel like everything has already been said, so why bother?
But that’s nonsense, too. Genres are a field of play where you bring both expected conventions and unique inventions together in one to generate something special.
Whenever the clichés start flowing from my fingers, I step back and take a look at the words. I often turn to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, which not only taught me alternative terms for the clichés as any good thesaurus might, but also includes nifty sidebars with things like “Word Spectrums” that take two polar opposite terms (like “begin/end” and then list every shade of meaning between the two, in hierarchal order, strongest to weakest (“commence…start…build up to… decelerate…shut down…climax…end”). It helps you navigate the variety and pick just the right shade of darkness.
Clichés are superficial because they’ve been used so often they lose their meaning, but when a good writer uses them artfully, the meaning hits us all the more strongly sometimes. There’s all sorts of creative ways to put a new spin on an old cliché, and this is what successful genre writers do best, actually. The trick is to think of all the ways you can lift that cliché into an alternative context. Read your own work like a reader, not a writer, and anticipate what sort of expectations you have…and then spin those around. Use the cliché word as a title, and then unfold its complexity. Use the word in a place where it would never be used. Combine it with intriguing or strange modifiers. Spell the word differently. Capitalize it when it shouldn’t be. Combine two words into a new compound and then proceed to define the invented term in an extended poem. If the writer is being playful with language, they’re doing it right, whether using clichés or not. Genre poetry also offers a way to comment on the clichés of the genre — to take something that fiction writers or movie makers might be doing to death, and put a new spin on it just because it’s being treated poetically. Embrace that ability to use poetry to say things that only poetry can say.
Q: I find a number of speculative poets who hold the very strong belief that only “traditional poetry” is good poetry. I take them to mean the use of cadence, meter and rhyme. When editing the HWA Horror Poetry Showcase for two years some poets were quite belligerent at the suggestion that rhyming for the sake of rhyming alone did not make a poem well written. I appreciate their devotion but there is a stark difference in being Poe and imitating Poe. Some also don’t seem to realize that use of the vernacular, the language of the common man, in non-rhyming stanzas goes as far back as the collaboration of Coleridge and Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads. Have you taught students to write “traditional” forms of verse? What advice do you give to them to help them learn the craft of this style of writing?
A: My number one rule is to learn how to sing, but don’t write sing-songy verse. Move from children’s singalongs to jazz. Let the music of the poem be an undercurrent, a beat, while avoiding a follow-the-bouncing-ball kind of meter.
I always have students read their work out loud. And time again I hear the patterns of the rhythm overwhelm what they’re doing with their mouth and breath so much that the words disappear. I think the words need to stand out and the patterns fade to a backbeat.
You’re right that too often people imitate the greats, but creativity transcends such thinking, so teaching is about freeing people from the strictures, even as they are discovering their merit. Teaching for me is about learning the reasons behind things, including our assumptions, but also freeing people to write so that they call into question the reasons why. So I teach the form by making it as fun as possible, being a little cavalier about it all. The first assignment in my poetry classes is to take the lyrics of a pop song they admire and rewrite it as poetry, even before they’ve studied poetry, and it is enlightening to them. I also think students need to read classics and let them influence them – but I encourage them to read the “greats” out loud to get a feel for the style and sound of things, to understand the “music” – the rhyme and beat — of the poems. I give them creative activities that attempt to subvert some of the things that seem like rigid rules or stock methods. So they might have to describe something silly – like a clown or a dead dog – using the meter of Shakespeare. Or to write a parody of a classic piece, like Poe’s “Raven.” I even have them draw what they imagine based on words. Anything to loosen up. In terms of writing form. At the same time, we study meter by scansion. You have to have this balance — no matter what you write — between reading experiences and writing strategies, to improve. You have to understand that readers come at your work with all kinds of experiences with poetry; you have to anticipate that and play off it. Plus reading the classics, understanding the expectations that audiences in their day had is another level of understanding, because you can bring that knowledge into the present day, where many readers have forgotten or are ignorant about them, and it feels fresh.
Q: As a teacher of writers, what advice on the craft of writing do you like to pass on to those students who want to concentrate on speculative poetry (other than “don’t’ quit the day job”)?
A: Hah! Well, it’s always to read in genre like crazy but also to start paying attention to (and seeking out) the writers you admire most. Follow what they’re doing, and learn from how they’re doing it. Subscribe to the magazines they sell to. Read the other poets in those magazines, and maybe become a fan of a new writer for awhile, studying their work, etc. Genres are communities, so connecting in that way – even if you never talk to them on social media (though you should) – makes all the difference. So I recommend writers organizations like SFPA and HWA too. I know I learned as much about writing once I befriended writers and artists like Marge Simon and Ree Young as I did by studying poetry in college and doing independent studies with writers like Beth Ann Bassein. I encourage students to work with me independently or to work together with others of a like mind to swap poems and talk shop together. It makes a big difference.
The other thing I try to bring to the table for college students is to learn the literary history of genre writing. A book like the Dreams of Fear anthology, edited by ST Joshi, has a great overview of this kind of stuff, and every poet should read that one.
Q: Your third Bram Stoker award was for a volume of poetry, Freakcidents. The HWA gives poetry its own category, but other speculative writing organizations, such as the World Fantasy Convention, still seem to ignore poetry altogether. Why do you think this may be? Have you found the HWA to be more receptive to poetry than other organizations involving speculative writing?
A: The HWA was wise to break the Stoker Awards into several categories beyond just novels and short stories. It wasn’t always so, and I remember writing editorials defending why we should have and retain a poetry award in the HWA Newsletter decades ago, when it was print only in the 90s (!). We are and continue to be dominated by fiction writers, and I know several of them don’t feel as confident voting in categories that they might not read a lot within. But we’re all “writers” and so it makes sense to award all kinds of writing as a literary organization…especially since we also give awards to other literary genres like the screenplay. The other genre organizations might not have as much poetry appreciation in their circles because maybe they don’t have the literary heritage we have and the editors in those other speculative genres stay within the fanzine traditions that continue today. Organizations like the SFPA (Science Fiction Poetry Association) are great because they keep expanding the market for this stuff, and offer poetry-centered awards… and they’re really growing lately, because I think millennials are really into poetry and genre and getting involved.
Q: In a 2000 interview by Paula Guran you were asked why you write horror poetry. Part of your answer sticks with me:
The process of writing poetry is different from fiction, too, obviously. When I write a story I’m immersed — experiencing the story world the way a character might, no matter how crazy or absurd. But when I write a poem, I’m more contemplative, more attentive to language and structure, and more abstract in my thinking about fear and dread and all that gruesome stuff. Both approaches overlap for me sometimes and make me a better writer for it. . . . Poetry also appeals to me because it: a) is an archaic form that isn’t widely read — which is just kind of cool, like studying how to speak Latin when no one really knows how to pronounce it anymore, or like programming games for the Commodore 64; and, b) isn’t very commercial.
We have 17 years or so passing now. Has your view of poetry matured in either your approach to writing or your sense that it may be a lost or forgotten art in search of an audience?
A: Not at all. Popular narrative is still shaped in patterns that I find both reassuring and sometimes frustratingly predictable; with poetry, I feel totally free to mess around however I want, with little risk of censure or career-damage. Poetry is still that outsider area of the literary playground where the rules are different and there are interesting games afoot. While I think that poetry has gotten more popular with today’s generation, I’m not sure it’s any less a forgotten art because it’s too diverse to really get traction the way a novel will if it gets distribution or adapted to film. Like, how many poetry collections do you see on a bestseller list? How many poems get adapted into Hollywood films? It’s still marginalized, even if people are talking about it and writing it more often online. Perhaps the market will continue to grow. But in some ways it’s the unfilmability of a poem that makes it fun to explore through language: it’s really working the writers tools the way an artisan would. The best people doing this make you forget all your assumptions about poetry altogether, too, and you end up just admiring what they’ve done with an idea. I personally enjoy trying to do things with poetry that surprise readers: like, say, taking the time to write a really well-crafted and disturbing poem and posting it on twitter… it’s like a little hook, I like to think, that pulls readers in if it works right, opening them up to not only being curious about what I’m doing, but the genre as a whole. Genre poetry is a gateway drug to genre literature — perhaps just literature itself — as a whole!
Q: As an academic how do you believe horror poetry is received by your peers? I have met a number of teachers of literature that roll their eyes when the word “horror” is juxtaposed to the word “literature.” Despite this a number of champions have surfaced. Danel Olson of Lone Star College in Texas. June Pulliam of Louisiana State University. And of course Professor Michael Arnzen. Do your fellow teachers consider horror as being literature? Horror Poetry especially.
A: I think all literary folks have to be champions for their own favorite areas of the landscape, but some — to be frank — are just snobs or defensive wankers about their own turf. In some ways, genre poetry legitimizes the genre as a whole among the literati, actually, because it shows that we are working the craft for more than just cheap easy thrills, and that we take it seriously. But some people will never accept horror work as authentic no matter what; because it aims at the emotions and relies on conventions, some feel it is manipulative or disingenuous somehow. But such an attitude really is elitist because it doesn’t trust that the readers of our community know anything and are gullible idiots. My experience tells me that there are as many genius-level horror scholars in fandom as there are in academia! Writing is writing; the rest is politics.
Q: Reviewing interviews of you and your body of work one thing I found fascinating was your early acceptance of the internet and online publishing. I know many, many poets who still pull out the old notepad at open mic readings. But now an equal and growing number pull out their phones and tablets. Your “Fridge of the Damned” gorelets experiment seemed to celebrate the new medium. . Have the advances in technology, both for research, publishing and electronic writing platforms, affected your use of language and the way you write poetry.
A: The answer is yes. Gorelets was originally a poetry series written on a PDA (aka Palm Pilot — an early version of the cell phone, I suppose), and because I didn’t know what to really use it for, I turned it into a literary toy. To me, all media are literary toys. Poets know that the blank space in a poem matters as much as the words on the page, and a screen is just like that blank page. So I exploit the unique elements of the medium as much as I can, trying to figure out: how can I make this device more frightening? How do these elements — like scrolling vs. page turning — influence the way we encounter our fears through the words?
Q: I have to ask. You were born in Amityville, New York. The infamous house. You ever see it? Go into it? Walk by and see two red eyes glaring at you? Feel your skin crawl at the mention of this house? Did that place holder in horror fiction and ‘true stories” have any influence on you in anyway? Or, is this just one of those sad instances of irrelevant coincidence?
A: I wrote a memoir about this once, for Morbid Curiosity magazine, so I could go on forever. The short answer is YES, the house is real and I used to walk past it with my friends when growing up all the time. The bigger influence for me was working in a newsstand in town, when the murders happened, and then later when Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror was published. I was a kid, but I witnessed the way the story of the house not only fetched attention nationwide with the bestseller, but how the whole town talked about the supernatural, the house, the people, etc. It really made me think about books and scary stories differently than I would otherwise; I got to see the power and romance of it all, and the way truth and fiction intersect.
Q: Do you have any ongoing or upcoming projects in poetry you’d like to share with us?
A: Oh boy. My poetic process varies, but I love getting into “variations on a theme” and writing a series of pieces on a common thread. So, for instance, as I type this I am working on the Seven Deadly Sins…for vampires. And I am doing that in response to a prompt series I stumbled onto on twitter. I am also writing a more extended series right now called “Alternative Tombstones” that I’d like to see published as a chapbook or as a chunk of a larger collection. And I do have a collection in progress that I hope to wrap up soon.
Excerpt from Arnzen’s 2004 essay in defense of retaining a Poetry category for the Bram Stoker
Award, “Quoth the Stoker, Nevermore” (HWA Newsletter, Sept. 2004)
…There is no single criterion for judging good poetry; our award — for “superior achievement” — is comparative in nature, and it doesn’t take a PhD in verse to compare chapbooks.
What it takes, however, is an open-mindedness to alternative forms of horrific expression. Poetry is not a foreign language or a dead language; it is simply a non-narrative means (though not always even that!) of chewing through the gristle of fear. To me, poetry is merely a thought experiment, exploring the dark side through the same language as fiction, but from a different angle. The experiment always leads me to one thing: surprise. I feel if more of our membership read horror poetry, they, too, might be pleasantly surprised.
If we value dark writing and we value unique avenues of expressing horror, then we should value poetry through this award — even if we don’t read it regularly, even if we’re unaware of its long history, even if we don’t write it at all. The more I’ve thought about this issue the more convinced I have become that horror — as the genre of fear — is a genre that deals primarily with the unconscious mind, and poetry — especially in its most experimental and crafty forms — is often able to access and reflect the unconscious in a way that fiction often can’t. Poetry doesn’t have to follow the rules of language and syntax; instead it makes up its own coherent form. Poetry creates a world of symbol and metaphor, without the safety net of chronological order or narrative structure. That’s why I — and perhaps many other members — still write it. Because it allows us to express the unconscious and get at fear in a way that fictional modes do not.
Recent Arnzen Poems:
[all poems unpublished or posted to twitter — see http://gorelets.com/nest/ for more]
BLOOD IS THE PAINT
if blood is the paint that colors within
then I express my art
jetting straight from the heart
an air brush spray in the wind
vampires ought envy
the heart not
the dying not
the blood is not
the blood is but
the fermented juice
that sunlight rots
inside the hot
fruit of vampire envy
it’s rage in his eyes
when he tears furious
his frantic carnassial bite
a piggish penetration
a gnashing of tendon
a crunching that quiets
the scream of the larynx
into the silence of meat
it’s rage in his eyes
all that blood
SUN OF SAM
the sunspots, I blame the sunspots
for tripping the switch in my brain
the gunshots, I spray the gunshots
like sprinklers putting out flames
the summer of sam was a joke
I am the dog to which he once spoke
I am the death that is dealt in the street
I am the sun and gun and heat
the sunspots, yes, it’s the sunspots
that make me go postal in june
the gunshots, I spray the gunshots
into the cities you’ve ruined
I am the sun and gun and heat
I am the death that is dealt in the street
I am the gun and the heat and the sun
I am satan I am son
FIVE DESIGN SUGGESTIONS FOR THE HUMAN HEAD
1. No holes.
a. if drainage needed, nostrils under chin
b. if mouth necessary, add teeth to blowhole on top
c. if b above, then consider baby teeth, permanently
2. Four eyes (as follows):
a. Cyclopean forehead
b. replace ears with eyes, left and right
c. institute non-proverbial back of the head
d. designer monocles or contact lenses required
3. Recreate spine to allow turret neck
a. spare neck skin will have to dangle like turkey waddle, if kept (user choice)
b. if not a, then ball bearing-based Lazy Susan platter installed, covered by a vermilion and mucosal wrapround curtain of lips
4. Replace skull with erogenous pudding
5. Brain — elsewhere.
Michael Arnzen holds four Bram Stoker Awards and an International Horror Guild Award for his disturbing (and often funny) fiction, poetry and literary experiments. His latest appearances include a story in The Year’s Best Hardcore Horror II and the 100 Word Horrors anthologies. The best of his poetry and fiction appears in Proverbs for Monsters, a Stoker-winning collection recently made available in ebook format from Dark Regions Press. He has been teaching as a Professor of English in the MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University since 1999. He’s always messing around with creepy things — see what he’s up to now at http://gorelets.com