Writing Excuses 16.18: Poetry and the Fantastic
Key points (and angles?): If poetry breaks language into meaning, then fantasy breaks reality into truths. Take reality, and tip it on its side, so you can see the interconnective tissue. Puppetry, science fiction and fantasy, and poetry all do these. Consider the aesthetic, what things look like or what language is used, the mechanical, the structure and plot, or the personal, the idiosyncratic choices of a person, their narrative and message.
[Season 16, Episode 18]
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Poetry and the Fantastic.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Amal] And we’re all fantastic.
[Mary Robinette] Yes, we are.
[Mary Robinette] This is the final episode in our eight part poetry master class with Amal. She’s going to bring us around to a coda, I believe.
[Amal] Yes. So, throughout the series, we have talked about ways to approach poetry, to make it less scary. We talked about differences between poetry and prose. We’ve talked about strategies and approaches for writing poetry, appreciating poetry, structuring poetry, and some of the failure modes that can come from those things. But what I’d really like to talk to you… Talk about, rather, in this last episode is just how inseparable to me poetry and the genre in which I love writing, science fiction and fantasy, are. I want to talk about the fantastic more broadly, to incorporate multiple elements and facets of our genre. But I also just want to say that these things are not separate in my head. They are so often absolutely married to each other. I wanted to just kind of dive into the why’s and wherefore’s of that a little bit. So there is a quote by T. S. Eliot that I often refer to. The quote specifically is that discussing poetry, the poet must become more and more comprehensive, more elusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning. So, I like to take that quote and break it, essentially. Do unto it, as T. S. Eliott says, the poet does in general. I like to say, to recall it as that poetry breaks or dislocates if necessary language into its meaning. I think about this a lot, because of the way that I was raised with poetry. I… So, my family is from Lebanon and Syria. I was born in Canada, but my parents were born in Lebanon. When… I lived in Lebanon for a little bit when I was little for two years when I was seven. That was where I first wrote poetry. I wrote my first poem at the age of seven when we were living in Beirut. When I did that, my parents were very moved and they told me that I was part of a sort of lineage of writing poetry, essentially. That my grandfather, my father’s father, had been a celebrated poet and that poetry was part of my inheritance, essentially, and that they were very happy to see me writing poetry. I cannot stress enough how, like, the poem that I wrote when I was seven, was not a work of staggering genius.
[Amal] But it was a poem, and it was recognizable as such. I absolutely still remember it. It was… It involved like a lot of playing with language, with unfamiliar bits of it, and it was also addressed to the moon. My grandfather’s poetry was political, was revolutionary, was part of this kind of lineage of speaking truth to power and being a voice for the voiceless and stuff like that. My address to the moon was not that.
[Amal] But it was, nevertheless, something that showed my parents that I wanted to use language in the ways that he did as something transformative, as something that made the world different than it was otherwise.
[Howard] My father had memorized a lot of poems, and would storytell with them. One of the ones that he told a lot, because us kids ask for it a lot, was The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service. Which I love. I love it because my dad… I can hear my dad saying it. My dad, when he read the poem, relied heavily on the rhyme and meter, he leaned way into it as he read it. My freshman year in college, one of my professors on an outing recited The Cremation of Sam McGee and was much more… Conversational is the wrong word, but more natural dialogue-y with the way things flowed. I remember the first couple of stanzas thinking, “Wait. Did he… Are those the right words? No, I’ve heard this enough, that those are the right words.” Then, the whole rest of the poem, as I listened, I think poetry itself became unlocked for me. Because I realized, “Oh. The meter and the rhyme aren’t the point. The story isn’t necessarily the point.” It’s sort of this whole thing, and the poem has a life outside of what Robert Service gave it. The poem has a life that is experienced differently depending on the listener and depending on the person who says it out loud. Okay, this was 17-year-old, or maybe I was 18 at that time… 18-year-old Howard having what at that time passed for an epiphany.
[Howard] But I still love that poem, and I still like sometimes reading it and hearing the different voices in my head as I scan through it.
[Amal] Do you feel like one of them has like superseded the other in your head, or that your own reading voice has sort of introduced a different natural cadence into it?
[Howard] My voice dominates all of those at this point. Because my dad passed away when I was 20, and the reading I heard from Prof. Lyons was when I was 18. I’m now 53. So the voice that’s in my head at this point is my own. But I cherish… This… I think this comes back to poetry as meme. I cherish this memetic series of events because there’s a whole bunch of information compressed into that poem that Robert Service didn’t put in there.
[Amal] Hah! That’s absolutely true. This is the way that… I feel like a lot of us talk about novels in this way, too, that you read a different novel when you come to it at a different age, or that you might have one version of this novel in your head that gains or loses elements as you grow up, and then revisit it as a different person, essentially. To me, there’s a lot of fantasy in that as well. There’s a lot of… Even though this is obviously a very natural and observed progress of mortality, the idea of departure and return, moving through time in these ways, or, like the kind of time travel that feels inherent in [garbled] to something that you first experienced at a different age. All of that, to me, partakes of these relationships, of this kind of sense of the fantastic. There is this beautiful, beautiful essay by Sophia Samatar called On the 13 Words That Made Me a Writer. I like all of Samatar’s work. I return to her work on a bimonthly basis, basically. I just reread her essays all the time, because I always… They always speak to me in a way that I feel like I need at a given moment. What she does in this essay is she talks about how, for her, fantasy resides in language. That when she was a child… I’ll say like… So the 13 words in question are
There was a library, and it is ashes. Let its long length assemble.
These words made me a writer. When I was in middle school, my mother brought home a used paperback copy of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast…
And so on. So she draws these comparisons between like… So, this was a fantasy novel. So she tried to then go and find other fantasy novels that would make her feel the way that this made her feel. It became very hit or miss. She would get that feeling from some books, but not from others. She came to realize that the thing that catalyzed this very specific feeling in her of wonder and awe and marvel was more to do with the language that was being used than the plots or characters or tropes in a given story that might market it as fantasy. So she found herself finding that experience of fantasy in books that were not marketed or labeled as such. That that spirit of wonder and stuff like that she could find in lots of different places. I feel that way about fantasy, because it brings me back to this idea about what poetry does to language. So if poetry breaks language into meaning, I feel like fantasy breaks reality into truths. That what poetry does to language, fantasy does to reality. That the experience that we get from it as writers of genre fiction in so many different ways is that we are always figuring out ways to break and hack reality into a specific experience for our readers, right? And that poetry is doing that too, but at the level of language in a way that you can foreground or background as much as you like. But I also want to say that literature has been poetry for a lot longer than it has been not poetry. That we have… The novel is actually a very recent technology in terms of literature. Poetry is ancient. Similarly, fantasy is ancient. We have had domestic realism for a lot less time than we have had fantasy and the fantastic in our literature. I want to just give people this similarity because I want people who love reading science fiction and fantasy to look at poetry as as much theirs to play with, to read, to be moved and transformed by as the stunning books that they read when they were 12.
[Mary Robinette] So, I have… You’ve given me a thought that I want to dive into, but first, let us pause for the book of the week, which is Monster Portrait.
[Amal] Yes. So, Monster Portrait by Sophia Samatar, whom I adore. It’s by Sophia Samatar and her brother, Del Samatar. Del Samatar is an artist. So the book, Monster Portrait, is a very slender book of fictionalized autobiography, where Sophia Samatar is responding to these illustrations, these images that Del has made with snapshots that involve interrogations of what is a monster, like, thinking about monsters and monstrosity, and when those things are valued and when they are not valued. Thinking of those in relation to race, to borders, to belonging. It’s just an absolutely luminous… I know luminous is like a massive cliché in terms of talking about [garbled]
[Amal] I review books for a living, I am too keenly aware of this, but genuinely, reading this book gives me an experience of light that I just don’t know how to talk about otherwise. It’s deeply beautiful. I just cannot recommend it enough. If you wanted to read a book that kind of could be a bridge to you between prose and poetry, I cannot recommend this one enough for doing exactly that thing.
[Mary Robinette] Oh, that sounds amazing. So, that was Monster Portrait by Sophia Samatar and Del Samatar.
[Mary Robinette] So, here’s the thing that was running through my head as you were talking. There’s a thing that longtime listeners will have heard me say before that one of the things that drew me to puppetry is the same thing that drew me to SF and fantasy, which is that it takes reality and it tips it to the side, so that you can see the interconnective tissue. As you were talking, I was like, “Oh. Okay. That’s what poetry does, too.”
[Mary Robinette] But the other thing that went through my head as you were talking was about why a person picks a particular form. There’s this other idea that I often talk about, usually when I’m trying to explain to people what voice means. It was in puppetry, we have these three ideas. There’s the aesthetics, the mechanical, and the personal. The aesthetic is what something looks like. The mechanical is literally like what kind of puppet are you using. The personal is all of the idiosyncratic choices that you, as a person, make. The example that I use is that if you hand the same puppet to two different puppeteers, it will look like a different character. But what occurred to me as you were talking is that I can take that kind of model and think of it as the kind of thing that drives you as a writer. The story you were telling with Sophia that it was the language that called to her, it’s like, “Oh, that she is drawn to aesthetic.” Whereas I am… There are a lot of people who are drawn to the plot, the structural mechanics of a story. Then, other people are drawn to the kind of the personal story, the personal narrative, the message, so to speak, that’s within it. That kind of knowing which thing drives you as a writer also tells you where your defaults are and where your weaknesses are.
[Amal] Yes. I completely agree with that. That’s so helpful.
[Mary Robinette] I was like, “Oh. That is part of why…” Like, Pat Rothfuss talks about the fact that he needs to get the next word right before he can move on. I’ve always been like, “What’s the point of him polishing words if you’re not going to use them?”
[Mary Robinette] Like, if I’m going to [garbled delete them?] later.
[Howard] How do I know if I’m going to use them if they’re not polished?
[Mary Robinette] Wait. Yeah. This is exactly that thing.
[Howard] That’s the dialogue.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah. So it strikes me as a… That, for listeners who are not naturally language driven, that one of the really arguably most powerful reasons to dive into this is because it gives you a different way to approach story. It gives you a different understanding of the ways we communicate. It basically tips your entire narrative form on its side to allow you to see the interconnected tissue.
[Amal] I think that is a beautiful, beautiful way of approaching that. I completely agree. I’m reminded… Gosh, who was saying this? Mmm… I’m not going to get this right. I think that Vonda Lee at some point was talking about… Possibly had an article on Tor.com or something that was about exactly this kind of thing, about how writing outside of your comfort zone being to learn… Actually, I’m not… I could be totally wrong, that it wasn’t Vonda Lee, either. But mostly what I’m remembering is an article on figuring out where your facility is so that you can figure out in reverse, essentially, where your lack of facility is so that you can work on those things. I love that thought of approaching… Like, the thing that interconnected tissue and stuff. Because I think, too, of how many fantasy novels can… Like, are maybe not thought of as ones that are poetry forward and stuff, but, to me, absolutely are, because… I’m thinking of something like Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire. Where, like it’s written… It’s not written in a way that is difficult to get into and stuff. It’s very clear. But it’s also very stylized. It’s also very… And poetry is like a thematic plot-based concern. In the book, you need to know poetry in order to be able to read bureaucratic documents that end up on your desk as an ambassador and stuff like that. The crux of the novel, the climax of it, is the writing of a poem. Which is something that is unbelievably difficult to pull off. Like, this is where you absolutely do not want to miss the mark with a piece of rhyme that is not landing in a way that… Your whole plot depends on whether or not this is a good poem.
[Mary Robinette] Right.
[Amal] And she absolutely nails it. Like, I think that the phrase “I am a spear in the hands of the Sun,” is like the last line of this, and on the back of that line, they build a revolution and it’s this whole enormous thing… Sorry, spoilers for a book that came out two years ago.
[Amal] But, hey, it’s just absolutely wonderful, and poetry is part of the texture of that book. But I… Like, I don’t know if Arkady would talk about herself as having written it poetically, or of [garbled]. But, nevertheless, there’s this sensibility, I guess, to that style, to that aesthetic, that is truly wonderful to me.
[Mary Robinette] This has been fantastic. We are, I’m afraid, at the time which we need to wrap things up with our time with poetry. Do you…
[Howard] I would love… Dan, you remember that thing that I read from Robert Service at the very beginning to you? The…
[Howard] That feels like closure. I’m just going to go.
[Mary Robinette] Okay. I have no idea what you’re talking about. So you say that thing.
[Amal] Do you want to do it after the homework or before the homework?
[Howard] Have we done the homework yet?
[Amal, Mary Robinette] No.
[Howard] No. We did not do… Okay. Do the homework.
[Mary Robinette] Thank you.
[Dan] Someone was looking up a poem instead of paying attention.
[Amal] So, as the… As sad as I am to leave things here, I… We have come to the homework part. Talking about novels and about prose and poetry, and to bring this all full-circle, the homework I want to leave you with is I want you to find a favorite line from a novel or a short story, one that moves you really, really deeply, one that you kind of keep in your head every now and then. I want you to take that line and use it as the epigraph for a poem. So, essentially, if you see a poem and there’s like a single line in italics at the start, before the poem actually starts, that’s what I mean. I want you to use that line from a novel or a short story, and I want you to write a poem following it, I want you to write a poem sparked by it. A kind of poetic tribute to whatever that line did to you.
[Howard] The reason I brought this up is that it feels like a poet’s version of “you’re out of excuses, now go write.” It’s from Robert Service.
Lone amid the café’s cheer,
Sad of heart am I to-night;
Dolefully I drink my beer,
But no single line I write.
There’s the wretched rent to pay,
Yet I glower at pen and ink:
Oh, inspire me, Muse, I pray,
It is later than you think!
[Mary Robinette] Oh, that’s lovely. Also, so painful and so true. I’m… As we send folks away, I’m going to also share my father’s favorite poem by Ogden Nash. Further Reflections on Parsley.
Parsley is gharsley.
[Mary Robinette] Dan, do you want to share a poem, too?
[Dan] That poem reminds me of the time that someone auditioned for our high school musical by singing Minimum-Wage by They Might Be Giants.
[Dan] The only words in the song are minimum-wage. He just shouted it and left the room. It was great.
[Mary Robinette] That’s the only thing you want to share before we wrap?
[Dan] Yes. I am going to share a poem with you. This is one of my all-time favorites. By Brian Turner, who was a medic in Afghanistan and wrote a lot of poetry, and then came home and he was, for a while, the poet laureate of the US. His most famous poem is called Here, Bullet.
If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So, with all of that, my dear listeners, you are out of excuses. Now go write.