poetry

Personae in Speculative Poetry

Guest columnist Richard H. Fay is back today, as he continues to give us his very well-researched take on the odd and the occult.  You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store, and artwork referred to this piece can be found here.  

Art: An Invitation to Elfame by Richard H. Fay

Writers of prose fiction do not necessarily write in voices that are their own. Narrators of works of fiction need not be the authors themselves, oftentimes they are personae, fictional characters distinct from the authors This is true in both works of general fiction as well as works of genre fiction. It is also true of poetry, especially when it comes to speculative verse (poetry with fantastical, science fictional, or mythological themes). Characters speaking or thinking in poems need not be the poets themselves. Heck, when it comes to speculative poetry, the narrators need not even be human!

Speculative poets often speak through an imaginary or historical narrator. It seems doubtful that most speculative poetry is meant to be confessional verse, at least not it the usual sense of the term. Speculative poets frequently take on the voices of others, and these others might be aliens, or fairies, or demons, or mythical beasts, or mundane animals, or even objects traditionally seen as inanimate. It should be obvious to those either reading such poetry or hearing it read that the poets haven’t actually turned into such things. It should be clear to all that the poets used their imaginations to speak in the voices of beings or things distinct from themselves. However, the notion that ALL poetry MUST be confessional has muddied the waters a bit. The line between imagined and real might not always be clear to all readers or listeners, especially when speculative poets speak with voices all too human.

In my own brand of speculative verse, both dark and light, I’ve used this idea of persona again, and again, and again. I’m certainly not a brain-eating demonic serpent (“Serpent of Storms”), or a cosmic fighter pilot facing his own demise (“Last Thoughts of a Cosmic Fighter Pilot”), or a life-draining vampiric entity (“Life is the Life”), or an Earthling married to a furry alien (“Marriage of Earth and Antares”), or a killer being driven to madness and suicide by visions of the face of the lover he killed (“Your Bloody Face”), or a fairy inviting a mortal to Elfame (“An Invitation to Elfame”), or a bleak haunted island (“The Haunted Isle”). However, in the respective works, I spoke as if I were a brain-eating demonic serpent, a cosmic fighter pilot facing his own demise, a life-draining vampiric entity, an Earthling married to a furry alien, a killer being driven to madness and suicide by visions of the face of the lover he killed, a fairy inviting a mortal to Elfame, and a haunted island. I think the ability to speak in the voice of another is just as important to fictional poetry as it is to prose fiction. It is also one of the creative techniques that can set speculative verse apart from more mainstream poetry.

Contrary to what some believe, not all poetry need be confessional, at least not personally confessional. Unfortunately, it seems some poets and poetry readers believe otherwise. They apparently think poetry is, by its very nature, confessional. This can lead to a misunderstanding of speculative verse, especially when speculative poets write in personae.

During one of the Poet’s Live Corners I attended at a local library, after I stated that I had some dark speculative pieces to read, one of the other poets present mentioned the time they had a poet show up and read poetry about murder and mayhem. I got the impression that the group had been shocked by this other poet’s material, as if it were almost confessional in nature. Did they truly have a murderer in their midst that day? I doubt it. I had to smile, knowing the dark and often diabolic nature of much of my own verse. Does that mean I’m a dark and diabolic person? Of course not!

Just because a poet writes about bloody murder doesn’t make that poet a bloody murderer. That’s the whole point about writing in persona – it’s imaginative versus outright confessional. However, I think my experience at the Live Poet’s Corner exemplifies the lack of understanding speculative poets writing in personae may face within the broader literary community.

One of the first things a reader or listener of speculative poetry must understand is that such verse is imaginative verse. The poet is speculating about other places, other times, other beings, other thoughts. They are imagining more than confessing, although confession may still be buried beneath the imaginative trappings. Unfortunately, if a reader or listener operates under the notion that poetry is confessional by default, they might misunderstand the concept of personae in speculative poetry. They might not fully realize that the speculative poet is speaking as someone or something else, that they are imagining. They’re missing the point of what the poet created!

Oh Captain! My Captain, Patience and Fortitude

We read only a little poetry here so it may sadden readers to learn that I’ve never read Leaves of Grass cover to cover, it will probably not surprise you. This state of affairs may be unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean that I haven’t read plenty of Walt Whitman’s work over the years. In fact, I’ve probably read Leaves of Grass in its entirety at some point or another… just not consecutively in book form the way it was published.

So when I was in New York in Early June, 2019, I went to the exposition of Whitman’s life, work and influence at the New York Public Library.

Now I’d like to take a second to talk about NYPL’s exhibitions. They are wonderful, the place where they are held is just the right size to cover a specialized topic, and I’ll likely walk into the one held at any given moment even if its subject matter isn’t particularly interesting to me (they are free, so you only spend the time you invest). When it’s something like Whitman, though, it’s doubly nice.

On my way out, I grab the booklet you can take and toss it into my to-be-read pile (currently standing at about 90 books and magazines, not counting the separate pile of Road & Tracks from the 70s and 80s), where it eventually cycles through.

In this case, reading it helped fix what I’d seen in the exhibition in my memory and help me remember stuff I might otherwise have forgotten.

Of those little details, the one that interested me most as a writer was that Whitman released Blades of Grass in one form (which flopped, though it was well received by some critics) and then went on adding to it in subsequent editions. That seems strange to me… I always try to get my publishers the best possible version of my work, complete enough that adding to it would only be an exercise in padding. But it definitely worked for Whitman, who eventually turned the book into one of the most influential collections of poetry in history. Unlike other literary giants from America like Poe or Melville, Whitman became a giant in his own lifetime.

No writer could ever ask for more.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His literary fiction is collected in a strange little book called Love and Death in which the characters from one of the linked stories influence the lives of every other character, usually without knowing it. You can check it out here.

Local Poetry: Boiling Waves

As someone who doesn’t read poetry all that often, I’m always amazed by how relaxing it can be to read bite-sized slices of life, full of emotion.

I received a reminder of this recently when I picked up María Evangelina Vazquez’s book Ese oleaje hirviente (translated — loosely — as Those Boiling Waves).

Longtime readers of this blog will remember the author as our guest blogger who educated us about Blake. Now, for those among you who can read Spanish, you’ll discover that she is a very talented poet, someone whose command of the language allows her to turn emotion into words much more effectively than mere prose writers–which is the point of poetry, after all.

I’m probably not the person best qualified to evaluate poetry (prose writers tend to think in terms of words to tell a story, with emotions present to bond the characters to the audience, but not necessarily as the central motor of the text), but I found Vázquez to be particularly strong when her poems give us a glance into a snippet of daily life particular to a social class and situation. Good examples of this can be found in the poems in the first third of the book that deal with her experiences in high school.

I also particularly enjoy the fact that her poetry is not opaque. The meaning is either right on the surface or buried under just one layer of metaphor… and that makes it much easier to connect to the emotion contained within each piece.

I recommend this one to lovers of poetry and to lovers of prose who want to take a break to read and savor something different.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. His work spans every genre imaginable. Lovers of poetry will likely enjoy his book Love and Death, a series of very short stories, each standing alone, but which linked together for a single continuous narrative that not even the characters know about. It’s a secret between the writer and the reader. You can check it out here.

Remembering Why We Love Poetry in the First Place

Dead Poets Society - Oh, Captain My Captain

Poetry.

To some, the word conjures images of inspiring speeches made by Robin Williams in The Dead Poet’s Society.  To other – dare I say a much larger number?  Yes, I dare – it calls to mind incomprehensible readings by pretentious twits (or should that word have an “a” in it?) in smoky bars in front of six (never more) equally pretentious twits.

As a writer, I fall somewhere in between.  While I’m well aware that postmodern poetry often descends into the deepest realms of obtuse navel-gazing and its practitioners include many people who might stop speaking to you if you inadvertently did something as accessible as rhyme the ends of two lines (or use recognizable meter, god forbid), I also have a soft spot for Poe’s poetry among others.

I’ve even invited guest posters here to discuss speculative poetry, which, as far as I can tell, hasn’t fallen prey to the postmodenists yet.

Every once in a while, though, it’s nice to conect with the greatest hits of the past.  Back in 1996, my wife was given a volume entitled The Best Loved Poems of the American People as a prize in school (she went to a bilingual school).  When I discovered that she owned this item, I tossed it into my TBR pile and eventually, it cycled to the top.

The Best Loved Poems of the American People

This is exactly the kind of volume that, if it were published today would a) sell millions of copies and b) come under severe critical fire for all sorts of reasons.

There’s many reasons for this one getting lambasted.  From a purely academic point of view, the poems are in forms and meters that have fallen out of favor.  Blank verse and incomprehensibility rule the roost.

The second reason they would get themselves attacked is that in many if not all cases, these works reflect their times.  They don’t address or even care about diversity or race or even, really, politics of any kind.  When attacking the big issues of life, they leave these considerations aside.  Poetry has become a political vehicle in many cases, and critics would not allow someone to backslide on this “progress”.

The final criticism, and perhaps the only valid one is that the poems themselves have become clichéd, victims of their own success.

That’s true.  And there’s a good reason for it: they’ve been quoted, referred to and have brought happiness, comfort and solace to countless generations.  The word “Loved” in the book’s title is spectacularly apt.

I thought the book would be a slog, but it wasn’t.  It was a trip down memory lane and a reminder that accessible, non-angry oetry isn’t a crime, and that the great human emotions are prety much the same today as they were 150 years ago, no matter how many shrill voices try to tell us that anything from that age must necessarily be racist (or whatever) and therefore no longer valuable.

It is a book to dip into as opposed to reading straight through, of course, but even reading as a single exercise, I enjoyed it enormously.  I truly wonder whether any of today’s poetry will be read a century hence.  I seriously doubt it.

There’s a reason these values (and these words) have a lasting effect and anyone reading these verses will remember why. In such a cynical age, perhaps it’s a good idea to reflect on more simple things every so often.  I know I enjoyed it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer who has published exactly one poem in his life.  Perhaps that doesn’t make him the greatest expert on poetry, but his novels are pretty good.  Outside, for example, is about what happens when humans escape the harshness of reality to live in simulated worlds.

The Good and the Bad of Critiques

This time, our columnist Richard H. Fay brings us an opinion piece–one that, as writers and editors ourselves, is close to our hearts. You’re mileage may vary but one thing is certain: you will definitely learn something about the ins and outs of the process in the piece that follows.  If you like his pieces for us, we remind you that his blog is here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  

Walt Whitman Manuscript

While critiques and literary criticisms often contain useful advice for the aspiring author and poet, there is a dark side to this sector of the literary realm. What I hate most about the world of critiques and criticisms are critical insults cloaked in the guise of constructive feedback. Although critiques can help a budding writer’s skills blossom, and can even help more established writers catch unnoticed flaws, some writers claiming to dish out critiques (or comments resembling critiques) miss the entire concept that personal opinions, tastes, and interpretations of what is “good” and what is “bad” differ tremendously from person to person, from reader to reader, from “critter” to “critter”. They feel that their individual opinion is literary law, and that their personal interpretation of this law is written in stone. Clearly, this is not the case.

During my quest to become a published poet, I’ve encountered some comments and attitudes that obviously went well beyond mere criticism of my poetic works. In certain circles, I’ve been called a wannabe and a poetaster, remarks that were clearly less examples of constructive criticism and more examples of critical insults – “bad critiques”, if you will. However, in different circles, I’ve been called a master poet. Some people may strongly disagree with the way I write, finding fault in my preferred choice of voice and style. Others see great merit in the way I pen my works, and applaud my cadence, verbiage, and overall approach to poetry composition. Who is right, and who is wrong? Should I change the way I write poetry because some people feel it isn’t worthy, or should I keep doing what works for me, and what works for certain editors and certain publishers (and many of my readers)?

Should a writer listen to what others have to say? Of course, as any artist, a writer should learn to grow and develop their craft. And feedback from others, both positive and negative, is a vital part of this never-ending process of growth and development. I have certainly grown as a poet after listening to what some editors have said to me in personal rejection letters and revision requests. I have often followed their advice on how to add more depth, substance, and artistry to my work. However, I don’t feel a writer should dwell on critiques. A writer is not required to act on every negative critique or criticism received. At some point in a writer’s career, they have to rely just as much on their own judgment and instincts. They have to consider the value of each critique on a case-by-case basis. They have to realize when the critique being given is truly constructive, and when it is merely counter-productive. And sometimes, even a critique given with the best of intentions can fall far from the intended mark. It can be crazy out there, and quite toxic at times, and critique is one of those areas that can all too easily slip into the toxic versus the beneficial.

In my opinion, the difference between a “good critique” and a “bad critique” can often be a matter of the difference between critiquing the written work at hand and critiquing the writer of that work. It is the difference between stating that the story or poem under question is flawed, versus claiming the creator of that piece is a flawed writer or poet. Few human beings respond positively to personal insults, no matter how eloquently worded or full of literary jargon those insults may be. And even those critiques of a writer’s general skills that avoid blatant insults may still lose sight of the bigger picture, arriving at an improper judgment of someone’s overall ability based on the paltriest of evidence.

Ideally, an editor, slush reader, or “critter” shouldn’t really judge someone’s overall skills as a poet or writer based on only one or two pieces, especially if that writer or poet has already penned and sold several works which could be used to better judge that individual’s overall skills and abilities. Such commentary becomes a general criticism of the writer or poet, instead of a specific criticism of the story or poem under consideration. That sort of attitude strays too close to those that fling about the terms “wannabe” or “poetaster” for my own personal comfort. And, it could be argued, it certainly smacks of a personal dislike for an individual’s work, whatever the underlying reasons may truly be.

In terms of the nuts-and-bolts of critiques and criticisms, I grow especially irritated when opinions and tastes are presented as literary absolutes, which often happens with such things. Differing opinions of my work from different editors and readers leads me to believe that most criticisms are not literary absolutes. I suspect that the aspects being criticized are not unalterable laws that all poets and writers must follow, or else. Plus, in terms of critiques, comments, and rejections from editors, it may be sacrilege, but I don’t feel that editors walk on water. I believe that they can be wrong on occasion, that they can let their personal preferences shade their views, just like the rest of us. And some editors may plain dislike an individual’s style, while putting an editorial sheen on that dislike to make it look like literary criticism. Does this mean that the writer must change their style because of what one editor (or one group of editors) says, especially if that very same style works elsewhere? I honestly don’t think so. It brings one back to the idea of judging the value of each critique on a case-by-case basis.

Perhaps I simply found my literary voice, and confidence in that voice, early-on. Others still finding their literary voice, still searching for a style that fits, may approach critiques and criticisms differently. However, because I have developed a confidence in my voice and style, I don’t feel the need to make wholesale changes to my preferred voice and style based on individual critiques and criticisms. I may listen, but I don’t necessarily act on what I hear. I have no desire to make changes just to fit in at a certain market, just so I can add another notch to my tally of venues conquered. In some instances, I don’t think I could change enough to fit in anyway.

Many moons ago, I came to the realization that my style may not work for all markets. It happens. Writers and poets have to acknowledge that reality sooner or later. Some places just aren’t a good fit, no matter what one does to try to fit in. However, there are other markets, other publications, out there. And some of those may be a much better fit for one’s work anyway. It may take some trial-and-error, and the use of market listings like Duotrope’s Digest and Ralan’s Webstravanganza, to find the right venue, but it can be done.

As for those on the other side of critiques; if you are addressing potential problems with the text, then you are doing your job as an editor or “critter”. After all, a writer’s work should display a functional grasp of grammar and syntax. Writers should show that they have at least some understanding of what works and what doesn’t. And sometimes you need to be a bit harsh if a written work contains many glaring flaws. However, there is a difference between a harsh but honest criticism and an insult. You don’t have to insult the writer’s abilities in general when criticizing a particular example of that writer’s work. Insults may just stir negative emotions, rather than eliciting a positive change.

Critiques, whether positive or negative, are going to be reflective of the critic’s personal preferences and biases. While writers should never let hubris blind them to the opportunities to grow found within individual critiques and criticisms, such commentary should always be seen as one opinion among many. Other critics with different tastes may evaluate the same material differently. Those handing out literary critiques should keep the same thing in mind. Never let critical insults take the place of constructive criticism. Avoid the path to the toxic.

(Originally published in the Creator and the Catalyst, August 2009.)