Writing the Other

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!

Writing the Other

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I recently read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  This was a gift, since it’s not the kind of book I’d normally have bought for myself.  I don’t go out of my way to read extremely unusual viewpoints in my fiction (for those who don’t know, this book is written from the viewpoint of a boy with Asperger’s). I read fiction to be entertained or to learn about the human condition, and find that neither happens when the author is forcing an “other” on us.  And a character such as this one, by its very nature, can’t be anything but forced.

Nevertheless, I’m glad I read this one.  It was a quick and easy read because the author, Mark Haddon, writes very deftly, and the first three-quarters of the book are quite entertaining.  They’re couched as a mystery story, and one can look past the message in the fiction.  It does fall down at the end because, inevitably, the message needs to be delivered and not even someone as talented as Mr. Haddon can get around the fact that message fiction is always worse than any alternative.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

My own favorite message-fiction gripe is The Handmaid’d Tale.  While I’m not a huge fan of Margaret Atwood’s writing, it’s undeniable that hers is a brilliant literary mind.  But in order to get a message across, she thought it would be fun to take an interesting idea and bludgeon us with it.  The results are only successful if you happen to be an activist for extreme feminism (which, interestingly, and in her own words, Atwood isn’t).  I can only imagine what a real SF writer, say Ursula LeGuin or Robert Heinelin would have done with the idea.  They would have put the story first and left the message in the background (of course, they would have sold millions of copies less, but that’s another story), making the book much better, if more ambiguous, in the process.

Another example of a politically-fueled book that fails to impress is Atlas Shrugged.  It’s just as bad as the Atwood, and for the same reasons.  Only the politically motivated can possibly maintain that it’s a good book.

The second reason I’m glad I read it is because it got me thinking about writing “the other”.  This is a bit of a taboo in certain literary circles.  Essentially, there’s an outcry against people from any dominant group writing characters that belong to supposedly subjugated populations.  Whether that subjugation is due to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or whatever is irrelevant; the feeling is that there should be a minimum of tolerance for writers who commit this sin (unless that writer is part of the “right” group, in which case he’s an activist and it’s OK – yes, hypocrisy is alive and well in literary circles, it seems).

I happen to disagree.  I believe that a writer has the obligation to write whichever character is best for the story.  If someone is offended… well, let’s just say I am probably not the right person to apply to in those cases.

An author needs to tell a story.  It’s likely that that story is aimed at a certain audience so, if you’re writing about someone who is extremely different from you, you need to make sure that you do it to the best of your ability.

Will it be perfect?  No, probably not.

Does that matter?  No.  Not unless the discrepancies are so large that your audience finds them jarring.  Nobody matters but your readers.  If a college professor out in Portland denounces you for being insensitive to vegan activists because of your portrayal of your main character’s boyfriend, chuckle, thank him for the extra sales and write your next book (Chronicles of a Free-Range, Locally-Grown Chicken).

I do draw the line at purposely portraying characters from underrepresented groups as villains for political reasons, but I think the writers who do so aren’t a problem.  Why?  Because they’ll weed themselves out.  As I said earlier, books where the message gets in the way of the story are crap.

So yeah, there will always be Puritans and Prohibitionists who like to butt in and tell everyone what they can and can’t do, especially in the age of social media and the politization of absolutely everything.  Ignore them.

And if anyone says you can’t write something, tell them I gave you permission and send them here.  By the time they finish reading this, they’ll be so mad at me that they won’t even remember what they were scolding you about.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist who wasn’t born on Tau Ceti, but still writes about people who were.  He also isn’t a young woman, but the main character of his novel Outside is.  He’ll let readers decide whether that’s a good thing or not.