Wednesday, November 12, 2008

FSPA Keynote, "Poeticus Interruptus," Part 4 of 5

Poeticus Interruptus
(or: Is that a poem in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?)
Keynote at the Florida State Poets Association Convention (theme: "A poem in your pocket"), 18 October 2008, Part 4 of 5

FSPA Keynote, "Poeticus Interruptus," Pt. 4
FSPA Keynote, "Poe...
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Around 25 years ago I attended a panel at a convention, I forget what about. But authors were on the dais and I was in the audience. At some point my hand went up and I stated my problem, which was that my voice was changing and I had no idea what to do about it.

The short definition of "voice changing" was that everything I wrote was lousy. I couldn't get a handle on how to translate vision into expression. I likened it to the problems faced by adolescent boys before their voices finished dropping. One moment that smooth tenor or baritone finally felt within reach, the next moment everything came out squeaky.

The authors on the dais said, "Just keep writing." Period.

At the time -- I was in my mid-20s -- the answer seemed dismissive and not a little bit smug (to me the panelists seemed to say, "Go 'way, kid, yer botherin' me"). But those authors were right. And so, when I pass on that advice, I like to give it a little heft:

Yes, you will write crap. Crap is good. Crap will ultimately take you where you want to go, if you keep at it and have faith in it, even when it frustrates the heck out of you. And -- probably the most important message of all -- you are not alone.

Not worrying about the quality of what you're writing also gives you tremendous degrees of freedom. Polishing can come later. Even unfinished pieces have merit. Maybe they're meant to be finished at a later point in time. Maybe they're meant to provide nuggets for some other poem. Maybe they're meant only to clear enough space for the poem you really want to come through.

[Snipped here: lead-up to and reading of a poem slated for future publication.]

You never know when something's gonna hit you, hence the importance of carrying a notebook around. Not only can you carry a poem in your pocket, you can carry a future poem in your pocket. It can be a notebook of blank or partially-filled pages waiting for ink, even if the ink means doodling a picture instead of writing words. Because pictures are breeding grounds for words.

Back in May of 2007 I attended the science fiction convention Oasis in Orlando, and I gave myself the assignment of writing three ekphrastic poems based on pieces I saw at the art show there. One of them, a sonnet called "Forest Dragons," went on to win honorable mention in the Science Fiction Poetry Association's sonnet contest and was published in a collection of the contest's top poems. "Forest Dragons" is named after the painting by John A. Garner that inspired it.

Forest Dragons

Before the days of Muir and Audubon,
The dragon watchers hid behind a blind,
Awaiting ruddy dawn, the chance to find
Amidst a lichen blanket, lazy frond,
The cool, ribbed wings of serpents coiled in sleep,
Or flight-warmed streaks in blinding sunbeam light.
Once, breaths of fire glowed across the night,
The young ones huddled thirty dragons deep.
In morning mist they broke the canopy,
Emerging as a massive, scaly cloud
Above the trees, a great, reptilian shroud
Of silver, amethyst, and verdigris.
They melted, magic stripped and rearranged
And turned to mosses as the climate changed.

Marge Simon, who edits Star*Line, the newsletter of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, lives in Ocala. I first "met" Marge -- not in person but by snail mail -- when I edited Star*Line back in the 1980s, so living only 30 miles from her now is a real treat. Earlier this year she received the Horror Writers Association's Bram Stoker Award for her poetry collection VECTORS: A Week in the Death of a Planet, coauthored with Charlee Jacob.

When I told Marge about how I wrote "Forest Dragons," she suggested that we each go through the art show at Necronomicon and write a poem based on a painting. "Necro" is the science fiction convention held in Tampa/St. Pete -- I was at that convention just this last weekend. Last year Marge chose Paul Vincenti's painting "Remnants of the Ancient Age" and wrote a poem called "Land/Escape." I chose Sandra SanTara's painting "Love Song" and wrote "First Contact in Appalachia."

[Snipped here: reading of "First Contact in Appalachia," recently published.]

The notebook I carried with me contains impressions that I scribbled as I stood before SanTara's painting. I fleshed out the draft while I sat at the Aisling Press sales table.

Marge submitted our poems to the magazine Space and Time, where they both appeared earlier this year. Last weekend at this year's Necronomicon, Marge and coauthor Malcolm Deeley described how they put together their collection Legends of the Fallen Sky, in which his poems and her paintings took turns inspiring each other.

I tell people to carry paper notebooks because those journals have no batteries to run out of juice and they can put up pretty well with being dropped. Sometimes I keep my journal in a Ziploc bag in case of storms or other potential water hazards.

But I learned this past August, at the 66th World Science Fiction Convention in Denver, that I've underestimated the hardiness of some electronics. One of my new heroes is Glenda Larke, who spoke on a panel called "Writing in Spite of Your Environment." The panel description read, "Writer's block is one thing but writing in a tent in the jungle surrounded by army ants is entirely another. How do writers manage to deal with adverse environments?"

I figured that the panel description was an example of hyperbole. A couple of panelists described writing as single parents raising children -- five children in one case, which qualifies as a jungle to me. One speaker set up her writing table in her laundry room so that the white noise of her churning washer and dryer masked the ruckus going on in the rest of the house.

Then I heard Glenda Larke, who described her life as an environmental field worker. She gets to go to literal jungles in places like Borneo, and she takes her laptop with her. Glenda, who has authored two trilogies, a stand-alone book, is now working on a new trilogy, and is published by Harper Collins Australia, told us what it was like to pound out a draft while monsoon rains thundered on a tarp overhead and she had to stop every few minutes to brush leeches off her legs. After the panel she posted photos on her blog of her at work while on Borneo's offshore islands, on a fishing boat on the Kinabatangan River, and at an expedition camp. She writes in her bio, "I've waded through mangrove swamps, been followed by a tiger and attacked by a king cobra, been caught in a flash-flood and stung by a colony of irate wasps, studied birds on tropical atolls and swum with turtles. I've survived an open boat in a tropical thunderstorm and been eaten alive by leeches, mosquitoes, sandflies, ticks, chiggers and things that don't even have names. …And all the time, I kept on writing—in tents, at home, on boats and beaches, in swamps and mangroves, in national parks and logging camps, in airports and on planes."

I want to be like Glenda Larke when I grow up.

Part 5

Covenant, the first volume in the Deviations Series, is available from Aisling Press, and from AbeBooks, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Book Territory, Borders,,,, DEAstore,,,,, Powell's Books, and Target. Deviations: Appetite is forthcoming. The Deviations page has additional details.


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