Twisting Paths: An Interview with Mike Allen
by Danny Adams
Reading the work of Roanoke author Mike Allen is like hiking off-trail on a mountainside at night: no straight way, places to trap or tumble you, and no way to see what is coming directly ahead — especially if what is ahead sees you coming first.
Allen is one of the fastest rising stars in the world of speculative poetry — "speculative" meaning science fiction, fantasy, horror, or occasionally any combination of the above — with over 160 poems and short stories in print and more on the way in magazines ranging from the small press to heavy hitters in the field such as Asimov's Science Fiction. Speculative poetry itself is a rising star; while it has been around for decades, only recently has it seen an upsurge in popularity, thanks in no small part to Allen himself.
Allen has enjoyed a number of paths of his own. His sizable bibliography includes four chapbooks: Defacing the Moon and Other Poems (DNA Publications), Petting the Time Shark and Other Poems (DNA), Disturbing Muses (Prime Books, ISBN 0809556049), and, most recently, Strange Wisdoms of the Dead (Wildside Press, ISBN 0809556758). He is also an editor; his first such job was the 1995 anthology New Dominions, which collected speculative works by Virginia authors. More recently, he coedited (with Bud Webster) The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook by Suzette Haden Elgin; Allen also runs his own poetry magazine, Mythic Delirium, along with a series of fantasy anthologies titled Mythic. (In the interest of disclosure, the author of this interview has appeared in both.) In addition, Allen was the president of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA, www.sfpoetry.com) until September 2006 and helped bring that organization much more prominence than it had previously enjoyed.
The hike metaphor above is no accident. My interview with Allen did not start with questions; he and his wife Anita led me on a three-mile, forest-enclosed hike before we ate nearby at one of his favorite restaurants (barbecue). Deciding that the restaurant was too noisy for recording the interview, we sat on a walled set of stone steps that wound their way into another grove behind the restaurant.
The poem below is an excellent example of Allen's work. In 2006,it won the Rhysling Award, the top award in speculative poetry.
VL Hello Mike, and thanks for agreeing to do this interview for Virginia Libraries. So, what have you been up to recently?
MA You're welcome! I suppose I should be a good author and tell you about Strange Wisdoms of the Dead, which came out this past January. It's a collection of ten years' worth of my poetry and fiction. It's kind of frightening to realize that I've been writing and publishing that long and people are maybe only now starting to hear about me — but at least they are hearing about me!
I organized Strange Wisdoms into four parts. One part is essentially meant to concentrate on horror poems. One part is meant to focus more on life secrets, life mysteries — the "strange wisdoms" of the title. One part is more science- fictional, and also more meditative. And one part is collaborations; I collaborate with a lot of people. It's fun to collaborate and then include the results in my books. Strange Wisdoms contains "The Strip Search," which at the time had not yet won the Rhysling.
Also, right now in conjunction with Prime Books I'm editing a series called Mythic, which contains a lot of fantasy stories and poetry. It's intended to be like a literary magazine, although they're books. Science fiction publications have tended to steer clear of that mix, I think in part because there's this assumption that readers aren't interested in poetry, which isn't necessarily true. There are people coming into the field now who are interested in seeing a publication with more of a "litzine" mix: heavier on the poetry, treating the poetry equally with stories, stories that are themselves at times very experimental and very poetic. Not that I have any problem with oldfashioned, plot-driven storytelling either, so I mix that in as well. It'll be very interesting to see in the next few years if this is something that catches on and becomes more widespread, or something that fades back into the woodwork. Or if it becomes one diverse thread that continues and continues, which is how science fiction and fantasy really seem to work these days.
VL What do you tell people when they say to you, "I didn't even know there was such a thing as science fiction poetry!"
MA The version of this I normally hear is, "I've never heard of a Science Fiction Poetry Association," to which, after two years in charge, I developed a fairly wellrehearsed response: SFPA has been around since 1978; we're interested in poetry that contains elements of science fiction, fantasy, or horror; we give out an award every year, the Rhysling Award, that honors the best of this type of poetry, selected by the full membership. When trying to explain speculative poetry, I've found it's best if I'm in a workshop setting where I can simply plop an example or series of examples in front of the questioner and let the work speak for itself. Without those examples — I like to use Joe Haldeman's "Eighteen Years Old, October Eleventh" or John Grey's "Explaining Frankenstein to His Mother," to name a couple1 — some people are just convinced that you can't mix poetry and SF. Usually this show-and-tell process makes them believers.
VL Along with the Rhysling Award, what are some of the accomplishments you and SFPA have enjoyed while you've been president?
MA Gosh, where to begin? We're a small group, but we're a little less small now; our membership just about doubled in the first year I was president, to about 170, and has stayed that way since. We put out our first trade paperback books, reprinting and revising The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook by Suzette Haden Elgin, who founded SFPA, and releasing The Alchemy of Stars, which for the first time collected the Rhysling Award- winning poems from 1978 to 2004 in one volume, minus one piece we couldn't get permission to reprint. We also switched our annual Rhysling anthologies, which collect members' nominees for the award, from chapbook format to a much more professional trade paperback. We found a regular venue for presenting the award, at ReaderCon, a convention in Boston that focuses on books and fiction. We improved and expanded our website (www.sfpoetry.com). We for the first time gathered as many of our newsletter and magazine publications since 1978 that we could find with the goal of contributing them to a library collection. And so on. Mind you, I can't take credit for all this. Many volunteers have selflessly donated time and effort to make this happen, because we want to see speculative poetry taken seriously. The idea is that all this activity attracts attention, draws in new members, and widens our audience.… let's face it, most
readers want to be told
VL What do you think speculative poetry can accomplish, either with language or for a reader, that speculative prose can't or would have difficulty doing?
MA Poetry in this day and age can be seen as the higher mathematics of written language, exploring concepts, emotions, personalities, or epiphanies, or simply experimenting in wordplay without the burden of story arithmetic, plot, traditional character development, or the chapters of exposition required to set the stage for a science fiction or fantasy world. It can cut to the chase, get right to the heart of the matter, without going out of its way to include the formula elements of a "well-told story."
Little "short-short" or "flash fiction" stories used to be a fairly prominent part of science fiction and fantasy, but have fallen out of fashion. I believe that for better or for worse, poetry now fills that gap. Consider that several prominent venues for fantastic fiction in the short form, such as Asimov's or the online magazine Strange Horizons (www.strangehorizons.com), routinely give space to poetry. Even such stolidly prose-dedicated periodicals as Analog Science Fiction and Fact or Fantasy & Science Fiction sneak it in from time to time.
That said, what I'm giving you here is a gross oversimplification, as all poems tell stories in their own way, and prose can be written poetically; and let's face it, most readers want to be told traditional stories. There aren't as many readers willing to engage in the fluid and abstract challenges of poetry.
Yet that's unfortunate, especially these days, because, as with poetry in general, speculative poetry has been moving toward transparency in its meaning. The casual reader who checks out the contents of a current issue of Star*Line (the journal of SFPA), The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, or my own Mythic Delirium will likely find that he or she won't have to struggle much to understand the aim of any given piece.
VL Tell me about the Rhysling Award.
MA The Rhysling Award recognizes speculative poetry that is considered particularly outstanding in a given year. The award was created in 1978 by Suzette Haden Elgin, who founded the Science Fiction Poetry Association the same year. She noticed at conventions that there were people who wrote SF poetry, were interested in SF poetry, but didn't seem to be talking to each other. It wasn't that such an award had never existed before, but this was the most prominent such award to be created, and it had the support of some major writers. The name "Rhysling" comes from the Robert Heinlein story "The Green Hills of Earth," which describes a star traveler — I believe he was an engineer — and a bard who was blinded in an accident. Suzette actually got permission from Robert Heinlein to use the name.
There are two Rhysling Awards: one for short poetry, less than forty-nine lines long under the current guidelines, and one for long poetry, fifty lines or longer. The Rhysling winners are reprinted most years in the Nebula Awards anthology. This is a nice way for the field to acknowledge that these poems are interesting enough as pieces of writing that they deserve to be reprinted in such a prestigious venue.
VLDo you think the field overall these last few years has started acknowledging poetry more?
MA I think so, actually. I think it comes in cycles. Right now SFPA is probably the strongest it has been in a long time, if not the strongest it has ever been.
There are a lot of young writers joining the organization, participating in the field, who are coming to things from the fantasy side, who grew up reading fantasy. This interest leads them to write poetry as well, and what they're doing is they're exploring the writers' marketplace and discovering us. "Wow — there's an association for people who like to write this sort of poetry. I thought it was just me!" And I feel that's a good measure of SFPA's success, because we're doing a better job letting people know we're out there.Suspenders are built
with metal in them,
so I was setting off
the metal detector
every time I came in.
Before my presidential term began, we didn't have a lot of advertising out there. We had a website that wasn't updated very often; Star*Line wasn't included in very many market listings; we weren't doing any kind of public events like we do now. So we were just this big secret, which I felt needed to be changed. I didn't think we were doing a lot to promote our award. I feel like we've done a much better job of that now, and there's a lot of evidence that it's working.
VL Tell me how you came to write your poem "The Strip Search," the piece that won the 2006 Rhysling Award.
MA "The Strip Search" began as a kind of complaint. In my day job I work as a courts reporter; I cover trials, lawsuits, all kinds of court cases. One of the side effects of having this job is that every day at least twice, and probably more often on any given day, I have to walk through a metal detector — after 9/11 all sorts of government institutions stepped up their security, and this is as true for courthouses as anywhere else. Now I like to wear suspenders when I'm dressed up for court. Suspenders are built with metal in them, so I was setting off the metal detector every time I came in. Some of the guards got a little frustrated with me and they started asking me, "Why do you keep wearing those?" My reaction was, "Doesn't it seem a bit unfair that this heightened and probably justified — at least to some degree — paranoia about fellow human beings trickles down to the point where I'm not free to choose how to dress the way I want to, because I'm upsetting these metal detectors?"
So it's because of this relatively trivial problem and my thoughts about its larger implications that I was suddenly struck with the idea of the gate of Hell operating as a metal detector. What would the gate of Hell detect? Well, it says "Abandon All Hope," so no doubt if you entered that gate and you had some hope they would search you to find out where you were keeping it. My mind jumped on that: I imagined what that sort of metaphorical soul-searching — so to speak — would be like, and thus came the poem.
VLWas this the sort of work where you dashed it out, loved it, and sent it out, or did it go through five drafts?
MA It actually sat in my notebook as an unfinished draft for a few weeks. Then I was getting ready to perform at No Shame Theater, an improv theater in Roanoke, and I needed a piece but I didn't have one ready. I flipped through my notebook — I always carry some sort of notebook with me, since I never know when I might have some spare time when I can write something down — and discovered the remnants of that poem. So I redrafted it and finished it specifically to perform live.
VL You've done poetry as performance art quite a lot. Tell me what your ideal night reading a poem would entail: not just what you're doing, but perhaps audience reaction, even audience participation, if any.
MA I have never tried to write a poem specifically to invite audience participation — that's probably something I ought to try.
When I perform a poem I usually am hoping for some kind of audience reaction. "The Strip Search" is a lucky piece for a live performance in that it's funny; and when you have a funny piece (and it actually is funny), people start reacting to it right away, so you know it's working. With a more serious piece, it's not so easy, because people stay quiet until the end and then you know how well you did by how enthusiastically they applaud. I have a few poems that I've written specifically to be performed, but mostly they've been written already and I experiment with them to see if they'll work for an audience or not.
And not all poems work for an audience. A poem specifically aimed for the page assumes you're going to be able to spend some time with it, take it in at your own pace, look at how the words are placed on the page, and draw meaning from that in addition to what the order of the words happens to be. With a performance poem, I'm generally thinking the same way as I might with a monologue. In fact most of my performances are more or less monologues in that they're meant to be heard, not so much dependant on how they look on the page but what they sound like, how the message comes across.… we might see the
field get really wild:
bringing in the cowboy
poets, the haiku poets …
VL Since a lot of people come at science fiction wanting to predict the future, this may be an inevitable question: where do you see speculative poetry going from here?
MA I think so long as the interest in the field of speculative poetry continues to grow the way it has been, then we'll continue to see more markets for it — small markets, but venues nonetheless. But many of these have taken the forefront in terms of publishing poetry that actually moves the genre forward, pushes the boundaries. I mentioned earlier the trend of new and young people coming in with a bent toward fantasy, and I think what's going to happen is we're going to see more and more fantasy poetry. This is true of the speculative field as a whole — fantasy writing is becoming more dominant. There are already relatively new markets existing now that are all fantasy, and that wasn't something you saw so much of before.
In terms of SFPA, I think the new leadership is going to continue the kinds of things I have been doing. And I know that it's also the intention of the new president, Debbie Kolodji, to have SFPA reach out to other poetry organizations, something that I didn't consider myself particularly qualified to do. If she's successful, and maybe even can coordinate joint events, we might see the field get really wild: bringing in the cowboy poets, the haiku poets … they'll discover us and we'll discover them!
1Both poems can be read in The Alchemy of Stars: Rhysling Award Winners Showcase, edited by Roger Dutcher and Mike Allen (Science Fiction Poetry Association, 2005; ISBN 0809511622). Haldeman's poem is also available online at his official website: http://home.earthlink.net/~haldeman/poem1.html.
Danny Adams is the coauthor, with science fiction veteran Philip José Farmer, of the short novel The City Beyond Play, forthcoming from PS Publishing, and has over two dozen speculative poems published or forthcoming in various magazines. He is the evening services librarian for Ferrum College in Ferrum, Virginia, where he, his wife Laurie, and four very speculative cats live on a mountainside beside a dark and thick forest.