Short Answers (Extended Version)

I suffer from social anxiety. It has rendered me mute or tongue-tied too many times to count. Because of this, I avoid new people whenever possible. I use the self-checkout at the grocery store so I don’t have to talk to the cashier. When it’s time to order pizza, an epic battle between my nerves and my stomach ensues. I once suffered with a broken molar for three weeks because I was too apprehensive over yet another unwanted social interaction to make a dentist appointment. I’ve sought help, so the anxiety isn’t as crippling as it used to be, but there are still times when I believe that my biggest mistake in life was not striking out to the nearest National Park on my eighteenth birthday to become a hermit.

My anxiety affects my personal relationships too. I’ve never been comfortable conversing with people I do know for fear of saying something offensive or that I’ll be misunderstood. And, because negative thoughts are self-defeating thoughts, I’ve often walked away from conversations with friends and family members to look for a crowbar to pry the foot from my mouth. Over the years, I’ve compensated for this by guarding my opinions and responding to questions with short answers.

Short answers have served me well.

A good example of an effective short answer is my response to questions concerning what I do for a living. The short answer is that I inspect engine parts. And it’s the perfect answer, because people rarely ask me to elaborate. Elaborating leads to questions about the manufacturing process. I can’t answer those questions because I’ve never been a part of that process; my entire job consists of examining raw parts for defects. If it sounds boring, that’s because it is. I find it so boring that five minutes into my shift a fog settles over my mind, and I usually get lost in the fog for the duration. Regardless of how I feel about my job; however, it pays the bills.

Raw Camshafts

Raw Camshafts

2mm Nick on Camshaft Lobe

2mm Nick on Camshaft Lobe

Another aspect of my life that I’ve never been comfortable discussing is the fact that I am a poet. I am a poet because I love words. I love words because they have the ability to fit together to form images that are only visible through my mind’s eye. I love to break down words, examine their etymologies as a forensic anthropologist would a body preserved in a tar pit. Then, like an aerospace engineer, I try to rebuild them in new and interesting ways. I’m always thinking about words. I think about words while I’m inspecting parts, mowing the lawn, and even while pretending to listen to my wife. I cannot not think about words.

One of the reasons I rarely tell people I’m a poet is because of the questions I have been asked. One of the most popular concerns the stacks of cash I make writing poetry. This, of course, is a vicious myth. There is no money in poetry. I’ve been writing poetry under a pen name for fifteen years and have sold over 200 individual poems, and I never wrote a poem that paid a bill.

If the questions aren’t about cash, then they’re about subject matter. The short answer is that I write speculative poetry (often referred to as science fiction poetry). The drawback to the short answer is that it usually elicits strange looks and more questions. Questions requiring answers of increasing length and difficulty. And with these questions, my anxiety kicks into overdrive and fires afterburners. My ears buzz and my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth with a mental peanut butter so thick that no amount of milk could wash it away. The last thing I want to do is make a fool of myself while attempting to explain my passion.

So, instead of making a fool of myself by speaking, I figured that I could work through my social anxiety issues like any sensible member of the 21st Century: by writing a blog.

What is Speculative Poetry?

The short answer: Speculative poetry is poetry that incorporates science fiction, fantasy, and horror images and themes. Here is an example:

SPOILED CHILD
by Kurt MacPhearson

 A nebulous toddlerSTRLNJLGST2010
woven over epochs
into blubbery orange and yellow swirls
with blazing green quasars for eyes
and a single curly tuft of blue
upon its bald, lopsided head
sits as a greedy Buddha
at the edge of space
gobbling galaxies
like peanut clusters
and ignoring the dark matter
stuck between its two gaseous teeth
as it reaches for red giant crumbs
with tentacle fingers
squeezing with avarice
till knuckles form
all the while broadcasting
a collective mine-mine-mine!
in gamma ray belches
from deep within its black gullet
as a warning to the cosmos
should it learn to crawl

Originally appeared in Star*Line, 33.4

I don’t have a longer answer for the definition of speculative poetry. The one I gave suits me fine. These work well, too:

  • “[I]n the speculative poem, the poet presents an unreal world as though presenting a real one.” Mark Rich, “The Idea of the Real,” Strange Horizons
  • “Speculative poetry [as opposed to mainstream poetry] has more to do with the imagination, the world of dreams and the world as it could be.” Bruce Boston, Grand Master speculative poet, interviewed by John Amen, The Pedestal Magazine

Finally, I love reading speculative poetry as much as I like writing it. After all, poetry is all about the words and how they fit together to form provocative imagery. And a great way to get the most of that experience is to listen to poets read aloud their poems. Perhaps one day I’ll muster up the courage to record myself reading one of my poems, but until then, here’s a clip of Neil Gaiman reading his poem, “Instructions.” I hope you enjoy the imagery and wordplay as much as I do.

Where Astronomy and Mythology Meet, Part 2

Jupiter and Europa

Jupiter and Europa

Yesterday I posted a scifaiku that reflects upon the relationship between planet Jupiter and Galilean moon, Europa. The following poem explores that relationship much further. It’s a combination of astronomy and mythology, an interplay about which I wrote in an earlier post. For this poem, I drew from “The Rape of Europa.”

Two paintings follow the poem, by Rembrandt and Titian respectively. I think that these paintings show that no matter how far from Earth the human race travels, our myths and legends will always be with us.

EUROPA’S STOIC STANCE
by Kurt MacPhearson

Vulcan forged your golden basket,
chased with figures depicting Io’s fate,
yet you still chose to befriend that bull
merely because its low contained more melody
than a lyre ever produced.
Oh, Europa, such creatures are never docile.
It’s contrary to their nature.
Then again, we weren’t there to stop you
when that bull bent its back.
You aren’t the first to be deceived
by Jupiter’s bright and swirling charms.
The honeymoon was awesome; the starry tour quite fun;
though isn’t it strange how quickly
the euphoria of new love can fade?
He promised children. He promised Crete.
But all he gave were icy rings to seal your fate.
Hadn’t made a single revolution before learning
you shared a resonant relationship
with Ganymede, and poor Io, who Jupiter
hides like a mistress opposite you.
And now, it seems there’s no escape,
especially since Jupiter rarely turns asideStarLine 34_4
his bloody eye.
It’s not fair, what he puts you through.
But you hide it so well.
Those tears, beneath an icy veneer,
when he rages with his belts.
Which is why we forgive your cryovolcanic tantrums
when the stress of his pull becomes too much.
Such a stance defines a true hero’s composition,
for even though he won’t relinquish
his jealous grip upon your heavenly body
we know he can never break
your iron core.

Originally appeared in Star*Line 34.4

The Abduction of Europa by Rembrandt

The Abduction of Europa by Rembrandt

The Rape of Europa by Titian

The Rape of Europa by Titian

Collaborating with Collapsars

I’ve been going through some of my old poems and decided that it was time that I put together a collection of old and new collapsars. I figure I have about a dozen or more to write before I have enough to submit for publication, but I think I can knock them out by the end of January.

I’ve always enjoyed working in collaboration with other poets. In that spirit, I’d like to use suggestions from readers as launching points for some of my remaining collapsars. I’m looking for declarative noun/verb statements such as “Don’t think there’s nothing to fear,” “Every planet wears a ring,” “Between the starry rungs lies a part of space,” and “The Aliens breathe chlorine.” (I’m specifically looking for phrases of a speculative nature, of course.)

Anyone wishing to take part in such a collaborative effort please comment with a suggested statement or two. I look forward to some inspiring phrases.

Here’s a collapsar that I wrote a few years ago under my pseudonym, Kurt MacPhearson.

The Aliens Breathe Chlorine: A Collapsar
by Kurt MacPhearson 

The aliens breathe chlorine
purifies our drinking water
remains essential for deep space
requires thick suits
dominate a CEO’s worst nightmare
evokes little pity in most of us
refuse to acknowledge the aliens
Starline35_4
plan to crack open the moon
influences flow in our tides
play havoc on castle walls

stymie the alien’s death machines
attack biochemical constructs
grow up to be girls or boys
dream of being astronauts
roam knight-errant above our skies
aren’t (fortunately) chlorine

Originally appeared in Star*Line 35.4

Unfolding the Triptych

Last week I discussed the Collapsar, a poetry form that I’ve claimed as my own. This week, I’d like to introduce another poetry form that fits my own style: the Triptych.

Originally, a Triptych was a three-sectioned painting, the center panel usually being larger than the other two. Each panel had its own image, though the three fit together thematically.

There are two types of Triptych poetry forms:

  • A poem of three stanzas. The first stanza comments on the past, the second comments on the present, and the third comments on the future. The second stanza is twice as long as the first and third.
  • A poem consisting of three poems of equal length displayed side-by-side, like the panels of a triptych painting. Not only do the poems work together thematically, like the painting, they actually form a fourth poem. The fourth poem is read horizontally across the three poems. This fourth poem completes the theme of the Triptych.

I prefer the second version because, even though nailing that fourth poem requires some mental gymnastics, I believe it remains true to the original definition of a Triptych by tying all three together to the central theme.

2013 Dwarf StarsI agonized over the following Triptych for weeks before I made all the parts agree grammatically. Most difficult poem I’ve ever written (form-wise, that is). My efforts, however, paid off: I earned publication and nominations for the 2013 Rhysling Award and the Dwarf Stars Award. Now, if I only had the stamina to write more than a few Triptychs a year.

COGNIZANCE: A TRIPTYCH

by Kurt MacPhearson

strange how       the aliens           open up
their                     third eye            like a window
perceiving          views                  with shades
can invoke         emotions            showing
revulsion            as                         proof
inside                  a spectrum        of lying

originally appeared in Star*Line, 35.4

Collapsar: A Poem of Collapsed Sentences

Science Fiction Poetry HandbookI don’t claim to have invented this form of poetry. I don’t know if anyone is writing anything like it, and the truth is, I really don’t care. I’m claiming this form as my own. Though to be fair, I must explain from where I co-opted it.

Suzette Haden Elgin dedicates an entire chapter in The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook on how poets exploit grammar rules. At one point, she discusses how poets since ancient Japan have eliminated words at the end of a line that are similar to the ones at the beginning of the next line. The following is her example and explanation:

I bridled a unicorn
is a mythical beast
is under the mountain

“It collapses ‘I bridled a unicorn’ with ‘a unicorn is a mythical beast’ by deleting one instance of ‘a unicorn’. It collapses ‘a unicorn is a mythical beast’ with ‘a mythical beast is under the mountain’ by deleting one instance of ‘a mythical beast.’”

I’ve co-opted this technique and applied to every line in a form I call “collapsar.” I chose this name for three reasons:

  • The lines of the poem are collapsed into each other
  • In scientific terms, a “collapsar” is short for a collapsed star
  • The previous two reasons “collapse” into one perfect name for a speculative-themed poem

The “collapsar” form is more than just collapsed sentences. Each collapsar begins with a statement, such as “Don’t think there’s nothing to fear.” The following line begins with a verb, such as “ripples,” which connects a segment of the first line to create a new statement: “fear ripples through all composite things.” This process continues line-by-line through the poem. The last line, however, incorporates words from the first line to make a new statement. This new statement should reflect or comment on the theme of the poem.

DON’T THINK THERE’S NOTHING TO FEAR
by Kurt MacPhearson

Don’t think there’s nothing to fear
ripples through all composite things
decay into sepulchral echoes
extrapolate like telescopes
peek into the unknown
lurk in ominous shadows
fall after an uttered curse
tastes of wormwood
swills in polystyrene
outlasts most ancient relics
incite fervor in the heart
encapsules time like flies
observe from a crumbling wall
displays a rusty civil defense symbol
reminds us of a bygone era
acts often as an anodyne
struggles to conquer paranoia
keeps us on our toes
hold fast to party lines
confuse conversation’s context
dictates a particular existence
stems from tiny quarks
explode from split atoms
shudder when we think

Originally appeared in Star*Line 36.2

Finding Speculative Poetry

SFPA logoEvery year since 1978, members of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA) have nominated speculative poetry published the prior year for the Rhysling Award. These poems are collected in the annual Rhysling Anthology. Once the membership receives their copies of the anthology, they cast votes for their three favorite poems in each of two categories: “Best Short Poem” (1-49 lines) and “Best Long Poem” (50 or more lines). The 2014 anthology came out a little late this year, but it was well worth waiting to lose myself in the astounding imagery offered by poets from around the world.

The 2014 Rhysling Anthology isn’t yet available for public sale, however, I’d like to use this opportunity to share a few links to speculative poetry publications.

Online

Goblin Fruit

Quarterly poetry zine with a focus on the mythic and fantastical.

 Liminality

A new quarterly speculative poetry zine with poems “that touch the heart as much as the head.”

Note: Read Diane Severson’s review of Luminality’s first issue which includes four audio versions of the peoms here.

Strange Horizons

Weekly poem, story, article, review, etc., all with a speculative bent.

 Print

 Dreams and Nightmares Magazine

 Science Fiction and Fantasy poetry, often with a touch of horror.

Star*Line

The Journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. Speculative poetry of all types.

Tales of the Talisman

Quarterly magazine packed with speculative fiction and imaginative poetry.

Enjoy!

Inner Space

About a year after I started writing speculative poetry I submitted a batch of poems to Star*Line, the Journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA). I was particularly proud of one called “Red Blinky Thing,” which focused on a dead planet that had been fitted with a blinking red beacon. I had a few poems published already, but nothing I’d written before could compare to the stunning imagery and profound message I’d stuffed into that poem. In less than a week, however, then editor Marge Simon responded with what was the most effective rejection I’d ever received.

 “…overkill. See too much of this. Try me with the ‘inner space’ in your head.”

At first, I struggled with her statement. Why would I be searching inside my head, when I’m trying to write about outer space? The only thing that sort of searching would accomplish would be to dredge up all the crap in my life that I didn’t want to think about. I didn’t want self-examination. That’s what therapy is for!

What I wanted out of speculative poetry was freedom. I wanted to explore places I’d never been, and perhaps make up a few things along the way like a 16th Century cartographer who scrawls “Here there be dragons!” on an uncharted region just to toy with the minds of his peers. Inner space? Please. Marge Simon obviously didn’t have a clue about speculative poetry.

Click here if you’d like to see how wrong I was.

So I bit my tongue, closed my eyes, and proceeded to try it her way. But ever so cautious. I could bump into strange things in the dank recesses of my mind. Hell, I might not even find my way back. It may sound a bit facetious, but that was how I felt stepping into that inner space. And those dark thoughts led me to black holes.

Event Horizon STRLNJLGST2010
by Kurt MacPhearson 

a pin-prick point
of everything
and nothing
lodged in the heart

 a cosmic eraser
leaving empty
theoretic explanations
as the soul rides

 originally appeared in Star*Line 28.3

I challenge all who read this entry to take Marge Simon’s advice. Search that inner space in your head and explore places you’ve never been, see things you thought you’d never see, and, in the speculative spirt, make up a few things along the way.

Words and Imagery

An Abundance of Words

I love to read. I can’t help to read whatever my gaze falls upon. Books, blogs, magazines, newspapers… The only criteria the words are strung together to convey thought, emotion, and detail with such precision that, while reading, it feels as if I’m sharing the experience. This love affair with words naturally, for me at least, leading to writing.

Over the last fifteen years, I’ve written dozens of short stories and enough fault-started novels to fill a footlocker. I’ve been fortunate to have several stories published (most recently “A Memory Deferred” in Interstellar Fiction). According to any number of successful authors who discuss the business of writing, however, “The first million words are just practice.” Only a million? Ha! I think I passed that milestone three years ago, and despite the constant frustration with word choice, I keep plugging away.

A Single Image

When it comes to writing poetry, I love imagery (painting pictures with words). Whether it’s a single image, or a string of a dozen, imagery gives a poem depth, breadth, and meaning. Remove an image and the poem crumbles into a pile of incomprehensible syllables.

The images used in science fiction, fantasy, and horror poetry (and prose) require a partnership between the writer and reader. The writer uses speculative imagery to show the reader a world that could exist, and it is up to the reader to either suspend belief, consider possibilities, or draw upon the imagination in order to make the imagery truly effective.

For the following poem, I used one image to show a world that could exist and carried that image as far as I could. Now it’s up to the reader to make it effective.

THE SPACER’S HAND
by Kurt MacPhearson

exchanged oath for credit extension
with a tentacled handshake

exposure to a Capellan microfungus
left a freckled spray of chemical burns

grease from the cyborg’s truncated knee
required weeks of scrubbing before fading

torque wrench sprung from grasp —
thumb smashed; two fingers broken

pinkie surrendered to pirate’s knife;
preferred conscription to air lock expulsion

met an Aklaran in a spaceport dive;
her blue skin sleeker than anticipated

signed on with a short-trader crew
to escape a lawman’s pursuit

knuckle pulverized against a bulkhead
after learning she’d grown tired of waiting

punched out the bridge watch;
altered course to slingshot Earth

crawled behind the computer’s console36.3
to avoid the captain’s fire as Mars loomed

 scaled Elysium Mons to set a rescue beacon —
tore open glove; shredded both palms

huddled beneath salvaged bubbletarp
while drawing Phobos and Deimos in red sand

thick prison glass between the spacers splayed hand
and that of his half-alien son

Originally appeared in Star*Line 36.3

Short Answers

 I’ve never been much for talking face-to-face with people I don’t know. Can’t say where this aversion comes from, but what I do know that I have a fear of saying the wrong thing. Which is why when asked questions about myself, I usually go with the short answer.

Just a few of hundreds every night

Camshafts. Just a few of hundreds every night.

When asked what I do, I give the short answer: I inspect engine parts. It’s boring. And it sound boring enough to others that I’m rarely asked more. Which is a good thing because all I do is examine hundreds of parts for defects. It’s so boring that five minutes into my shift a fog settles over my mind, and I usually get lost in the fog for the duration. Regardless of how I feel about my job, however, it pays the bills.

What I usually don’t tell people is that I’m also a poet. I love to write. I love words and how they fit together to form images I can only see with my mind’s eye. I think about words when I’m inspecting parts, mowing the lawn, and even when pretending to listen to my wife. I cannot not think about words.

I don’t tell people I’m a poet because of the questions that follow. The first one is about the stacks of cash I make writing poetry. Well, I’ve been writing poetry under a pen name for fifteen years and have sold over 200 individual poems, but I never wrote a poem that paid a bill.

Questions about subject matter soon follow. The short answer is that I write speculative poetry. However, the short answer usually elicits strange looks and more questions. Questions requiring answers of increasing length and difficulty. And with these answers comes the fear that I will make a fool of myself trying to explain what I love. So, when it comes down to it, that’s the purpose of this blog.

So what is Speculative Poetry?

The short answer: Speculative poetry is poetry that incorporates science fiction, fantasy, and horror images and themes. Here is an example:

SPOILED CHILD
by Kurt MacPhearson

A nebulous toddler
woven over epochs
into blubbery orange and yellow swirls
with blazing green quasars for eyes
and a single curly tuft of blue
upon its bald, lopsided head
sits as a greedy Buddha
at the edge of spaceSTRLNJLGST2010
gobbling galaxies
like peanut clusters
and ignoring the dark matter
stuck between its two gaseous teeth
as it reaches for red giant crumbs
with tentacle fingers
squeezing avaricely
till knuckles form
all the while broadcasting
a collective mine-mine-mine!
in gamma ray belches
from deep within its black gullet
as a warning to the cosmos
should it learn to crawl

Originally appeared in Star*Line, 33.4

Long answers about speculative poetry are soon to follow, along with plenty of examples, thoughts, writing tips, and just about anything else relevant to promoting what I love. I hope you will join me and come to love speculative poetry as much as I do.