Tag Archives: summer 2009

Enid Dame’s Householdry

by Burt Kimmelman

The poetry of Enid Dame (1943-2003) is well known in certain circles of readers and writers; her work has been prized among feminists, and among people involved in Jewish cultural studies and Scriptural studies. For more than twenty years she co-published, along with her husband the poet Donald Lev, the literary tabloid Home Planet News, and she enjoyed an avid following among poets and writers who published there. She and Lev lived in New York City, where they organized countless readings, and near Woodstock in upstate New York, from where Home Planet News emanated. Late in her life, having lost their apartment in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, she and Lev moved to New Jersey, where she taught for many years at Rutgers University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Along with being a poet and publisher, Dame was a serious scholar of ancient Jewish texts. A great deal of her mature poetry delves into them and comes away from that delving with startling lyrics that both provide insight into Jewish roots and stake out a feminist position within the otherwise misogynistic ancient Jewish impulse. She developed a form of poetry that she called a modern-day midrash—themidrash being a comparative interpretation of Scripture. As Tsaurah Litzky has said, Dame “would often visit ancient biblical figures, and bring them breathing, vibrant, into modern life.” More than this, Dame “wrote about being a woman and being a Jew embracing a religion that does not celebrate woman as thinker.”

In this light consider what Dame does with the character of Lilith, who Jewish folklore holds to have been Adam’s first wife; Lilith refused to obey Adam and therefore was banished from the Garden of Eden. Dame fleshes her out, portraying her as a bold, idiosyncratic, and full-fledged woman with a resonant voice. One of Dame’s books, titled Lilith and Her Demons, begins with a poem in the voice of Lilith:

kicked myself out of paradise
left a hole in the morning
no note       no goodbye

In these and the lines that follow, Lilith is palpable and strongly self-determined, and possibly has little patience with the doctrinaire. And yet, as Madeline Tiger has commented, “Dame’s argument with God was the gentlest we ever knew.” Implied in this remark is the idea that Dame was interested in pointing out a fundamental problem in a culture that holds little value for women; yet Dame was a loving critic, albeit uncompromising. “Lilith” ends:

I work in New Jersey
take art lessons
live with a cabdriver

he says: baby
what I like about you
is your sense of humor

I cry in the bathroom
remembering Eden
and the man and the god
I couldn’t live with

Lilith in Dame’s hands is not a figure of diatribe; rather, she is a sensitive and strong woman who stands as a rebuke to a phallocentric culture and religion.

Dame’s poems concern themselves with great questions, questions that have occupied human thought for thousands of years, and have provided a basis for self-discovery. What is so remarkable about them, however, is that they are presented without any sort of pomp or pretense—even when, perhaps especially when, they address confounding Scriptural issues. There is an intimacy in Dame’s poems; they have the ring of natural speech, and they ground themselves in the objects and events of the everyday. Although her work is of great stature, it is marked by an easy eloquence. In keeping with her ability to create a language of breezy contemporaneity, Dame establishes in her poems a fundamental tension between the modern and quotidian, on the one hand, and the ancient and monumental, on the other; this tension can be the source of exquisite humor, and it is always striking, as well as shrewd and wise. What Dame’s work does that is most memorable, in any case—whether it is concerned with biblical questions or past events, or is simply focused on a present moment—is to situate and then dissect universally human concerns, concerns that are endearingly presented within a domestic context. I believe that Dame’s love of the domestic, and especially what I will call householdry, evident in “Lilith” and elsewhere, is the key to comprehending her entire poetic life and oeuvre.

Although Dame’s work exists on a human scale, it does not deny the grandeur of the divine. Her poems, therefore—comforting as they are in their air of the familiar—are disarming. Indeed, we are never quite prepared for the depth of a Dame insight, established as it is within the most natural or ordinary of circumstances. Consider, for example, “Untenanted,” a poem eulogizing Dame’s father, which takes advantage of a typical cityscape, begins in the past, and ends in a concrete, moving present. The poem opens with Dame’s persona recalling how she contemplated her father’s dead body soon after his passing, probably in a hospital:

Standing over
your uninhabited body,
I kept thinking,
“The building is still there.”

I could picture it: the five-floor Bronx walk-up
where memory started, for you.

The poem moves through time and details of her father’s childhood neighborhood, only to shift to a more recent past when the speaker is a grown woman; then Dame relies on an objective correlative—comparing the ocean and her father—to suggest how the speaker saw him when they were both adults:

One wet spring,
you came to see me.
I showed you the ocean at the end of my block.
We stood and watched it, a caged animal,
shrunken, grey, talking to itself.
A police car crawled down the boardwalk,
rain-battered, slow as an insect.
“The city is dying,” you said.

There is a lingering, unavoidable sadness here, as the daughter contemplates the father in his aging. And there is a succinct, gritty resolution of this sadness in the poem’s closing lines:

When you were dying, in another city, I was in the next room,
on the phone, arguing with a nurse.
She didn’t believe what was happening.

And when I touched you
you felt hard, untenanted,
yet warm,
a brick wall
still holding in the sun.
(from Anything You Don’t See)

If nothing else, Dame is utterly clear-eyed, but she is also compassionate. And her work never strains for an idea or feeling; rather, to read Dame is to be in a conversation with someone you know, in which the ease, the friendliness, with which the conversation is carried on, puts us off our guard. In the end we may find ourselves crying out for help, to be saved, in that we have been so drawn into the speaker’s (and our own) existential plight. Such is the nature of fate, a theme underlying virtually all of Dame’s work: that it transpires without our being able to prepare for it, to turn it if even obliquely from its direction, as time unfolds.

At the heart of Dame’s understanding of fate lies her vexed relationship with her mother, which manifests in the poems’ commentary on or depictions of her, and more subtly in Dame’s depicted relationship with Lev. Dame’s poems can be very funny—most obviously in her many midrashic pieces, in which epic Scriptural issues are taken up with the greatest casualness and in the diction of modernity—just as they can be suddenly devastating in recognizing the darkness in human nature, or at times the light therein; either way they are couched in the quotidian. This writerly strategy allows us to see that what can seem distant or cerebral, usually within the Jewish textual tradition, can become immediate and inescapable. Thus it is that Dame’s descriptions of males—mates or fathers—can be read as Lev stand-ins, and very often these men are presented in juxtaposition to some mother figure.

References to mothers and motherhood abound in Dame’s poems, often in recreated Scriptural settings whose biblical aura is unavoidable, for instance in dramatic monologues like the “Lilith” section of the poem “Looking for a Mother,” which begins

I never knew my mother.
We never spoke.
I knew my father’s name
but never hers.
The grasses whisper.
The owl moans faintly.
The owl is never silent:
it creaks and hums and scratches.
Is one of these her voice?
(from Stone Shekhina)

Likewise, here is “Day 20,” a section of “Excerpts from Naamah’s Journal”:

The rain beats on the wood
like my mother’s voice pounding pounding:
Bad girl bad girl bad girl
Look at this mess! Look at your life!
You live in a sty you’ll never get clean.
Dirty girl! Dirty! Dirty!

My mother treated her bread dough
like a recalcitrant prisoner
or child       something that had to be punished
her hard palm      pounding pounding it down
until it yielded sweetness.

My philosophy was different!
I tried to work with the dough
as if we were partners      colleagues
comrades in a pleasant enterprise.
Of course, we weren’t equals:
the bread, eventually, got eaten.
I told myself this was what it wanted.
(from Stone Shekhina)

And yet, when it comes time for Dame’s rendezvous and showdown with her actual mother, that crucial rapprochement occurs in Dame’s own, contemporaneous, unfussy kitchen. Dame confronts her mother there, and seems to forgive her for her unfair treatment, although she honors the differences between them. Dame’s speaker is smart enough to know not to deny her love for her mother in a powerful poem of tormented reconciliation called “Yahrzeit,” named after the memory candle lit on the anniversary of a family member’s death:

The yahrzeit flame
is beating its wings in a cup
on the edge of my kitchen sink.
Its stealthy gold shadow
breathing along the wall
suddenly terrifies me:
like finding a bird in my bedroom
still alive      pulsating      nervous,
changing the shape of the day.

No intruder is ever harmless.
And, Mother, I’ve got you cornered,
fierce memory pacing your glass cage,
houseguest with nowhere to go.
I’ll lock myself in alongside you.
Today, we’ll remind each other
of old connections, old journeys,
from muddy, sincere Indiana
to ragged-edged Brooklyn
with all its stray cats, its ecstatic
vegetable stands.
(from Anything You Don’t See)

In Lev’s volume Grief, made up of poems about Dame’s dying of cancer and aftermath, we find this uncomplicated, touching remembrance, in the title poem: “I helped you bathe, / grateful for the intimacy, / then we held hands, / we even joked . . .” (from Grief). This poem—this whole collection—is the appropriate counterpart to the letters to Lev and the poems of this period Dame wrote not long before her demise, when she had traveled to California for hyperthermia treatments in a last-ditch effort to be cured, writings Lev collected in the volume he titled Where Is the Woman. These inscriptions, these attestations, document Dame’s arrival at a stage of serenity in her relationship with her mother, if not also in her struggle with her fatal disease. Time and again, she paints a picture of domestic order, and this picture is consoling, but in these very late writings it seems Dame has achieved the ideal human connection with her husband, and thereby, through their relationship, some peace. Her poem “Missing” concludes:

This is a missing-Don letter. Here,
I count the pills myself
imagining you sitting across from me:
your voice       your face       your hands
opening a bottle,
breaking the stillness of the morning.
We talk of poetry or friends or shopping
over bread       cheese      almond butter
fresh blueberries in season.

Because food is a benediction
because sharing food is a sacrament
because shared language is a morning prayer
because I miss the tabernacle
in which our love increases,

it is difficult to eat alone
in this place of healing.
(from Where Is the Woman)

Now, compare this passage with Lev’s poem “Scene from a Marriage”:

So precarious!
Two tipsy piles of books
At the edge of the dresser,
Her reading glasses tucked
In between them.

On my side,
An even tipsier pile
Threatens from the night table.
(from Yesterday’s News)

A similar take on householdry can be seen in this stanza from “The Idea of a House” (another of Dame’s California poems):

The idea of a bedroom
under a slanting roof
pillows piled high      bright-squared afghan
tower of books on the floor,
long nights read into mornings
waiting for a familiar tread on the stairs;
waiting to be joined.

In this poem, Dame expands Lev’s conceit, memorializing the domestic routine she shares with her husband:

The idea of two people
working in separate rooms;
one is fastening down words in wax,
one is cuttling garlic
tomatoes       basil      sorrel if it’s spring,
spinach if it’s winter,
building the soup
they will eat together, later
meeting at the table.

The poem concludes with the sense of her unvarnished hope:

The idea of a house
will persist
even when the house is sold
even when the lives lived there,
live elsewhere
and newcomers move in.
They will unpack new words vegetables
cooking pots.
They will remodel the kitchen.
They will add another chapter
to the house’s biography.

They will set up new routines
to sustain them in the shadows
we leave behind.
(from Where Is the Woman)

Overall, Dame turns to the scene of domesticity most regularly because this is what she came to prize most in her life. And in her last poems and letters, as well as in some of Lev’s poems of that period and shortly thereafter, we find the domestic—householdry—memorialized. It is within this householdry, furthermore, that Dame establishes with her mate what we can imagine to be her solving of the pain of her relationship with her mother, and we see her triumph in her relationship to Lev.

As I have suggested, Dame is known widely for the remarkable, insightful humor that holds many of her poems together. Tiger has commented that Dame “expanded the ‘story’ of our lives by moving us into history, and by bringing history forward—hilariously—into the present.” Tiger goes on to point out that “there is an ironic vein in Dame’s work—embedded in historic paradox. Laughter connects grief and survival.” All the same, what I find most important in Dame’s work is her ultimate reconciliation of a kind of argument with the world, which can take the form of a coming to terms with her mother; this repeated scenario is drawn in the sharpest of perspectives. Here, for example, is “Fruit Cellar”:

Bury your memories
like jars in a fruit cellar.
Let them mount high on the shelves.
Let them wait.
Dark jewels      in their cold nests
they will keep.

Unbottle them later,
if you can find that town,
if you can find that house.
If anything is left from that time,
break in. Smash windows,
lower yourself to the bottom.
Reach for a memory. Crack one.
Take what you need.

Now hold your mother
lingeringly on your tongue.
Her fruit is still alive.
It tastes as it always did:
Heavy      resonant      edgy.
It makes you think of old coats
fur-collared camphor-scented
worn in another country.

Think of your mother preserving.
Think of your mother destroying.
Her stove: old companion,
turned against herself,
turned into an enemy,
that time she turned on the gas.
Good citizen,
the oven refused to cooperate.
Thirty years later,
she didn’t need help to die.

Swallow this memory quickly.
The fruit cellar’s silence
isn’t empty.
It’s a presence,
like a woman’s disappointment
stored too long.

It can turn fruit sour,
fracture glass.
(from Anything You Don’t See)

Still, more subtly, it is Dame’s love of the daily living in a household that tells us of this reconciling, which especially manifests in the caring descriptions of the husband in a number of poems, such as in the dramatic monologue “Eve.” Here, the speaker’s mate’s “snores are comforting / as radiator steam. / My body is / the only home / he hasn’t had to leave.”(from Stone Shekhina)

Dame’s last poems complete this picture. In the first portion of her very late poem “Returned” (presumably “returned” from California and her concluding attempt to be rid of her disease), she writes:

This is my kitchen. I am safe here.
The utensils fit themselves to my hand.
This blue-speckled pot is an old friend.
It awaits my pleasures.
The flame-red casserole with its cracked side,
its burned-black bottom;
the quirky veteran propane stove
are ready for new ventures.

Here I can drink green jasmine tea
at five AM and feel night drowse itself to daylight,
the leaves outside are rusty at their edges,
a sign of coming fall.
The radio moves from BBC to Mozart.
My mug is brightly colored:
a yellow large-eyed cat
contemplates orange fish,
while my real cat, fast and black, leaps on the table,
scraps of cobwebs in his whiskers.
No one can say he’s in the wrong place.
Everything is right here:

the garlic with its buds snuggled like buttocks,
the ripening avocado,
the battered yard-sale colander,
the square tiles left by a former owner—
I kept them as they seemed so useful,
though I seldom use them.
(from Home Planet News)

Many a person has come to realize the comforts a house, a home, and the daily routines of domesticity afford. Very few, on the other hand, have ever been able to speak eloquently in celebration of this domesticity without glorifying it through soaring rhetoric—and thereby falling short of the goal, insofar as householdry can only really be captured, arguably, in language that does not grandly proclaim its occasion. Dame’s language works magnificently but without recourse to the magnificent, even when she is involving herself in Scripture. And Dame’s poems are a graceful, gentle, and insightful critique of a culture in which daughters struggle to separate from their mothers and live with and around their husbands, finding a way to make a world of their own. The arena of their struggle is often the kitchen or the bedroom. But Dame is wise enough not to allow for disagreement to end in bitterness. Her work is supremely intelligent and lyrical, yet it is so easygoing and wryly comical that a reader might miss the depths of knowing contained in it. The title of one of her books, Anything You Don’t See, is an alert to the reader: If you do not see it in her poems then look again—it is all there, unassuming and waiting to be found. As she warns us in a poem from this collection, which describes a ride through Brooklyn in an elevated subway car, “Anything you don’t see / will come back to haunt you.”

Works Cited

Dame, Enid. Anything You Don’t See. Albuquerque, NM: West End Press, 1992.

_____. “Dream at the Start of a Bad Year.” Home Planet News 50 [Vol. 12, No. 4] (Spring 2004): 14.

_____. Lilith and Her Demons. Merrick, NY: Cross-Cultural Communications, 1986.

_____. “Returned.” Home Planet News 50 [Vol. 12, No. 4] (Spring 2004): 13.

_____. Stone Shekhina. East Hampton, NY: Three Mile Harbor, 2002.

_____. Where is the Woman?: Letters and Poems from California, July & August 2003. New York: Shivastan Publishing,

Lev, Donald. Grief: Poems by Donald Lev. Staten Island, NY: Bardpress / Ten Penny Players, 2006.

_____. Yesterday’s News: Poems 1998-2001. Claryville, NY: Red Hill OUTLOUDBOOKS, 2002.

Litzky, Tsaurah. “Enid Dame 1943-2003.” The Newark Review (March 2009).

Tiger, Madeline. “Bless This Garden: A Review of Stone Shekhina, Poems by Enid Dame.” The Newark Review (March 2004),           http://web.njit.edu/~newrev/enid/reviews/garden.html.


Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

Turning on Shakespeare: an interview with John Reed

by Finn Harvor

Born in 1969 in New York City, John Reed is a novelist whose work moves across genres and achieves artistic seriousness and play at the same time. A graduate of Columbia University's MFA Program in Creative Writing, Reed is the author of three previous works: A Still Small Voice (Delacorte, 2001) Snowball's Chance (Roof Books, 2001), and The Whole (MTV Books, 2005). Snowball's Chance, a parody of George Orwell's Animal Farm, brought a great deal of controversy to the author's doorstep, positing a neo-liberalized farm in which market economics replace the allegedly communal economy of the original, and temporarily allow the animals to prosper as they never have before ... until the inevitable crash. Reed has also worked in the entertainment industry, writing for television (MTV, Nickelodeon, etc.), film, and multimedia.

Reed’s most recent book is All the World's a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare (Plume Books, 2008). This send-up of the bard is both new yet familiar; by using a literary form of montage, Reed plays with our understanding of some of the best known characters from Shakespeare's oeuvre and creates a work that is eerie in its timeliness. His next book, a compendium of chronically true stories of abject misery titled Tales of Woe, will be released by MTV Press in Spring 2010.

Finn Harvor: All the World’s a Grave is dubbed a "new" play by William Shakespeare, but it's really an innovative pastiche of the extant Shakespeare plays—King LearMacbethRomeo and JulietOthello, etc. Tell us a little about what prompted you to produce this work.

John Reed: When people ask me why I did this, I feel like saying, "because it was there." It didn't hurt that my editor liked the idea, of course, but I'd had the notion for a long time. Four catalysts, I think, got me going: I had kids, so could contend with Lady Macbeth, Gertrude, Lear, and other Shakespeare characters who were parents; my editorial skills, as the result of editorial work and teaching, were up to snuff; my understanding of narrative structure had been enhanced by the work I’d done in entertainment; last, and most spurring—I saw a terrible, terrible production of a play widely considered Shakespeare’s worst. Sitting in the balcony, moaning in agony, I semi-consciously decided that I could do better.

As for the content side: war, parody, the question of authorship, sex and exploitation, the current Shakespeare fracas, the long history of Shakespeare adaptations, Shakespeare and Hollywood, the Public Domain, the literary canon, the state of contemporary letters in relation to “great” works, the creative future we bequeath our children … all of these were things were prompts.

FH: One of the most tragic scenes in the work is the murder of a lover. The scene shocks partly because it unmasks that point at which knowledge of the canon meets expectations of basic human decency. It also shocks because of its contemporary feel—the murder occurs as easily as someone getting offed on CSI. Is this in part a play about post-modern lack of feeling?

JR: Wow, maybe. I have no idea. Juliet always annoyed me, as did Hamlet. I wanted to give Juliet a little more depth—make her something of a masochist. Hamlet, in All The World's A Grave, is equated with Henry V. His indecision is the guilt of warmongering, and produces/evidences the cruelty that we now see all over the world. Is that just our time? I've always resented Henry as well—that's he's marched out at wartime to fill the hall with new recruits. I think of the Henry and Katharine scene—the "seduction scene"—in Henry V. It's a weak seduction scene, better played as a rape. That was the play, the Shakespeare, I was drawing out.

And yes, there is a certain violence enacted on the canon. I remember sitting in a Times Square theater, years ago, watching the Will Smith alien invasion epic Independence Day, and when the White House got bombed, the crowd burst out in cheers. I’m not sure, post-9/11, that would still happen, or that the scene is even still in there—but that sentiment towards the literary canon … well, I still have it.

FH: In the preface of the book, you remark that we may be living in the end of days. Are pastiche and montage especially timely creative strategies in an historical epoch so laden with world-destroying danger that the typical artist's faith in the "immortality" of the canon might be futile?

JR: Whether or not it was ever true, one gets an impression of literature as a series of cause and effect relationships that began, continued, and finally reached the present moment. First off, that’s not the way it happened. We like to think that the good work comes to the fore, and that we find it and remember it, but that’s an optimistic assessment. Contemporary literature has become so broad and fragmented that no one person can be fully up to date on it. In the good old days, there was a finite number of literary publications from a finite number of publishing houses—midlist and genre titles could be ignored, and there was no confusion as to what was what. Now, midlist and genre titles are often considered literature, and vice versa—and the number of small, literary houses is beyond counting. Maybe an editor at a major book review might have a fairly comprehensive perspective; they’d know many of the houses, even many of the titles. But they couldn’t read all the books. Certainly, there’s no way an author could keep track of it all; “literature” is beyond the scope of what an individual can handle. Anyone telling you they can keep track of it has got their head up their elephant. And any author concerned with “inheriting the mantle” or writing “great literature” is disengaged from today—and, what’s worse, from tomorrow.

FH: All the World’s a Grave requires a certain flexibility on the part of the reader, as well as enough knowledge of Shakespeare's work so that the references make sense. What kinds of reactions have you received so far? Do academics and professional lovers of Shakespeare (i.e., those in theater) react differently than "common" readers do?

JR: I hope it doesn't require too much Shakespeare. People who know Shakespeare may get a little bit more out of it, but they're also more likely to stutter—to trip on where this bit and that bit came from. Most of what I refer to is so common to popular culture that I bet the majority of people will catch everything.

I was hoping that the Shakespeare people would be mad at me—as the Orwell people had been withSnowball's Chance. But so far, they haven't minded me at all. They're even—and I am both grateful and somewhat embarrassed to say this—enthusiastic. It's been a long time for them without a new play!

FH: Turning to the publishing scene generally: the current recession is certain to have a damaging effect on publishing, including the reviewing side of the industry. Fewer books will be bought and published, and probably fewer will be reviewed. Any thoughts on how lesser known writers can survive in an environment such as this?

JR: I don't think fewer books will be published—a few imprints at the large houses might go, but the name recognition of the old-world publishers is too valuable to lose. You'll see a little more hesitation on the part of publishers to get involved in really expensive projects, and we may see the larger houses peddling new translations and editions of public domain works—Dostoyevsky, Twain, etc.—which is a terrible mistake for them. The small presses will always be able to produce better objects at a better price, and they have equal access to the content. We're also likely to see all publishers looking at their backlist—more recent stuff that they still have the rights to—to try to resurrect some things. Hopefully we’ll just see more awareness on the part of publishers. Media and distribution are still huge obstacles for the small presses, though. In self-publishing, these obstacles are almost insurmountable.

As for the survival of writers, I don't know; my feeling is that you have to find your own path, which is largely determined by your work. Be flexible, don't be close-minded, don't be atavistic. On the other hand, if you get the right atavistic editor, and you're atavistic, and you guys are in the secret atavist fraternity—which is a powerful lobby, I know—it could all work out great.

FH: It's common these days to market books aggressively once they have won a prize, and good reviews seem to count for less than in decades past. Are the prizes too powerful? Are they warping the natural critical process by which a contemporary canon should be formed?

JR: You think it's become more of a problem? Maybe, maybe. I think it might be healthy that the judgment of reviewers matters less, but the really important (and scary) question remains the same—what gets reviewed?

As for awards, I'm afraid I just don't know. I tried to think of places to get Grave submitted for awards, but I can't even figure out what it is. I can't submit it as a play without the production; it's not a novel, it's written as a play. If anyone out there knows about an award for a literary stunt, please email me.

FH: Will recessionary pressures move literary publishing more in the direction of e-publishing? If so, how do you think reviewers will adapt to changing notions of what constitutes publication?

JR: E-publishing? Yeah, I guess. But the big publishers don't have an advantage there, and Amazon has screwed up the distribution. It’s a pretty messed-up model right now. As it stands, self-publishing an e-book is an almost sure-fire way to kill your book—it has to be a really specific, accessible market. People point to the one-in-a million exceptions, but you might just as well point to those exceptions in mainstream publishing.

As for the changing notions of being published—well, that's the big question. The early days of the printing press saw a similar problem: suddenly, there were all these "publications" that looked fairly official, and people desired them. But a lot of it was flotsam, and pretty soon, people wanted sources they could trust. Already, the Internet is moving back to "filters" and the "expert." That's not what web people want to hear, but I'm afraid that what we're looking at is the formation of a new hierarchy, one that will retain much of the old hierarchy. It may not be Utopia, but at least it's not the status quo.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

Skin and Ink: an interview with Catherynne M. Valente

by William Alexander

Catherynne M. Valente was born in Seattle, studied Greek in California and Edinburgh, lived in Japan, and currently resides on an island off the coast of Maine. Her poetry has been nominated nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Her duology of novels The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice, a nested collection of original and overlapping fairy tales, won the Mythopoeic Award and the James Tiptree Jr. Award for the exploration and expansion of gender and sexuality in speculative fiction, and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award.

The eponymous setting of Valente’s most recent novel, Palimpsest (Bantam Spectra, $14), is a fantastical city that is also a sexually transmitted disease. Sex is the only way to get there, and those infected are marked with a portion of the city mapped onto their skin.

William Alexander: I’m curious about the ways your poetry and prose overlap and talk to each other; your prose exhibits a patterned intensity of language. What are the differences in head-space and work habits between being a fiction writer and a poet?

Catherynne M. Valente: Well, I started out as a poet with no interest in writing fiction at all. Everything I ever learned about writing until after my first novel was published was all in the realm of poetry. So they’re very mixed up for me, and I’ve been accused of passing off poetry as fiction for awhile now. The difference, as I think of it these days, is one of scope. A poem is about a moment, even if it’s a narrative poem, it circles around a central emotional image. Whereas fiction has more breadth, and a little less depth—plots and subplots and minor characters and twists and turns. A story is a cup of really good coffee. A poem is a shot of espresso.

As far as work habits they’re nearly identical, except that I can write a poem in a few hours and be done and have the satisfaction of a finished work, whereas a novel takes a little longer.

WA: Did you know at the time that the short story “Palimpsest” would grow up to be a novel?

CMV: I wrote two lines and said: “Oh, shit. This is a novel!”

WA: You often treat locations as characters (and your places may literally become characters). Does setting usually surface first when you start up a new project?

CMV: It depends a lot on the project. Most novels, for me, start with a flicker of images, almost like a movie: a girl shivering in a garden, a map on a woman’s skin, a long black car with chicken legs. Sometimes place is deathly important—Palimpsest is obviously one of those, but it started not with the idea of the city but the image of maps and diseases and clockwork insects. Place is important to me, I think, because I travel so much, and part of the process of moving to a new place, getting to know it, is writing about it. So wherever I live at the moment gets into my work in wormy, windy ways. Post-industrial Cleveland affects Palimpsest and infects it; rural and urban Japan is all through The Orphan’s Tales. Maybe it goes back to poetry—I’m always writing about my actual life, confessing it, even when I’m writing about manticores and faceless children.

WA: Would you be able to write such confessions, or want to, without the distance provided by manticores and faceless children?

CMV: Is that a way of asking if I’m going to write realist books? She says wryly. For me, manticores don’t provide distance. They provide intensity. I have no interest in writing a book about my abusive childhood or my awful marriage, stripped of the folklore and myth through which I saw those things even while they were happening. For me, those images are part of what happened, and part of what makes personal experience into stories that can touch others. It’s more interesting to walk between the real world and the constructed world—and more, I don’t really think there’s much of a difference. Fiction is always fiction. It might as well have manticores in it as divorces.

WA: Literary explorations of secondary-world fantasy tend to lead readers there and back again, more or less safely. Palimpsest, by contrast, is not safe. Was that structural change from the norm a deliberate goal from the beginning?

CMV: Very deliberate. It’s always infuriated me that in portal fantasy the characters’ main priority is to get home immediately, and whine about it all the way there. Well, Kansas isn’t so great, really, and if I am honest with myself, I wouldn’t care at all for getting home in such a situation. I think this all has to do, in strange and underground ways, with the realist/genre conflict, and the privileging of the “real,” of copies of the real, ever-increasing in accuracy, over the invented, which has been going on since Plato. I privilege the invented, the bizarre, the foreign. The Other, if you like. And time and again I write books about embracing it and becoming it, because that rings true to me, where hollering to be taken home this instant rings as boring and irritating and false.

WA: “Palimpsest” is both a place and a sexually transmitted disease, which adds adult entendres to the word “fantasy” (and the phrase “portal fantasy”). How did the sexual subject matter shape the novel’s prose and structure?

CMV: Well, from the beginning, there had to be a sex scene for every scene in Palimpsest, so the alternating structure was sort of automatic: real world—sex—Palimpsest. The language just got a bit more graphic. I don’t like gratuitous, un-subtle sex, so I tried to have each scene reveal something about the characters having sex, not just describe the mechanics.

WA: Can you describe the various art projects and multi-authored, participatory fictions in orbit around the novel?

CMV: Oh boy. First, there was the SJ Tucker album, Quartered. This grew up into a nationwide tour that included a train trip to New Orleans, masked balls, rope suspension performances, burlesque and belly dancers, and an art show full of jewelry, textiles, and collage art based on the book. But before all that was the alternate reality game, which brought together a couple of dozen artists and writers to create an interactive story leading up to the publication of the novel, complete with false Amazon pages, blogs [here and here], video and audio content, and quartered.org, a live forum where authors created characters who had visited the city and wrote strong, chatroom-shaped pieces of Palimpsest fiction. The game blurs the line between the world of the novel and our own world.

WA: Tolkien hoped that his world-building would inspire others to create art and music from that same world (though he probably didn’t foresee metal bands screaming in the tongues of Mordor). What are some of the aesthetic and practical reasons and rewards for creating/commissioning/ encouraging all of this paratextual stuff?

CMV: Well, first of all, it’s damn neat to see your book inspiring so many people. But the main thing is that in this way the book becomes partly real. It enters the real world, in bits and pieces, artifacts, becomes part of people’s lives and psyches in these incredibly visceral ways. Folk art, from folk tales. I think it’s an extraordinary thing.

WA: Can you share a moment when Palimpsest-inspired work surprised and delighted you?

CMV: The first time I heard SJ’s song “Casimira,” my jaw was literally on the floor. It totally blew me away. And at several shows, starting in Cleveland with a group of four lovers painted with henna, people started coming to the shows with maps on their skin. I tell you, watching people dance to SJ’s songs and seeing their hair or clothes move aside to reveal maps is heartstopping. It’s like a tribal marker.

WA: And the web facilitates contact between so many tribal members who might not otherwise come into contact with each other.

CMV: Exactly. I mean, in some sense, Palimpsest is a book about the web—that ephemeral space where those of us who do not live in the same cities can meet.

WA: Did you play any alternate reality games before commissioning your own?

CMV: I did! I played the Lost game and the Cloverfield game. I’m secretly a closet gamer. Don’t tell anyone!

WA: Too late! I think you just did... So how does game-logic relate to story-logic?

CMV: Well, game-pieces of fiction always have to lead to exciting cookies and end on a rising note to lead to the next installment. Stories have more leisure. And less multimedia. The biggest challenge was finding ways to hide the audio and video without making it impossible. Most ARG [alternate reality game] players are novice gamers.

WA: Really? I sort of imagined roving bands of skilled, hardened players, sharp of wit and difficult to impress.

CMV: There are a few of those, but the majority are not.

WA: Do you have a Palimpsest tattoo of your own?

CMV: I do. It takes up half my back. 😉

WA: Describe! What can you tell us about the places depicted?

CMV: It is the entire city, taken from a medieval woodcut of Edinburgh, winged by a horned woman with a lantern and a human woman holding a compass. I’m the master copy, see, so I get the whole lot.

WA: Are there extant photos posted somewhere?

CMV: No, actually, I’ll have to take some.

WA: Last question: what is the very first bedtime story you can remember listening to?

CMV: I don’t know which came first, the Ramayana or Prince Caspian, but they seem roughly equivalent in memory, as though I heard them at the same time, from my grandmother and my stepmother.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

Poet and Polemicist: an interview with Jerome Rothenberg

by Sarah Suzor

Poet, translator, and polemicist Jerome Rothenberg is the author of more than 80 books of poetry, and has edited or co-edited ten major anthologies/assemblages, including Shaking the Pumpkin, Technicians of the Sacred, and three volumes of Poems for the Millennium. In his lifetime, Rothenberg has lived with the Seneca Indians, and was the first to bring major works such as Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue” into English. His own poetry has been translated into more than a dozen languages, ranging from French to Lithuanian. “I celebrate / reversals,” Rothenberg writes. While he has remained adamant about investigating a counter-poetics—a “re-visioning” of works by some of the most recognized poets in history—he also established and nurtured the study of ethnopoetics, which has created a forum for tribal poetry, song, and artistry, some of which may have never otherwise existed in print.

Rothenberg’s career as an editor began around 1960 when he founded Hawk’s Well Press, which produced a 3x4 inch, 16-page magazine called Poems From the Floating World. Nearly fifty years later, Rothenberg and I sat down during Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program to discuss his journey from mimeograph to Internet, from 16 pages to 1600.

Click here for reviews of Poetics and Polemics and Poems for the Millennium, Vol. 3.

Sarah Suzor: Having come to an established point in your career, has your motivation for writing poetry changed? Do you still approach writing poetry with the same intention?

Jerome Rothenberg: I think, I think, that my underlying motivation is the same or similar, although I write differently than I did. One of the things I am presently engaged in is a collection of uncollected poems, which is similar in its scope to doing a full volume of collected poems. So I am in the process of going back into the late 1950s and arranging my poems from then and now in a roughly chronological order, and in doing that I can see the way the work has changed.

From very early on some of the other activities, like the anthologies and the work on ethnopoetics, have taken up a lot of my time, energy and interest. Until the mid to late 1960s anthologies had not entered the picture as what they would come to be: a place of composition. I came very quickly, once I got started with them, to think of the anthologies, beginning with Technicians of the Sacred, as large, epical constructions or compositions. So, for me, Technicians of the Sacred wasn’t an “anthology” in the old sense because, like many other poets, I didn’t have much use for anthologies. Then suddenly I was commissioned to do an anthology and it opened up to me as a new form, a chance to do something not unlike what I and the others were doing with our magazines, but also sometimes in our poems. There were opportunities in the 1960s for poets or groups of poets to make their own magazines; it was in the air. A lot of self-publication was going on at that time, and I was part of it.

The ethnopoetics represents something that was an interest for me from the first time I got a look at transcriptions and translations of American Indian poetry in certain WWII and postwar anthologies of the 1940s and 1950s. By the end of the 1960s ethnopoetics was the name I gave to it, and having named it, it was something for which I carried some responsibility. That has continued to be an interest. Things that have been important to me earlier along I tend to carry with me into later work, though they may be playing less and less of a role in what I’m doing. Even up to the latest anthology, Poems for the Millennium Volume Three, there’s a whole area of ethnopoetics that comes into the book. Other things that were concentrations of mine early along continue to show up in the poetry, but they are transformed or concealed because I am writing poetry in a different way. There was a time when all of us knew very little about chance operations except perhaps those games played by Surrealists and Dadaists. Knowledge of that came to me in an ongoing discourse with Jackson Mac Low, who, with John Cage, was bringing that to our attention. I never wrote chance or aleatory poetry in the way that Jackson did, but I found it useful to compose poems with devices that drew a vocabulary and structures from previous poetry or from sources outside of poetry. That ties in also with my interest, going back a long time, in translation as a form of composition.

SS: Lewis MacAdams once said, “One does not make a living out of poetry, one makes a life.” He was speaking about finances, of course. Do you think you are somewhat of an exception to that rule?

JR: You mean making a living out of poetry? (Laughs) In poetry itself there’s not a living to make. There are obviously offshoots of poetry, not only for me but also for many of us, which can provide a livelihood. There are grants, or very commonly teaching, in which the validation comes from the work as a poet. I had a tangential relationship to teaching; in the beginning it did not make for much of a living. Back in New York in the 1960s I was a one-man English department for the Mannes College of Music, where I was also able to provide adjunct work for David Antin, Diane Wakoski, Jackson Mac Low, and maybe a couple of other people. It paid very little, while at the same time I was watching friends of mine going into the actual universities and making what seemed like lots of money. But there was also a demand on their time, whereas with this lesser teaching there was less demand on mine. Also, my wife and I were part of part of a generation that was learning to live minimally (or so we thought). The idea was always that one was committed first and foremost to poetry, which is not only the making of my own poems, but some notion that there was a responsibility to the life of poetry beyond that. I hope that's what the anthologies and the efforts I’ve made to expand the field of poetry are about.

SS: In a previous interview you use the term “culture brokers” and you go on to say that you and your cohorts combated this “culture broking” mentality by “taking charge of your own publishing and, as far as possible, utilizing whatever means of production were then available.” Now, with the Internet as the clear advantageous means of production, has your opinion of “culture broking” changed? In other words, do you feel contemporary poetry needs some sort of “credibility filter?”

JR: The Internet is overall advantageous. To me, Internet publication—blogs, websites and so forth—is the equivalent to what in the 1960s we called the mimeograph revolution. And the Internet is available technology, although, I should point out, not available to everyone, but it's very widespread at this point and it allows poets with a niche-audience to publish or disseminate their work and the work of others outside of a commercial nexus. So in terms of the question “do you earn a living through poetry?” the answer is still no, but through the Internet there is the possibility of publication with a minimal financial investment. The expenses of printing a book, and all the marketing and distribution questions are taken out of the equation. Before the Internet one would have to contemplate, “Where are the bookstores that will take these books?” That was part of the adventure of small press publishing and part of the frustration.

SS: The Internet’s instant accessibility takes away the tangibility of publishing, and therefore eliminates the effort that is put into producing that tangibility. Basically, there are no restrictions in publication these days. Do you feel this has made publishing too easy?

JR: In a way it has. Obviously the Internet gets flooded with self-published poetry. Although, that must have been the case during the mimeograph period also: there was a lot of, if you look at it in those terms, second-rate poetry that was being produced and distributed. I think that no harm came out of that. A lot of very wonderful things happened during that time because the poets who were doing interesting work would have been cut off from publication if they were going to depend entirely on those who I guess I was calling the culture brokers—the commercial publishers, trade publishers, university publishers, and so on. For a while in the 1960s the trade publishers began to take an interest in the so-called alternative, experimental or avant-garde forms of poetry because they thought there was something in it for them. It didn’t last for long, however.

SS: In the introduction to Poems for the Millennium Volume Three you say that you and Jeffrey Robinson feel “freed here and elsewhere from the need to conform to canonical restrictions.” Could you explain how you see those restrictions—the guidelines that you were able to avoid?

JR: If we just think in terms of anthologies, there is a tendency for anthologies to build on anthologies; that's part of the process of canonization. Not only are certain poets identified as canonical figures, but there are also anthology-type poems. More and more, what might be the massive work of poets like Shelley, Wordsworth, or anybody else for that matter, gets reduced to the canonical favorites: the certified poems of the certified poets.

In our case, as a result of how I learned to operate with a press like the University of California Press, and because the first two volumes of Poems for the Millennium were successful for them, we had an absolutely free hand in what we were doing. With Volume Three we were going into much more academic territory, much more the territory of the canonical than what Pierre Joris and I had encountered with the first two volumes. But for Jeffrey Robinson and me there was none of that canonical rigidity, and we found ourselves free to include any poets and any poems by those poets we wanted. We were really looking for new configurations.

In Volume Three there are not as many surprising poets in the three sections of the book that are chronologically ordered, so the familiar figures are there, but, in some cases—most cases—with an unfamiliar presentation. Then there are some others that are uncommon figures, who are, to our thinking, doing something extraordinary for their time; and there are some other special sections that are full of surprises. But all in all there was no one looking over our shoulders and saying this or that cannot be done, so it was a very happy circumstance. I don’t think either Jeffrey or I felt any inhibition; in fact, if anything we were eager to break down certain barriers.

SS: What about the process of anthologizing is different when you set out to create an anthology of contemporary work?

JR: If you’re speaking for a group, say one of the language poetry anthologies, you know who the participants are and you can do a pretty good selection from the work of each of them. You might however forget or disregard the work of one or two and there could be unhappy or bruised feelings coming out of that. That much is fairly obvious. If you set out to do an anthology as I guess we were doing with Poems for the Millennium Volume Two, where we were not working with a particular group, there is the pain of selection, especially because a volume like Millennium was as wide-reaching as it was: a global anthology that included poetry from not only the United States, which is tough enough, but also all of Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, the Caribbean. All of that had to come into the picture, but very schematically. We made what choices we could and certainly made some choices that we would handle differently if we were doing it again. One thing for sure is that we couldn’t overdo the American part of it. It couldn’t be 80 percent United States poets and 20 percent the rest of the world—not as a matter of diversity but as an acknowledgement of where the experimental action really was. Some people may still feel that everything of real importance was happening in America, but we just didn’t feel that way.

With that in mind, for example, when it came to dealing with the San Francisco/Berkeley Renaissance, there were three who comprised it in the narrow sense: Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, and Jack Spicer. We figured that we couldn’t or shouldn’t include all three of them, so we decided to go with Duncan, who was absolutely crucial for both Pierre (Joris) and me, and either Blaser or Spicer. So we finally went with Blaser and left Spicer out. But, oh lord! (Laughs) Some people were simply unforgiving about that, but what can you say? Things like that come up, and they're going to come up again and again, when you're dealing with contemporary poetry. With the nineteenth century it’s different, it’s a different kind of territory, but when you're into the contemporary you get that, and my response has been: well, you know, everybody should do their own anthology; this is simply the one we did. David Antin's definition of the artist is “a person that does the best he or she can,” so that’s it: you do the best you can with what you have. It has recently occurred to me in fact that with the Internet everybody can do their own anthologies. An anthology is literally a collection of flowers, so let a thousand flowers blossom, like the man said; flood the Internet with anthologies.

SS: In the past, generally one of the problems with anthologizing/canonization has been the under-representation of both gender and cultural diversity. Your work with ethnopoetics is clearly one way of combating this problem; however, just to look at this dilemma through a different lens, I want to read you a passage from Joan Retallack’s The Poethical Wager:

One would think [Harold] Bloom’s romantic image of the male writer in an age of belatedness might be exotic or irrelevant for those of us to whom language appears devoid of precedents created in the image of a woman, low on materpieces. Instead many of us have found it enviable—a condition to emulate. Hence, the effort to establish a rival, mirror-image woman’s canon.

I am curious how you approach giving a voice to these underrepresented groups without, as Retallack says, “establishing a rival, mirror-image canon,” and without perpetuating an “old” archetype.

JR: If I were doing a contemporary anthology, at this point, it would probably be top-heavy with women. My sense is that, at present, you can think of women as being in the forefront of avant-garde, experimental poetry in the United States. I can't speak about outside the United States, but here, where we are, a lot of major texts—books, poems, mixed and intermedia—are being created by women. If you go back into the nineteenth century, as we did with Poems for the Millennium Volume Three, certainly there were many women writing and publishing poetry then, and there's certainly been an attempt to re-surface a lot of that: anthologies in many languages of women poets of the nineteenth century. ForVolume Three, which is an anthology of inventive, groundbreaking nineteenth century poets, if we focused (as we had to) on the experimental or groundbreaking aspects, we were not left with that many women. Could we break our exploration of avant-gardism to bring more women into the picture? By thinking in those terms, which was truly what the series was about, we may have deluded ourselves, but I don’t think so.

SS: I guess my question is more centered on your work with Technicians of the Sacred or Shaking the Pumpkin, where you exhibit work from an underrepresented population of writers. In these books you are able to maintain the integrity and the importance of the work by avoiding this notion of creating a rival canon. I’m interesting in your techniques when you approach this territory.

JR: I don't like the notion of establishing yet another canon. I know what Joan is saying in relation to the writing of women, and it would be interesting. What would one do then? A canon limited to women? It seems as arbitrary as a canon limited to men.

SS: I think that's exactly what she's saying.

JR: Some of that kind of poetry from Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin—American Indian, Asian—comes into Volume Three of Poems for the Millennium. We arbitrarily have a section called “Some Asian Poets” and another, largely ethnopoetic section called “A Book of Origins.” It took a little thinking on our part: should we do that or shouldn't we? The Origins section was filled with ethnographic and archaeological material that had come in along with Romanticism (or maybe because of it), but with the section of Asian Poets we intended to have it act as a corrective, to show parallel areas in the nineteenth century (Chinese and Japanese and Indian and Persian) outside the reach of Romanticism as such. But also one of the two terminal poets—at the end of the nineteenth century—was Yosano Akiko of Japan, who was already aware of symbolism, say, as a form of post-Romanticism. And because of the way we named our sections, she appears in the subtitle of our final chronological section: “From Hopkins & Nietzsche to Yosano & Apollinaire.” So it's an Asian and woman poet at the end of the book.

SS: Say you’re living in 2109 and compiling material for Volume Four of Poems for the Millennium—what would you say is the most prevalent element in contemporary poetry that is being trivialized or overlooked?

JR: I think we still have to come to terms with technology and poetry. We also have to come to terms with any kind of sorting out of the impact of the Internet and the forms that come from it, for example, audio or visual components that serve as alternative ways of presenting or perhaps making poetry.

Prior to the Internet we could talk about poetry and performance by describing the performances; we could give stage directions, create scores, write accounts in retrospect, but there was no ready way of disseminating performance beyond its actual occasion. More than recordings or films, which were hard to come by, the Internet offers the possibility of a new and enhanced form of dissemination. What would be the impact from all of that a hundred years from now? It doesn’t matter but I sometimes think about it, and then I have to take account of the intervening 99 years and whatever changes outside of our control would have taken place by then.

Looking into the future, though, there are also dystopic views about the future of poetry itself, which one doesn’t need to brood about, though there could certainly be a discussion about whether there is a future for poetry, or a discussion about what kind of poetry there might be a future for. Poetry, as we're speaking of it in this interview, remains very much a niche-phenomenon. There are other, more popular forms of poetry than ours, and occasionally there’s an interchange between what we're talking about here and those more popular forms, but there's also a division, and so 100 years from now, someone might ask, will it all be a lost art? I certainly hope not, but it certainly comes to mind. You probably shouldn't worry about that, and I shouldn’t either.

SS: There are no talent scouts in the field of poetics; no one is actively seeking out the next “poet cash cow.” Having said that, how important is it that the poet contribute to other aspects of the field of poetry, for example, creating small presses and magazines, etc.

JR: I think that remains essential; I would not give up on that under any circumstances.

SS: Is it one of the most essential elements to a poet’s future?

JR: I think that one should make every effort to keep alive an active, non-commercial tradition for poetry. When you say “no talent scouts” that brings to mind a number of things. You know, here we are at Naropa’s creative writing program, and there’s another creative writing program a few blocks away at the University of Colorado, and hundreds throughout the country. Talent aside, it’s a kind of training ground for poets that hadn’t existed previously. There weren’t any schools for poets, although poetry was a part of a certain kind of education (beyond that, of a certain kind of life); you know, poets started writing poetry because they were reading poetry or they were being encouraged to practice poetry in another language like Latin or Greek, as a way to learn their chops. Now, if there's an overabundance of materials today on the Internet, then that must have something to do with an overabundance of poets coming out of the creative writing programs. Personally, I was never in a creative writing program; I never experienced a protracted period of writing for a degree, writing for grades, or for the approval of a poet instructor. I think that students in creative writing programs should be very cautious about that. There can be too much encouragement in one direction, one way of writing, even when the poet in charge isn't intending that. And creative writing instructors are far from the best mentors or models.

SS: It seems, with MFA and PhD programs in creative writing spouting up across the country, credentials are now, more than ever, increasingly important for the poet and the poet’s career.

JR: Do you mean credentials to get into the creative writing programs or the credentials that creative writing programs give you to make the livelihood that’s offered to poets and writers who teach in creative writing programs?

SS: Both. It’s becoming a world of credentials.

JR: On the other hand, faculty may inevitably feel a certain genuine responsibility toward their students. Although faculty and students have come together almost fortuitously, certain favors are going to be asked for and extended. In all good conscience you want to do the right thing for people who have studied with you and who are in a competition with others who haven’t. That part of it is a little bit like the talent scout you were asking about, or the literary agent; it’s not without that aspect. On the other hand there's nothing I would suggest in replacement, and I certainly would not suggest disbanding the creative writing programs on that basis. But there's some question too about what you’re actually teaching in a creative writing program, especially in a time that’s gone away from fixed-metric and rhyme and so forth (although I might still prefer to teach them). Maybe, given what we actually do today, poets should be taught (in addition to everything else) to master the Internet and related digital techniques. Now that would be teachable.

Jerome Rothenberg
University of Alabama Press ($29.95)

The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry
Edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey C. Robinson
University of California Press ($34.95)

by Harry Polkinhorn

Poetics & Polemics, 1980-2005 and Poems for the Millennium Volume Three (co-edited with Jeffrey C. Robinson) present us with the two poles of a dynamic continuum, giving us a solid basis for understanding Jerome Rothenberg’s unique contribution to poetry. In the matrix of the poet’s mind both defining and discovery ensue, mutually influencing each other through a creative clash and blending.

The first of these two titles collects a number of the poet’s prose texts, originally published as prefaces, interviews, or generous commentaries on the work of others; it sharply reflects Rothenberg’s thinking, in its full maturity, on his own multilayered work, on poetics, and on the history of poetry. The second book extends the reach the first two volumes of Poems for the Millennium, those landmark anthologies assembled with Pierre Joris. Indeed, both of these new books are usefully approached in connection with each other, first, and then as they add depth and scope to the poet’s life work.

In the opening section of Poetics & Polemics, 1980-2005, Rothenberg brings together seminal essays that simultaneously illuminate the subjects upon which they focus and the poet’s work, broadly conceived. In fact, these two thrusts are inseparable and full of conflict and energy. A listing of the subjects points to the sweep and richness of Rothenberg’s interests over the years: performance, anthologizing, shamanism, ethnopoetics, the historical avant-gardes, Jewishness, transnational poetics, the book, the oral tradition, experimentation in poetry and other arts, translation, tricksters, revolution, and the small press, among others. Part Two is poet-focused and includes probing considerations of a series of writers who have been important to Rothenberg: Pound, Jabés, Rilke, Cage, Stein, Blake, Hopkins, Lorca, Picasso, and many others. What is the line that runs through these materials? It is the poet’s theorizing, consistently helping us to a more generative and inclusive vision of the possibilities of the art. Rothenberg says in his “Poems for the Millennium: Two Prefaces,” in explaining the emphases the guided the anthologists’ selections, that they were premised on

an overall sense that what has characterized the century’s poetry has been an exploration of new forms of language, consciousness, and social/biological relationships, both by deliberate experimentation in the present and by the reinterpretation of the “entire” human past.

This captures his orientation towards poetry as a field of action that through its radical embeddedness in time/space (emphasis on the body, common speech, performance, Blake’s “minute particulars”) breaks through into the visionary and sacred dimensions of our birthright as humans, transcending narrow national traditions and opening out to a planetary heritage. To comprehend Rothenberg’s purpose, we need new critical tools, which he provides—a Deleuzian model of ramification and non-hierarchical interconnection. The immense scope of the poet’s interests and activities offers itself as an implicit paradigm for an expanded notion of human reality, returning the poet to a social/political/spiritual role long since rejected in Western societies. In “Poets & Tricksters,” Rothenberg identifies the poet’s role more explicitly:

It is from this world of disruptions and reversals, of dreams, of sacred clowns and shamans, of the marvelous and surreal, as well as from an old and new understanding of the maximally human, that the trickster emerges for us. . . .
. . . the radical transformers and self-transformers (“chameleon poets” in John Keats’s earlier words).

Thus, Rothenberg transforms himself from creative visionary to translator of the works of others to editor to anthologist to performance artist to commentator to rescuer of lost traditions, and so on, shape-shifting both for the sheer joy of it and to present us with a real-life manifestation of the ideas about which he is writing throughout these pieces.

Poems for the Millennium Volume Three is likewise a monumental achievement. It extends Rothenberg’s long string of anthologies by means of which he has brought about a redefinition of the scope and thrust of poetry worldwide. At the same time, this collection establishes visionary Romanticism as the ground of contemporary poetry in its transnational, prophetic, and experimental dimensions. Of course, Blake presides over this conception:

“Poetry Fetter’d, Fetters the Human Race!” wrote Blake (1804), in whom we find, then, a first act of mental liberation & a recall to the oldest function of poetry & of the poet as inspired “prophet”; later as a shamanistic “seer” (Rimbaud) & “technician of the sacred.” And it is Blake who also turns transmitted Wisdom on its head, working out a poetics of oppositions, a new dialectic in which desire [= “energy”] can have a central place alongside “reason.”

The editors’ excellent, probing, and polemical introduction usefully contextualizes a view of Romanticism, the full impact of which has not been sufficiently appreciated by academic interpreters. The political basis for the editors’ conception and choices for what to include are made clear in the introduction, where parallels are drawn between the social conditions of European Romanticism (revolution, class struggle, proto-nationalism) and those of the 20th century. Of course, a highlight of our time has been “ethnic and religious violence.” The anthology is especially strong on the subject of experimentation in poetic forms, as can been seen, for example, in the inclusion of Hölderlin’s “Palimpsest: Columbus,” Solomos’s “The Woman of Zante,” Rimbaud’s “Bad Blood,” and Smart’s “Jubilate Agno,” among many others infrequently anthologized. Also, the rich commentaries and prologues provide context for materials that can be challenging to readers whose sense of Romanticism has been limited to the canonical inclusions of the so-called “great tradition.” An advantage of a work of this scope is that the editors have been able to include many longer selections as well as material heretofore considered outside the canon, whether conceived of formally or in terms of content or medium.

Reading Poems for the Millennium Volume Three back through Poetics & Polemics, then, it’s clear that Rothenberg the canon-extender sees himself (and us) as both the “instrument of discovery and the instrument of definition” (Olson). But for him these two processes are not separate. Taking the poet as prototype for human being as creative energy, the joyous, full engagement with experimentation at the maximum pitch of the potentialities of language becomes the most authentic stance one can adopt.

Click here to return to the Rothenberg interview.

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Click here to purchase Poems for the Millennium, Vol. 3 at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

The Seven Beauties and Science Fiction: an interview with Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.

by Matthew Cheney

DePauw University professor of English Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. is one of the most thoughtful and subtle academic critics of science fiction. He is coeditor of the journal Science Fiction Studies as well as the book Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (University of Minnesota Press, $20). His latest book, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Wesleyan University Press, $35), should bring his ideas to a new and larger audience. The Seven Beauties of Science Fictionanalyzes a variety of SF media through seven lenses: fictive neology, fictive novums, future history, imaginary science, the science-fictional sublime, the science-fictional grotesque, and the Technologiade (“the epic of the struggle surrounding the transformation of the cosmos into a technological regime”). In a probing and perceptive review for the online magazine Strange Horizons, Adam Roberts called the use of the “seven beauties” framework “a rather brilliant move” that leads to “a book of unusual range, insight, intelligence and ambition.”

I discussed The Seven Beauties and other elements of science fiction with Csicsery-Ronay via email in June 2009.

Matthew Cheney: Let’s start with an origin story. When and why did you begin reading science fiction, and how did you happen to become an academic SF critic?

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.: I was first attracted by the crude, pulpy television shows I watched as child, growing up in a refugee family just off the boat from Hungary. I was raised in one of those immigrant homes where you speak English only outside; once you step back across the threshold, you have to speak the Mother Tongue. My parents considered themselves political exiles, and expected to return within a year or two, so it was important to maintain the habits and styles of the country they had so recently left. (I was born a month after they arrived in New York.) That country, by American standards, was still in the 19th century. My parents never understood technology or engineering. They were both traditional humanists, for whom art and technology were deadly rivals. So inside the apartment I lived in the Old School. Outside, it was flying saucers rock and roll.

We didn’t have a television. I remember vividly on Saturday mornings I would run at breakneck speed to get a good seat in front of the tiny TV-screen at a friend’s house to watch Commander Cody—Sky Marshal of the Universe, and later Science Fiction Theater. They’re unwatchable now, but then, I was inconsolable if I missed a single episode. Then in college there was Vietnam and Star Trek. The two “shows” went on simultaneously—reruns of the first Star Trek were shown just before the network evening news. In college, the common rooms all over campus were jammed with the same audiences for both. Vietnam was a TV show, but very real, since we were all draft age. Star Trek was the complete antidote to all that. It was utopian and clearly anti-war; it modeled progressive values that both conservatives and liberals could agree on. It took us elsewhere, en masse.

I loved reading stories in SF anthologies when I was in grade school and junior high, and watched every movie I could. But I was raised in an environment where literature was a kind of religion, and after a while most SF compared very poorly with the classical stuff I was discovering. I went several years without picking up any SF. My personal breakthrough happened when I was beginning graduate school in comparative literature. In the depth of the library I discovered my first copy of Science Fiction Studies. As effete as it may sound, it had the same effect on me that other folks say their first introduction to the pulps did for them. I saw that Fredric Jameson, a critic I idolized at the time, was writing articles on SF; and the other titles all showed they were sophisticated literary analyses. I read every issue avidly. I was introduced not only to theorists like Suvin and Jameson, but also writers I hadn’t heard of until them: Le Guin, Dick, Lem, the Strugatsky brothers, Ian Watson, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany. In a short space I read all of these writers’ works I could find. Reading Lem, Dick, and Le Guin especially made me realize that SF had become a sort of philosophical fiction. I started to write about it.

I am not “a fan,” and I didn’t start out be a “critic.” I considered myself a “reader,” pure and simple. European writers have traditionally considered it part of their professional resumé-building to write fantastic, SF, or slipstream fiction. And it’s not hard to connect SF to the big body of fantastic writing. My scholarly work at first was in literary theory and the history of the European novel, but I wrote more and more for Science Fiction Studies. Eventually I was asked to become an editor, and the rest is history. There were moments when I had to choose whether devote my time to more approved areas; I was a student of dead languages and peripheral cultures. But studying and writing about SF forced me to have a second education, this one in science. That’s the best recommendation I can give anyone for studying SF intensively: few other genres will allow one to learn so much so fast.

MC: Are there European writers you studied who are not generally considered SF writers but who provided you with some of the intellectual pleasures that SF writers did, either before or after you immersed yourself in the SF world?

I C-R: I think I stopped reading SF for several years because I was getting the same pleasures in the exotic by reading archaic and non-modern literature. During the Communist period there was a translation industry in Hungary; writers were salaried to translate work by the “fraternal” people of the Soviet bloc, and “Third World” peoples whom the Soviets were actively courting. Since I read Hungarian, on my summer visits to my relatives I acquired tons of non-mainstream literature from Siberia, the Caucasus, Vietnam, Africa, Central Asia, and late antiquity. (I also read Lem and the Strugatskys in Hungarian—many of their works haven’t been translated into English even now.) Some European writers who wrote SF in all but the name—like the Hungarian poet Sandor Weöres, the Russian writers Platonov, Bulgakov, and our contemporary Victor Pelevin, and of course Nabokov and Borges—provide pretty much the same “intellectual pleasures” that SF does. What these writers don’t provide—and why I needed to keep reading SF—was a futuristic imagination.

MC: Do you think SF from countries that do not have publishers devoted specifically to SF, as well as frequent gatherings of readers who identify as SF fans, is different from SF in countries where it is differentiated from other types of fiction in terms of how it is published and, perhaps, received? In a globalized publishing environment, does this, do you think, herald anything for the future of SF as a genre?

I C-R: I’m not sure I have an answer for this. I’m not very familiar with fan cultures, so I don’t know where there are and aren’t fans. I think they are probably everywhere where there are hip students who want to be modern. I also don’t know much about the SF publishing world, other than in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. In Russia and Eastern Europe, which developed along a very different literary track for much of the last century, the SF was indeed different. But this wasn’t because of the publishing industry, but political demands. We’ve seen indigenous SF collapse in most of those countries since the fall of Communism. The “native product” was displaced by translations of U.S. and U.K. bestsellers, and the native writers often write imitations of pulpy magical fantasy/scientific fantasy under Anglo-sounding pseudonyms. The situation is a bit better in Russia now, but not elsewhere in the region. In any case at the moment the main SF- influence isn’t written SF, but mass-media stuff. Japan was already a leader in SF comics and video before the crisis in publishing began, and has tremendous influence throughout the world. Blockbuster U.S. movies, U.S. and U.K. comics, and contemporary U.K. “cozy catastrophe” movies probably have greater influence than any written SF can possibly have, and these easily cross linguistic boundaries. Some emerging SF-cultures, like India for example, produces SF that is packed with allusions to national mythology and folklore—for hypermodern Western readers it reads like naive SF. That’s not a function of fan cultures and publishing, so much as the broader national cultural-historical context.

MC: For The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, you wrote a chapter on “Marxist Theory and Science Fiction.” Do you consider yourself a Marxist critic? What value does a Marxist critical approach have for SF?

I C-R: You don’t have to be a Marxist critic to write objectively about Marxist criticism, but the question is an interesting one. Many non-Marxists probably consider my thinking Marxist, while many Marxists probably think the opposite. Certain Marxist ideas are so much a part of my mental metabolism that I can’t imagine thinking without them—the critique of capitalism, commodity fetishism, dialectics, the material basis of ideology, for example. But I could say the same about my Buddhist ideas, which make some aspects of Marxism (like violent class struggle, a bias toward material production, and materialism per se) untenable. Most people entertain contradictory thought-systems, and how they manage those contradictions is what makes their ideas distinctive. In any case, when it comes to analyzing art I don’t think there’s ever a one-to-one correspondence between one’s religious/political views and the way one responds to art. The traditions of art create their own sphere; art has its own kind of imagination that can’t be reduced to other kinds (though it is always connected to them). So in a way my thinking about SF as a kind of art is pretty conservative. If you’re asking whether my approach is influenced by Marxism, I’d say it is to the extent that I treat it as the product of a distinct historical moment profoundly influenced by its technological and social-economic relations. I can’t imagine analyzing SF without also investigating the hypermodernizing culture it grows in, with its ideological mythologies of technological progress. But if you’re asking whether my approach is Marxist-identified, I’d say not really. A critical appraisal of SF has to include a critical analysis of capitalism and modernization, but I’m much more interested in anatomizing the situation than making a moral or political point. Deep inside, I think I believe that every age is equally capable of enlightenment and toxic ignorance. That’s probably not very Marxist.

MC: What do you hope readers will get from reading The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction?

I C-R: Wow, that is a really big question! I wanted to do a lot of things writing The Seven Beauties, and they kept changing—which probably shows up in the zig-zag way the book is written. My first and overriding goal was to write something useful and stimulating for students and younger scholars of SF. That meant producing a sort of textbook from hell—the opposite of a normal class text. I mainly wanted to generate problems and suggestions that folks interested in studying SF could develop, critique, or just run away with. Early on, my model was the mathematician Paul Erdös, who is known not so much for the originality of his solutions as for the questions he posed. He made a career of formulating intriguing problems that would attract younger mathematicians to solve. So Seven Beauties is supposed to be a sort of compendium of interesting problems. In some cases I stated things more assertively that even I believed them to be, since some folks don’t get inspired unless they feel provoked.

But I also wanted to place SF in a larger historical and cultural context, and specifically an artistic one. I’m trained in comparative literature, and I’m committed to literature as a tradition. There has been a lot of impressive scholarship on SF from cultural-studies perspectives. The main way that students and scholars look at the genre now is in terms of popular culture, gender/race/sexual identity/class critique, postcolonialism, vestiges of New Left Marxism, and the postmodernist notion that SF and contemporary social mythologies are converging. I can’t add much to that rich and diverse work, and fortunately I don’t have to. What I wanted to do was to treat the science-fictional imagination as if it were not just a symptom of some other, more basic social process, but something that audiences consider valuable on its own terms. To find out what those terms are I reversed the normal way of looking at SF, sort of like a Magic Eye picture, so that science-fictionality would be my context, and the historical-contextual forces would be constructed by it. That’s actually a rather Old School approach, which is why I wrote in my intro that the book could be read as steampunk criticism. My premise is that SF has been a powerful imaginative force influencing the social imagination of the past long century.

That meant that I would take aesthetics seriously—though I don’t think the word even appears in The Seven Beauties. By aesthetics, I don’t mean the philosophy of beauty, or whatever, but the branch of thought that deals with design (including, maybe even foremost, narrative as design) and the way the imagination of design pervades our social lives. That was something I felt hadn’t been adequately addressed by other SF scholars. It meant that I would treat SF in all its forms—pulp and elite art, visual and musical SF, as well as literary, full-fledged texts and allusions to SF in political statements, ads, etc.—as if they all shared a certain quality, which I called science-fictionality, for lack of a better term. It also mean that I would treat social history as if it too had an aesthetic dimension made up of all the ideological myths and hypermodern folk stories running through it. It also meant that I would treat SF as if it were a branch of art—a particularly philosophical branch, even in its pulpiest, gaudiest forms—satisfying the needs that art is supposed to satisfy. That’s what led me to emphasize the playfulness of SF over its so-called cognitive, political, or ideological use-value.

And precisely because artistic pleasure was so important for me, I wanted to feel that pleasure in writingThe Seven Beauties, and to convey it, if possible. I expect that most folks will read the book as a fairly deadpan treatise that makes lots of claims, arguing that SF should be subjected to my categories and terms. But I hope that some readers will also get that the book isn’t actually about making truth claims. I hope that most folks will already wonder about the title. Why seven beauties? Who thinks in terms of sevens? Dualities, triads, semantic rectangles, maybe even pentangles can be treated in system-terms. But seven is over the line. You know that someone using a system of sevens has to be somewhat pixilated. The title alludes to a wonderful Persian poem, but that wasn’t my original, first-spark association. In the Hungarian folk-tales and retellings of the 1001 Nights that my mother read to me when I was a child, beautiful princesses and countries would be referred to as “seven-times beautiful”—probably a translation of a Persian and Turkish epithet. I figured that the notion of a “seven-times beautiful” genre of fiction would make it pretty clear that I was not approaching SF in a utilitarian way. I am willing to defend my terms in the book of course, but I hope some readers will also read it as playful, a sort of epic philosophical fantasy in scholarly language, maybe even a bit cracked, in the spirit of Borges, Nabokov, and Lem. There are many moments—the parts I like the best—where the argument flips into fun, and the claims I make are just pretexts for fiction.

So, in a nutshell, I want the book to be useful and useless at the same time.

MC: There have been aesthetic critics, as well as critics who aren’t necessarily identified as aesthetic critics but for whom “close reading” is central, who argue that the text is primary and that aesthetic criticism and social/political/historicist criticism is at best not literary criticism, at worst a distraction or a self-indulgence. How do reconcile your aesthetic and other concerns—or is the dichotomy too false to be useful?

I C-R: Yep . . . too false to be useful. If you pretend that you’re only looking at the words on the page, then you end up importing your own unconscious prejudices. It’s like those conservative jurists who think they have some mystical access to the words of the “founders.” But if you don’t read those words closely, working hard to understand the dimensions of form, rhetoric, usage, and genre-language, you end up using the art to illustrate abstract arguments that narrow the experience of interpretation—often to make political or moralizing points. The first group would like to ignore the social and material contexts from which the text emerges. The second group would like to ignore the complex psychological and spiritual effects that literary language and form can have. I have never felt any conflict between these two approaches. You simply have to keep subjecting what you learn from one approach to the other. It’s how dialectical criticism works.

MC: Your book is one in a small group of SF critical studies I can think of that does not spend a lot of time defending a particular definition or origin for science fiction. Instead of origins and definitions, you write of “the crystallization of SF”, which seems to me a provocative and useful term.

I C-R: The desire to define SF has probably been inspired by a sort of inferiority complex vis-à-vis more established kinds of art. If it has a definition, then it can be included among the other genres that have historical and academic definitions. But because the audiences for SF are so diverse, it’s not only difficult to come up with an academically acceptable definition, but many (most?) SF audiences don’t want one. They don’t give a damn one way or another about literary history or cultural theory. Some of the academic definitions are clearly disciplinary in both senses of the term—Darko Suvin’s notion of SF as a literature of cognitive estrangement is a sheepdog’s attempt to herd the genre toward social usefulness. A lot of the more fuzzy definitions are interesting because they reveal a deep-seated ambivalence about whether SF should be treated as a “serious” kind of fiction, or whether, as the Persuasions used to say, “one should never put a tuxedo on the funky blues.” So SF criticism is filled with definitions that are also parodies of definition; they basically mean “I know what it is when I see it” to insiders, and might look thoughtful to publishers and college administrators. I get the feeling that very few definers really care about the literary system in which such definitions might have a place. They might, however, want to get some of the respect that mainstream or literary writers are accorded.

I see the same complex of motives in looking for foundational texts. The argument goes—or used to go—that once you found the Ur-text, the great original, you could derive a tradition from it. Most of the time these Ur-texts reflect the critic’s area of expertise, the sphere of literature and culture he or she is most familiar with. Until recently, it was also important to show that SF had a pedigree in literature that was already academically acceptable. Lucian, Swift, Poe, and more recently Mary Shelley are all bona fide writers teachable in a literature survey. The Verne, Wells, Gernsback origin stories are a bit more complex, representing as they do different imperial cultural spheres: France, the U.K., and the U.S. But just because these origin stories may strike us as somewhat arbitrary doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely useful. Good cultural-literary historians can tell us a lot by focusing on a single plot. Just because we know that dozens of different stories can be told doesn’t mean we don’t learn from the one or two that actually are told. For the purposes of The Seven Beauties, I found a lot of Ur-texts. I figured it was better to respect all their stories.

As for the “crystal” of SF, I like the image not only because it evokes the solidification of several forces that have been at work invisibly, but also because a crystal has lots of facets. There were times in writingSeven Beauties when I thought of the book in those terms: the beauties were seven facets of one jewel. (I was way into the Persian imagery at the time.) It’s a given, I think, that different folks will have different views of what SF is. Peter Stockwell argues that our ideas of SF are determined by the prototypes that we were first exposed to. Some people simply can’t include anything that has magic or occult aspects in it as SF; others think that The Lord of the Rings is SF. (Personally, I lean hard to the first position.) But I began my work with the assumption that most people agree that there is something like “science-fictionality,” even if they have looser or tighter ideas about what is included by the term. There are outliers, of course. Some readers think all fantasy is equal to science fiction; Suvinians believe that 99% of what is considered SF (or “sci-fi”) isn’t worthy of the name. But the vast majority of people have an inkling that there is some quality that works of SF share. That’s what I wanted to explore in Seven Beauties.

MC: Within various SF communities there is an anxiety about respectability—the “SF don’t get no respect” canard is still strong, and often seems to be mixed with contradictory desires: the desire for respect and the pleasure of a perceived outsider status. This often seems to be tied to SF’s place in the academy, and there are still panels at (non-academic) conventions arguing about whether academic attention is worthwhile. What has been your experience of this, as someone who came to SF partly through the academy? Is the tension real, and is it productive?

I C-R: The tension is still real, and sometimes it may even be productive. I’m actually pretty ambivalent about it. There are still many academic places where SF is looked down on—especially in Europe. And there are still lots of fans—and even writers—who think that academic attention is some sort of effete fashion, or the actual death-knell of SF—and that’s especially true in the U.S., where scholarship and academic life get little respect in society at large. For writers, this gets knotty. I recall one academic SF conference where Harlan Ellison was a guest speaker. Harlan is notoriously contemptuous of academics, but he was apparently feeling his mortality because he was trying to make nice with the attending professors and grad students. He was open about it: he felt he needed critics and scholars to keep his reputation alive after he was dead, since fans don’t keep up their enthusiasm long for dead people, and publishers even less. He couldn’t keep it up and quickly reverted to the old insulting Harlan, but it was an eye-opener for me. The idea that fans, writers, and scholars are in competition with each other makes zero sense to me. Again, I think this is mainly a U.S., and perhaps U.K., thing. I worked hard to write Seven Beauties without using the jargon and technical terms of some of the more esoteric schools of criticism so that it would reach folks who aren’t familiar or sympathetic with them. I have been surprised, though, that readers sometimes complain about philosophical or critical language that one would expect any educated person to be familiar with. I do believe, though, that there is a danger in making SF into an academic specialty. Most scholars of SF so far have been trained in something else—like American fiction, drama, feminist theory, Renaissance literature, history and so forth—and their work is distinctive because of the way they bring their other expertise to bear on SF. I’m somewhat suspicious of treating SF as if it were a circumscribed subject with a canon and set of reading protocols that students would have to take exams in.

MC: You utilize Darko Suvin’s idea of “the novum” (itself adapted from Ernst Bloch’s use of the term), but your use is not as narrow as Suvin’s. What attracted you to the idea of “the novum” and why did you feel the need to define it differently?

I C-R: I became interested in the novum relatively late in writing Seven Beauties. I had always expected that it would be major concept, but I didn’t think I had much to add to Suvin’s famous discussion of it inMetamorphoses of Science Fiction—unlike the idea of cognitive estrangement, Suvin’s other main contribution to SF studies, which I find problematic. But as I was researching the origin of the term in the writing of Ernst Bloch, I was struck by two things: how different Suvin’s use of the term is, and how little any of the—often New Left Marxist, Bloch-friendly—critics commented on this difference. Personally, I don’t agree with Bloch’s quasi-mystical notion of the novum as something that always presages a movement toward collective human liberation. I don’t go in for eschatology much, and Bloch’s use of the term strikes me as crypto-eschatological. But I discovered I don’t agree with Suvin’s more narrow use of term, either. I was actually surprised how useful the idea is. If modern consciousness is predicated on conceiving of some things as new, i.e., unprecedented and unpredicted by history up to that point, then we need a name for that concept. Suvin argues that the novum in SF—which appears as a new thing that changes all the relations in the fictional world—necessarily implies a progressive enlightenment of sorts, as if historical consciousness is always involved in a struggle between the idea of history as something fated versus something that can be changed by collective human will. For me, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why the novum should be viewed as necessarily progressive, since as often as not a historical innovation can demolish previously established beneficial institutions, and also it can change things in a way that dislodges us from all customary ways of thinking. If it’s really new, then it changes values as well as conditions. That’s why more and more SF texts involve more than one novum, and these can lead to splits in history, lateral shifts to unpredicted new conditions, or even parallel universes. But there’s a wonderful, fascinating paradox in novum: the fact that there is word for it implies that there is a category of recurring things that share this quality of newness. It becomes what I called with some irony “the archetype of the new.” That’s where narrative becomes so important, since SF seems to say that every moment of new rupture with the past is then reconfigured into a new history back-propagated from that rupture. Which is probably how myths worked in archaic societies.

MC: You note in Seven Beauties that you have chosen to discuss mostly texts that are generally familiar to SF readers so as to make your ideas as accessible as possible. What are some texts that you might have included if were they more familiar?

I C-R: I would have loved to have discussed stories by Ted Chiang and R.A. Lafferty; Charles Platt’sThe Gas; untranslated texts by Lem and the Strugatskys brothers and other Soviet Thaw writers like Vladimir Savchenko, Olga Larionova, Valentina Zhuravleva, Gennadi Gor, Ilya Varshavsky, Kir Bulychev; movies such as Navigator and Planeta Bur; the Hungarian cartoon series The Mezga Family. My earlier drafts had longer looks at works by Greg Egan, Ian Banks, and Naomi Mitchison. The problem with familiarity is: familiar to whom? If the book had been addressed only to insiders in SF fandom and scholarship, very few things should count as unfamiliar. But I also wanted to reach folks not on the inside, so my criterion became: are they representative? For insiders, that makes for boring reading, but for folks who are new to the genre, it’s a way to steer them to the classics. I respect classics in every sense of the term; I believe there is a reason they stand the tests of time.

MC: The reasons that something becomes a classic—that test of time—I assume you would see as being the product of certain discourses and practices rather than essential features of the texts? Does the SF critical world have someone comparable to (to use a particularly prominent example) Edward Said in questioning canonicity?

I C-R: Practically everyone in SF-studies questions canonicity all the time. In fact, it’s something of an embarrassment that we often return to certain texts. Some of these were simply the ones that were analyzed repeatedly in sophisticated ways when the whole SF-studies enterprise began—like Dick, Le Guin, Russ, Lem, Delany, Wells, and later Gibson . . . the usual suspects. And there’s a similar one for film. Canonicity is a complex thing. It’s easy to attack the Rule of Usual Suspects as too exclusive, especially of marginalized groups. But writers read each other and have their models; when we start reading seriously, we want to read the best examples of whatever we are interested in. We have to examine our standards ceaselessly, but we still want to experience and communicate what gives us the most pleasure and the greatest challenge. And when we are talking to each other about such things, we usually look for the examples that many people agree are good to spend time experiencing.

Of course I’m not claiming that texts have essential features that make them classics. One of the dominant current materialist views of genre is that it is entirely a matter of a historical moment and the social-economic formation that produces it, and to speak of a genre as having any transhistorical existence is a category error. The same sort of argument would work for canons, and for “classics.” We wouldn’t read dusty old Greek dramas and Shakespeare plays if we weren’t forced to by conservative sheepdogs. In some cases this is probably true. But how does that explain that we see the same sorts of comic constructions on TV sitcoms that Roman comedians used? Some things don’t change much. We all still die. Tyrants oppress the weak. The worst laid plans sometimes work out. Lovers think they are the first to feel real passion. Parents still fight with their kids. Sometimes a work of art articulates feelings and thoughts about these “human condition” things that strike us as powerful experiences, and sometimes we have to be educated in their language to experience those things. And we believe we gain by sharing that experience. Of course not every classic lasts, and the body of classics should expand. But it seems like a presentist prejudice to deny that they can exist.

MC: In The Seven Beauties you note that SF readers “tend to give writers the benefit of the doubt that the science brought forward is accurate—a trust that is abused, but perhaps no more than in realistic fiction that lays claim to readers’ trust and yet delivers images of life from distorted class, gender, or racial perspectives.” Is SF less prone to distorted class, gender, and racial perspectives—or does it just add inaccurate science to them as well?

I C-R: No, I don’t think there’s anything about the genre that necessarily liberates it from social prejudices. In fact, as fiction with popular roots, it tends to respond quickly to changes in social attitudes, and these are often new distortions rather than mere expansions. My point was not to condemn realistic fiction in comparison with SF; quite the contrary, I just wanted to note that readers buy into the illusion world of realistic fiction, suspending social disbelief, and that the same sort of thing happens with SF with regard to scientific disbelief. Even Leninist critics venerated Tolstoy’s War and Peace, even though it presents the world as if only aristocratic consciousness matters. Some critics, like Carl Freedman, argue that we shouldn’t critique a past work of SF just because the science it purports to base its story on is has been superseded. I would argue that there is no sincerity test for judging whether a writer truly believes the science in his or her story, or is ironic about it. The truth of the science in SF is not an essential part of it. SF’s raw material is not science, but a culture’s understanding of it. Not the same thing.

MC: The concept of the sublime seems central to a lot of what you have to say about science fiction. Why is this concept one that particularly appeals to you when discussing SF?

I C-R: I wasn’t aware that it was more important to Seven Beauties than, say, the grotesque. In fact, I think of the two as going hand in hand in SF. For me, the sublime and grotesque are the areas where traditional aesthetics articulates the “sense of wonder” that so many folks consider a core quality of SF. Artists know that they have to stimulate these two senses if they are going to make successful SF; and audiences are drawn to SF in order to feel them. I want to stress that SF’s sublime and grotesque are very specific. The experiences are always linked to scientific invention and discovery—as opposed to the traditional (classical) forms of the concepts, which are linked mainly to nature. One of the functions of SF—maybe the most important one for its audiences—is to express the senses of surprising magnitude, force, and metamorphosis that science keeps producing. But since SF is a mainly mass-produced popular art, after a while the representation tends to become ironic. Adult viewers of SF may first go to SF to feel childlike awe and shock, but they go back to observe how those feelings are constructed and used.

MC: I didn’t mean to misrepresent the book—you’re right that the idea of the grotesque is paired with the idea of the sublime. I think I was so taken with the latter simply because it links the famous “sense of wonder” venerated by so many SF readers to a literary and philosophical history that I found particularly interesting. China Miéville brought up the concept actually in an interview he did with Jeff VanderMeer for Weird Tales:

I’ve been thinking about the traditional notion of the "sublime," which was always (by Kant, Schopenhauer, et al) distinguished from the "Beautiful," as containing a kind of horror at the immeasurable scale of it. I think what the Weird can do is question the arbitrary distinction between the Beautiful and the Sublime, and operate as a kind of Sublime Backwash, so that the numinous incomparable awesome slips back from "mountains" and "forests," into the everyday. So . . . the Weird as radicalized quotidian Sublime.

Miéville’s use of it here seems perhaps the opposite of yours, which would be an interesting way of differentiating between science fiction and other types of fantastic literatures. That got me wondering about the grotesque, which is obviously linked to fantasy and horror and weird fiction. Do you see the grotesque operating in a fundamentally different way in science fiction from other sorts of fiction?

I C-R: I think I’d approach things differently from China. I’m surprised actually that he would use the Sublime/Beautiful distinction for his kind of fantasy. I’m curious to see how he makes it work. I think the sublime/grotesque dialectic works much better for his New Crobuzon books—The Scar emphasizes the sublime, the other two the grotesque, but they interpenetrate throughout. My argument in Seven Beauties (such as it is) is that the sublime and the grotesque are interrelated “senses of wonder.” The one concerns uncontrollable vast things greater than human awareness, the other the constant metamorphosis of things that human minds think are stable and under control. I think the dialectical distinction works fine for fantasy, too. What differentiates SF is that the sublime and the grotesque are inexorably associated with science and technology. In fantasy, that’s not necessary. Perdido Street Station, to take an example from China, has both science-fictional and non-SF elements of both. The principles of crisis energy and the water-engineering of the vodyanoi I’d consider science-fictional sublime, since they are clearly associated with the imaginary science of that world; the Remades and the Construct Council are examples of scientific grotesque, since they reveal surprising metamorphoses predicated on imaginary technologies. The Slake Moths, however, seem fantastically sublime, since they apparently exist and do their dream-vampirism “in nature,” while the Khepri, for example, seem fantastically grotesque: scarab-headed humans. China is a master of sliding from one to the other. But since the “nature” of his world has undergone a metamorphosis from the one in ours (if only in our imaginations), I’m more inclined to treat it as fantasy than SF.

MC: You have written previously about SF’s relationship to colonialism, imperialism, and empire, and the topic comes up in The Seven Beauties as well. Has SF had a different relationship to these ideas than other types of fiction? What must be kept or thrown away if a writer wants to create postcolonial SF?

I C-R: It all depends on what one means by “postcolonial.” There have been many diverse attempts to write SF in one sense of the term, from the perspective of a historically marginalized culture now liberated from cultural imperialism. It has been a major theme—I can think of a varied slate of works: Mike Resnick’s Kirinyaga, Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest and No Longer Coming Home, Geoff Ryman’s Air, practically everything by Nalo Hopkinson, Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt, Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, Watson’s The Embedding, much of Ballard, Lem’s Fiasco, on and on. These are all varyingly successful. One problem is that the term postcolonial can be interpreted in at least two ways: as a term of merit for thought that asserts the dignity and culture of populations that have been oppressed by European colonial overlords, or a descriptive term for any kind of thought produced after the end of official colonialism in the 1960s and 1970s. Most folks tend to use the term in the first sense. So if we are talking only about that first sense, I think SF has had postcolonial themes for a long time, at least since the Third World liberation movements became news. If we include the Soviet Union, there have been anti-colonial themes in Soviet and East European SF for the past fifty years—even longer if we include Capek. (Of course, one might argue that the Soviet bloc just excluded its own colonialism from the definition of the term.) Since postcolonialism represents not only a popular field of inquiry in universities, but is also a rich market niche, we will certainly see lots of “postcolonial SF.” But I’m not completely comfortable with that way of approaching the problem. “The Postcolonial Condition” is a complex thing, but it tends to be defined almost entirely in terms of historical and cultural identities that are being mixed up and hybridized. The most relevant imperial force for SF isn’t political or national-cultural, however, it’s the global rationalization of techno-science. It’s one thing for folks to assert their independence from foreign occupiers or their banks, quite another to assert independence from the webwork of interlocking technologies that gain greater and greater momentum in global relations, and which are served by an international elite. Of course, SF has been in the forefront of expressing that theme, too, on both sides: pushing the programs of the imperial dominators, and critiquing them too.

MC: Finally, what’s next for you?

I C-R: Idle hands are the devil’s playthings. I’m working furiously to prepare the first issue of a new online journal that I’m editing: Humanimalia: a journal of human/animal interface studies, which will appear at the beginning of September. I’m focusing on animal/human studies for a while, though I’m finishing up some articles on SF and music, SF and pornography, and SF’s relationship to surrealism.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009