Stone Telling Roundtable: Crossing Boundaries and Blurring Edges
by Julia Rios
Stone Telling bills itself as The Magazine of Boundary Crossing Poetry. That description seems particularly apt for this issue, in which the contributors cross mythic, geographic, and genre boundaries, just to name a few. I asked Benjmin Cartwright, Emily Jiang, Nin Harris, Sonya Taaffe, Mary Turzillo, Catherynne M. Valente, and Jo Walton to join me in discussing the boundaries we create and cross.
Julia Rios: Jo, your weatherkeeper says at one point, "It's funny how I forget about edges." This sentiment seems to echo throughout the entire issue, which blurs the boundaries between whimsy and solemnity, mainstream and speculative, life and death. The weatherkeeper also spends some time pondering the many distinct shades of grey, which makes me wonder: is it possible to blur those edges without first acknowledging them? What value is there in making distinctions, and in erasing them?
Jo Walton: I think there's a sense in which poetry -- and writing generally -- is a process of making things real by naming, by wrapping words around things. So that part of the process of dealing with the fantastic is noting an edge and blurring it, drawing a line and stepping over it, making the magical as solid as everything because it's just that half step away. It's very precise observation and naming and shaping and taking it that step further.
Where I started with this poem was with the title, which was a necklace Elise Matthesen made. And I thought "How do you keep the weather?" "You keep it like you keep house." Then from that I had all the images of the house that are in the poem -- and immediately that house has very blurred edges, the house spills over into the valley, the weather is inside and outside the house, the weatherkeeper sits in the doorway, it has cracks. And I had the house, and the house had a geographical location in my head, and I started to wonder how you could live in that house -- and my immediate thought was "Alone." Then I just had to shape it.
Mary Turzillo: Wow. I love this. I have been searching for a philosophy of consciousness lately, due to losses of many people in my life, and the idea that we make things real through words is very very attractive. Maybe we make people real through words, too, although people are infinitely more complex, almost another couple of dimensions.
Emily Jiang: Yes, I find it absolutely magical that words, whether they are ink on paper or pixels on a screen, can absolutely convince a reader that entire worlds and characters exist when they obviously do not. Words are powerful, and names even more so. Sometimes when you name something, it loses its power over you. Like The Fae. Or Rumplestilskin. Sometimes when you name something, it becomes real. Like Pinocchio. Or the Velveteen Rabbit.
JR: Jo, Maybe it's because Among Others is still fresh in my mind, but I imagined the weatherkeeper's house to be vaguely associated with the Welsh landscape, which is almost a character in and of itself in that book. And that brings me back to blurred edges. There's a lot of autobiographical source material in Among Others. How did you balance the blurring of your personal history with Mori's?
JW: Oh, that's definitely the Welsh landscape. I know exactly where the weatherkeeper's house is. I could almost show you on a map.
As for blurring personal history, yes, that's exactly what I did. The book is just over that line with the real and precise and the magical. Balancing it wasn't difficult once I had the idea. It was much easier to do it that way than it would have been to try to write a memoir. Writing it as fantasy gave me permission to get to what was real about it.
JR: Cat, you're no stranger to stepping over and blurring lines. You eat genre conventions for breakfast, it seems, and your work often defies easy categorization (or did until you coined the term mythpunk, anyway). One of your notable traits is the care with which you select each word, though. In "The Secret of Being a Cowboy" you've mixed prose and verse in a fantasy-western hybrid to tell us something true about writing. The voice for this piece is rugged and rough. How did this piece develop, and how did you approach blending that harsh tone with the signature elegance of your imagery?
Catherynne M. Valente: I don't know about mixing prose and verse--it seems like a poem to me, but then, when my prose looks like poetry to most people, what does a poem look like? That paradox is part of why this is my first published poem in a year and a half.
Sometimes a poem just blindsides you, and that's what happened with Cowboy. I was feeling frustrated and confined by the genre impulse to make magic of everything and my native desire to tell the truth about myself in poetry. I was feeling confined by the long history of my own poetic voice, which has been around longer than my prose voice, and to some extent, evolved less. I wanted to do something different. Something unexpected. And basically, this weird little monster downloaded itself into my head without warning. I am from the West, and have ridden horses and climbed mountains and walked the woods at the end of the gold rush trails myself--it's a voice that's in there natively, though I've often tried to avoid it, since the thing about growing up in the West is that the cowboy identity/history is so chewed up and worn out that it makes unicorns and elves look fresh and daring. I wanted to wear a "masculine" mask, to mess with that genre (and oh, man, do I want to write a western novel now!) as I mess with so many others. I wanted to say something about writing and about work and about loneliness, because poetry always has to be about something genuine and hard at its core or it's just quaint and nice. And I've been writing about losing love and facing depression and my childhood for so long, but those issues are mostly resolved in my present life (depression being a constant issue, but one I can only write about when I'm not, really) and I needed to say something about where I am now, rather than where I was when I was 24. I stopped writing poetry until I had something new to say.
This is that something new.
JR: Goodness, forgive me, Cat. "The Secret of Being a Cowboy" is entirely verse, you're right. Somehow, even having read it through several times, my eyes and ears held fast to a misperception. How embarrassing. I will stick by my fantasy-western and mythpunk assessments, though, as there are cowboys and horses and pistols, and all manner of "proper shit mythic" in the poem. But now that you have me on self-doubt high alert, I must ask, did you coin mythpunk as a subgenre? My internet browsing says so, but I haven't found an original citation to back that up. If yes, is there a particular story or moment behind the word's birth?
CMV: I did indeed coin it, and it's surprised me unendingly how people have picked it up and run with it. It was a five-year old LJ entry, in fact, in which I mused on what we might call the upcoming cadre of writers of which I felt I was a part. Also I'm like the only person on earth who likes the appendage of punk onto things.
EJ: Cat, I really love the term "mythpunk" because it brings the love of mythology and fables and fairy tales into the 21st century. And it's just a cool word.
JR: Nin, talking of mixing genres and evolving forms leads me naturally to your article about Muhammad Haji Salleh. You write about his translations of Malaysian epics and about the way the sajak evolved out of and recalls traditional Malay verse forms like the pantun. Sajaks are different, you say, because of the rhythms of speech in Malaysia. How do different rhythms of speech influence poetic expression and form, and how do the bilingual Salleh's sajaks compare to ancient Malay poetry or to contemporary (non-Malaysianised) English language verse on that score?
Nin Harris: The sajak didn't really exist in a printed form prior to the 20th century, Julia, and I think it can be argued that it is inherently hybrid - as most of the more famous poets would have gone abroad for further education, or were comfortable in more than one language. Since the original method of poetry for the Malays prior to colonisation would have been the pantun, the seloka or the syair, it was natural that the "new" form would, in its earlier versions, contain embodiments of this. The pantun is made of two lines of metaphorical language, followed by two lines of message. The imagery that we find in the pantun does sometimes make it into more modern sajak (between the 1950s-1980s), but as the Malay language evolved, the form would naturally become more fluid.
As for comparisons, I don't think the old or new forms should be compared at all in terms of quality, except in terms of looking at how imagery and metaphor has evolved. Or perhaps, to look at the evolution of a cultural literary identity. One of my favourite sajak (I don't even remember the name of the poet, alas!) used mathematics as a metaphor for an existential crisis, and this is precisely how fluid the sajak can be. Other favourites were written in transit by poets like Baha Zain and Usman Awang, capturing the experience of travelling between cultures.
As for how different the sajak would be from the poems of TS Eliot, Wallace Stevens and the rest of the modernists, I would say the difference again, lies in the registers, as well as the usage of metaphors and idioms. I have found, for example, that Occidental/Western poetry tends to use metaphor in a different way from Malaysian poets. Which is not to say our poems aren't sometimes dense with metaphor and figurative language, but we do tend to be a whole lot more direct. Of course, this is just my opinion, but it's obvious that different modes of expression in different cultures would influence the craft of putting words together, whether it is oral or in written form. I've discovered, in my life as an Asian living abroad in Australia, for instance, that my method of speaking is more direct than a lot of people are comfortable with. Learning how to couch things in a manner that is less confronting has been a challenge but it also has been a learning experience. The English language is fluid, it works in different ways for different cultures, whether Australian, Malaysian, British or American. Shared experience modifies communication, and various artforms linked to both the spoken and written word.
JR: The thread of shared experience modifying communication styles, and the way that poetic forms evolve and change across time and culture leads me to Benjamin and Emily's poems.
Benjamin, you've written a pantoum about Newton and Euclid. The pantoum is derived from the Malay pantun, and has continued evolving since it first became fashionable in western culture over a century ago. You've played with the restrictions of the form, allowing for certain changes to words, and eschewing rhyme entirely, but you've kept the repetition that brings insight and emphasis to the subject of any well-crafted pantoum. Poetry and math are not always obviously linked, but in this case they seem like a natural pairing. How did you decide on this form and this subject? Did either come first, and how did they serve each other while you were writing this poem?
Emily, your poem has a short, sharp rhythm that feels distinctly Asian-American. Though you didn't use a restrictive form like the pantoum, you did employ a certain amount of repetition to build and enrich the poem's structure. You end with a reference to Eliot, which is interesting, too, because it brings home the idea that poetry is a shared experience, transcending time and culture. How do you approach language when you write, and were you thinking of the similarities and difference in western and non-western communication styles when you wrote this?
Benjamin Cartwright: My poem for this issue was inspired by an incident in the early life of Isaac Newton. The way the story goes is that Newton picked up his first copy of Euclid in the bookstalls in Stourbridge Fair, just before the onset of the plague. I couldn’t get the image of Isaac picking up that book, not knowing what great significance Euclid’s ideas would have for his own life, and his own future work, out of my head. I mean, the timing, with the plague about to be unleashed, was really horrible. We can’t choose when we’re going to read the right book, for a given moment of our lives though, can we? I read Moby Dick for the first time while living and working in China, because I had run out of English reading material and came across a copy, and it felt like the perfect book for that moment in my life. Even as I felt the rightness of that book, at that time, for me, I was simultaneously saying to myself: seriously? Moby Dick?
I struggled to find a form for this poem. The form came much later, after the original inspiration. An earlier version I worked on about three years ago wasn’t a pantoum, and wasn’t working, so I abandoned it and set it aside. Since then, I’ve read a number of English-language pantoums I admire, particularly those of John Ashbery, like “Hotel Lautréamont.” Those English-language pantoums are what inspired me to go back and give this poem one last try, using a different form.
What I absolutely love about the pantoum is the way skillful poets are able to get the lines to read differently (for want of a better term) each time they recur. I think recursion, whether of sound, or image, or structure is one of the great joys of poetry. Actually, recursion may be one of the things that makes some poetry and some mathematics a natural pairing. In a proof, things will recur, as in a poem, and there’s a kind of beauty in that. Honestly, I tend to write in free verse much more often in my work than I do in forms, so turning this poem into a pantoum was a real departure for me. It felt right though, and seemed more musical—or maybe incantatory--than the earlier version.
EJ: Typically my poems and stories begin with a character answering a very specific "What if?" and I usually tailor the language to fit the sensibilities of my character. In this case, Asian-American Penelope Chang is adopting a diet to lose weight and conform to the phenotype of the Little Asian Girl, but she is protesting all the way. "Rice Cooker Dreams" was originally entitled "Atkins Wasn't Asian" because I wanted to explore the implications of how a low-to-no carb Atkins diet would be received by someone who was Asian-American, someone who daily ate a wide range of complex carbohydrates popular in Western and Asian cuisines. The effect of taking out carbs from an Asian meal is unsettling because the rice or noodles usually soak up the sauces of the main dishes, thus necessarily diluting the flavors, and so eating the main dishes by themselves can be a rather overpowering, unbalanced experience. Asian meals need carbs.
To me, "Rice Cooker Dreams" has a western voice (though perhaps a little less mainstream) because Penelope Chang is a western character, born and bred in America, speaking very little Chinese (a fact not super-obvious from the poem yet that is how I envisioned her). In my opinion, the multicultural fusion in "Rice Cooker Dreams" occurs more at the thematic, content, and form level rather than the language/communication level.
While I tend to write in free verse, I always like giving my poems some sort of form because imposing visual structure onto a poem can result in a powerfully coiled subtext that can either align with or go against the meaning of the words on the page. For this poem, I played with the shapes of some stanzas to visually reflect the movement of the narrator's thoughts at that moment. For example, in the fourth stanza, my narrator meditates on the nature of lotus while in lotus position and comes to the surreal conclusion that her body is "a blossoming lotus," so I tweaked each line to be shorter, longer, shorter, etc. until the stanza resembled a sideways lotus blossom to reflect her mental and physical state of being. Likewise, in the sixth stanza, I wanted the shape of that stanza to literally portray the waning of the speaker's body, energy, voice ultimately reduced to ellipses, which evokes more than a simple period. Also, I wanted to show how the repetition of "no" actively encourages an obsession of that which is forbidden, and the resulting emotional whiplash builds from stanza to stanza.
Addressing the ending of "Rice Cooker Dreams," it was a very conscious decision to begin and end this poem with references that were extremely familiar to an educated mainstream American audience because, for this poem, I am writing for the educated mainstream American audience. In both stanzas, I juxtaposed the very Asian-American name of "Penelope Chang" with "Atkins" and "Prufrock" in a way that that Penelope, in her self-assertion, claims them as her own. Also, the salutation in the last stanza is a riff from ancient Roman times, when the gladiators would tell the audience "We, who are about to die, salute you." I thought it made sense and was fun, given that in the end Penelope surrenders into the madness of her restrictive diet, thereby embracing the "no's."
JR: Sonya and Mary, it is fitting that yours are the last poems we will visit in this conversation, because both of you have written about that great equalizer, which transcends culture, geography, class, and genre: death.
Sonya, you're one of the first people to whom the mythpunk label was applied (Cat even named you in her first entry on the subject), and it's easy to see why. "Persephone in Hel" is about female rulers of the underworld from two different branches of mythology. Mythpunk in general, and this poem in particular, takes elements from disparate origins, mixes them up, and ultimately applies them to the larger whole of human experience. This piece explores the tangled themes of sex, hunger, life, and death. Can we ever truly separate those concepts? What led you to examine them in terms of these two figures, and how do you feel about the mythpunk label?
Sonya Taaffe: I am afraid the answer to your first question may be disappointingly non-theoretical: "Persephone in Hel" was written for Lila Garrott-Wejksnora, occurring to me with the first line and proceeding naturally from there, and I'm only surprised no one else seems to have paired these two figures already. (I haven't checked Yuletide.) They seem an intuitive fit, Persephone with her grain-reaped half-life in the underworld, Hel who is always half blár, the blue-black color of bruised or decaying flesh, neither of them a simple death. I don't in fact identify with Persephone — I have always been the one who offers pomegranates — but the earliest gods I learned were Norse and Greek, and almost all the love poems I have ever written have come out myth. I don't know where Hades is in all this, of course, but I don't think it matters. No one worries about Nergal when they write Ereškigal and Ištar.
(There's a thought. Imagine it is Ereškigal who has taken up with Persephone and so the world above is dying, drying, windflowers wilting to dust. When death makes love to springtime, what comes of that earth? I imagine Namtar and Hermes, listening at the door. Maybe they swap cigarettes. Their shrugs are philosophical; they have run the gods' errands often enough to know not to guess. What led me to write the poem is, I'd have to turn my brain off not to.)
As to your second, I am in a curious position with mythpunk, because as with speculative poetry, it's a subgenre with which I've been identified and in which I don't really believe. When it was originally being defined as the exploration of myth and folklore through various modern and postmodern literary techniques, I could find very little to differentiate it from the work of earlier writers like Angela Carter — or even James Joyce — who criticized, deconstructed, and threw into a blender their source material as much as they made use of its familiar motifs.* I may find it slightly more defensible as an actual movement now that the writing of mythpunk is starting to be treated as a conscious act of subversion and reappropriation (see the recent roundtable at Strange Horizons) rather than just the aggregation of a similarly-published group of writers under a catchier heading than "mythic fiction," but I'm still not sure it offers enough of an argument to previous traditions to deserve its -punk yet.
There is also the fact that I dislike labels; I am not drawn to groups; I find much of the sub-taxonomy of genres unnecessary, cliquéy. That may be another conversation. In any case, I don't think of myself as a writer of mythpunk. But I will call this one a love poem, and hope the comparison doesn't make Sappho turn in her sixth-century grave.
(Does she remember herself in the house of Hades? What she did sing for Eurydike?)
That sort of thing.
* T.S. Eliot, "Ulysses, Order and Myth" (1923): "In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. They will not be imitators, any more than the scientist who uses the discoveries of an Einstein in pursuing his own, independent, further investigations. It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history . . . Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method. It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art . . ." Written in response to a negative review of Ulysses by Richard Aldington, then-husband of the Imagist poet H.D., who knew a thing or two about the reappropriation of myths herself. Anyone reading this who has never heard of Helen in Egypt (1961), you're missing something.
CMV: I'm about to defend and disavow mythpunk in the same breath--must be a real literary movement.
Thing is, I'm not sure I'm a mythpunk writer these days. It certainly doesn't describe all my work and my writing has evolved a lot since, good grief, 2006, when I wrote that post. I don't mind labels as long as they're fluid--they help readers define what they love. One never expects one's idle blog posts to take off the way that one has. I certainly never meant to drag Sonya into a label she doesn't want. However, it's clear to me, given how much others have seized upon the word, that there was and is a Something floating around that wanted a name, and got one. It's a word whose meaning is evolving and being decided upon even now, and that's exciting. I've always stressed the "punk" side of any punk I've been identified with. One difference, I'd say, between "us" and Angela Carter and James Joyce is that their anxieties are not our anxieties, their anger is not our anger, their punk is not our punk. I don't think what I and the writers who find use in the word mythpunk are doing is the same as Carter and Joyce and everyone else who has used myths to good effect, which is why I made the post and five years later am still talking about it. Naming things has power--obviously. You might as well give up naming and call us all modernists forever--but we don't do that, we are all always trying on new hats and names, and I think that's healthy, whether I personally identify with the name years on or not. No one and nothing is static.
Also the SH series was pretty amazing.
ST: I won't argue with other people's desire to wear hats. Myself, I probably would give up naming (and I wouldn't refer to myself as a modernist, either), but mileage is a variable thing.
JR: It would seem that the appropriate amount of definition is different for each of us. It's fascinating to see how much opinions vary even within a small set of people who tend to be grouped together from an outside perspective. For those who would like to become more familiar with Helen in Egypt, the University of Pennsylvania has posted audio recordings of the author reading from this work in 1955.
Mary, earlier you mentioned the comfort of naming things, making them real, and using that in a way to process loss. Shirley comes across as a vibrant and whimsical person because of the definite details you provide -- I was delighted to learn that there are such places as a Victorian Perambulator Museum and a Tuba Hall of Fame, for instance. Perhaps it is also because of those details that the loss packs such a punch. The mix of whimsy and wistfulness throughout this piece makes each feel more definite than they might alone. We've talked a lot about defining and erasing lines in this conversation. How much can we define and erase the final line between life and death, and how can the attempt help us process that finality? And, if you feel so inclined, perhaps you could tell us a bit about the person who inspired this piece.
MT: Poetry does blur edges, because every line shimmers into focus, then out of focus in the light of the next line. If language is what makes humanity a cooperative species, able to occupy almost every niche in the planet, then poetry makes us able to imagine the impossible, without apology.
My friend Shirley Swayne was an artist who believed everything and nothing, whose house was decorated with discards in contexts that made them mean something arresting. She would do charcoal studies of a broken doll or the wing of a road-killed hawk. She lived on the edge, at the end occupying a crumbling house and living on food from a supermarket dumpster. She married a bigamist who abandoned her on their wedding night, and died because she had no health insurance and was being treated with Chinese medicine for an undiagnosed disease by her neighbor, who acknowledged he had no knowledge of Chinese medicine except for what he had gleaned at the local library.
Why Enceladus? The beauty of the volcanos of Enceladus and their immense distance from us would have lured her. And as to the Giant, I'm not sure why his death reminded me of my friend's. Perhaps she was, in a way, slain by Athena.
Death is a boundary in the real world, and even in the spiritual. But in the world of poetry, death means moving to another moon, one that spews gauzy light. That statement is feeling rather than logic. Without that blurring, perhaps we would go mad -- earthbound, but mad.
Sappho beyond Hades
The shades are silent and there is no making.
She misses the warmth of sunlight on stone
and the sound of children playing.
There are children here, but they are all so grave,
like their elders, moving gravely through death's halls.
She misses the bright constellations, she misses burning.
She has begun to forget the sound of the sea
and the heft of words.
When she has forgotten how to yearn
when not even blood will bring back names to her
she will slip down through Lethe to begin once more
with "Aaa, oooh, milky goo", and that is a star, and this
is what it means when you get the words right.
Julia, you asked about blurring the lines between life and death? This is the best answer I have.
ST: That's lovely.
JR: Agreed! And now that we have blurred the edge between interview and poetry, I think this is an excellent place to stop. Thanks to everyone for providing such fabulous conversation.