Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Horror Poetry: Why The Hell Would You Want to Write That Shit???

While at Walmart, I started writing many things that I just never finished, due to be tired all the time and then being distracted by my mom's ongoing health situation. At one point, I was seriously thinking of writing a book about the use of the macabre in poetry -- a how-to writing book. I'm not sure if I'll ever get back to it. However, here are the first couple of pages....

Simply because you want to—that should be a good enough reason by itself. Poetry allows a certain level of creative freedom fiction cannot afford. A poem does not have to live and die by narrative rules, and you do not need to follow the rhetorical strategies found within an essay. Of course, you can employ both, but a successful poem can create its own system and rules, so long as one iron clad commandment is met: it has to work, successfully, on the page, and claiming that it needs to be read out loud is a cop-out, just like hiding behind “but it’s how I feel” is the mark of an amatuer. This is why good poetry can run from ancient alliterative narrative, like in Beowulf to Shakespeare’s rhyming pentameter and more post-modernist work, like what one would find in Charles Olson’s body of work. No one system of prosody is superior to another, especially if you take the different shapes and forms as different types of tools to be used. No self-respecting carpenter would ever suggest that every job can be completed with only a hammer. This is why no serious student of poetry should ever dismiss fragmentation over rhyme, or language abstraction in favor of metrical lines. Sure, some poets, like Marilynn Hacker have spent a career writing formal verse, while more experimental poets like Ron Silliman have spent their time pushing the boundries of language. This is not an argument against specializing in a certain type of poetry. Just like a carpenter would never do every job with a hammer, a very skilled cabinet maker wouldn’t take issue with somebody who spends most of their time working with a lathe. Craft is craft. And a craftsman can recognize solid workmanship, even if it is outside their day-to-day relationship with their own favored set of tools. In short, the vague sense of “what is poetry” can open a whole new universe of writing possibilities.

That freedom, however, comes at a very high price. You will not make money. If you want to make a living writing, try writing novels or non-fiction books. Zombies and how-to essays sell. Poetry does not. In fact, writing poetry will likely cost you money. Pay-to-enter book contests are common, and a lot of journals still do not take email submissions. You will not be compensated very well for your work, and in many cases, you will only be paid in contributor copies. So, enter into this proposition carefully, with your eyes open. Most of all, you should know one other truth: while most of society does not take contemporary poetry seriously, poetry labeled as “horror” or “speculative” will be taken even less seriously. Pursuing a career as a poet is to actively consign yourself to obscurity. So, the question comes again: why the hell would you want to write this shit?

Simply because you want to—that should be a good enough reason by itself. Plus, there is no rule disqualifying poets from writing fiction, or essayists from dabbling in playwriting. When it comes down to it, writing is writing. Craft is craft. Yet, before wading into poetry for the first time, there are a few myths you should get out of your head.

1. Poetry is about emotion, and I have feelings!

Um. No. Journaling has positive therapeutic value. If you are writing for a personal sense of catharsis, good for you. However, keep it to yourself. Decorum changes quickly, once you seek to place that work in front of a reader. Writing a poem complaining of a broken heart may elicit a pat on the head from a loved one, but a potential editor or reader really doesn’t care how you came to terms with your mother’s cancer, or how you got over being dumped in your freshman year in college. Editors and readers don’t care about you; they care about the words on the page. If the quality of writing is not there, then they will stop reading halfway through. If you are writing because you are in need of therapy, then seek a therapist, not a poetry editor. This is not to say “confessional” poetry is all bad. Many poets have successfully written about their personal lives, but their facility and creativity with language keeps their work from being purely navel-gazing drivel.

2. Post-Modernists Have Killed Poetry.

Crock of shit. Pure and simple. People who make this claim usually do not widely read poetry. Metrical poetry is alive and well, and it is still being written and published. There is a theory that politics swings like a pendulum, back and forth, left to right. The history of poetry has done the same. The ascendency of free verse was met with profound skepticism. Then, it became the prevailing norm. During the Reagan years, the formalists pushed back, hard. Then, other poets pushed back against the formalists. Then, a journal like Fence comes along, claiming to try and straddle the line between the two. Yes, there are l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e and oilipo poets out there, doing crazy things with the English language. At the same time, formal and metrical poets are still doing their thing to. Both are not going away anytime soon.

3. Academics Have Killed Poetry

Also a crock of shit. However, there is something important to keep in mind, here. If you are going to spend most of your time writing poems, and not hammering out the zombie or vampire novel mass market paperback houses want to consider, then you will have to find a day job. Many poets are also English teachers, both in high school and in college.

Because poetry doesn’t sell as well as zombie or vampire fiction currently does, there are not a lot of major presses into publishing it. In fact, beyond some of the large New York City poetry publishers like Graywolf, Ecco, or Pengiun, a bulk of poetry is published by college and university presses. The reason is quite simply one of finances. University presses are often run by faculty and poorly paid graduate students. The university itself often helps with funding. It helps minimize the loss poetry can accrue.

Also, most importantly, see point #2. English teachers and college professors are not pointy-headed avant gardists; they are also not conservative minded formalists either. College English departments are filled with a vast array of different types of poets and teachers. Visit an English Department sometime, and you will say a vast array of political and aesthetic disagreements taking place.

4. There is No Such Thing as “Horror” or “Speculative” Poetry

“Genre” sometimes is just a word that describes content or subject matter. It doesn’t describe the over all aesthetic, shape, or form of the writing itself. Dracula, House of Leaves, and The Shining are all considered horror novels, but they are all profoundly different in how they are written. Yusef Komunyaakaa, Langston Hughes, and Reginald Shepard are/were a considered “African-American poets,” but none of those writers are alike either. Go through every genre label you will find on book flaps, from Feminist Poetry onwards, and you will find the same thing.

Horror is only a word describing subject matter. The claim that there is no such thing as “horror poetry” is asinine at best, as it turns to blind eye to literary history. Christopher Marlowe wrote “Dr. Faustus” in verse. Shakespeare wrote “Titus Andronicus,” a play full of rape, dismemberment, and cannibalism, in verse as well. I have yet to find one happy, non-tragic, non-mortified poem about the halochaust, disease, or any the darker aspects of humanity. Death is often the subject of poetry as much as love is.

Sure, you will not see a lot of good poems about zombies or vampires, but in terms of pop culture, those are relatively recent imaginative constructions. It’s largely untapped territory for metaphor. Give it time, and it will come. Many who argue against the mere thought of “horror” poetry argue also that there is a lot of really crappy poetry floating around the internet. This is nothing new.

Theodore Sturgeon once noted that “"Ninety percent of everything is crap." Science fiction, itself as an intellectual institution, should not held accountable for the countless trees slaughtered in the name of silly robots or swaggering starship captains. Shitty writing exists, and it will continue to exist as long as human beings pick up pens or furiously pound on keyboards. But, you cannot hold imaginative territory and metaphoric possibilities accountable for the sins of talentless writers. “Horror” will exist as long as human beings feel dread, fear death, have incomprehensible nightmares, and commit terrible crimes against each other. The Old Testament and other works of scripture were first set down thousands of years ago. Utopia has never come, and it likely never will. Unstanding humanity also requires understanding inhumanity.

Writing “horror” is another way of engaging in life. So what if there is a lot of crap out there? I would wager writers like Harlan Ellison or Phillip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut never stopped, looked at all the poorly written space opera, and said, “You know what? Not today, there’s too much garbage being published as science fiction. So, I’m going to write about sexually repressed teens at a boarding school. That will earn me respect.” So, it all comes back to one mantra.

Why horror? Why write poetry? Simply because you want to— that should be a good enough reason by itself.

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