Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Interview: Mike Allen

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Mike Allen is the editor of several poetry journals and short story/poetry collections/anthologies including Mythic Delirium, The Alchemy of Stars: Rhysling Award Winners Showcase, The Journey to Kailash, and Clockwork Phoenix. Both his fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous publications and he has won the Rhysling Award for his poetry.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview! You're primarily known for your poetry. When did you know you wanted to be a poet?

I can't say that's something I've ever known; it's not something I deliberately set out to do.

I suppose I grew up believing that writers should try to master myriad forms of writing, not just fiction, or essays, or plays, or what have you. When I was a kid, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings lit the furnace of my imagination, and when I started seriously exploring his work, I found the poetry, the translations, the critical essays written about about him that led me to explore authors as diverse as T.S. Eliot and H.P. Lovecraft and Ursula Le Guin. As a teen I had a subscription to Asimov's, which has poetry in every issue. Most of my childhood was spent in a kind of isolation, in a tiny Appalachian town where no one shared my reading tastes. I had no knowledge of or contact with "fandom," so I was perfectly free to assume that genre fiction and poetry went hand in hand -- there was no one around to tell me otherwise. So when I started seriously trying to break into the magazine markets, I wrote both fiction and poetry.

The turning point, I think, came as I was studying for my master's degree in creative writing. I turned in poems for my seminar group, which other students, and the professor, would then tear to pieces -- hell, split to atoms. After a couple rounds of this humiliation I became determined to come up with a poem that could survive the workshop. As a result of this, I generated a lot of poetry; and once I graduated, it was my poetry that started selling to small press markets. So I wrote more. I tried to listen to what other, more experienced poets had to say to me, both in their criticisms, and in their own poetry. And, I like to think, I gradually got better.

Why science fiction or fantasy poetry? Do you think there's a significant difference between genre and non-genre poetry?

I do actually believe there is a difference. Suzette Haden Elgin has defined the science fiction poem as a poem that is based in a reality other than our own, just as a science fiction or fantasy story can be. Generally, that's what I mean when I use the term. I don't intend it as a statement of some sort of school or movement. Rather, it's a flavor. Take, for example, Joe Haldeman's "Eighteen Years Old, October Eleventh," which imagines a young girl's earring lost in the bushes and found a million years in the future by a being who is perhaps the girl's descendant. Within the story that the poem tells, there is no question that the being "exists"; she is not intended to be taken as mere metaphor. Thus the poem has the same feel of construction of an alternate reality that a science fiction short story does.

But it's worth noting that there is no sharply delineated boundary between genre and non-genre poetry. It's not that uncommon to see poems in literary journals that borrow science fiction furniture to form their metaphors. Nor it is it uncommon to see poems in genre venues that have a dash of speculative flavor but don't actually engage in alternate world-building. Joe Haldeman, again, has written one of the best of these, a deeply moving poem called "DX'' that's really a memoir of his experiences in Vietnam, and it ends with a wish on the part of the author that there might be a parallel universe somewhere where his buddies killed in the war still live on. Because Joe is who he is, "DX" was published and reprinted and reprinted in genre venues, but if you actually want to engage in hair-splitting as to whether it is or isn't fantasy, well, it probably isn't.

Who were the important personalities in your life when it comes to SF poetry?

There's a number of them. Richard Dillard at Hollins University, who understood what I was trying to do and set me on the right path; Laurel Winter, who accepted enough of my work while she was poetry editor at Tales of the Unanticipated to convince me I maybe was doing something right; Bruce Boston, who gave me an invaluable critique of my first chapbook, Defacing the Moon, transmuting it from a bucket full of crap into a sleek production that brought me my first reviews in Asimov's -- not to mention teaching me some approaches that I made part of my permanent tool kit; Billy Collins, whose book Sailing Alone Around the Room set some dynamite under the barriers I'd unwittingly created for myself in terms of structure and language; my good friend Sonya Taaffe, whose myth-based poetry gradually pulled me in and spun me off in new directions, and without whom the Disturbing Muses cycle of poems probably wouldn't have happened; and the members of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, who keep giving awards either to me or to poems I pick for Mythic Delirium. I'm sure grateful to all of them.

How did you become the editor and then publisher of Mythic Delirium? What are some of the challenges in running such a publication?

I created Mythic Delirium ten years ago, and was at that time both editor and publisher. At that time I had already worked on a couple of projects with others, but I felt the need to set out on my own. I also didn't think I had the time to effectively handle a zine devoted to fiction, so I went with poetry. I originally tried to make Mythic Delirium unique by limiting it to rhymed and metered verse, but that so severely limited what I could choose from that I did away with that requirement by the third issue.

Although Mythic Delirium almost didn't have a third issue. The small press community barely noticed it, except for a couple of mocking reviews claiming it was overpriced -- I mean, how dare I try to make my money back? About that time I became involved with Absolute Magnitude, the flagship magazine of DNA Publications, and so I let Mythic Delirium die. Except, after Ellen Datlow praised my first issue in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, DNA's Warren Lapine asked me to revive the zine for him. After much hand-wringing, I agreed, and we went forward for five more years, with DNA covering all my publishing expenses, a pretty enviable position for a poetry zine editor.

But unfortunately, DNA's financial ship started taking on water, and I had to decide whether or not to let Mythic Delirium drown with it. I will avoid a long, long, involved story and just say that when I became certain of the end, I told Warren I wanted the zine back and he allowed me to take it. Then came the problem of how to keep it alive -- most of the subscribers I'd gained with DNA did not stay with me once I was back on my own. So I slashed the budget, reducing both pay rates and production costs, improved my website, and just trudged on. And lo and behold, I picked up new subscribers. And the pay rate change did nothing to slow submissions. So the zine makes enough money and generates enough interest to keep itself going -- without all that much effort from me, really. What more could I ask for?

What's your criteria for what constitutes a good poem?

I don't exactly carry around a checklist. At risk of sounding like some undead creature trying to regenerate its nerve endings, I'd say that first and foremost, for me to even consider buying a poem, it has to make me feel something. And by that I don't mean nausea, heh. I need to feel a thrill of recognition or chill of evil, I need to be forced to crack a smile, or experience that knife-in-the-gut brought on by righteous anguish or despair. If you can actually make me tear up, like Catherynne Valente did with "The Eight Legs of Grandmother Spider," you are so, so in.

In more practical terms: a lot of people see that in my guidelines I'm open to rhyming verse, and then send me goofy fantasy narratives written in sing-song couplets that have no consistent meter. I never read these past the first three or four lines, I'm sorry. Rhyming is hard to do right: it has to sound natural, like the phrases were meant to flow like that. Some poets, like Ann K. Schwader or Constance Cooper, seem to be born to do it right, but most just flounder painfully. Know what you're doing before you try it. (To be truthful, I can't pull off a sonnet to save my life, though I have managed a couple respectable sestinas.)

Do you think the Internet has made SF poetry more viable and given it more venues?

Absolutely. It's also made self-promotion much easier, which is a skill you have to develop these days if you're going to leave any kind of footprint -- especially if you're one of those obscure wretches known as "genre poets." Simply put, being published in little print zines, while fun, tended to mean no one would ever see my work. Out on the Internet, people could actually find these things. According to my own utterly unscientific, totally anecdotal sense of events, I was completely off the radar as a writer of any kind until my poems started appearing in Internet venues, especially Strange Horizons. Then, all of a sudden, I was an "accomplished poet."

So, in terms of exposure, I think the Internet has done great things for speculative poetry. And you can see an effort in new e-zines like Goblin Fruit to actually engage with the 21st century and experiment with multimedia presentation. I hope their efforts catch on. It would be great to see the so-called poetry of the future actually catch up to the present.

Let's talk about your fiction. What's your writing process like?

It varies from story to story. Every once in a while something I encounter or overhear causes a sort of mental implosion, a reverse big bang of disparate ideas that collapses into a fully formed story. (This is actually also true of my poetry.) But most of the time writing a draft works more like a slow bleed. I spurt a bit on to a page or two, but then have to do something else, which lets the wound close, and I have to take a razor to it again.

To explain further, you must understand that I actually make my living as a newspaper writer. Over the past ten years I've written more than 2,000 news stories. So I'm writing all the time, which is good, but the work does drain from the same pool that my creative endeavors emerge from. Also, though I can be a very focused, driven person, I have never been a very organized person. So, fiction writing happens when I am in the mood and jazzed to the right level of energy. (For some reason, I'm usually most creatively fertile in the winter, and driest in the summer.)

Did you ever consider writing a novel or are you planning to stick with poetry and short stories?

I'm actually at work on a novel, though I don't trumpet it much -- I mean, just about every other writer out there is working on one too. Maybe when mine's finished I'll start shouting a bit louder.

What I consider to be the book's first and second chapters have already appeared out there in the publisphere. The first, "The Hiker's Tale," appeared in Erzebet YellowBoy's Cabinet des Fées last year and has since been made available at the Papaveria Press website. The second installment, "Follow the Wounded One," was released as a chapbook in June by John Benson of Not One of Us. Both center on a twentysomething man of Melungian heritage who can no longer deny his ability to see into the spirit world. In the first story he learns that he can act on the things he sees in that world. In the second story, he learns the things he sees there can act on him. He also meets and connects with someone who I imagine will become both his love interest and his foil. The narrative continues, though I haven't yet tried shopping around further episodes as standalone stories. I'm not sure if they can stand alone past part two.

I don't mean to dichotomize, but which is your current priority: fiction or poetry? (Or even editing?) Are you phase-type of person (i.e. "I'm currently in a poetry phase", etc.) or is editing, fiction writing, and poetry a simultaneous endeavor with you?

I do it all at once -- jack of all trades, master of none. In practical terms, this means that whatever I'm focused on tends to be whatever I consider to be due the soonest. That said, I think I have to confess that I am slowly, ponderously shifting to a tighter concentration on fiction.

There's several reasons for this. One is the the slowly accumulating novel I mentioned earlier. One is that I've finally got a couple of short stories out there, like "The Button Bin" at Helix and Transcriptase or "An Invitation via Email" in the new Weird Tales, that I like to think tap the same heights in prose that I've managed in verse -- and I really hope I can generate more. One is that, after winning the Rhysling Award three times and having my collection Strange Wisdoms of the Dead picked as an Editor's Choice by The Philadelphia Inquirer, I don't know that there's much more I can prove as a speculative poet, at least not in terms of my personal writing.

But you know, those pesky poems do seem to keep cropping up anyway. Amal El-Mohtar of Goblin Fruit just gave me an idea involving demons that grow in the ground like bulbs. I'm sure something will spring from it.

Are there any elements in one format that you carry on to the other?

It's all one gelatinous mass of primordial storytelling soup. Just expressed sometimes in different ways. Most of my poems can be read as very short stories or vignettes -- I don't break the shackles of narrative but once in a blue moon.

Which is more difficult for you to write?

I have more practice with poetry, which also has the advantage, usually, of being shorter. But neither comes easy.

You recently edited an anthology, Clockwork Phoenix. Why did you decide to edit such an anthology?

I had co-edited a major genre poetry anthology (The Alchemy of Stars: Rhysling Award Winners Showcase) and edited two quirky half-poetry, half-fiction anthologies (Mythic and Mythic 2) and felt it was time to take what I had learned and apply it to something more ambitious.

It's a hot topic right now but was gender balance ever a concern when putting together the book?

We only concerned ourselves with talent. We wound up with the women in the book outnumbering the men by more than two to one — to be precise, 13 to 5 — and though I certainly don't mind that, it wasn't planned.

I've read that women tend to put more craftsmanship into their writing at the sentence level than men. If that's true, that could certainly have been a factor, because I actively sought out eloquent prose.

I hear you're already planning a sequel to the anthology. Will this be an annual publication? How's the reception to the book so far?

The plan has always been for Clockwork Phoenix to be an annual series.

Heh. So far, even the most lukewarm reviewers have still found stories to gush over. And Locus and Publisher's Weekly both gave praise without reservations. I can't say I've got anything to complain about on that front. I'm hoping readers will be equally enthusiastic in their assessment, and that they'll share their enthusiasm publicly.

Like every editing project I've taken on to date, book, zine or in-between, the biggest challenge has been nabbing and retaining folks' attention. But Clockwork Phoenix seemed to have excitement building from the start, even before I started beating the publicity drums. I'm sure it will be my best-selling book to date -- though given all my other books are poetry anthologies or collections, that's not a high bar to jump. *g*

What do you look for in a story?

Now I get to go all mystic on you. I want stories that are both compelling and told with style. Stuff that stretches my imagination. Ian Randall Strock of SF Scope gently accused me of stuffing the book with "beautiful word pictures" instead of coherent stories. Though I'd tend to respectfully disagree with the second half of that statement, I think it's fair to say that beautiful word pictures form essential ingredients for most all the tales I picked for the first volume. I seem to be attracted, to some degree, to dream-like narratives, though they still, like Leah Bobet's "Bell, Book, and Candle," need to come through with fascinating characters and gripping plots.

There's a lot of poetry in the prose in Clockwork Phoenix. You could, if you want, think of it as an epic version of an issue of Mythic Delirium.

It's probably not going to be easy for someone reading this to get a grasp on what I'm talking about, unless, of course, they read the book.

You co-edited New Dominions with your wife Anita. How else has she affected your output? Did she also help select some of the stories for Clockwork Phoenix, do you show her every poem and every story's first draft, etc.?

I don't know if I can count the ways she's affected what I do. From giving me ideas to critiquing to assisting in the editing process. She has an exceptional talent for arranging. She can take the flotsam I've accepted for this project or that and come up with an order such that, when you read an issue of Mythic Delirium or Mythic front to back, there's a kind of emotional and imagistic thread you can follow from one piece to the next. She set the order for the stories in Clockwork Phoenix, and I was pleased but not at all surprised when Publishers Weekly made note that the tales "flow cleverly and seamlessly from one inspiration to another."

But actually, because Anita can be a tough critic, I don't tend to show her my stories or poems until I've had a chance to polish them up a bit. I want them to stand up to inspection. *g*

What can you tell us about The Journey to Kailash, your new poetry collection?

This book is kind of a capstone to my poetry career -- it's available as both a hardcover and paperback, and it's probably the most "literary" of all my collections. It starts with the title poem, which won the Rhysling Award last year, and ends with a series of poems I've done about modern artists in which I imagine the things portrayed in their abstract paintings were in fact objects seen in life.

I personally believe the chapbook is the best format for presenting poetry, but it's not commercially viable -- so as a way of approximating that, I've divided the book into three parts that approximate chapbook size. And I know this will sound cliched, but the order to put the poems in came to me in a dream, served up by the ole unconscious brain. So I went with it.

The Journey to Kailash essentially contains the bulk of my better poetry that wasn't already stuffed into Strange Wisdoms of the Dead. The two books pretty much gather my best poems from the mid-90s to now, and together just about add up to the sum of my career as a poet. Heck, together they make 270-some pages of poetry! It's probably going to take years for me to build up enough material to produce another book that size, so for now, I guess, this is it.

If there's anything you could change in the industry, what would it be?

If you allow me to indulge in the fantasy that I could make any changes to the publishing industry whatsoever, I would probably crank back the clock, oh, about 70 years, to the days when a writer could actually earn a living writing short stories for the magazine markets. My friend Nelson Bond made his living that way once upon time, and I envied him that experience, though I did not envy him the experience of watching the environment in which he thrived become obsolete.

The way technology evolves, and attention shifts, I believe obsolescence and obscurity will be a constant threat to any writer trying to build and keep an audience. I think it's more valuable to learn how to roll with the current than to stand astride it and rail for it to Stop, please stop!

Any advice for aspiring poets?

Yes. Read poetry. Actual published poetry, ancient and modern. Get familiar with its tricks and nuances. Consider, even, subscribing to a magazine like Poetry. Don't assume that it's something anyone can do right, and that just because you've written something and made it rhyme, it actually works like a poem should work. And these things matter just as much with genre poetry as with poetry in literary journals. A poetry editor at a prominent professional speculative fiction magazine confided in me last year that based on the ineptitude of many of the submissions received ... well, that editor was convinced that these hopeful contributors had never read any poetry at all.

And also, don't be satisfied with being "good enough." Be willing to try new things. If you're someone who really is serious about speculative poetry, Lord help you, you should at least explore what else is out there, what's been done already. I had being seeing my poems published for years, and in fact had even won a Rhysling, for "Epochs in Exile," co-written with my buddy Charlie Saplak --- but when I finally got to read all the other Rhysling winners (while co-editing The Alchemy of Stars) what I learned still allowed me to take my own poetry up a notch or two. As that book is readily available now, there's no excuse for other poets in this field not do to the same.

Advice for aspiring writers?

I guess there's a number of contradictory platitudes I could offer. Getting anywhere as a writer requires a strange combination of unshakable faith in your own talent and willingness to accept that you might be doing everything wrong. You have to listen when people who know what they're talking about tell you how to improve and not listen when people who don't know what they're talking about tell you to quit. If you can manage both, and manage to sort out who is who, you've got a chance.

Narrowing down to the unique little world of genre markets -- as this scene exists today, just about every aspect of it is represented on the Internet. Just about every major (and even minor) writer, editor and publisher has some sort of Internet presence. This affords a newbie an amazing opportunity for networking, getting to know other writers and editors, and them getting some familiarity with you. You're a fool if you don't take advantage of it. Just don't make a fool of yourself. *g*

How about advice for aspiring editors?

The continuing advances in technology have, I think, made it easier and easier for folks to try their hands at editing, whether it be a zine, a chapbook anthology, a web site, what have you. And -- shhh! -- this relates to what I just said about networking: one of the best ways for a new person to network is to edit something. It gives you the perfect excuse to meet people: Hello, Ms. Big Name Writer, would you be willing to allow me to publish something by you? Now don't get me wrong, that really shouldn't be the goal of your publication, it's just a great side benefit. And if you're going to do that, you'd better be planning to produce something that said writer will be pleased to see herself in.

In fact, that is a good basic goal. If you're going to edit, please, please, please, show enough discretion that you don't put out something your contributors are going to be embarrassed by. Think of every product as your audition for the next, bigger project.

I suppose my answer shifted slightly to include publishers as well as editors, but at the small press level they're one and the same anyway.

Anything else you'd like to plug?

Sure! I've come this far, might as well. From time to time I've taken on a publishing project such as Ian Watson's poetry collection The Lexicographer's Love Song, just because I felt the words within were worth sharing. Last year, Rhysling Award-winning poet Kendall Evans approached me with his bizarre and fun "dramatic poem in verse," In Deepspace Shadows, thinking I might just be crazy enough to publish it as a standalone chapbook. And it turned out I was. It's written in Shakespearan blank verse, chronicling the arguments that erupt and the mutiny than ensues among five artificially intelligent robots crewing a spaceship bound for nowhere. I hadn't read anything quite like it, a phenomenon which tends to cause me to want to publish things. The chapbook's available at the Mythic Delirium website.


Anonymous said...

Great interveiw! Mike Allen is a serious talent. I can't wait to get my hands on more of his stuff.


Rhonda Parrish said...

What an awesome interview full of wonderful gems of advice. I have this bookmarked to return to it again for another in-depth reading when I'm not up to my eyeballs in my NaNoWriMo project :)