Monday, December 28, 2009

Interview: Amal El-Mohtar

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Amal El-Mohtar writes poetry and fiction, and is co-editor of
Goblin Fruit.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you get acquainted with fiction and poetry in general?

Totally my pleasure. Thanks for having me!

I’m told that there are pictures – possibly videos – of me at roughly two years of age, opening birthday or Christmas presents (December-born folk, revolt against the union of those things!) shunning toy-shaped presents in favour of dragging a newly gifted book to a corner and turning its pages. My childhood’s full of “she just wouldn’t stop reading!” anecdotes: both parents tell me how, when they read me bedtime stories (did anyone else have those Magic Castle books? “Come to the magic castle when you are growing tall, rows upon rows of word-windows line every single wall”?), I memorised the stories before I learned how to read, and would absolutely not allow my parents the luxury of paraphrase or summary when they tried to skip ahead, insisting that they speak every word with me.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that my more autonomous acquaintance with both fiction and poetry started with Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which remains my most beloved book to this day. Although with poetry, I remember an earlier predecessor: in one of those large children’s anthologies, I read a poem about a fairy who wore a snail’s silver slime-trail as a sash and was the envy of her sisters. I loved it, and wished I’d written it.

What made you decide to try your hand at both?

I’m not sure where I got this idea – possibly I was reading something about Tolkien, or something Tolkien said, in which the idea was put forth that in order to write well one must first write poetry and then write stories. I took it to heart, though, and wrote a poem to the moon when I was seven years old, figuring that I’d better start right away if I were going to be as good a writer as Tolkien, you know? Add to that the fact that my parents were wonderfully encouraging, and told me that, since my father’s father wrote poetry, it was in my blood to do so, and that being a Poet was a Big Deal.

At this point in time, do you see yourself more of a poet, a fictionist, an editor, or some other descriptor?

“Fictionist” is one I haven’t heard! Poet – I’m actually rather shy of the title, though I write poetry, because of the aforementioned Importance of Being a Poet that’s been ingrained in me. I tend to just go by “writer,” honestly, as a descriptor of how I see myself. Editing is a function I perform rather than something I see as defining an important part of me; it’s an important thing that I do, rather than an important thing that I am, much as I enjoy it. There are words I want to earn: “author,” “novelist,” “storyteller,” “bard” – in the truth-speaking, path-travelling, music-making sense – but those milestones are still horizon-specks.

When it comes to your fiction, why speculative fiction? Will we be seeing more of your fiction anytime soon?

Why speculative fiction? Possibly Tolkien’s to blame, once again, for providing me with an initial This is What a Writer Is template – but since then, I think it’s partly a reflection of how I see the world, and partly a paean to the importance of imagination. It’s funny – those things ought perhaps to stand in opposition, because on the one hand, it feels more natural to me to write speculatively than otherwise, but on the other, I think pushing the imagination a little further outward and inward is wonderful. Myth, fairy tales, folklore, magic – I grew up steeped in these things, and they’re very much a part of my cosmology, so the speculative element comes naturally. To me, the very act of crafting a narrative is inherently magical. To take ostensibly random happenings and impose meaning on them, to order the universe with our gazes – isn’t that magic? Why stop, then, at creating only the recognisable order in fiction?

As to my stories, a few came out recently: “Connla Mac Lia and the Kingship of Eriu” is currently up at Cabinet des Fées, “The Fishbowl” came out in Shimmer magazine’s Clockwork Jungle Book issue, and “And Their Lips Rang with the Sun” came out in Strange Horizons on October 5. It’s a rather mixed bag: Early Irish fairy story, Steampunkish animal fable (complete with didacticism!), fantastical variation on a peculiarity of the Arabic alphabet...

Let's talk about poetry. For you, is there a strong distinction between speculative poetry vs poetry in general? How about fantastical poetry vs science fiction poetry?

To me, there’s no strong distinction between good speculative poetry and good mainstream poetry in terms of the effect they have on a reader. Poetry is even more magical to me by its nature than prose. Lash a narrative to a ship’s rhythm, spell it out in salt, and I’ll tell you how much more I’ll taste the sea. There’s speculation in metaphor, in the shaping of language to evoke. I’d even say there’s no strong distinction between bad speculative poetry and bad mainstream poetry; there may be a difference in flavour, but both will make me wrinkle my nose.

Likewise, I don’t think there’s a strong distinction between good fantastical poetry and good science fiction poetry: good poetry ought, in my view, to transcend the elements that make it recognisably genre. To stick to the food metaphor, I may prefer this flavour combination to that one, but both, if skilfully done, ought to taste good. When I was little, I despised zucchini, but my mother would always sneak it past me by baking it into zucchini bread, which I joyfully munched without realising what I was having. Now I adore zucchini, so it’s moot.

Why do you write speculative poetry, or what element about it personally appeals to you?

Just as with fiction, I think speculation comes naturally to the medium, but in terms of why I write it, I think it’s just the language I speak best. I want to write poetry thick with mythic resonance, with talking animals and roses and ancient cities and the ocean. But it isn’t all fantasy – my Damascus poems, or older ones like “West on the 148” are elaborations or literal communications of experience. Ultimately I want lived experience to be magical, and want magic to always saturate lived experience.

Do you need to be inspired before being able to write good poetry?

It depends on what you mean by “inspired,” I think. Lightning-flash or emotion recollected in tranquility or passionate conversation with a wry-lipped muse? Either way, I don’t have a solid answer. Several poems that began as one magnificent line, Descended from On High, have had it obliterated by the third draft; I’ve written some of my favourite poems on prompts from friends; I’ve collaborated with people in such a way that we figured out the poem as we went along, and that was great. I think the ubiquitous mad burst of poemic fervour is less important to me than being carried along by the poem once it gets going, have it fall into place as I work out what I’m trying to do – but could you call that inspiration? Maybe.

Which are you more comfortable with--long form poetry or the short form? What are the advantages of each?

I’m generally more comfortable with shorter poems rather than longer – similarly, I’ve yet to write a saleable story with 5000 words or more. Those who’ve heard me speak may be surprised by any tendency towards brevity in me, but so it goes.

You've also collaborated on some poems. What's the experience like?

Pretty triumphant, really.

No, seriously. It’s a bit like sparring for show. Here we are, we writers, with our respective styles and words, our respective stances and guards, and we are to engage them, foible to forte, blade to hilt, in order to create a moving show for the reader. But there’s no choreography to it; we’re discovering our dance step by step, and where one retreats the other must lunge, and where one thrusts the other must parry, and we’re living it as we write it, inhabiting roles and playing them out in language.

Thinking of specific instances – I’ve written about writing “Damascus Divides the Lovers by Zero, or, the City is Never Finished” with Catherynne Valente here, which doesn’t match what I described above, but so far it’s been the exception to my experience. Collaborating with Jessica Wick on poems like “Apple-Jack Tangles the Maidy Lac with a Red, Red Ribbon,” which appeared in Mythic Delirium 20, or “Beggin’ Death,” in Jabberwocky 4, was almost effortless; writing “The Maiden to the Fox Did Say” with Nicole Kornher-Stace was trickier, likely because we don’t have the nine-odd years’ worth of online communication that Jess and I do, so we did pause at a certain point to hash out what we thought was happening and where it was going, but we turned out to not have wildly dissimilar ideas about it, and I quite love the end result.

Some poems are meant to be read out loud. Do you have any performance anxiety?

Not really. I frequently get nervous in the stomach-butterfly way, but that’s usually part of a positive experience for me. I got used to performing in front of an audience from a young age, so I’m fairly comfortable with it; I’ve sung and played the harp in public, and I gave tours for the Haunted Walk of Ottawa every summer for eight years.

Who would be the ideal person to read out loud your poems? What do you look for when it comes to listening/watching a poem being read?

I can’t imagine an ideal person to read my poems; part of the joy of hearing poems read is hearing how differently people read them. Jessica Wick reads things far differently than Mike Allen who reads things far differently than C.S.E. Cooney – the list goes on. I might seek out a certain voice to read out a certain poem, but “ideal” doesn’t really enter into it; each reading’s a new flavour to discover.

As to what I look for in a reading – engagement. I enjoy a reading best when it’s being read with colour and the body and the body’s posture, whether or not I can see the reader. If there are characters, I want to hear the characters. I want the reading to be more than my experience of the poem in quiet.

What made you and Jessica Paige Wick start Goblin Fruit?

Primarily, a dearth of the kind of poetry we liked to read. We had an ideal magazine in mind, a forum for us to flog our taste in fiction, poetry, music, visual art, and non-fiction at people, showcase work we considered brilliant. Our decision to limit it to poetry was more pragmatic than anything else. In the first place, we knew that we wouldn’t have vast amounts of time in which to read great volumes of slush, and poems are usually shorter than stories; in the second, we were adamant about paying going-rate for content, and $5 for a poem was cheaper than 3 cents a word for fiction. Now that we’ve been doing it for three years, though, we also feel it’s important to have poetry remain the focus because there are so few poetry-only journals out there doing what we do.

What do you look for in a poem?

Effect, mainly. I want the poem to make me do something. I want it to make me laugh, or gasp, or stare, or cry a little, or exclaim over and make me summon someone to read it to straight away.

Of course, as I read that over I realised that completely awful poems have made me do the same things, so I should perhaps specify that those reactions have to be positive. My own favourites tend to be poems that read well aloud, that hover at the perfect middle point between lyrical and imagistic, that take me to unfamiliar places, or make me see the familiar in different ways.

What are the challenges in running the magazine?

The most challenging thing by far is coordinating the busy schedules of three people over different and frequently changing time zones. Jess lives in Southern California; Oliver Hunter lives in Melbourne; over the last three years I’ve been in various combinations of Quebec countryside, downtown Ottawa, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, and most recently, the United Kingdom. We all have different flavours of school and jobs to attend to before we can turn our attention to Goblin Fruit, and we only ever seem to get busier as the ‘zine grows.

In your opinion, how has multiculturalism affected the publishing industry, Goblin Fruit, and your own writing?

That first question’s a little on the huge side, and a little beyond me – but if I were to reach for a broad answer, it would have to be “positively.” But I wonder if the question nestled within that isn’t actually “how has the internet affected multiculturalism in publishing,” because there I’d say the impact has been huge. I was astonished and delighted to see that public outcry against the cover of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar caused the publisher to re-jacket the book. I think that as a result of the community-mobilising power of the internet, we’re moving, slowly but surely, towards more diversity, as well as awareness of the need for more diversity.

As to how it’s affected Goblin Fruit – we didn’t explicitly set out with diversity as our mandate, but you’d have to be trying very hard not to strive for multiculturalism in order to keep it out of a ‘zine dedicated to folklore, mythology, and fairy tales. I’ve certainly been introduced to stories and characters I was previously unfamiliar with as a result of individual poems: Sonya Taaffe’s “Mermaids at Tashlik,” Francesca Forrest’s “Urashima Taro Sings,” and Shweta Narayan’s “Apsara” all prompted me to do a little digging and see if research couldn’t enrich my reading of the poems. It did.

How has the Internet shaped who you are now?

Oh, by slow and inexorable degrees! My eyes, wrists, and spine certainly have something to say to the internet about its shaping of who I am now, and none of them are particularly nice.

But in seriousness, the effect is incalculable. I was an earnest, loud-mouthed, socially awkward teen who wore her love for big books and Star Trek: The Next Generation on her sleeve. High school was a waking nightmare that the internet helped me get through. Had it not been for the possibility of reaching like-minded people over miles and miles, for the knowledge that they existed when I was made to understand every day how awkward and ugly and wrong and undeserving of love I was, I wouldn’t be who I am. Or maybe I would be, who knows. A loving, supportive family’s a powerful thing, and I always had – and still do have – that.

How have your travels influenced your writing?

Extensively. I find myself better able to write scent and taste after having visited different places. There’s an input/output balance, and I find everything I take in sense-wise is fair game for writing. I may not write where I am specifically – I wrote “And Their Lips Rang with the Sun,” which is in a Middle-Eastern setting, mainly while sitting in a cafe in Penryn, Cornwall, with a climate just about opposite to that of the story. But there are poems I don’t think I could have written without the experience of having travelled to different places.

What does it feel like, guest co-editing an upcoming issue of Mythic Delirium?

Very exciting, and more than a little nerve-wracking. I keep kicking myself for being so cocky about claiming I can spot a Mike Allen pick from miles away – now I’ve got to walk the way of my talk! But honestly, Jess and I have been reading and enjoying Mythic Delirium long enough – after all, we consider it a formative influence on Goblin Fruit – that I’m really looking forward to the experiment of editor-swapping. By the time this interview appears we ought to have determined our line-up, so you can ask me how it went then!

How do you describe the current field of speculative poetry? What kind of change do you want to occur in your lifetime?

These are interesting questions for me, and by interesting, I mean hard. My awareness of the field is strongly slanted towards the more fantastically flavoured, and so much of my time goes into Goblin Fruit that it’s difficult to speak of speculative poetry more generally without seeing it through the lens of my own ‘zine. I want to see it outgrow its current insularity, certainly. I want to see the SFPA change its name. I want there to be well-attended poetry events at all the major conventions. I want to see people clamour with excitement over a new poem or poetry collection by their favourite author. I definitely want to see it critically reviewed more often and by more people, in the thorough, evaluative fashion of J.C. Runolfson and Deborah J. Brannon; too often, if a publication includes fiction and poetry, the poetry is invisible to reviewers. I want that to change. I want to see people discussing poems passionately, engaging with each other over what they’ve read, challenging authors and editors to constantly do better.

For the geeky question, how have your roleplaying games contributed (or not contributed) to you being a writer?

They’ve contributed greatly, in a few ways. First, roleplaying forced me to go through significant changes in the ways I thought about character: I went from playing Mary Sues to crafting characters around core concepts, then making characters to fit certain settings, then making characters to complement other people’s characters, and so on. Also, say what you will about the quality of writing in online roleplaying, being exposed to that many different styles within the space of a couple of hours is a great learning experience.

More significantly, though, I met Jessica Wick through online roleplaying, and she’s been a huge influence on my writing. We’ve been each other’s writing-workshop-of-one for almost as long as we’ve known each other, and the fact that we also roleplayed almost exclusively with each other for a few years means that our styles frequently mesh almost indistinguishably. She introduced me to Charles de Lint’s writing, which led to a chain-reaction of events the result of which was my working in a wonderful independent bookstore called Perfect Books, devouring the Fantasy and SF sections at a frequently alarming rate. I still play today, though a great deal less, and with far fewer people than I used to.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Yes. While I certainly can’t think of myself as anything but an aspiring writer – and shouldn’t even accomplished writers continue to aspire? Reach > grasp, etc.? – I have pretty specific advice from the editorial side of things: read widely, and learn to take criticism.

Criticism comes in many shapes and colours, all of which will require different ways of “taking,” but what I’m talking about is mainly feedback from other writers and/or editors – more specifically, feedback you’ve requested. So you’ve written a draft, and you love it, but you figure it should have a second pair of eyes look at it before you send it anywhere, and you give it to your friend to read. Your friend points out a few things they didn’t like, things that they’d change. Whether or not you agree with those points, a constructive reaction is probably not going to consist of bursting into tears, cussing them out, giving up writing, or any slightly less dramatic version of any of those things. Instead, think it over. Decide whether or not you should accept it, but trust that it was given in good faith. See it from the perspective of the person who gave you the criticism. Remember that it’s your prerogative to disagree, but that someone went through the effort of reading what you offered in order to help you.

Advice for aspiring poets?

My father told me a story about Becoming a Poet when I was about eleven years old, on a walk in the fall. It might be well-known, or clichéd, but it rings as true for me now as it did then, so I’d like to share it.

A budding poet goes to a master poet, and says “teach me to be a master poet.” So the master poet tells the budding poet to go and memorise one thousand lines of excellent poetry, and then return for further instruction.

The budding poet goes out into the world, reads and reads and reads. It takes him a few years of constant study, poring over books and scrolls to find the very best, memorising until sweat beads on his brow, until he murmurs poems in his sleep. Finally, when he’s memorised one thousand lines of what he is certain is the best poetry in the world, he returns to the master poet, saying, “master, I have done as you asked; I have memorised one thousand lines of poetry.”

“Good. Now,” says the master, “forget them.”

I think the story’s a poem in itself, really – T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” made parable.

Besides that -- read lots and lots and lots of poetry. Pay attention to what you like and don’t like in the poetry you’re reading. Share it with people willing to read it, and listen to what they have to say. For the love of all that’s wonderful, don’t take impersonal rejections from editors personally.

Advice for aspiring editors?

Make a Venn diagram of what you want to do versus what you are able to do, and let your publication inhabit the zone where they blend. Start out with small, achievable goals and build up out of that. Use the internet! Use social networking! Strive for diversity of opinions, views, experience – your publication can only be the stronger and more interesting as a result, as well as appeal to a wider audience.

Anything else you want to plug?

I’m on Livejournal at, and pretty much want to plug the entirety of my Friends List, because I’ve been so privileged in the last several years to come to know so many warm, kind, and talented people. Many of them I know as a result of Goblin Fruit, so I can’t get enough of plugging that. We also have a Livejournal community and a Facebook page! Go read! Read the archives! Hunt those talented folk up and down to nibble at their art!

Speaking of which, Oliver Hunter’s part of an amazing artistic venture called Spill Collective, which you should definitely check out. You should also know about Rima Staines and Orla Wren, whom Jess and I were privileged to meet in September.

Emily Wagner’s got a nifty podcast called We Have Thumbs, which, besides having an episode dedicated to Jess and me, is going to feature heaps of people whose work I adore, so you should keep an eye on it.

Other than that, Erzebet YellowBoy has an amazing line-up of projects coming out of her Papaveria Press very soon – one of which will be a collection of poems and stories of mine called The Honey Month, written in February of this year in response to a set of 35 different kinds of honey given to me by Danielle Sucher. You can read them online as a kind of first draft, but I’m deeply excited about what the collection will become under Erzebet’s bone-shaping hands.

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