Those who refuse to listen to dragons are probably doomed to spend their lives acting out the nightmares of politicians. We like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark; and fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night.

Ursula K Le Guin
Fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night
San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle 21st November 1976

You can use time travel, psychic powers and ghosts not just as plot devices, but as tools to explore human life, the nature of ritual and dreams. In fact you can use them to look at the functioning of the human mind, and the development of story.

Robert Holdstock
Interviewed by Stan Nichols 1993 for: Wordsmiths of Wonder: Fifty interviews with Writers of the Fantastic

experience becoming

March 29, 2020

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

…the cruellest blow comes when Plath discovers the poems that Hughes has been writing to his lover, and is unable to prevent herself from acknowledging their artistry. “Many are fine poems,” she writes to Beuscher on September 29, 1962. “Absolute impassioned love poems.” She quotes a line she cannot forget: Now I have hacked the octopus off my ring finger.

Which sounds more like one of the lines she was beginning to write, because Plath in her last weeks, in the cold London house, between sleeping pills and crying babies and an unrelenting flu, was being gripped and twisted by the wild poems that became the book Ariel. “It is like writing in a train tunnel, or God’s intestine,” she writes to the Anglo-Irish poet Richard Murphy. (“Lady Lazarus”: Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.) It all feels so unsteady, so precarious, so barely controlled. Was Ariel a breakdown, or an artistic consummation? Both, obviously. The great big chomping Ariel voice is intoxicated with its own power; it glitters and it damns.

The telling and retelling of this story will not end soon, because at the core of the Plath/Hughes nexus, the marriage of their talents, is a mythically compelling irony. He, full of agency, honouring his deep drives, etc., etc., does the boring thing: He has an affair. She, trapped and reduced and overwhelmed, does the remarkable thing: She writes a masterpiece. He, formerly the main character, exits shabbily sideways, while she explodes into an agony of authenticity. And then — hand in hand with winter, fever, and heartbreak — it kills her.

James Parker
The Haunting Last Letters of Sylvia Plath

The novelist Robert Holdstock died in November 2009 aged 61, leaving behind a series of science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery novels (the latter under the pseudonym Ken Blake). The cycle he is best known for is the Mythago Cycle/Ryhope Wood (the terms are used interchangeably by the novelist and his publishers: here I will opt for “Mythago Wood Cycle”; and use Holdstock’s plural “mythagos”) series of novels, six in total running from 1984-2009. John Clute, co-editor of the The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, summarizes the cycle thus:

The sequence as a whole is a central contribution to late-20th-Century fantasy, and is almost embarrassingly dense with fantasy tropes.

The first novel to be published in the series, Mythago Wood (1984), starts with the disappearance of the scholar-father, George Huxley, which leads to his two sons (Christian, and his younger brother, Steven) returning in 1947 to the family home, a lodge on the edge of Ryhope: a small section of ancient woodland situated in Herefordshire, on the Borders between England and Wales. They are shocked to discover the woodland’s boundaries seem to have moved, and it has overwhelmed the lodge. The father’s journal is unearthed and it relates an increasing obsession with the woodland and various “mythagos”, the core concept of Holdstock’s cycle.

The author provides several definitions of this slippery term. The first is offered in Mythago Wood by Christian Huxley to his brother, Steven – explaining how in ancient woodland the “aura” around all living things, creates “a sort of creative field that can interact with our consciousness”. Paraphrasing their father, Christian says:

And it’s in the unconscious that we carry what he calls the pre-mythago – that’s unconscious that we carry what he calls the pre-mythago – that’s myth imago, the image of the idealized form of a myth creature. The image takes on substance in a natural environment, solid flesh, blood, clothing, and – as you saw – weaponry. 

The sons venture in the various “zones” (ash, oak, thorn, et cetera) of Ryhope asynchronously, resulting in dramatically different consequences. They find themselves sucked into the mythic landscape of Ryhope, which is an extended portal or “Time Abyss” (Clute 1999: 946-947): the further in you go, the bigger (or older) it gets. This trope appears throughout Fantasy fiction, it is “common to fantasy, uncommon anywhere else” (ibid.: 586). It crops up in Jorge Luis Borges’ The Aleph (1945) as an object that contains the whole universe, in the year the first atomic bombs were used in warfare and, as such, is not surprisingly a lingering device of the Atomic Age. However, the sense of expansive interiority and dilatory disjuncture are common descriptors in tales of “hollow hills” and other portals to the “Otherworld”.

Kevan Manwaring
Ways Through the Wood: The Rogue Cartographies of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood Cycle as a Cognitive Map for Creative Process in Fiction

demands pronunciation

March 27, 2020

Truly fine poetry must be read aloud. A good poem does not allow itself to be read in a low voice or silently. If we can read it silently, it is not a valid poem: a poem demands pronunciation. Poetry always remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art. It remembers that it was first song.

Jorge Luis Borges
The Divine Comedy
Trans. Eliot Weinberger

BARDIC DREAMS

March 26, 2020

Bold warriors and women, shield mates, sat
wrapped in the darkness, sheltered between knees
warmed by their lovers and heat of kettle fire.

A bard regaled with tales and love song
Bold warriors and women, shield mates, sat
toasting their fallen friends with ale and tears.

Mist rose from the surface of the enchanted lake.
Wrapped in the darkness, sheltered between knees
a sprinkle of fireflies crowned the knight’s heads.

Some stood like shields behind their ladies back
warmed by their lovers and heat of kettle fire.
Heads lolled; golden strands were drawn through fingers.

Seated knights cradled ladies between armoured thighs.
A bard regaled with tales and love song
washing the weary of bloodlust and death cries.

Mere hours before, they had held swords not cups
toasting their fallen friends with ale and tears.
Now, cameo visages flushed in firelight

revealed ice-blue eyes of Viking descent.
Mist rose from the surface of the enchanted lake
as each weary warrior visited, in tale,

the halls of Beowulf, and Artur’s Camelot.
The daytime was bent on war, but the night,
sprinkled with fireflies, was meant for lovers.

Deborah Guzzi

I’m here to talk about sex and writing about sex, especially writing sex in science fiction that expands beyond real-world boundaries and assumptions about sex. To evoke a recent Hugo winner, I’ll call it a three-body problem, where the three elements are sex, science fiction, and writing itself, and the solution requires understanding of each. I see many essays about sexuality or sexual identity in genre fiction — I’ve written quite a few myself — that I feel don’t adequately include the act of writing itself in the equation. Because once I began to address writing directly in the relationship between sexuality and science fiction, I laid bare the entire fallacy of the literary establishment, which condemns laser beams and lasciviousness equally.

Cecilia Tan
Out of This World Sex Writing

American SF is a wide field in itself, but I sometimes think that it can be limited by shared sensibilities and reading protocols, by the conversation with how things have been done before. This is changing slightly as ever more novels are produced, and as the Young Adult contribution to science fiction is taking a larger place in the conversation, but I still feel that there is a cultural koine there that elides a universe of experiences.

Liz Bourke
Nnedi Okorafor’s LAGOON

I started writing when I was about ten years old. I liked e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay. In college I discovered Sylvia Plath, Rita Dove, Dorianne Laux, Louise Gluck, and Denise Duhamel. I found my true home when I found out speculative poetry was a thing – thanks to editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, who included my work in their early anthology, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (and I will always be grateful!)…

I’ve always liked shorter forms – I’ve tried plays and fiction, I worked as a tech writer, copy editor and journalist, but I’ve always come back to poetry as my one true form…

The challenge is finding an audience. I’ve never had trouble writing – I tend to write more under stress, not less – but finding an audience for that work, that’s a little harder.

Jeannine Hall Gailey
Interviewed by Colleen Anderson 1st February 2020