1. Because I’ve devoted perhaps eighty percent of my adult waking hours to thinking about sex, and it seems dishonest to pretend otherwise in my work.

2. Because human beings are never more alive to their own hope and shame and fear than when they are naked and aroused, and because the same must therefore be true of our characters, who are nothing more than poorly disguised versions of ourselves.

3. Because I’m really tired of seeing sex used to sell SUVs and underarm deodorant and crappy light beer, rather than being portrayed as a natural and sometimes even holy human endeavour.

4. Because I have accumulated over the years such a tremendous surplus of sexual humiliation that it seems stingy of me not to re-gift some it to my readers.

5. Because I happen to agree with Freud’s naughtiest disciple, Wilhelm Reich, who argued that a true political revolution would only be possible once sexual repression was overthrown, which pretty much rules out the Tea Party as a true political revolution because, boy, is that a movement that needs to get laid.

6. Because I am now married with two small children and thus writing about sex often constitutes the closest I get to having sex.

7. Because President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky did have sexual relations, and while I could care less about the big phony scandal that story became, I am interested in the sweet and deranged version of love that passed between them. Aren’t you?

8. Because I’m really tired of having to listen to well-meaning religious folk misquoting God about how the rest of us should use our genitals.

9. Because both my parents are psychoanalysts – and despite what you are all now thinking, which is basically, Wow, you must be a really crazy person, which is a very interesting thought for you to have, by the way, and something we might want to talk about a bit later in the session – the one lesson my parents managed to impart, as I lay those many afternoons on the analytic couch that was, in fact, the only piece of furniture in our living room, is that our libidinal drives are not some bright new user option, but an essential part of our beings, an inborn riot of wants and counter wants that we can never control entirely. And because, as a writer, I’m interested in the loss of control, in the danger of forbidden thought and feeling, it strikes me as utterly foolish – just from a practical perspective – not to write about sex. Why skip over the part almost guaranteed to teach you something new about yourself?

10. Because I’m tired of living in a culture that allows children to fire make-believe Glocks but freaks out at the first sign of a naked boob.

11. I just really love being able to write off lube as a business expense.

12. Because our best writing resides in the senses, and sex invokes all five of our senses — at least if you’re doing it right.

13. Because, though I watch pornography, and am terrifically involved with it for about two and a half minutes, I am most often made sad by pornography. Not simply because it involves the self-exploitation of people who probably have suffered a good deal of misfortune, and not simply because porn stars can perform in manners that often seem like physiological, geometrical, and even gravitational impossibilities (and thus make me feel like the abject sexual nebbish I surely am) but because porn stars are actors being paid, most often, to simulate pleasure. They drain sex of its single most intimate aspect: the vulnerabilities that bring us to the act in the first place, the drama of our imperfect bodies as we seek to make a communion of our desires.

14. Because I believe literature’s central purpose is not to pretend we don’t have bodies and their consequent needs, but to make us feel less alone with these needs.

15. Because the Puritans themselves were — don’t kid yourselves — total horndogs who wanted nothing more than to tear off those black robes and suffer a spiritual crisis. And because when I write about sex I am writing, ultimately, about a dream that begins with the Puritans: that we the people of this violent and troubled kingdom will at last forgive ourselves the lust and loneliness the reddens our blood, and will seek a final remedy in the warm temple of one another’s bodies. Who’s with me?

Steve Almond
Why I Write Smut: A Manifesto

a magical world

July 12, 2020

Some years ago I had a conversation with a man who thought that writing and editing fantasy books was a rather frivolous job for a grown woman like me. He wasn’t trying to be contentious, but he himself was a probation officer, working with troubled kids from the Indian reservation where he’d been raised. Day in, day out, he dealt in a concrete way with very concrete problems, well aware that his words and deeds could change young lives for good or ill.

I argued that certain stories are also capable of changing lives, addressing some of the same problems and issues he confronted in his daily work: problems of poverty, violence, and alienation, issues of culture, race, gender, and class…

“Stories aren’t real,” he told me shortly. “They don’t feed a kid left home in an empty house. Or keep an abusive relative at bay. Or prevent an unloved child from finding ‘family’ in the nearest gang.”

Sometimes they do, I tried to argue. The right stories, read at the right time, can be as important as shelter or food. They can help us to escape calamity, and heal us in its aftermath. He frowned, dismissing this foolishness, but his wife was more conciliatory. “Write down the names of some books,” she said. “Maybe we’ll read them.”

I wrote some titles on a scrap of paper, and the top three were by Charles de lint – for these are precisely the kind of tales that Charles tells better than anyone. The vital, necessary stories. The ones that can change and heal young lives. Stories that use the power of myth to speak truth to the human heart.

Charles de Lint creates a magical world that’s not off in a distant Neverland but here and now and accessible, formed by the “magic” of friendship, art, community, and social activism. Although most of his books have not been published specifically for adolescents and young adults, nonetheless young readers find them and embrace them with particular passion. I’ve long lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people from troubled backgrounds say that books by Charles saved them in their youth, and kept them going.

Recently I saw that parole officer again, and I asked after his work. “Gets harder every year,” he said. “Or maybe I’m just getting old.” He stopped me as I turned to go. “That writer? That Charles de Lint? My wife got me to read them books…Sometimes I pass them to the kids.”

“Do they like them?” I asked him curiously.

“If I can get them to read, they do. I tell them: Stories are important.”

And then he looked at me and smiled.

Terri Windling
Myth & Moor

A poem is still a risky place for a woman to inhabit. Being inside a poem remains, for a woman, dangerously close to being on, or in, an urn. Angela Leighton writes that “the subject of [Plath’s] poems cannot withstand the assumption from the ‘antique’ that a woman belongs on a vase, or in a poem”. That final phrase is truly terrifying. It is necessary for a woman poet to build a structure that will ‘hold’, and also essential that she does not – an anxiety-inducing situation. I think this explains the women who speak from the tomb in Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti, and the foregrounding of both architecture and dissolution in Plath and Kilalea. The tendency of a poem to petrify – to convert organic matter into stone – can also be something from which to kick off, or to kick against.

Lucy Tunstall
Miss Behavin’

Lately, because computer technology has made self-publishing an easier and less expensive venture, I’m getting a lot of review copies of amateur books by writers who would be better advised to hone their craft before committing it to print. The best thing you can do as a beginning writer is to write, write, write – and read, read, read. Concentrating on publication prematurely is a mistake. You don’t pick up a violin and expect to play Carnegie Hall within the year – yet somehow people forget that writing also requires technical skills that need to be learned, practiced, honed. If I had a dollar for every person I’ve met who thought, with no prior experience, they could sit down and write a novel and instantly win awards and make their living as a writer, I’d be a rich woman today. It’s unrealistic, and it’s also mildly insulting to professional writers who have worked hard to perfect their craft. Of course, then you hear stories about people like J.K. Rowling, who did sit down with no prior experience and write a worldwide best-seller…but such people are as rare as hen’s teeth. Every day I work with talented, accomplished writers who have many novels in print and awards to their name and who are ‘still’ struggling to make a living. The thing I often find myself wanting to say to new writers is: Write because you love writing, learn your craft, be patient, and be realistic. Anais Nin said about writing, “It should be a necessity, as the sea needs to heave, and I call it breathing.”

Terri Windling
Cindy Speers Interview with Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling

Poetry is dead

July 9, 2020

It happens every few years, perhaps oftener: we get the article, widely and usually well published, that declares poetry dead. Usually the accompanying sound is less a lament for this premature pronouncement than a jig on poetry’s prepaid grave. Rarely did I hear such an essay sound more like an Irish wake or a New Orleans jazz funeral, two sounds I think poetry should aspire to more often. A raucous solace.

Instead, poetry is dead.

I disagree; I plan wild essays; I respond point by point, debunking and spelunking.

But tonight, why not – poetry is dead. Let it be dead; let us write as if we are already dead. If poetry is dying, then let’s write a poetry pronounced D.O.A.

Perhaps it is because I have witnessed too many deaths these past few years, but I have tried to write a poetry of life, against those deaths and even Death in general. Maybe. But it also seems to me some of the same folks who think poetry is dead, or proceed without it, turn to poetry in crucial moments: at a death, or a wedding. Poetry as invocation, as ceremony.

For years I felt poetry was not ceremony, but the daily thing. The dirt. It is an everyday, not an occasionally. I still think it is. But perhaps the only way to make this truly true is to write a poetry that is not like death, but is death: surprising yet inevitable, everyday yet far-off in the future, an ever-present that we still manage to forget. In this, it may resemble jazz – or is this simply because, as Ralph Ellison says, “life is jazz-shaped”? Death may be jazzed-shaped too, just ask Gabriel and Satchmo in their cutting contest.

The only way to find out is to write a dead poetry.

I am not taking this lightly: I am not suggesting a poetry of suicide (don’t do it), or of homicide (give that up); I am not suggesting a poetry celebrating war, or ignoring war, or a poetry of a war that we celebrated too early our victory in, and now cannot ignore. (The deadening of poetry is celebrated too early and often too.) A dead poetry does not believe in “-cides” of any kind; it believes in insides, in soul and sorrow, in silence and also the singing that is against such.

Deadism believes that poetry should capture the living language; it just knows that we should write in dead languages too.

Write not like something endangered – not like a spotted owl –or reintroduced into the wild, but dead already. (The poetry of “They’re coming to get us,” the poetry of the horror movie I’ve seen too much of, the poetry of lament, of victimization, or worse, of declaring the various and nefarious threats to freedom, equality, blackness, or justice, seems to take to much pleasure in watching the killer even as it shouts out warnings in the theater. This poetry is over, but unfortunately not yet dead.) Write not like a coming extinction, but like the extinction already. That said, do not write like a dodo, something more rare and flightless – but like a passenger pigeon, a poetry once plentiful and ever-present and so therefore killed off.

Do not write a poetry of rarity, or of rarification, but of never again.

Do not even write this poetry but find it, come across it, and step over it. The helpless ant that in the end can lift more than ten times its weight: that is a poetry.

Maybe what we need is an undead poetry – not to take death back from poetry, but to take death back from death itself. A poetry of shambling power, devouring everything it its path. A vampire poetry that will live forever, sexy and dangerous and immortal, shape-shifting when necessary.

That bat in my friend’s toilet (true story) a poetry. That dog. That mewling cat caught under my house that left sometime in the night: a poetry. It is hard to find, and harder to coax out, but will one day emerge on its own.

In the meantime, a poetry that speaks from the mouths of those gone that aren’t really gone, a poetry of ghosts and haunts. Of haints: not ain’ts. Dead is something you can be, after all, is not itself an ain’t. The ain’ts I’m afraid are here, among us living.

Instead there’s haints, which our poetry should be: hainting, hard to pin down, glimpsed but believed. That’s the poetry I believe in. A poltergeist poetry that moves things, and us, when we least expect. . .

Deadism like those movies with voice-overs that sound not only dead, but by the end you find out are from a dead man: the one not ready for a close-up, but floating in a pool, the one who knows what he can’t know but tells us anyway. A poetry not of witness, or of victimhood, or of experience or innocence, but of the moment after: write like a saint, not the picture of a saint. Write like the bone in the box, the relic to be kissed. Better yet, write like the saints that have been officially declared saints no more; write like something once holy, now decanonized and attempted to be forgotten. Write not like remembering, but the forgetting. . . write like something you don’t mean to be erased but one day know will: then let them try.

Someone I read said Johnny Cash (bless his heart) didn’t write like a saint, but as a sinner, which meant someone who could be redeemed. That’s right, it seems to me. And one of the most powerful things was his album, after the album he thought he’d die in – the sequel to good-bye. (The Man Comes Around) is just as powerful, if not more than, the goodbye itself.

We should write a poetry that is after the goodbye, that is not the long farewell but the hello after. The hereafter – a word that in itself is undead, both here and gone at the same time. I’m a long gone daddy – and being here, and being gone, seems what we need now. . . the talk of someone whose time is up, and who knows it – but talks anyway.

Only by writing a dead poetry, a zombie poetry, can the thing come back to life, not so much reborn as born for the first time. Maybe we got it all backward: we die, then we live? Only poetry knows for sure.

Kevin Young
Deadism

I live, at all times, for imaginative fiction; for ambivalence, not instruction. When language serves dogma, then literature is lost. I live also, and only, for excellence. My care is not for the cult of egalitarian mediocrity that is sweeping the world today, wherein even the critics are no longer qualified to differentiate, but for literature, which you may notice I have not defined. I would say that, because of its essential ambivalence, ‘literature’ is: words that provoke a response; that invite the reader or listener to partake of the creative act. There can be no one meaning for a text. Even that of the writer is a but an option.

Literature exists at every level of experience. It is inclusive, not exclusive. It embraces; it does not reduce, however simply it is expressed. The purpose of the storyteller is to relate the truth in a manner that is simple: to integrate without reduction; for it is rarely possible to declare the truth as it is, because the universe presents itself as a Mystery. We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world.

It is a paradox: yet one so important I must restate it. The job of a storyteller is to speak the truth; but what we feel most deeply cannot be spoken in words. At this level only images connect. And so story becomes symbol; and symbol is myth.

It is one of the main errors of historical and rational analysis to suppose that the ‘original form’ of myth can be separated from its miraculous elements. ‘Wonder is only the first glimpse of the start of philosophy,’ says Plato. Aristotle is more explicit: ‘The lover of myths, which are a compound of wonders, is, by his being in that very state, a lover of wisdom.’ Myth encapsulates the nearest approach to absolute that words can speak.

Alan Garner
Aback of Beyond

When I started writing, I thought I was talented. I was six, and I’d written something precocious that attracted praise from the grownups around me, and that praise included a descriptive dimension: I hadn’t just written something that was good – I was a good writer.

Talent is a destructive myth. To call someone talented is to imply that their abilities are intrinsic. Having written and taught for decades now, I’ve satisfied myself that the improvement of a person’s art isn’t drawn from the mystical well of their soul: it’s generated by practice.

Practicing isn’t always hard. At times, practice is joyous. When you are working at the edge of your abilities, acquiring mastery of something difficult that you value, practice is the best feeling. But if you only practice when it brings you joy, you won’t practice much. Logging the requisite hours inevitably involves some slogging.

Cory Doctorow
Shorter

A Defence of Poetry

July 8, 2020

Every undamaged human being has two minds and a body. One mind is that of waking consciousness, the other is the occult mind of dreams, which we live in fully during sleep but which is also present as reverie when we’re awake. Neither mind is superior to the other outright; each rules in its own mode of consciousness. It is an echo of the European imperial era to think we have to translate the terms of our dream-life into the ‘rational’ terms of daylight thinking, with its two aspects of language and non-verbal design that are said to reflect the two hemispheres of the forebrain. All other mental faculties, imagination, conscience, intuition, the unconscious mind, are theoretical and inferred, and may be differently divided up in different cultures, but all can agree that we dream, and wake, and have a body. We can sense the body’s needs, its weight, its strength and balance, its health and rhythms and pain; most would agree, too, that our emotions at least start from there. All will agree that each of the three major states of our life can exist or seem to exist pretty independently. Sunbathing on the beach in a pure languor, we can be nearly oblivious of anything beyond the body’s pleasure; dreaming deeply, we can be lost to any memory of daylight consciousness; ever since Plato, we can ascribe an overweening superiority to our cerebration, and despise our dreams and our bodily limitations. None of these extremes is bad in itself, though pure thought is apt to be over-praised in some circles and awarded a primacy we are coming to see as illusory. None of our separated states is very creative, nor can a healthy human live too exclusively in any one of them. To try is illusion anyway: the others are working, perhaps only in a dimmed way, even when we leave them out of account. And they may be working quite powerfully. The sportsman soaring over a high bar may be quite inarticulate then and afterwards, but he isn’t pure body: thought and dream are there, planning, helping him to concentrate, helping his limbs to be elastic, to volatilise his belief in gravity and dream himself up and over his body’s experience of limits.

Looking inside myself, I detect that when I write a poem, I do so in a kind of trance which integrates my two minds with each other and with their master-servant my body. The impulse to write the poem may come from any of the three, and each makes its contribution to the trance of composing. Waking consciousness supplies words, most ideas and probably much of the poem’s design. Dream lends it its aspect of timelessness, and its aura of mystery and the supernal; I suspect that many of the more daring flights and connections of any poem, the ones the mind might resist were it not charmed to silence, are carried on the flying carpet of our dream-life! The body, in turn, supplies feeling and rhythm, the free-and-bound dance of the words and images and it also supplies the laws of breath which shall obtain in the work. A man with a deep barrel chest will, at least sometimes, write very long lines because he has the puff for it. All of these contributions fuse in a dazzling simultaneity, if one has come to the poem at the proper moment in its growth within oneself. Start writing it too early in its gestation, and it is liable to be a mess, confused and uncooked; too late and it may emerge overly cut-and-dried, like a programme.

Les Murray
A Defence of Poetry

I don’t know how much to reveal, or how to reveal it. That’s a lifelong project for any author.

What’s funny is that when I read through my body of published writing — poems, freelance essays, memoir — I’m sometimes completely shocked at the naked details of life experience, or of my personal attitudes, that I’ve let float to the surface of a narrative. Sometimes there’s not enough context for anyone but me to recognize the reference, so I suppose that’s a kind of protective instinct. Other times I see how I’ve packaged a real-life anecdote and I’m overwhelmed by how much “more” there was to the actual event as I experienced it. But you don’t need to tell all of the story all of the time. Sometimes restraint is a good idea for the sake of your sanity, relations with friends and family, and the attention of your reader.

There are essays I’m working on right now that might be something I can’t publish in the foreseeable future, because they trespass into the lives of others too much. But it would be a mistake to not write them for that reason. I’ve got to do the writing first, then decide. That’s endlessly frustrating to someone who is a perfectionist (as I am) and who works best toward external deadlines (as I do), but so be it.

Sandra Beasley
Chicks Dig Poetry

Poetry really came to me. Maybe that sounds too mystical, but what’s wrong with mysticism? I remember hearing poems in what I now know is iambic pentameter in my head in those minutes between sleeping and waking when I was a small child. I didn’t know what that language was, but I found it comforting and physically pleasurable. In elementary school I was by no means a shining star, but when asked to write a verse for the inside of a Mothers’ Day card, the rhyme and meter was effortless to me.

Poetry really arrived after my dad died when I was seven. It was no longer an instinct; it had become a necessity. It rose up to meet my need. That isn’t to say I began writing poems at seven, but that I had begun to see and hear and think like a poet. Even at the funeral, my noticing had become charged. The ant on the rose. The sharp corners of the flag folded into a triangle. The sound of the wind flapping the sides of the tent over his coffin. The creak of the mechanism that lowered him into the ground. This noticing wasn’t garish, really, but held a kind of objectivity.

I didn’t start writing actual poems until I was in early high school. Luckily, girls were required to take typing class (ah, the luck of our subordination…) and typing became the key to getting the lines I’d begun to hear in my head onto the page. It allowed me to begin to see the poem as having a presence on the page. As my own body came into uncomfortable blooming, so did the body of the poem.

Back then, in my rural high school, there was no “creative writing.” Poetry was an unknown entity. I didn’t really know that what I was writing were poems. I believe my ignorance was fortunate. It ushered in invention. There was no one to imitate, no pressure to conform to a standard.

[….]

Most of my education in poetry has been self-teaching. Therefore what I know is like an inland lake — shallow in places, unexpectedly deep in others. Teaching in both undergraduate and MFA programs has extended my education. I learn what I need to teach. I’m a hodgepodge.

There are limitations in that scenario, but it has allowed me to maintain some of my early ignorance. At times, my ignorance has begotten innovation, playfulness, improvisation — an aesthetic that is all mine.

[….]

I’m interested in the rural, but I approach it via degrees of formal experimentation. I think of my work as punk-rural, in that my it emerges from rural spaces, but looks for the toughness, the strangeness, the absurdity, the taut stringiness, the rage and pain of it all as opposed to the homespun. The rural is no less punk than the urban. Roadkill. That’s my aesthetic. Naked dancing on the water tower. Cheez Doodles and a Coke. Cigar-smoking ghosts on the riverbank. I love what I call “freaking form”—learning traditional forms so that they can be usurped, upended, repurposed, like a bathtub that can be made into a shrine to the Virgin Mary. I’m sort of an anti-intellectual intellectual, a geek about the literature and visual art of the past but I like to bring it down, downtown, here where I live, with the earthworms and gravediggers.

I am guided by instinct, the unconscious, and help from the dead in my poems, which Kevin Young, describes as, “a poetry that speaks from the mouths of those gone that aren’t really gone, a poetry of ghosts and haunts. Of haints: not ain’ts.” For this reason, I’ve always thought my poems are wiser than I am. I don’t know how we can read poetry, or teach it, or write it, without a finger on the pulse of the mystical as well as bringing our intellectual heft to the party. To talk about a writer’s poem in workshop, or a collection of poems, is at best a full-body act. We encounter the body of a poem with our bodies before we even read the words. At best, a workshop can be a circle of human beings who each brings their subjectivity, memories, blind spots, fears, ghosts, dreams, ideas, insights, and imaginations to the room. We build a collective, a zone, and from that zone, poetry becomes possible.

Diane Seuss
Interviewed by Frances Donovan, 4th December 2019