For the author poetry is deeply personal, for the reader it is highly subjective. What do you hope readers experience or gain from your poetry?
Well, poetry isn’t always deeply personal. I think that’s a misnomer that deserves questioning. Sometimes it is — I have certainly written poems that were deeply personal. But “Black, White, Red” is not deeply personal, or at least no more so than much fiction. There isn’t an intense amount of me in it, or a revelation of my secret emotions, or a piece of my heart, or whatever. Some fiction takes that kind of wrenching work–for me, my story “A Memory of Wind” was very difficult in that way–but not all fiction does, and neither does all poetry. There can be distance in a lot of different kinds of work; for instance, I always have to remind my mom that just because I’m writing things that look like memoir that doesn’t mean they’re 100% accurate. Stories require bending, shaping, hyperbole, understatement, a sense of plot or denial. Even poems that are about me may be only metaphorically so.
I do think that the reader’s experience is often subjective, although I think the reader’s experience of prose is also subjective. I think there is an inherent structural difference in how subjective poetry is compared to prose, but I also think the fact that training in how to read poetry is not nearly as normalized in American culture as training in how to read prose really influences how people read poetry. I mean, it’s not totally mysterious or anything; it just requires a set of reading protocols that are less often emphasized.
What I hope readers will experience or gain from my poetry varies a lot from poem to poem. There are poems where I want them to experience an emotion, or a catharsis, or consider an idea, or experience the poem on a more visceral than intellectual level. I think “Black, Red, White” is rather straightforward, actually, as a retelling of Snow White, although there is some commentary on the absolutism of fairy tales.
If you could encourage young authors to try their hand at poetry what would be your best argument to sway them?
Assuming they are prose authors? I regularly tell people who want to make sure that their prose is really sparkly that I think poetry is a great way to get there. A good poetry class can teach one to really understand how to make every word count, and to pay attention on the micro-level. Poetry also teaches control of metaphor and image in a way that I think often gets glossed over in fiction. For instance, images usually are stronger if they employ concrete words that evoke concrete sense memories, and I think fiction writers sometimes get distracted by pretty words and abstract concepts. Not that abstraction doesn’t have its place, but I think that it’s usually (not always) less effective in sensory description. And I love pretty words. But even awesome words have to carry their weight.
Most authors feel compelled to write, whether as a creative outlet or a catharsis necessary to heal the soul. In any case it is a unique and singular process. Does your work include elements of you or your life experience?
Sure, some of my work includes elements of me and my life experience. It would have to; one can’t construct narratives whole cloth out of nothing.
I don’t necessarily think most authors are compelled to write. Some are, but I know a lot who write because they like it, and I’m not sure it does a service to writers as a whole to emphasize the driven, starving artist model as the dominant one. There are lots of ways people approach writing. Some of them are even fairly mechanical.
I’ll often pull emotional elements out of my life and try to convey them through fiction, in a sort of Uta Hagen method acting sort of way. I may not be about to be sacrificed by my father (thank goodness), but I know what betrayal feels like. I know what it feels like to be lost and hopeless. Sometimes I think one can convey an even sharper emotional experience to the reader when they are using imagery and stories that they’re making up, but which reveal their emotional truths. I mean, sure, my hopelessness didn’t happen this way. But this is part of how I experienced it.
Tell us about your first introduction to the world of science fiction and fantasy and the effect it had on your career.
My parents had bookshelves full of fantasy and science fiction books, mostly paperbacks from the 60s and 70s. My dad used to read the Pern novels to me, along with about a zillion other books. When I got old enough, I’d just poach books off of the shelves in their bedroom. It was nice to have that resource and I’m sure their emphasis on reading is part of why I read so much, and the reading itself definitely influences the writing. Genre sources formed many of the narratives of my childhood; they are a framework I enjoy playing with.
You are very active in the blogosphere writing for many sites about feminist science fiction. What are your views on sexism in this genre? What are your thoughts on gender roles in traditional fiction?
Science fiction and fantasy exists as part of a larger cultural context, and the larger cultural context is one that includes sexism and racism and a good many other isms. It’s not really surprising that those exist in science fiction, too. It would be shocking if they didn’t. Mainstream fiction certainly struggles with them, too. I think the conversation about social justice issues is a little more engaged and developed in science fiction, though, which is frankly awesome. It can be hard to talk about those things in other circles.
I also think science fiction provides great opportunities for considering social justice. Octavia Butler, Marge Piercy, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, James Tiptree, and of course a huge array of other authors, are able to really take advantage of science fiction and fantasy to question social justice issues. The literal haunting in Beloved; the direct historical comparison in Kindred; the imagined dystopias and utopias in Handmaid’s Tale and Woman at the Edge of Time; the sharp illumination of contemporary gender politics through alien situations in James Tiptree’s short fiction… these are all really skillful uses of the tools that science fiction provides.
Thanks for being such a great guest! Where can we go to learn more about you and your works?
My website is at rachelswirsky.com–although, unfortunately, it’s rather out of date as I only get around to updating it about once every year and a half (it’s due!). I also post at my livejournal, rachel-swirsky.livejournal.com, and on twitter as Rachel Swirsky. I often post about my new publications. I also have one collection out on Amazon, “THROUGH THE DROWSY DARK”, which includes feminist short stories (some science fiction and others mainstream) and poetry, and a second collection forthcoming from Subterranean Press.