David C. Kopaska-Merkel founded Dreams & Nightmares in 1986 and is still publishing it today; it’s not only one of the oldest speculative poetry magazines, it’s also the longest-lived ‘zine I can think of. (2600: The Hacker Quarterly started as a 'zine in 1984 and continues to produce new issues, but has evolved to a newsstand format.) The Internet has fostered an explosion of publishers, and has made it much easier to find the back catalogs of contemporary poets, but there is something incomparably satisfying about a sheaf of desktop-published paper; it balances the SF dreams of free information for everyone and having elite access to esoteric knowledge.
David is the current president of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (as of 2012), and has been involved in the organization much longer, editing Star*Line from 1996-2002. The number of his published poems is somewhere in the hundreds, more than 30 of them in Strange Horizons alone; he is one of the most prolific authors in the speculative poetry genre. He won the Rhysling Award for long-form poetry in 2006, for "The Tin Men," written with Kendall Evans. A list of David's books in print is available at his website.
As Strange Horizons surveys the current state of speculative poetry as part of our quest to decide what it is, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk to David about his own poetry, his behind-the-scenes view of the SFPA, and his experience as a publisher.
For biographical information on David, I strongly recommend the 2010 interview by Jaime Lee Moyer for "Super-Sekrit Clubhouse." This interview for Strange Horizons was conducted by email in May 2014.
Romie Stott: Let's start by assuming I'm not a member of the SFPA and don't really know what it does or how you join it. (Which is halfway true: I'm not a member.) Pitch it to me.
David C. Kopaska-Merkel: Well, sfpoetry.com has all you need to know about how to join, plus lots of other information. The Science Fiction Poetry Association was founded in 1978 by Suzette Haden Elgin, because at the time speculative poetry (a more inclusive name) was pretty much unknown and, where not actually unknown, ignored or even treated like a poor stepchild. This despite the fact that many fantasists had written poetry and produced some wonderful stuff. Edgar Allan Poe comes to mind, plus Clark Ashton Smith and many more.
The organization was founded as a way to bring poets together, to advocate for speculative poetry, and to make it possible for poets working in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, and horror to help each other out in various ways. Now, the SFPA does all of those things. It publishes Star*Line, which features scores of fantastic speculative poems in the three issues that come out each year, and Eye to the Telescope, a themed web-based speculative poetry periodical (four issues per year).
To my mind, one of the most important things the organization does is give out the Rhysling Award. The Rhysling goes to the best long and short speculative poems of the year. All of the members of the SFPA can nominate two poems for the award. Every nominated poem is published in an annual anthology. You don't have to be a member of the SFPA to have one of your poems nominated for the Rhysling, but only members can vote for the winners. Looking back at the Rhysling volumes, one can see a great deal of good speculative poetry that was published every year from 1978 until now. Not everything of quality makes it into the Rhysling anthology, of course, but a good sampling does.
The SFPA has also published a couple of books (besides the annual Rhyslings). One of them, by the organization's founder, is The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook. It is a fantastic how-to for writing science fiction poetry. Really, it is good practical advice for any kind of writing. The other book is The Alchemy of Stars, a showcase of the Rhysling Award winners from the first twenty-five years. This book encapsulates some of the best speculative poetry from a quarter of a century. Fifty awesome examples of speculative poetry are together in one book.
This is a lot, but wait, there's more! Debbie Kolodji, a former president of the SFPA and a passionate author and appreciator of short poetry, inaugurated a second contest. The annual Dwarf Stars anthology consists of poems selected by one or two editors. These poems are ten lines long or shorter and the idea is to capture as much as possible of what's good that year in extremely short speculative poetry. The members vote on the winner. One of the things that is so great about the SFPA awards is that every single member can read every single nominated work and make an informed decision about which poem should win the award. Members of the organization (and others; anyone can do this) send information about very short poems to the year's Dwarf Stars editors.
We just recently started recognizing the best speculative poetry books for the year. Officers and interested volunteers hesitated to institute such an award, because we worried that there might be so few entries that the choice would hardly be meaningful. I am relieved and happy to say this is not the case at all. The first year we only had nineteen nominees for the two awards (chapbook and full-length book). This is the second year, and we have twenty-nine books nominated. I believe the field of speculative poetry books is definitely large enough to support a meaningful award. The award is named after our founder, Suzette Haden Elgin, who would have loved to see a time when such an award was needed.
So that's four publications (two periodicals and two annual books) and a total of three awards. The organization does a lot more. There is a market list on the website (email the webmaster if your market isn't on the list or if you spot an error). We sponsor program events, such as readings and panel discussions, at science fiction conventions around the world, whenever SFPA members are able to make them happen. There is also an email list and a Facebook page.
You don't have to belong to the Association to benefit from some of these activities. For instance, the market list is free for anyone, anyone can join the email list and the Facebook page, anyone can nominate poems for the Dwarf Stars anthology and award, and you don't have to be a member to win any of these awards. But the more money the SFPA brings in the more it can do. We could raise again the rates we pay for poems and other contributions to Star*Line. We could raise the pay rates for Eye to the Telescope. We can start something completely new. So, I am a partisan. I have belonged to the organization since I found out about it (1986).
RS: I'm a numbers nerd, so I'm hoping for stats. How big is the membership these days? How many of those are lifetime members? Anything that would surprise me about geographical distribution, average age, etc.? What would you say is the ratio of poets to patrons?
DCKM: I am not a numbers nerd, but it wasn't hard to answer the first two questions. There are 225 current members (about 165 print and 60 PDF); 35 of the print memberships are life, and 3 of the PDF. Back in the late 80s, when I was helping with printing and mailing Star*Line, there were about 140 members. So that's almost a 40% increase over about a quarter of a century. I'm stunned that it has been that long since I got Star*Line printed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and John Nichols sent me mailing labels so I could send the issue out.
We could easily study the geographic distribution of members, because we have the addresses for everybody who gets our publications by mail. However, as far as I know, no one has ever tried to figure this out. I glanced over a recent list of members and can make a few observations. About a dozen members are from Canada. About another dozen are from other countries, mostly in Europe. The rest of the members come from the United States. These are spread pretty evenly across the fifty states, with the more populous states having more members.
Would something surprise you about the distribution of members? Maybe the fact that only two are from New Jersey. Come on, NJ, I know you have poets! I know why we don't have many international members. Overseas postage is expensive even for the small books and periodicals that we mail. Now that the relatively inexpensive PDF subscription is an option, I expect our international membership will increase. That will be something for SFPA leadership to work on in the next few years.
We don't know anything statistical about the ages of our members. We have been talking lately about collecting demographic information, and designing an instrument to do that is one of the things I'm going to do "real soon now." I may have time to do this after I retire as president.
I have a suspicion that almost every member is at least a closet poet, just like I think almost every subscriber to a small press publication is at least a would-be writer. I started writing first and joined second (because I didn't know about SFPA; I read about it in Janet Fox's Scavenger's Newsletter). My early poems were horrible. Bruce Boston charitably said once that I had matured a lot as a writer since he first saw my work. Boy, was that ever true! When you start at the bottom there's nowhere to go but up.
I don't know how many members of the SFPA are published poets, but if you get a hold of the membership directory and cast your eye down the page I bet you will recognize a lot of names.
RS: What are your day-to-day duties as the president?
DCKM: I agreed to serve as president of the organization a while back, because I feel that if you like an organization well enough to join and stay a member, then you should like it well enough to work for it. President was what they needed when I decided I had some time to spare.
I don't really have day-to-day duties, as in things to do every day. However, scarcely a day passes without something that calls for my attention. Another officer or some other person will have a question, proposal, or problem. Someone will suggest a better way of doing things. Something will come up. Of course there are some regular duties: writing a message from the president for each issue of Star*Line, finding volunteers to run for the various SFPA offices, and the like. To a large extent the SFPA runs itself. This is partly because the other officers know what they're doing and partly because most administrative things we do are pretty routine. Our number one reason for existing, at least at the beginning, was to publish Star*Line. Now we have diversified in our publications, but disseminating news and publishing genre poetry are basically what we do.
RS: I want to ask you about how you developed your own poetic style, which is fairly distinct. To me, it reads as though you are a Beat poet who turned down an odd alley in Haight-Ashbury and wound up in outer space. Did you always write this way, or was there a process of getting there?
DCKM: I don't find it easy to analyze myself. Would it alarm you to know that I wouldn't be able to describe my own poetic style? If anybody thinks I'm important enough to study, they can explain it. I can tell you that I started writing poetry when we were expecting our first child. I thought I might not have enough time to write fiction once she was born, and that was pretty much true for many years. So it was a purely practical decision.
There were some consequences. When I started writing poetry, I had to shift gears in my head from fiction writing. I have discovered that, for me, writing poetry and writing fiction are mutually incompatible, and it can take months to make the switch. When Luc Reid decided to start the Daily Cabal website, a sort of a showcase and workshop for flash fiction, I heard about the project and thought it would be fun. Most of the members of the Daily Cabal were trying to learn to write small. I was working my way up! I really enjoyed writing flash fiction and I think I got moderately good at it. I learned a lot, and I had fun squeezing a few prose poems into the mix. But it was so hard to go back to poetry!
Now, I am afraid to write flash, because I don't know how long it might ruin me for poetry. One of these years I will try it again. By the way, I think you can go to the Daily Cabal right now and read some awesome flash stories. Luc published a book with a lot of his flash stories, and I did the same. (I have about three copies left of The Simian Transcript.)
But back to your main question. I started out writing a lot of doggerel. Then, I began experimenting with the styles of poets whose work I liked. I looked at emotional effects certain poems produced, and tried to figure out how it was done. I found my way to free verse pretty quickly, and it is still my favorite. I like the freedom to lay out a poem in many different ways. Every now and then I try out some other form for a while, and they are interesting and valuable, but I always come back to free verse. Among the forms I have tried is the Fibonacci-no ku, in which the numbers of syllables in each successive line follow the Fibonacci series (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13…): each line has as many words as the sum of the two preceding lines.
RS: As a follow-up, have you found you write different poetry using voice recognition software than you would write typing at a keyboard? Are you more drawn to homophones and wordplay? Any particularly happy accidents that made it into a finished work?
DCKM: This is an interesting question, and I have thought about it before. I definitely try more words, so more alternate approaches, to a given poem when I am using voice recognition software. This is because when I type, I use one finger, except actually I use my whole arm, because I can't dexterously move the finger around by itself. For those of you who remember record players it's as if my arm is the arm that holds the needle in an old-fashioned record player. This big thing lifts up just to move a tiny needle from one place to another. So typing is quite tiring and that leads to an excess of concision. On the other hand, when the voice-recognition interface isn't working well and I keep seeing the wrong word show up on the computer screen, I get frustrated and I may actually try fewer choices than I would if I never used the computer. When I see a homophone show up, one that I think is funny or fraught with meaning, it may end up in a future poem, but probably not in the poem where it first raises its ugly head.
The sort of happy accident that makes it into my work tends to be the phrase at the forefront of my mind when I wake up suddenly after a momentary doze. Something like "The bean lizard objects." Nothing to do with voice recognition software. Some of my meds cause me to take frequent micronaps, so I have lots of opportunities!
RS: When you read poetry for pleasure, are you drawn to writing that is like yours, or writing that's especially dissimilar? Who are some poets, speculative or otherwise, who you don't think get enough love?
DCKM: Here is where I have to admit that I mostly read fiction for pleasure, not poetry. When I do read poetry, it is generally something that simply ended up on my desk. For instance, I was delighted to get into the book Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books. Naturally I'm going to read everything in the book. Would I have bought it? Perhaps not. I am not necessarily drawn to writing that is like mine. In fact, reading the works in publications that contain some of my poetry has opened my eyes to poets and kinds of poems that I didn't know anything about.
People who I think don't get the respect they deserve include Wendy Rathbone, Ann K. Schwader, and W. Gregory Stewart. Greg is slyly clever, Ann nails formal poetry time and time again, and Wendy writes poems that are beautiful, sad, and haunting. One of the things I like best about the Rhysling anthology is reading poems written by people I have never heard of. These are not necessarily obscure poets, but the exercise does bring home to me how many people are out there doing good work. Quite a few of them probably don't get the recognition they deserve.
RS: We're currently (I think) in the voting period for the Rhyslings, poems nominated from 2013, and about to enter the voting period for the Dwarf Stars, the award for poems under ten lines. You've already noted that last year, you introduced a new award, the Elgin, for book-length collections of speculative poetry. Why now? What was the process that led you to create the award (besides an obvious gap)?
DCKM: As I mentioned above, certain people had been agitating for an award for speculative poetry collections for several years. With some misgivings, I acquiesced. Like other people, I was afraid the choice would be limited. If there were only a few books to be considered, winning the competition wouldn't mean much. I was delighted to learn just how many speculative poetry books are being published these days. The Elgin award is a fantastic opportunity for members of the Science Fiction Poetry Association to find out about and read dozens of poetry collections every year. The authors get more exposure and the readers begin to understand what they have been missing. Everybody wins, and that's justification enough for the award. Of course the authors of nominated books would like to win the award, but even if they don't win, their work is exposed to new readers.
RS: You have been publishing Dreams & Nightmares for twenty-eight years now, which means you've been slushing incoming submissions for twenty-eight years. Based on what you've published—and what you haven't published—has much changed over the years? What formats and subjects have become increasingly popular, or faded away? Are there certain clues in a poem that let you say "yep, that obviously came from 1998"? Along similar lines, have you noticed a change in what (and who) gets attention at awards time?
DCKM: One thing that has faded away is vampire poetry. This was definitely a fad, to judge by my slush pile, that peaked in the 90s. For a while I was getting several bad vampire poems a week. I suppose this was related to the prevalence of bloodsucking movies and television shows. Now I get very little vampire poetry, good or bad.
In general, I wouldn't say that clues in a poem tell me what decade I received it in. Broad themes related to changes in society and scientific advances are limited to certain time periods. Have you watched an old movie and wondered why nobody took out their cell phone when they needed to get in touch with someone? I have been publishing as long as cell phones have been common.
Similarly, if there has been a change in what gets awards, I haven't noticed. It would be interesting to count the proportions of poems written by men and by women that are published and nominated for awards over the years, but I have made no attempt to track this, so I don't know if it has changed.
RS: Okay, wild speculation time, because that's what we do. Talk to me about a poem from the year 2487. Give me your review.
DCKM: Are people still going to be writing poetry almost 500 years from now? If we do survive the destruction of this planet as a human-friendly biosphere, we will have to change a lot. I don't know if we will make it, but if we do, poetry will be poetry. The form and medium may vary but the subject matter will be the human condition. Just like always. 500 years ago technologically advanced humanity didn't know how many continents there were on the earth, and the scientific method was a new thing. Since then, technological advances have accelerated asymptotically, but human psychology is still primitive as heck. I don't mean the science, but the mind itself.
All of that said, a speculative poem from the year 2487 might be picking away at the first microsecond after the Big Bang. People will probably still be wondering about other bubble universes and what's outside of this one. Time travel will have been proven impossible for macroscopic entities. Artificial intelligence will have been a commonplace for centuries (thousands of millennia in machine time) and will no longer be a fit subject for speculative poetry. We might not have met any natural alien intelligences, but poems about falling in love and actually reproducing with artificial intelligence will be so old-hat they will only be written in languages that no one reads anymore. Perhaps the only kind of speculative poetry that exists today that will still exist 500 years from now is haiku and similar forms. The moment, the cut, the realization that two things are one, these won't change. Basho will probably still be anthologized.
So: my review. Personally, I liked the one about the dawn human who required physical implants to speak mind to mind with others, who was somehow transported into the present day (2487), where it began a heartbreaking and fruitless quest for love in a world in which everyone else was part of a galaxy-wide conversation forever closed to this primitive outsider. The universal zeitgeist in which we are all outsiders, no one is at home, was skillfully referenced via broken quotes from Zilch, 123IBMMJ1000, and of course, Shakespeare. Yes, Em Dee Hokum has scored another hit.
SPOILER: In the end, the protag uploaded its consciousness to an automated asteroid miner and is now halfway through an extended stint extracting heavy metals from the Empty Ring of the Oort.
RS: One last question—issue 98 of Dreams & Nightmares is on the verge of release, which means barring an alien invasion or similar disruption, issue 100 will come out sometime in the next year. Big milestone! If you were a TV show, you could be syndicated. Any special plans to mark the century?
DCKM: I will put a color cover on it. I did that with issue 73 to mark twenty years in publishing. Also, issue 100 is going to be a themed issue. The theme is "time." I already have some submissions for the issue, but I definitely need more. Send them to me! There's really nothing special about publishing one hundred issues. Space and Time did it years ago. Still, we like to mark things, arbitrary thresholds that only exist because of our number system. It does indicate a certain level of persistence.
One thing you didn't ask me about was who I miss. I miss Keith Allen Daniels. I miss Steve Cooper, Marion Jeeves [who wrote as Marina Lee Sable], Michelle Leasure-Firesheets, all the poets and illustrators we have lost. More every year, because there are more of us to lose.