[We asked Karen Burnham and Sofia Samatar to review Rose Lemberg's debut collection of poetry. This is the conversation that followed—Ed.]
Sofia Samatar: I'd love to start by talking about Rose's position in the SFF community and the work she has done leading up to this volume. Where did you first hear about Rose? What led you to be interested in this book and want to review it?
Karen Burnham: Back in the Spring of 2012, I organized a series of posts and podcasts related to speculative poetry for the Locus Magazine blog. One of the more fun things I did as part of that was to record a podcast with Emily Jiang and Rose Lemberg. Putting that series together and editing the entries was really my beginning education into the world of SF/F poetry, and I started to read it more widely and keep my eye out for specific poets. Rose was certainly one of those names. I'm afraid that I'm still a novice when it comes to reviewing or analyzing poetry—I feel like I don't have the same level of critical vocabulary for the form that I do for prose stories—but with poets like Rose, Amal El-Mohtar, and others around, it's definitely worth learning.
How about you—what made Marginalia to Stone Bird jump into your hands?
SS: My first published creative writing appeared in Stone Telling, the magazine Rose edits with Shweta Narayan—it was a poem called "The Sand Diviner," published in 2011. Rose and Shweta published my poem "Girl Hours" the same year, and other works later on. So I first got to know Rose as an editor and publisher, and I'm still amazed sometimes by how much of that kind of work she's done in addition to her own writing. Her anthologies The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry, and Here, We Cross: A Collection of Queer and Genderfluid Poetry from Stone Telling 1-7, are groundbreaking works, and having read her forthcoming anthology An Alphabet of Embers, I can tell you it's just as powerful and will have lasting effects on the landscape of speculative fiction and poetry. So to see a book of Rose's own work come out is really exciting to me. I see it as a personal expression of the public work she's been doing, in searching for the right words, in centering marginalized identities, in creating community.
KB: Let's talk about identity, since that is obviously central to this collection, especially the first part labeled "Finding Voice." Poetry is often intensely personal, and this section seems to draw heavily on Lemberg's experience as an Eastern European Jew emigrating to America. This section had two of my favorite poems: "Thirteen Principles of Faith" and the title poem, "Marginalia to Stone Bird." "Thirteen" is an amazing meditation and expansion on the idea of G-d, and combines the deeply philosophical with the personal. "Marginalia" seems a little more impersonal, but I love the way it can be read in so many different ways. It has three woven voices: normal font on the left is from an eleventh-century poem "Stone Bird," italic font on the right is the commentary on "Stone Bird" by a sixteenth-century monk, and in small font between the lines on each side ("Interlinear Glosses") is Lemberg's text. It's like an elegant one-page puzzle box. How did you find this section, and what it might reflect about identities?
SS: I love this section. In fact "Finding Voice" is probably my favorite. But it needs the other two parts of the book—"Changing Shape" and "Making Journeys"—in order to be my favorite! What I mean is that I see Marginalia to Stone Bird as the story of a poet's journey, of the becoming of a poet. I love the "Finding Voice" section because it meditates on myth and the sacred in so many ways—it engages Judaism, as in "Thirteen Principles of Faith," as well as Jewish and Greek folklore—and it relates those traditions to the experience of immigration. It's so much about finding language, this section, and for the poet we encounter here, finding language means creating it.
I think that's central to the question of identity you're talking about, as it relates to the whole book. Marginalia is about finding the language, creating it if necessary, to live an identity. The identity of an immigrant, a queer person, a poet. In the "Finding Voice" section, we see the formation of a poet who draws on sacred and folk traditions, on old stories, in order to create new stories to live in. So in the title poem, which you've mentioned, you have this writing we're told is from the 11th century, and then marginalia by "an unknown monk" from the 16th century, and then the interlinear glosses by, we're informed, "Rose Lemberg." It's playful in the way it teases you with the line between fantasy and reality—are these writers real or not? But it's also deadly serious, because this is the project of this book: writing into the margins and translation. And that means translation into new identities as well as languages. I love the "Finding Voice" section because it's here that we see how stories can save your life.
The first poem in "Finding Voice" is one of the most powerful for me: "The Three Immigrations." It's one of the most clearly linked to our world and its places—"the San Francisco Bay Bridge / circles my head like a red dragon crown." In that poem, the poet mentions three books: the Poetic Edda in Old Norse, Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, and Crow by Ted Hughes. It's a poem about sources. And we're also told: "I made three languages / to hide in." So it's also about creating languages—about fantasy. In the book as a whole, there's sort of a movement from autobiography to fantasy, from a this-world immigration story to the otherworldly journeys at the end of the book. I'm wondering what you thought about that, and how it worked for you? It's pretty rare to find the writer's autobiography in the same book as secondary-world fantasy!
KB: That's a good point about the movement from autobiography to fantasy, and I think it works well here. It gives the fantasy a grounding and weight that it might not have otherwise. By the end there's even a piece of science fiction ("archival testimony fragments/minersong") that doesn't feel incongruous with the fantasy surrounding it.
There's a lot to be said about how Lemberg is able to take starkly contrasting images and language and make them work together in interesting ways. As you mentioned, there's history, autobiography, mysticism, and fantasy all juxtaposed, especially in that first section. It happens within individual poems as well. Some of my favorites take entirely different genres/tones/voices and interleave them, leaving the reader to find the harmonies between them. "Thirteen Principles of Faith" does this early on, with items of a numbered list being separated by mythic, philosophical, and autobiographical musings. Towards the end "archival testimony fragments/minersong" uses a number of different typographies (italics, brackets, left and right justification) to distinguish between technical directions, internal anguish, ghosts, and corporate-speak. They all combine to tell a solid science fiction short story in a unique, allusive way.
In a way she does the same thing with the arrangement of poems. There are a few poems here that share a cast of characters ("In the Third Cycle," "Crow Epic Fragments," "Long Shadow," "The Journeymaker to Keddar (II)") but instead of running them together as a series they are spread throughout the third section "Making Journeys." This invites the reader to read them differently, less like a traditional story or continuous whole, perhaps more like impressions.
How did the poems change for you as they moved away from our world and into speculative ones?
SS: This is so interesting and important, I think—the poems are very carefully organized. It's the organization that makes Marginalia feel like a book, a complete argument rather than a "collected poems of Rose Lemberg." And you're right, those pieces set in the same world are not clumped together, but their influence grows toward the end of the book. It feels more like a tapestry than a collage—rather than separate components set beside each other, there are threads that travel through the whole, but certain colors are stronger in some places. Or maybe it's like a piece of music, with themes that are repeated with variations, and grow and dominate in different movements.
For me, the effect was to keep everything tied together. I was very aware of the poet, of the voice. So when I was immersed in the fantasy world, I was aware of the threads stretching out into this one. This becomes really powerful in the final call, in "The Journeymaker to Keddar (II)"—a poem that even mentions a "glittering web," which is sort of how I see the whole book. That web is poetry I think: "water that has no meaning beyond itself." In the poem, the web "stretches between us," between the Journeymaker and Keddar, but also between the speaker and the listener, between the poet and the reader, and the poet's saying, "Come!" It feels very vibrant and present. I don't know that many fantasy writers who reach so directly toward the reader, using a fantasy world, and yet making a connection that feels so unmediated. Ursula Le Guin, maybe. Catherynne M. Valente. Samuel R. Delany.
I feel like drawing attention to the fact that this is one of Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces, a series devoted to what editor L. Timmel Duchamp calls the "grand conversation" of feminist science fiction. It's a series meant to document and develop a particular community. And that seems perfect for this book, and for Rose, who is a tireless worker for various communities that overlap with each other and with SFF: feminist communities, queer communities, neurodiverse communities. I was struck by how many of the poems in Marginalia are dedicated to other people!
KB: I've been amazed and impressed by the Conversation Pieces series from Aqueduct as a whole. It's brought forward a lot of interesting pieces—not just fiction, but poetry and non-fiction as well. To continue your point about community, it's inclusive in a way that not too many publishers or venues are. Instead of segregating SF/fantasy, short fiction/novels, poetry/prose, or fiction/non-fiction, the series treats them all equally. It feels like one more way the community as a whole is challenging the various binaries that are imposed by external forces or just by cultural inertia.
Marginalia fits perfectly into the paradigm of the Conversation Pieces. It's a slim volume but dense with beautiful and thought-provoking work. It reaches beyond its own boundaries, seeks connections across many different genres and modes, and is welcoming to anyone open to reading in new ways.
Thanks so much for discussing this with me! It's fun to have someone else to spark off new ideas and new ways of looking at a work.
SS: Thank you!
Karen Burnham is vocationally an electromagnetics engineer and avocationally a science fiction book reviewer and critic. She has worked on various space programs such as the Orion capsule and the Dream Chaser space plane. She reviews for venues such as Locus magazine, SFSignal.com, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and published a book on the work of Greg Egan with University of Illinois Press in 2014. She lives with her husband and two children near Baltimore, Maryland.
Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria, winner of the William L. Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award. She is also a Hugo and Nebula Award finalist and the recipient of the 2014 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her new novel The Winged Histories is forthcoming from Small Beer Press in 2016.