31 October 2005

A Conversation with Mike Allen

Mike Allen is probably best known within the science fiction/fantasy/horror field for his energetic promotion of SF poetry, both as a writer and an an editor/publisher. He is currently the president of The Science Fiction Poetry Association and the founding publisher and editor of Mythic Delirium. His own poetry and fiction have appeared in Asimov's, Interzone, and Strange Horizons, among many other places. He has won the SFPA's Rhysling Award, co-edited the Rhysling showcase anthology Alchemy of Stars, and also participated in the Speculative Poetry Symposium I moderated for Strange Horizons earlier this year.

Mike's latest books are both published by Prime: Disturbing Muses and Strange Wisdoms of the Dead (forthcoming). He lives in Roanoke, Virginia with his wife, Anita, and works as a reporter for a Roanoke newspaper.

When did you begin writing poetry? Why SF poetry?
I never made a conscious choice to write sf poetry. It's what I write naturally.

I discovered or was exposed to all my main reading staples during a rather miserable childhood spent for the most part in a tiny Appalachian coal mining town. I was entranced as a kid by The Lord of the Rings, and chasing down more of what I got from those books, in isolation from any "communal" guidance, led me in all sorts of directions, from H.P. Lovecraft to T.S. Eliot.

As a teenager I subscribed to Asimov's Science Fiction, and found poetry there. I remember a piece that used parallel columns to describe the points of view of twins isolated on different planets. I love visual shenanigans within text, and that poem really grabbed my imagination (I've probably overabused that same technique in my own poems). Even the Dangerous Visions anthologies, which I read as an undergraduate, included poetry. So when I wrote poetry, it always had sf or fantasy elements.

When I really started trying to get work published my main focus was on fiction. While my short stories fared reasonably well in the group seminars in graduate school, my poems were always brutally savaged. I became determined to produce poems that would survive the workshop, and so wound up cranking out a lot of poetry, which started selling. Laurel Winter especially gave me a regular venue at Tales of the Unanticipated, buying poems that had to have caused the typesetter fits.
What's next for Mythic Delirium now that you've separated it from DNA Publications?
In a way, it's back to the beginning. I began Mythic Delirium back in 1998 as sort of a self-dare. I printed two issues, sensed almost no interest from the small press community, and decided to kill it.

But I had sent copies of those two early issues to Ellen Datlow, and she included my little zine in her informal "best magazines of the year" list. After that, Warren Lapine asked me to revive the magazine for DNA, and I agreed to after much soul searching. Now, six years and 12 issues later, I've published folks from Joe Haldeman to Sonya Taaffe to Theodora Goss to Ursula Le Guin, and after even more soul searching I've decided that I know enough that I no longer need to ride piggyback on DNA. So off I've jumped.

Mythic Delirium will never be a financial juggernaut. But I got a happy chill when I opened up the subscriber list file and saw that a few of the folks who bought subscriptions back when I put out my very first cheap-inkjet-cover issue are still with me.

The biggest challenge is quickly getting Mythic Delirium to a point to where it can support itself. It's got to; my wife's a full-time student and I ain't a rich man. But that actually appears quite doable, and so far, so good.
How did Alchemy of Stars come about?
It didn't begin with me. Roger Dutcher volunteered back in 2001 to put together a long overdue collection of all the poems that had won the Rhysling Award. SFPA had been giving out Rhyslings since 1978 -- but by the time I joined, in 1998, the sum of the Rhysling winners seemed nothing more than a cool-looking list of titles in the back of the annual chapbook of Rhysling nominees. I mean, where could you even find Gene Wolfe's "The Computer Iterates the Greater Trumps"?

Roger soldiered on alone for three years, and found the last MIA author in January '04. By that time, I'd become very active in SFPA, and, God help me, had declared my intention to run for President, so I jumped in. We couldn't find an arrangement with a publisher that worked, but after a year with myself and other new officers in charge, SFPA's financial situation radically changed for the good, and we were able to publish it ourselves. So far, the book's earned SFPA a nice chunk of change, which is exactly what we hoped for.
How does having some money in the accounts change what SFPA does and will do?
Well, publishing Star*Line and the Rhysling anthologies and presenting the Rhysling Awards will always be our main business. But a lot of things are in our reach now that weren't before.

A small advance party from SFPA landed at this year's ReaderCon and mingled with the natives without any trouble. We had a dealer's table that earned a tidy profit, and I hope the poetry reading and award announcement we did will become an annual tradition. We're now eyeballing the possibility of a similar presence at WorldCon, and it's been nice, when folks have pointed out the expense of a table there, to be able to say, "We can cover that."

I hope to see SFPA throw its newfound health (not wealth, mind you, but health) behind promoting speculative poetry in any way it can. But what's the most effective way to do that? We're up against a daunting problem: in a world where most people don't have poetry in their lives and don't miss it, how do we make people start caring? It's a more practical goal, I think, to find ways to trawl for the people that do care, and let them know we're here and creating some of the strangest, most provocative verse you're going to find.
Is there an advantage for a writer in identifying as an SF poet rather than as just a poet?
Frankly, no. SF markets generally pay something while most lit mags don't, but wearing an "SF Poet" armband isn't going to land you a $100,000 arts grant or ensure that your books sell thousands of copies.

But I'm willing to wear that armband, not because I think it's a great sales gimmick, but because it accurately describes what I do. When I perform one of my poems at the improv theater here in Roanoke, I don't stand up before each piece and say, "Hi! I'm a Science Fiction Poet!" -- but the audience can tell I'm doing something really, really different. It's something I do at practically a genetic level. Whatever I do creatively is done in terms of sf or fantasy.
Interestingly, there's overlap between themes in "fantasy poetry" and the so-called "mainstream" to a degree that the two spill over: consider the "incubus possession" poem that appeared in a recent issue of Poetry, or poets like Fred Chappell turning up in Weird Tales. Right now, Prime Books is experimenting along that blurred line with the Jabberwocky anthologies, and with a number of fantasy-themed poetry collections, by folks like Sonya Taaffe, Cat Valente, Tim Pratt and me.

And that's caused me to experiment. My first Prime Book, Disturbing Muses, is already out, and it's like nothing I've ever done before: a cycle of lengthy poems about modern masters like Goya and Picasso, that can be read as dark fantasy biographies or maybe as meditations on the destructive power of creativity. The second in the pipeline, Strange Wisdoms of the Dead, which also holds fiction, could be taken as a celebration of Apocalypse; as a writer, I love to rip reality part. It's my hope that anyone who reads Strange Wisdoms will have any preconceptions about sf poetry thoroughly smashed.

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