Marshall Payne (marshallpayne1) wrote,
Marshall Payne

An Interview with David Kopaska-Merkel


This week's interview in the Clubhouse is conducted by Jaime Lee Moyer (stillnotbored). I hope you enjoy this fine interview she did with David Kopaska-Merkel (dreamnnightmare).

David Kopaska-Merkel is a well-known figure in the speculative poetry field. He publishes Dreams and Nightmares, a magazine of science fiction and fantasy poetry that he started in 1986. In 2006 a poem David wrote in collaboration with poet Kendall Evans, won the Rhysling Award for long form poem. David has had poetry published in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium, Ideomancer and Star*Line, and his list of publication credits—poetry, fiction and non-fiction—numbers over a thousand. His flash fiction is currently being published at The Daily Cabal. David lives in an old farmhouse in Alabama with his family of accomplished artists and his cats.

You've been a fixture of the spec poetry world for many years, both as an editor and a poet. What first drew you to writing speculative poetry?

When we were expecting our first child, I decided I was not going to have time to write any more fiction, so I switched to poetry. Looking back, it seems like a silly reason, although it's true that more hours are spent on a short story than on a poem, good or bad. At first I mostly wrote horror poetry, very bad horror poetry, and some nonsense verse (Walt Kelly is one of my heroes). After a couple of years I started to branch out and to improve with experience. I soon realized I could write better poetry than I could fiction.

Dreams and Nightmares is one of the oldest and most respected speculative poetry magazines. What moved you to start the magazine in 1986? Looking back over the last twenty-three years, what are some of the biggest challenges you've faced as the editor and publisher?

When I started writing speculative poetry I could not find very many places to submit my work. I concluded there were almost no genre poetry markets and so I started one to fill the gap. About that time I discovered Scavenger's Newsletter, edited by the late Janet Fox. This was a valuable market resource in those pre-Internet days, but it still seemed to me there were mighty few markets for poetry. Speculative poetry had more venues than I knew about, but the pickings were a lot skimpier than they are today.

As for challenges, a couple of times I got discouraged. It seemed few people were submitting and few people were reading what I published. Two times I only kept going because the prospect of figuring out how much money I owed to which people for existing subscriptions was too daunting. Another secret to my persistence is my low-budget approach. I saw some beautiful zines appear, only to go out of business after just a few issues. I'm sure the disparity between expenses and income had a lot to do with it.

Over the years what changes have you seen in the speculative poetry field?

The Internet is the obvious new factor and it has caused a lot of changes. Publishing an electronic magazine is almost free and there are a lot of them. Editing and publishing is still a lot of work, so they don't always last any longer than print magazines did in the old days. Communication is easier, which is one reason that groups like the Science Fiction Poetry Association have grown a lot. We know each other better. We used to communicate face-to-face at conventions and through letters. Now we sometimes communicate too quickly, "speaking" before we think. In the absence of body-language cues, this can lead to major misunderstandings that I think we would have avoided in the old days.

The very existence of spec poetry as a separate category of poetry is a somewhat controversial subject in certain circles and has some very vocal critics. What sets speculative poetry apart from mainstream poetry? What makes it unique?

The main difference is the content and how it is intended to be interpreted. I think of this as a single difference because remarkable situations, objects, and people in speculative poetry are intended to be taken at face value, at least in part. When the trappings of science fiction or fantasy show up in mainstream poetry, they are intended purely as metaphor. Some literary poets have trouble even reading genre poetry—they don't get it. Conversely, although we use metaphor, I think most of us are less practiced at writing and interpreting metaphorically than many literary poets. When I read their work I have to remind myself that nothing is what it seems! I don't mean to denigrate either genre or mainstream poetry. As with all aspects of human endeavor, both follow Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crud).

I do think that speculative poetry shares one of the strengths of speculative fiction. We explore the future. Thinking about the future is both one of the societal benefits of speculative fiction and poetry and one of the most fun aspects of the two. This is certainly not all we do, but it is one of the things that mainstream poetry doesn't do.

Your poetry has been nominated for the Rhysling Award multiple times. In 2006 you won for a long form poem, "The Tin Men," co-written with poet Kendall Evans. How did that partnership and poem come about? Does the collaboration process come easily to you? How does collaboration change the poetry you write?

Sometime back in the '90s Kendall started submitting to Dreams and Nightmares, and one day he wrote me to suggest we collaborate. I think the only collaboration I had done before that was Cthulhu mythos fiction with Ron McDowell and a couple of exquisite corpses with members of my family. Since then we have collaborated on dozens of poems and we always do it the same way. One of us sends a fragment (perhaps a stanza or so) to the other. If the recipient can think of a way to add to the fragment, he does so. We send the growing poems back and forth, adding a little each time and occasionally modifying some of what was already there. Eventually, one of us thinks it is finished, and when we agree, whoever started it sends it to an editor.

Kendall started "The Tin Men," so his name is first on that one. I never asked him where he got the idea.

I have collaborated with at least six other people, and I usually find it works pretty well. We do not always do it the same way. Debbie Kolodji is a very thorough and iterative writer. As is natural with someone who usually writes very short forms, she focuses on every word and every punctuation mark. When we collaborated, we rewrote a lot.

I'm sure there are some people whose writing styles or writing would clash with mine and vice versa. I have probably been lucky.

You've said that your day job is "describing rocks for the State of Alabama." Does your work inspire certain poems or influence your poetry at all? Conversely, does dealing with hard science day after day prevent you from writing certain types of poetry?

I have written a few poems about geology. A couple of those related to my own work in one way or another. I have gone for months or years without writing any science or hard science fiction poetry, so if my work prevents anything it prevents the poetic version of itself. The only way in which I know my work inhibits poetry writing is this. I have a certain amount of creativity available on a given day. If I spend all day trying to write for work I have less energy available to write other things. That's how I think of it anyway. When I am writing the interpretive part of an article I don't have anything left for poetry.

The worst interview question to ask a writer or poet is reputed to be "Where do you get your ideas?" You are a very prolific poet and flash fiction writer, so let me ask this instead: Do you chase ideas or do they chase you?

I don't think of myself as prolific. If I write three haiku in a day and you write a thousand words on a novel, who is more prolific? But anyway, I like the question. (Although I can tell you where I get my ideas. I usually find them in a desk drawer.)

Sometimes I do chase ideas. I want to write, and I don't know what, so I try to come up with something. This is occasionally successful. More often an idea or a phrase pops into my head from I don't where. I write something down. Maybe an entire short poem or maybe just a few notes to remind me of what I had in mind. I think more of these end up as successful poems or stories.

You've made no secret of the fact that due to an accident some years ago, you're confined to a wheelchair and use voice recognition software to write. How has that changed what you write? Do you find yourself addressing different themes or topics than you did before the accident?

I am more concise than I used to be. It takes longer to do everything, so short is better. This doesn't prevent me from writing novels; I never could do that. It probably makes my writing better, because most writing can stand a bit of trimming.

I have changed themes and topics a little. I probably did not include any disabled people in my writing before my accident, except for one or two old people who used canes. I never really thought about it. Now, it is part of my repertoire. Themes or topics that involve disability come up now and again just like lots of other themes and topics do.

You write a great deal of poetry in what many see as "experimental forms," some of which adhere to patterns that shape the poem in a visual manner. You also write a great deal of speculative haiku. Does the form determine the poem you write? Or does the poem determine the form? How do you make the choice?

It depends. I enjoy trying out different forms, like a lot of people do. I generally choose the form first and then write the poem. Sometimes a form I have chosen just does not seem to work for a given poem and if that happens I change the form.

The form necessarily affects the poem. One thing I have done, partly to amuse myself, is write a poem in one form and then write it again in a different form. The easiest way to do this is to take a substantial piece of free verse and try to make a scifaiku out of it. Sometimes you can distill the entire poem into 3 lines and sometimes you take part of it. Quite often the resulting poems are so different that it might not even be apparent they came from the same source. In that case you can sell both of them!

I write a lot of scifaiku as a form of discipline. Good or bad, they don't take long, but it takes some effort and insight to write a good one. It's good practice, and I use the results to post a least one thing to my blog every day. If I write a scifaiku I think is particularly good, I submit it somewhere and write another one for my blog. Every now and then I write something good but put it on my blog anyway, or reprint something there, so it isn't completely full of the also-rans.

Your flash fiction is published in The Daily Cabal. Keeping a website supplied with fresh content on a daily basis seems like a huge challenge, even with the varied group of writers who contribute. What has that experience been like?

I have enjoyed it and benefited a lot. The other writers in the group are really good. Several are excellent critics. Trying to write well enough so that I'm not embarrassed to show them my stories, and paying attention to their critiques, have definitely improved my writing. My share of the load is two or three flash stories a month, which is not bad. I have never had trouble with the quantity. I always try to write the new story better; sometimes I succeed.

What lies ahead for you as a poet and a writer? Any plans to tackle novels?

I would love to write a novel, but I am not good at plotting. Most of my stories are shorter than 3000 words. I would like to be able to write longer pieces, but I'm not applying myself to that. If I work too hard at this it won't be fun anymore!


Jaime Lee Moyer's fiction has appeared in Lone Star Stories, and in the past four years she has had more than eighty poems published in many venues, including Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit, and Mythic Delirium. She was recently awarded the 2009 Columbus Literary Award for her novel Delia's Shadow. Jaime is also poetry editor at Ideomancer, and she lives on the banks of a river in Ohio with the two cats who own her. Her novels are represented by Tamar Rydzinski of the Laura Dail Literary Agency.
Tags: interviews at the clubhouse

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