Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Come Late To The Love Of Birds": Sandra Kasturi Interview, Part One

Another lovely treat for and from Lobster & Canary, to start our 2014:  an interview with poet Sandra Kasturi about her latest collection, Come Late To The Love Of Birds, recently published by Tightrope Books, which also put out her debut collection, The Animal Bridegroom.   Click here to purchase the book.  (Full disclosure:  Sandra is co-owner of ChiZine Publications, which published my two novels; I received a free advance copy of Come Late To The Love Of Birds).

Sandra is a Bram Stoker Award-winning editor.  CZP won the British Fantasy Award last year and has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award.  She identifies closely ­with speculative fiction, the new fabulism.   Her work is among the best these hybrid genres have produced in recent years, and is part of the renaissance within fantastical poetry, along with that of --among others--our fellow CZP author, Helen Marshall, as well as by Sonya Taaffe, Theodora Goss, and the many talents gathered by Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica Wick at Goblin Fruit, by Mike Allen at Mythic Delirium, and by Erzebet Yellowboy at Cabinet des Fees.

I see Come Late (and Animal Bridegroom), along with the work of Marshall and the others I list here, as part of an important endeavor within English-language poetry much more generally: a revitalization of the Romantic mode, building on Blakean and Wordsworthian tropes and the dreams of Coleridge and Shelley with sharp-throated words for modern times, not least with a deft ear for the nuances of gender and the demands of a post-colonialist world.   Marianne Moore as one bridging figure, Jorie Graham another?  As I read Sandra's work,  I find myself reaching for volumes by Sharon Olds, by Clayton Eshleman, by Albert Goldbarth, by Charles Simic.  By Alice Oswald, by Sarah Lindsay, by Laura Kasischke, by Seamus Heaney.   Past time for “fantastical poetry” (and isn’t all poetry fantastical, the changing of words into the world and back again?) to stake its claim more forcefully in today’s poetry landscape.   I hope Come Late garners the praise it deserves among the readers of Olds, Simic, Heaney et al

Question One.   The title of your latest collection comes from a passage you read decades ago by J.A. Baker:  “I came late to the love of birds.  For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision.”  And actually you first read the lines as quoted in a Judith Van Gieson novel; lines that you savored for years, waiting for the chance to use in a recipe of your own.  Tell us more about the origins of the poems as a cycle: the intertextual tracing, the widening of your own vision to include birds, your desire to widen vision for others (arguably the greatest gift of poetry).
Kasturi:  Firstly, thanks so much for having me on Lobster & Canary! And you are very kind in your praise indeed. My god, to be mentioned in the same breath as Heaney, etc! Swoon.

I was so struck by that quotation when I saw it in Van Gieson's book, The Raptor (a mystery novel, incidentally), that I looked up Baker's book, The Peregrine, which is where the lines are originally from, and bought a copy from Abe Books. I think it's out of print now? Anyway, The Peregrine is itself an odd thing, and not much is actually known about Baker himself. He wrote this naturalist's study, but it actually reads like poetry. His passages are so eloquent and beautiful, I can't even describe them. I'm not a huge non-fiction reader unless I'm doing research for something specific, but that's a book that I'd go back to, just for the beauty of its language. I think it should be on all poets' must-read list! I mean, he's even mesmerizing when he's talking statistics! But that's not the question.

I often think in titles, so "come late to the love of birds" was just something ringing in my head for a long time, and I thought it would be a good title for a book. And then it just seemed like I was writing poems that involved birds in some way, without really planning to. It all coalesced when I wrote the first poem in the book, "Roc" although of course I didn't really think of it as an opening poem for anything--it was just a thing I wrote and workshopped in my poetry group. So when I was thinking about my next poetry book, it all came together, and I went, "Hey, that might be a cool thing to do." I went through my newer poems and picked out the ones that seemed like they would fit in the books--poems literally about birds, or about flight, or space travel. Which was when I realized I had nowhere nearly enough and I'd better get off my ass!

The thing is--as you start thinking about themes for your writing and pulling a book together, you start looking at the actual things your poems are about. So I would really notice birds in a way I hadn't before. I would notice their funny little personalities, and how some of them would get cross with each other and squabble in our backyard. When we were in Rhode Island, I saw this hawk in the botanical gardens there--which resulted in the poem "One Red Thought." The movement of birds is like poetry.

Incidentally, Helen Marshall liked the title of my book so much, that she developed the very naughty habit of writing all these awesome poems which were perfect for my book, so I will obviously have to write poems for her next book now. Heh.

Question Two.  I came early to the love of birds:  I started birdwatching when I was nine years old.  So, I am enthralled by your trenchant sketches of birds as (in your words) “poetry made flesh,” nodding as I see old friends so well depicted.  Since your “conversion,” besides seeing birds for the first time, have you also found them in literature where you previously had not noticed them?   I am thinking of, to name just a few in a flock:  Ted Hughes...Mary Oliver...the sublime Walton Ford (devious homage to the magnificent Audubon)...Emily Dickinson...Birds Drawn For John Gould by Edward Lear...Bartram’s Travels Through North & South Carolina, etc. and Wilson’s  American Ornithology...White’s Natural History of Selborne...da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds...from our medieval forebears, The Parliament of Fowls...

Kasturi:   I think I notice them more in mythology and folklore or fairy tales. You find them in Grimm and Andersen, and the Greek myths of course. Weirdly, I don't really read a lot of poetry, but the stuff I love, I love a lot. People like Anne Carson, Anne Sexton, Laura Lush, David Clink, Helen Marshall of course.

But I remember the birds in the Mary Poppins books best, I think. P.L. Travers was such a weird and funny writer! I love her so much. She anthropomorphized birds (and animals) of course, but I'll always remember Mary Poppins arguing with the cheeky starlings.

And you know I grew up loving dinosaurs--all those in-school claymation "documentaries"! How I loved them. I'm still sad brontosaurus doesn't really exist. And later: Ray Harryhausen! Bliss. So when the theories about how dinosaurs evolved into birds, it all seemed to make a kind of exquisite sense.

 Question Three.  Let’s talk prosody for a moment.  When you compose a poem such as “The Flowering Tide” (“Palelemon sunstreaks arc wide amid snow- / falls of cherryblossoms that shiver through chills/ or warmth, fickle gusts of vernal air that blow/ from the east.”), do you have the meter already in your head before the words come, or do the words tumble out, challenging you to order their rhythm?   Here is another passage that spurred this question, from “Poets and Other Birds of Prey”:  “Such exsanguinations had to be effected personally:/ flesh rendered by others/ was, even at the very moment of death,/ already too old to be touched./ You were fastidious.”   Or likewise this, from “Cardinal”:  “Look ­two cardinals perch on a still-bare tree,/ one red, one brown, watching, sharp-eyed; the least/ movement sends them skyward, winging free/ across the slow evening.”

Kasturi:  I must confess that with "The Flowering Tide" it was terribly contrived. I had this "Sonnet a Week" project that I was doing where I was trying to write, yes, a sonnet a week. Because I'm not really a formal verse person, so I wanted to see if I could do it. One week I couldn't think of anything, but I wanted to write a spring poem, so I asked my friend, writer Jason Taniguchi, to give me the end-rhyming words. So he did, but very naughtily gave me only winter words! Which you can see if you look at the last word of each line. But I like restrictions when writing--I think sometimes the more severe the straitjacket, the cleverer you are forced to be. So it expanded the way I thought and the way I wrote, which I think is good. I sort of trailed off before the year was out though--so really, it ended up averaging out to a sonnet every two weeks, I think.

"Cardinal" of course is also a sonnet. I wrote it for my great-uncle after he died and read it at his funeral. Again, the severity of restrictions involved in a form like the sonnet I think lend themselves beautifully when a tremendous amount of emotion is involved with what you are doing. It keeps you from veering off into hysteria or maudlin thoughts. Allows you to say things and makes it easier to handle all the unhappiness and despair you feel when you lose someone you love greatly.

As for "Poets and Other Birds of Prey"--my god, I wrote that a loooong time ago. It might actually be the oldest poem in the book. I know I absolutely did not think about meter then; I do it far more now. Some things seem to lend themselves naturally to certain rhythms, and you usually know from the first couple of lines what it's going to be. I've had things change from very formal verse to free verse, because I was trying to force the form and it wasn't working. And I've done it the other way round too--realized that it was a hodgepodge mess and it needed more stricture and then gone off into the formal vein.

Isn't "stricture" a wonderful word? It sounds like a poison, or something you'd add to a chemical solution to give colourful results.

[Second Half Of Interview To Come Next Sunday]

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Space Break

The Chinese moon rover Jade Rabbit (Yutu, in Mandarin) was reactivated last week, having been set on "dormant" for a month after landing so as to ride out inclement "weather."  The rover begins its mission in earnest now.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity steadily sends back pictures-- this one was taken on January 17th.

Lobster and Canary takes a mini-break this week, between the two-part interview with Mike Carey and another two-part interview to start next week, this one with poet, editor and publisher Sandra Kasturi.  In the meantime, we send our thoughts out into space, dreaming, dreaming....

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Mike Carey Interview, Part Two

Question FourOne of the most compelling features of your Felix novels is the close reading of urban space, the concrete descriptions of the places where both thought and action unfold, as well as your allusions to the history and myth that accrue to and sometimes obscure that very reality.  As a native Liverpudlian, you bring perhaps an outsider's sharp eye for the quirks and vagaries of London; as Felix says in the first novel:  "I was born elsewhere, you have to understand-- up North, two hundred miles from the Smoke-- and my view of London is an outsider's view..."  Hence the specificity of the locales: the Bonnington Archive in Euston, on Eversholt Street near Drummond Street; the Charles Stanger Care Facility on Coppett's Road near the North Circular and Coldfall Wood; Number 14 Oak Court, Folgate Street, "right off Bishopsgate, up the Shoreditch end."  Would you share with us how you structure the space and the action within your fiction, what place means to the impact of your stories?

Carey:  It’s because the Castor books are a noir construct. The city often functions as a character in noir fictions, and the exploration of the darker interstices of an urban landscape is a big part of the impetus for noir. I was on a panel at Eastercon where the existence and robustness of rural noir was very strongly insisted on, and I accept that (Lawless is a good recent example). The sense of place is still paramount, though, so I spend a lot of time getting that right. In fact, the largest part of the research I do on the Castor books relates to location. I go to a lot of places and walk around looking at them from various angles – like a casting director, auditioning the landscape.

Even the wholly fictional places in the Castor books are based on real places and sort of sit askew on real places. There is a hospital (not a mental hospital, a regular one) roughly where I put the Stanger home – and the roundabout in West London where I put the Oriflamme actually has the derelict shell of a small community museum on it. The Bonnington is very loosely based on the London Metropolitan Archive – with the location changed, but a lot of the interior and exterior geography retained. I like that there’s a thread of real-world sinew running through the books. Psychologically, it feels like that anchors the supernatural elements and makes them more believable.

Question Five:  Regardless of medium, you work primarily within the field of horror, the bleaker ends of fantasy, the nouveau-gothic.  At its core, your work strikes me as profoundly moral, in a refreshingly old-fashioned way.  Your monsters are terrifying, but the real evil is perpetrated by the humans...and you are explicit that everyone has a choice.  Is the presentation of tortured choice, of personal accountability and potential guilt, in the midst of the gruesome what keeps readers so attuned to this genre, and specifically to your work?

Carey:  I think it’s a strong theme in my writing, certainly – and it feels like it’s very much at the heart of most noir. You very often have a protagonist who’s trying to do the right thing in a world that doesn’t even present the right thing as an option.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately in connection with The Girl With All the Gifts. The concept of evil really requires a sense of agency. A monster that’s insentient, or a monster that just obeys its own appetites and urges, can be scary but it can’t be evil. You have to choose evil, and you have to choose it knowing what at least some of the consequences will be.

Maybe for that reason, I think a lot of horror – like a lot of folklore and fairy tale, which are precursors to horror – is fundamentally about moral choices. Joe Hill’s and Graham Joyce’s work spring to mind as very fine and clear examples. It’s what distinguishes true horror from, say, fictional disaster narratives. In horror, characters choose their fates.

Question Six:  You are a reflective practitioner.  For instance, your Guest of Honor keynote address at the 2011 Toronto SpecFic Colloquium, 'Speak of the Dazzling Wings': Myth, Language, and Modern Fantasy," was anchored in the work of Wallace Stevens, and spanned evolutionary biology (touching on Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition & Fiction), T.S. Eliot, hard-boiled detective novels, comic books, Owen Barfield (perhaps the least-remembered Inkling, whose Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning from 1928 is steadily gaining more notice and adherents), and more.  You refer to Blake and Defoe, to John Owen and Isaac Watts ("the reservoir dogs of eighteenth-century theology," in your memorable phrase)-- I catch allusions to Poe and Dickens, possibly Woolf and Balzac-- and you enjoy a sly joke in the way of earlier learned correspondence (naming your hard-luck protagonist "Happy Beaver" for starters).  Do you plan to write more critical commentary about your own work and its place within the genres, and/or about the work of other writers?  If so, what form might such criticism take?

Carey:  I don’t know whether there would ever be a readership or a constituency for that sort of thing! I love concordances, but I think the worthwhile ones are always written by people other than the writer of the original text. They’re free to be merciless in pointing out unacknowledged borrowings and stuff like that.

It’s a fascinating field, though. I tend to think of Harold Bloom as something of a pillock, and the Anxiety of Influence as over-egged post-Freudian phallocratic nonsense, but there is something in the idea that every text is haunted by the ghosts of other texts, and it’s wonderful when you’re able to tug on one of those threads and see something unexpected unravel from it.

One of my favourite reads of 2012 was John Fuller’s Who Is Ozymandias? It’s a book about literary puzzles and unlikely connections. It does a great job of convincing you that certain words and phrases in certain poems are fossils from earlier poems left lying around there because the poet’s mind was unable to let go of them.

So yeah, I love the commentaries on my writing that are floating around on the net, but I’d probably fight shy of writing any myself. Apart from anything else, the most interesting influences and echoes are probably the ones you’re not aware of yourself – or the ones you won’t admit to because they’re too embarrassing.

Did I really say that about Owen and Watts? That sounds like something I may have stolen…

Question Seven:  You can invite a half-dozen guests to dinner:  who would you invite and why?  And what theme or lead topic might you suggest for the evening?

Carey:  Do these have to be real, living people or is it a wish fulfilment kind of deal? Assuming it’s the former, I’d have a horror fantasy evening. I’d invite China MiĆ©ville, Ursula LeGuin, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Mike Moorcock and Hilary Mantel (I know she writes history, but she gets an invite anyway on account of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies). And I’d steer the conversation around to the things genre can do that mainstream can’t.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Mike Carey Interview, Part One ("Genuinely Chilling And Numinous")

Lobster & Canary starts 2014 with a special treat: a two-part interview with Mike Carey.    I had the honor of meeting Mike when he was the keynoter and Guest of Honor at the 2011 Toronto SpecFic Colloquium.  You can read more about Mike here, here and here.  The second half of the interview will run in next Sunday's edition.

Question One:    Many writers are famously lone wolves, but you collaborate with many others, often over many years (thinking of, for instance, your long-standing partnership with Peter Gross, and your work with Linda Carey & Louise Carey).  What makes collaboration work in your experience, when is it the optimal way forward and when not?  

Carey:  I think the enormous blessing that comes with collaboration is that it inevitably pulls you away from your own centre of gravity as a writer. When you’re working in a single genre area and writing a lot of different works that share the same DNA, it’s very easy to plagiarise yourself without even meaning to. You just mine the same seam of inspiration repeatedly, and your work converges on a single flavour or feel.

But when you collaborate, you’ve immediately got somebody else’s comfort zone to accommodate yourself to. A lot of things have to be done by negotiation – which means they take a terrifyingly long time – but you come out in a different place. You find yourself trying out different things and taking chances that you wouldn’t normally take. I don’t think I could have written The Girl With All the Gifts without having done the two collaborations with Lin and Lou first.

But notwithstanding all that, I’d say collaboration only works – and is only worth the trouble – when it’s a real meeting of minds. I was working on a comic book series a few years ago where I was essentially co-writing. But because of other commitments, I was having to let the other writer do all the conceptual heavy lifting. It was a pretty bleak experience for both of us, and I think it would have come out better if I hadn’t been involved at all.

Comics, of course, are always a collaboration, which is one of the reasons why they’re such a wonderful school for learning the craft of writing. You get a lot of rough edges knocked off you very quickly, because you get exposed to a lot of different people’s ideas of good practice.

Question Two:  You are also more versatile than many writers, working in media ranging from comic books to novels, and including screenplays and less-definable forms.  How do you select the medium (or does it select you) for a given project?  What remains the same within your craft, what differs as you tell stories across various platforms? 

Carey:  Wow. That’s a tough question to answer – or at least, to answer without falling into tautology. Because on one level, what remains the same is you – your perception and your take on the story. If you’re doing the job right, everything else should be up for grabs. The last thing in the world you want to do is to come up with a scene-for-scene faithful translation of the story from one medium into another.

I was lucky enough when I was first getting established as a writer to be offered a lot of adaptation work. I adapted the Fantastic Four movie into comic book form, and also did comic book adaptations of two novels – Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Ender’s Shadow. I felt like I learned a lot from that. When you’re adapting, you really have to dismantle the story and examine all the moving parts closely, then decide what structure would best express them in the new medium. With Neverwhere, we decided to use a first person narrator – Richard Mayhew – and we radically recast Richard and Door’s first meeting with Islington. Both of those things, it seemed to me, made the story work more smoothly and organically in the comic book medium. An omniscient narrator is perfect (if slightly obvious) example of a convention that’s invisible in prose but often really marked and awkward in comics.

But to come back to the first part of your question, I believe that any story can be made to work in any medium – although it will often have one medium to which it feels really “native”. For example, Star Trek Next Generation functions perfectly well in movies and novelisations, but the TV episodes feel like the ur and genuine statement of those characters and that situation.

The trick, always, is to find the way through – to make the medium serve the story. I hated the movie version of The Road because I felt that in spite of wonderful acting and often imaginative direction it really failed to do that. When you read the novel, the unrelenting bleakness of the situation is leavened by the sublime beauty of McCarthy’s prose, so you’re constantly in a suspension between despair and some other emotional state I can’t quite name. The movie didn’t find or even look for an audio-visual equivalent of that experience.

Question ThreeI am a particular fan of Felix Castor, the freelance exorcist and anti-hero of the series you began with The Devil You Know.  Felix is a most worthy addition to the tradition of occult detectives that goes back to, among others, Blackwood's John Silence, Hodgson's Thomas Carnacki, and Wellman's John Thunstone.   More recent cousins would include Preston & Child's Agent Pendergast, Butcher's Harry Dresden, Stross's Bob Howard, Selene in the Underworld series, Anton Gorodetsky in the Night Watch trilogy, Buffy, Mulder & Scully in The X Files, more distantly Tyador Borlu in Mieville's The City & The City.   How do you see Felix within this tradition?  How do you explain the reading public's apparently boundless fascination with all things paranormal? 

Carey:  I’m delighted to see you put Castor in that distinguished company. I think what I was trying to do with that series, more than anything else, was to create a supernatural crime fusion that was true to the spirit of both of those traditions. In other words, I wanted the supernatural elements to feel genuinely chilling and numinous, and I wanted the mystery elements to work as a mystery – with no supernatural “get-outs” or breaches of logic.

In terms of style, I took my cue from Raymond Chandler. I was trying to make Castor feel like the exorcist half-brother of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. I don’t know how far I succeeded in that, but that was the blueprint – an exorcist who walks the mean streets and does what he has to do for a moderate daily fee plus expenses.

The other aim was to create a supernatural taxonomy that makes sense and is consistent. We’ve got ghosts, zombies, were-creatures and demons, but there’s only one mechanism at work in all these different manifestations – so you only have to believe one impossible thing before breakfast, and everything else flows from that one thing. Obviously many supernatural stories work without any explicit explanation at all, and that’s fine. But I felt like I’d be missing a trick in the Castor novels if I didn’t make the ultimate mystery be: why is this happening?

[Second half of the interview next week.]