Sunday, October 21, 2007

a future for horror poetry?

All right. Enough seriousness. It’s time for a bit of the dark side’s subtle chuckle.

Halloween may be the one yearly celebration I support whole-heartedly, give or take a battery-operated glow-in-the-dark screaming skeleton or two. It doesn’t have much in the way of a questionable historical background and isn’t drenched in either patriotism or Christianity—which is why we don’t get a day off for it. Although I’m typically working myself to the point of zombie idiocy in October, the month also comes with various pleasures: baseball playoffs, Pumpkin Ale (Buffalo Bill’s original only please, no knockoffs), weekend trips to the mountains for the changing leaves (not in San Diego, but that’s another story), parties where people feel more free than usual to act like sexually depraved Puritans on the rampage, and finally my favorite: horror movies.

Once, half-jokingly, A.L. Nielsen called me a “goth poet.” I don’t look the part, but it’s not entirely untrue. Longer poems like The Haunted Baronet (essentially impossible to get at this point, although I'd be glad to send you the text) and “The Monstrious Failure of Contemplation” (in Haze) certainly use the history of horror literature as a taking off point for their explorations. My two books of fiction, Dead Carnival and Walking Dreams, are clearly related to horror literature as well, with many avant twists of course. But as I’ve been watching horror movies over the last few weeks, I’ve been wondering why there’s not that much use of the tropes of the horror genre in contemporary poetry.

There are exceptions. Kevin Killian’s Argento Series is a very strong work. Daphne Gottlieb’s 203 book Final Girl got quite a bit of attention, although its poems finally didn’t hold my attention. A little too flatly narrative, a little too gaudy in the packaging, which is like a horror movie, sure, but still. Alice Notley and C.A. Conrad are interested in tarot, but even though they both have something of a warrior mentality (of a very anti-war sort), they see their uses of magic as on some fundamental level healing, or at least as a kind of revolutionary freedom. But I’m talking horror here, the kind that may not have any redeeming qualities beyond exploring all the strange places that the human creature can imagine itself going. Fear, paranoia, dissociation, degeneracy, disintegration, that sort of thing. The moment when you go one way and your body another.

There are probably many reasons for the rather limited connections between contemporary poetry and horror literature. A politicized poet might rightly complain that the stylization of horror in a world of so much real violence remains a distraction from more profoundly important matters. And of course there’s the difficulty of lifting such work out of cliche. At least several of my musician friends from Philadelphia, for instance, (I won’t name them but they’re welcome to name themselves) think that horror images are just too cartoonish to lead to first rate music. Besides, genres like horror, sci fi, detective literature and others are often associated with the most naive, manipulative uses of narrative. To the extent that poetry (at least some of it) remains a kind of writing that can go beyond or question narrative, genre literature especially might seem that which poetry exists in opposition to, at least on the level of structure and development.

I can’t really say that horror is underused in contemporary poetry compared to other genre literatures. Poetry has taken up the concept of the detective perhaps more readily (especially French poets: I’m thinking of Oliver Cadiot and, if I’m recalling correctly, Emmanuel Hocquard), but uses of science fiction and speculative literature may be more rare. Frederick Turner’s The New World, a new formalist book from the mid 80s, is a book length science fiction epic that almost could be interesting, although it may very well be ruined by its pseudo-epic language. But I can’t think of much other science fiction poetry. And once we consider older literature like the graveyard poetry of the 18th century, as well as Coleridge, Poe, and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” there may very well be more than enough poetry linked to the gothic tradition.

So, what about it? Is the idea of poetry and horror a contemporary dead end? Is there just as much of it as there needs to be? Is there more than I’m aware of? What am I missing? Is the very idea an irresponsible stylization of violence?

I welcome your responses as I head back to my very own 13 Days of Halloween. Up right now on my reading list is Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which I’ll be teaching in my speculative literature course tomorrow.


tmorange said...

one of the more recent notley books -- disobedience i think, tho i may be confusing it with closer/desamere -- features a detective.

andrew joron is involved with science fiction on some level i believe.

Joseph said...

Doesn't Andrew Joron have a few science-fiction poetry books?

mark wallace said...

Hello Tom and Joseph:

I think that I would call Andrew's poetry speculative rather than science fiction--that is, a query into the what is known and not known in the world that we live in, as opposed to imagining some definite future reality. But thanks for reminding me of his work. John Noto wrote a book on similar issues in the mid 90s.

Johannes said...


I'm very interested in the gothic etc. I translated a book by Swedish poet Aase Berg - Remainland - whose poetry to me is one of the most interesting uses of horror/gothicry I've seen. To me there is a great overlap with for example Steven Shaviro and Judith Halberstam's discussions of Lynch/horror, slasher movies/Cronenberg.

I also think Lara Glenum (whose book The Hounds of No I published) and Ariana Reines (The Cow, from Fence) are interesting forays into this realm.

In the most recent issue of Action, Yes ( James Pate has an essay about those two (though most attention has focused on the langpo views that is his lead-in, I think his discussion of Glenum and Reines is great).

I would be interested in reading your book. If you want to I will trade you a Remainland.

The idea of a "responsible" art is way more horrifying than "irresponsible stylization."

Now I'm off to write a paper on this precise topic.


mark wallace said...

Hi Johannes:

I'd certainly love to arrange a trade for Remainland. Contact me at

And thanks very much for your comments. I'll be interested to see who if anybody takes up the question of responsible vs. irresponsible that you're suggesting.

Brent Cunningham said...

In addition to "gothic" the term "grotesque" might be useful here: in a number of literary traditions, and in lit theory in cases like Bakhtin, they both go back further than the horror genre per say, which could be seen as using particular & restricted elements of that tradition.

I'm glad Johannes chimed in because I think he and others around Action Bks have been wondering (among other things) why the grotesque has recently seemed under-valued in some corners of american avant-garde poetry. It hasn't been perfectly absent, as you acknowledge. Laura Mullen's The Tales of Horror is certainly something to add to your list--it's almost like it was written as an attempt to contradict your thesis. And I think Dodie Bellamy should be mentioned along with Killian since her work also draws so much from horror, tho maybe you're making a poetry rather than prose distinction. But both Bellamy and Mullen find fertile ground there, especially for problems of transgressive behavior, & esp. the female either as the monster itself or as improperly attracted to it/him/her. This follows the general thesis on american horror I've seen in a number of recent critical books: in mid-century america (according to the argument) the cheap, hastily-made b horror pictures intended for young but adult audiences had a relative ideological freedom that other genres lacked, and so they were able (due to *in-attention*, note) to encapsulate some of the culture's deepest confusions about pleasure/pain, monster/hero, other/self, even if by the end of the movie the old trusty values were usually re-established. One good question, different from but related to the one of responsibility/irresponsibility, is whether or not there something innate in the grotesque that allows it to interrogate dominant values or whether the grotesque can or could just as easily, in slightly different frames, act as defender of such values, or perhaps whether it often does both at once.

On your other topic, A. Joron has a book of poems called Science Fiction & used to write SF before becoming a poet. I haven't heard him making a speculative vs. sci fi distinction, but it's possible he'd see what you're saying there. Laura Moriarty's Ultravioleta adopts and/or exploits the sci fi structure to great effect. Maybe also worth mentioning Clark Coolidge's Alien Tatters which uses the language of UFOs and UFO abduction. I'm sure there's more, if only as exceptions proving the rule here.



mark wallace said...

Thanks very much for your input, Brent. Yeah, I was indeed maintaining a distinction between prose and poetry here, because of course as you point out there's a lot going on in prose relative to this topic. So I know Dodie's work and like it at lot but it seems another context. I do think of Ultravioleta and Laura Mullen's work as crossing boundaries between poetry and prose, which is certainly important in this case, but I know also that their work has appeared in fiction anthologies. Still, I'm hardly one to insist on airtight genre differences.

You know, I'm a big Coolidge fan, but Alien Tatters is one work of his that I just can't get into. I have it and tried to read it, but didn't get anywhere. Several times. But in any case it certainly counts as sci-fi poetry in the loose sense I'm working with, and thanks for reminding me of it.

The distinction I make between sci-fi and speculative literature is my own invention to some extent, but it's one that helps me understand some key differences in work of this kind. Actually, a more common but older definition of speculative literature is as a subgenre of science fiction--hard science fiction being work that really does involve hard science, and speculative literature being a softer, more, well, speculative, which is to say imaginary, science fiction. I'm not sure that's a distinction that has any currency anymore, so I've felt free to construct a new context for thinking about the term "speculation" in relation to non-realist literature.

Caratacus said...


Brent Cunningham said...

Alien Tatters is no Crystal Text, certainly...



Anonymous said...


Also the horror/sf narrative genres have evolved - Lugosi couldn't find work for years after the classic Universal period, etc. - and a well-made vampire film made today itself is likely to complicate the "horror" with irony, etc. Maybe poets aren't writing about werewolves because horror directors are already making metahorror films. And when poets do dip in (Tom Beckett's "zombie" poems, Jason Christie's i-Robot on the sf side), they're likely aware of this and intend to mess with already messed-with conventions. ("Sometimes zombies / are chalkboards // Sometimes zombies / are erasers.") It's tricky to put a zombie in a poem after Shawn of the Dead.

But I consider a film like, say, Michael Haneke's Cache closer to real horror today than others that mine old storylines, etc., and many contemporary poets speak its language of surveillance and paranoia (as well as cyberpunk, Kathy Acker, Burroughs's "language is a virus" sf, etc.).

I kinda liked Alien Tatters, although to me it's Leslie Scalapino's work that really evokes a sense of alien abduction without necessarily pointing directly at it (but she referenced Invasion of the Body Snatchers, too!). AT had some great oddball lines, though, like "I can't believe the underwear that comes with America." Best to you,


Chris McCreary said...

Hello Mark & others,

First time posting here, by the way, even though I've been reading for some time...

This topic is interesting to me personally - how to work genre elements into my poems - but I haven't necessarily found a solution. I've been working on a series called "Field Folio," inspired by the Dungeons & Dragons guide book of the same name, for instance. That said, whenever I try to focus in this way, I always end up way off topic...

In terms of fiction, Kelly Link writes zombies like nobody's business. After a creative writing MA, I didn't even think about writing fiction for almost a decade until I came across her in Conjunctions - I remember a moment where I literally thought, "Holy shit. You can do that?"

Chris McCreary

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these comments, everybody.

Tim, the notion of metahorror and how it relates to what's going on in both literature and film is definitely interesting to me, and I'd love to see some more developed thoughts about it somewhere. I don't know if you remember the Metahorror anthology of the 90s which was connected, I think, to the new Abyss line of horror fiction, which put out a few novels that I really liked, as genre work goes, before its fairly rapid demise.

We could certainly broaden the concept of "horror" beyond its well-worn tropes, no doubt. But I also have to admit to having fun with those well-worn tropes. It's that time of year anyway. But indeed, the monstrous can be found in far more places than conventional horror.

Chris, it's great to hear from you. I don't know Kelly Link's work. Do you have a recommendation?

Chris McCreary said...


Kelly Link has two books of short stories, Stranger Things Happen and Magic For Beginners. I came across her story "Lull" (which is in Magic) in an issue of Conjunctions edited by Peter Straub, called something like "The New Wave Fabulists." (I think it's mentioned in that Omnidawn anthology where you have a story - she also has a blurb on the back of the book...) Magic is the more recent collection and the more sophisticated of the two, I think. Her first book won some awards (Village Voice, Salon, etc.), but she put out the second one on her own small press (Small Beer) instead of taking a book deal, apparently. (The Small Beer website is worth a look, by the way.)

The newer wave of horror isn't something I know very well, so it's hard for me to say how unique her work actually is... but it's worth a look, either way.

By the way, about your "goth poet" comment: I was recently trying to come up with a multiple-choice quiz on Emily Dickinson for my high school Am Lit kids... I got bored with making up the wrong answers myself, so I ended up surrounding the actual Dickinson quotes with lyrics from Marilyn Manson, Bauhaus, and the like. Amazing / amusing how many kids tanked the quiz.


Jordan said...

Maggie Nelson's poem "A Halo Over the Hospital" is about as horrifying a text as I can stand to read -- an account of visiting the poet's mentor in hospital, paralyzed, cyborgized even.

Deborah P Kolodji said...

Sorry to post here so late. I just ran across this page during a google search of "science fiction poetry"....

I'm assuming you've heard of the Science Fiction Poetry Association and the Rhysling Anthology?

Yes, a lot of what we publish is more "speculative" than "science fiction" poetry, but there's still a lot of science fiction, fantasy, and horror poetry out there.

I actually think we're in a sort of golden age for genre poetry. The membership of the SFPA has grown and it is very common to pick up almost any poetry journal and find at least one genre poem.

Anonymous said...