Traditional Horror Poetry? Work the Form!

Note: This essay was first published in the Horror Writers Association newsletter, in Marge Simon’s wonderful poetry column ‘Blood & Spades.’ Many thanks to Marge for inviting me to contribute and for allowing me to repost it here, so non-HWA members can read it too. I hope you enjoy!


Traditional Horror Poetry

Work the Form; Don’t Let the Form Work You

There’s a distinct bias against form poetry in today’s scene. In fact, many markets will specify “no traditional forms” or “no rhyming poetry” in their submission guidelines. Many critics or reviewers won’t touch it. Contests don’t take it seriously. And because of this, readers see less and less of it, and the younger generations write less and less of it.

The reasoning for the bias seems to be that “so many people do it poorly.” This is true. More than people who do free verse poorly? Not from what I’ve read. The difference lies in the fact that free verse, done poorly, hides its weakness more easily than form poetry done poorly, which shouts its weakness; a forced rhyme or sprung meter hits the ear far worse than a lazy, sentence-like line. Why is there so little quality form poetry being published today? I think that at least in part it’s because it’s not being taught, which is because it’s not being published, which is because there’s not enough quality work, which is because it’s not being taught.

I feel incredibly grateful for two things in the earliest years of my blossoming poethood: 1. Starting with the classics before working my way toward the contemporary poets, I had no idea there was such a bias against rhymed and form poetry. 2. I had a mentor right out of college (the wonderful Lewisville Poet Laureate J. Paul Holcomb) who taught me what many of the traditional forms are and challenged me to write them. Were my first attempts particularly earth-shattering? Probably not, though I do seem to have a natural knack for it, which I attribute to reading lots of rhymed poetry growing up (Thanks, Mom!). But ignorance is bliss, and I kept going, kept working and learning, and eventually I started producing high-quality work that was strong enough to get published despite the industry bias against it. By the time I realized how much so many people seem to hate it, I was already madly in love and doing good work, and there’s no turning back now.

I think the real trick to traditional forms is to think of them not as restrictions, but as tools that have the ability to unlock new effects one can’t achieve with free verse. You want to work the form to your advantage, not let the form work you. Of course much of this comes from being familiar with a broad range of forms. The scope of your idea, for example, will dictate whether it can fit into a haiku or a sestina. Likewise, how pithy or flowing do you want your lines? The brevity of a minute’s line is very different from the long-winded nature of blank verse. Then there are considerations of meter. Some people hate meter, period, but there are syllabic forms such as the englyn to play with, or even forms with no line length requirement at all such as the rondel. And there are forms with strict rhyme schemes, no rhyme schemes, and everything in between – and that’s not even getting into the anti-purist methodology of inventing your own forms or breaking the rules to make a form suit your needs!

In that regard, even free verse does, and perhaps should, come from a history and understanding of traditional form. Free verse should not be prose with line breaks; it should come from an awareness of poetic devices and formats, which include the broad range of forms. In fact, Billy Collins, notorious for his free-verse, has said that, “Any device that keeps a poem from falling into chaos is a form.” So indeed, whatever techniques give a free verse poem its poem-like qualities could even be considered a use of (if not adherence to) form. Even Mary Oliver, who rarely uses rhyme and almost never uses traditional forms, says, “A poem requires a design—a sense of orderliness. Part of our pleasure in the poem is that it is a well-made thing—it gives pleasure through the authority and sweetness of the language used in the way that it is used.”

A well-made thing, yes. I love that, don’t you? Perhaps part of the reason I admire form poetry is because it requires time and effort to do well.

Where then does horror collide with form? For me, the answer is very simple: exactly as with any other subject matter. I see no reason why dark poetry shouldn’t be given as much weight and time and effort as others. Perhaps one important consideration to keep in mind is the nature of rhyme and the perception of certain forms. Rhyme can strike the ear as playful and frivolous. It certainly doesn’t have to, but if a poet wants a poem to be serious, she should pay extra care to the nature of her rhyme. I personally enjoy some of my horror poetry with a little cheeky bite to it, as you can see in “The Centipede,” an ottava rima verse first published in the September 2011 issue of Underneath the Juniper Tree:

The Centipede

The centipede, he crawls along the floor,
in search of unsuspecting human flesh,
and not the bravest person can ignore
that many-legged and segmented wretch—
a monster from the whispered magic lore
about a creature that can bend and stretch
as if his body knew not earthly rules…
like that of vampires, goblins, ghosts, or ghouls.

I happen to like the sense of almost giddy relish that the rhyme gives this particular poem, so I embraced it, and by the end of the poem I had something really fun. Rhyme also has one very powerful advantage over free-verse (which I love equally, for the record): rhyme is primal. Our brains are hard-wired for it, so when that rhyme finally drops it’s incredibly pleasing to the ear. We seek it, and it becomes a vehicle of meaning almost aside from the content of the words. T.S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Rhyme is a wonderful example of that, I think.

One interesting thing that can be done with rhyme is subversion. For this reason, the rondeau has become my all-time favorite traditional form. When one listens (or reads) a rondeau, expecting that rhyme, and is met instead with a lack, that unexpectedness, too, can be powerful. The rondeau takes a word or phrase from its first line and uses it as a refrain at the ends of the second and third strophes, which I find an incredibly pleasing subversion of expectation – with some repetition still there to please the ear and make the poem feel complete. Here’s an example: “Still, It Pulls Me” is a rondeau first published in New Myths Issue 27 in June 2014:

Still, It Pulls Me

The darkness pulled me, in those years—
delicious taste of sacred fears,
to satiate my appetite
for all things roaming in the night
with ghostly garb and toothy sneers.

Window through which the monster peers,
or gloomy path on which he nears,
for me did equally delight…
the darkness pulled me.

The blackened stain of bloody smears
revealed, once all the carnage clears—
it drew me like a moth to light—
inspired me to start to write
of lunacy and her sharp shears…
the darkness pulled me.

I certainly don’t propose that every poet become a traditionalist, or even that every poet publish rhymed or form poems, but I do think it’s incredibly valuable for poets to study what forms have to offer, whether those forms be historic, invented, or simply theoretical. Their use has given me some of my favorite dark poems, and I hope you’ve enjoyed them as well.

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Posted in Poetry | 7 Comments

Have You Been Converted to Audiobooks Yet?

In the past year or so I’ve become a devout audiobook listener. I know some of you will think I’m waaaaay behind the curve, but I also know that some of you are probably still not believers yet. Let me tell you; I wasn’t a believer at first either. I associated audiobooks with boring childhood road trips and/or being too lazy to read. That bias had me seriously missing out.

I can’t do without my audiobooks now. I really can’t! I did get into them because of road trips – and they’re truly wonderful that; 14 hours won’t ever go by so quickly – but now I listen while I’m folding laundry, getting ready for bed, driving around town, going on walks, cleaning, and even during my lunch break. I feel like I almost double my available “reading” time, because now I can consume books when I’d never otherwise be able to. Hands free!

One of the most common reasons I’ve heard people express reluctance to get into them is a bad experience. Truly, the book you choose makes all the difference. A bad narrator will make any book miserable, and some books simply aren’t predisposed to good listening. I’ve found that complex, literary works are harder to concentrate on and follow aloud, so now I use audio for more of my leisure reads. Things that are fast-paced and/or funny are particularly fun, although I will say that there’s value to hearing exquisitely-written prose aloud too.

Another hesitation is price. Audiobooks are expensive! They take tons and tons of production hours, so it makes sense, but who has $30 to spend on every book? There are several alternatives. First of all, most public libraries provide audio rentals for free! Nowadays there are even temporary downloads, so you don’t even have to go pick it up in person or deal with CD swapping; you just get it on your phone. Library rentals are a great option for newbs who aren’t sure yet if they want to commit to audiobooks.

The option I’ve ended up with – and am madly in love with – is Audible. It’s a subset of Amazon devoted solely to audiobooks. Since it’s subscription style, you can pay for either one ($14.95) or two ($22.95) books a month, and any additional buys you make are 30% off. You also get access to tons of great free podcast subscriptions that include everything from short stories to comedy bits, and Audible runs daily deals for members that put specific books on sale for $2.99 each. The subscription prices drop even lower if you pay annually instead of monthly, so if you actually listen to the books, Audible is well worth the value.

If you do decide to give Audible a try, please use my referral links: get a free trial or subscribe to a gold membership! I’ll get a small amount of money and it won’t cost any extra for you. For everyone, your first month and two books are free, and you keep your books forever even if you cancel your membership. You can always cancel (or even pause) at any time, and if you ever get a dud narrator or crummy book, you can return it.

Another cool feature that Audible has is called Whispersync. I haven’t tried it yet, but if you buy a (discounted) ebook version of the same thing in audio, you can go back and forth between listening and reading and it’s supposed to save your spot. Has anyone tried it? It sounds too good to be true!

And to get you started – whether you check them out at your library, use your free trial, or subscribe through Audible – here are the four best audiobooks I’ve listened to so far:

I do get referral credit if you click through any of those books, too! (And I promise that’s not why I’m recommending Audible; I really do love it.) If nothing else you should do a free trial and listen to two of these amazing books for free. 🙂 I’ve posted raves about Beloved and Bird Box. I also have one about Gone Girl, but Flynn’s Sharp Objects is even better. And A Head Full of Ghosts was so good that I’m now reading a second book by Tremblay.

So, have you converted to audiobooks yet? Do you use Audible, the library, or something else? Recommendations for great listens are welcome!

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Posted in Reading | 16 Comments

Spoilers, the Importance of Story, and the Value of Kindness

Game of Thrones is back on, which means one thing is on my mind more frequently than usual lately (besides dragons): spoilers. Of course in the age of the internet, spoilers are always an issue, but the more mega-popular something is, the more problematic it becomes due to the sheer volume of people participating. I can’t get on Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit these days without risking the latest episode being spoiled. I’ll be blunt: I find this infuriating.

Even people who don’t overtly post blatant spoilers still end up spoiling. I mean, on a show like GOT where so many characters die, writing a tweet that says a character’s name plus a frowny face is a pretty obvious spoiler, you know? Not to mention that if five people I follow tweet vague not-quite-spoilers they often come together to paint a clear picture of the episode. I also find this infuriating.

‘Spoilers’ has always been an important topic to me – even pre-social-media boom. Other people seem largely unbothered by them. Some people even seek them out, googling for leaks and insider gossip as to what’s coming in their favorite show or series. Obviously not everyone reacts as strongly as I do when something they love is spoiled (although to be fair, many do, because “spoil” is an inherently negative word), so why are they such a big deal to me?

After perhaps more introspection than I should’ve given such a thing, I’ve decided that it comes down to two things. 1) Story is unusually, perhaps disproportionately, valuable to me. 2) Kindness is one of my highest-valued traits in people.

Stories, by and large, are treated and talked of as somewhat frivolous and occasionally even negative things. Soap operas, notoriously looked down on, are called “stories.” Someone making up lies is “telling stories.” Even in positive lights, stories are treated as casual pastimes, easy entertainment, just for fun. I’ve realized that, somewhere in there – or maybe always, who knows? – stories became more important than that to me. I mean, really, my job is telling stories. They’re my passion, one of my primary modes of learning and communication, my favorite vehicle for art, my entire career. For better or worse, stories are not just fun for me; they’re an enormous and valuable part of my life.

Add on top of that that I’m unabashedly fond of what some might consider old-fashioned morals. I think about life and people in terms like integrity, honor, and kindness. I realize it might make me sound hopelessly sappy, but I think kindness is a form of casual love, and I think we all should strive to show it to each other. Courtesy, at minimum, is something I believe everyone deserves. I guess that’s what spoilers come down to, for me. Whether someone takes stories as seriously as I do or just gets passing joy from them, it’s still joy. Part of the pleasure is in the surprise, and when someone else (who’s already had the opportunity to enjoy that surprise) ruins it for someone who hasn’t, I find that rude. I find it discourteous, unkind, and just rude.

Now, some people like being rude or mean or whatever. The people who tweet “so-and-so dies” obviously have nothing in mind but ruining someone else’s experience, and there’s really nothing to do about that. Some people simply don’t value kindness, or don’t contain much of it, and that’s the way the world works.

But not everyone who tweets/Facebooks/whatevers spoilers is trying to be unkind. I think most people are what I think of as “thoughtless spoilers.” It’s someone who’s watched the show and wants to discuss it, which is a natural inclination, and posts their thoughts for public discussion without even necessarily thinking about the fact that other people might not have had the opportunity to see it yet. They might also occasionally be someone who doesn’t value the surprise elements of stories, and doesn’t realize that it’s a big part of the joy for other people.

The most compelling argument I’ve heard, though, for willful spoilers, is that it’s not their responsibility. Obviously, because of my stance, I tend to see this as a “not my problem” attitude, which isn’t cool to me, but I’ve heard some compelling arguments in the other direction. Some say, If you don’t want spoilers, don’t get online until you’ve finished it. It’s not my job to censor myself because you haven’t read/watched the thing in question. I take issue with this argument because the people purporting it often portray their detractors as whiny. And I guess if you want to see me as whiny for not wanting my entertainment spoiled, that’s your right (just like it’s my right to see you as kind of an asshat for wanting to spoil it).

But I do see their point. Maybe I’m just unlucky that because of my job, it really isn’t realistic for me to ‘just not get online’ for a week or two or five until I’m caught up on all of the shows/books I care about. Are those of us who can’t avoid them just flat out of luck? Still others place a certain amount of ‘courtesy time’ on the issue. Say, wait one week after something is released before allowing spoilers.

That doesn’t work for me either. I see almost no time limit on spoilers. Aside from the fact that not everyone has ample or consistent leisure time in their life, what about newbs? There are some stories (the original Star Wars trilogy, for example) that have become so famous for their spoilers that there’s no hope of saving someone who hasn’t seen them. But even then, what about the younger generations? What about someone going back to read the classics? Jane Eyre might’ve been written well over a century ago, but that didn’t make it any less thrilling for me when I got to the twist as a first-time reader in my early twenties.

I’m not proposing anything extreme. I’m not even saying that it’s anyone’s job or obligation to withhold spoilers. I’m just saying that it’s kind. It’s a courtesy. If you’ve had the pleasure of watching or reading something that brought you joy or pleasure, why would you take that away from someone else who hasn’t yet, but might? It’s still possible to discuss these shows, movies, and books without putting others at great risk of stumbling across spoilers. In my opinion, Twitter isn’t the place for it, where anyone who follows you will see everything you say. Sure, they can unfollow you if they want (and if you tweet spoilers, I absolutely will), but the timeline is too easy to trip across. Same with Facebook: unless I unfriend or unfollow, I just have to risk being spoiled. Why not save the spoiler-filled discussions for forums, threads, or blog posts with notices at the top so they aren’t quite so public, somewhere you’d have to click into to see rather than accidentally come across?

Anyone can say anything they want about any show, movie, or book out there. If you want to talk freely about surprising things in the stories you consume, no one can stop you. I’m not saying you have to think about spoilers. I’m not even necessarily saying you should. I’m just saying… why wouldn’t you? Is it really that difficult a consideration to give?

I’m not being snarky, here. I’m genuinely asking: Am I just hopelessly old-fashioned and idealistic? What do you all think? Do you agree with me, or do you think spoilers are no big deal?

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Posted in Food for Thought | 52 Comments

The Case for Reading Fewer Books

I never plan the coincidence of what I’m reading, but the random mixture of my broad-ranging choices often presents interesting outcomes. More of my stories and poems than I can count sprout from a strange mixture of genres. I might be listening to a commercial horror audio book, reading challenging literary fiction in paperback, and slowly paging through a poetry anthology all at the same time. I read nonfiction for research, fun popular fiction to know what’s going on in the industry, classics to understand my genre lineage, funny books, sad books, sexy books, thoughtful books, outrageous books, and even my critique partners’ books. It’s always interesting to see what effects these various concoctions form in my mind, and it’s often delightfully serendipitous.

For the past chunk of time – probably a month at least, I would imagine – I’ve been reading a poetry collection called The Unswept Room by Sharon Olds as well as the long gothic novel The Witching Hour by Anne Rice. This happy coincidence taught me one important thing: the incredible value of reading slow.

  

When I read the opening poem in Olds’s collection, I had to put the book down. It struck me hard, and I wanted to stop and think about it. The next day, I read the second poem, and I swear by the end of it I was breathless. I had the type of reaction a poet can only dream of: wide eyes, pounding pulse, brain whirling. I had to close the book. I might have uttered choice profanity and lovingly clenched the book to my chest. I am honestly not kidding or even exaggerating. She’s that good.

And that was the crazy part: almost all of the poems were make-me-stop good. Over and over I tried to sit for longer chunks and read several poems, but I never could do it. I had to digest each one thoroughly, reread many again later before moving forward. I had to take it slow so I could better savor the work of who has certainly become my new favorite poet.

Switch to The Witching Hour. This book is over a thousand pages long. It’s dense as hell and certainly a commitment to start. Knowing that Anne Rice would take me there (and remembering how it happily took me my entire junior year of high school to read Queen of the Damned), I eagerly sank into the slow, rich, meticulous pace of it. It took me all of a week to realize three things. 1) I had been cheating myself by subconsciously choosing shorter books. 2) Long books can do things that shorter books simply cannot accomplish. 3) There is nothing more magical than getting lost in something you love when you know that something will last.

If you’ll forgive the adult metaphor (gasp! sex!), The Witching Hour reminded me why the height of a book’s plot is called the climax. Shorter novels can have wonderful climaxes too, of course, but it’s simply not possible for them to achieve the amount of sheer momentum and build-up of a longer book. More pay-in creates more pay-off. I knew these characters not just by their most interesting/unique attributes, but in all of their moods and aspects. I knew not just enough backstory to carry me through, but the entire history of them and their family. I knew not just what was at stake for this one couple, but for the world at large. By the time I got to page 900 I felt like I’d lived several lives and the end was nigh, and, again, I was left literally short of breath. It’s been a really long time since a book made me feel like that.

For some reason, it took the coincidence of Olds and Rice to make me realize how much I love this – reading slow – and how much I’d stopped doing it. I think this shift came about around the same time I started using Goodreads. Don’t get me wrong; I adore Goodreads. But keeping track of how many books I read each year makes me naturally number-hungry. I’m a very goal-oriented person, so even if I don’t set a concrete number I want to read each year, I still find myself subconsciously ticking off a checkmark each time I finish something new. The ramifications of that are that I choose easier, shorter, faster books almost without even thinking about it. I want more numbers, more checkmarks, and that made me quietly reluctant to pick up Tolstoy or The Historian.

What a loss.

At least now I’m aware of it, so I can stop letting quiet hesitations influence my reading choices. (And for the record, it’s not as if I was reading bad quicker reads; I was and will still read really amazing shorter novels too!) The first thing I did when I finished The Witching Hour was go out and buy the two sequels. Up next after those? I don’t know. Maybe Tolstoy or The Historian. 😉

There’s so much value in reading slow, reading thorough, reading thoughtfully. Hell, why not re-read? I’ve always heard writers talk about reading a book again right after finishing it the first time: once for story and once for craft. I’ve re-read books, sure, but not back to back. I think maybe I will now. Why not? It isn’t about the number of checkmarks I get. It’s about how much pleasure reading brings to my life, and like all good things, if it’s worth doing, it’s probably worth doing slowly.

Read less? Never.

Read fewer books? When they’re worth it: absolutely.

Do you find yourself reading fast and easy, or toward a goal? When was the last time you let yourself really savor something? Speed-readers and dawdlers alike welcome to the conversation! 🙂

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Posted in Reading | 27 Comments