Blood & Spades: Poets of the Dark Side

Because this is an issue that's being challenged again and because we believe that the Stoker for Poetry should be kept in the awards categories, Mike Arnzen's column appears again, though updated to address the current situation. Read on!

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Quoth the Stoker, Nevermore

Michael A. Arnzen

[Note: What follows is an article that ran five years ago, in the May 1999 HWA Newsletter, shortly before the membership voted to create the new category of the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Poetry Collection. Since we will soon face the question whether or not to revoke this category of the Stoker, I thought it pertinent to reprint this article as it originally appeared, along with a few afterthoughts. As a member who writes both professional fiction and poetry, I still feel the argument I outline here is sound and valid: If we are to be a "writer's" organization, we should not exclude particular forms of writing. For a complete description of how the Poetry Collection category is presently defined, visit: --MAA]

As a horror poet and Active member of the HWA's new caucus on horror poetry, and as a previous recipient of the Bram Stoker Award (for my first novel, Grave Markings), I've been asked to write this essay and consider whether poetry should be eligible for our association's reigning symbol of excellence: the Bram Stoker Award. At first, the phrase "Of course not!" erupted from my gullet because the Stoker has always been given primarily to professional fiction writers, by professional fiction writers. Because of our bylaws, few poets qualify for "Active" membership in the HWA; ergo, few are considered "professional." And I know a number of members who believe that the more awards an organization gives in a year, the more it dilutes the value of every single award (though, judging by the Oscars, this is a myth). Others simply feel that all poetry is crap, and therefore any award for verse, even "the cream of the crap," would make the HWA look bad. But now that the HWA has expanded the number of Bram Stoker Award categories to include such texts as anthologies and screenplays, children's fiction and graphic novels, and anything else that might fall under the phrase "other media," the problem of poetry returns. A poetry Stoker is a touchy subject for some, and a droll subject for others. But rather than offering some polemic about how poorly poets have been treated by the HWA, I simply want to ponder the many questions that this issue raises. Should poets--who aren't eligible for "Active" HWA status unless they publish marketable prose, as well--be eligible for the Bram Stoker Award? Should "Superior Achievement in Poetry" become a new Stoker category? Is the HWA qualified to recognize and award horror poetry at all? And do we value poetry's position and influence on the genre enough to award it?

At the crux of any debate about poetry or poets in the HWA lies the issue of professionalism. Poets, according to our bylaws, are not pros. In our now long-standing tradition, which seeks to uphold the financial as well as literary value of the written word in the marketplace, a "professional" is a writer who has sold at least one book or three short stories for that oh-so-meager-yet-oh-so-significant three cents-per-word, and--in order to keep the Stoker an award among peers--only those who have achieved this golden standard can ultimately vote for the award on the final ballot. While three pennies-a-word is a paltry sum, Affiliate members work very hard to make the grade, some semipro magazines empty their pockets to meet this criteria in order to attract good writers, and many Active members will not sell their work for anything less. But what of poets? Quality aside, the professionalism of poetry is quite difficult to quantify, particularly in such economic terms, since poets usually get paid per line or per poem, if they even get paid at all, and not a single poet I know makes a living from spinning verse, even those whose bibliography could meet the page count of a Stephen King novel. Most horror poetry appears in the small press and, to be blunt, isn't commercially viable in the mass market.

In terms of aesthetic quality, poetry itself is often considered as unprofessional as a fanzine by those with a vested interest in the marketplace, since it is typically used as filler by magazine editors and, therefore, at best considered a whimsical sidebar by many horror readers. Thus, not only is poetry devalued economically, it is seldom valued as a work of art at all in commercial publishing, and therefore has historically been of little concern for the HWA. Marginalized in this way, poetry is most often published by dedicated fans in the small press or by learned scholars in the nonprofit academic markets, by those who either write poetry or want to "save" poetry from its own demise. At best, horror poets submit to mainstream journals, hoping for a bit of recognition outside the genre. At worst, they turn to poetry contests and self-publishing, hoping to scrape up an accolade or a dime or two. This is why so much of the horror poetry you may have read in small press magazines seems poorly written--because the marketplace produces very little incentive for magazines to edit poetry very carefully, and because the market offers little incentive for new writers to develop their craft. Poets must truly be dedicated to poetry writing as "art for art's sake" in order to succeed--but that success is often achieved in the form of literary quality rather than monetary reward. And based on the mass market's treatment of horror over the past five years, this "poetic conceit" is becoming more and more the case with horror fiction, as well.

Because horror poetry is an art which requires as much craftsmanship as a well-written horror story, many poems do deserve the recognition of a literary award like the Stoker. Poetry has a long and significant tradition in the horror genre (just think of the graveyard verse that preceded the Gothic novel of the 18th century; just think of Poe!), it continues to be written and read by both amateur fans and famous brand names (remember King's poems in Skeleton Crew?), and it continues to be honored along with the best stories of the year in such anthologies as Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's annual Year's Best Fantasy & Horror. There is a resurrection of "Gothic Poetry" currently shambling in the small presses and on the Internet, and whenever I read such revered magazines as Weird Tales or Asimov's, I encounter some very good poems. Poetry is still alive, and while the "good stuff" is sometimes difficult to find, much of it does deserve to be acknowledged as a valuable contribution to the field of horror. The question, however, is whether the HWA should be the organization that recognizes it as such.

Any published poet reading this essay is probably thinking, "Of course!" Of course, a genre poet would relish the chance to win a literary award like the Stoker, because the only other respectable award a horror poet can win is the Rhysling Award (for either short or long verse) given by the tiny but very smart and professional group of poets in the Science Fiction Poetry Assn. (especially now that the Small Press Writers & Artists Organization is dead). But the Rhysling--which is selected by peers in much the same way as the Stoker, via an open vote by membership--is predominantly an sf award, and horror poems seldom receive nomination. So a Stoker Award in poetry would be very special--the only award of its kind--and if it were given, I am certain that the quality and viability of poetry in the horror genre would improve immensely. As a literary organization, it makes sense to give awards to poets if we are going to give awards to soundtracks and comix, as well. Poetry is a significant part of our genre as a literary form--and without its heritage, horror would not be the genre that it is today--so before we start handing out awards to those who work in alternative media (usually, to much greater profit), we should certainly ensure that we honor, respect, and support those in the genre who are primarily dedicated to the written word. We are the Horror Writers Assn., and somehow we've forgotten that poets are writers, too. The best of them are professionals by any standard other than pay rate, and so an award like the Stoker--which exists in the first place because such awards honor literary value in a way that transcends the marketplace--seems like a good idea to me.

Consider the following statistics, culled from a poll I conducted of the HWA membership in 1995 for my Harper's-like column, "HWA Index":

Percentage of horror writers who believe that horror films hinder the public conception of the genre: 72%

Percentage of horror writers who have written love poems: 80%

The majority of us have written poetry in one form or another, but most of us--at least in 1995--thought horror movies were bad for our business. And yet, today, we give an award to the latter and ignore the former. I'd wager that more members of the HWA have tried their hand at poetry than have tried their hand at screenwriting. Yet giving awards to films keeps our literary property valuable, because books are often optioned to film. And, of course, times have changed and the popularity of horror films today is probably improving the public conception of the genre, in toto. The same could be true of poetry, if we treated it seriously, as a literary art, recognizing that it emerges from the same dark side of the imagination as our fiction and film, and that its heritage has as much an influence on how we write as any Universal horror picture from the golden age of film.

But writing love poetry as a kid and recognizing the value of horror poetry as an adult are two different things. Even the most eager-to-win-a-Stoker poet has to wonder: Is the HWA really qualified to vote on such an award? After all, the Active members who vote for the Stoker are mostly fiction writers, and you have to wonder how many actively write--let alone read--horror poetry. A percentage of us do, but the majority of us seem to keep our love of poetry a secret. There's an old saw that says every fiction writer is a failed poet, but it might be more accurate to say that we don't "fail" at poetry, we simply feel that we've grown up and out of it. And this isn't just the case because we can't make a living from it or because we can't find a large body of readers the way novels can. Many writers see poetry as the drively stuff of teen angst or sappy romance, and they are therefore quick to cast it aside as unprofessional or silly. Often, honestly, this is the case. But such a devaluation of all poetry is a problem, generally, in contemporary culture, and such attitudes are typically produced by those who really don't read much poetry anymore. While the majority of poems published are not very good, neither are the majority of horror stories; the fact is, some horrific poems are quite good, if not better, than some of the horror fiction I've seen nominated for the Stoker. That last comment is a value judgment, of course, but so is any vote for an award; ultimately, the problem isn't the quality of poetry being published today, the problem is that poetry isn't even considered potentially worthy by our organization at all.

Let's say that we put the matter to a vote, and that, surprisingly, we as an organization decided to make poetry eligible for a Bram Stoker Award. One question remains: How would we go about categorizing it? There are as many different potential categories for a poetry award as there are forms of poetry.

For this reason, as much as I am in support of poetry's eligibility for a Stoker, I'm not strongly in favor of a catchall category for "poem." Imagine if a haiku walked away with the award on Stoker Weekend; while a poet might put as much, if not more, effort into building the perfect three-line poem as a fiction writer might put into a 5000 word short story, the difference between the two forms seems vast. Poetic forms and lengths differ immensely, and they are less categorizable than the word counts that separate novel/novella/short story. Poetry is judged by quality, not quantity, but the category still might (thinking optimistically) become as unwieldy as the current "short story" category, with so many individual poems being nominated that it would be difficult to wade through, to read them all, and to judge them fairly. We could separate the award into "long" and "short" poem categories (like the SFPA's Rhysling Award) or "free" and "formal" verse, but perhaps there are better alternatives.

One alternative to a "poem" category might be a category for "A Collection of Poems by a Single Author," or in other words, a chapbook award. I like this idea, because in most cases such collections are by "professional" poets, who have worked long enough at their craft to merit not only book publication, but also payment. Such collections, usually published in the form of a chapbook by a small press, would be relatively easy for members to get their hands on in order to vote fairly, and awarding a book rather than a magazine appearance seems more substantial and deserving of recognition to me. Publishers would be happy, because most of the publishers of poetry chapbooks also publish fiction, as well. Poetry collections usually contain a few reprints of works that have appeared in magazines, too, so "single poems" which might have otherwise deserved the award would not be left out--only belated in their award recognition. There are two main questions that arise when awarding chapbooks, however: Should the category be expanded to include multiple poet collections? And will self-published chapbooks (which, unfortunately, constitute the majority of those published) count as well? The former might be a good idea, but it would really be an "editing" award like our current "anthology" category; the latter (self-publishing) seems far too unprofessional to me, since it awards what amounts to the vanity press.

Other options for a single "poem" category might be a new generic category for "non-narrative" works (in which poetry is as eligible for Stoker nomination as music or painting--those other art forms whose "professionalism" is difficult to quantify) or, alternatively, adding the word "poetry" to any of the existing categories. To make room for poetry collections in the "anthology" or "collection" categories seems like a good idea at first blush, but I doubt a poetry book would ever win such an award, considering the sheer quality of the competition. Perhaps changing the "nonfiction" category to "nonfiction or poetry" might be a good solution considering how that category has lately been open to including everything from electronic newsletters to journal issues (which is fine), and how "nonfiction" historically seems to garner the least number of member nominations. After all, horrific verse is quite often narrative, yet "not fiction." But in some ways, adding poetry to any current category seems to devalue the existing category, too, subtly sending the message that both are catchall categories for amorphous things we don't really value very much.

In the end, I think this is all a question of whether we as an organization value poetry at all. As both a poet and poetry reader, I know I do. I also believe that the best works of fiction are often quite poetic in nature. But my personal biases are beside the point; I really think the issue should be put to a membership vote, because awards function as a testament to what we all believe defines the highest possibilities in our genre. Writing is and always will be its own reward; awards are not rewards but public statements made by us all, collectively. As a writer's group, giving an award to poets would distinguish us from the SFWA or the MWA, asserting our desire to be seen as an organization committed to literature as much as we are to the marketplace. But whether we decide to give a Stoker to poets or not, writing this essay has reminded me of the value of poetry as a literary form and the crucial role of poetic thinking in my own fiction writing. If we all feel that dark poetry has played some part in our own identity as horror writers, then maybe we should consider publicly recognizing its value and importance in the genre today through a token gesture like the Bram Stoker Award.

Afterthoughts, Five Years Later:

Since I wrote this article, I feel there has been a resurgence of interest in poetry in our culture and among horror circles. In the college classes I teach, "The Writing of Poetry" enrolls to the brim. Def Poetry Jam is a staple of the HBO network and spoken word is popular on college campuses nationwide. This is true of horror, too, I believe. To my surprise, more people attended the "Poetry Jam" at Horrorfind Convention 2003 than some of the other readings on their program. Many good horror poetry books have been published, including the upcoming collection of poetry by "name brand" horror fiction writers, The Devil's Wine from Cemetery Dance Publishing (2004). It's fair to speculate that having a Stoker award in poetry has been an extra incentive for some publishers--or even writers--to take that leap into the abyss one takes when publishing a collection of poems, as well. If so, then that's what a good writer's organization should be doing: stimulating growth in the genre by offering incentives for its writers.

I was very pleased when the membership of the HWA voted to create the Poetry Collection category in 2000, and knowing that our organization rewards poets has added to my pride in being an Active member. I've been a finalist for the award several times since that year, and I am very pleased to report that every book that has won the award not only deserved it more than I did, but has also been a work--in my opinion--of literary value. Writers like Tom Piccirilli and Mark McLaughlin--who are probably better known for their novels and short fiction, respectively--have won the award because they approached horror from an alternate angle--verse form--and discovered something new to say in the process. I have heard the argument that our membership is not "schooled" enough in poetry to realistically vote on the award, and yet we have somehow managed to select an outstanding title that has been very worthy of the award each year. I believe that is because a successful poem (or collection of them) succeeds on its own terms. You don't need to take a college class to recognize it. Moreover, I question how "schooled" we can presuppose we all are in any one form over another. If we are going to award different forms of writing at all, then poetry should be one of them, because poetry is at the foundation of literacy and literature. Besides, in addition to any "schooling" we might have, we all vote based on subjective judgments and gut instincts. And I see the recommendation process as a form of self-education, anyway, don't you? There is no single criterion for judging good poetry; our award--for "superior achievement"--is comparative in nature, and it doesn't take a Ph.D. in verse to compare chapbooks.

What it takes, however, is an open-mindedness to alternative forms of horrific expression. Poetry is not a foreign language or a dead language; it is simply a non-narrative means (though not always even that!) of chewing through the gristle of fear. To me, poetry is merely a thought experiment, exploring the dark side through the same language as fiction, but from a different angle. The experiment always leads me to one thing: surprise. I feel if more of our membership read horror poetry, they, too, might be pleasantly surprised.

If we value dark writing and we value unique avenues of expressing horror, then we should value poetry through this award--even if we don't read it regularly, even if we're unaware of its long history, even if we don't write it at all. The more I've thought about this issue the more convinced I have become that horror--as the genre of fear--is a genre that deals primarily with the unconscious mind, and poetry--especially in its most experimental and crafty forms--is often able to access and reflect the unconscious in a way that fiction often can't. Poetry doesn't have to follow the rules of language and syntax; instead it makes up its own coherent form. Poetry creates a world of symbol and metaphor, without the safety net of chronological order or narrative structure. That's why I--and perhaps many other members--still write it. Because it allows us to express the unconscious and get at fear in a way that fictional modes do not. I hope that HWA can acknowledge this essential otherness, and learn to value poetry, without dismissing it out of hand.

Very recently (in April 2004), Publisher's Weekly ran an article called "What Does It Cost to Do Poetry?" which interviewed sixteen publishers of poetry--ranging from trade publishers like Knopf to single-person non-profit outfits--to discover how they manage to publish poetry in a world where the bottom line drives big publishing. The profits are slim, if at all, even by the big houses on publisher's row. But what came out of this article was a truism that the HWA membership would do well to pay attention to. For one thing, a personal passion for the language arts drives editors to acquire poetry. Many editors are active poets, or have studied poetry, or have earned MFA degrees in it. Do they publish it out of self-interest? No. They do so out of passion for the art of writing. Because they cannot conceive of a world without poetry, or work for an outfit that would contribute to its demise. Maybe we should think of our genre and its relationship to poetry in the same way.

Is it the HWA's duty to keep horror poetry alive? Of course not. But we do serve writers. And poets are counted among the writers in our organization, perhaps more so, presently, than screenwriters and young adult writers. If there are too many Stoker categories, this is not reason enough to dismantle the Poetry award. If we need to revamp it somehow, that would be preferable. But like they say--"if it ain't broke, don't fix it"--and I hesitate to change a category that has already awarded some outstanding works of writing. By acknowledging poetry, we are doing something important and valuable to the larger literary community. I hope we can keep doing so.

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