Blood & Spades
I am extremely pleased to welcome Deborah L. Davitt as my column guest this month. I've been blown away by some of her fine poems, though she hasn't been writing or publishing her poems for very long. Deborah was raised in Reno, Nevada, but received her MA in English from Penn State. She currently lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and son. Her poetry has garnered two Rhysling nominations and has appeared in nearly twenty journals; her short fiction has appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Compelling Science Fiction, and Altered Europa. Her well-received Edda-Earth series is available through Amazon. For more about her work, please see http://www.edda-earth.com.
Worlds Through Fractured Glass
My husband recently looked at me, chuckling, and asked “If your thirty-year-old self could look at your forty-year-old-self, and could see that you’re writing poetry, and getting it published, what would she say?”
I answered, truthfully, “She’d laugh.”
In the main, I’m a writer of prose—vivid prose that people over the years say verges on the poetic when I allow myself to unleash. But I never even considered that there were people out there who might be interested in poetry that I wrote. It seemed somehow both too pretentious and too easy. And yet, here I am, with more published poetry to my credit than I would ever have dreamed, even two years ago.
Life is strange.
In terms of process, I usually sit at my computer and type. Words come out.
I’m much faster and more flexible at the keyboard; I find longhand composition best for outlines and notes and little more. I also write quickly, the more so because I type rapidly. I do try to write something every day, whether it’s prose or poetry. Frank Herbert once said that he couldn’t tell any qualitative difference between writing he did when he was “in the mood to write” or writing he did when “there’s a deadline and I have to write this.” Generally for poetry, I pick an arbitrary topic—often prompted by something I’ve recently read in science or history articles—and make myself write something. Sometimes I start with a form in mind; sometimes it’s an image. When I write a story, I usually have an outline—though I don’t marry it—and signpost scenes that I want to get to. With a poem, unless it’s a longer, more structured work like a sestina, I don’t generally work from an outline.
But structured forms sometimes change what you write. They’re funny that way.
For example, let’s look at that precise form, a sestina published at Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry—a very nice journal that would likely really appreciate your page-hits, so I’ll wait right here until those of you kind enough to donate some traffic come back from linksville: https://zeteticrecord.org/2017/02/the-banshees-embrace/
The Banshee’s Embrace
“Sing to me,” she murmured in the ruins,
ragged webs of silk clinging to her form,
white hair drifting down over shadow-flesh,
not daring to speak above a whisper
for her breathless voice brought death with its sound,
“Sing to me, stranger, and I’ll let you live.”
Wordless, the fiddler scraped his strings alive,
harmonies echoing through the ruins;
she drifted in a dream woven of sound,
the music giving substance to her form,
The tatters of her wedding gown whispered
pale secrets as the music wrought her flesh.
In wonder, she pressed herself to his flesh,
asking, “How does your music let me live?
No other song ever has. Please, whisper
the secret to me, before dawn ruins
this spell.” Lips silent, only his hands formed
reply, drawing dissonant, aching sounds,
from the strings, yearning and anguished. “You’d sound
my depths?” she murmured, “stroke this new, fresh flesh?”
His hands spun glissandos that wracked her form
with pleasure, but she choked back her cries. “Live,
stranger. Run! Before my voice brings ruin,
ends your life.” His notes crept lower, whispered
of solitude and its anguish, whispered
of where its solace might be found. “No sound
counsel, to seek solace here. These ruins
hide the only grave granted to my flesh.
Slain on my wedding day, no mortal lives
who’s trodden these stones at night. Yet you formed
me here—why?” Her hands glided down his form
now, stroking and touching him as notes whispered
to rising winds that wailed as if alive.
And she played him as he played her, the sound
of their voices lost to the storm, their flesh
wind-lashed as they played among the ruins.
At dawn, all sound died and her flesh
Dissolved; his ruined form, wind-riven, whispered,
“Sing, for in your song, I’ll die to live.”
A sestina is a tricky form that uses line-ending words as the superglue that binds the rest of the structure together. They must be used in a precise order. And in the final three lines, all six line-ending words must be used in one of two particular orders. Yes, I know, it’s a trifle masochistic. Wait till you try Sapphic verse. It’s worse.
I wrote this poem originally for a call for speculative erotic poetry. It didn’t make it. Undeterred, I sent this poor poem off to five more markets before it finally found its forever home. Writing is a pure creative endeavor; getting your writing published is about being not afraid to fail. Repeatedly and spectacularly.
In this case, I knew that there was a banshee and I had in mind the legend of the fiddler who played for the Devil till dawn for his soul. But I needed an erotic subtext, and in order to make a sestina a heck of a lot easier to write, I find it helps to find words that can have multiple meanings, or that can be used as either a noun or a verb—or you can cheat very slightly, and change the form of the word. To live vs. human lives have been lost, or living. Form vs. formed.
I didn’t know if these words would be able to carry me through the whole of the tale, but they did—and yes, the shape of it changed a bit. I didn’t know as I was writing the first stanzas that he’d give up his life to be with her, a willing sacrifice. That pretty much just happened as the word-order constraints let the words uncurl under my fingers. I take no actual credit for it.
On another occasion, I’d read about a call for poems on “bodies in motion.” I’d already written a long narrative poem on the subject of storm-miners on Saturn, and their fear of a breach in the hull of their ships, and the long, endless fall they imagined into the gas giant’s heart. That image had stayed with me, combining my fear of heights with unavoidable doom, and since it was stuck in my head, I figured it might be worth exploring further.
I wanted a tightly-controlled, short piece, no more than ten lines, and I really like the tanka form, both as an individual short poem, more flexible than the haiku, and as a stanza that can be chained together.
The result was “Falling,” published in Dreams and Nightmares, issue 104, September 2016.
Plunging from the ship,
the gas giant swallows us—
falling for the rest
of our evers. Shrieking winds,
diamond rain, heat, and pressure.
Seen from below, arms
and legs extended against
a khaki sky, carbonized,
dropping like a blackened star—
or a terrible starfish.
First stanza, personal view, inside the heads of the doomed. Second stanza, omniscient point of view, watching them fall. I still really like that terrible starfish line. I suspect it might echo Plath’s image of an old woman rising toward her out of the water of her own reflection, like a terrible fish. But it wasn’t intentional allusion. Read enough, and you’ll wind up echoing someone somewhere.
There’s not much left to say, except that I hope that life keeps surprising me. I have, to my confused delight, a poetry collection sitting in a couple of contest slush piles. And novels waiting to be published via CreateSpace, and available on Amazon. Perhaps if you like my work, you might check them out.
Thanks for your kind attention. I’ll turn your eyeballs back over to Marge Simon now.
Yes, I’ve been holding them in my hands this whole time.
No, I washed my hands before I took them. It’s more hygienic that way.