Looking Back on my Origins as a Science-Fiction Poet in the World of Tomorrow

Our planet is beginning to be surrounded by rings of orbiting debris consisting of dead satellites, fragments from satellite collisions, spent rocket boosters, items lost or jettisoned by spacraft crews, and the like. As human activity in Earth orbit continues, the density of the debris rings is increasing, and may well reach a tipping point where the rings become impassable to all spacecraft. This threat is known as the Kessler syndrome, a situation in which humanity’s access to space would be barred for decades, if not centuries.

Of all the threats facing humanity, the Kessler syndrome must rank lower than pollution here on Earth, global warming, the exhaustion of natural resources, the collapse of biodiversity (and with it, the food chain), and the danger of nuclear war. Of course, everyday life would be seriously impacted by the elimination of satellites facilitating instantaneous worldwide communication. Yet the Kessler syndrome also provides yet another symbol of the way industrial civilization has barred its own path to the future––a future that was once identified, as I was coming of age in the sixties, with the expansion of human life beyond the confines of Earth.

As the Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky put it, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity––but you cannot remain in the cradle forever.” Spaceflight represented not only a technological achievement but the maturation of the human species: it was time to leave home and discover new worlds of possibility across the universe. An even larger claim was made: just as life emerged from the sea to inhabit the land, we would ascend to a higher evolutionary stage by emerging into the new environment of space. The imagination of this moment was archetypally expressed in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, showing in its finale the metamorphosis of an astronaut into an embryonic Star-child.

I was twelve years old when I attended the premiere of 2001 on a futuristically concave Cinerama screen in Boston, and the experience permanently altered my consciousness. Since I already knew I wanted to become a writer, viewing the movie convinced me to become a science-fiction writer. I took Arthur C. Clarke, who had coauthored the screenplay with Kubrick, as my guiding light, reading his books with an almost religious fervency. Indeed, throughout my teens, I cultivated a monastic aloofness to the social and political issues that convulsed the sixties and early seventies; my life was (and, in some sense, still is) dedicated to imagining the inhuman vastness of the cosmos. For me, the moon landing was a messianic event: I couldn’t believe that fate had granted me the privilege of witnessing the next––and arguably the most important––step in the evolution of life.

Despite my desire to transcend the mundane sphere, I was a product of my time: a hippie-appearing youth whose head was in the stars, but whose feet were planted in the counterculture. Inevitably, social forces were shaping both my personal development and the science-fiction genre. A cultural revolution was underway, one that was all too soon absorbed into the capitalist system, but that for a moment gave rise to a massive churn of utopian thought and practice throughout broad sections of the populace. The science-fiction genre too was caught up in this revolutionary wave, moving beyond its formulaic pulp-fiction origins into the self-reflexive spaces of literary modernism. A new generation of science-fiction writers––such as Samuel Delany, J. G. Ballard, Ursula LeGuin, and Joanna Russ––declared science fiction to be, not only a form of high literary art, but the main vehicle of modern imagination, the only medium capable of reflecting a reality that itself had become science-fictional.

I avidly followed the revolution within science fiction, attempting to achieve in my juvenile prose that fusion of technoscience and psychedelia I had first encountered in 2001. The boldest literary experiments in the genre were taking place in the British magazine New Worlds; moreover, its editors and writers hung out with progressive rock musicians (such as the band Hawkwind) who, in turn, adopted science-fiction stylings. This was a mix I desperately wanted to enter, and I submitted a stream of stories to the magazine, all of which were rejected (but often with encouraging comments by the editors).

As I tried to hone my craft, I found that I was having a problem constructing plot and character; I was far more interested in the weight and the weave of words themselves, obsessively reworking sentences into syntactically and semantically twisted skeins. This twisting of language was not at all in the service of storytelling; indeed, it soon became an end in itself. I discovered that introducing line breaks into my baroquely convoluted phrasings helped the page to breathe. I had to admit I was writing poetry.

This realization was at first a disappointment to me; things were not going according to plan. Against my will, my imagination wanted to make poems, not stories. But if I was unable to compose narrative fiction, then I resolved to become a writer of science-fiction poetry. I had no other option. Science fiction (SF), with its visionary take on reality, constituted my entire worldview––my natal religion, as it were. I was not about to leave this church; my turn toward poetry would not turn me away from the genre. To the contrary, I was convinced I’d enhanced the genre by inventing a new form: the modernist science-fiction poem.

Of course, given the degree of modernist literary innovation occurring within science fiction, it was only a matter of time before others would independently come up with the idea. Among the classified advertisements in of Locus, the “newspaper” of the genre, I spotted a call for submissions to The Speculative Poetry Review. Its editor, Robert Frazier, had also arrived at the notion of a modernist SF poetry––one that would, as he fiercely argued in an editorial, apply the lessons of Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” to science fiction. I wasn’t sure who Charles Olson was, but I knew I had come to the right place. Frazier immediately accepted “Asleep in the Arms of Mother Night,” one of my earliest poems, for publication in his magazine (this was, in fact, my first acceptance; I was twenty-two years old).

Frazier’s mag was one node in a network of SF-poetry journals that sprung up in the late seventies; the network was eventually unified by the Science Fiction Poetry Association, founded by the SF writer Suzette Haden Elgin in 1978. I got to know Bruce Boston, one of SF poetry’s major practitioners, as well as Adam Cornford, a City Lights author who also has made notable contributions to SF poetry; like me, both of them resided in Berkeley at that time. The late seventies and early eighties were undoubtedly the golden era of SF poetry, a period in which the parameters and potentials of what many of us considered a new literary form were worked out for the first time. Beginning as a subculture within the science-fiction community, SF poetry soon gained a foothold in the genre’s mass-market magazines and anthologies. During this time, my own poems, along with those I wrote in collaboration with Frazier, appeared in Amazing Stories and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. And my long-standing desire to be published in New Worlds was fulfilled when my poem “The Sonic Flowerfall of Primes” appeared in the magazine’s final issue in 1980.

Several significant anthologies of SF poetry were issued around this time: The Umbral Anthology (Umbral Press, 1982), edited by Steve Rasnic Tem; Burning with a Vision (Owlswick Press, 1984), edited by Robert Frazier; and Poly (Ocean View Books, 1989), edited by Lee Ballentine (the editors are all important speculative poets in their own right). A new branch of science fiction had grown and was flowering into prominence.

Unfortunately, the efflorescence of SF poetry coincided with the end of the period of postwar prosperity in America; the economic contraction caused SF publishers to begin looking at their bottom line. As sales diminished, literary experimentation within the genre was discouraged, and SF prose––in contrast to SF poetry––entered a phase of aesthetic conservatism and commercialization. (Cyberpunk SF of the eighties, despite its literary pretensions, developed a style that inserted science fiction into an increasingly commodified lifeworld.) At the end of the eighties, the SF genre was no longer the visionary, utopian zone that it had been in my youth; instead, it was gradually becoming absorbed into the “culture industry” of late capitalism.

Meanwhile, as I learned more about non-SF forms of poetry, my work was breaking through the boundaries of classic SF into a kind of speculative lyricism with affinities to both surrealism and Language poetry. By the early nineties, after a series of rejections from Isaac Asimov’s, I decided that the only way I could continue to occupy deep space was to abandon science fiction. It felt like I was leaving home, but––in the words of the Marxist-Utopian Ernst Bloch, my guide to a future beyond the technical utopias of SF––home is a place we have never been. My poetry collection Science Fiction (Pantograph Press, 1992) was a transitional volume, containing both SF poems and work in the new mode. As the title indicated, my poetry now enclosed the genre, instead of being enclosed by it. And yet I will always consider myself to be a “speculative poet.”

——————————

Andrew Joron is the author of Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems, published by City Lights Books in 2010.

Related posts:

This entry was posted in City Lights Blog and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.