Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Cajun Sushi Hamsters, Murder, Aliens and Cats. An interview with Mary Turzillo

Mary Turzillo is a writer of many talents with a great sense of humor, imagination and poetry that I admire. I first ran into her work as a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and quickly realized we had many things in common as writers with roots in the Midwest.

Based in Ohio, her work includes the award-winning Lovers & Killers, which won the the very first Elgin Award for Book of the Year from the Science Fiction Poetry Association. She also received a Nebula Award for her novelette Mars is No Place for Children. Her short fiction has been appearing since at least 1994, and she's produced three poetry collections so far beginning with her 2007 debut Your Cat & Other Space Aliens.

Mary has been a professor at Kent State University, and written books on Anne McCaffrey and Philip Jose Farmer. Her husband is the science fiction writer and scientist Geoffrey Landis, who I also feel does wonderful and thoughtful work well worth reading. In Cleveland, she founded the Cajun Sushi Hamsters writing workshop.

I was very curious to see her perspective as a writer and poet, and I appreciate her taking the time out to discuss this ideas with me. Be sure to visit her website and check out her writing.There's much to learn from her style and technique, and I'm looking forward to seeing her next collections.

How did you first develop an interest in poetry? How would you describe your access to poetry growing up?

I was read to from a very early age (two or three) by my grandmother, grandfather, and mother. According to my grandmother, I swatted my grandfather because he didn't use enough emotion in his reading. A lot of books for very young children are in verse, as you realize.

Once I got into first grade, I conceptualized that words on paper were connected to spoken words and stories, and I resolved to write my own Things (I didn't see any difference between poems and stories, and I still don't, really). My mother happens to have saved my first poem, which I wrote down in second grade.

She bought me complete works of Edgar Allan Poe, which of course set the course of my imagination for the ensuing years.

Which poem of yours do you usually recommend to someone who wants to read your work for the first time?

Oh, how to choose? Let me recommend three, since poems are short. "The Emperor's New Spacesuit," "If You Loved Me" (my elegy to borderline personality disorder), and "The Hunter's Mothers." These are in Your Cat & Other Space Aliens, (VanZeno).

The book I'm proudest of is Lovers & Killers, from Dark Regions Press which won the Elgin award in 2013.

I also have a recently published Best of chapbook called A Guide to Endangered Monsters, from Night Ballet Press. It has all my favorites and prizewinners.

Do you prefer coffee or tea?

I like both, but lean a bit more to tea. My preferences change all the time, but right now I like Tulsi Red Chai Masala. And of course, like all cultured people, I love Earl Grey.

If you could have any legendary being for a pet or a companion, what would you choose?

Ganesha, because he is the the remover of obstacles, patron of arts and sciences, god of intellect and learning, Lord of beginnings, and the writer's best friend. And who wouldn't love a deity in the shape of an elephant? But maybe that's a bit blasphemous, because Ganesha is, after all, a god. So my second choice would be Gummitch, from Fritz Leiber's "Space-Time for Springers."

What aspects of life in Ohio did you find most conducive to writing? Did you feel there any distinctive challenges?

Cleveland is a real hub for writing of all kinds. My husband runs a blog called clevelandpoetics (http://www.clevelandpoetics.blogspot.com). The clevelandpoets calendar shows at least one poetry event every night, sometimes several. We have at least ten local indy presses, and I'm not even counting college and university presses. Northeast Ohio is the happening place for poetry. I spent time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in Pasadena, and it was hard to find much going on. Workshops, if there were any, were run by university prigs who wanted to charge huge fees, and who in my humble opinion needed a few lessons themselves, in humility if nothing else. As to readings in Pasadena and Boston? Oh, maybe a few here and there. A couple a month. Never open mic. But in contrast, Cleveland, Youngstown, and Akron have some wow stuff going on. Cleveland's slam team is prominent in the nation.

As far as fiction is concerned, in the internet age, geography is not a big issue. You read, you submit electronically, no problems.

Superman was born here. Roger Zelazny (who was a poet in addition to being a fiction writer). Vachel Lindsay. Hart Crane. Rita Dove. Paul Laurence Dunbar. Langston Hughes. James Wright. Ambrose Bierce. Gloria Steinem. Joe Eszterhas. Leigh Brackett. Harlan Ellison. Kenneth Patchen. John Scalzi lives here now. The list goes on.

Sometimes Geoff and I think the cornucopia of poetry opportunities is a lure that keeps us from writing fiction.

When did you feel Your Cat & Other Space Aliens was "finished" and ready to send to publishers for consideration?

Actually, it didn't happen that way. I do a lot of readings, mostly local in northeast Ohio, but also at cons, both in the US and the UK. A local poet and editor, Marcus Bales, had heard me read and had also read my stuff. He was inaugerating a press devoted to spoken word poetry, and he asked me to submit a group of poems. I gave him 96 poems, about half of which were already published, and he chose 69 of these to be in the book. In some ways, Marcus was a collaborator, in that he selected poems that he thought were the best and that worked together thematically. He didn't edit the poems themselves, but he definitely worked with me on concept. We came up with the title together and it really works for me.

I've never actually published a poetry collection that I submitted cold. I do have a couple of books I've lazily shopped around for various contests and publishers. I don't like fee contests; I am concerned that younger, less well-heeled authors are shut out of that process. Not everybody can shell out $50.00 every time they see a new call for a manuscript. I have five single-author collections in print, and all of them have been published because the editor came to me. I admit it, I'm lazy.

Anyway, Marcus published Your Cat & Other Space Aliens under his imprint of VanZeno, and I'm really happy with how it came out. He's a brilliant editor and incidentally a very fine satiric poet.

Marge Simon and I have four collaborative collections, and she placed them, being not only a genius poet but a woman who knows the indy poetry landscape better than anybody else in the known universe. She was a long-time president of the Small Press Writers and Artists Organization. We mull over where to submit (we have been rejected a few times, mostly because our concepts were pure hubris). And we mull over whether each book is finished. In fact, we're mulling that over right now with a book called Satan's Spawn.

I should mention that the brilliant and underappreciated poet Bruce Boston has edited two of my collections and also the collaborations Marge and I did. Bruce came up with the title of Lovers & KIllers, and he also did the cover. I couldn't be happier.

What's been one of the most unusual subjects you've tried to take on with a poem?

Jodi Arias. Marge and I are writing a collection of poems about murderesses. Jodi stands out as one of the strangest subjects for poetry that I can think of.

What's one of your enduring memories from the Cajun Sushi Hamsters?

Steve Swiniarski (A.K.A. S. Andrew Swann) brought the early manuscript of Forests of the Night to our workshop, and we gave him enthusiastic encouragement. We have a custom that a writer has to bring a bottle of champagne to the workshop when he or she sells a story. When Steve sold Forests, and was reminded of this, he confessed shamefacedly, "I'm not old enough to buy champagne."

How easy is it for you to determine if a piece should be prose or poetry? What was the most difficult example to choose from, so far?

Basically, the issue is whether I want to spend an afternoon first-drafting a poem, a couple of weeks making it into a story, or a year making it into a novel. If I can stab the subject quick and deadly, it's a poem. I have a poem I've never published about a certain genetic aberration, and I've written a novelette on the same theme. They go together. I've never sent the poem out, because it would be a spoiler for the novelette. I really should get that novelette in the mail --

Of course fiction needs more of everything. My poetry tends to be narrative, but a story or a novel needs a lot of threads and characters and incidents.

I say I can write a poem in an afternoon, but I've picked at poems, adding a word, removing a word, twisting a line, for years. You know how it is, right? You lie in bed trying to think of the exact right word.

Are there any frontiers in poetry that you feel today's poets could explore more?

Right now SFnal writers are dodging the whole form issue. We need to write form poetry, not just doggeral, but actual good villanelles, sonnets, tanka, sestinas, etc. I personally write a lot of non-form poetry, and I don't think it's in any way inferior to the hard stuff, but I think poets should experiment with form just to see how it feels. I think what a person learns from writing metered poetry or poetry that has some exterior shaping transfers to free verse.

I also think many speculative poets should browse in the vast ocean of poetry that's being published and performed today. There's so much. So much variety.

One good thing is that there seems to be no wall between speculative poetry and the poetry of the greater literary world. A lot of Billy Collins' work could appear in Asimov's. I sometimes meet poets who have no idea that their work is speculative and then a couple months later, at my suggestion, they submit to Star*Line and get an acceptance.

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