Interview with Geoffrey A. Landis and Mary A Turzillo
Featured Poets for Silver Blade Issue 21
Silver Blade is proud to present these poets who just happen to be husband and wife. Both are notable and highly regarded speculative poet/writer and each deserves an individual interview. But I wanted to do something different. I wanted to interview both of them together to explore the dynamics of husband and wife “teams” engaged in the same or similar genres, even if there may not be any obvious collaborative work between them. (I got the idea not too long ago when Silver Blade interviewed Bruce Boston for Issue 20 and posed a question about his collaboration with Marge Simon, whom, like him is a notable voice in speculative poetry.)
Here is a brief summary of our esteemed Featured Poets:
Geoffrey A. Landis is a scientist and a science-fiction writer. He is the author of eighty published short stories and novelettes, and just under fifty poems. His novel Mars Crossing appeared from Tor Books, and a short story collection Impact Parameter (and other quantum realities) from Golden Gryphon. In 1990 his story “Ripples in the Dirac Sea” won the Nebula award for best short story; in 1992 his short story “A Walk in the Sun” won the Hugo award; and in 2003 his short story “Falling Onto Mars” won the Hugo. His novel Mars Crossing won the Locus Award for best first novel of 2000. His work has been translated into twenty-one languages.
Dr. Landis is a scientist with the N.A.S.A. John Glenn Research Center and has published 400 scientific papers in the fields of photovoltaics and astronautics, holds seven patents on photovoltaic device designs, has written dozens of articles about model rocket technology, and has worked on a number of space missions, including his current assignment on the Mars Exploration Rovers.
He is the recipient of the prestigious Robert A. Heinlein Award (the ceremony will be at the Balticon, May 2014).
Find more about Geoff here: http://www.geoffreylandis.com/
Mary A. Turzillo: After a career as a professor of English at Kent State University, Dr. Mary A. Turzillo is now a full-time writer. In 2000, her story “Mars Is No Place for Children” won SFWA’s Nebula award for best novelette. Her novel An Old-Fashioned Martian Girl was serialized in Analog in July-Nov 2004. These two works have been selected as recreational reading on the International Space Station.
Mary’s Pushcart-nominated collection of poetry, “Your Cat & Other Space Aliens,” appeared from VanZeno Press in 2007. Her collaborative book of poetry/art, Dragon Soup, written with Marge Simon, appears from VanZeno in 2008.
Mary’s collection Lovers & Killers, in addition to winning the Elgin Award, was also on the Stoker ballot and contains “The Hidden,” second place winner in the Dwarf Stars award for 2012, plus two Rhysling nominees: “Tohuko Tsunami” and “Galatea.”
In the interview: GL (Geoffrey Landis), MT (Mary Turzillo), JCM (John C. Mannone)
While you both were working on this interview, a pleasant surprise manifested itself: On January 14, 2014, it was announced that you, Geoff, will receive the prestigious 2014 Robert A. Heinlein Award, which is for “outstanding published works in science fiction and technical writings to inspire the human exploration of space.” We at Silver Blade extend a huge congratulation to you. Here is part of the announcement:
“Geoffrey A. Landis, science fiction author and scientist working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is the 2014 winner of the Robert A. Heinlein Award. The award is bestowed for outstanding published works in science fiction and technical writings that inspire the human exploration of space. This award is in recognition of Mr. Landis’ body of work including five books, 83 short stories and 76 poems in the SF field as well as over 353 science fact publications.”
To date, the winners of the Robert A. Heinlein Award are as follow:
2014 Geoffrey A. Landis
2013 Allen Steele and Yoji Kondo
2012 Stanley Schmidt
2011 Connie Willis
2009 Joe Haldeman and John Varley
2008 Ben Bova and Spider Robinson
2007 Elizabeth Moon and Anne McCaffrey
2006 Greg Bear and Jack Williamson
2005 Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven
2004 Arthur C. Clarke
2003 Michael Flynn and Virginia Heinlein
Adapted from the Science Fiction & Fantasy writers of America (http://www.sfwa.org/2014/01/geoffrey-landis-receive-2014-robert-heinlein-award/) and the Baltimore Science Fiction Society (http://www.bsfs.org/bsfsheinlein.htm). See these links for fuller discussion.
1) JCM: Geoff, Did you have any idea you were a serious contender for the award? How were you notified—phone, email, postal delivery? Take us back to the moment of discovery and tell us about it. (Add anything you like about receiving this award.)
GL: I had no idea that I was being considered for the award until I was notified that I won it—I guess it’s like the Nobel prize, they don’t release the list of people that they’re considering, just the winners. The notification came by e-mail, and to be honest, when I first saw it, I assumed that it had to be a prank. Of course, like pretty much all the SF readers of my generation, I grew up reading Heinlein, among others, and so I’m tremendously excited at getting the Heinlein award. I think that the award is as much for my non-science-fictional work as for my fiction, but it’s great to think that some of what I’ve written has actually had an influence on people. And, wow, it is quite a high-powered set of people to join the ranks of.
2) JCM: Provide a little background on how your speculative work, in general, evolved, and poetry in particular.
MT: I started writing poetry when I was six, and began fiction a bit later, age twelve. I was influenced by historian William Prescott, Robert Sheckley, Theodore Sturgeon, John D. MacDonald, Mary Webb, Pierre Louÿs, Alfred Bester, and all the science fiction I could lay hands on. Two profound poetical influences on me were e.e. cummings and Don Marquis. Others included Clayton Eschelman, Wanda Coleman and, of course, Charles Bukowski. And Poe, of course. You can probably tell. A real estate agent named Raphineli, trying to sell my parents a house, gave me a black kitten and all his old Galaxy magazines. You can imagine where that led. I wish I could find him now and thank him!
Shakespeare, too. Always Shakespeare. I’ve done roles as Goneril, as the woman attending Lady Macbeth in her sleepwalking scene, Richard III’s mother, etc. The language on one’s tongue instructs one’s brain.
GL: I’ve been reading science fiction ever since I was a kid, so it’s no surprise I started writing it. Poetry was actually more of a later thing—although I did write the occasional poem that I never would have dared to show anybody, I didn’t really write much poetry until I went to Clarion, where Joe Haldeman had everybody write a poem. Clarion was also where I originally met Mary, so it did have a bit of an influence on my life.
3) JCM: How do you both interact with each other, as poets & writers, as you write, edit, and revise your speculative genre pieces?
MT: We used to take our work to a genre-friendly poetry workshop led by this old opinionated galoot, Cy Dostal, who is now dead. We started a speculative poetry group, Speculators, a few years ago.
GL: Yes, Cy was a poet who put the word “cur” in “curmudgeon.” He ran the workshop of the Poet’s League of Greater Cleveland, which I joined when I moved into the area. It was fun. That’s another thing that drew me more into poetry, I guess, joining the community of poets here.
4) JCM: It is clearly possible to emerge with distinct voices, as you both have demonstrated, but how is that? What is it that you do to retain individual voices when, on the surface it would seem to result in a homogenization that might echo the other if, as one might suspect, couples engaged in the same activity?
MT: We really don’t collaborate very much, although we both enjoy and admire each other’s work. We came to our delightful marriage at a relatively late age, so each had developed an idiosyncratic voice.
GL: Well, that’s only partially true—we talk about writing all the time, bounce ideas off each other, discuss plot points. But we do have very different ways of going about a story, or a poem. I like to know where I’m going with a story—less so with a poem, I guess. Mary is more about taking an idea and then just ramping on it, keeping on bending it until it breaks. And them we go back into our little holes when we’re actually writing. (Although these days, likely as not, I’m sitting in the living room on my laptop with a cat on my arm.)
We do collaborate some—often just my suggesting a line, or even a word. And we’ve written about a dozen poems together. But our native styles are a bit disparate.
MT: I think both of us are more and more into the dramatic monolog. We’re both fiction writers, so it’s natural for us to write as personae.
5) JCM: Perhaps the difference lies in the process. Take us through the process of creating a poem (or story) or project on its way from inception to publication. Be sure to include the use of each other as critiquers/editors, if applicable.
MT: Hm. I just finished a book with Marge Simon, Sweet Poison, to be published by Dark Renaissance. I really felt that our process, which was for one of us to send a poem, and then the other to respond with an answer poem on a similar or contrasting topic or theme, helped me explore and nourish my poetic scope.
GL: Yes, usually Mary shares her poems with me when they’re done, and then we usually talk about them, but this new book she was very secretive about—I still haven’t seen the whole book yet! She’s been pretty cozy with Marge—maybe I should be jealous!
MT: My poems tend to start with an image, an idea, or even a short narrative. Then I lay out the poem using the best language I can find in myself. After I’ve laid down a decent draft, I look at such issues as meter and sound patterns, along with poetic tropes and tricks and tomfoolery and sometimes I decide the poem needs to be a form poem, often a sonnet. Other times, I decide that rhymed forms are too formal, too artificial. I want a poem to sound like natural language, although of course the language is highly sculpted by the time I finish a few drafts. If I still want the effect of a form poem but without the remoteness of traditional form, I’ll use slant rhyme or other sound effects. Bruce Boston uses these effects extensively; I admire the sound texture of his work.
GL: Yes, I love the sound of words sometimes; just put words together because I like the way they sound. I write a lot of doggerel, actually. Fortunately, most of it I don’t publish. More often I start with an idea, and then keep elaborating on it. Sometimes I have a short story in my head, and don’t have time to write it, so I write a poem.
MT: Then my poem will be workshopped, usually by the Speculators, although I will run it by anybody willing to read it. Geoff of course. Geoff isn’t as married to the idea of compression as I am, and I’m not as compressed as many poets.
I don’t fall in love with forms and write sestina after sestina. I fall in love with what the poem wants to say. Then the form follows.
I do multiple drafts, ad nauseam, but I do them by sculpting the poem in one shape-shifting document. I seldom fall in love with an older version. I just discard lines, words, syntax as I go. I do have a couple poems where I’ve a slant rhyme version and then a formal sonnet version and I don’t think either of them is finished
I also do readings. Lots of readings. I learn so much about a poem and how it works by watching audience reaction as I’m performing. Major learning process.
GL: I’ve grown to like readings. That’s surprising, since I don’t really like the sound of my own voice. But poems really are meant to be voiced aloud, and sometimes I hear things in a poem when I read that I hadn’t even realized I’d put in them.
MT: I also feel every poem should have something mysterious in it, something the reader thinks might even be a mistake. Like the mistakes in oriental rugs.
GL: I’m ambivalent about obscurity in poetry. I guess I’m mostly on the side of clarity, illumination rather than chiaroscuro, but sometimes, unless you put in footnotes, you can’t explain everything that’s in a poem, it’s just impossible.
6) JCM: Geoffrey, as a fellow scientist, I appreciate the valuable resource of fresh metaphors derived from our scientific fields of study. I appreciate the challenge to quell the left-brain from intruding into our creativity. How do you go about going beyond the poetic description of science and rendering it with literary depth, which is something I consider necessary for it to transcend into a true poem?
GL: I wish I knew! Actually, science is rich in metaphor and connections; everything is related to everything else. But it’s hard, sometimes, to take it beyond the “wow, man, it’s all so cosmic! “ level. Although that is a valid thought! And a lot of physics, in particular, are deep thoughts that are hard to express without mathematics.
7) JCM: Geoffrey, sometimes I hear (from other poets) that scientific language is sterile (probably because many words are Latinate). How would you defend a science poem from such an accusation?
GL: Well, I love Latinate words. Especially dactyls—oh, wait, those are Greek, aren’t they. Using the science words is half the fun. But, in fact, real science has a sense of whimsy to it. I mean, charmed quarks? Come on!
8) JCM: Mary, as an English professor, I wonder how you would feel about scientific expressions in poems. Is there something you can advise the non-scientist reader to appreciate such poems (of course, if they are good to start with)?
MT: Oh, I love scientific expressions in poems. I think they lend surprise and authenticity. I love surprises, love new words. I think I have probably written dozens of poems just around a new word I found. Two caveats: unusual words, scientific words, have to be used accurately, and they have to provide euphony. A clunky-sounding word might work in the right context, though.
Poetry and science are two maps to the real world. Both aspire to precision and accuracy. Both need all the words they can get their hands on.
Oh, think of the naming of new planets. How much poetry there is in that!
9) JCM: Mary, having seen many of your excellent traditional or form poems, is there some insight you can share that makes them successful for you, especially in an era where such poems are a hard sell?
MT: Are they a hard sell? I’ve had good success with them. I think they are a hard sell if the poet forces the material into a form unsuited for it. Since my work is often dramatic monolog, about people (or entities) in weird situations, I try to make my poems read as natural language. That can be done with form (Shakespeare did it all the time), but it’s quite challenging, and I see a lot of poetry out there where the form has just been forced on the material. Maybe another twenty drafts and it would work—or maybe not.
As to writing traditional form poems, I like to enter contests that demand a form unfamiliar to me. I also admire a poet like Mari Ness who becomes obsessed with a difficult form, and this challenges me, though I seldom achieve the proficiency of somebody who has such an obsession.
10) JCM: Neil Gaiman had answered such questions as “What is your source of inspiration” that it’s whatever he makes up. I agree to his insightful answer, but I wonder if there is something more. How would you answer such a question?
MT: Pain. Pleasure. The wind in my face. Creatures. Geoff. My son. Stuff in the news. Scientific discoveries. Outrage. Despair. Anger. Grief. Wonder.
I am still not through writing about my son and his death. That may explain my current interest in swords. I have Jack’s nodachi in my living room. When I gave his swords away to his pallbearers, Geoff kept two back. The nodachi is a scary critter. I wish I knew its name. It haunts and feeds my mind.
GL: I guess I mostly get inspiration by playing with ideas, putting disparate things together and making connections. There are ideas all around. It’s the putting an idea into a concrete form that’s hard.
11) JCM: There are so many things that can be said/taught about the craft of speculative poetry. If you may, please expound on one of your favorite things. Consider this a teaching moment.
MT: Um, see above.
Ultimately, I think authenticity and natural language are so underrated. I think the most important thing a poet can do is not to kill his or her darlings, but to kill clichés. And you have to read a lot in order to recognize a cliché when it assaults you. I privately cringe when I see “pretty” verse, even by my friends. Lyricism is no excuse for flowery, adjective-driven effusions. Make it plain, darn it! Say what you mean. But say it with austerity, dignity, grace, rhythm, euphony, precision, and be sure to hurt your reader just a bit. If you can make the reader bleed, that’s excellent.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, write a sonnet a day or a villanelle a day for a year, that’s cool. But at the end of that time, don’t let it just be about finding clever rhymes. Make it about what’s real. And speculate. Always speculate. What if?
GL: Oh, man. That’s hard. I do all the things that Mary says not to do, at least in my first drafts. So my advice, I suppose, is to stop thinking and just put it down on paper in your first draft without thinking, without worrying about making it poetic. You don’t have to show anybody your first drafts!
12) JCM: What is the back story of the your selection of poems here?
MT: Behind “Blue Tulips”: A few years ago, for personal reasons, I became very interested in the mind-body problem, and also in parallel worlds, as in Brian Green’s The Hidden Reality. I wondered if the human consciousness might be governed by exotic physics, such that we might be able to touch parallel universes in our dreams, narratives, and hallucinations. I imagined a quiet woman merging her consciousness with another mind. “Blue Tulips” is written with what’s called elocutionary, rather than syntactical, punctuation, with commas, colons, and line breaks used as tempo markers rather than grammatical indicators. Thus I’m tracking the woman’s inner experience.
Behind “Whales Discover Fireworks”: I treasure a photo of my grandmother as a ten-year-old girl sitting in a tree with a raccoon in her lap. Seventy-odd years after that photo was taken, a baby raccoon moved into my chimney. For two weeks I tried to evict him, and finally managed to lure him out. When I abandoned him in the woods, he gazed longingly after me, hoping, no doubt, for another cookie. The headline about the bottlenose whale is true. All the other stuff is true. We are domesticating all the wild things. Heaven help us. And them.
13) JCM: Tell us about your recent work and any projects in the mill.
MT: I did NaNoWriMo1: a novel about a Martian cat. But that’s fiction. My poetry brain is taking a short rest right now, after the exuberance of writing the poems in Sweet Poison.
I’ve been engaged with dueling and fencing as a theme in poetry. It’s challenging, because after two years of fencing, I’m just beginning to recognize how ignorant I am of the depths of the sport. I’m in love with a history of swordsmanship, By the Sword, by Richard Cohen. I think this will provide me with interesting problems for years.
GL: Every sword fight is always a poem, anapests answering onto anapests, point and riposte, deft lunges and retreats, ending with a sudden spondee. Like a poem, a duel ends with a single sharp point.
I’ve been working on bits and pieces of all sorts of things. I just finished a story for an anthology called Hieroglyph, about a hotel in Antarctica. A technical report about sailing across the lava plains of Venus. A collection of poems for a local press here in Cleveland, working title “The Book of Whimsy. “ Stabbing people in the heart. The usual stuff.
1 During National Novel Writing Month, November, the challenge is to write a 50000-word novel, http://nanowrimo.org/ JCM.
14) JCM: Are any collaborative projects on the horizon, especially featuring the two of you together?
MT: We don’t collaborate much, and when we do, sometimes we just can’t agree on a line or a word. I wanted to use a reference to an alewife in a collaborative poem, but that word had an unacceptable connotation for Geoff, so I had to give in and let him use just “fish.”
I still think he’s wrong. (Laughs)
GL: But, alewives are a North American fish! How can you put them in a classical setting? It’s completely wrong! Wrong, I tell you.
JCM: Many thanks Mary and Geoff!