Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Poetry & Pop Culture Heroes: Firefly, Sci-Fi, & the Latterday Chronicles of Lewis Turco

In Joss Whedon's short-lived, much- acclaimed, 2002 TV series Firefly, the show's main characters repeatedly refer to "The Universe" as "The 'verse"—an abbreviation that suggests, to Poetry & Popular Culture at least, that outer space is one big poem and that Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his team of intergalactic space cowboys have set out to read it all.

This overlap of poetry and science fiction isn't new to Firefly, though. While we were browsing the used books section at the local Book Bin, for example, we came across a stack of decrepit old magazines including the issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction from February 1962 pictured below. On taking a look at it, we landed on a poem by Lewis Turco—a University of Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate and prolific author of a bunch of books including eleven poetry collections and The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics. Turns out, Turco—who also writes under the pseudonym Wesli Court—penned "Excerpts from The Latterday Chronicle" while studying under Paul Engle and Donald Justice at Iowa. This struck the P&PC office interns as kind of odd, for when they think of poets trained at the Writers' Workshop, they don't at all imagine them wanting to publish in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. So we caught up with Turco and asked him to explain himself.

Poetry & Popular Culture: Can you explain yourself?

Lewis Turco: Sure. I wasn't "trained" at the Workshop, I was almost entirely self-taught. I was publishing poems in my home-town paper's poetry column all through high school, and when I graduated in 1952, I went into the Navy for four years where I bought and studied prosody books and anthologies of modern poetry. I began publishing in the "little" magazines when I was 19 years old...

P&PC: Wait a minute. What do you mean you wrote for the local paper? Did you write good bad poetry?

LT: You bet. In my teens I was a high school correspondent and cub reporter for the Meriden, CT, Morning Record, and I was the morgue clerk—the "morgue" is the clippings file that newspapers kept of their stories which were clipped out and filed for future reference. I won a local fiction prize in 1949 and that story was my first publication in a local paper. From then on I wrote all sorts of things, including news items and verse for the local papers.

P&PC: Sorry to interrupt. Back to sea.

LT: In the Navy, I was a yeoman—not an English farmer but an office clerk—and sailed around the world (actually) aboard an aircraft carrier, the Hornet. There's nothing for a clerk to do at sea, so I read a lot and wrote a lot—the ship had a good library. By the time I got out of the Navy and went to college, I was already better published than many of my teachers at UConn. In college, after the Navy, besides receiving the G.I. Bill (which is why I'd enlisted), I was awarded two scholarships by the Record newspaper. The reason I got into the Workshop was because of my publication record.

P&PC: "Excerpts from the Latterday Chronicle" (pictured to the left) wasn't the first poem you'd published in Fantasy and Science Fiction either. What did people make of this habit?

LT: While I was a grad student in the Workshop, I submitted two poems to F&SF, which I'd been reading since issue one. Both were accepted, and the first, "A Great Grey Fantasy," was published almost immediately, in January of 1960. "Excerpts" wasn't published until 1962. I don't remember people having any reaction to either poem. The Workshop people would have sneered if they'd known about it, and academics didn't read sci-fi or fantasy then, though they do now.

P&PC: But Engle had just written a libretto for a Hallmark Hall of Fame opera, A Christmas Opera, by Philip Bezanson, which aired in 1960. Would Engle have sneered too?

JT: I'm sure he would not have. In fact, I was his Editorial Assistant in the Workshop at the time, working on a Hallmark anthology, Poetry for Pleasure, and another for Random House, Midland: Twenty-Five Years of Fiction and Poetry from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, so I may have shown him "A Great Grey Fantasy," though maybe not—he was gone off campus so much.

P&PC: Where's the rest of The Latter Day Chronicle?

LT: There is no more. The "Excerpts" were merely meant to suggest the rest of it.

P&PC: We're used to talking about "genre fiction." What would it mean to talk about "genre poetry" as well? You know, "I read a lot of sci-fi poetry..."

LT: I don't know if it still exists, but there used to be a Science Fiction Poetry Association located in Los Angeles. They published a magazine called Star*Line, and I used to publish there and in their Rhysling Anthology of prize poems. But you know, this idea of "genre" writing annoys the hell out of me. Edgar Allan Poe wrote fantasy poetry, and so have poets throughout history. Anybody ever read Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or "La Belle Dame sans Merci" or The Faerie Queene, or "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," or "A Midsummer Night's Dream"? Gimme a break.

P&PC: Well, what's the future hold for such poetry then?

LT: Last night my wife and I went to see the new movie Avatar. It's a great sci-fi/fantasy flick, the biggest one ever and great fun. I suspect that writers of all kinds are going to keep on writing imaginative literature in every genre. When I was teaching, I used to tell my students, "Writing is writing." There will continue to be good writing in every genre.

P&PC: Live long and prosper, then.

LT: May the force be with you.


Cy Mathews said...

This is a really neat posting, great interview. I feel obliged to point out the recent New Zealand anthology of sci-fi poetry, Voyagers: http://www.ipoz.biz/Titles/Voy.htm.

The novelist D.M. Thomas wrote a lot of sci-fi poetry in his youth; it seems to have been swept under the carpet now (is never mentioned in his bio notes). Thomas M. Disch also wrote poetry (some of it sci-fi related) under the name Thomas Disch. Oh, and Scottish poet D.M. Black wrote at least one sci-fi poem back in the '70s, called something like "Record of an Interstellar Voyage."

Just realised that there is an unusual number of "D"s, "M"s and "Thomas"s in the above list. Cue Twilight Zone theme...

Jessie Carty said...

love this interview and i had totally forgotten that they called the universe - verse - on Firefly. Loved that show :)

Anonymous said...

I didn't know you were going to mention my The Book of Forms (3rd ed.), Mike, or I would have mentioned that my longish science-fiction narrative poem, "The Death of the Astronaut," can be found there on pages 292-296.

Deborah P Kolodji said...

Thanks for letting me know about this wonderful interview.

The Science Fiction Poetry Association is now in its 32nd year. Star*Line is still published 6 times a year. Members are currently nominating for the 2010 Rhysling Awards.

Mmebership is $21 a year and $25 for internationa memberships. This is a great deal when you realize it includes six issues of Star*Line, the Rhysling Anthology and Dwarf Stars, our anthology of short poems 10 lines or less.

Deborah P Kolodji
president, Science Fiction Poetry Association

hema said...

This is a really neat posting, great interview.
The Science Fiction Poetry Association is now in its 32nd year. Star*Line is still published 6 times a year.

Egyptian-Arab forum cherish News egypt-panorama.com Egypt, Arab news and movies of the season and News Art and Artists News and Sport

hema said...

The novelist D.M. Thomas wrote a lot of sci-fi poetry in his youth; it seems to have been swept under the carpet now (is never mentioned in his bio notes). Thomas M. Disch also wrote poetry (some of it sci-fi related) under the name Thomas Disch.