Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween 2014: From the P&PC Vault: An Interview with Ryan Mecum (Originally Posted September 18, 2010)

In September of 2010, Ryan Mecum's Werewolf Haiku—the third installment in a series of illustrated "horrorku" volumes including Zombie Haiku and Vampire Haiku—hit bookstores around the nation. Earlier in 2010, P&PC correspondent Ce Rosenow reviewed the first two collections which you can find here and here, but to mark the coming of Werewolf Haiku, we thought it about time to track down Mecum himself. Whether or not the new book is exactly to your lycan—er, liking—we think you'll find something to chew on in the following conversation.

Poetry & Popular Culture: How and when did you realize that horror haiku would be your metier?

Ryan Mecum: It all happened one bored and stupid night when I mixed a 5-7-5 syllable stanza with a voice moaning for brains and my wife rolled her eyes. At the very moment her eyes reached the height of their rolling, I knew I had evolved English literature to a new peak. Then came Jonathan Franzen and ruined everything.

P&PC: Jonathan Franzen? What about Seth Grahame-Smith of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?

RM: Without a doubt, he upped the game of zombie fiction. I consider Seth Grahame- Smith to be my ultimate nemesis. I see his creativity as a direct threat to mine. I actually had the chance to attack him last summer at Comic-Con, but he escaped through the crowd. A bystander was able to snap a photo of the carnage (presented here). Seth Grahame-Smith, if you are reading this blog, consider this an OFFICIAL INVITE to fight to the death and then keep fighting until we are just nubs and stumps.

P&PC: What type of apprenticeship did you undergo to prepare for these books?

RM: My training was mainly a steady diet of zombie comics and Frankenberry cereal. I did study under some wonderful poetry professors while at the University of Cincinnati, but I'm sure they'd rather I not mention them by name (right, John Drury and Andrew Hudgins?). I'm sure they wouldn't remember me, but they were both highly influential on my falling for poetry. I grew up finding poetry difficult and annoying. These teachers both introduced me to poems that were instantly fun. So, to answer your question, none.

P&PC: Why haiku and not another form like scary sonnets or violent villanelles—or even goulish ghazals?

RM: I tried a werewolf sonnet once. It just about killed me. I respect Dylan Thomas too much to make a mockery of the villanelle, but I did once write a zombie haiku as if it were written by Thomas. "Do not go gentle / into that zombie plagued night. / And take the shotgun." Some people have suggested limericks, and I've wanted to punch them.

P&PC: Can you describe the process of putting the books together?

RM: Step one is picking a monster whose voice I think would be fun to narrate poetry. Once I've got that, I do a story outline and then try to connect the dots via haiku after haiku. I usually jump into the stories somewhat blind as to where I'm heading, with hopes that I can quickly get somewhere fun. And by "fun" I mean "gross."

P&PC: What are some classic influences that you'd recommend?

RM: For zombies, I'd recommend my wretched nemesis Seth Grahame-Smith for his genius Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. For vampires, Stoker's Dracula. For werewolves, Toby Barlow's epic werewolf poem/novel Sharp Teeth was mind-blowing. One poetry book I always recommend is After The Lost War, by Andrew Hudgins.

P&PC: How are audiences responding to all of this grossness?

RM: So far so good. Both books seemed to do well critically, which is nice. The books are selling, which is allowing me the opportunity to write more. People seem to enjoy their zombie poetry more than their vampire poetry (who knew?). Werewolf Haiku was just released, so it's a bit soon to know if that will find an audience, but I'm optimistic because it's disgusting.

Most of my friends and family are confused there is an audience at all for a book like Zombie Haiku. However, there are a devout few, like myself, who were confused that it took this long for a book of zombie haiku. There is one guy who has reviewed two of my books on Amazon who is NOT a fan because he doesn't think my books help the growing field of "horrorku." For some reason, that makes me smile.

P&PC: Why do you think people are so obsessed with zombies, vampires and werewolves at the current time?

RM: They are safely scary. Stories like The Road are so terrifying because deep down all of us think this might happen. Zombie and vampire stories push us far enough out of the realm of reality that they become a bit more fun. The Road was a zombie story without zombies, and that freaked me out. If Cormac McCarthy had added just one zombie, that book would have been a lot more fun and the movie would have been more popular than The Book Of Eli. Contemporary audiences would rather their horror be unrealistic. Enter zombies and vampires.

P&PC: So, what's the profit margin in horror haiku?

RM: I am richer than Edgar Allan Poe was when he died, so I must be doing something right.

P&PC: That probably also means you're not eating soap.

RM: Only when I cuss.

P&PC: Is the series, uh, dead, or is there another installment on the way?

RM: I'm currently at work on a whole new concept for a zombie-themed haiku book that is sure to both entertain and disgust.

P&PC: What could True Blood or the Twilight series have to learn from haiku?

RM: Step back from the big picture and focus on the smaller ones.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Halloween Week 2014: From the P&PC Vault: The Book of the Undead, Part Two: Ce Rosenow Reviews Ryan Mecum's Vampire Haiku (Originally Posted on June 22, 2010)

In April 2010, P&PC turned to haiku expert Ce Rosenow to get her take on Ryan Mecum's 2008 collection Zombie Haiku. Then—and just in time for the season three premiere of a little HBO series called True Blood—Rosenow returned with a review of Mecum's follow-up volume, Vampire Haiku (2009). What's her verdict on the 400-year love story and bloody romp through American history featuring cameos by Emily Dickinson and J.D. Salinger? It's something to hang a fang in—but not for the reasons you think.

Part II: Vampire Haiku

Vampire Haiku, the second book in Ryan Mecum’s Horror Haiku series, basically follows the same recipe as his earlier volume, Zombie Haiku. The humor, book design, and references to popular culture adapt the basic formula of Zombie Haiku to accommodate the experiences of Vampire Haiku's main vampire, William Butten. Also like the first book, the poems in Vampire Haiku sustain a narrative and are presented as entries in the protagonist’s haiku journal. Unlike the first book in the series, however, Vampire Haiku has a serious subtext that distinguishes it from Zombie Haiku and perhaps gives the reader something more to, well, sink her teeth into. It suggests that American history and culture, from colonial times on, is inextricably linked to violence.

The narrative begins in 1620 England with young William composing in his haiku journal: “red sunlight burns through / with the approaching new dawn. / Time for me to go.” This anachronistic opening—the haiku only became a poetic form decades later with the work of Matsuo Basho and others, and the form itself didn’t find its way from Japan to England until the 19th century—emphasizes that Mecum isn’t interested in creating an accurate version of haiku history. In addition, as discussed in my review of Zombie Haiku, he isn’t interested in maintaining the formal characteristics of literary haiku either. Instead, Mecum is interested in using a love story to comment on American history.

First, the love story. William Butten and Katherine Carver were English travelers on the Mayflower. Vampire Haiku imagines that they meet on board, a la Kate and Leo in Titanic, and locates their love story in the New World. Using the names of actual passengers on the Mayflower for these vampire characters begins the book’s critique because it suggests a lack of essential humanity in America’s founders. Katherine turns William into a vampire, and William then kills Katherine’s vampire husband (John Carver, the Governor at Plymouth) so that nothing impedes the blossoming relationship: “If you are in love / with a married vampire girl, / make her a widow.” Unfortunately for the new couple, the murder brings too much attention. Katherine leaves to spend several centuries evading capture, while William searches through those centuries for his lost beloved: “I know she was here. / The paper had a story / about some odd deaths.” Although Katherine occasionally resurfaces, she always disappears again.

During William’s quest to find Katherine, he participates in—and feasts at—an array of significant historical events, including the Revolutionary and Civil Wars:

A revolution
that leads to war and bloodshed
is like one long meal.

My country at war:
When 600,000 die,
eating gets easy.

William also participates in the Battle of the Alamo, turning Davy Crockett into a vampire who later returns as David Koresh of the Branch Davidian religious sect, and he appears at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Massacre at Wounded Knee, as well. William’s presence at these events helps sustain the synchronicity between American history and violence that runs throughout the book. Certainly vampires would show up at events with significant carnage; however, constructing an American history comprised largely of events that create such carnage also characterizes that history as one rife with brutality.

In addition to historical events, William also encounters many famous historical figures during his quest. Some, like Amelia Earhart, are already vampires; others, such as Emily Dickinson and J. D. Salinger, are turned by William. These cameos are typically humorous: “It wasn’t the crash. / Amelia Earhart was killed / because of sunlight.” Nevertheless, they also suggest that America’s icons were, beneath their famous personae, monsters; the best writers and adventurers that America can produce are inhuman, which signals—or so Mecum's logic goes—an inherent lack of humanity within America itself.

Other figures are even more disturbing in their connections to real-life acts of violence. Consider this haiku about the serial killer, Son of Sam:

So he worked for me.
I didn’t tell him my name
but he called me Sam.

And again the cult leader, David Koresh:

He felt safe in forts.
This one was Alamo-like,
except filled with girls.

While it might be amusing to think about Amelia Earhart as a vampire, the two instances above reference individuals charged with serial murder, child abuse, and statutory rape. Such references suggest that the brutality of American history exists not only in large-scale events like colonization or war, but also in the American individual.

As a vampire, William consistently treats human tragedies with irreverent humor which lessens the sense that these experiences are in any way lamentable in a violent culture. Note his response to the difficult years of the Great Depression:

The Great Depression.
Great for making more homeless;
not too depressing.

Flimsy little homes,
which some folks call Hoovervilles,
I call lunchboxes.

William also views mining disasters as a chance for feasting:

Sometimes I would cause
coal mining caves to collapse;
me inside with them.

To time it just right,
drink your last dying miner
as help shovels through.

William’s irreverence emphasizes that these events are less preventable or avoidable calamities than simply characteristics of human existence and opportunities for (in)human predators.

A haiku about MySpace, takes William’s indifference for human life one step further. The poem itself is funny: “Checking the menu, / officially called MySpace, / for a bite to eat.” When read against the accompanying illustration of a MySpace page filled with young girls, one of whom is circled in pen, it becomes much more disturbing. The reader moves away from associating the poem and image with a fictional vampire and toward the reality of young girls falling victim to predators they meet online.

In the end, the relationship between vampire and human violence is the book’s most interesting achievement. Overlapping the fictional realm of vampires with the brutality of war or the deprivations of the Great Depression, and weaving together the acts of American serial killers, cult leaders, and online sexual predators with the vampire identities of famous people, undercuts the belief that instances of shocking individual cruelty belong to a small group of extremists. Anyone, Vampire Haiku suggests, can become a monster, including the average citizen and America’s revered icons.

Reading vampire violence against American violence suggests that the inhuman actions of the vampire are actually all too human and ultimately American. Mecum's narrative does not abandon this suggestion as it concludes its love story with a reference to American television history. A vampire slayer (not Buffy, but I won’t spoil the surprise) kills Katherine, and William must endure eternity without her. At first he contemplates suicide-by-sunlight but then realizes, “She created me / and her creation will live / with her memory.” He discards his haiku journal and moves from America’s past into America’s present with the same haiku that begins the narrative: “Red sunlight burns through / with the approaching new dawn. / Time for me to go.” In other words, the bloodshed will continue.

Ce Rosenow founded Mountains and Rivers Press in Eugene, Oregon, and is current president of the Haiku Society of America. For a recent interview with her, check out "Fast Five with Ce Rosenow."

Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween Week 2014: From the P&PC Vault: The Book of the Undead, Part One: Ce Rosenow Reviews Ryan Mecum's Zombie Haiku (Originally Posted April 9, 2010)

Jane Austen has met the zombie. So has Abraham Lincoln. The Poetry & Popular Culture Office has been nearly, uh, dying to know what happens when zombies meet poetry as well. And so, when we discovered Ryan Mecum's two books, Zombie Haiku (2008) and Vampire Haiku (2009), we turned to haiku expert Ce Rosenow (pictured here), hoping to, well, pick her brain about what happens when the living dead (pictured below) turn to seventeen syllables for self-expression. Here, in the first installment of a two-part review of what we can only call Mecum's re-animated body of work, Rosenow fleshes out the hunger for poetry and horror that seems to run (where else?) in our blood.

Part I: Zombie Haiku

Zombie Haiku's blood-spattered pages and zombie photos will resonate with readers who are familiar with typical visual representations of zombies—the lurching gait, outstretched arms and vacant eyes are all present here. In addition to that nod toward iconic zombie imagery, Zombie Haiku also acknowledges the cinematic and literary genre of which it is part. Night of the Living Dead, for example, is present, if understated, in the farmhouse and cornfield sequences that show up in Mecum’s narrative. 

However, Zombie Haiku requires that readers overcome two obstacles. First, they must suspend a certain amount of disbelief—and it’s not disbelief about zombies’ existence. No, the disbelief that arises when reading this collection stems from the book's central premise: a reanimated dead person insatiably hungry for human brains and other body parts who chooses to document the search for said parts using, of all things, a poetic form that requires counting syllables. This counting can’t come easy for the zombie. After all, as he becomes increasingly driven in his search for human flesh, he admits in neat, seventeen-syllable sound bites that he has trouble remembering things:

I can't remember
how to open this window
so I'll just stand here.

They are so lucky
that I cannot remember
how to use doorknobs.

Regardless of the character’s poetic impulses when he was human, the zombie’s existence is all about brains: his own doesn’t work and he’s hungry for others, yet he writes haiku.

Fortunately, such apparent contradictions are easily overlooked in literature. Consider, for example, Samuel Richardson’s heroine in Pamela who ostensibly composed the letters that comprise this 18th-century novel even as she locked herself behind various doors to avoid her employer's sexual advances. Clearly people—even the living dead—will document their lives regardless of trying circumstances. And with the zombie, whose body parts become damaged and sometimes fall off altogether, these circumstances tend to grow increasingly difficult:

My fingernail snaps
ripping off that light switch.
Now I’m down to six.

Looking at my hand,
somehow I lost a finger
and gained some maggots.

Filling the pages of his journal with poems and drawings representing his experiences clearly takes dedication.

After getting past this first obstacle, the reader confronts yet another: zombie haiku are not haiku. Just as a zombie is a shell of a human being without a soul, so the poems in this book replicate the syllabic structure of haiku but lack the content of haiku. Most haiku include some combination of the following: seasonal references, two images, internal comparisons, and a pivot line. While traditional, avant-garde, horror, and science fiction haiku writers typically maintain some connection to the standard characteristics of haiku in their poems, Mecum does not. Additionally, the syllabic structure diligently adhered to by Mecum's zombie is usually not followed by the majority of English-language haiku poets nor by most contemporary Japanese haiku poets.

Haiku, however, are as trendy as zombies, and so the idea to bring the two together is not surprising. Haiku have, for the last three decades at least, been used repeatedly to address popular topics—sports, business, movies, teen angst—and to suggest a cutting edge approach to these topics. They typically ignore most characteristics of literary haiku and focus only on the 5-7-5 syllable count. Mecum’s haiku fit well into this new tradition but raise a question about this new approach in general: why choose haiku at all? In Mecum’s case, why not zombie limericks, zombie sonnets, an occasional zombie sestina? Why reanimate the haiku form yet again for something so far afield from the form’s actual purpose?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that haiku entered American literature as a way to make non-haiku poetry more innovative. In the early 20th century, poets such as Ezra Pound incorporated aspects of haiku into non-haiku poems. As modernists, these poets searched for ways to reinvigorate conventional poetry, and haiku became one means to that end. Contemporary, non-literary uses of haiku may not be intended to reinvigorate poetry, but they might be designed to “make new” the treatment of their various topics nonetheless.

Another possibility is that haiku is still heavily identified with Japanese culture, so it always adds a sense of difference to its subject matter—often by suggesting the exotic and the foreign. When this approach merges with a lack of seriousness about the form, however, it risks replicating the imperialist point of view of certain American and British writers in the 19th century. W.G. Aston, for example, felt that Japanese poetry had very little value as literature, and his opinion was informed by the perspective that Japan was not a fully developed culture and therefore could not have a fully developed literature.

Finally, if seventeen syllables is all it takes to make a haiku, another possible answer might be that the form is simply an amusing, undemanding way to write. It also matches the ever-decreasing attention span of many readers and accommodates a wide range of topics.

Mecum’s poems revel in the speed and playfulness afforded by the 5-7-5 format and seem to lack any imperialistic impulses—at least at the level of content. True, the zombies are taking over and imposing a new culture of sorts, but there is no collective force or motivation at work. Each zombie follows only one motivational drive: hunger for human brains and human flesh. Mecum’s zombie is so single-minded that, “Walking in the dark / with a stomach full of meat,” he still searches “for meat.” Even when another zombie enters the picture, there is little coordinated effort:

Smelling the same meal,
another of one us joins me
into the darkness.

The other dead guy
stares at me with a blank look
as we softly moan.

Each zombie eventually ends up with his own victim but not through any form of teamwork, and, afterwards, each zombie continues on his own individual quest for more food.

Mecum’s book is also filled with humor and irreverence, and both characteristics depend largely on the incongruous use of haiku to convey a zombie’s narrative:

I loved my momma.
I eat her with my mouth closed,
how she would want it.

It is hard to tell
who is food and who isn’t
in the nursing home.

The book parades this incongruity throughout the text. The most notable instance occurs in the following depiction of the zombie’s obsession with brains and syllables:

brains, brains, brains, brains, brains
brains, brains, brains, brains, brains, brains, brains
brains, brains, brains, brains, brains.

Ultimately, Zombie Haiku is an innovative book that will appeal to anyone interested in all things zombie. As a graphic novel in which short poems propel the narrative, it is also a unique addition to zombie fiction and to the ever-expanding number of popular uses for haiku.

Coming Soon: Part II of the "The Book of the Undead" when Rosenow sinks her teeth into the world of Mecum's Vampire Haiku. If you have a moment in the meantime, check out Rosenow's Mountains and Rivers Press located in Eugene, Oregon.