ON ARNZEN AND RHYME
Author Interview by Michael T. Huyck, Jr.
THIS INTERVIEW FIRST APPEARED IN:
Jobs in Hell #120, 19 Feb. 2002.
It's said that those who can, do -- and those who can't, teach. Mike
Arnzen would take issue with that, and rightfully so. He does teach,
it's true, but he's also a well-published writer. I see that as
entrenching him firmly in the *can* category.
His book GRAVE MARKINGS earned him a Bram Stoker Award and an
International Horror Critics Guild Award (both for First Novel) in
1994. He has published fiction, articles, and criticism in a
multitude of magazines and anthologies. What's more impressive (to me,
anyway) is that he's well published in the sub-sub-sub genre of horror
poetry. I find horror poetry fascinating, as it's the greatest
distillation of the dark one can find in print. So that's the focus
today -- Mike Arnzen and horror poetry.
Jobs In Hell: Let's step off with the proverbial chicken-and-the-egg
question, Mike. You're both a scholar and a speculative fiction writer.
Which came first?
Mike Arnzen: First let me say that I see scholarship as a form of
creative writing, so the distinctions are hard for me to make. But I'd
have to say that reading came first, then writing, then a different sort
of reading -- the more scholarly kind, the more critical kind, the kind
that only writers know. Sure, I had my days in junior high when I was
sent to the counselor's office for writing wacky stuff about murder,
mutilation, and mayhem -- and when I was younger than that I used to
make up goofy comedy "skits" with my buddies that we would speak into a
tape recorder. But I didn't start consciously thinking of myself as a
writer until I first put down a book I was reading (I think it was
King's FIRESTARTER -- one of the world's most ironic titles, if you
think about it), and I said -- probably aloud, probably with a snide
lift of my lip -- "I can do better than this!" Then I picked up a pen
I totally sucked. I wrote a dumb story about a guy who was killed by
flies. But it was corny fun, and my friends loved to read it, and that
got me hooked. So I kept going. That was 1986. I've gotten a lot
better since then, but I'm still no Stephen King.
I started college a year after that, but only because I had GI Bill
money from the Army that I wanted to spend. I fell into English there,
because I loved talking with other people who had as deep an interest in
stories and poems as I did. And my teachers -- who I now realize were
all saints -- liked to read me just as much as my old Army buddies did,
so I kept going. I started publishing my sophomore year and somehow
managed to sell my first novel (GRAVE MARKINGS) before I graduated. I
was so lucky. But I thought, "Hey, I might be able to do this
forever!" So I figured I'd just write and get my graduate degree on the
side while I worked on my next book. I fell in love with scholarship
and I kept going, till I ended up with a PhD. And now I teach.
There are a million reasons why I've committed myself to the study of
literature and writing, but it all still comes down to those passionate
conversations about how stories work. That's why I do it. And I'm one
of a handful out there who are working to get other scholars to take our
genre, horror, seriously. I might have started out thinking I could
outwrite Stephen King, but now I write critical articles that take him
as seriously as Shakespeare. A chapter of my dissertation was on
MISERY. And I've got a study of THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON coming
out soon in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION.
Academia must have made me a little long-winded. Sorry. Next question.
JIH: That's the great thing about electronic publishing -- we're not
fettered by a page limit. Speaking of fettered, have you found your
academic background a boon or a bane to your writing career? Or have
the two paths grown independently?
MA: Although I haven't put out as many books as I might otherwise, in
my view it's worked completely to my advantage. As far as my work goes,
the two camps merge together in ways I can't even begin to explain. And
overall, being a teacher and a "scholar-practitioner" keeps me immersed
in language and the literature I love, so I feel privileged.
Although my workload as a teacher often gets in the way of my
productivity as a freelancer, I realize that I'm in a really great
position because I get to teach graduate courses in the unique Master of
the Arts program we have in "Writing Popular Fiction" at Seton Hill
College. It allows me to bring together teaching, literary studies, and
freelance writing in a way that I don't think I could do elsewhere. And
I love working with the students, faculty, and visiting writers, who are
just like you and me. Because of this degree program, the school
recognizes my publication in the genre and treats it as legitimate
"scholarly" work; very few college administrations elsewhere would
reward a writer for such things. Although academia has this "publish or
perish" mindset -- something that any full-time freelancer can identify
with -- I also draw a salary which ultimately allows me to focus on
writing what I want to, rather than having to do "work for hire"
assignments here and there just to pay the bills. It isn't always
sunshine and rainbows, though: I will always bump into a little academic
snobbery here or a little anti-intellectualism there -- and I'll never
have as much time to write as I'd like. The loss of time and the daily
drain of creative energy -- that's the hard part. But my job is really
custom-fit and I'm in a position to synthesize both academics and
Not everyone who decides to get a graduate degree will end up like me,
but I still recommend it to people who want an alternative to full-time
freelancing. Reading in the genre, attending conferences, corresponding
with writers and editors...these are all legitimate ways of learning,
too, of course. But if you can get a scholarship or a teaching job
while taking classes and working on your next book (a.k.a. "thesis"), I
say go for it. If your writing is good enough to get into an MFA
program, and if you can put up with some of the academic snobbery,
you'll not only get to study what makes writing tick, but you'll also
pick up all sorts of skills you wouldn't otherwise: practice reading
your work to groups, training in editing, experiences in running
seminars, tons of writing and reading practice, and so forth. Going
back to school is even a tax deduction. But it can also be hard work
and, well, it's school for crying out loud. So I understand why people
choose not to do it.
JIH: If nothing else, academic pursuits broaden the student's exposure
to different concepts. You mentioned earlier that you began with
stories, then you wrote your first novel. Where in your development did
you pick up poetry? More importantly, why?
MA: This is a tough question to answer. I guess it all came down to
being a diehard fan of all-things-horror and an explosion in my desire
to explore and experiment in writing. Once I started getting involved
in the small press, I discovered speculative genre poetry in the margins
of the magazines. Always eager for a quick fix, I would read them
first. Sometimes the poetry was better than the stories and I became a
fan, recognizing names of the poets I liked the best and seeking out
their work. At the same time, I was reading a lot of classic poetry in
college --some bad, some difficult, some awe-inspiring -- and I learned
that horror's roots really dig into the bedrock of poetics (just look at
Poe!). And as I read around, I began to see poetry as a way of making
"thought experiments" -- and a way of exploring the dark side in a
fashion that horror fiction doesn't allow (because fiction almost always
depends on narrative and character.) So I started emulating what I read
in the magazines and submitting to the markets. I bought whatever
speculative poetry collections and anthologies I could find and read
them like a madman. I became close friends with Ree Young -- a poetry
editor for a small magazine called THE NIGHTMARE EXPRESS. She took me
under her wing as an apprentice of sorts, offering me advice as we
exchanged letters about poetry and critiques of each other's work. I
joined the HWA and other writer's groups like the Small Press Writers
and Artists Association and the Science Fiction Poetry Association. The
small press opened up to me as a very human community, where people were
passionate about the craft and eager to share ideas or collaborate. The
markets improved -- with great magazines like 2AM, GRUE, and DEATHREALM
really showing support for poets by offering us a bit of pay and
prestige. At this point I wrote a lot of poetry, and I published quite a
bit of it. I was so obsessed I even launched my own little chapbook
publishing venture, Mastication Publications, which allowed me to edit
and produce a low budget but surprisingly successful poetry anthology
called PSYCHOS: PSYCHOLOGICAL HORROR IN VERSE (1991). It featured
writers who eventually became "names": Steve Rasnic Tem, Wayne Allen
Sallee, Don Webb, Thomas Wiloch, Wayne Edwards, and way too many others
to list here.
Why did I do this? Why did I spend my time pursuing a genre that pays
less than greeting cards, when I could have been churning out paying
articles or working on a novel instead? Aside from the pleasure of
writing, I have no clue. Still don't. I'm just a fan of all things
horror, really, and I try to ply my craft in as many creative ways as
possible. Horror, in my view, is the most experimental of genres
because "anything goes." The unexpected is expected, and that's really
cool. And poetry takes that challenge one step further by breaking the
limitations of form. The horror doesn't have to be a "story." Poetry
can bend the rules of time and space by messing with linear structure or
playing with the layout on the page. And it can artfully toy with the
sound and rhythm of words. The best horror poetry takes advantage of
all of this. And in the best horror stories you can sense a poetic
technique at work as well. Just think about how atmosphere is really
conjured, or how every monster is a metaphor, and you start to see the
picture. Horror and poetry belong together. They both speak to us in
primal, unconscious ways.
Composing poems usually works like brainstorming for me, too. They're
"experiments," like I said before. I enjoy playing with language and
concepts, pushing words around on a page. Just to see what happens.
The unconscious really takes over at this point. It's a different sort
of process than storytelling. Also, some ideas work better as poems
than as stories. I can't explain why or how I know the difference. I
JIH: I agree that poetry is brainstorming. The art's discipline forces
the author to reflect on angles and concepts otherwise foreign. Plato
said that "Poets utter great and wise things which they do not
themselves understand." To a point, I concur. But it's not that the
poet doesn't understand -- it's just that poetry requires the author to
consider every facet of the subject through some magical fresh vision
Can you tell where I'm going? Hail the segue.
Where might one find the roots of your poetical vision? Monsters?
Emotions? Martha Stewart?
MA: (laughs) Well, I guess Martha Stewart is the best answer. I think
I draw on popular culture quite a bit -- and that would include familiar
monsters from movies and fiction -- as inspiration for a lot of my
work. Emotions should spring up during the composition -- the poem
produces the emotion rather than reflecting any consciously planned act
of self-expression on the writer's part. I think the worst poetry is
that which sets out to project the author's emotions directly. That
kind feels forced, as though the writer were bullying their hang-ups
(whether love or hate) into the reader's mind. Poems should "capture"
an emotional range and incite it, too, but the feelings should emerge
from the ideas and language of the poem, not the other way around. At
least that's my view.
But back to pop culture, which is always more complex than people realize. With the exception of greeting card verse, poetry is not really
a part of "popular culture" and I think that's wrong. In fact, it is
there already but we ignore it. Many of us learned to read and speak
through nursery rhymes. Poetry is everywhere in the music biz and in
advertising. Yet it has a bad name. I don't completely understand
why. In fact, puzzling about uncertainties like that has a lot to do
with my mission as a writer. I didn't really understand why desecration
of the flesh was considered a vice, so I wrote GRAVE MARKINGS. I didn't
get why gambling was so sinful, so I wrote PLAY DEAD (my unpublished
Master's degree thesis). I explore these social contradictions just to
see if I can figure them out for myself. Sometimes I do it just to call
attention to the oddity of things. There's an experimental literary
genre out there that shares the same ethic, called "Avant Pop." It
essentially borrows the icons and fragments of mass culture and mixes
them up with literary principles and theories to see what results.
So, back to the point: pop culture helps me get started with a lot of
poetry. I look at things like TV shows or advertising as a springboard
into poetic exploration. I don't always do it consciously. I was
working on a series of poems that was intended to be a parody of the
how-to genre, "Tips and Tricks for Serial Killers." But somehow I
started fixating not just on how to kill, but how to clean up
afterward. And then Martha Stewart fell into it, and the next thing I
knew I had an original focus and managed to complete the series as a
chapbook called MICHAEL ARNZEN'S DYING (coming out from Tachyon Press in
2002). The title plays on MARTHA STEWART LIVING, if I didn't make
that obvious enough. Anyway, I guess parody and an active search for
irony is at the bottom of what I do. I might have picked this up from
all the MAD magazines I used to read as a kid, which often were
grotesque or dark, and always had parodies of pop songs. Or maybe it
was Robert Bloch's fault. Not sure. I love to laugh, I love to make
bad puns, and dark humor motivates a lot of what I do. But I try not to
oversimplify it all into belly laughs. When I wrote PARATABLOIDS, I
took those creative headlines from the WEEKLY WORLD NEWS as the titles
for my poems and tried to imagine that they were real and serious, and
rewrote the "news" stories my own way, with a touch of tragicomedy.
There's one poem in PARATABLOIDS, called "Woman Marries a Shark," which
I always say is the closest thing to a love poem I've ever written
whenever I perform it at poetry readings. The audience laughs, but when
I finish reading the poem they know I'm serious.
I'm working now on a series of poems about freak show characters that
are similar in tone. Don't know what the end result will be yet, or if
I'll even finish the series. In fact, that's something else about poetry
writing that I enjoy: I don't work with an outline. The poem is just a
field of play. I might work on a "series" of things to keep my mind
organized, but the actual poems are all processed like dreams -- I'm not
always in control of what happens. In fiction, I usually have some
sense of where I'm going or what I'm trying to accomplish, even when the
tale starts writing itself. But whenever I start a poem, it always ends
up a surprise.
JIH: Poets share an obstacle with fiction writers: a tight market
place. There are more poems written than can ever be sold. What can a
poet do to make their work stand out? Get noticed? Sell?
MA: Avoid cliches. I'd be willing to bet that editors have an "instant
no" button that triggers inside their heads every time they see a
werewolf or cemetery in a poem, and sometimes the title is enough to
press it. Of course, the writer can short-circuit that button by
playing creatively with the cliched icons (for example, I once wrote a
poem called "Glarewolves" that flipped the lunar lycanthrope idea; it
featured a man who turned into a wolf only whenever sunspot activity was
high.) The hard part is knowing when you really are being original, and
the only way to know that is to read a lot, both the classics and the
Beyond cliches, would-be poets might do well to write short. Write
tight. It's rare to see a long poem in any magazine -- if a poem is over
a page, it better have the same appeal a short story does, or it is
unlikely to be picked up for serial publication. Long poems tend to
test the reader's patience and editors, to be realistic, often relegate
poetry to something akin to newspaper cartoons. Think about how those
are placed and laid out in a paper or even a magazine. Poetry is often
conceptualized by print publishers as sidebars or filler. It might find
a home in a chapbook or a poetry-only journal, however, and I think some
longer poetry gets published on the web. But readers prefer not to
scroll down -- am I right?
JIH: You've got me pegged.
MA: And don't be too obtuse or suggestive. Poetry has a tendency to
seduce writers into over-generalizing, pontificating, preaching, and
musing philosophically. Poets who fall into this trap don't let their
details do the work; the author's voice chimes in and spoils the thing.
It's the old "show don't tell" advice: dramatize or illustrate, don't
narrate. Poetry works well when it's appealing to the five senses and
the back brain rather than to the nerdy frontal lobes.
I wouldn't say writers need to avoid lyrical forms, but I think free
verse is more likely to get published than formal rhyme schemes. I say
this not just because audiences don't respond to rhyme the way they used
to (people won't even see, say, a triolet, even when its staring them in
the face), but also because rhyme is so damned hard to do properly that
even the well-intentioned can't avoid it sounding sing-songy. There are
exceptions. One poet I know, Jacie Ragan, is a master of the sonnet
form -- I like what she's doing. Former HWA president S.P. Somtow is
good at lyrical forms, too. In fact, I'm suddenly thinking about all
sorts of talented folks in the horror/SF genre who can rhyme. But I
think my point is still sound, as far as the marketplace goes: rhymers
need to be practiced and very sensitive to the language. That said, I
think even free verse poets need to take a few language lessons from
those who work in formal verse; there's a meter and sound to all the
language arts and I really wish more writers in our genre were more
lyrically poetic. Poets who want to sell their work need to be very
attentive to the way words not only work together, but also sound
together. The only way to tell this is to read it out loud.
The best poets are prolific. They voraciously read and write poetry.
They join groups like the HWA or the Science Fiction Poetry
Association. They are members of local writer's groups and sign up for
college workshops. These are the people who make names for themselves;
their stuff seems to be everywhere in the genre press. Not just because
they are good, but also because they persist at developing their craft
and they actively seek out publication. Poetry takes discipline. At
the 2001 World Horror Con, I was on a "poetry slam" panel where five
poets all read from their work round-robin style. Impressively, Charlee
Jacob read two knockout poems she had written THAT MORNING in a hardback
journal she carries around with her. I'd bet she's got a whole bookshelf
full of those journals at home, brimming with poetry. Not all of it
will see print, but the more you write the better your odds get.
Besides, since poems are small and because poetry itself is often a
fringe market, you really need to be prolific if you're going to
establish an audience.
Lastly, like all writers, poets should be true to themselves and write
what they like to read. If they aren't finding what they enjoy out
there, they should fill that void with their own writing.
JIH: I think it's time we wrapped this up. But, before we do, one more
quick question. What's on the horizon for Mike Arnzen? Where can we
look for new releases of your poetry and fiction?
MA: I already mentioned the Martha Stewart parody; MICHAEL ARNZEN'S
DYING, due for release by Tachyon this year. It's a quirky and hilarious
collection of horror. My big project right now is "GORELETS: Unpleasant
Poems." It's an experiment in poetry (and e-publishing) that targets
the handheld computer and PDA market. The Gorelets challenge is for me
to write and publish one horror poem a week -- one that fits on the
teensy screen of a Palm Pilot. Anyone out there owning a Palm Pilot,
Sony Clie, or similar creature should drop everything and go straight to
gorelets.com to sign up for a free subscription. People without PDAs
can make a small donation and gain access to a web archive or picture
postcard versions of the poems that are really, really cool.
Working on Gorelets got me over my resistance to the electronic
publishing market. I'm more comfortable with the way rights and such
are being handled now, so these days most of my poetry can be found
online. Fans of my fiction might enjoy FLUID MOSAIC -- a short story
collection of mine released by Wildside Press last year. I don't have
any major book deals to speak of right now, but I'm about midway through
an erotic humor (or is it comic fantasy?) novel -- tentatively called
THE TONGUE -- which should wrap up this August. It just might be too
crazy for mainstream publishing, but we'll see.
JIH: The uninitiated can learn more about Gorelets at
http://www.gorelets.com. And I recommend, while you're
there, that you check out The Refrigerator of the Damned at
http://www.gorelets.com/gorelets/frindex.html . Note that you can save
your RotD efforts in the "Moldy Cheese" section of the latter-mentioned
Thanks for hanging out with us, Mike.