Today I am thrilled to have an interview with Bruce Boston, winner of the Rhysling Award for speculative poetry seven times, the Asimov’s Readers’ Award for poetry seven times, a Pushcart Prize for fiction, 1976, four Bram Stoker Awards in poetry for his collections, and the first Grandmaster Award of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, 1999.
His collaborative poem with Robert Frazier, “Return to the Mutant Rain Forest,” received first place in the 2006 Locus Online Poetry Poll for Best All-Time Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror Poem. He was the poet guest of honor at the World Horror Convention in 2013, my first horror convention. And now, Bruce Boston speaking of his recent poetry collection, Brief Encounters with My Third Eye.
Your latest poetry collection, Brief Encounters with My Third Eye, spans the years from 1975-2016. Many of these poems were previously published elsewhere and some have received prestigious awards. What was the catalyst behind publishing this collection now?
Your question really applies to both Brief Encounters and its companion volume, my retrospective collection of long poems, Dark Roads (2013), which also covers about forty years. In 2013 I turned seventy, an age at which you can no longer feel sure you have plenty of time left. Some of my contemporary writer friends had already fallen by the wayside. I figured if I was going to publish a retrospective collection of my best poems, I better do it soon.
I settled on two such collections rather than a single one for two reasons. My long poems on the whole represent a very different voice than my short poems, darker, more intellectual and literary, often more difficult for readers to comprehend. My short poems are generally written in a more populist voice, which I define as poems that are available to any literate reader, not just other poets.
The second reason was that if I included all the poems I wanted, I was looking at a book of well over 300 pages. A poetry book this long would be pricing itself out of the market, as many have. I would have preferred that Brief Encounters appeared within a year of Dark Roads, but such are the vagaries of the publishing world. Fortunately, the three-year gap also gave me time to write some new short poems worth including.
The Alchemist is a recurring personage in this collection. Can you tell me what he represents for you?
Some people think that medieval alchemists were solely concerned with turning lead into gold or discovering a universal solvent. In actuality, as the direct predecessors to modern chemistry, they explored the nature of many different substances. Also, some of their writings referred not only to literal gold, but to a golden understanding of life, known as an aurum philosophicum.
Since I was active in psychedelic exploration in the late sixties and early seventies, I also associate alchemy and alchemists with those who were providing and promoting drugs in those days that could radically change human consciousness: Owsley, Timothy Leary, and Ken Kesey prime among them.
Those interested in reading my 1985 collection of alchemist poems can download the free chapbook Alchemical Texts at Smashwords.
In your poem, “Curse of the SF-Writer’s Wife,” you bring up the plight of the creative writer, and creatives in general. What situation brought about that poem?
A significant part or my populist poetry consists of series poems that take a single subject and/or idea and extrapolate from it to explore various aspects of how that idea resonates and can be played out. My accursed wives poems are the most extensive example of this, the original poem “Curse of the Demon’s Wife” eventually spawning five short stories and 38 poems.
These poems and stories use archetypal figures from sf, fantasy and horror, often to mirroring contemporary relationships in which women are taken advantage of. Many are metaphors for real life situations, such as “Curse of the Werewolf’s Wife,” which portrays a woman’s relationship with an abusive husband or “Curse of the Snowman’s Wife” about a husband who is totally cold and emotionless toward his wife.
Some poems in the series are merely humorous, such as the Lewis Carroll take-off “Curse of the Bandersnatch’s Wife.” Given this extrapolative approach, it was inevitable that I would eventually get to the wife of a science fiction writer.
Do you have a defining moment in your career?
The most significant one was in the mid-1970s. I was involved with a literary group, the Berkeley Poets Cooperative, which regularly published a literary magazine of fiction and poetry by the same name. At the time, I was writing mainstream poetry, but also, due to my background as a reader of genre fiction, some poetry with sf/fantasy/horror themes.
My genre poetry was not well- received in the group workshops. I’d get puzzled stares, and questions such as “Where’s the poet in the poem?” Confessional poetry was very much in vogue in mainstream literary circles, even more so than today. The only published genre poetry I was aware of were humorous rhyming poems that appeared in publications such as Weird Tales and Asimov’s SF.
In the mid-1970s I came upon a market report for a small press publication titled The Anthology of Speculative Poetry. I sent them three or four poems and they were all accepted. Through the editor of the anthology, Robert Frazier, I began to connect with other poets that were writing genre poetry that was akin to mine, and eventually with the Science Fiction Poetry Association founded by Suzette Haden Elgin in 1978.
The acceptance of my genre poetry by writers whose work I enjoyed and respected certainly changed the direction of my career as a writer.
The oddest poem in this collection, for me, is your darkly humorous “Surreal Shopping List?” What was the inspiration behind this?
List poems have been around for thousands of years. There are what can be called list poems in both Homer’s Odyssey and in the Bible. Contemporary list poems are often humorous. I wrote a whole series of humorous list poems such as “Signs Your Domestic Robot Needs a Tune-Up” and “Etiquette with Your Robot Wife” for Asimov’s SF in the early 2000s.
I’ve also written more than a few surreal list poems, which can be humorous, but where the intent is a little different, to string together a series of striking surreal images that resonate with one another and with the reader. To do this I collect surreal images as they occur to me, then mix, match, and order them in the most effective way possible to create a successful poem.
“The Music of the Stars” is one of my favorite poems in this collection. For me, it speaks of staying true to my inner vision despite the world’s efforts to distract. As the author, can you please share what it means to you?
Your interpretation is essentially the same as mine, though in a more personal sense, the poem has to do with the time I came of age and the kind of science fiction that was being written and published at that time.
In the 1950s and 60s books such as Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Andre Norton’s The Stars Are Ours and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series envisioned an optimistic future for the human species beyond planet Earth, settling other worlds among the stars.
Unfortunately, modern science has demonstrated how difficult this will actually be. However, the dream still remains.
What can we expect from you in the future? Any upcoming projects?
In terms of book-publishing, the last eight months have been the busiest of my life. I’ve had three new collections appear, Sacrificial Nights (a poetry novella in collaboration with Alessandro Manzetti), Brief Encounters with my Third Eye, and Visions of the Mutant Rain Forest (fiction and poetry written in collaboration with Robert Frazier).
It will probably be a few years before I have another new book of fiction or poetry that I feel is worth publishing. The only book I have scheduled for publication is the Italian-language edition of my dystopian sf novel, The Guardener’s Tale, due in early 2018 from the Italian press Astro Edizioni.
Alessandro Manzetti and I are toying with the idea of writing another collaboration, fiction this time. And I’ll be reading next month at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando, Florida.