𝗘𝗻𝘁𝗲𝗿 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗠𝗼𝗻𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗿𝘃𝗲𝗿𝘀𝗲
𝘍𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦 𝘐𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘷𝘪𝘦𝘸 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘈𝘶𝘵𝘩𝘰𝘳 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘚𝘱𝘦𝘤𝘶𝘭𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘗𝘰𝘦𝘵 𝙍𝙞𝙘𝙝𝙖𝙧𝙙 𝙎𝙩𝙚𝙫𝙚𝙣𝙨𝙤𝙣
Richard Stevenson’s imagination is as expansive and unconventional as the fantastic, whimsical creatures he conjures through his writing. His poems push the boundaries and transport readers to the vivid ‘monsterverses’ of his mind! Richard’s work is eclectic, creative, and genre-defying — his poems can’t easily be placed in a single, neat category. As we’ll see, much of his poetry explores the themes of beasts, mythical creatures, the environment, and how they’re all connected. In this vein, he uses surrealist and speculative techniques and clever satire to keep his writing grounded and connected to the messy, ‘earthly’ problems we face as a species, which makes his work profound yet always accessible.
Recently, the editors at Granfalloon spotted Richard at one of our favourite hangouts, the Mos Eisley Cantina, where chit chat about the Galactic Empire, the rebel army, and how many ‘parsecs’ it takes to do the Kessel Run turned into questions about Richard’s work and his thoughts on speculative poetry in general. On the following pages, we present the full text of the interview along with a selection of Richard’s playful, witty speculative poetry.
Thank you for sitting down with us, Richard. We really appreciate your taking the time to do this! Let’s start with an open-ended question: Can you describe your vision of speculative poetry?
My pleasure! Why don’t we start with a definition first? Speculative poetry is simply science fiction, fantasy, or horror poetry — or any of its growing list of hybrid sub-genres: that is, poetry that concerns what might be, or could be, or isn’t, at some fundamental level, real or perceptible in this time and place. Now, all definitions are problematic, of course, and, in my case, a ‘cryptid’ is a creature that hasn’t been scientifically identified by a genus or species. That would include many candidates that likely do exist, but for which we only have anecdotal sighting reports, or hair, or scat, etc.: Sasquatch, Ogopogo, Loch Ness Monster, etc. Remember, in the nineteenth century, the coelacanth, the gorilla, the zebra, the giant squid — none of these were thought to exist by enquiring scientific minds.
I started in grad school, with a handful of monster poems for kids. Some were nonsense verses, some were more speculative, more narrative. I’d read a book called Some Canadian Monsters and thought I’d ransack the library for more books on Canadian monster lore. I soon discovered there were many different names for the same creature, but not that many separate creatures, so I enlarged my scope to world monster lore. Then I started speculating. What’s the worst monster on the planet? It didn’t take long to come up with the answer: homo sapiens! Only man destroys entire ecosystems and species and has polluted our fair planet to the point of endangering all species we haven’t made extinct! That gave me my environmental theme. Why not write an environmental book from the points of view of witnesses or the creatures themselves, expressing the desire to skip roll call?
Of course, by then, I’d come across the field of cryptozoology, explored lumberjack tall tales, read a ton of scientific discourse that pooh poohs the existence of most monsters; had read a lot of books on the visitors from space or other dimensions of this space; had discovered a lot of theories about the pyramids, the Sphinx — one on earth, one on Mars — and Grey, Anunnaki, and Reptilian genetic experiments with Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man: the notion that we are a created hybrid species that didn’t work out as slaves mining gold for the aliens to re-seed their atmosphere. The notion that greys and reptilians are abducting humans for their sperm and ova; that they are a dying species that may have ruined their planet, or retreated to inner earth to avoid their disastrous doomed experiment with man, or are hard at work on a hybrid grey/human hominid with a few more brain cells. Or, in the fifties, the “Space Brothers” that just wanted to alert us to the likely destruction of our planet through nukes and germ warfare... In short: an entirely new theory of our evolution!
So what is my vision for speculative poetry? The same as my vision for the rest of my poetry: to teach myself new tricks! To explore language and voice and my place in the cosmos. To become more spiritual in the absence of a religion I can buy into. And Zen Buddhism is certainly more attractive than Christianity right now!
Who are some of your favourite speculative fiction/sci-fi poets or authors?
Actually, I started out as a neo-surrealist, writing poetry in the vein of other west coasters (I’m originally from Victoria, B.C.): poets I still admire a lot include J. Michael Yates, Derk Wynand, and Stanley Cooperman.
Having trod the literary journal market scene for years, I suddenly find myself reading a lot of speculative poetry! A couple of poets I’d recommend are Robert Priest (virtually anything he’s published!) and LeRoy Gorman, especially Goodwill Galaxy Hunting (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2019): his scifaiku and concrete poems are exquisite! And he doesn’t have to break the haiku rules to write scifaiku the way I have, cross-breeding the scifaiku and tanka with the traditions of children’s verse!
I noticed that I mentioned a lot of male poets. It’s ironic, since most of my major influences are women: Margaret Atwood, Carolyn Forché, Joy Harjo, Sylvia Plath (I wrote my undergrad honours English thesis on her!), etc., though most of these influences are pre-spec lit for me.
W.S. Merwin remains my favourite poet though: an Anglo Saxon male poet. There, I’ve said it.
Speculative poetry has a long tradition, yet it is still rather unknown (and not as well represented as 'traditional' poetry) — why do you think that's the case?
Probably for the same reason most men don’t read fiction: It doesn’t speak to their workaday concerns. Or they think it won’t. They read instruction manuals; watch TV for their sci-fi fix. Eighty percent of book buyers are women, and most sci-fi doesn’t speak to them, in spite of all the exceptions: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Margaret Atwood’s recent work — fiction and essays concerning speculative writing. You’d think it would be the most popular genre, given how nutzoid the world is right now! I don’t get it!
(From Richard Stevenson’s An Abominable Swamp Slob Named Bob)
Bein’ human’s a bitch, for sure,
but it’s bitchin’ too. Out on the coast
with the most of the most, you know.
Little slow right now. Notta lotta
stuff to chew on. Not a lot to say.
Just sayin’… . Life’s good, life’s o,k,.
Ain’t got a great vocab, eh?
Don’t need to spread shit
on a lotta freakin’ crackers, yo.
Just sayin’… . You got to signify,
get on my hi fi so I can dig
your frequency, baby. Just sayin’… .
Yeah, we gotta save the planet –
some other day, o.k., Otis.
I’ve got make-up to apply.
Go sempi fi on yer own ass.
I got mine planted on a bar stool.
Yer blockin’ my view. You know?
How do we hear (or listen for) the literary voice in speculative poetry?
Well, my solution has been to stick close to the vernacular and use a lot of slang and deliberate grammar errors. I often choose a less educated person to speak as witness in the dramatic monologues where they are trying to report on an anomalous experience. If you can believe in the speaker — or easily identify his or her prevarications and exaggeration — then you can see the monsters more clearly. Remember that the dramatic monologue, as perfected by Robert Browning, allows us the vantage point of a fly on the wall, so dramatic irony and verbal irony can be used to undercut whatever the speaker is saying.
If I break the cardinal rule against anthropomorphism, and have the creature speak, I usually make the creature annoyed or angry and have their monologue refer to the more ridiculous habits of human nature, or write a plea for consideration of their habitat and right to live unencumbered by a lot of louts intent on selfies with ‘squatches’ or serpents!
Humour goes a long way in getting readers and listeners to pay attention.
Oh, I also use song structure, and, indeed, have performed earlier cryptid poems with a band called Sasquatch. I have a voice synthesizer that allows me to be my own doo-wop backup singer, so I can hop to one mike for the main lyric, then switch to another to sound like Darth Vader or the Munchkins, or gabble away in some alien voice... [Laughs].
That sounds awesome! Can’t wait to hear it! ...So, what constitutes a good speculative poem in your opinion?
Same thing that makes any good poem: control over tone, mood, voice, rhythm, startlingly appropriate imagery or metaphor (if it’s present), concision. It should work orally and textually and delight more than it informs, maybe. The poems I like best are the ones I understand least on a first reading, though absolute clarity is absolutely necessary for younger readers, and I tend to lean more toward straight imagism or narrative with younger audiences.
Very interesting! Okay, let’s take a step back and find out more about you... What sparked your initial love of poetry?
I got into poetry through the protest lyrics of Bob Dylan, Country Joe and the Fish, and the songs on Leonard Cohen’s first album, among others. The Vietnam War was on and every night we’d watch the body bags be loaded aboard planes and helicopters on the news. My locker partner was a folk-rock singer/ guitar player. I started emulating song lyrics.
Eventually, I started writing terrible doggerel love poems to a girlfriend. I got weaned off of that direction (and Donovan) in second-year university when I took my first Creative Writing class with Robert Sward. Thank you so much, Robert!
You've had an eclectic career, travelled a lot, and lived in Africa — what insights have these experiences brought you?
Africa changed my life! I lived in a Muslim city, Maiduguri, site of the recent child abductions by Boko Haram, and things were pretty hairy with armed brigands crossing borders and making appointments to rob people in Lagos even back in 1980! I kid you not! My neighbour and I got robbed eighteen times in two years in Maiduguri. Eventually, I had to leave my own house and all the furniture remaining and moved in with Karl, a black friend from Barbados. He had been a close friend of Walter Rodney’s, the leading leftist politician in Guyana, where he was living at the time. The CIA blew him away with a bomb in a walkie talkie. Karl ended up working in Maiduguri, his official designation, PhD ‘ABT’ (all but thesis) got him a staff house with air conditioning and pay for a PhD and an ABT, whatever the hell that was!
Karl and poet Syl Cheney-Coker from Sierra Leone gave me a real African education!
What insights did that experience afford me? Lots! The first was how resourceful the locals were, and how honest! Drop your wallet in the market place and someone will chase you down to give it back! Students would dress up and come to my house for help. Where are you going to find a Canadian student that will do that?
I loved the music. King Sunny Ade in Africa was way better than he was when I saw him again in Vancouver after I returned to Canada. Way more improvising, and a crazy potlatch kind of gig where people gave their money away beat by beat to a roadie if they liked a guitar solo. Or would hold a large denomination naira note up to a woman’s forehead and slide it down to her breasts, whereupon she’d snatch it and stick it in her bra! I saw thousands of dollars disappear in the blink of an eye. Of course, the patrons might not be able to eat next month, but that’s just the way she goes!
I got out of my privileged ghetto and stopped hanging exclusively with expats.
I loved the food. I loved the laissez-faire attitude.
Among your many accomplishments, you've worked on projects that combine poetry and music. Can you tell us more about that?
Yeah. That came about almost accidentally. I was writing the Miles Davis poems that eventually became Live Evil: A Homage to Miles Davis (Thistledown Press, 2000) and a sequel, Bye Bye Blackbird: An Elegiac Sequence for Miles Davis (Ekstasis Editions, 2007). I went to a local writer’s group meeting to workshop the latest batch of poems, when I noticed that another workshop group member had a trumpet with him. He was planning on improvising to some spoken word poetry by another group member that didn’t show that day. He looked at me and said, “I didn’t know you loved Miles Davis!” to which I replied, “I didn’t know you played the trumpet!” Gordon had been a professional jazz musician for years. So we improvised together and pretty soon formed a band and recorded a CD. We were a while finding a bass player that could play slap bass and do funk. Add poetry and we managed to scare away all the four-square country and rock players. Settled on a punk guitar player that could play bass.
I had been writing the first two books in the cryptid critter series and wanted to open our shows with some light-hearted kids poems to get folks laughing and receptive while the band tuned up. Gordon thought kidlit was beneath him, so the drummer and I got a sax player and bass player and formed Sasquatch, started doing the kidlit conference circuit. So: two bands and various incarnations of each. [Smiles].
I’m now wanting to put a new incarnation of Sasquatch together and start performing again when Covid lets the rest of us louts on stage again.
(from Richard Stevenson’s Cryptid Shindig)
Could you have been any meaner?
You not only take a guy’s life –
leave his mourners playin’ a fife,
but you completely denude the bones,
gobble up clothes, wallet; crunch cell phones.
You don’t leave a lot. A polished skeleton,
An astonishment of grieving relatives… .
They say yer a hag-like creature.
Moguls gotcha slotted for their next feature!
Cryptid critter boffo box office beast!
Wanna a selfie and CV, famine or feast.
That’s the way it is in Hollywood –
woulda, coulda, shoulda, mighta, could …
Yer mitochondria are in a bite
to power a cellular micro byte.
Lotsa phone calls and promises. Hope.
Moguls entice the haggard old hag. It’s o,k. It’s dope.
Go ahead. Whatever floats her sad sack heart.
Gonna get her ya yas out, make a moat
around a fairy tale home in the hills.
Indulge her appetite for Homo s. shills.
Bone-cleaner, gangsta monsta rapper queen,
Yer the baddest badass this hip MC has seen!
Go ahead, Bone-cleaner. Dance
in the image of a hot ingenue. Prance
across the dance floor in stiletto heels;
show the mutton chop fools how bone-cleaning feels.
Get ‘em hungry, hyped, and hot to trot,
thinkin’ they gotcha, when they’ve not.
Ooo Ooo tease them til their pants are tight,
then take ‘em to yer room. Douse the light.
Mmm Mmm, Bone-cleaner,
could you have been more deceitful or meaner?
The Queen of Monstrosity. Gangsta eater,
but clean down to the sheets and neater.
Washington state Nuguispum’s yer home,
as good as any to come from or roam.
So dance yer heart out. Tear ‘em apart.
Bone-clean the marrow. Savour the heart.
You're a very prolific writer having written books and poems on a variety of subjects — how do you do it, and what's been the most challenging writing project for you?
When I started out, I was crafting individual poems, then trying to collect them, all-sort liquorice style, into books. The tendency is to group like things together: soup tins out with the labels showing. Obsessive compulsive disorder, anyone?
My mentor, George McWhirter, had another theory I like that he called his tops and bottoms theory. Pay attention to the tone and mood of the last stanza of one poem and try to modulate over time by matching it to the tone or mood of the next. He once took a stack of over two hundred pages of drafts, culled the pile, then handed it back to me and said, here’s your book. Look. The title should be “Driving Offensively,” a pun on the ubiquitous highway signs back home at the time (‘Drive Defensively’). You start out with local imagery, setting up house; eventually, you get a car (a carapace?) and drive deeper into the culture, whereupon you get sideswiped in a VW Beetle by a Mack truck; pidgin English poems start to appear; you start hearing between the voices.
Damn, he was right again!
After you’ve been writing poems for a while, you start conceiving of things in bigger boxes — see the shape, then start writing the poems you need to fit in the book box. Again, when you get good at something… I’d deliberately set myself a task that would require me to explore new subject matter in new ways.
The standard move in Canlit these days is to write a few lyric/narrative collections, then write a long poem or long poem sequence: the ability to do the latter, according to George Bowering anyway, indicates arrival at some higher plateau. I don’t know about that, but changing up is certainly what it’s all about.
I think a good definition of poetry is ‘word jazz.’ State the theme or melody, then improvise vertically (Charlie Parker) or horizontally (Ornette Coleman), running the chord changes, improvising new melodies that get spun out of the original tune.
If you are stuck on subject matter, focus on form. Check out oulipas (sites on the Web that specialize on constraining techniques). Write a poem without verbs or take an existing non-poetic form like a resume or interview [chuckles] and apply the techniques to a poem. Merwin is great at this. Get outside the box of realism or narrative or lyric: whatever you’ve done, try something else. You don’t need a subject to write about: form will take you there.
My most challenging project so far? Maybe the object poems of Whatever It Is Plants Dream (Goose Lane Editions, 1990). It’s a real departure from the narrative/lyric stuff in Driving Offensively (Sono Nis Press, 1985). Very surreal; almost entirely metaphorical. Realizing I had maybe fifty poems but not fifty separate voices created a point of view problem I hadn’t anticipated when I wrote the individual poems. There weren’t fifty distinct voices. I solved the problem with a narrative point of view shift to third person: created an omniscient narrator. [Smiles].
A poem by Richard Stevenson
floatin’ in the deep blue sea ...
Plastic islands ––
not so dainty houses
for Ms. Bacterium and me.
Gotta a Big Gulp size
plastic bottle for a home.
Entry’s nice and tight,
keeps the fish riff raff out,
allows fungi to sprout.
Fun guys! Doff the togs,
get wet and try to swim
from shore; we gotcha covered!
Kelp ain’t nothin’. Go on!
Try to swim from shore. PLAS-tic!
Where dry land oughta
reach out to the sea
effluent , bottles,
six-pack beer holder debris,
tampon applicator occupants!
No fun in funky –
We’re all sea monkeys
ridin’ high on
mountains of debris!
Plastic – so far out to sea!
Hermit Crab’s gotta
tampon applicator hat!
stands tall at the helm
of a Styrofoam boat.
Plastic islands! Plastic islands!
A guy could get
a tan way out here –
if not skin cancer
or lesions in inscrutable places,
pock marks on Homo s. faces
if not a little
flush of embarrassment.
could make plastic homes
if you hauled ‘em all to shore.
Coke bottle houses!
Beer can bricks, styrofoam homes!
Homes for the homeless. Go on!
Collect some green points. Oh yeah!
for Cleetus Awrightus –
better ‘n’ sewer holes.
Go on! Rent a boat and net.
Scoop all you can get!
Plastic islands! Free to bag
with bags already there!
What do you find informs your current writing?
I’m actually shifting gears at the moment. My daughter and I have plans to tour Vancouver Island. She’s going to take photos and paint and journal; I’m going to haikoodle (write haiku, if I’m lucky) and journal. Then we will fit the best pieces into a haibun (Haiku, prose, and photos) or just a haikai and photos collection. I’ve recently written an African haikai collection I’m currently trying to market, and one of my ’ku in that book made it into a best of 2020 anthology, so I plan to purchase that book and drag a few other haiku anthologies out of mothballs and read my way into that kind of trance. I’ve started, but I’m rusty and need to read some more.
What writing projects are you currently working on, Richard?
As I mentioned earlier, I’m back to writing haiku, tanka, kyoka, senryu, and linked Japanese imagist forms, collaborating with my photographer daughter. I’m trying to place two new manuscripts in the cryptid/ET/Fortean lore series, Dark Watchers and Hairy Hullabaloo, and sending out poems from each of those. I’ve got a Covid-19 chapbook saved I could work on. Most likely the best of the poems and any I write in the next little while may go into a section of a full-length lyric/narrative collection. And I’m trying to place another haikai collection set in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, based on a tour I took in a Volkswagon bug with my parents, my wife, and a four-year old son from a previous relationship.
My next big project will likely be trying to get a working Sasquatch band together and rehearse to support a launch of Cryptid Shindig and An Abominable Swamp Slob Named Bob. I’m just waiting on illustrations at the moment.
I’d like to write another novel, but who knows when I’ll clear the deck for that? I started trying to write six or eight decent poems to replace the weak sisters in a New and Selected young adult poetry collection called Bigfoot Boogie. That project got nixed when I ended up writing six books instead! The cryptid/ET/Fortean lore series now stands at nine volumes: Why Were All the Werewolves Men? Nothing Definite Yeti, Take Me to Your Leader, Cryptid Shindig: A Big Book of Creeps and Critters (a trilogy including the full-length volumes If a Dolphin Had Digits, Nightcrawlers, and Radio-active Frogs), An Abominable Swamp Slob Named Bob, Dark Watchers, and Hairy Hullabaloo. Doubtless, Bigfoot Boogie will be a fat selected tenth!
I thank the Covid ‘staycation’ for that!
Finally, if you could share one piece of advice with fellow poets, what would it be?
Read widely and deeply. Read across centuries. Read men and women, straight and gay. Read past nationality or race. Read as much poetry as you can get your hands on, good and bad. Might as well find out what you don’t like as well as what you do. Don’t get stuck in a groove. As my mentor George McWhirter used to put it, “When you get good at something, do something else.”
“If my tongue seems firmly lodged in my cheek in these nonsense verses, it is only because nonsense, satire, wit, and humor seem to me infinitely preferable engines to gimcrack philosophy and the host of other -isms that have got us this far socially, economically, and politically.”
I used to end my poems with a startling metaphor. George used to tell me that’s a little like standing in front of the dunk tank watching the pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles keep hitting the dunk paddle at the county fair. Eventually, the gal on the seat is going to look skyward and begrudgingly mount the platform for yet another dunk. The viewer isn’t going to hang around long either. “When you get good at something, do something else.” Try fade outs; other strategies.
Thank you very much, Richard. You’ve shared many interesting tidbits and given us a lot to think about. We look forward to reading your upcoming releases! ✦