Interview with our Featured Poet Robert Frazier
by John C. Mannone
Robert Frazier is the author of eight previous books of poetry, and a three-time winner of the Rhysling Award for poetry. He has won an Asimov’s Reader Award and been on the final ballot for a Nebula Award for fiction. His books include PerceptionBarriers, TheDailyChernobyl, and Phantom Navigation (2012). His 2002 poem “A Crash Course in Lemon Physics” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Recent works have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, F&SF, Dreams & Nightmares, and Strange Horizons. His long poem “Wreck-Diving the Starship” was a runner-up for a 2011 Rhysling Award.
Robert Alexander Frazier (1951-), born in Ayer, Massachusetts, is an American writer of speculative poetry and fiction, as well as an impressionist painter on Nantucket Island. He freelances as a graphic designer and currently serves at the Artists Association of Nantucket as their Curator of Exhibitions.
While at the University of Iowa, Frazier attended courses in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has also attended the Clarion Workshop (Ann Arbor, Michigan) and the Sycamore Hill Writer’s Workshop.
His first science fiction story, “Across Those Endless Skies,” appeared in In the Field of Fire (1987). He has won the Rhysling Award three times: for Best Long Poem in 1994, and for Best Short Poem in 1980 and 1989. In 1984, Frazier edited the landmark anthology of SF poetry Burning With A Vision: Poetry of Science and the Fantastic (Owlswick Press).
He is a founding member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and a two-time past editor of Star*Line. In 2005, the Science Fiction Poetry Association named him a Grand Master.
Nominated numerous times for the Rhysling Poetry Award, he has collaborated with another Grand Master, Bruce Boston, on a long poem, “Chronicles of the Mutant Rain Forest,” which was voted by the magazine Locus in their Online Poetry Poll as the “Best All-Time Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror Poem” in 2006.
Some of the more recent books are:
Exiled on Main Street (The AAN Press, 2011)
The Waterfront Artists, Painters Who Changed Nantucket (The AAN Press, 2012)
Phantom Navigation (cover by Margaret Fox, Dark Regions Press, 2012)
(Excerpted from Wikipedia; more details found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Frazier_(writer) )
John C. Mannone (JCM): Thank you Bob for taking the time to do this interview. As anyone can see from your bio, you are a recognized force in speculative poetry. I am going to ask the unaskable, and perhaps the unanswerable question, “What is poetry?” Perhaps at least some qualities what you visualize a good poem should possess, especially in contradistinction to prose.
Robert A. Frazier (RAF): Ah, a poem is just something you call a poem. To paraphrase Damon Knight, you crank the handle and it goes “ding.” Also, I’m in the camp that believes you have to ask how does a poem mean, not what does it mean. From another angle, there are certain differences in writing. I see non-fiction as presenting as many facts as are necessary. Fiction builds as much storyline as is necessary. Poetry does neither. Poetry is about stating little and implying more, about creating ripples. I find that when I begin a fiction or non-fiction piece, I feel that slicing buzz in the gut, that impetus. But prolonged work can dull that feeling. When I end a poem (save for perhaps a bit of rewrite), I still have that buzz going. I write poetry like I paint en plein air. I get it done, no matter the length, in one blast.
JCM: Now let’s focus on speculative poetry. Do you find unique challenges relative to other types of poems?
RAF: Actually, I find working in speculative poetry to be a liberating experience. I write a good deal on straight science subjects. I write poetry with fantastic elements (fantasy, dark/horror, science fiction, etc.). I do surreal poetry, and the odd experimental form like concrete poetry. All these forms, if you like, seem to find a home in the speculative small press or pro markets. Even the occasional confessional poem, involving geologic time on a hike in Maine or body surfing through bioluminous waves or spotting Halley’s Comet with my daughter, to cite three examples, can slip in there. That’s a wide fairway to hit off the tee.
Restrictions from publications like poem length or subject matter are always a challenge to publication, yet the quantitative numbers of speculative markets continue to stay healthy, though not robust.
I should note that one unsolvable challenge concerns the label science fiction poetry. Poetry and fiction in the same handle…ouch. Who thought that could work? It begs the necessity of presenting a narrative poem. Yet there’s plenty of excellent science fiction in poetry that relies on other voices besides the narrative voice, other arcs besides a character arc.
JCM: We are delighted to share these poems with the readers: “Red Truths,” “Your Dark Angel,” and “Imageography.” Take one (or more) of these poems and give us the backstory—not only the genesis of the poem, but also some of its salient crafting features. (I can’t help it, it’s the teacher in me.)
RAF: Is their an angel watching over you? I ask that question in the context of the future, or perhaps it’s the present, in terms of privacy. We have cams in the cities, phone calls secretly archived, financial data, camera drones shrinking in size. All of this gathers information on us. But we’re not as concerned as perhaps we should be, in part because we know so much data overwhelms the ability to collate, compress, comprehend. But what if. What if something, some entity develops on its own. What if an angel, in the cloud perhaps, records everything about you. So “Your Dark Angel” is cautionary, and I found the voice that worked for me, that transferred that caution, was a fast breathless repetitive voice. In a beatnik cadence a la Howl (Ginsberg) or He (Ferlinghetti) or The Teeth Mother Naked at Last (Bly).
JCM: What an honor it must be to be a Grand Master. Can you tell us a little of the process on how you became one? Does it lead to a self-imposed pressure every time you submit work?
RAF: Every few years there is an eligibility year designated by the Science Fiction Poetry Association (there’s the term again) for voting on a Grand Master. Someone who has contributed to the speculative poetry field in a number of ways. I believe a member has to put forth a candidate, and back up their nomination with bio material, biblio material, and citations of their involvement.
In my case, I’ve guest-edited magazines, written and presented history articles on speculative poetry, illustrated poems, edited some publications, edited the anthology Burning With a Vision, and have generally been involved from a bunch of angles. Also, I’ve either edited, co-edited, or done graphic design for Star*Line for the majority of its 35+ years as the journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. Somewhere in there I have a family and a career in fine arts. And I sleep, though not as well as I used to. But then who does?
JCM: Cover art is such an important part of marketing strategy. What can you recommend to the readers who have a collection of poems to publish (either self-publish or publish through a small independent press)? Some printers want to choose the cover art for one’s book (I think CreateSpace). Any caveats? I noticed that you, an accomplished artist and graphical designer, don’t always do your own cover art. Perhaps you can enlighten us. (I think I understand, but I am only guessing. Having done lots of electrical baseline calculations for nuclear power plants, one would think I’d easily deal with my own house wiring. Yet I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. Perhaps we’re just too close to our own environs and want a distant “eye.”)
RAF: A book line usually has a look, per se, that makes it easier for a potential reader to recognize the content, especially when genre labels are attached. So the publisher has to consider that. If you are marketing a poetry collection, you should wait until the publisher commits before you address the cover. Then you can make a case for an illustrator you favor, or a specific image that you know is available. It is much harder to sell a book when the illustration(s) are a part of the package you are submitting. Why apply limitations?
That said, I prefer added variety in a book. Cover-wise, I have been more than lucky in my suggestions. Berkeley Poets Cooperative seemed pleased to accept my suggestion for a cover drawing by David Macauley (The Way Things Work, Motel of the Mysteries) to grace Perception Barriers (1987). And it helps to have friends on Nantucket who are artists. My buddy Margaret Fox did a superb, surreal cover for my Dark Regions collection Phantom Navigation (2012). DR loved it so much that they asked her for more work.
I’ve wired a two-way switch before, but I’ll stick to brushes and keyboards, thank you.
JCM: Though I suspect it is an automatic thing for a poet who is a visual artist as well, is there anything you can share about the process of creating a poem stimulated by a visual image or vice versa. I thoroughly enjoy creating ekphrastic poems, but I’m not sure I can explain the process. The value in understanding it just a little is to optimize the result. Knowing how to look at a picture or a piece of art might help. Your thoughts?
RAF: I’ve been taken with photographs of Albert Einstein for a few years now. Written some poems that used the photos or one photo as an ekphrastic kick-start. When I find a new image in a book or online, I revisit my curiosity about a life extraordinarily lived. Still haven’t tackled a piece that starts from a photo of AE’s brain in a jar. Eventually I will. I guess I need to research more about pathologist Thomas Harvey and that part of the, ah, convoluted story. I’m big on research.
I feel that consciously picking out a stunning Dali to use as a poem starter would be a recipe for weak poetics, unless you are forced in a workshop situation, but if one of his paintings consistently haunts you, for whatever reason, then that is likely the one to stimulate a successful poem. I’ve gone back to Isle of the Dead, a series of paintings by Böcklin ca. 1880-86, several times for inspiration.
For sources I recommend some of the genre artists: Richard Powers’ spectacular surreal Ballantine covers in the 1950s and 60s. The line art of Ian Miller. Ed Emshwiller’s magazine covers. Big technology art of John Berkey or Frank Paul. Mike Whelan is impeccable at fantasy. As is Trina Schart Hyman or J.K. Potter.
JCM: You write about science in much of your poetry, yet you don’t paint realistic works. How do you reconcile the left-brain with the right-brain?
Well, my father taught cryptography for Army Security. This was after working with the earliest forerunners of the computer, including Turing’s bombe when Dad was at Bletchley Park during WWII. My mother was a librarian and an oil painter who studied with master impressionist Emile Albert Gruppé of the Rockport School as a teen. I like to say, the mystical science of deciphering gibberish into plain text somehow meshes with a penchant for fanciful imagery in my poetry.
JCM: We are well into the new year, but I’ve found myself reflecting on my 2014 writing goals. What can you share about setting goals and how have you faired this year in that respect?
RAF: Not well. I’ve spent much of this year curating a museum exhibition for the Nantucket Historical Association, a big organization on the island. It’s been eating up my time. As well, I have a solo exhibition in July. I’ve gone back to using the palette knife for landscapes, employing techniques I learned from my mother, a true professional. But I’ll get on with it by fall. It was a decade between poetry collections for me when Phantom Navigation came out. I almost have enough good stuff for another collection.
JCM: Tell us about your successful writing projects; entice our readers so that we’d want to rush out and purchase them.
RAF: Good luck finding them. The art history books are local and sold out. The poetry books are all out of print, save for Phantom Navigation. If you can find the book of novellas I did with my dear friend Lucius Shepard, Nantucket Slayrides with a Potter cover, I have one in that. High Fantastic, Colorado stories edited by Steve Tem, collects one of my favorites, “How I Met My First Wife, Juanita”. Anything in The Mutant Rain Forest, the shared world I invented and habitated often with Bruce Boston and, for one novelette, Lucius.
JCM: Tell us about your new writing projects.
RAF: I’m working on a story set on a badly terraformed Mars that I find engaging, but I haven’t seriously worked in fiction for a long time. It’s been pretty much poetry for years. I was blocked on writing poems in 2007-08, but I’ve refound my muse. We’ll see if my prose comes back.