Born in Frye's Mill, Arkansas, an old logging camp, my daddy once stepped on a rusty spike near his stepfather Cody Philyaw's repair shop on their farm in Poinsett County. The spike gouged a gory hole in Daddy's foot. Sonny—owing to his blue eyes and flashing grin, everybody called him Sonny—knew about tetanus, but hated doctors, so he filled a bucket with kerosene and, in a secluded corncrib, gritted his teeth and soaked his foot. The next day he went about his business, disguising his limp and saving the family a doctor's bill that it didn't really need.
Jump ahead a few years. Sonny and my uncle Mike, who drove huge yellow machines all over the Rockies carving out highways, have taken me deer poaching on the scrubby high plains near Gardner, Colorado. I huddle between them in the pickup as wimpy and scared as, say, Woody Allen (whose milquetoast demeanor once allegedly provoked a gang of Quakers to beat him up). Sonny and Uncle Mike spotlight a young buck, halt the pickup, and blow that animal off the silhouetted ridge with a single shot from Uncle Mike's 30.06 rifle. (Twenty years ago, I fictionalized this scene in a chapter of No Enemy but Time.) Then we bump across the countryside to find our kill, and down behind the ridge Sonny dips two fingers into the buck's blood and wipes it, viscous and scalding, across my forehead and down my cheeks. He has blooded me: I am now not just a piratical poacher, but a man.
"There," says Sonny. "That'd shake up your pals back in Mulvane, wouldn't it?" (Through most of the year, I live with my mother in Mulvane, Kansas, south of Wichita, but I visit Sonny every summer. My parents divorced when I was five.) Sonny stares at me, hard. "So, knothead, what do you want to be when you grow up?"
On that high slope, I count my options: soldier, bulldozer jockey, boozehound, serial adulterer, big-game poacher, roadhouse rowdy. I want to cry. What did this poor buck, whose legs Uncle Mike hacks away with a saw, do to warrant its out-of-season slaughter? Sonny squeezes my shoulder and glances sidelong at my uncle with expectant paternal pride.
"I want to be a poet," I tell my camouflage-clad father.
"A poet?" Sonny's face undergoes a slump. All his features swag, like those of a bloodhound, woebegone in a rainstorm.
"Yessir," I say. "A science-fiction poet."
Uncle Mike stops sawing. He and Sonny exchange a look. The buck's mutilated carcass gives a peculiar lurch.
"Yessir," I say, "the Shakespeare of the spaceways, the Keats of anthropological speculation, the T. S. Eliot of path-finding alternate history."
Uncle Mike leans back on his boot heels. "Michael, any fella who'd set off on that path will step on some really sharp rocks. Except for jingles in the Reader's Digest, nobody reads poetry nowadays. You'll have to beg, borrow, or steal to keep your feet in socks. How bout it, Sonny—what do you think?"
Like Tar Baby, Sonny he don't say nuffin.
Uncle Mike gives me two big thumbs up. "Go for it, squirt. If anybody's got the balls to take rejection, it's probably a mollycoddled mama's boy like you. And, mark my words, you'll see a ton of rejection."
Uncle Mike hit the spike dead-on. My decision to write drove a spike through Sonny's heart. Every book of mine he ever read, he read with the bemused duty-driven grimness of a World War II vet changing a mephitic diaper.
But, as Uncle Mike had implied, my mom lent support, always encouraging my efforts to forge literature in, as James Joyce wrote, "the uncreated smithy of my soul." Thank God—for, as John Ciardi wrote somewhere else, "You don't have to suffer to be a poet. Adolescence is enough suffering for anyone."
With the help of my writing instructor Marion Montgomery, at age twenty-one I made my first professional sale (as a sci-fi poet, you could say) to The Georgia Review. An alternate-history poem called An Echo Through the Timepiece, it deluded editor James Colvert into believing it a harmless homage to poets John Keats and James Tate, with a stanza form cribbed from Ode to a Nightingale. It begins: "Tier hourglassing to tier in slow avalanche / Of suspended stone imprecise as water, / The theatron soaks in its own dust, inch by inch / Ticking off collapse in sequent falls of powder. " Oh, it gets better as it goes along, concluding with a flourish, "One loss, amplified, is ours when through the hourglass / Where sands drop down, we too succumb and granulate, / Sifting by necessity to stageless laws, / Our common dust divesting at one spate / A thousand thousand curt soliloquies of men."
The summer after my poem's publication, I recited it to my fun-loving twenty-year-old cousin Sharon Maxwell, Uncle Mike's daughter, at a keg party on somebody's rangeland. When I'd finished, she said, "That's pretty, Michael, but you really should write stuff people want to read." After its appearance in 1968 in the Georgia Review, An Echo Through the Timepiece elicited not one response that I know of, made no more money (I spent all fifteen bucks on off-prints), and launched no schools of Hip New Wave Quasi-Keatsean Sci-Fi Versifying. From my disappointment grew a troublesome hunch that Sharon knew whereof she spoke. I probably could not make a living, or even a small reputation, turning Tennyson's Ulysses, say, into a dramatic monologue spoken by an Ahab-like starship captain urging his crew to point their vessel into the vacuuming death spiral of a black hole.
And so, negativity spiraling in my heart, I turned from writing poetry to crafting prose. If you wish to make a living, the egregious 1960s-1970s example of Rod (Listen to the Warm) McKuen aside, you adjust. You write prose. So my day job immerses me in prose—from reviews, criticism, essays, introductions, and articles to fiction of all lengths, short-shorts to novels, and finally even to convention talks. But my first fiction sale, a story entitled Piñon Fall in a 1970 issue of Galaxy magazine, now long defunct, owes most of whatever panache it possesses to the prose lyricism of my first SF role model, Ray Bradbury.
Piñon Fall centers on three Chicano boys' discovery of a winged hominid lying in the snow. Here's a paragraph from the story:
In the failing sunlight the creature Papilio began very slowly to manipulate his wings, moving them back and forth, back and forth, covering and uncovering his naked, manlike body. As he moved them, the wings shimmered beneath the emblazoned weight of red and orange peacock eyes. Royal blue hieroglyphics also shimmered with the movement of his wings and the movement was rhythmic. Jamie decided that those hieroglyphics easily could have been the characters of an alien tongue, but he watched the man and said nothing.
Later, an old woman named Mrs. Zowodny comes upon the cocoon of another alien in her back yard:
At last she brought the axe to her shoulder and let it drop into the soft integument of the thing. The cocoonlike shell ruptured. Mrs. Zowodny's eyes blazed up. Again and again she chopped the thing, the rusted axe head making clumsy arcs in the failing light. Membranous colors gushed out of the shell and spilled onto the snow, diaphanous capes of orange and scarlet and blue. The plank to which the thing had been attached lay broken in countless splinters.
The story concludes, "Somewhere, miles and miles beyond the Sangre de Cristo range, camels were standing in the snow."
I waited for reader response, even if an outraged old English teacher chose to spank me for overusing the word thing. Eventually, a letter appeared in Galaxy's sister magazine If, also edited by Ejler Jakobsson:
In spite of doing a lot of reading, I rarely take the time to write about what I have read. I feel compelled to make an exception, however, and comment on 'Piñon Fall' by Michael Bishop in the Oct-Nov. Galaxy. The delicately haunting theme of this story remained with me long after I had finished reading it—not a commonplace occurrence.
The writer shows a sensitivity of expression and a talent for original description not frequently encountered. I can still see 'camels standing in the snow.' I look forward to reading more by Mr. Bishop.
Mrs. Charles E. Willis
Albany, Georgia 31705
Elation should have filled me like helium. I should have floated off into the Colorado sky like a weather balloon. Unfortunately, I knew Mrs. Charles E. Willis of Albany, Georgia, as my mother—not as an unbiased reader ecstatic to have come across the work of a promising new sci-fi poet. Mom, I thought, thanks for the kudos, but If usually publishes only one letter of comment per story per issue. Owing to your maternal encomium, I will never read the praises of a person not consanguineously connected. I was twenty-five, but please recall Ciardi's epigram about the sufficiency of adolescent suffering for any poet. Twenty-five or no, I felt even younger than the nineteen-year-old Samuel R. Delany writing The Jewels of Aptor back in the early 1960s probably had. In short, I felt again like a dependent teenager.
But I now understood that you write prose for money, poetry for love. In fact, poetry may not even garner you praise, much less money. You must love it to write it. The equation goes like this: prose for material, physical survival; poetry for psychological, emotional, spiritual survival. Sometimes, if you are very smart or very lucky, you can write prose poems that combine the narrative ceremony of prose storytelling with the immemorial poetry rituals of mystery and innuendo. These last qualities—mystery and innuendo—arise via inspiration, defined variously as "the drawing in of breath," "the divine influence by which the sacred writers were instructed," and so as "an inhalation of the spirit of deity."
Whoa, you may protest. Bishop has gone evangelically gaga on us here—totally, fallaciously Falwellian. Well, maybe. Because I believe that every poem has a spiritual dimension—more so, I'm afraid, than do short stories, many of which derive from crasser motives than the transfiguration of spirit into a work of art. Even a bad poem has a spiritual dimension, even a poem about such prosaic or repellent subjects as washing dishes or picking through garbage—even a poem about such a seemingly irreverent topic as, say, the Pope's penis.
I'm not kidding. Sharon Olds has written a poem about the papal organ that goes, "It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate / clapper at the center of a bell. / It moves when he moves, a ghostly fish in a / halo of silver seaweed, the hair / swaying in the dark and the heat—and at night, / while his eyes sleep, it stands up / in praise of God." (1) Please don't regard Ms. Olds' poem as crude, blasphemous, smart-alecky, or simply funny. It frames a serious, even a soulful, inquiry: "In the life of the religiously celibate, what purpose do the reproductive apparatus play?" You could say that she asks her question sarcastically, but I would argue that she does so from a skeptical and moving compassion for a fellow human being who has voluntarily renounced the one act that says yes to life louder than any other. For many of us, only one motive justifies such a renunciation: the love of God. If you don't believe, the self-emasculated Pope looks like an idiot, but if you do, he embodies the very fool for Christ that Paul eulogizes in the Epistles.
Let me repeat: Every poem has a spiritual dimension. In poetry, even more than in prose, the writer struggles to make some experience, internal or external, immediate, intense, and alive. Unlike the newspaper reporter, the poet tries to recreate not only a specific experience but also the emotion that accompanied it. The reporter tells us something, and if the recounted event is an extraordinary or a powerful one, we will in fact feel something—amusement, regret, outrage. The poet, on the other hand, deploys language so that the resulting artifact mediates not only the "event" of the experience but also the precise feeling that it evoked in the poet. In short, the poet mediates wonder, and wonder, the human capacity for awe, connects us willy-nilly to the sacred.
In Al Zolynas' poem, The Zen of Housework, the narrator washes dishes at a kitchen window facing a sunset (as I myself often used to do), and the glass that he raises to the light distills "the grey wine / of domesticity." The speaker has discovered wonder, the sacred, in an act that most of us consider either obligatory or soul deadening, the exact opposite of the sacred. In other words, the speaker has transformed even washing dishes into a sacrament, which he salutes in his final set-apart line, "Ah, grey sacrament of the mundane."
Similarly, Jonathan Swift—given Gulliver's Travels, my favorite sci-fi poet, bar none—has a poem entitled A Description of a City Shower about London during what seems a calamitous rainstorm. Swift describes everything, from the stink of the sewer to the mud-splashed women in the shops to the Tories and Whigs crouching in doorways to spare their powdered tresses. The poem ends by cataloguing the flotsam flowing through the streets' gutters:
Filths of all hues and odors seem to tell What street they sailed from by their sight and smell. They, as each torrent drives with rapid force, From Smithfield or St. 'Pulchre's shape their course, And in huge confluence join at Snow Hill ridge, Fall from the Conduit prone to Holborn Bridge. Sweeping from butchers' stalls, dung, guts, and blood, Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud, Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.
Sprats, by the way, are small fish. In any event, the poem details all sorts of ordinary or repulsive items, but Swift brings the street to life. He recreates before the eye of the mind that which we cannot physically see, and he midwives this din and bustle through language both satirical and hieratic (i.e., priestly). We almost cover our heads and pinch our noses at the sight and stench of it. We may even laugh. Through a close recitation of the physical, Swift tickles our souls.
But what does Jonathan Swift have to do with science fiction? Outside of his authorship of Gulliver's Travels, a classic of satirical speculation shaped on the model of the popular ship-voyage-cum-travelogue, maybe not much. But I made my second sale to the original anthology series Orbit, edited by Damon Knight, with In the Lilliputian Asylum: A Story in Eight Poems and an Interrogation. In his acceptance letter, Knight confessed that despite a dislike of most poetry he wanted this poem, presumably because it had a narrative thread and a clear tie to the Travels. Certainly, I could not have sold In the Lilliputian Asylum to many other markets then available, except maybe Robert Silverberg's New Dimensions, Delany and Hacker's Quark, or the New Wave British magazine New Worlds. Ejler Jakobsson at Galaxy and If would have blinked bemusedly; John W. Campbell at Analog would have sent a hit man.
The story, or poem, made no splash at all, even though its central conceit—that a Lilliputian who once met Gulliver now lives in a madhouse because the state has decreed Gulliver's visit to the island a mass hallucination—still strikes me as novel-worthy. And I may yet write that novel. Then, however, I could handle the conceit only in a series of poems, and I remain grateful that Knight, trumping his prejudice, bought the thing. I also must salute Steve Pasechnick, editor of Edgewood Press, who encouraged me to include In the Lilliputian Asylum in my only poetry volume to date, Time Pieces.
Who else in the field had, or has, the courage to publish poetry? Actually, some of the names may startle. Pacific Quarterly Moana, a literary journal, took a piece of mine about the ecological contributions of East African vultures. Jerry Pournelle accepted my homage to Andrew Marvell, For the Lady of a Physicist, for a volume of hard-science stories called Black Holes. (That poem later won the 1979 Rhysling Award for Best Long Poem from the Science Fiction Poetry Association.) Pat Cadigan and Arnie Fenner at the semiprofessional magazine Shayol often featured verse. T. E. D. Klein, editor of Twilight Zone, bought a poem about a remake of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and my preference for Charles Laughton in the title role. (Who the hell was this Anthony Hopkins fella, anyway?) And, in 1977, writer and editor Jack Dann solicited poems from SF writers, including Ursula Le Guin and Sonya Dorman, for a postcard series from the Bellevue Press.
More recently, Kathy Kiernan, executive editor of the Quality Paperback Book Club, bought a poem about Philip K. Dick for the club's annual literary Calendar of Days, a piece that I shamelessly titled Philip K. Dick Is Dead, A Lass... Less surprising, Edward L. Ferman and then Gordon Van Gelder at Fantasy & Science Fiction, Gardner Dozois and then Sheila Williams at Asimov's, and, more rarely, Ellen Datlow at Omni, now gone, have proved receptive to poetry; and poets as comparatively unsung as David Lunde and Terry McGarry, and as famous as Joe Haldeman and Lucius Shepard, have exploited that receptivity.
Valiantly, Roger M. Dutcher put out an irregularly appearing periodical called The Magazine of Speculative Poetry. In 1982, Steve Rasnic Tem assembled The Umbral Anthology of speculative verse, and in 1984 Robert Frazier, poet and short story writer, edited another comprehensive SF-poetry anthology, Burning with a Vision; also, for many years Frazier edited the SFPA newsletter, StarLine. I won't even pretend to grasp latter-day poetry markets in the little magazines, the dark-fantasy and horror fields, or all the e-publications spritzing ions into cyberspace.
No one makes a living writing this stuff, though, and, as my Uncle Mike told me near Gardner, Colorado, many years ago, "Mark my words, you'll see a ton of rejection." That prediction holds true no matter what you write, as I have learned again over the past five or six years sending contemporary stories to such mainstream markets as the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Granta, Esquire, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Harper's. Often I feel like I've trod on a spike, like I've been set upon and beaten by Quakers, like I've stepped into a spotlight so that a callous sharpshooter can pick me off with a single bullet to the forehead. All writers know this feeling. All deplore the extent to which it has become a commonplace, all the while commiserating about the disrespect, lack of understanding, intolerance, and aesthetic cluelessness typifying, at least seemingly, nearly all persons of the editorial persuasion.
For all those reasons, I'll end by reading a notice clipped to a rejected manuscript a few years ago by the editors of a Chinese economic journal:
We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity.
Now, that's poetry.