A book of poems for consideration by the Science Fiction Poetry Association for the Elgin Award.
This is my most recent interview: October, 28, 2011, with The Norman Transcript:
Interview with Timothy Richardson's Poetry Class, University of Texas Arlington, Oct. 2010
- Bryan Dietrich
I’m here. Please, any questions are welcome, even uncomfortable ones.
Love Craft is a book of very personal poems steeped in a metaphor of the horror of H. P. Lovecraft. Does anyone know Lovecraft’s work?
- Neri Sandoval
Hey Dietrich,I was not familiar with H.P. Lovecraft’s work when I read your book. I really enjoyed Love Craft and found your poetry profoundly intimate at very surprising times.
Could you describe the birth of the book and how the process of creating and putting together differs from your previous work, Universal Monsters?
- Bryan Dietrich
A very interesting question, particularly given the fact that most of the poems in Love Craft are really a kind of “slop over” from Universal Monsters.
For whatever reason, probably madness or simple obsession, I tend to write poems in cycles, not singularly. Rare is the poem that comes to me alone, by itself, with no brothers and sisters. Thus when I first finished Universal Monsters, it was not done. When I finally found a publisher for it, it was nearly half again as long as it was when I first began submitting it. And, when it came out, it still wasn’t done…because the poems were still coming, poems that fell into that same arena of subject matter, namely, my parents.
My folks were divorced when I was ten, remarried, then divorced again when I was eleven. My mother moved in with my father again ten years ago as a renter (they have separate rooms) and then were finally remarried a third time last year. In the space of those forty-some-odd years, I have always been fascinated by their particular horror, the horror of being trapped with one, alternately, that you love and cannot have, and hate and cannot escape.
This seems to me to be the most gothic of tales, one that Lovecraft writes about in very different ways. His stories put monsters on top. My poems tend to put them on bottom. In other words, I wrote the poems in Love Craft as poems about my parents (and myself) and let the titles, primarily, make connections to Lovecraft’s own themes.
Every Lovecraft tale I know suggests, in some fashion, that we are broken beings, that our progenitors were broken beings, and that, were we to fully appreciate this fact, we would all go mad. Now, for Lovecraft, those progenitors are often cannibals, strange species of apes, aliens, monsters, deep sea gods, etc. For me, they are simply my parents.
I don’t know which is scarier, but I try to play off the fact that the horror is there when I look into the mirror and/or when I go back home to the old dark house to visit.
Did I already admit it’s not a terribly happy book?
- Jessi Urban
Hi Mr. Dietrich,
Reading through Love Craft makes me feel like I actually know you and your parents in some strange way. Though I am not familiar with H.P. Lovecraft and am probably missing many references to his work throughout your poems, I definitely recognize the horror in the human that you show. While I appreciate what you are doing through this work, I am wondering how you are able to step back and look at things through this lens. Though the raw vulnerability of the images you present creates an illusion of intimacy and honesty, you obviously carefully chose what and how you wanted to show it. Did you find it hard to show your parents in that light? Do you use poetry as an emotional catharsis to work through the past and how it affected you?
When I write about personal events in poetry or prose, I frequently want to mask and twist things to remove references to specific people. The concern over hurting people I am close to is multiplied when a work deals with a family member. How did your parents receive these poems? Did it open up dialogue about the past?
Thanks for your time and your poetry.
- Bryan Dietrich
What wonderful questions.
I don’t think I “try” to show my parents in any particular way, unless it’s to make sure I’m simply being honest. Now, honest in a poem does not necessarily mean utterly truthful; life isn’t “true.” Life is life. We can only encounter our encounter with it and imagine what that encounter means, then write about it. Writing about life is at least, then, two times removed from reality. What actually happened cannot be known because it will forever be attenuated by our perception; further, our writing about that perception may not be “accurate,” but may be more “honest” than simply stating facts, whatever those are.
All pretty heady stuff, but, put more simply, shit happens, we feel shit, we write about shit. None of those three things are necessarily “real.” I hope when I write about my folks, at least I’m not actively attempting to get even or score points or attack or offend. Which brings up your question regarding catharsis.
Often, when I finish a poem, my wife says, “Are you okay? Do you want to talk?” I know that what I do best in any poem is melancholy; that does not mean that I, the “real” Bryan, is melancholy. It’s just what I do well, mostly because I enjoy the texture of that emotion. Actually, I think of myself as sort of silly and goofy most of the time. Tired sometimes, but never (except on very rare occasions) sad.
Now, having said this, visiting my folks has indeed become difficult, and watching their lives unspool and unhinge over the past decade has been nothing if not painful. Does that mean that I need to write about them to “get it out of my system”? Maybe, but I suspect it has more to do with what I have always been drawn to as a writer. It has to do with why I love horror. It’s why I listen to Pink Floyd and Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush and Tom Waits, Enigma and Indian pan-pipes and Gregorian chants.
I have always loved the “sad” outside of myself: In Frankenstein, I am drawn more to the monster’s sad predicament than to the scientist’s obsession; in The Thing, I am drawn more to the two men dying slowly in the snow than the explosions and the chase and the transformations of the alien throughout the rest of the film; in Lovecraft, I could care less about the trappings of the story as a whole (the plot, the characters, etc.). What Lovecraft does is create a gloom space, a melancholy tone that is so seductive I cannot resist.
So, I think when I think about my parents, or write about them, I am drawn to this gloom. I like turning it over in my mind and my words. I desire to recreate that emotion as an art object, not as a way of dispelling it from myself, but as a way of turning it into something more beautiful than it already is. Fancy way of saying that I’m doing exactly what one of my mentors years ago said was going to send me to hell, exploiting others’ suffering.
But, seriously, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to make art out of suffering. Auden writes, “About suffering, the old masters were never wrong.” And I think he’s right. Most great art is precisely about this state. Now, I certainly have no reason to believe my own work is great art, but I would like to hope that I at least strive in that direction. Otherwise, what is suffering for?
Which, finally, brings me to you last set of questions: how did my parents react? I have to go to class now, but will post on this issue soon. As you might imagine, it’s not a happy story.
- Mallary Anderson
Real quick, how do you feel about making warble an adjective? Warbly or warblie? I
have to go to Tim’s class and see how he feels about it. Will talk about Lovecraft soon!
- Cliff Hale
This blog is an eye-opener. I’m a “non-traditional/returning” (read: old) student and am surprised that so few students are familiar with Lovecraft. I found that I liked the idea of Lovecraft more than his actual work the more I read of him, and other authors treated his mythos better than he did, I think. Still, he is somewhat “seminal” in the English horror genre, so I expected him to be better known.
But my question for you is about your process as a poet, or your stance. I’m curious how closely you “stick to your guns” when you get feedback from other writers about changes to your work when they miss your purpose for writing. Do you find that you more often make the changes, or leave the work mainly intact? (I’m referring to really wholesale modifications, not tweaks and corrections.)
Thanks for your time to speak into our class and our work. Love Craft clearly demonstrates that you are a terrific (heh) resource for our questions.
- Bryan Dietrich
First let me finish answering your questions.
About my parents’ reaction… Well, to Love Craft, there has been none. I didn’t let them know it was coming out, and, since they have no internet and are shut-ins now, well, they won’t know unless, to quote Bradbury, “Some damn fool turns on the lights.”
However, I did give a copy of Universal Monsters to my mother when it was published and she stopped talking to me for nearly a year. I tried to talk with her about it, but she didn’t want to. I imagine if it had been Love Craft the reaction would have been the same.
How does one explain to someone who does not write, let alone poetry, that there is a difference between the writer and the person, between the voice and the reality? I can honestly say that the emotions that come from my poems are not the same that go into them. I don’t “write what I feel,” I write what I know (or think I know) so that certain emotions arrive upon the reading of the poem. That does not mean that I ever felt those emotions myself.
I wanted the poems from both books to break your heart. Mine’s just fine. Unfortunately, for my mom, I may have succeeded. She has never once talked to me about the poems, and now I don’t talk about my publishing life, my poetry, my passion at all around her or my father. I don’t want her to hurt, but that doesn’t mean that I stop doing what I do. As my wife told me when this was happening, “Bryan, it’s your life too.”
What is my responsibility as a writer? What do I owe to those who might suffer over my words? Nothing. That may sound callous, but I believe that I owe everything to the words, nothing to the world. The world changes, people change, politics and preachers and parents and progeny move on. Eventually we look for everyone “under our boot soles.” But words? Words are forever. The words, the art, is a calling that supersedes everything mortal, temporal, personal.
I do not do what I do for the world. That would be A) hubris, or B) madness. No one writes poetry for fame or fortune or, even, the future. Again, Auden: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” One writes poetry because one has no choice. It’s a form of prayer, a connection to the Nous, a reason to be. I do what I do because I can’t do anything else (except guess what the price is going to be at the grocery store before they ring it up; too much Price Is Right growing up). I do what I do because it, the Word, makes me do it. I write because I love.
My mother was hurt by my poems, and for that I will always be sorry. But I was able to do what I did because she taught me how. In all the right and wrong ways, she taught me how to love.
- Bryan Dietrich
- Bryan Dietrich
Yes, I too am shocked when I find folks don’t know Lovecraft, but, then again, far too many these days don’t know Twain or Homer or O’Connor or Plath or Eliot or…. Anyway, at least we have Twitter.
As for your other question, let me answer with a specific case: When I was working on my first book, Krypton Nights, your teacher, Dr. Richardson, told me that the first set of poems I wrote…that they–how to say this?–sucked. And he was right.
I had written seven interlocking sonnets, a crown, and was far too caught up on the form to recognize that the content wasn’t working. The rhymes were too easy, the character of the voice of Superman was shallow, the word choice was not deep or resonant, etc., etc. Tim said, “I like this line and this line, but…”
So I went home, thought about it for several hours, saved those few lines, and started again, from scratch. Those new versions went on to win some awards and show up in The Paris Review and start off a my first book. I don’t say this last part to toot some kind of horn, but to suggest that Tim, as always, was right. The poet who wrote the poems was not.
Ultimately, the words don’t belong to us; they belong to the universe. Sometimes the words can’t get past our egos. Sometimes the words get lost on the way to the page. Sometimes it takes another prophet to teach us what the vision means.
Now, this doesn’t mean that every comment from every workshop is good. The woman who believes her poems are spoken to her by God and yet can’t spell, the writer who is working on a concrete epic that must be read in a spiral, the one who takes off his shoes and sniffs them during discussion…these folks may not know what they’re doing. On the other hand, they may know, crazy or not, what the words should be doing.
Some of the best advice I ever got came from a drunk woman in a bar at one in the morning. She read a poem I was showing to some friends and, before she went back to counting out her mini-shampoo bottles from her purse, she gave me the word I’d been looking for for years.
The more you write, the more you learn how to navigate the voices. My best advice? Cultivate your inner schizophrenic. Patron saint of poets? Norman Bates. Perhaps Herbert West.
- Cliff Hale
Thanks, Dr. Dietrich. (Sorry for the “Mister” the first time around.)
Dr. Richardson’s class workshop has been very helpful and there has only been one time when I thought my own inner voice was (probably) the correct one. Based on the class comments I have begun pre-editing much of my work before it is even shared, going by what I’m learning from the critiques. (Former fine arts major, I learned that critiques are where we really, really refine our techniques and become formidable.)
Your specific incident is interesting, and reminds me also of the scenes from Throw Mama from the Train when the author just cannot think of the correct word to start the story … and the least likely candidate hands him the perfect word.
Another question, if you don’t mind. In Love Craft your work had the unifying “skeleton” (heh) of the macabre, or at least the popular culture equivalent of it. Most of the poems also seemed to deal with familial dysfunction. I’m wondering if you specifically wrote any pieces, or edited existing ones, to try to add ligaments and sinew to transition the works? Or did you simply put them in an order you felt provided an arc for the reader? (Do books of poetry need “character arcs” as novels do?)
Wups. Three questions. I’ll take any answer you might have available and like it
- Bryan Dietrich
As a matter of fact, I did not have a “book” in mind when I wrote the majority of the poems. Sometimes I do, but as I think I mentioned before, these poems, most of them, came as “leftovers” from the Universal Monsters period of my life, when I was dealing with divorce and disillusionment. So, when I began to see them as a short book, I indeed looked for what Coleridge might call connective tissue to join them.
In particular, “Necronomicon,” “Necromancy,” and “Behind the Shutters” were all added to provide that continuity. Also I renamed many of the poems with Lovecraftian titles. Finally, I tried to group them in three stages, Father, Mother, Son.
With incidental poems, this is not an exact science, so probably some of the poems feel a bit misplaced, but I hope they hold together in unplanned ways. “Behind the Shutters” was written long before the collating process, but, even as I was writing it, I felt it would be a good concluding poem for any group of remaining family stuff I might write. It was, technically, the last of these kinds of poem I intend to write.
Having said this, I know I’m lying because I now have four more that talk about family or father or mother, but the focus is very different these days, not so much on failed family, but on loss of mind. Since my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s the monster has morphed. It no longer rages and tears; it lingers in the dark, waiting for the human to leave, for the quiet to come.
The reason why these particular poems got grafted together with Lovecraft was that I finally had an insight into Lovecraft himself after many years of reading his work: He is not writing about monsters or aliens or extra-dimensional beings; he is not writing about madmen or magic; he is writing about his own life, the “monsters” in his family, and the loneliness that developed from loved ones who saw him as “odd” and “ugly” and who subsequently went mad. I suddenly felt a kinship myself with such a monstrously dark past, such bad history, such evil evolutionary heritage that makes us rethink who we are and from whence we came.
Do books of poems need character arcs?
Damn fine question. Most poets would say hell no. I say hell yes. This may be because I’m insane, anal, or simply listened to far too many “concept albums” as a youth (The Wall, Pink Planet, Tommy, etc.). More likely it’s because I’m hard wired to see longer ideas in short pieces.
I also grew up on serialized TV and comic books. I prefer longer arcs that connect, reconnect, revisit, vary the theme. I prefer longer poems that do the same, or poem cycles that do the same. But just because I can’t seem to write a single, short poem, that does not mean everyone else should harbor the same demons.
I just like demons.
- Cliff Hale
Thanks for your time to give thorough and thoughtful answers.
- Bryan Dietrich
You are quite welcome. Any other questions folks? I really do enjoy this kind of thing. It isn’t terribly often that poets get to talk about their work on this deep a level. It makes me exceedingly happy to do so.
- Jessi Urban
Thanks for your honest and thoughtful answers. Poetry – really, the written word in any form – can take on a life of its own because of what the reader brings to it. The idea that you as a poet own something only to the words is very interesting. I heard a speech recently that suggested the idea of words that wanted to be spoken and images that wanted to be conveyed. In the speech the writer becomes a medium for the message which somehow simultaneously originates with him/her and yet is only coming through her/him. This seems to be what you are suggesting as well. What are your thoughts on the origins of poetry (and the truths/ideas/beauty contained therein) and the role of the poet? Is it the love of words (as inanimate objects) that compels you? Or is it a connection with something more that acts upon you even as you reach for it?
- Brittany Rosenberg
Your poetry, and your responses, have me in a place that I find both uncomfortably familiar and foreign. I don’t know how to describe my father without sounding either technical or overwritten and cliché, and I (unfortunately) lack any bare bones facts with which to distantly discuss the situation. To put it briefly, until I read Love Craft I was fairly certain I should never write about it, and my latest attempt still ended up sounding like awkward teen angst. I have this unshakable idea that he is the dark muse that is the source of my poetry, the constant burn in me to write. I have the desire, but not (apparently) the means to talk about my own demons. Any advice?
Also, you say that you have written about the horror of (your) heritage. What, would you say, have you been writing around?
Your responses, even more than your poetry, have me thinking (again) about something Richardson often talks about; the idea that we, as individuals, and much like literature, are all nexus points, meeting places of everything that we’ve ever seen, done, or known, and from that the thought comes to the immense impact that other people have on us, especially as writers. You quote at least one person (I think more than one) in each of your responses. Which was the slightly relevant lead-up to the following question. In your first response to Jessi, you said, “that does not mean that I, the “real” Bryan, is melancholy”. This is not, as you may think, me being a grammar Nazi. On the contrary, I find it interesting that you chose (consciously or not) to refer to you, and the apposition of you, using a third-person verb. It is also interesting when combined with your advice to “cultivate the inner schizophrenic”. Without knowing precisely how to ask my question, at this point, I sort-of want to just point and say, “discuss”.
And now for two completely unrelated questions:
1. Would you call yourself a structuralist?
2. You like demons, how about Terry Pratchett’s Crowley in Good Omens?
And finally, thank you so much for doing this for our class (it is not often that aspiring poets get to do this either), and virtual-high-five for the fantastic tribute to Lovecraft in your work. I grew up reading his short stories, graduated to his novels in high school, and still love him.Thanks,
- Alysia Brooks
You have answered this at least in part before (or I have just picked up implications) but as someone else who “relates”, I guess is the best word I can find, to the recurrent themes of monsters and heroes (indeed, Lovecraft, monster movies, and Superman in particular among others) can you say what it is about these subjects that drew you into them? Or them into you? I think if someone else can find the means of expressing what exactly that is, I might have a chance of doing the same, and growing as a writer because of it. By the way, I absolutely love the opening piece in Love Craft. It makes an awesome entry point.
- Bryan Dietrich
Where does poetry come from, what is the role of the poet, and what is my role? You have thirty minutes. Open your test booklet and begin…
Let’s start with meaning. Meaning comes from the intersection between substance, signifier, and signified. That is to say, it comes from the collision of the world, the person who sees the world, and the sign a person makes. Once the sign has been made, the process starts again, becoming itself the world (substance) for a person (signifier) to encounter and create meaning (signified) from. The process, however, never ends. Each new meaning creating a new trinity of colliding interpretive experience.
Now, when that meaning means more than we are capable of taking in quickly, simply, and somewhat solidly; when that meaning makes us quake and shiver and swoon with a potential infinity of recursive and progressive readings; when that meaning “takes the top of our head off,” we have encountered poetry.
Poetry is not a form or a style. It is not a genre. It is a mode. Poetry is about its own aboutness. Words at their peak. Grammar at its best. Lines at the edge of the abyss. A poet like Hopkins (a.k.a. God) works every word, every sentence, every line break, every rhythm, every syllable, every punctuation mark to its fullest. He juggles the universe in every choice, forcing us to confront God on the mountain. We cannot see God all at once, so we crawl back into a crack to watch her pass, slowly, one part at a time. We return to the mountain, quake again, crawl again, try to get at the meaning. We transcribe his words, engrave her thoughts on stone, come back to our people, fail the translation, shatter the tablets, go back up, try again….
Poetry makes us encounter the burning bush. It makes us kneel before the pillar of fire. Poetry is ineffable, eternal, so jam packed with possible meaning that it will always mean just one more thing. To switch metaphors, poetry is Columbo, not Sherlock Holmes. Poetry makes us realize we forgot something, we should look again, we can almost see…
Because of this, poetry can appear anywhere. In fiction, in film, in sculpture, in painting, in drama. Poetry is language focused on itself, sign making about sign. When I write a poem, I could care less about the libretto. I want to know what my palette is, what my brushes are, what instruments I have at hand. All my “circus animals” are on display. The show is not the story, the insight, the epiphany…the show is the shadow play itself, how the shaft of light slants.
So, the role of the poet is, as far as I’m concerned, to focus on the tools, the words, the play of sign. If I find any observation will help me eternalize the words, I will write about it: parents, crickets, Superman, God’s clitoris, gray aliens, Poe, the Micronauts, the Six Million Dollar Woman. I of course choose the geeky stuff more often since, as by now you may be aware, I am one, but that’s not the point. I tend to believe that the fact that I wrote about Electra Woman having sex with Dyna Girl was not what made the New Yorker want that poem. I think they liked it because the words, the focus on word play and line break and the attendant cascade of multiple meaning was pleasing in a creepy way.
Because poetry is creepy. It makes us swoon. It takes us out of ourselves. It does this because we live inside language. When language itself experiences earthquake, through poetry, we find our footing fails. We wobble. We grab hold. We fall in love with life again.
In the film Excalibur, Arthur asks Percival, “What is the secret of the Grail?” Percival answers, “You and the land are one.” Then Arthur asks, “Who am I?” Percival says, “My Lord and King.”
Poetry is the Grail. Poetry and life are one. Poetry is my Lord and King. That is who I serve. Cue “Carmina Burana.” Exit stage right to a flurry of dogwood blossoms.
- Jeffrey Florey
We all enjoy demons, because we all have our own and I feel like Love Craft are the missing sections from Universal Monsters. I find myself reading “Numerology” and “The Creature Walks Among Us” together and they go so well. It is as if Love Craft gives so much more background to Universal Monsters. I was wondering if that is what you were going for? I really appreciate the Flintstones references also.
- Bryan Dietrich
Dear Brittany and Alysia,
I promise to get to your questions later today or tomorrow. My Mondays are from the Devil.
- Bryan Dietrich
Here is a poem by Dick Lourie, the one read during the final scene of the movie Smoke Signals:
How do we forgive our Fathers?
Maybe in a dream
Do we forgive our Fathers for leaving us too often or forever
when we were little?
Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage
or making us nervous
because there never seemed to be any rage there at all.
Do we forgive our Fathers for marrying or not marrying our Mothers?
For Divorcing or not divorcing our Mothers?
And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?
Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning
for shutting doors
for speaking through walls
or never speaking
or never being silent?
Do we forgive our Fathers in our age or in theirs
or their deaths
saying it to them or not saying it?
If we forgive our Fathers what is left?
This is one of the most beautiful poems I know. It isn’t terribly specific, does many of the things I myself avoid (large abstractions, precious moments), but it is still terribly powerful. And true.
I think the beauty of the piece resides in its paradox. We assume the father’s (and the Father’s) job is to forgive us. We assume (blame Freud) that the guilt is always ours. The truth is, our fathers (and mothers) are no longer outside of us. They are in us. They are the voices we hear every day, every evening.
They are the spiritual guides we listen to or don’t listen to, that we are moved by or not moved by. These voices, our voices, tell us much of who we are, shape significant portions of our self and societal interaction. When those actions, parts of self, don’t satisfy, when we fail, who do we turn to to blame? And who forgive? Should we? I believe we should. And, sometimes, poetry is a space for doing just that.
I don’t know if I have a generic answer for how to write about your father. I would probably need to see the beginnings of your poems, to speak with you about details, but, barring such specifics, let me say this: You probably already know how to write about your father. He has already told you. But you will have to forgive both him and yourself before you begin.
Poetry is always about love. If you love, the words will come. If you try to love, if you try to make a point, the words will fail.
As for the “horror of my heritage” what I meant was the oh-so-Gothic situation my folks find themselves in. This decline toward stasis and sorrow has been sliding into its place since I was ten, maybe longer. I remember my mother hiding in her room in the dark for days, ringing a bell for us to bring ice water.
I remember my father crying, weeping like a child and shaking even years after the divorce. I remember holding his hands (the frail, shaking rage of the man) while he screamed at me two Christmases ago, watching his eyes roll back black like doll’s eyes, like a shark’s eyes, when I suggested he was being unreasonable. I remember….
I remember a lot of things. What do I choose? Those moments that speak to me. Those moments that provide entry to a larger truth about mother, father, about me, about myth, about monsters, the world. I always look for moments where worlds collide, where more than one idea clashes with another, creating a conflux of possible meaning.
When I wrote about the birds in the walls in “Behind the Shutters” for example, that story is true. It happened. But I was also letting it stand for the emotions my father keeps trapped in the walls of his mind, the walls of his chest. I was letting it resonate with the image of his hands hanging at his sides when I had to leave for home one day. I was letting it resonate with the image of Hitchcock’s film. I was letting it resonate with all the other bird images in that poem, one after another after another.
I didn’t write the poem until I had enough birds. If you’ve seen that Tippi Hedren film, if you remember the jungle gym scene, you know…the birds don’t attack until they have a quorum.
Finally, for your last couple of questions: No, not a structuralist. As a poet, I’m a neo-romantic formalist. As a scholar, I’m a semiotician, a feminist, a mythologist. As a person, I’m a hopelessly romantic, liberal dork. Which is why I love Lovecraft too.
- Bryan Dietrich
Oh, and Brittany, yes, Good Omens rocks! So does Sandman and Neverwhere and, for the most part, American Gods.
- Bryan Dietrich
Thank you so much. Well, I’ve never not written about geek stuff. I’ve never not loved it. Even when, for a time during grad school when I thought it all had to be “literary” and “lofty” and was writing about brain theory and doppelgangers, it was still, really, just brains, brains and bestiaries.
Somewhere in a storage barrel in my folks’ garage there is an ancient, mimeographed school newspaper with a first grader’s first story, mine, about a mad scientist who creates cannibal jack-o-lanterns. Somewhere there are some half-story, half-picture pages of tales of Kreto the super robot, again mine. Somewhere in a landfill in Oklahoma are dozens of beginnings of science fiction stories, horror stories, superhero comics, bad drawings, and bad bestiaries. Mine. I have always lived in the castle.
I just didn’t admit it until, oh, twelve or so years ago. By that point I had written a collection of poems about Superman (Krypton Nights), a collection about the Frankenstein Monster (The Monstrance, out next year), a collection about alien abduction (The Assumption, out next year), and had begun Universal Monsters. Amazingly, I still didn’t see myself as a geek poet, as a sci fi writer, as a horror writer. After all, it was poetry. Poetry was above that…
Okay, maybe batshit, but, regardless, twelve years ago I started going to a conference where I was welcomed, where scholars were presenting papers on Buffy and the Bionic Woman, on comics and the Crawling Chaos, on space ships and superheroes. There, I met Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub, Brian Aldiss, Octavia Butler, Patricia McKillip, Daniel Keyes, Charles Vess, James Morrow, Stephen R. Donaldson, Tom DeHaven, Greer Gilman, and, and, and…
It changed my life. Not my writing. My writing, as I say, has always been firmly rooted in the Geek Pantheon. But it changed how I thought about my writing, both creative and scholarly. I came out of the coffin.
Why do I write this stuff? Because I love it. But also because my real love is, has always been, myth. If you will indulge me for a bit, let me say that I don’t just write poetry. I also paint and draw and sculpt. Recently, my painting teacher required me to put together an artist’s statement. It speaks mostly of painting, but I think it may answer your question about my poetic muses:
I’ve been taken with the world of wonder, with the wonder of the world since I first found out men were going into space. My father brought me home a poster of the Apollo astronauts. He also brought me a plastic replica of Apollo 11. My parents woke me the night we landed on that alien dust mote. Two years later, they bought me a JVC Videosphere, a small black and white television that was molded to look like an astronaut’s helmet.
The only birthday party I remember, I was allowed to pick a movie to take my friends to: it was a documentary called Mysterious Monsters. It told the story of Bigfoot and Nessie and alien abductions.
I watched every episode of Star Trek, 3:00 p.m. sharp, every weekday, maybe twenty times each. And the animated version. And Sea Lab 2020 and Land of the Lost and The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Man From Atlantis, Wonder Woman, Batman. I bought comic books by the gross. Saved up my money for a die-cast metal Enterprise and a disc-shooting raygun. Both are in my office today, next to a Dinky toy version of one of the moon landers from Space 1999. Every Saturday, my dad and I would watch Count Gregor’s Creature Feature. I know every Universal monster movie by heart; I can recognize them, sight unseen, from two bars of music. Ta dah…The Wolfman. I read every issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland I could get my hands on. I idolized the artist who drew the covers. Basil Gogos, God of my particular madness.
At some point during this time, watching horror and sci-fi, getting up late at night to sneak a peek at 007 on my Videosphere or to watch that weekend’s marathon of Hammer horror—nubile negligeed vampires, bare thighed Ursula Andress, Raquel Welch in a bear skin bikini—I also started to notice the human, mostly female, form as they fought for their lives against Triffid and Trog, giant arachnid and encephalitic iguana. I also discovered, at school, they were selling small sheaves of lined paper, bound in covers with monster heads. The same kinds of heads Basil Gogos drew. I wanted to draw them too. Wanted to draw the kinds of bad beasts I had discovered I loved. Wanted to draw the beasts and the babes they terrorized. It wasn’t about the art. It never is. It was about—it is still about—first love.
As I grew, I discovered I wasn’t alone, Basil wasn’t an only child. Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Michael Whelan, Rowena Morrill, Don Maitz, Richard Corbin, H.R. Giger…they all caught me, held me, wooed me with their wild worlds, mad monsters, warrior women. These artists, like the comic books, like the images of astronauts, like the Universal Monsters trading cards I collected from packages of Wonder bread, bred wonder in me. They made me want to draw, to be them, to become a comic book artist, an illustrator, someone who could transport a kid like me to worlds that only we seemed to see.
Older now, I recognize these early artist influences are kitsch, borderline at best. But then again, nothing from Cezanne or Monet or Pollock has ever moved me like they did. Of the “real” artists, of the “respectable” crowd, only those like Dali or Magritte or Dorothea Tanning come close to those first fiend folios. I still tingle over a prime copy of Plop or a back issue of Creepy. I still swoon over Heavy Metal. Nothing at MOMA whisks me away like any old comic illustrated by Jack Kirby.
Thing is, I’m not even as good as those many would consider hacks. I gave up art for a long time, moved on to poetry, but I never left my love behind. I’ve been doodling bug-eyed aliens, dreaming big-breasted Barsoomian princesses for forty years (I even married the best of the latter), but I don’t yet have what I would call an imprint, a style of my own. I’m working on it. I may get there someday, but, until I do, what I do have is the same as what I’ve built my poetry on. What I’m beginning to see in my paintings and in my sketches is a hint of the magic of my old mythology.
So I have faith, faith in monsters and mammaries, sex and serial killers, Playtex and planet X. I have faith in that cave, that moon mine, that first, vast, vestal celestial body, from which there must erupt all candor, all wonder, all whimsy.
Okay, so that’s part of it.
These days I think of all the pop kitsch crap as modern myth. I don’t really distinguish any more between Christ and Carpenter (John), between White Whale and James Whale. Sometimes I write about modern myths themselves, about or through them, as narrator or persona. Sometimes they become simply tropes to hang around the center of something personal. Either way, I am probably, as I write in Prime Directive (long poem coming out next year about me, my son, my father, and Star Trek), a “dear, doomed dork” for life.
It is telling, I suppose, that the same year I had my first poems picked up by Poetry and the New Yorker, what excited me most, what made me feel more vindicated than ever before, was acceptance letters from Asimov’s and Weird Tales.
Weird Tales. This is who I am.
After all, Weird Tales was the first major venue to publish Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
- Bryan Dietrich
Thanks! Actually, I don’t think I was planning on Love Craft being an extension of Universal Monsters. It just is. As I say, the poems come in cycles. I’m afraid I have little control over when or how they end.
When I finished the Superman poems, for example, I thought I was done. Then, when I started on Amazon Days (a collection of Wonder Woman poems), the voice of Kal-El came back. Turns out he was in love with Diana.
Of course by that point, I myself had fallen for a Wonder Woman, a woman who would become my wife. It may look like these books are planned. They are anything but.
How could I plan to stumble on the perfect woman? How could I plan on my father beaming out, suddenly, from this life?
Regardless, at some point I imagine the Love Craft poems will be incorporated into a larger book. I think, right now, that that book may be titled Other Gods. But I could be wrong. The more personal the poems, the harder to find a mythic thread to hang them together.
And yes, I watched way too much of the Flintstones as a kid. Also had the chewable vitamins. Eating cartoon characters to make you healthier… Hey, wait, there may be a poem there…
- Neri Sandoval
Hey Dietrich, it’s me again. I have been having such a difficult time writing poetry lately. Another student, Aprell, strongly suggests showers to generate ideas.
Do you have any rituals that magically give you results other than sleeping with a journal under the pillow?
- Benjamin Wilbur
Lovecraft has a dark, intriguing, ominous vibe. One I get anyways. This brings me to my question, why did you write about Superman? Why not Batman in the dark seedy streets of Gotham? Was it the question of what’s going on in the paragon of an “All American” hero’s head?
- Bryan Dietrich
Well, I fear there is no magic. However, my best advice is to go out and read other poets, lots of them. Find recent journals and see what’s going on in them. The best way to be inspired is to read what might inspire.
That being said, you might also be inspired by subject matter itself. Go pick up a copy of the Fortean Times or a book on how to embalm cadavers or hop onto a website dedicated to crime stories or watch a documentary on the formation of stars….
Comb the newspapers for weird but true events (frogs blowing up in Europe, snipers in helicopters sent to kill camels who have overrun city in Australia, tree frog infestation comes to Alaska in Christmas trees, shroud of Turin debunked, tomb of Cleopatra discovered, etc.).
If the weird isn’t working, try imagining yourself as the voice of a cartoon character or a biblical or historical or mythical figure. Pick one that hasn’t been given much of voice. Tell the other side of the story.
And if all of that fails, pick up a book called Triggering Town by Richard Hugo or the Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron or Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott. They all have wonderful triggers and tasks and assignments and insights to get you going again.
Break a lead.
- Bryan Dietrich
Well, I started with Superman. I moved on to Wonder Woman (that book hasn’t been picked up yet, though all the individual poems have). And I am now, wait for it…about a third of the way through a book of poems on Batman. One of those poems will be appearing in Poetry soon. I’ve written about twenty of them, creating a dialogue between Batman and the Joker.
The first book was called Krypton Nights. The second, Amazon Days. This one? Gotham Wanes.
Some day I would like to see the three of them in one large collection. Trinities make me happy.
As for why I chose Superman, well, probably my best answers can be found in an interview posted on my website, or perhaps also in an interview I did for Jason Mott’s Pen and Cape website. But, long story short, I was influenced by several factors, the death of my stepfather, the gradual deterioration of my father, the death of Superman himself, and my studies for my Ph.D.
In some ways, the book is about my two fathers (i.e. Jor-El and Jonathan Kent), but it’s also about the deeper concerns and philosophies of comics, and also about the nature of knowing. How do we know, how do we define, how do we make and understand sign? That big red “S”… What does it mean? Salvation? Damnation? Law? Rebellion? Truth? Lies?
Whenever I am moved by a sign, by something that calls for me to write about it, it is always something that always already trembles with possibilities. Superman seemed just that. So did Wonder Woman and, now, Batman. Eventually, there may be just one more superhero.
· Links to an Interview for Jason Mott's Pen & Cape website, Jan. 15, 2010:
· The Text of an Interview with Rich Shivener, Licking River Review, Spring 2009:
Amazon Daze: Bryan Dietrich on Superhero Poetry
RS: The drama (love affair?) between Superman and Wonder Woman continues in Bryan Dietrich’s latest poetry collection, Amazon Days, a follow-up to his Paris Review Prize-winning Krypton Nights. Checking in by phone, the accomplished poet and English professor talked about his wondrous woman, a forthcoming Batman collection and Jodi Picoult’s take on the archetype of the Divine Feminine. How many characters are you exploring in Amazon Days?
BD: It opens with two sets of seven sonnets and they’re both spoken by—depending on how you look at it—Wonder Woman and her alter ego Diana Prince. The idea of having two crowns is the foreground for the notion that she has a split identity. There isn’t really a name for a double set of crowns, so I’m calling it an Echo. She talks about saving Steve Trevor—of course, this is from the original Wonder Woman, the comic that began in 1941. She’s talking about that and Paradise Island and the impositions upon her having to live up to that role, as well as being a woman and entering a land of male-dominated culture. Then it moves from her voice to Hippolyte, her mother, talking about her daughter…then Amazon Days moves on to William Moulton Marston. The creator begins to talk about his creation and what he attempted to do. Marston is a fascinating character. He was a psychologist and a researcher in the area of human emotion and had some very progressive ideas about male/female relationships. Then the final section is voiced by Superman, who has decided that he has fallen in love with Wonder Woman and wants to leave Lois Lane behind. I suppose the phrase “trade up” comes to mind.
RS: Was Krypton Nights a primer for this new collection? Superman and Wonder Woman have crossed paths often over the years.
BD: Well, let’s put it this way: I wrote Krypton Nights because I was reacting to the death of Superman in 1993 and I was reacting to the knowledge that my dad was getting older and he was becoming more and more forgetful…to use a Star Trek metaphor, “beaming out of this world.” It was only a few years later that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. A good portion of why I wrote Amazon Days had to do with the fact that I met the most wondrous woman, in my mind, on the planet, who was a skydiver, is still a scubadiver, rides a motorcycle, teaches English and writes stories and is just an absolutely incredible heroine—I suppose in both senses of the word. She got me thinking about this archetype, in the same way my father got me thinking about Superman and all the satellite figures around that character. The first Wonder Woman poems I wrote were ultimately love poems…for the woman that was going to become my wife, and now is my wife. I suppose if you think of Amazon Days as a weird poetic sequel to Krypton Nights, that does make a lot of sense.
RS: So you’ve finished this collection. Do you have another superhero in mind?
BD: Indeed. If we’re thinking about it as a trinity, then of course there is only one other and that would be Batman. I’ve begun a little bit of work on that and I’m going to get far more serious this summer, and that collection will be called Gotham Wanes, a pun on Bruce Wayne. I think part of what I’m going to be dealing with in the Batman poems is the beast within. From a Jungian perspective, Superman is the ultimate male, or the animus, and Wonder woman is the ultimate archetype of the feminine, the anima, and Batman is the shadow, the three parts of our persona. I’ve had some experiences with my father and his anger and then the anger that has naturally passed on to me which I try to keep in check. I’m sure all human beings are forced to deal with now and then the residual bestial part of ourselves. I think Batman represents a lot of that. These poems on Batman….it’s going to be a little different than the other two books. It’s going to be a dialogue—as I’m imagining it now—between Batman and The Joker. A lot of what they both do is the same. They both strike terror into the heart of terror. I find that fascinating.
RS: Do you think Superman and Wonder Woman’s relationship should be romantic or strictly Platonic?
BD: I don’t know if what I think is all that interesting. I know that when I was writing from the point of view of the characters that they decided it should be romantic. I was in a relationship and I found myself being drawn to this wonder woman. In Amazon Days, Superman begins rationalizing why he’s gravitating toward Wonder Woman. I think the reasons that he gives are veiled pretty strongly…not to name names, but it gives me an opportunity to talk about why I was leaving a relationship and entering another. I’m not sure that we ever have a real reason. I think we attempt to cover that with mythic residue. Certainly, I think Superman and Wonder Woman are far better matched.
RS: What do Wonder Woman and her story bring to your imagination that other superheroes can’t?
BD: It’s that message that Marston was trying to get across for one: You have a hero that doesn’t have to beat the crap out of everybody. You have a hero that turns people on the basis of them recognizing the need to change, as opposed to beating them up and throwing them in a cell; or, in the case of Batman, making them jump off a building because they’re so frightened. It’s a very different approach, and interestingly, back in the mid-70s, they reprinted several issues of Wonder Woman in one big volume simply called Wonder Woman, old stories by Marston and Peter. Gloria Steinem did the introduction and she said that’s what drew her to the hero: Here’s a story of not just a female hero like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Xena who take on the male heroic role…instead it’s truly a different approach to fighting crime that’s at least what Marston believed to be feminine. I’ve written a scholarly book on Wonder Woman as well, called Wonder Woman Unbound, that talks about all kinds of things I find interesting about Wonder Woman.
RS: How do you view Wonder Woman’s status in the DC Universe?
BD: I think she is often neglected and forgotten. I think some of the best comic book writers have ignored her entirely—say, Alan Moore or Frank Miller. In The Dark Knight Strikes Back, she plays a major role in the beginning of the graphic novel, and then as soon as we find out she’s pregnant, she disappears. She becomes a mother and that’s all we need. I find that at least problematic if not offensive. I think a lot of comic book writers have this tendency to think that if their characters aren’t action oriented, they’re not going to grab the reader’s attention. Wonder Woman is far more philosophical than these other characters.
RS: Where do you see the character in ten years?
BD: It depends on where some of the writers they’ve recently had take her. Recently, Jodi Picoult took over the writing of Wonder Woman. She’s a very well-known writer of traditional “literature,” and DC has summoned her services to re-imagine the Wonder Woman story. I’m not sure it’s going to be as groundbreaking as the stuff we saw with Superman and Batman in the 80s, but we’ll see where it goes.
· Radio Interview with Bryan on Sept. 18th, 2008: Tales of the Unexplained with Ken Hudnall, KHRO, 1650 AM, Radio Free El Paso, 8 p.m. Central Time / 7 p.m. Mountain: www.khro1650.com
· The Text of an Interview with Dr. Curtis Shumaker's Introduction to Poetry Class, Riverside College, Minnesota, 2003:
Student: Mr. Dietrich, I am a student of Dr. Curtis Shumaker and we have just begun our in-depth study of your poems, Krypton Nights. As I was reading the acknowledgments, I noticed the thank yous to your father, mother and sisters for their part in helping to inspire your writings. Also, I noticed that Curtis Shumaker, was one of the people you credited for finishing it. It's nice to have the connection between our instructor and you, so we get the full understanding right from the author. Thursday night will be our first discussion of the poems themselves but I just wanted to let you know how much it is appreciated for you to take the time to answer our questions. Would you please give us a little background information; why you chose this topic? As a young boy, were you obsessed with reading "Superman" comic books? How long did it take you to write "Krypton Nights", just some general information before we start our discussions? Thank you, Susan Swenson.
Dietrich: Thanks for having me.
I'm honored to have a chance to talk to all of you. As for your questions: I really didn't read a lot of Superman. Hardly any. Though I do remember my father sneaking one into me while I was recovering from my tonsillectomy. My mother thought comics were evil (unless they were Hot Stuff or Casper). Demons and ghosts were okay, but not men in tights. Later I collected a lot of different comics, but never the Man of Steel.
So, then, why did I pick this subject.... The most honest answer I can give will of course be a lie, since any reason for writing a poem is never singular; however, here goes:
Driving home from a conference through Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma (1992, right around the same time that DC Comics had just killed off Superman) I turned on the radio and the Crash Test Dummies tune "The Superman Song" began to play. I began thinking about Kansas, about Clark Kent growing up there, about my own father and step-father both growing up in Oklahoma, about how different one father is/was from the other, about how my step-father was literally dead and how my biological father is metaphorically dead (not one to seek out the "new" in life, in any fashion), about death and resurrection, about my old Baptist faith, about Christ....
And I began ruminating on the fact that the Superman story is basically the same as the Christ story (which is the same as the Moses story, the Mithra story, the Osiris story, the Zoroaster story, the King Arthur story, etc.). In the midst of thinking about myth and heroes and how their sacrificial deaths amount to similar patterns throughout history, I couldn't shake the building awareness (and this is probably the important part) that both of my most immediate heroes (my fathers) were dead, one literally, one in spirit.
As the song played on (it's a haunting piece, one that speaks of the loss of the Man of Steel, of the consequent loss to the world), I grew sad and the landscape grew sad, and the idea for a sad set of poems began to germinate. Having to lose one's fathers, having to lose everyone one loves (in Superman's case, because he's effectively immortal; in Jor-El's case, because his planet, Krypton, is blowing up)...what must that be like? Having to lose one's identity in order to try to save the world.... Whether one is Christ or Superman or Inanna (or a father trying to "save" his son, the son trying to "save" his father) the job must not be the easiest occupational choice in the spectrum.
One must always sacrifice in order to save, one must face terror to witness the sublime. This is the message of the hero's journey, no matter if your sun is yellow or red, whether you are father or son, Father or Sun. Siegel and Schuster, the two, teenage, Jewish kids who created Superman knew this; they saw Hitler on the horizon and called up a hero, one Uberman to face another, a Moses for a Pharaoh.
In Campbell's "Hero With A Thousand Faces" he shows us that the journey of the hero is the journey of humanity, man or woman, father or mother. The individual life mirrors all life, and all life mirrors our own. Thus, when one man, like Superman's father, is about to lose his son (as well as his planet and his life), his memoirs should be a memoir even someone from Earth could understand. His tale would be Moses' father's tale, Joseph's tale, Jephthah's tale. And, more, his son's tale would be Jesus' tale, Arthur's tale, my tale.
Part of what I'm trying to do in the poems is to tell my own story, talk about the life of a boy grown to man, a man about to graduate with a Ph.D. (I was nearly finished with it at the time), a man who still hadn't come to terms with his origins and his responsibilities. The other part is me attempting to draw parallels with all the rest of human history, attempting to bridge that gap between the past and the now, and, in so doing, bridge the gap not only between eras, but also between what my fathers must have once been and the men they became.
I think of these poems as an exercise in embracing the sadness of knowing who we are, who we will never be, who we have had to become to recognize that the tomb is never as empty as we might at first have thought.
Student: Bryan, Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with our class about your book. While I did not personally post a question earlier, I enjoyed reading your responses to all of the questions. Your knowledge of mythology and religion awed me. Especially in the ways you were able to relate it back to the Superman storyline.
While I was in New Orleans last week, I heard the Superman song that you referred to in this response. It was the first time I've ever heard it, and I thought instantly of your reply to this question.
Having done my oral presentation for this class on Superman and the characters that you refer to in the book, I find it hard to imagine that you weren't a Superman fanatic at one time. Since you said you weren't, did you have to research the Superman story in order to write the book, or were you just relying on common knowledge?
Dietrich: You're very welcome. I enjoyed chatting with all of you as well.
As to your question: Yes, I did do some research, which consisted of rummaging through my old comics and "origins of" books, but keep in mind that though I wasn't a fan of Supes growing up, I do follow all of the characters and the comics in general pretty closely still. I also collect comics to this day, though now I mostly opt for the more challenging/cerebral titles like Sandman, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, the Inhumans, etc. Comics have changed a great deal since the Eighties.
Student: Thanks for participating in this interview. It is a rare opportunity for us to be able to contact the author! I have some questions for you. 1) How was the idea for this book conceived? Was the entire book envisioned or did it begin with a single poem? If a single poem was the beginning, which one of the poems was it? 2) Which of the poems is your favorite? Why is this poem your favorite? 3) Could you tell us about the process of having your work published? How did you select a publisher, lessons learned, etc. Thank you, Jeff Fette
Dietrich: I'm happy to be here.
As for where the book started, I just posted part of that answer, but I didn't address which poem came first. Actually, I think the very first line I wrote was "Every woman wants one, a Superman / to carry her away...", and I wrote it in my notebook while driving through Nebraska. That whole poem and its sisters didn't manifest until some months later. I actually began the book with the Jor-El poems.
When I got back from that road trip mentioned in another post, I enrolled in a class titled Poetry as Midrash. The class was meant to see poems as responses to other poems, as a continuum. Well, I was already thinking about Superman as part of a mythological lineage/tradition, so it seemed natural to write poems for that class that would show this lineage. We had to write one a week for seven weeks. This is where the seven Jor-El poems originated, but meanwhile I was also tinkering with other voices: Lois Lane, Superman, Clark Kent, Luthor. I actually began the Clark Kent Sonnets while finishing up the Jor-El Tapes. I got four sonnets into the crown before realizing most of what I had written was crap, saved the best lines, and started over, using the best lines in the first sonnet of that crown.
So the short answer is that the first finished poem of the book was "Krypton Nights" itself. I had already worked out that title as a pun during the afore-mentioned road trip, and I knew it would be a poem title, and probably a book title (I tend to always work with cycles of poems...it's a sickness, I know).
The longer answer must include the fact that "The Model" was actually written without this book in mind and even earlier. It was just added last. And a whole section was cut, which I might talk about later.
What is my favorite poem in "Krypton Nights?" Probably the last one I wrote: "Through a Glass Darkly." In some ways the whole book was written just so that poem could be written and have a home. As much as the book is about me and my fathers, about myth and myth's fathers, it's also about signs and symbols and whether we can know anything when HOW we know is predicated upon something as slippery as signs themselves.
If meaning is arbitrary, subjective, infinitely interpretable, then can there be "a" truth? If not, what does that say about a man who "stands for truth," for the Law? What does it say about the Law, or the Torah, or anything we believe we understand, darkly or not?
The final poem of the book was one I had already been thinking about for years. I had wanted to write a poem that deconstructed itself and found that Lex Luthor would be the perfect speaker. I wanted "Satan" to talk Satan into a hole, so that nothing, not himself, not his ideas, and not their opposites had any singular meaning left...only the multiple. And it had to involve the discussion of interpreting a text that was itself about interpretation. In doing so, hopefully, Luthor/Satan, Superman's arch enemy, would re-invest the world with meaning, making multiplicity and postmodern confusion a wonder rather than a reason to mourn.
In other words: "S" means Law. "S" means lack Law. Most Postmoderns would say that if both are implied in a text then the text means nothing (thus the universe, which is itself a text, also means nothing). I prefer to believe, and I hope Luthor "accidentally" proves, that meaning is not math.
Binary opposites, alternative readings, cannot cancel each other out; they merely make the world more lovely, make each of us who interpret more powerful, make eachof us Superman. Everybody has their own "S." The sign IS universal and eternal, because it is universally indeterminate. It is all because it is no one thing. I know the above is a bit thick and convoluted, but this is why I write poems more than prose. Sorry. I blame comic books.
"S" means lack OF law. This is what the sentence in the second from the last paragraph should read. Amazing how much difference two letters make. Or, like "S", one.
We are the fathers of meaning, the mothers of sign. We are creators. Everything we know is predicated upon these strange little marks on paper. And they don't mean anything but what we imagine.
Does the fact that we can imagine anything make us gods? Are we all Supermen dressed in primary colors? What are primary colors? Who made them primary? Who named them, called them colors? Do colors even exist, or is color only light that fails...to be absorbed? All we see is perception, all we know. We create by sending our words into the void like Jor-El. We create by hating like Lex Luthor. We create by believing the one good, the other, evil.
There is no spoon.
Shumaker: I think you're scaring them, Bryan. Too many postmodern concepts at once. For anyone who hasn't seen it, the "there is no spoon" line comes from The Matrix.
We've had a couple of basic discussions about Postmodernism, Bryan, but I was looking for a good website with basic definitions and examples that I could link to our home page; do you know of a good one? All the ones I've looked at so far seem to be written for graduate studies--i.e. virtually unreadable. For one search, I used the term "postmodern definition," and in true postmodern fashion, I got a lot of websites that defined the "concept" of definition from a postmodern perspective. Maybe you know of a good site--you know, something that covers sign, signifier, icon, etc. in simple language.
Student: Hi Bryan, I too am part of the class that Curtis Shumaker is instructing, and I am interested in getting the story behind the poems we are reading from the author himself. Thank you for taking the time to explain these and I hope we gain a better understanding of these writings as we continue to ask questions about them.
My question is on the line in The Forth man in the Fire line 4 ( shall we say less Pericles than Prospero). 1. In that line Prospero is who and what was the true meaning behind that line. 2. In the poem On Jephthah is the sacrifice the so or the plant? In our discussion in class we identified the sacrifice as either the son or the plant, as God sacrificed his son by sending him to die for us is this the same thing?
Dietrich: Prospero is the magician of Shakespeare's Tempest, a magician who has given up his magic, who is in love with books. The line, "less Pericles than Prospero" suggests that Clark Kent sees himself (perhaps his true self) as more bookish and less heroic. Also, it was just too cool to be able to rhyme Pericles with spectacles as an "eye rhyme."
In "On Jephthah," the sacrifice Jor-El makes is both his son and his planet. He is giving up his son for us, and giving up his planet because he has no choice. The sacrifice for him is double: the figurative death of a son he must send away to save, and the literal death of a planet he must say goodbye to. Though in telling us something about himself and his life, even the least little bit of his world, he is, in a way, "saving" his planet as well.
And Superman (Kal-El, his son) will come to save us. The question is, which gift--his son or his words—will have the greater potential for salvation? Does force of arms, the strength of a Superman have a better chance of saving us, or the words of a man whose planet is ending? Is it possible that the text he is sending us through space is more important the babe in its space-ark?
Student: In "The Theft of the Firstborn" were you attempting to make the reader consider our own motives. It seems to me that not only is Superman wondering how he would describe himself, but also the idea of how would any of us defend our decisions. If we take away all external trappings, can we justify our actions? An example for myself is my decision to take these college classes. I enjoy reading and learning but the actual driver was to get a better position which you need a college degree for. If we took away the employers and possible pay increases would I still be here? Probably not. Was it your attempt to make us evaluate the decisions and drivers that we are currently living with and have us look for the higher meaning.
Student: You stated earlier that our perception is what governs us. I have always believed that unless we have the ability to talk to an author, like yourself, we cannever really understand what message they are trying to tell us. We can only understand the message we perceive. Is it possible for any one to wrong? If 5 different people understand 5 different meanings from the same passage, which one is correct? Thank you for this opportunity for us to be able to understand what you meant by your poems. I hope that we don't stray from your intended messages too much.
You stated that the Jor-El Tapes were the first sets that you did. Are the Jor-El Tapes an attempt to make us understand that the world would not survive if we had all the answers? If there were no mysteries left what would drive us? If we knew all the answers, and there were no more questions to ask, wouldn't we be as dead as a planet that was destroyed?
In "The Mysteries of Azazel" we read, "We have studied you, you know. Know more than maybe you do yourselves. I say maybe. Perhaps. It is this word that makes me curious. Do you understand more by not knowing?" and "I am dead after all. Yet my eyes have been others. When I knew our doom, I began sharing yours. I have lived this way, with your lives."
Is this your way of motivating people to find their own answers? Not to just sit back, dead, and let someone else, some alien, tell us what the answers are. But to live searching for what we need to know. Living our lives, constantly asking the questions and searching for the answers ourselves.
Dietrich: Wonderful questions.... As for the first one: There are no wrong interpretations. Reading and understanding are not calculus or chemistry. The beauty of language, and of poetry in particular, is its ambiguity and multiplicity. I believe the reason a great poem is a great poem is because it continues to generate new meanings for each new reader in each new setting or era. What we can paraphrase easily, what we can make static and singular in meaning too readily, is not what I consider poetry. Poetry is a swoon of meaning, what overtakes us with possible readings.
The fact is, in my poems I'm never trying to say only one thing, and what I am trying to do, finally, doesn't matter. I cannot be there to look over my readers' shoulders and say, "Uh, no, that is not what I meant at all." Rather, I juggle as much as I can within the poem itself, send it out into the world, and hope it speaks to many different people on many different levels. If I've done my job, I will move them. Not necessarily in a particular way, just move them.
What I think my own poems mean is only as interesting as what you think (maybe less) as long as the interpretation, whatever it is, IS GROUNDED IN THE TEXT ITSELF. The thing is, I've been writing long enough to know that I often don't know what I'm doing while I'm writing. Much of it comes second-nature, like driving home from work and not paying any attention to the road.... I still get home, but then retrace my steps and think, wow, I'm actually still alive though I don't remember making the journey.
This being said, when I go into a poem and when I revise, I also have a very fine-tuned notion of what I want to happen--whether it does, or whether I end up where I was headed...well, it all depends on these wily things called words. And they have lives of their own (just look in a dictionary). And they make colonies and perform strange rituals together (just read any book). And they often rise up against the ruler (just think Salman Rushdie or the Dixie Chicks). We cannot control what we have made. Neither could Frankenstein. And why try? The loveliness I find in some other poets poems is still there, whether my reading is what she intended or not. Ideas, what words make, are always the possession of the reader, not the writer.
As for the Jor-El tapes, I like your interpretation. It indeed jibes with my intent, which was to say that what we say is not real (which is to further say that what YOU say is only as real as you need it to be). What we interpret is not real. There is no answer, no right interpretation. In fact, the poems themselves, I hope, do a better job of addressing what I've addressed above than I do myself; my poems are not me, nor is this them. See, the poems, the "answers," are only ever questions. All words make us associate, and in association lies all beauty, all context, all meaning, all metaphor. What we want to believe, the "maybe," is what matters. Not what "is." Because there is no is.
All of which I believe I have said in the poems, what you have said in your interpretation, and what I have said in trying answer. None of which means the same exact thing to each of you reading this. Does it mean nothing then? No, it means everything. Thus "maybe" is the universe.
Student: In "The Theft of the Firstborn", is there a reason why you picked a planet in M31 versus say M87? Was it your intention to imply that Superman couldn't escape hisdestiny because he would end up back where he started from?
Given the physical properties of light coming towards us or going away from us, if one wanted to truly escape, one would want to orange-red planet instead of a violet-blue one.
For the rest of the class, astronomy is one of my interest and I've spent many a night looking at the Messier Objects. M31 is Messier Object 31 of 110 or so celestial objects cataloged by French Astronomer Charles Messier during the 1750's to the 1780's. M31 is commonly called the Andromeda galaxy, which is the Milky Way's closest neighbor. Unlike most of the other galaxies which are traveling away from the Milky Way (red shifted), M31 is coming towards us (blue shifted), which means it's on a collision course with the Milky Way in an estimated 3-5 billion years.
Dietrich: Actually, this goes back to Ellen's question. No, I did not know any of this wonderfully pregnant information about M31. Your Dr. Shumaker is the real brain, not I. I do study a little bit of everything--astronomy, physics, archeology, paleontology, cognitive theory, etc.--but only enough to be dangerous. And the fact that M31 is blue-shifted was not part of my admittedly spotty personal data base till now.
That does not mean, however, that that information—the fact that to "escape" there would effectively mean "no escape"--is impertinent or a "wrong" interpretation. It is in fact a perfect example of what can happen when language is loosed into the world. I wrote M31 because I knew the name (and because it rhymed with "son"). I wrote "violet-blue" because I remembered for a brief instant my color wheel and the sound was right for thatmoment in the poem (and because it suggested the possibility of life).
Franklin, you, knowing something about this stuff for real, bring a new data set to the reading of these particular words and find an interesting reading that fits the theme and in fact enlarges on it. Does the fact that I didn't intend for this reading to be there make it any less "there"? No. I cannot control what any of you find in the poems, nor would I want to.
The fact that you DO find wonderful connections (intended or no) in the poems is all that matters. Now, should someone suggest the Clark Kent sonnets are about armadillos crossing the road...well, that might be odd and affected and eccentric, but not wrong. Such a reading may even be uninteresting or self-absorbed; it might be what we would call "stretching," but a reading like yours, Franklin, is not. What you bring to the poem makes the poem bigger, more resonant, smarter. And that makes you an ideal reader.
Neither I nor Jor-El nor Superman can always expect the ideal reader. More often than not we have to live with Lex Luthor. And even the, sometimes Luthor's more right than we are ourselves. Sometimes, oftentimes, the reader knows more than the writer.
Student: Out of your poems, I particularly enjoyed “The Mysteries of Azazel”. The question of what if we could know is intriguing. Would we want to know? And, if we did know, would it mean the destruction of life, as we know it? This is a dilemma we’ll never face.
My question comes, not from your poems, but instead from your intro to The Jor-El Tapes:. As stated, the Jor-El Tapes comes from the “Transcripts of Binary Transmissions Recorded by the Very Large Array (Socorro, NM) - Originating in the Vicinity of Supernova 1993J.”
Was your use of this particular event in history intended for any particular purpose? The Supernova 1993J was discovered March 28, 1993. It has been estimated to have occurred 3.6 mpc away from Earth. As far as astrological distances go, an mpc=megaparsec. A single parsec is equivalent to 3.26 light years; a mega parsec is 1 million parsecs, or 3.26 million light years. Therefore, Supernova 1993J is located approximately 11.7 million light years from Earth.
As we learn, Jor-El has been monitoring Earth through a very sophisticated telescope/device, knowing events throughout history including more recent ones, such as Flight 19. It seems that, unless Jor-El had technology far beyond our mere comprehension, the area around Supernova 1993J would be too far to effectively view Earth or send transmission back to us. If he did have vast superior technology, it seems unlikely that we’d be able to receive his transmissions with our less advanced technology and equipment.
Dietrich: Okay, you caught me.
I will answer two ways, neither one probably very satisfying.
First, I'm a poet, not a fiction writer. Fiction bears a more burdensome responsibility of verisimilitude; in other words, in fiction, if you drop a hammer, it should fall. It should conform to rules of gravity. It may fall more slowly on a different world, but it will still fall. Fiction readers SHOULD expect this kind of attention to the "rules." Thus, in the film "Outland" (an old Sean Connery SF film), when the doctor draws blood from the top of the leg of a many-days-old corpse, and when the blood comes out liquid.... Well, even common sense should tell us that by this point the blood would be both congealed and resting in the bottom of the body. Both points are ignored by the writer and both points serve to further frustrate our tendency to want to suspend disbelief, particularly about a film taking place on Io, in space, in the future.
I don't know that poems--being more about philosophy and language, less about plot and character--need to conform to the same expectations. Nor most "literary" fiction. Do we really expect Gregor Samsa (the clerk turned giant pill-bug in Kafka's "The Metamorphosis") to follow the rules of the real world? If he were truly a giant bug, the size we are given in the story, he would collapse in upon himself via the inverse square law.
Now, though this is a problem for, say, "Tarantula" or "The Deadly Mantis" or even "Eight-Legged Freaks," it is a problem for these stories because ALL they have going for them is story. They are not about something else, at least not in the way that Kafka's tale is. Kafka's tale is not about the realistic portrayal of a giant bug. He is about the business of telling us our lives are like the life of a bug. The metaphor is important; the "laws" of nature aren't.
So, my first answer is I plead the defense of poetry. Ha, so there.
Now, for the second answer... Your question (and you are indeed the first to ask it, though I've long been waiting) is exactly why I put in the line "why not mind mites or temporal restrictions." I knew that the question would be asked, eventually, and I attempted to put a band-aid on it.
Evidently, Jor-El has knowledge we do not. He either has technology or he has understanding that surpasses what we understand of the speed of light. He may be using some form of "spooky action at a distance" to communicate, he may have harnessed Burroughs' 9th Ray, he may be sending the message via tachion particles...Idon't know. But he evidently believes the temporal restrictions WE understand to exist don't.
Yes, this is a little like the logic of, say, Star Trek V, but then...I'm a poet. I WANTED to be a science fiction writer, once, but found myself slumming.
Shumaker: Actually, I never saw much of a paradox here. I assumed baby Clark was sent to earth in a faster than light (FTL) ship, and that the Jor-El transmissions, sent at the speed of light, were only reaching earth at the same time as the light from the supernova, 30+ years after Clark arrived. There are several ways to explain Jor-El's knowledge of earth; in addition to the ones Bryan suggested, the Kryptonians (Kryptovars?) could have sent a FLT probe to study earth, which then relayed or returned with recorded TV transmissions, etc. to Krypton. Since Jor-El would know that we have no FTL technology, he would send his messages to us in a slower media we could receive, i.e. radio waves.
However, since Brian Breck pointed out that 1993J is over 11 million light years from earth, the implication is that Clark would have been traveling only slightly faster than the speed of light, just enough to cover the 11 million light years in only thirty years less than the radio transmission--still, Clark would have been in space for over 11 million years! However, we don't have to assume (based on information in the poems) that Jor-El sent both Clark AND the transmissions just before Krypton's destruction; perhaps he sent Clark ahead, FLT, then (30+ years later) sent the transmissions, which (like Clark) covered the distance in very little time, but through some advanced technology, perhaps by a Krypton probe still near earth, converted the FLT signals to standard radio waves so we could receive them. OK, this is the most convoluted sentence I have ever written, but the idea of it is that Jor-El's messages can be explained without too much twisting of physical laws.
Dietrich: What he said. See, Curtis is the smart one.
Student: This writing comes across to me as extremely sarcastic. Was your intent to poke fun at wedding festivities? “I hear his other wants me to make an honest man of him.” I am confused by this line, isn’t Superman the most honest being around?
Dietrich: Kristi, good question. I think WE think of Superman as honest, but HE doesn't. Remember, he lives a lie (Clark Kent) every day. He breaks laws to preserve them. He is, in many ways, exactly what Luthor paints him to be: a despot in a red cape. But in some ways he IS Clark. And that human part despises the "God" part, the part that is eternal and all-powerful--he's even pushed the planet around a few times.... Literally. Pushed. The. Planet.
So when he's planning on marriage, to a human, what does this mean? Remember, the poem you are referencing is spoken by Lois Lane. She, too, is suspicious of this man for whom she's fallen. And, yes, she's being sarcastic I think. But that's her power. She's a reporter, someone whose job it is to be objective. Well, here is "God." She's effectively marrying "God." What, she asks herself, am I going to do? How does one marry another who is eternal, all-powerful, super?
She has to be sarcastic, I think, to keep things in perspective, to keep her humanity. It's really the same thing Clark does himself when thinking about BEING himself. The most human thing we can do sometimes (maybe ever) is to laugh at ourselves, at others. Sarcasm is Lois' super power; it's how she copes, how she makes the superhuman human sized. Does it really work though?
This, I don't know. When WE face the superhuman, the power of language, when we marry ourselves to signs (ideas, laws, politics, faiths, a big red "S") and adopt these ideas as our own, how do we keep control? How do we make sure the idea doesn't take us over, turn us fanatic, despot, zealot, or simply blind?
Well, Socrates told us we need to question. He said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." So we poke and prod and ask questions. We have fun. We MAKE fun. This is why irony and satire, education and the scientific method, poetry and meditation are so very important. If we don't question our laws, our Presidents, "our wars, Czars, rules," if we don't kid our fiancées and joke about even the most serious of things, well, we let the tyranny win, we let our signs control us, we give in to the despotism of design.
As a native American flute maker once told me, "If you can't laugh at yourself you weren't raised right."
Student: I understand that this piece is telling us that the inmates are the sane ones for not believing that Superman is a God that they should worship. The reason that the plaque should be facing inward is that the world outside the asylum are the crazy ones for worshipping the deeds that Superman does. The part I don't completely understand is what the inscription on the plaque truly says. "What lack, the perimeter of our knowing, what taste, the purchase of that lapse, what guile, our denial of absence owing to minds that muster might from each perhaps."
Dietrich: Ellen, I'll try:
The perimeter (the scope) of what we know (our knowing) is full of absences (lack). In order to exist, we purchase (by living) life (a whole lot of not knowing) and imagine ourselves to have taste in the bargain (after all don't we show MORE taste by spending more on LESS; isn't that what disposable wealth is all about? And just imagine all we don't know; it would dwarf us and the known universe, since the universe itself is the biggest part of that unknown).
But then we deny, often, that we don't know; we pretend to have answers (thus guile). The irony is that, as human beings who create something out of nothing, our greatest strength ("might") comes NOT from knowing but from imagining ("perhaps")...which means that might (perhaps) makes might (strength).
Thus the key to the inscription turns on the pun.
Shumaker: Isn't that technically a play on words? I think of puns as requiring words with slightly different spellings, for example the Arthur C. Clarke story that ends with a "star mangled spanner" punning "star spangled banner."
Dietrich: Pun: A play on words based on the similarity of sound between two words with different meanings.
Ergo, "muster might from each perhaps" counts as a pun even though the similarity, in this case, is exactness.
Now, define irony.
Student: In the Sonnets by Clark Kent when you finished the last line of a poem did you already have an idea about what the next poem was going to be or did you look at the last line later and then compose the next poem? Were the poems actually written in that order originally?
Dietrich: I've written fifteen or more crowns and I've written each straight through. If I can't move on from where I was, then I don't move on. Crowns, to me, need to be organic that way. Thus two problems: One, the individual sonnets don't stand alone very well. Two, if I get stuck, like I did with some Orson Welles sonnets many moons ago, then I have to wait to get unstuck before any of the other ideas get finished. The ideas of course are mostly already there (...mostly...), but in the case of Orson, I had to wait nearly a year to get past the block. I wrote other poems, but not those. Currently, I'm stuck on a sequence about my sisters. This set is a crown of crowns (or 49 sonnets) and have to wait for the logjam to unlog.
Shumaker: OK, this may have nothing to do with Bryan's poems, but has anyone noticed how, ever since President Bush started using the word "evildoers," that comic book villain names are being used to describe our enemies? For example, on the Iraqi most wanted list, we have Chemical Ali, Lady Anthrax, and Dr. Germ. These sound like they belong in a mid-seventies DC comic. Should we start calling Sadaam General Doom?
Dietrich: I have to believe someone in the Dark Pantheon of Elder Gods has a sense of humor. Maybe Poindexter, head of the Eyes.
Student: In The Else I comprehend that it is a piece about people trying to grow and become the most that they can be. It discusses our attempts to be more as one with God. How we have grown and searched for the ultimate knowledge. How we believe that our knowledge is superior, but we are still searching for someone or something to bring us more, to teach us what we still haven't learned. They have seen and studied us and tried to make a connection to us. We no longer want to hear the message they are trying to send. We believe that if they can make the connection they are not the superior beings we are looking for. If they can be destroyed then their knowledge is not enough for us. We require more. We are not looking to see what our future will be, we are looking for the knowledge to control what we have no right trying to control. We want to become our own Gods.
Dietrich: Wonderful. Yes, particularly to the first part. I don't know that I wanted to suggest that we want to become Gods...rather, we already are, in our own way. By filling in the gap of unknowing with any system, any faith, any myth, we create meaning and order our lives and our impressions of the universe. Whether "true" or not, each story, each "else," does a unit of work in the world. Myths, symbols, paradigms make things happen; they make people DO stuff, and thus other stuff happens. If I believe in little pink men from the cupboard who hoard paperclips and nose hairs, that belief will make me do something in this world and what I do affects others. What they do effects still others. Thus, whether I believe in God or Allah or Zarathustra or George Bush or Michael Moore or Superman or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, my beliefs ("real" or "historical" or "literal" or not) are an "else," an absence that creates presence. A nothing that, by making something, is no longer nothing. So...I guess maybe I am saying we want to be gods. Well, that, or we already are. Or we already are because we could never be. The fact that we cannot be gods, yet are--the fact that we create something from nothing- is the very paradox that makes our making of meaning godlike. So, really, it's not a choice. What makes us human--being symbol-makers—makes us gods.
Shumaker: Bryan, I assume you're familiar with Shaw's "On the Need for a Superman" on the back end of _Man and Superman_? The title may be a bit different--the Modern Need, or something. Anyway, I was going to show that to the class tomorrow night and see how it relates to the poems. I know you quote M&S at one point; did you have this particular section as a source?
Dietrich: Honestly, I think I grabbed my copy of Man and Superman and just flipped back through it till I found an appropriate quote. It's been a long time since I've read Shaw, though I had been reading him a bit before I started work on the book. I don't really remember, but the quote seemed all too appropriate for the relationship between Lois and the S Man.
Student: In this piece are you referring to the fact that humans believe in things that we don't necessarily understand? Because of our beliefs we can do things that we wouldn't otherwise be able to do. Our beliefs enable us to find greater joys. If someone believes that life is mapped out for them by a greater being, a God, they are more likely to enjoy life and notice the simple pleasures that await them. Believing that there is a heaven to go to after earth people are more able to deal with life's hardships. What I am not sure of is the last few sentences. "A message. Perhaps this. I can only imagine." Are you stating that the message will strengthen our beliefs or destroy them?
Okay, though, seriously... Ellen, you really seem to have some fabulous insights into the poems. I am humbled to be able to talk to you and your classmates, all of whom are real readers. All of you seem to care so much about poetry, my poetry, and, to tell you the truth, I am both surprised and delighted.
The answer to your final question cannot really be anything but "yes." A message that came from "elsewhere" which purported to answer all our questions would do both: It would strengthen our beliefs; It would destroy our beliefs. Don't you think?
I mean, if some alien mind actually pointed out the burial place of Christ and we went and dug up a body with a spear scrape on the ribs and thorn scratches on the skull and nail holes in the wrists and a winding cloth marked INRI and a faded purple robe and perhaps a scroll pocket packed with a final gospel.... What WOULD happen? Is faith about proof? Can it be?
Student: This piece seems to be about how much Superman has thought about leaving his responsibilities and being just a normal man. He has thought about all the ways that an indestructible man could be destroyed. He also realizes that it would do no good. The world would not let him die. We would resurrect him like the Egyptian Pharaohs. We would dig him out of his tomb so he could live again. The line I would like clarification on is "No, nothing I can do, then, will relinquish me my cup." What is this line trying to say.
Dietrich: Okay, this is spooky. I've just been moving down the line of questions, answering them one by one. Ellen, you seem to be anticipating my answers with your own questions. This particular question seems to answer your question about "JHVH" and that one seemed to answer the question about "The Else." Cool.
The bit about relinquishing the cup comes from Christ's soul-battle in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he asked god to allow "this cup" to pass from him. He doesn't want to die, to suffer for us. But he finally gives in to his destiny. He realizes (at least as I read the myth) that his suffering is essential to become a template for how WE should act. Not that we should all climb up on a cross and drink vinegar, but that we should live our lives as sacrifice, as conduits between the temporal (the earth) and the eternal (the sky).
On our own "crosses," we should mediate between our own desires (the earth/the temporal) and others' needs (lasting effects/the sky). Superman/Clark knows he needs to give up a human life to help save humanity, but he is reluctant, as we all are when faced with what it means to take responsibility for being good. His final choice, to BE good, to take a leap of faith and act AS THOUGH he were a god/Christ/Zarathustra is an act of filling in the "else," the absence, with action that would otherwise be nothingness. And the choice to do so is also based on a "belief" that doing good is good.
All acts, all attributing of meaning to those acts, are acts of faith and power, human power. In doing so we fill in the spaces between Y and H and V and H. We complete the Tetragrammaton. We make four consonants God: Yahweh. Or Jehovah. By choosing in the garden (either garden) we choose to be the god that kicks us out.
Student: I believe that this one is about us not being able to hide from what we are. WE can try to run, hide, or blend in with everyone else but we are all striving for one goal. Without all the trappings of life around us we are all just trying to survive. Everything that we do is our attempt to survive.
Dietrich: Or at least this is what Clark believes when he is at a low point in his own belief in himself, in his alter ego, in us. These low tides, these times when he would rather be dead than have power, any power...these times are when he escapes to The Fortress of Solitude, a windy, ice-bound, frozen tundra of a clubhouse in the Arctic. Here, he can be alone in the blankness of the snow, the blankness of Mt. Blanc, the blankness of the white whale. Here, he can wipe the slate, BE a beast, no thought, no symbol, and be free...even from himself.
Student: We have discussed all other areas, I thought we should spend at least a little time on The Secret Diaries of Lois Lane. I am impressed that you, a man, would be able to write the secret ideas of all women. We all say that we are looking for a perfect man. A man who can do no wrong. But would any of us actually want to live with one. I don't think so. We want a man with flaws. Everyone has some. Does anyone actually want to live with someone who we think is so much better than we believe ourselves to be? The only problem I have with the Lois Lane section is the fact that Superman never grows old. Forgive me if I'm wrong but didn't Superman arrive on Earth as a child? I have never seen or heard that he landed as a fully grown man. If he grew from a child into a man wouldn't he continue to grow older? I mean does he really just stop ageing once he leaves puberty? How can everyone throw away the growth of his first twenty years on Earth?
Dietrich: Good point; I am just sort of following the lead of the comics themselves, and I suppose one could argue that Kryptonians are a bit like giant turtles (why not?), or honey mushrooms, in that they may reach a certain metabolic stabilization and not age past that point.... And I suppose if we look at ALL the characters over the past almost seventy years we would discover that NONE of them have grown old. Ah, the oddities of serialized storytelling....
But back to your real concerns: Thank you for the compliment, but I would hope that any writer (at least the good ones) would be able to write in any voice, male, female, hermaphrodite, Caucasian, negroid, mongoloid, purple, paisley, alien, god, etc. Is there such a thing as a male or female writer? Does sex or ethnicity matter where the ink bleeds? Is blood or cell content or genitalia pertinent to paper, pulp and the work of the mind?
Perhaps not questions we can answer here, but I will say that a friend of mine, after reading the Lois Lane pieces, said, "I'm glad to find out that Lois is a slut." Hmmmm.
Shumaker: On the aging question: a distinction can be made between growth and aging. Growing from child to adulthood is a process directed by hormonal signals and activation of genes. Aging, on the other hand, is mostly caused by chromosomal damage: the degradation of the telemar caps at the ends of each DNA strand and accumulated errors in the gene copying process, caused by such things as cosmic rays and free radicals. One would assume that Superman, being invulnerable, would not suffer DNA damage over time.
Dietrich: Curtis, you scare me.
Dietrich: I have enjoyed this discussion very much. And I have to say that the questions, comments, observations and critiques have been some of (if not THE) most intelligent and informed I've ever seen. I am perfectly willing to keep this going for as long as you like, but it appears Ellen is one of the few still keeping the thread alive.
Dietrich: Please, Ellen and Curtis, if you (or anyone else) are still interested in chatting, I am past the wedding now and things have calmed down considerably, so I will keep checking in for a week or two, or longer if anyone is willing. Don't be afraid to continue with the discussion. I rarely get the opportunity to correspond so in-depth about my work.
Student: Is this one about the building of who we are? All the small pieces of our lives being bonded together to create the final person? If so, is it possible to complete the model? Aren't we constantly adding new pieces to the model? Camouflaging pieces that are lost or broken? And trying to make the model look better?
Dietrich: Absolutely, which is why the poem ends, "moving / still, projecting, onto your completion." This line can be read numerous ways: firstly, given the line break, it is ambiguous as to whether the speaker (us) is moving or still, growing or stopped, or if there is a difference; second, "projecting" may suggest movement toward completion, but it may also suggest the Freudian notion of imagining that such as thing as completion exists and "projecting" onto that idea.
There may be (but probably isn't) any such thing as finishing the "model." After all, as we put our models together, we put ourselves together, and as we do both, others model us, build themselves on our example, remake us in their minds and make more "US"es as well as more "THEM"s. And then we look at them, remodel them in our own eyes, making a them based on us out of the them THEY based on us (which we may have based on them) and...well, you get the idea. Models model more models.
And the mannequin store never closes.
P.S. Did I mention I was finishing my Ph.D. when I was writing this poem? I chose to write about building a model plane (the "plain"), but was actually thinking about finishing "myself" and school, and a future of thinking about such things.
Student: I understand that Lex Luther is more impressed with Batman because he sees him as more real. Batman does not pretend to be something he is not. He hides in the dark, wears appropriate clothing and shows that he knows he breaks laws to capture criminals. My question is which one do you personally feel is the better superhero.
Dietrich: Batman. He's human. Much of what Luthor says ("Satanic" figure or not) is what I believe. I have a problem, a big one, with the John Ashcrofts and Donald Rumsfelds and Ed Meeses and Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells and George Bushes of the world...those who are so sanctimonious that they believe themselves holy or righteous or perfect. They fight "evildoers" by casting them in black and white.
Evil does not come in black and white. Evil is grey. Evil may not even exist except insofar as an issue of perspective. What is good for Superman, for example, is evil for Luthor. Whose point of view do we privilege? What about the two women in Florida who need abortions but cannot think for themselves? Does Jeb Bush really know what's best for them? Does the ACLU? Batman believes himself broken, an outcast, a monster, nearly as dangerous as those who he fights. This is healthy.
Superman (at least as others have pictured him, others like Luthor) sees things without grey. Of course he doesn't REALLY see things this way (not as I picture him), but Luthor, who believes Superman sees no grey, sees Superman in black and white.... Paradoxes within paradoxes. Which is why we need/should be/already are Batman. We need to be schizophrenic to survive in this Postmodern world.
P.S. Right now, I'm doing a book on Wonder Woman. In a few more years, I imagine I will turn to Batman. If I'm going to do this, I cannot resist the Trinity.
Student: I realize that you want more in-depth questions, but why the jokes? Is it just to show your humorous side and to break everything up? I enjoy reading that makes me laugh!!
I wondered the same thing at first. What else do you do while in prison? Do a little workout, fight off the pervs, write letters, tell a few jokes.
Am I close?
Joke #1 I imagine that, not knowing Clark Kent, one would have to wonder at some point how Superman got his stuff. He couldn't be getting paid for his services unless it was a form of black mail. So, what did he do, steal?
Joke #2 I think Luther is asking "Are we making the right decision on who Superman really is or are we confused?"
Joke #3 Is really not a joke at all. He's summing up what we've taken for granted. Is Superman really a super man or a curse?
Dietrich: Yes. Very nice. And, yes, Superman is a kind of thief, if not a literal one, at least a thief of expectation. He provides what we should earn of ourselves. He exemplifies all we, ourselves, should already be able to do. Of course, in creating him (as a construct, a comic) we ARE doing what he does, creating a fortress of solitude to escape to. The comics, our myths, are our artic, our wasteland, the place we retreat to be reborn.
All jokes are based on human suffering. We find humor in other's pain, or in their implied stupidity. We laugh, in other words, to keep from suffering ourselves. Luthor/Satan/Judas knows that the power of laughter is the power of subversion. We can gain more strength from a good joke at someone else’s expense than we ever could from force of arms. This is why the greatest comedians have always been political. And it is why comedians are always more dangerous than armies.
Luthor uses his jokes as entry way to the points he makes in the third section of the poem. The more he can make us laugh, the better he can get at the serious stuff. We are disarmed by laughter, by the comic. The comic allows us to lower our guard.
Which is why I use "comics" to attempt to get at God and/or Truth in the first place.
Student: Methuselah: A biblical patriarch said to have lived 969 years. A reference to the everlasting Superman. Is this merely Luther's wishes to live long enough himself to see society "come to their senses" and rebel against Superman or is there more to it than that?
Dietrich: Yes, but it's also an attempt to put Superman into some sort of traditional framework (familiar myth pattern) that he's been left out of so long. "Midrash" and "Methuselah" used to have a partner poem titled "Midas." These three "M" poems placed Supes into both the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian paradigms by placing Luthor himself into the tradition (via overweening ego and megalomania). Luthor sees himself as a Rabbi, as a Patriarch, as a gold-touched king. But in the end, I cut the Midas poem because it was incomplete and not doing all I wanted it to do. Plus, it muddied waters already overly muddied with a multitude of myths.
Student: Don't we all live to be remembered? It seems that all of us have a primary goal in life. Those goals usually lead to us being remembered after we are gone. It is hard to imagine how we would feel knowing that nothing would be left behind. No children to pass on stories, no pictures to show our life, no great feats that are remembered or documented, not even a toothpick left behind. It is a very numbing thought.
Dietrich: I'd like to think that at least my words will be left behind, that something I said might still echo in someone's mind. This is why Jor-El send his own words to the stars. It is why we sent a golden record into the vast dark on the back of Voyager. Whalesong, Chubby Checker, Beethoven, brainwaves, Maori war chants, a heart beat, poems.... These are our last hope, even when our own sun expands and swallows the world.
Student: To be honest the first time though this poem I was not sure what to think. I am a gal after a little romantic suggestion, but I didn’t expect it of Lois. She strikes me more of the ambitious female type not a romantic. I reread the diary His Maculate Erection and I found fear. She is in love with the image of Superman, but is she women enough to hold up to his expectation? I also did read into the ending the Immaculate Conception. Just like Mary all over again. The same familiar tales retold, I am not sure that is a bad thing, perhaps it would bring hope in the world disruption.
Dietrich: Again, as with Luthor, Lois knows that power comes from laughter. And she tries to stay the trembling with humor. She may not succeed, but at least in making light of the dangers and differences she/they face, she can stand more firmly in the shadow of what may come of their liaison. And in so doing, she gives us our own hope of surviving the eternal. What she invents (what she calls frightening) is no less myth than the myth she imagines being created by others, what myths we already live with (and often fear).
Shumaker: Also, this poem gives another connection to Zarathustra, who was said to have inseminated a lake so that he will be resurrected a thousand years in the future when a pure virgin bathes in the lake. I think it's somewhere in Afghanistan, or northern Iran.
Dietrich: Yes, there was a second part to this particular poem that I cut for the final book. The second half directly addressed the Zarathustrian myth and drew parallels between Superman, Zoroaster and Christ. Unfortunately, in the end, it seemed overkill. Most people already know this myth, or, if they don't, they can find it readily, so the hints seemed enough.
Student: Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer our questions. With classes to give, papers to write and a wedding to plan on top of it, it is amazing that you could find the time to talk to us. It shows your dedication as a teacher and a writer to but aside some time to help students comprehend more of the literary world. I hope you continue to strive for this balance so that other students can benefit the way we have. Again, thank you very much for your time and understanding. Congratulations on this new step in your life.
Dietrich: You are quite welcome.
It's been busy, but a lot of fun, and marrying Wonder Woman herself doesn't hurt. My wife is a skydiver, scuba-diver, motorcyclist, scholar and former model. I feel like Steve Trevor (the male counterpart to Lois Lane). And, hey, a whole new book of poems is pretty neat too!
Student: Would it be possible for us to get a copy of your books about Wonder Woman and Batman when they come out. We live in a rural area and they might not be available in our local bookstores. Also we don't have the title names and could not order them. Having had the opportunity to talk to you I would be interested in reading more of your works. Thanks
Dietrich: Well, the next one out will probably be titled "Universal Monsters," a sequence of poems about marriage, divorce, love, loss and my parents.
The next MAY be "Amazon Days," the wonder woman poems, then "The Assumption," a collection about truth, god, meaning and UFOs. (Although nine of the Wonder Woman poems will be appearing in the very next issue of "The Missouri Review.")
Other books in the works are "Gotham Wanes," Batman stuff, "Weird Tales," poems about my sisters and, again, various marriages, "Love Craft," poems about my family, and two children's books which I may never submit....
Keep in mind that "Krypton Nights" is the first and it may take a LONG while for the others to see print. "Universal Monsters" is a pretty sure bet, but the others will just have to cure a while in the barrel.
I am delighted about your interest.