“Science fiction poetry” is already a confusion of forms, a mash-up of brainy and hoity, nerdy and emotional, clunky and raw. If both science fictional and poetic, must this inter-genre be narrative-oriented, pithy, lyrical, and riddled with lasers? What else can we call it? “Science poetry” doesn’t account for future-speculation per se. “Cyberpoetry” resonates with cyberpunk and prescribes the rubric for an internet made 3D—strung up with tubes every shade of the neon rainbow. William Gibson himself, the supposéd godfather of cyberpunk, rejects the term applied to both his and his contemporaries work because it reduced what could’ve been a revolutionary alteration on the larger science fiction genre to a subgenre and therefore made it separate and disarmed. “Futurist” or “neo-futurist poetry” already has its predecessors in Marinetti, Mayakovski, and the like. “Speculative poetry” becomes overwhelmingly broad and “futurepoem” has already been claimed by a fabulous small press. For now, we’ll stick with science fiction poetry because everyone knows what we’re talking about when we say it, and any discussions based around the term should necessitate we at least acknowledge it as a genre that will be constantly at war with itself, a form containing two disparate worlds, that, most of the time, would probably rather not have anything to do with each other in the first place.
Many have gone to extreme lengths to define both poetry and science fiction separately and they are indelibly linked by a desire to write down what cannot possibly ever actually be written down. Ben Lerner talks about an Allen Grossman essay called The Long Schoolroom in his Believer interview, citing that Grossman calls all poetry “virtual” because it explores “an unbridgeable gap between what the poet wants the poem to do and what it can actually do.” For the world of poets, while our want may be for access to that Platonic ideal hovering above, we are also caught up in an inevitable failure to ever reach that world. So it is for science fiction writers, except they are concerned with the future rather than the divine. Where they may use the vocabulary of science and technology in order to provide insight into how the nuances of that future may one day appear, poets look to music, linguistics, and extreme concision in order to record their pursuit of those sublime, unknowable moments of everyday life. The rest is simple addition. Science fiction plus poetry equals a work that looks to material “progress,” the sonic, semiotics, and the pages white space in it’s pursuit of both spiritual transcendence and a prophecy for that grand tomorrow.
Another way to define a genre, as always, is simply to point the people who practice that genre well. Cathy Park Hong discusses science fiction poetics in one of her Harriet posts, where she outlines Andrew Joron’s Science Fiction, the most committed exploration of science fiction poetry to date. Hong dabbles a bit in the genre herself in Dance Dance Revolution and the “The World Cloud,” the third section of her own Engine Empire, with poems like “Engines Within the Throne” and “A Wreath of Hummingbirds.” There are countless others who’ve taken a crack at science fictionish projects in recent years. From genre-poets like Hong to conceptual writers like Christian Bök, to Pulitzer prize winners like Tracy K. Smith, everyone seems to be getting a piece. Bök isn’t interested in the conceits of science fiction as a genre, but is willing to spend nine years in a lab teaching the genome of a bacterium to store and write a poem that should last long after the human race is extinct. He calls it The Xenotext and however outlandish the project may seem, he has had a surprising amount of success. Other Conceptual poets, like Kenneth Goldsmith and Josef Kaplan, construct poems dependent on their own machines. Goldsmith’s projects succeed or fail based on how they are figuratively programmed to reproduce. The common language in his transcriptions of news anchors and weathermen are interesting because he captures human malfunctions in otherwise robotic speech, while the success of Kaplan’s Kill-list depends on the rage it provokes in the hivemind’s many forums and comment threads on the web.
“It’s all science fiction now,” is the oft-quoted phrase in these sorts of discussions, which Hong transmits from Joron and which Joron beams-up from Allen Ginsberg and Arthur C. Clarke. We’re turning to the futures of the past in order to interpret a society more and more affected by accelerated progress. Indeed, the list of poets goes on—Heather Christle has poems that unabashedly employ zeros and ones, cybernetic trees, holograms, and sublime computer programs in What is Amazing and elsewhere. Modern Life by Matthea Harvey contains a series of poems about a robotic boy and his half-human perceptions. Ben Mirov tracks the clicks of our increasingly cybernetic brains in Ghost Machine; Mathias Svalina obsesses over the beginnings and ends of all things in Destruction Myth; Timothy Donnelly offers the sky for purchase in Cloud Corporation; and Jasper Bernes enacts a dystopic LA in Starsdown. Even Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy K. Smith toys with future-speculation in Life On Mars. Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney proclaim themselves Futurist in their Action Books manifesto, and McSweeney revels in a future plague ground, a poetics of doom, in much of her own writing and criticism. After all, Tao Lin is basically Neo, who opted out of The Real and instead chose to remain dangling in his giant pink egg sac, so long as he had access to a Macbook Pro.
Where is this renaissance born from? We can reason it’s an example of what Gibson calls “steam engine time,” in his interview with The Paris Review: “Nobody knows why the steam engine happened when it did,” he explains. “Ptolemy demonstrated the mechanics of the steam engine, and there was nothing technically stopping the Romans from building big steam engines. It just never occurred to them to do it…” Others had already been toying with the idea of using “cyberspace” as a science fictional frontier to explore and 80s culture was ripe for it—Gibson was just the first to give it a name. It’s no surprise here that just as he was publishing his short stories “Johnny Mnemonic” and “The Gernsback Continuum” in small science fiction magazines like Omni and Universe in 1981, Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews were hard at work on the last few issues of the seminal magazine, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. With multinational corporations on the rise, both had reason to deal with signifiers multiplying across an increasingly globalized world.
The origins of science fiction poetry itself are couched in the tradition of the epic poem, when poetry was inevitably wedded to what we would might call a narrative, genre-based long or serial poem today. In “Dialogues by Starlight: Three Approaches to Writing SF Poetry,” Michael Collings cites William Blake’s “The Four Zoas” as an early ripple of the form’s origin and modernist criticisms of kitsch mark the downfall of Romanticism’s toying with genre-poetry, but just as Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and their futurist predecessors itched away from decadence, they also acquired a newfound obsession with the scientific world because it offered them the potential for a new kind of precision and denotative ability in their own poetics. Stein’s Tender Buttons seems at times as if it could’ve been written by the first sentient machine. Steven’s imagination lead him to look for the cosmos inside every inanimate thing in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” and Yeats had his gyres turning from mollusks to prophecies for contemporary genetics. Victor Frankenstein, the original science fiction hero was based on Mary Shelly’s husband, Percy Shelly, so perhaps the first science fiction poem was the monster himself. Michael Collings does a better job tracing science fiction poetry’s confused history in his comprehensive essay over at StarShine and Shadows, but I want to talk about one particular collection that isn’t necessarily the most obvious embodiment of a science fiction poetics, but instead occupies a middle ground between hard science fiction poetry and poetry that feels futuristic because of its obsessions with scientific disciplines.
Andrew Zawacki’s Videotape may not scream Martians or lunar cities, yet it relentlessly filters its poetics through the language of machines, harkening back to William Carlos William’s suggestion that “a poem is a machine made of words.” Most prominently, the still and video camera’s moving parts are made metaphorical here, but also scientific dictionaries like those of geology, ornithology, botany, chemistry, and even the hypermodern vocabulary that makes up the web. Broken up into four sections initially published separately, Videotape collects what the shorter chapbook offers as a form—making longer, experimental, and serial poems possible due to their ability to escape from the pressures of more easily consumed “best of” poetry collections.
In the table of contents, the sections are titled “Track A: Errormirror, Track B: Lumièrethèque, Track A: Glassscape, and Track B: Zerogarden.” Here we are invited to think of the book as two records, each with their own A-side and B-side. This mode of ordering is also pleasantly ambiguous with the language of Final Cut Pro and other video editing programs. I am reminded of what Nathaniel Mackey calls a “lost twinness” or “braid” of histories in his explications of his own serial poems, “Mu” and “Song of the Andomboulou.” Indeed it is not merely by coincidence that a large chunk of Videotape is collected in the latest issue of Mackey’s experimental literary magazine, Hambone. Each of Zawacki’s subtitles are hybrid words, neologisms. Errormirror, performs a slur of r’s on the page and makes us doubt whatever pretends to be a mirror—whatever pretends to represent reality directly—the video camera being the dominant medium by which Zawacki finds his feedback loops and continuums in visual and linguistic landscapes.
Some might find it at times mildly irksome, and it’s the first thing we try as emerging poets when we learn about the line break, but Zawacki cuts words off in the middle—a lot. The book begins with rain:
Greyscale breath on a fluid
field, with lo-fi
a 60-watt sun-uns
-crewed from the
woebegone sky: rip-
rap & coal slurries…
“Unscrewed” breaks into “uns” and “-crewed.” “Un” mimics “sun,” the prefix:
“un-” suggest a lack, a negative, an absence at the poem’s first attempt at life. “Crewed” is homonymous with crude and suggests there’s some sublime labor behind the opening of day. The break also delivers a stuttered music through sudden rhyme. “Grayscale” is borrowed from the computer’s word for the range of white to black and “lo-fi” describes raw sounds from “rainpatter[’s]” basic equipment.
So much of Zawacki’s book provides immense sonic pleasure. Harsh t’s and k’s abound and enact the plastic world he describes. In this way it can either be read quickly and out-loud or very slowly with Google and a dictionary open, so we may catch every bit of Zawacki’s vocabulary and make sense of how it fogs and wires together the whole. With that said, there isn’t much of an in-between offered here. This is not a book for the impatient. When read quickly, there are blurs of common speech and confessions like “…scared to hell of fuck if / I know, / that something will / take you before I can go,” could be a speaker or self finally breaking through, but could also just be song lyrics played to an empty car in an abandoned lot. Other than in these fleeting pronouncements, the “lyric I” is largely absent. Instead, rain and storm imagery act as telecommunication, mimicking static, and maintain a larger dissonance and harmony. The book’s propulsion acts itself out rhythmically, linguistically, spatially, and psychoanalytically. By working through more specific names prescribed to things, Zawacki offers shards of a collective Id. We can either stop, learn, and appreciate, or rapidly move on.
The titles for each section of Videotape, in their hybridization, mimic a lot of the coalescing emblematic of our plastic world. Zawacki salvages not only the names for the working parts of that world, but also finds his own distended lyric. While other poets might use this as an opportunity to offer a consistently cynical poetry of trash or pedantic ecological narrative, Zawacki allows himself to find meaning in the concrete and metal deserts that litter his land. The opalescent rubbish haunts him and speaks for itself. In “Track B: Lumièrethèque,” all of the line breaks are suddenly dropped and a series of prose poems appear, but provide only the façade of linearity. The jump-cuts continue. Each section in both “Errormirror” and “Lumièrethèque” has its margins justified. It is Charles Olson’s open field poetics but filtered through photographs and video cameras a thousand times over. The words have to fit on the reel. Zawacki makes explicit reference to Olson in “Errormirror:”
content is nothing
tension of form
This is Silliman’s reversal of Robert Creeley’s mantra, quoted and jammed into all caps by Charles Olson in Projective Verse: “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT.” Zawacki breaks on “content is nothing” suggesting his case has become more severe. Zawacki longs after the “tension of form,” developed through sudden, constant, and anguished line breaks. Creeley is the godfather of the anguished line break, and his transmission of intense emotional pain, rage, and anxiety through fragmented lineation must have had an influence on Zawacki as well.
In the prose-driven Lumièrethèque, the machines again act as Frankenstein’s monster, groaning to life. One of my favorites pieces from this section speaks explicitly about Zawacki’s speaker’s attention to sound:
Noises that Skype us, scuff us awake: a moto coughing, donkey next door, the imam at 5 a.m. Muzak of the spheres: electronic tropics with Duracell birds, waves breaking in lullaby from a mobile set to ‘nature.’ Poltergeist & guttural: to mutter, la-bas, as the Niger does—muddied, & with a mouth.
Again, I am reminded of Mackey, except what Mackey finds in myth and rag, in hair and bone, Zawacki finds in wires and waves—chemicals and ice. This is not to say Zawacki isn’t interested in nature, but simply that he cannot help but look through manufactured lenses when interpreting nature. The birds are “battery-powered,” the noises “Skype us” and carry visual baggage: moto, donkey, and the mosque’s imam are seen as well as heard. Zawacki looks for the sounds that ghosts embody. After the prose poems finish, Zawacki rewinds the tape and we’re offered words scattered across the page again, yet still confined between 2½-inch margins.
One poems begins, “the vista comes / back back / -wards, / minus words.” Here Zawacki performs a bit of essayistic speech about his own book. As if to say, “I’m going to try to show you what I see, but something will always be lost, including some of the words themselves.” Zawacki likes to test the reader’s endurance. In some poems, I had to look up a word on almost every line. This is not to say I felt shut out, but that some of the pieces have a erudite quality to them. They invite us to go look up this or that word, much l as some of Robert Duncan’s poems provide terms proliferating between Gnosticism and medieval art history that we must go research in order to fully understand deeper shades of meaning, and as I looked these words up, my research became another level of filtration. From one poem I learned what eight words mean. “Telexing” is communication through the connection of wires, “Summertime bobby-/ soxes” are adolescent girls, “to flense” is to strip the blubber from a whale, “lagan” is the name for goods thrown into the sea with a buoy attached, so that they may be found. First, I was forced to look at each definition in a vacuum, then I had to put them back in an already fragmented context. Zawacki liberates the terms from their otherwise clinical contexts and offers them a place in his pleasurably sonic realm.
A lot of contemporary experimental poetry claims to be against lyric and against auditory pleasures, and it’s refreshing to watch Zawacki carve out a space that works between these dispositions. Lines like, “Villanelles / of an aniline, / analogue tide…” may seem like mere sound-play at first, but if we go and look up the word “aniline,” we see that it is a chemical that burns with the odor of rotten fish, that it is the first synthetic dye, the blue in blue jeans, and a miracle drug used for fighting cardiac arrest. Villanelle most obviously refers to a fixed poetic form that Zawacki does not adhere to, but perhaps he means to evoke the older form of the word: “Villanella,” meaning a heavily rhymed, rustic Italian song loaded with satire. It’s the music of the analogue that Zawacki’s after. By feeding the words and images into countless feedback loops, he finds what lies between the words.
Sometimes he performs an almost perverse use of word combinations, so as to poke fun at his penchant for doing so and provide eddies of relief. One poem from “Track A, Glassscape” sounds as if the speaker is directly located in his or her kitchen, or in other locations in the domestic sphere, which are subsequently made strange because the books consciousness is located within a video camera. Zawacki’s speaker admits, “…I’m far a / way on Cloudfuckyouland / where the weather / is prefab, pay-by-the- / hour, recycles at / 5¢ a pop.” Is this science fiction poetry? Zawacki shows that in every object there’s the promise for a potential future. The Betamax tape was not designed to be phased out, it was the future when it first came out. Zawacki mourns old media and digs them up for their clicks and resonances, much like Gibson does in his short story “The Gernsback Continuum,” where he evokes 1930s designs for airplanes propelled by sixty-seven jets housing entire ballrooms, or like the way programmer-artist Cory Arcangel found a nostalgic beauty in reprogramming Super Mario and his green pipes out of the game so that only the glitching clouds remained, or how sound and video artists use damaged cassette and video tapes to provide a way of hearing decay, like in William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. Perhaps it’s not the science fictional subgenre: “cyberpunk” we should use when attempting to associate with Zawacki’s poetics, but what cultural critic and emerging film scholar Evan Calder Williams calls “salvagepunk,” that Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome aesthetic, where everything is made from a broken something else and given new utility in the post-apocalyptic world.
Zawacki shows how scientific rhetoric has become increasingly unavoidable in our dealings with the collective unconscious. While at Black Mountain College, Olson told his then-student Edward Dorn “to investigate the West.” What Dorn eventually arrived at was three hundred pages of pot-smoking horses, a dead and revived “lyric I,” and one gunslinger whose bullets described, and therefore killed, and figuratively deadened anyone lost in the psychedelic West. Since then, we’ve seen countless poets compose with proper nouns in wave after wave of backlashes against those steadfast defenders of the timeless. Zawacki makes sparing use in his references to Skype and Twitter, and finds a satisfying medium between the gaudy and “The Real” wherein he integrates sets of scientific words and referents, and provides a disorienting version of the usual brand-name waterfall. In Zawacki’s Videotape, we are transported, not so much to the future as to the quickening now. In this now, an environment sings as it melds, falls victim to, and fights back against the synthetic.
The videotape is a synecdoche for an era when we had to blow into our machine’s crevices in order to get them up and humming—when we had to tediously rewind and inevitably damage our rented films’ vessels. The blue screen would often kick in and someone would’ve have recorded over our favorite movie, but there were also times where things worked out almost perfectly. The VHS would run itself all the way to the credits save for some brief clouds of static. The fiction writer and post-modernist Donald Barthelme said there is not progress in art, but motion. Maybe this is what Zawacki has uncovered in his archeological and interdisciplinary pursuits—a foreboding yet beautiful song of the machines’ first blips of autonomous motion, both “sad and hyperreal,” heard because Zawacki listened closely to the camera and videotape, which were already casually set to accelerate, amongst every other gadget, toward an increasingly unknowable future for science fiction writers and poets alike.
Will Vincent is a poet, bookseller, and teacher in the adult literacy program at Brooklyn College. His poems and articles have appeared in The Iowa Review, Inlandia, Scythe, Word Magazine, Keeping the Faith in Education, and MobyLives. He was the winner of the UCSC broadside contest in 2010. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.