(Originally posted October 19, 2021 by Isaac Payne)
Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of talking to Tristan Beiter, a rising star in the world of speculative poetry.
I’ve been following Tristan’s journey as a poet for a few years, and had a chance to ask him about his thoughts on speculative poetry as a genre, his favorite poets, as well as his upcoming work.
Tristan Beiter is a speculative poet originally from Central Pennsylvania now living in Rhode Island. He holds a BA in English Literature and Gender and Sexuality Studies from Swarthmore College and an MA in the Humanities (emphasis in Poetry and Poetics) from the University of Chicago.
His work can be found in such venues as Abyss & Apex, Fantasy Magazine, Liminality, Bird’s Thumb and others. When not reading or writing, he can be found doing needlecrafts, crafting absurdities with his boyfriend, or shouting about literary theory. Find him on Twitter at @TristanBeiter
Isaac Payne: A lot of people have different definitions of speculative poetry, and some consider it to not even be a genre, as the nature of poetry is so non-linear and experimental that all poetry could come off as speculative. What does speculative poetry mean to you?
Tristan Beiter: That’s a great question. I’m sure there are panels I haven’t read, but I’ve read all of the discussions I have been able to find about what is spec poetry. These include the panels in Strange Horizons and a bunch of blog posts on the topic. This was a main issue during my Master’s thesis, it’s “what do I mean when I say speculative poetry?”
And the answer I came to, based on all the discussions and my own feelings as a writer, is that in some ways its very simple but also very difficult.
On one hand, you can define it as narrowly as poetry published under the umbrella of spec fic. By this I mean that they’re published in spec fic magazines by authors who call their poems speculative poetry. In some ways, that’s really useful. It sets apart poetry published in literary venues from poetry published in speculative-specific magazines.
But I think that definition is too restrictive.
For me, it comes down to what role is the imaginary playing. It’s about whether the speculative element is more than a metaphor.
In the case of stuff published in genre magazines like Strange Horizons, Uncanny, and Abyss & Apex, it’s pretty straightforward. When we have a poem about a dragon, maybe it’s a metaphor, but also there’s a dragon here. If there wasn’t a dragon in it, we wouldn’t have wanted to publish it at this spec fic venue.
But it also comes down to something you can feel in the text. When they say alien, do they mean space aliens, or just a sense of otherness?
In my experience, I find that you can identify when a speculative poem by it’s feeling. It’s like the Supreme Court case with the famous porn test: ‘I know it when I see it but I can’t define it.’ You can really feel when a speculative element is there on its own terms as well as doing whatever figurative work it’s doing.
And that for me is what makes a poem a speculative poem.
IP: Who are some of your favorite poets?
TB: There are a lot of great poets out there. I’m a big fan of some of the main people we see in the speculative space. R.B. Lemberg, Amal El-Mohtar, Beth Cato, Sonya Taafee.
But I’m also reading lots of other kinds of poetry as well. I tend to gravitate toward poets like Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Lo Kwa Mei-en, and Franny Choi.
Recently I’ve been reading Anne Carson, her work is really special. And Danez Smith, Patricia Smith, and T.S. Elliot.
IP: You’ve had some of your work published in Fantasy Magazine, Liminality, and GlitterShip, and your new poem “Fountain Found in an Abandoned Garden” is out now from Abyss & Apex, right? Can you tell me more about your inspiration for that poem?
TB: That was a really fun and exciting one to work with. It started in several places at once, how many of the pieces we’re excited about as writers start.
One of the places of genesis for the very first draft was written in the advanced poetry workshop in my senior year of undergrad, fall of 2018. The assignment was to write several abecedarian poems, and those are poems where each line begins or ends with one letter of the alphabet. It’s a form I’m really excited about, it’s a major thread in Lo Kwa Mei-en’s The Bees Make Money in the Lion, which is actually the subject of my Master’s thesis.
I tried several poems, A-Z one word per line, Z-A one word per line, and A-Z where I could have as much space as I wanted.
It was the third poem that eventually became “Fountain Found in an Abandoned Garden.”
One of the other strands that goes into this poem is all of my feelings about secluded spaces, statuaries, and garden spaces. I’ve been writing about this idea a lot, and this was my most recent attempt at it.
You go to a place and it’s all alone, you’re all alone. It’s not about being lonely, I wasn’t a lonely child. I had a lot of friends and I loved them, but sometimes I wanted to go to a place and be alone, to feel like the whole world fell away.
In those spaces, I was free to be anyone and anything, not having to worry about the expectations of friendship or growing up in a small town.
There are places like that all over, but that place I’m talking about is at the base of the fire escape at the church by my house where I grew up. There are boring evergreen trees hiding this place, but it’s a tiny slate patio with a bench and flowers in pots, and the fire escape.
That space embodied an absolute freedom, and I’d describe it as a homosexual place, which makes to sense. It’s not a culturally gay space, more of a personally gay space for me. I never knew anyone who ever looked in on this place, as far as I could tell, no one had set foot onto that patio, and that is the space and energy I was tapping into with this poem.
That feeling of twin freedom and aloneness, which is everywhere, but at the same time very hard to access. It’s exciting and hopeful but also kind of sad because it requires acknowledging that the person you are in relation to other people is not, and will never be, all the person you are. The poem isn’t just about the closet, obviously, it’s about lots of other things, but it is also about what it was like when the closet was part of my life, even though it isn’t anymore.
IP: You mentioned that you studied speculative poetry for your Master’s thesis at the University of Chicago; what did you learn about spec poetry there that you hadn’t previously thought about or learned?
In some ways, everything. I really learned so much about how to approach big questions I have about genre in a more principled way. But I also learned to be a better reader, both of poems and criticism. And the really important thing was that I gained a new appreciation for the relationship between the poem as the object, the poem as the project, poetics as the question, and poetics as the theory.
It helped me clarify the ways in which writing a poem is both similar to and different from reading a poem. They were things I had been thinking about and it was largely a confirmation of instincts, but it gave more clarity to those similarities and differences.
And it helped me understand the relationship between questions of ‘how does this text work’—that’s poetics as the questions. And interpretations of how does the poem in general work, what is the poem in general?
How can I use individual poems to learn about poetry at large and vice versa.
It was a big complement to the critical side of my undergrad, which really taught me about how to read criticism and when to realize that criticism is about the author, and that’s most notable in cases like T.S. Elliot.
He’s sort of a pet case for me. I find his critical writings, things like Tradition of Individual Talent, and his Hamlet essay, to not necessarily be right. I don’t think he’s right about the poems or texts he’s writing about.
But it told me a lot about what he wanted to do in his own writing.
If you approach The Wasteland and think ‘what is this fragmented, sprawling monster,’ you can go, wait a second, T.S. Elliot thinks that literature is the invocations of the right words in the right order to produce the correct response.
What does it mean to read The Wasteland as an attempt to elicit a uniform, overwhelming response, almost as if by magic?
And so, at Chicago, I was able to go the other direction, thinking about how do I take poems and from them abstract a theory?
IP: What kind of projects are you currently working on? Can we expect to see a book of poetry from you in the future?
Although I have a chapbook manuscript, about ten poems, that I’ve been shopping around occasionally, I am nowhere near ready to assemble a full-length manuscript.
I’m excitedly awaiting the day I’m ready to embark on that project because I like thinking about poems together in context to each other. But I’m not there yet.
Right now, I’m writing a variety of things. Quite a few religious-of-sorts poems in the works, prayers and spells to a variety of invented gods. One I have no idea what to do with because it’s a doctrinal document. I like the entity I’ve invented, it’s appeared in two poems so far, but I don’t know what to do with the second one.
I’m also doing a series of poems based on “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” which is deeply unfinished, and I’m not totally sure if it will go anywhere.
I have some other unconnected projects too; I sort of fill notebooks at random. A lot has happened in the past twelve months!
Thanks to Tristan for having this delightful conversation!