An Interview With Elissa Malcohn, Former Editor Of Star*Line

18 01 2007
I began writing speculative poetry in high school and saw my work published in various speculative poetry magazines from the mid 80’s through the early 90’s. The market was surprisingly good for such a small genre. A few small press magazines, such as The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, were devoted entirely to the form.

There were a handful of small press science fiction, fantasy and horror magazines that would publish poetry specific to their genre, and several larger magazines such as Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and Amazing Stories were open to science fiction oriented speculative poetry as well. But the premier magazine for speculative poetry in those days was the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s (SFPA)official newsletter Star*Line, created by SFPA founder Suzette Haden Elgin in 1977. I recently contacted former Star*Line editor Elissa Malcohn, and she was kind enough to grant me the following interview. Ms. Malcohn was editor at Star*Line from 1986 through 1988, and had been the newsletter’s associate editor for a year prior to that. The interview provides an insight into the small, eclectic community of writers who call themselves speculative poets, and we get to meet one of the genre’s prime movers.

VG- How did you discover Star*Line, and how did you become editor there?
EM- I discovered the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA) and Star*Line in 1980 at Noreascon II: my first visit to Boston and the first of two Worldcons I attended. At that conference I’d written “Ybba”, the first poem I submitted to Star*Line, on the back of the only flyer I could find that wasn’t printed on both sides. Speculative poetry was a completely new form for me, though I’d been submitting science fiction prose (short stories and my first, unpublished, novel) since the mid-70s. I was also submitting poetry to mainstream publications.

Robert Frazier edited Star*Line then. When he accepted “Ybba” and invited me to submit more material I jumped at the chance. I’d had a smattering of publications up to that point, but Star*Line was the first to accept my work fairly consistently.

In 1983 I moved from New York to Massachusetts. Bob and his family lived on Nantucket and invited me to visit. I spent several wonderful days with them, during which time Bob showed me the editorial ropes. At that point I became Star*Line‘s assistant editor, and then became editor about a year later.

VG- What did you enjoy most about editing Star*Line?
EM- Simply connecting with people and being exposed to a variety of visions and styles.

VG- Why did you leave Star*Line?
EM- I was dealing with health problems and family crises, which when combined with work and economic pressures led to my dropping off the face of the earth as far as publications were concerned. I am very thankful to everyone who picked up the reins — Bob Frazier, Frances Langelier, Bruce Boston, Chuck and Susan Noe Rothman, and others — and would like to take this opportunity to apologize for all those things I’d inadvertently let slip through the cracks.

VG- When you were at Star*Line, what qualities in a submitted poem made it a “keeper?” What would you say was the most common reason for a poem being rejected?
EM- I tell my students that the whole submissions and editorial process is ultimately subjective. When I rejected a poem I wrote, “Another editor may feel differently.” I’ve been on the other side of that equation as well.

A poem can grab me through its crafting of language and its ideas. How is conventional language used in unconventional ways? How are metaphors used to engage the imagination? Some of the poems I rejected were literal depictions of everyday events, and which I believed did not possess enough wordplay to make the leap into the speculative realm. Some were simply too long for Star*Line‘s format, though we did sometimes publish long poems. Some, I felt, simply needed much more crafting.

VG- Did you use a computer to put Star*Line together back in those days, or did you have to cut and paste? Describe the process of putting Star*Line together.
EM- For most of my tenure, layout was strictly cut-and-paste, complete with scissors and glue stick along with rub-on lettering. I used White-out to mask paper lines. Before I could get enough art submissions I also created collages by copying, cutting, and pasting clip art taken from old Dover books. I used a computer to generate the text, but in those days I loaded a primitive word-processing program from an eight-inch floppy disk and used a daisy-wheel printer. I then sent camera-ready copy to Bruce Boston, then at Berkeley.

VG- Star*Line is nearing 30 years of publication. Did you think it would go this far? Would you be more likely to say that you like the new Star*Line, or that you miss “the old days”?
EM- I don’t think I ever thought in terms of whether Star*Line would or wouldn’t last. I was very excited to help educate people about speculative poetry back in the 80s, and I am thrilled to be doing so again in publications like PFM. When I compare new and old issues of Star*Line side by side I see continuity rather than discontinuity. The vocabulary may reflect new technologies and cultural changes, but the poetic underpinnings — the power and crafting of that vocabulary — remain the same for me.

VG- Besides Star*Line, there were several other speculative poetry magazines back in the mid 80’s. What were some of your favorites?
EM- The Magazine of Speculative Poetry (Roger Dutcher, ed.) and Velocities (Andrew Joron, ed.) — along with Aurora and Tales of the Unanticipated, small-press magazines that included speculative poetry.

VG- How do you define the term “speculative poetry”? What makes a poem “speculative”? Do you make a distinction between speculative poetry and science fiction poetry?
EM- I consider science fiction poetry to be a subset of speculative poetry — and would say the same for fantasy, horror, and science poetry. An article of mine, forthcoming in the Winter 2007 issue of Poets’ Forum Magazine, introduces the concept of speculative poetry to the general readership. PFM is interactive, introducing poetic forms and concepts and providing its readers with “challenges”.

Expanding on the SFPA’s definition of speculative poetry as driven by speculation, I wrote, “Such poetry often uses metaphors to engage the imagination and go beyond everyday reality. Even writing about the world around us, but using language other than what one might expect, can create a speculative poem.”

For that reason I would place works such as Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” and Diane Ackerman’s volume of astronomical poems, The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (William Morrow & Co., 1977) in the speculative poetry category.

VG- Do you think that speculative poetry has achieved the recognition that you and others were striving for back in the mid 80’s?
EM- I’ve been away from the field for more than a decade so I haven’t followed the trajectory, but I can point to several instances of recognition. Within the mainstream arena, the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (http://www.nfsps.com/index.htm) has featured at least two speculative categories in its annual contests. The Futuristic Award asks for a poem “that is optimistic, sensitive and persuasive concerning 2057 AD.” A past category, the Cecilia Parsons Miller Memorial Award, called for poetry of a fantastic and/or mythological nature.

Within the genre, my info comes from the speculative poetry panel at Necronomicon, which occurred in Tampa at the end of October 2006. (“Necro” was the first science fiction convention I’d attended in almost 20 years. There I met Marge Simon and Bruce Boston in person for the first time. I had corresponded with them while I was editor of Star*Line.) Once used mainly as “filler” in science fiction magazines when it was published at all, speculative poetry now can fill one or more pages, with credit in the table of contents. Such was already happening in the 80s, but that recognition seems to be more prevalent now.

As I am newly discovering, e-zines and blogs disseminate literary work, including speculative poetry, to broad audiences that might not have discovered the form in a hardcopy-only world. Online market lists further increase that exposure.

A guest essay of mine (“Using Metaphor to Terrify”) has just been published as part of Marge Simon’s [current editor of Star*Line] regular column for the Horror Writers Association, “Blood & Spades: Poets of the Dark Side” (December 2006). In addition to being delighted when Marge solicited my article, I was also happy to see a regular column at the HWA devoted to poetry. Illustrating the broad range of speculative poetry, two of the three poems accompanying the article were recent award-winners in FSPA contests. The third had originally appeared in The Magazine of Speculative Poetry back in 1985.

VG- What other publications have you edited?
EM- I’ve edited the annual anthology of the Florida State Poets Association (FSPA) since 2005 (I’ve produced it since 2003) and continue to do so. I also have edited and produced the (non-literary) newsletter of the Art Center of Citrus County since June 2006 and recently chaired the committee that updated its format. Back in the 70s I edited and produced several publications at my undergraduate alma mater, Wagner College: its literary magazine, Nimbus; psychology department newsletter, Hallucinations; and The Note, newletter of its honorary music society Alpha Tau Mu. In 1995 I edited the newsletter of the first Boston-New York AIDS Ride.

VG- You mentioned that you have been away from the field for a while; why was that, and do you have any future plans involving speculative poetry?
EM- I’ve recently rejoined the SFPA and look forward to getting involved in that organization again. I’m excited at the prospect of bridging speculative and mainstream arenas, both with the article forthcoming in PFM and with a report I wrote on Necronomicon’s speculative poetry panel, forthcoming in the FSPA newsletter Of Poets And Poetry.

My “disappearance” began in October 1988 when I left my employer to start my own business, formalizing the freelance work I’d done all along to supplement my day job. Thanks to finally finding the right medication for a physical ailment, I was also living relatively pain-free for the first time in 18 years. Long work hours put a severe damper on my Muse but stretched me in other ways. After two years of fulltime freelance work I again became an employee while continuing my independent business. During this time I also taught science fiction writing at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and creative writing at the Dorchester Center for Adult Education. In 2003 I again left employment to pursue fulltime freelancing.

I was also exploring new creative and other avenues. In the early 90s I produced a cassette tape of original music after I’d bought a Mac to meet client requirements and realized that I could experiment with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). In 1995 I did the first Boston-New York AIDS Ride, thrilled to bicycle from my adopted to my native city. At the end of that year I also began a relationship with my partner, Mary, whom I had met in the “Women Writing” group at the Cambridge Women’s Center; we celebrate our 11th anniversary this month (December 2006). We trained for a year before hiking to the floor of the Grand Canyon and back up again in 1998.

I became involved in a local chapter of the international “Goddess 2000” project and began experimenting with mixed-media art. That led to my participation in shows at the Zeitgeist Gallery (Cambridge, MA), Massachusetts College of Art (Boston), A Strong Cup of Coffee (Dorchester, MA), and now the Art Center of Citrus County in central Florida. I also helped organize the first Dorchester Open Studios.

The stresses of 9/11 came very shortly after a cousin with whom I was very close died at age 44. I coped by taking up running, and continued that activity up to the time of my father’s death in 2002 (my mother had died 20 years earlier). Mary and I moved to Florida in 2003. Thanks to the Internet I’ve kept some Boston clients, picked up new ones, and work locally as well, teaching creative writing at the Art Center. (My course and a co-ed, free-writing group that I patterned after “Women Writing” mark the center’s first regular activities devoted to creative writing.) In 2005 I purchased my first “good camera” and have exhibited and sold some photographic work. My website (a search for “Malcohn’s World” should get you there) lists additional community activities.

Following our move down here I returned to my own creative writing in earnest and have been trying to get back up to speed in the industry. Given that the Internet didn’t exist for the general public when I was last active, I feel a bit like Rip Van Winkle.

VG- I understand that you recently signed a contract for a book called Covenant. What can you tell us about Covenant, and when can we look for it?
EM- Covenant, the first volume of my trilogy Deviations, is forthcoming from Koboca Publishing in November 2007. That story has particular relevance for this interview because it was inspired by Joseph Payne Brennan’s 15-line poem, “When Tigers Pass” (from his Sixty Selected Poems, The New Establishment Press, 1985). I forget where I bought the Brennan volume, but I’m sure it was within the speculative poetry arena. Although Brennan was known mainly as a horror writer, he had also published seven poetry collections.

I read “When Tigers Pass” while riding the bus home from work in November 1985. By the time I reached my stop I was mentally outlining a short story — which, though praised by peers, was also criticized as needing more information and explanation. I put the draft away because I was working on other projects at the time. After moving to Florida I dug out the draft and my old critiques and began to expand the story into what became Deviations.

From my pitch: “Long ago the Masari and the Yata hunted together in peace, until the species they drove to extinction included those possessing nutrients necessary to Masari survival. The Yata then became the only source of those nutrients. Deviations tells how these peoples cope with the reality of being sentient creatures forced to play the roles of predator and prey, and how several of them try to thwart long-established conventions in the hope of overcoming their biological imperative. In Deviations love triumphs in the midst of death. The series focuses on the social, ethical, and spiritual dilemmas surrounding both the literal cannibalism of the societies involved and the many ways in which their different communities feed off each other.”

Covenant takes its title from the religious system that embodies one method of coping. The conflict that system engenders sets the stage for larger upheavals across the region in a pre-industrial, Earth-like world.

VG- Any chance that you will be editing another speculative poetry magazine in the future?
EM- I imagine I’m fairly out of touch with the genre at this point, and would want to catch up with recent publications. Afterwards — who knows?

VG- In your entire career to date, writing or editing, what are you most proud of?
EM- I write from my own corner of the human condition in the hope that a reader can relate to what my Muse delivers. I had no inkling of the attention that “Lazuli” (Asimov’s, Nov. 1984) would get, but what affected me most was learning that it has helped some readers deal with their own trauma of abuse. I had drafted the story after attending one of Ellen Bass’s “I Never Told Anyone” workshops. Part of its text is taken from writing I did as part of that workshop.

I enjoy being a facilitator. Many people want to express themselves but are intimidated by the act of writing. I gear both my teaching and my free-writing group toward overcoming that intimidation. Often people come to the group claiming they “can’t write” and then surprise themselves. If they are looking or ready for criticism I direct them to a local critique group in which I am also active, and which has helped me a great deal as well.

If you would like to learn more about Ms. Malcohn and her work you can find her at Malcohn’s World and Chronicles From Hurricane Country.

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1 03 2009
Elissa Malcohn’s “Deviations” Series in Limbo « The Void Sprocket

[…] Long time readers of my blog Vacuum Genesis know Elissa Malcohn.  I did an interview with her here, and mentioned her first Deviations book, Covenant, […]

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