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Interview
MIchael Arnzen: Horror, Poetry and Tabloid Truth

by Paula Guran

October 2000

Even in the bleakest depths of market despair, the horror writer can always cheer up by thinking , "Well, at least I don't write poetry." As Elbert Hubbard defined back in 1923, "Poet: A person born with the instinct to poverty." -- Michael Arnzen

So, here we have Michael Arnzen who is not only a horror writer [GRAVE MARKINGS (1994) won both the Stoker and the IHG for first novel; short fiction in many places] but also a poet [two collections: CHEW AND OTHER RUMINATIONS (1990) and WRITHING IN DARKNESS (1997); various other publications.] His only redemption from such sheer follies is the fact he got a Ph.D. in English from the University of Oregon (dissertation: THE POPULAR UNCANNY) and landed a job at Seton Hill College in Pennsylvania teaching creative writing in literature.

He has an odd little poetry collection out now, PARATABLOIDS (see review below), that you might enjoy even if you have no use for poetry. This prompted me to ask him a few questions. Released from grading freshman comp papers for a few hours, and fueled by caffeine, the not-quite-mad scholar,

DE: Why write horror? Why write poetry?

M. ArnzenMA: I write hoarchives/braunbeck.html#heavene of the most libertarian and experimental of genres in the publishing world: it allows a writer to be risky, to freely experiment, and to rub people's noses in things they would otherwise avoid like the Ebola virus. Horror writers get to not only crawl around in the muck of the so-called "dark side," but are also virtually REQUIRED to unflinchingly confront what other forms of fiction consider taboo or off-limits. I love Clive Barker's infamous tagline about horror and the imagination: "There are no limits." That's so true. And Clive was successful not only because he could really dig around in all those splattery areas of horror, but because he broke free of the conventional forms to do his own thing and take horror to new levels: instead of following in the footsteps of Levin, Blatty, and King, he wrote short stories and plays. And we all know what happened to his collections, THE BOOKS OF BLOOD: they launched his career and THEN allowed him to turn to novels. He produced some really good ones, but he's better known now for his work in images: the films, of course, but also the artwork he's created and hung in galleries. See, Barker meant that there are no limits to not only subject matter, but to the form or medium it takes, as well. And I feel the same way. When I'm up to full speed, I'm always juggling projects in different forms at the same time: I write stories, poems, novel chapters, and articles. Sometimes I'm genre hopping, or flip-flopping between academic approaches to horror and experimental treatments of plot. I keep my mind circulating in different areas, dabbling with meter here or playing with chapter forms there -- if I get bored with one, I turn to another. And I read all over the place -- from cereal boxes to the latest issue of FLINCH. Juggling like this keeps me out of falling into ruts and habits; it turns writer's block into some sort of cliche in a foreign language. So I guess I have the Clive Barker "no limits" attitude about it all...but I just so happen to suck at painting, so I write poems.

The process of writing poetry is different from fiction, too, obviously. When I write a story I'm immersed -- experiencing the story world the way a character might, no matter how crazy or absurd. But when I write a poem, I'm more contemplative, more attentive to language and structure, and more abstract in my thinking about fear and dread and all that gruesome stuff. Both approaches overlap for me sometimes and make me a better writer for it. I once interviewed Brian Herbert about his father's poetry, and he told me that his dad -- Frank Herbert -- would write a haiku before launching into a chapter in his epic SF book, DUNE. The very idea enthralls me, and it reminds me just how blurry the boundaries really are between poetry and prose.

Poetry also appeals to me because it: a) is an archaic form that isn't widely read -- which is just kind of cool, like studying how to speak Latin when no one really knows how to pronounce it anymore, or like programming games for the Commodore 64; and, b) isn't very commercial. I like to make a buck as much as the next person -- and I do feel that economic success is usually a good indicator of artistic success in our field. But I also like to feel like I do what I do for the sake of art, for the sake of the story, and not for the sake of a buck. The last thing I want to do is pickpocket my readers -- I respect them too much. After all, I'm a fan of horror, too, and while I do want to be manipulated and outsmarted by the authors I read, I hate to pick up a book and feel like I've been tricked by some sideshow carnival barker whose act is getting stale. I don't want to be that guy, the guy standing outside the freakshow tent saying "come one, come all" to only give them women with fake beards and Barbie dolls in pickle jars. I want to give my readers the real deal, the honest storytelling. And the "payoff" for me isn't the money, but that intimate exchange that happens when readers and writers come together on the page. I feel like I'm a part of something bigger than myself when I write a good story or poem or article and get it published and hear back from others that they liked it. That's the best part of the cake -- the rest is just so much extra frosting.

DE: What is "dark poetry"? Where can we learn more?

MA: Although you could probably go as far back as the Graveyard Poets of the 18th century to try to define "dark poetry," today's horror reader probably encounters it in one of two places: 1) in the margins of classic horror magazines that still survive today (like WEIRD TALES) or the more risky and experimental small press mags (like GRUE); 2) on the internet, whether in all those bastions of teen angst that allow people to post their emotions with the click of a button or otherwise in edited and/or literary "Goth" sites like "Skin and Bones" (readers can see my on-line "gallery" there, with illos by Alan Clark, at: http://www.skinandbones.net). If you discover that you LIKE it, and start to read more, then you might hunt down the more specialized magazines, chapbooks, and other special volumes put out primarily by the small press. There are some really good ones out there, like Scott Urban's FRISSON or David Kopaska-Merkel's long-running DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES magazine. Dark Regions Press put out a fantastic "selected poetry" series of chapbooks a few years ago that really captured the talent of the small press scene.

It's worth noting that most of horror poetry's more dedicated readers seem to be other poets -- I guess there's something contagious about poetry. I always doodled with poems and enjoyed reading them, but I was really inspired to start publishing them when I encountered the work of a two poets: John Gray and Paul Dilsaver, both of whom blew me away with their imaginations and images...and they managed to write in plain speech, too. So I started trying to follow in their footsteps, with a more horror fiction-oriented focus, perhaps -- and I started corresponding with other poets like Ree Young and Marge Simon, friends who I came into contact with through writer's groups like the Science-Fiction Poetry Association. I've been writing and publishing poetry for over ten years now and, honestly, very few people know about it. And that's okay, because I enjoy having this "other" thing I do that only hardcore fans might enjoy. But I hope I'm not sounding like Jewel when I say that. Yikes! Believe me, I'm no Jewel... Crewel, maybe.

DE: What's the core idea behind PARATABLOIDS?

Paratabloids MA: PARATABLOIDS takes actual headlines from the Weekly World News and re-imagines the stories that might go along with them in the form of poetry. I often take the ludicrous and funny headlines -- like "Woman Marries a Shark" -- and treat them very seriously, looking for the hidden truths that make these things appealing in the first place. "Shark," for example, is probably the closest thing to a love poem I've ever written. But it's still kind of tongue-in-cheek, so the sarcasm and parody is still very much a part of the book. I really tried to keep the dark humor and the horror or fantasy alive in them, too, particularly when I used those lesser headlines from the tabloids that might be a little more boring than the rest...the ones you might skim over because you know they really ARE true. You know, the oddities and the curiosities and the "That's Incredible!" sort of headlines that appear in small boxes, without any doctored photographs or crazy illustrations. Like the one in the book called "Victims Tortured for their ATM Card Numbers." Crazy, but probably true, right? So I took the "PIN number" concept and came up with a bizarre and cruel form of torture, framing it in the form of light verse, in something akin to a joke. But I won't give the poem away here. In his intro, Ed Bryant says he sees me as "the headline performer in a steamy comedy club or perverse poetry slam...in hell." I think that sums up my approach rather well -- I'm trying to get people to pay attention to something that they might otherwise just laugh away.

Generally speaking, the book was an experiment for me -- I just used the headlines as a series of prompts to practice my poetry writing -- and the process became so addictive that I ended up writing a whole book full of them. I started sharing some of them at poetry and fiction readings and audiences loved them so much that I figured I was on to something. I put a batch of them on the web for a year, and lo and behold the page won Netscape's "Cool Site of the Day" award. I tried to keep most of them unpublished until this past year, after I had sold PARATABLOIDS to Ozark Triangle, to keep the collection special and unique for readers of my work. There's also a great introduction by Ed Bryant and a number of quirky little illustrations by Mike Bittick. While the production quality of the cover is a bit disappointing to me, the book is a lot of fun overall.

DE: Why should we read it?

MA: For the same exact reason that you might read the Weekly World News: because you love the ludicrous and you want to be surprised by crazy possibilities you hadn't considered before. Most people just want to see the headlines, but here I've gone and put an extra spin on them, asking you to read them differently. The Weekly World News is hilarious but it's also probably the best selling form of extrapolation fiction in the marketplace. I see it as a form of parody -- it sends up the news -- and I believe everyone knows that, too. Who thinks these things are real? No one. And yet they're all about believability, once you suspend disbelief. And they're their own form -- falling somewhere between fact and fiction, but not quite "fitting in" with other genres like newspapers or magazines. They're sort of like poetry that way -- they address needs in a different and unique way. Yet poetry books are about as far away from the "point-of-sale" in the grocery store as you can get with the printed word. And in the world of literature, poetry always takes itself as seriously as newspapers do when it comes to reporting the truth. These contradictions and similarities are really interesting to me. I figure they might interest others.

DE: Are you going back to novel writing at any point?

coverMA: While I've always been working on one thing or another, I sort of let my novels sit on the back burner while I finished up my Ph.D. I thought graduate school would be easier than it was, but it kept interrupting my writing routine -- and when the coursework was finished, my book project had to be my dissertation. I'm the sort of writer who works in spurts, and I usually need to focus on a project for a long period of concentrated time, and the only way I could do during my Ph.D. studies was by writing short stories or poems. I've managed to write enough to generate a collection of short stories, called FLUID MOSAIC (and Other Outré Objects d'art), that I'm happy to announce will be coming out from Wildside Press this Winter. People who only read the horror novels available at warehouse bookstores might wonder where I went, but I've been working here and there in the genre all along. Indeed, I just now realized that I've produced about a book-a-year over the past half-decade -- from poetry chapbooks like WRITHING IN DARKNESS to book-length academic studies like the special issue on the Uncanny that I guest edited for PARADOXA to PARATABLOIDS and FLUID MOSAIC this year.

But to answer your question directly, I'm already back in the swing of things. I've got two novel premises that I've launched into -- one I'm drafting, the other I'm outlining. I don't want to give away too much but I guess I can tell you a little bit about my plans. One book is a science fictional sort of allegory tentatively called THE CURE, which is set in a federal penitentiary in the near future, and involves very unique forms of capital punishment and prison labor. I'm also outlining a book that deals with kidnapping, only this one will feature a really dark and sinister twist that really gets us into the mind of the kidnapper. I mean, what are kidnappers thinking, anyway? I never understood them...so I'm figuring it out by writing about it. That one might be called THE DIRTY NAP, but I'm not sure about that yet. I've also got a novel called PLAY DEAD which was written awhile ago but hasn't been marketed well because of the horror drought of the late 1990s and because of problems with various agents, who I suspect have problems knowing how to package me in easy to assemble boxes. I play with form a lot and I think liking my work requires having a weird sense of humor and a high threshold for grizzle. But what people in the publishing business (at least those whose idea of horror is entirely founded on the X-Files and Scream) don't understand is that readers don't want their horror served up in a perfectly square box...we like our horror bent, twisted, and off-center, right? That's why the Abyss line in the 1990s was so cool and ten years later is still the standard for cutting edge horror. Abyss not only had the best covers (which was, honestly, the primary reason I submitted GRAVE MARKINGS to them), but it really tried to do something new with every book in their line-up. The genre really needs another publisher with the courage Dell had with Abyss. It took chances on new visions (like Kathe Koja and Poppy Z. Brite and Brian Hodge and Robert Devereaux) and resurrected the quality writers who were underappreciated in a genre that was dominated by the commercial giants like King and Koontz (instead, Abyss published what I would call modern classics by Etchison and MacDowell). And the whole line was edited by someone who really was a fan of the genre and knew what she was doing (Jeanne Cavelos, who now runs the Odyssey workshops for fantasists). I like what electronic publishing is doing for the genre, but I think we're in for another glut of bad horror once Stephen King's book ON WRITING comes out and inspires others...just in time for the digital culture's version of vanity publishing kicks into high gear. But like I said, there are no limits and I think the best books to come will really experiment with the medium itself and do something not only new, but really scary BECAUSE it's new.

DE: So, what's academic life like for a horror writer/weird poet?

coverMA: I guess I should answer this question by saying why I decided to get my Ph.D. in the first place. I finished GRAVE MARKINGS around the time I was finishing my BA and I entered graduate school in order to write my second book and not only get good feedback on it, but also get paid to teach along the way. I did that, and I sort of fell in love with teaching and taking seminars, because they allowed me to talk about stories in ways that I couldn't do as a full time writer, which is really a lonely sort of business, in the end. But along the way, I found out that there were all these studies of horror, but they were really outdated and kind of dry: mostly historical studies that talked about Romanticism in DRACULA and things like that. All the cutting edge work was being done on science-fiction, as cyberpunk and hypertext studies were becoming hot topics among post-modern critics in academia. But no one was talking about horror. So I got mad and started writing about contemporary horror: my first academic essay was on EVIL DEAD 2, one of the greatest films ever made, in my opinion. I went on to publish a discussion of "post-structural theory" in Kathe Koja's THE CIPHER. And I think I fell into a world where I felt like I was opening people's eyes and turning them on to new things. So I decided to keep going and get my Ph.D. if I didn't burn out. I came close, but I finished and I learned a TON of things about the genre that I never would have learned otherwise.

And I got a dream job, too: I now get to teach in a new graduate program at Seton Hill College, which offers one of the only Master of the Arts degrees in Writing Popular Fiction in the country. I'm teaching side by side with writers like James Morrow and Nancy Springer and Tom Lipinski. We've had cool visiting guests like S.J. Rozan and Jennifer Crusie and -- drum roll please -- Octavia Butler will be here this January. I'm getting to work with some really bright students, too, people who have already been successfully published or are about to make a name for themselves, like Nalo Hopkinson, Robert Sawyer and Ryan Michael Williams, all of whom work in SF. (Which is another way of saying: we need more horror writers!). I teach undergrads full time during the school year, which puts a real crimp in my writing schedule, but I often get to teach the classes I love which more than makes up for that. In the past three years, I've taught classes in horror writing, classic horror literature, and horror cinema. I've given lectures across the country on films like THE BROOD and IDLE HANDS and I fondly remember giving a speech on John Carpenter's remake of THE THING for my Ph.D. oral exam. Academia can be droll, and the people in academia can be droller, but if you're willing to put up with the crusty raised eyebrows of skeptics and nay-sayers and if you're willing to do a lot of research and hard thinking, you can really have a blast and get paid to work in what you love.

But like I said, it's very difficult to find time to write when you're teaching a full load. There are other little problems: I had to skip World Horror Con in Denver because our graduation ceremony was on the same weekend, and my attendance was required. And there's a weird divide between popular culture fans and academic critics: neither side trusts the other and people like me fall somewhere in the middle, being held under the suspicion of both. Being "between worlds" like this alienates me a bit, but it also gives me an original and unique perspective on the genre as well as on "academentia." But overall, I enjoy the increasing opportunities I've been given to "spread the word" about horror in circles where it has universally been scoffed at as "gutter" literature or even, for some people, something akin to male pornography. I'm helping make horror a legitimate area of study and I like being a part of that almost as much as I like writing it. For, in the end, I see literary criticism and lecturing as form of creative writing more than anything else. Why not? Like Barker said, there are no limits. Or better yet: the academic side of me gets to look real closely at what those limits are, and to make an issue out of them. In some ways, horror fiction is social criticism and I like to turn people on to that.


Michael Arzen also has his own Web site.

CHAPBOOK REVIEW

PARATABLOIDS
by Michael A. Arnzen
Ozark Triangle Press / 48 pg. /$5.00 + $1.00 S&H
ISBN 1-893816-04-4

GIRL ABANDONED AT BIRTH RAISED BY RATTLESNAKES

YOUR NEIGHBOR MAY BE A SPACE ALIEN

CHICAGO MOM GIVES BIRTH TO 7-LB EYEBALL!

Michael Arnzen rips headlines from hyperbolic tabloids to explore veracity in twenty-two poems full of dark humor and odd revelations. In a culture that tunes into "reality shows" and gobbles up the "truth" about aliens and miracle cures, exaggeration may indeed be truth and consensus reality may only be individual perception. Divided into "Freakcidents," "Predictovisions," and "Alienationships", these poems are sharper than Ginsu knives as they peer with Slice-O-Maticked perspicacity and dark humor into our world. Insane, intelligent, and insightful, PARATABLOIDS is hilarious and very, very human.

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Copyright © 2000 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.