This article appeared in the September issue of the HWA Newsletter, as a guest column for Marge Simon's Blood and Spades column.
Imagination and Persona in Horror Poetry
J. Bruce Fuller
Ahh, the blank page. How many of us have started with a blank page, a clean slate, something to dirty up and smear with our words and thoughts and fears? Each and every one of us, as writers, have looked down upon a blank page and tried to coax out of it our poems and stories (and in my current predicament, an essay about poems and stories). What ultimately leads a writer to fill a page?
Sounds simple, right? It is, but let me explain further. All writers imagine, make-up people, create situations, and then funnel those elements into a cohesive work. It is ultimately what separates us from all those people who would like to write but sit down at the shrine of the blank page and decide that they can never come up with anything to say. Even the most straitlaced nonfiction writers have to imagine what would be interesting enough to research and write about, and then often find themselves imagining what some historical figure might have done, or what might have happened next. Imagination.
Writers of horror, fantasy, and science fiction have imagination in great abundance. You do not need me to tell you this. What I would like to tell you is that this can also apply to poetry. Yes. Poetry.
In school we were led to believe that poetry was for the well educated, for people who could decipher complex historical and sentimental codes, that a poem was a puzzle to be solved. The truth is that poetry today is fresh and open to imagination, and even the grand blustery poems we read in school were using a great deal of it.
Perhaps the most powerful tool we poets have is persona. A persona poem is a poem in which the speaker is not the poet. This may sound simple and maybe even a little patronizing, but the fact is that most casual readers of poetry have trouble determining whether the speaker is the poet or an imagined or historical character. Blame the Confessional movement. Blame every teenager that ever poured their angst onto a page and called it poetry. Whatever the reason, poetry has come into a time where both personal and persona poems are abundant and living side by side.
Persona is the most versatile of poetic devices. We can be whoever we want to be, dive into the head of whatever character we choose, be as bad or good as we want. It is no different than creating a character for a novel or short story.
I suspect that many speculative novelists and short story writers could thrive and be successful as poets using exactly what they have been using all along. Imagination. Sure, the rules are slightly different in poetry, but in format only—the place where good writing comes from is the same.
I would like to show a few examples of my own attempts at creating persona in horror poetry. I will start with a poem that I co-wrote with the poet Ana Spann, called “Blood in the Bourbon.”
The bell-curve in the streetlight sent it
Down the casings of my bones.
Behind the smell of fried dough
Daubed with sugar, behind the slick
Sweet of sizzled pork and mustard,
Behind the oily crunch of peanut shells
Under the soles of my boots, behind
The wind-borne tang of whiskey spit,
The dusting of red like shattered lipstick
Woke it up—inside me the thorough shudder
Licked down at the mist of blood. I need this
Tonight. She disappears behind a
White cross-marked tent to staunch her
Pretty nose smashed by the smudged steel
Of the guardrail. The Ferris wheel
Cranks slowly away from the dirt.
Keen are the musings of the knifeman.
His apparatus, ordered and polished clean
throw sparks on the tent roof, moments of
diamond-shine cast into a night sky
covered by the smoke of daydreams lost.
Woke it up—he says to himself over and
over again, though none have puzzled out
what had been sleeping. It was his performance
to give and the lines were shuffling into the
tent like targets. The cold instruments tinkled
like a tea set in his carpetbag.
Henrietta’s hair catches a tuft as one nicks by,
Close enough for the gasp, banging smooth
Into the boards. The sweat behind her shoulders
Marks the wood dark, and the black handle
Shudders. The big sepia of her eyes blinks
Calm as a cow. A sparkle in her dress mirrors
From the next blade tweezed in my fingers—
My feet in leather shuffle the sod. A moth the
Size of gumballs blips between her thighs
And I fling the knife like a falling bird.
Metal sheathes in the slight space midway,
The intake of breath, a lever pulled.
Bells and whistles woke it up, woke it up.
Henrietta’s knickers are purple tonight.
I wet my lips with a scarred tongue.
The show was fine, though Henrietta
sweated more than usual tonight. It’s
this goddamned South with its deadpan
swelter and mosquito bites and they are all so
bloody proud of it. Keeps my performers in
a ruckus is what it settles up to and it’ll cost me
an extra barrel of whiskey to keep the crew in order.
He slipped out of the back flap to avoid
the gawking public. Just hugged his set
close like it was Spanish steel. Good for business
I told him, got to work the crowd, I said
but he just sniffed the air loudly
Good for business I said.
The drops like olive oil beaded in the powder.
Henrietta shook off the knives like
A specimen under collector’s pins.
Metal and mud, metal and mud,
I can taste the vein-borne rock salt heavy
In the choking air. His words battered by
My ears… I will slip unnoticed like cancer.
There’s someone to be freed
In the curtain’s stripe, in the bathroom’s
Plastic cage. A donkey bellows, shits
Inside his wire pen. These knives draw
Close to my skin like magnets, marked
With the stain of my fingers, the knowledge
Behind my filtering sight. They know
What comes when the foghorn blows.
I will mix bourbon with blood tonight.
There was a spark in the air
like the feeling you get when the sheep have been
spooked and it was real and it tasted like ozone.
Folks were milling about the area with their
ice cream falling off the cone, and some
with their hands in other people’s pockets.
When I got to the front of the crowd Henrietta
stops me and she says that it was him and he
always made her sick with his smell and his seclusion
and whoever in the world licks his knives like that?
She was riled and asking me a hundred questions
and would she have a job still and the body
was lying there for the crowd to see like a
side of beef fell off the back of a wagon. There’s
a job still honey, I told her and damned
if she didn’t skip off to a new tune.
Kneeling, I feel the cap over my knees
Creak. I am rusting old. I will drink it fast.
Their silhouettes bobble like frantic
Children behind the tent’s rubber veil.
It grooves down the duller edge, staining the
Belly of the amber-filled glass, swirling
Lazy like the vinegared drops that color eggs.
I stir with the tip of my smallest nail.
Their indignant coughs swallow up the trees.
They are headless fowl. They search me out.
My head falls back, I smash the glass,
Sucking the taste at my tongue’s far base.
(Originally published in Chimaera Serials, November 2006)
The poem is set in an early twentieth century travelling sideshow, a time and place that neither I nor Ana had any personal knowledge about. We researched. We imagined. The setting itself lends the kind of atmosphere we wanted, so the true work of the poem was creating believable people to live in it.
There are several personas working in the poem at once. The italicized stanzas are the thoughts of a knife thrower who sees an accident, and upon seeing the blood, reverts to horrific thoughts that have been dormant. The other stanzas are in the persona of a man who is the proprietor of the sideshow, and is recalling the incident after the fact. The two perspectives give the poem its tension, as the two personas push and pull on each other.
Persona does not have to only deal with people, but can be applied to creatures or objects. In my poem “28 Blackbirds at the End of the World,” I tried to imagine what the end might look like through the eyes of the blackbird, an already ominous omen. The symbol of the blackbird adds to the dark subject matter, and seeing these events through fresh eyes helps to give the subject matter a fresh feel. Here is an excerpt—
in the darkness
man cannot see the blackbird
on blackened clouds
swarm of locusts
south for the winter
against a burned sky
the four horsemen
charging across the fields
scavenging the ryegrass
the sky, short sanctuary
feathers in the ash
world burned black
the hearts of men are black
blackbird’s eye is black
(Originally published in Scifaikuest, November 2007, reprinted in The 2008 Rhysling Anthology (SFPA/Prime Books, 2008))
By using the tool of persona we can bring fresh ideas and new experiences to both poetry and the horror genre. It is, in the case of the latter, a necessary tool in order to bring to life those darkest notions of humankind (I mean, how many of us are actually knife throwers?). All it requires is a little imagination and a blank page.