Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Treaders of Starlight, the 1974 Coinage, and Rebecca S. Marcus

In some ways traveling back in a life seems but the matter of a moment. Now we are here; now, there. Yet to take anyone else into paired moments of the Now and the Then becomes an exercise in drawing lines — between vagueness and precision, between the dimly possible and the clearly impossible.

I cannot help the vagueness. As to the precision, I have kept records, if incompletely, as well as copies of publications, all now scattered and hidden on shelves and in boxes. Sometimes I have kept journals, though where they might be the mouse telleth not. And I may have old correspondence, since in mythic times people wrote on paper, gave them wings of perforated postage, and had "correspondents" afar who opened envelopes to have their lives changed, in small.

At an early point in my life I became a drain on my parents' pocketbooks due to my correspondence. While stamp collecting had not yet died for me, there in the early Seventies, rejection-slip collecting was gaining its hold on my affections. I long have had the memory that my first poem appeared when I was thirteen, the age I was through most of 1972. In 1973, having been in correspondence with writers in a circle surrounding a fantasy-magazine effort named Wyrd, it came to me that I should attempt the same for a type of poetry that was as much imagination-based as was the fiction in Wyrd or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, where the classified ad appeared that had led me into the small press.

I have wondered about putting words to memories about these small-press efforts — which did result in tangible publications in 1973, 1974, and 1976. I long have avoided it. I did feel curious as to whether facts about them, meager that they are, would sift out without my help, through anyone else's sieve. Yet I think my tendency to silence and avoidance prevailed, with my curiosity being simply a blind in which I could hide myself from myself. That tendency has served me sometimes poorly — as I know all too well after the self-imposed silence following my Kornbluth biography's publication.

I dwell often, these days, on the hide-and-seek motif in Robert Frost's early poems "Going for Water" and "A Revelation," which he paired in A Boy's Will in 1913. The injunction appears in the latter that those "who hide too well away/ must speak and tell us where they are." When first I learned these lines they stood out for me since they refer, I believe, to Frost's own Symbolist instinct and practice, while offering an injunction, a homily, that easily I could take personally. Having seen too many creative people advancing their own interests with finger-cymbals and party horns, I have tended to let works speak for themselves — and to speak for me, if necessary. Yet the taciturnity in my Grandpa Kikuchi, so formidable and impressive in him, to me as a child, also made him unreachable, and perhaps unknowable. Often upon this, too, I dwell.

I needed to go back to handwritten records, just now, to write those 1973, 1974, and 1976 dates. At hand now, too, I have the first Treaders of Starlight: The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, with its October 1974 cover date. I have been meaning to set hands on a copy since late in 2015, when I learned, thanks to a conscientious instinct on her sister's part, that Rebecca S. Marcus, my co-editor for that issue, had died. Born 1958; died 2015. I know little about what life held for her after her middle-teenaged years — although the sister relayed that Rebecca did continue working on her poetry.

Apparently she taught for a time at a Christian school, where she must have done well, since she was intelligent and adept at the written word. In the brief time that I attended Gateway High School in Aurora, Colorado, she and I served as teacher's aides to our mentor-friend Mary Ella Langsford, whose name and spelling I hope I recall aright; and no doubt Becky went on and made similar work her calling. Her interest in Christianity already existed. Since my father taught the philosophy of religion and since as a family the Riches belonged to First Baptist in downtown Denver, I felt not entirely awkward in Christian territory, even though I felt less so outside it — say in the state historical society museum next-door to the church, where sometimes my mother allowed me to go that I might avoid the liturgies and sermons that droned so grayly. Rebecca and I both read C.S. Lewis; I remember the Denver pastor being surprised that I had read and enjoyed The Screwtape Letters. Yet Rebecca would dip into his nonfiction, where I delved only into his fiction. My exposures to other influences, especially the glimpses given me of Japanese Buddhist life — which in Denver seemed to maintain a cheerful influence within the Japanese community alongside the quite strong Japanese Christian life — no doubt helped me feel that a person could flourish outside the Christian churches, ever-present though they seemed to be. Somewhere early I acquired a distaste for the word god if capitalized into a name; and surely had not circumstances intervened, my impulse to look cockeyed at Christianity would have made spaces between Becky and I, however inseparable we were as companions for a time in those, our middle-teenaged years.

In looking again at her poem in Treaders, "Crowns," I learn now about another difference that existed between us, invisible to me at the time. The relevant words were but names to me. I admired in 1974 and do still today those closing lines in her poem: "The sky no longer red, but grey,/ The sea no longer surging." I had no specific influence on this poem, beyond possibly the spelling for "grey," since back then I preferred it that way, and was the typist for publication. With those lines it seems apparent to me now that the poem completes an arc that reveals its Romantic nature. In Romantic idealism the individual emerges against the backdrop of a ruined age:

Crowns and cups and silver candles,
Golden wings lofty in the dawn.
Dragons roaring fierce defiance,
Clouds of glory ascending to the sun.

Mortal rankings rise and fall,
Yet man stands upon the earth,
And throws his challenge to the skies;
Lightnings slash the crimson plain.

Once this was, but now man gazes
On asphalt, where his battlegrounds stood.
The sky no longer red, but grey,
The sea no longer surging.

The last lines ring with the plaint that "we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon." It echoes those laments for mythic powers that were there for us in Wordsworth and somewhat still with us in Frost, as, in prose, in E.M. Forster. These motifs — the sense of a vanished age, of our diminished selves, of the draining of myth — might seem strange from a teenaged poet, except that teenagers so often flare once or twice into glorious perceptiveness, with apt and canny insight, before fading into and struggling against the grays and sea-calms that the adult world forces against the maturing soul. Whether these motifs reflected movements in her own soul at that age none can probably say, if I cannot. My recollection fails as to whether she wrote the poem before we Riches left Colorado for Kansas, or after. Yet I do know that I read it gladly and thought that nothing about it was not like her; and those last lines left their impress.

It has occurred to me that the Romantic idealist's view upon Robert Frost's poems would be the common one: that he is a New England realist, as opposed to the Scottish Symbolist he might rather have had the world see him be. He left evidence as to that preference. This thought that occurs does have relevance to Treaders of Starlight, insofar as this little magazine happened to present Rebecca's Romantic idealist poem, flavored with the quasi-Medievalism of Modern fantasy, against the poems that are Symbolist expressions. Whether or not those other poets knew what they were about, their poems took that tack — such as Ron Nance's "Palingenesis" and "The Sound of Frightened Breathing," JeanPaul Jenack's "Sun Dream," Duane Ackerson's "Old Uncle Willie," and my own "We, Starlight Treaders." (Other poems beside Rebecca's express Romantic idealism, especially Walter Shedlofsky's "Ephemera" — but also Amos Salmonson's "A God of Virtues.") These works by Nance and others I specifically regarded as speculative poems, although I was willing to have the related, congenial, or simply handy-at-the-moment other poems and verses to place alongside them. Nance's "Amanacer Exit," for instance, took a personal and realist turn, as I remember he himself noted in a letter. Yet it bites at and almost swallows thoughts and images yearning toward the Symbolist leap; and I wanted to publish it, quite liking it.

It seems striking, now, that this split should occur between us, the two editors. I had suggested the magazine project, thinking it might be nice to have a reason for our keeping in touch. Since manuscripts came in the mail to Kansas, whatever passed before Rebecca's eyes had been seen first by mine; and since some contributors were my correspondents, such as Nance and Salmonson, my influence over our choices was undoubtedly too strong, while Rebecca probably too willingly heeded my preferences. Her own poem tells me now that she might have assembled the issue with a different flavor, given the chance, and had a wider range in submissions arrived than what we actually received.

Frost's poem "Revelation" may be Symbolist or, more simply, serious verse. It depends on how you read it. Yet the thought that it is a pity "if the case require ... that in the end/ we speak the literal to inspire/ the understanding of a friend" becomes striking when taken in relation to the Symbolist realm. There, the symbol reigns within its kingdom without exposing the fact that it is the king — or is not the king, if it happens in the poem to be called the king. In other words, the poem never speaks the literal. I understood this in a skewed and partial manner already as a teenager; and even though I would come to define speculative poetry in a similar way, the close kinship, and the necessary kinship, between speculative poetry and Symbolism has only become clearer to me in relatively recent years.

The poem in the speculative mode speaks from the world it inhabits, without reference to the listener's; or perhaps it assumes the listener is moving into that other world, abandoning briefly this one that is shared with other readers of the page, other listeners to the poem. I usually have used the term "consensus reality" for the realm that is slighted or ignored by the speculative poem. The Symbolist poem moves along with that same attitude, that same conceit, usually doing so nearly invisibly, so that a king may hide his symbolic true self behind the outer fact of being a merely factual king; or a leaf may pass unnoticed as a persistent, unrevealed symbol because it is what it is on the page: a leaf. The listener hears the word "leaf," and believes it to be simply that, even while being moved into a second realm. Speculative poetry takes a step just a little beyond, and some might say too much beyond, in that it aims for — in the terms I was using by the 1980s — mimesis of that which is not here in consensus reality. Mimesis of the nonexistent. Imitation of the unreal.

Perhaps from the beginning I have practiced avoidance, having some sense that whatever I had in myself to say would never quite come across to others if spoken directly. To "speak the literal" would fail me. And while I felt attracted to what was being called "science fiction poetry," to me it seemed not the thing to do, to call it such. I read Peter Dillingham's article about it, in the genre small-press zine Eternity SF, and argued with his having embraced that term. I also had Edward Lucie-Smith's anthology Holding Your Eight Hands. Being a fascinated delver into the New Worlds anthologies that somehow had become mine, I knew the term "speculative fiction" as one to apply to the works that strained old boundaries. For me, taking a like approach to poetry only made sense.

At this point I regretted having announced the Treaders title, since now I yearned to name it The Magazine of Speculative Poetry. I exchanged advertisements with Steven Gregg at Eternity SF, and there announced the new subtitle. I have little doubt, though, that I also sent off a letter to Rebecca with the subtitle idea, being excited over this simple coinage.

I have no doubt, moreover, that I did coin the term, since I arrived at it through a conscious process. All the same it seemed, and still seems, quite possible that someone else had the same idea. Simultaneity so frequently marks innovations, large and small. So I made no claim to priority, then or in later decades. In small part I felt that any show of proprietary interest might slow its adoption; in larger part, that time would resolve questions that I could answer only for myself, as to the term's beginnings.

The term itself I assumed would take care of itself. I had trouble thinking that anyone could accept "science fiction poetry" as anything but awkward and embarrassing, and imagined others would soon accept a better name, whether mine or another's. In some ways my choice did take immediate hold. In others, it slumbered in backwaters. I disappeared into college, a stimulus that put to sleep some matters in my mind, for a few years. By this time I had released a second, extremely low-budget Treaders issue two, with only my name on the masthead. Rebecca's and my correspondence, already having lessened, ended not long after I entered college in 1976. Having seen her last when I was age fifteen, I was now a half-worldly half-adult, age seventeen.

While the part she played in speculative poetry was perhaps simply a role to play, without the undertones that an involuntary, intellectual passion gave the part that I played, Rebecca must have been among the first to learn of my coinage; she was one of the two first editors to be associated with it; and, thanks to small-press and "zine" historians, she has seen her name preserved in its connection.

For me, in my own inner life, I believe she was the focus for a poem whose words if not page-arrangement I recall — "I am afraid/ of the gardener/ and his hoe// Sometimes I think/ our roots will touch/ forever" — which appeared in the Denver Post not long after I wrote it. The same holds for a second poem I wrote that was worth publishing, which may or may not have appeared somewhere, whose words I cannot conjure without help from some old paper slip that I hope still exists somewhere.

I leave it at that. For a year or two, or more, we were great friends — youthful, enthusiastic, and constantly trading thoughts. The constancy stretched thin over distances first geographic, then temporal. Time always alters for the worse the wonders that we are as youths, even if it makes up for any diminishment with the far-stringing, the knotting, the stretching of those strands that hold us to others — those strands that present our most obvious and most outwardly turned semblances to the world — that define us and seem indistinguishable, in the end, from who we are. Even when one of us goes, those strands linger, connecting us to a place that never quite can be called an emptiness.

(Completed March 13, 2018)

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