For our interview this weekend, we are talking with David Lee Sommers of the fine magazine, Tales of the Talisman.
For those readers who might not have previously discovered Tales of the Talisman, can you tell us a little about it)? What makes Tales of the Talisman unique?
Tales of the Talisman is a quarterly magazine of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. We feature an assortment of new and established writers. What I believe makes us unique is that we really explore the gamut of speculative fiction from fun and lighthearted to more serious and literary. Another thing that makes us unique is that we feature quite a bit of poetry. Typically we buy at least one poem for every short story. The poetry is not merely filler. We look for poems that compliment the themes that run through each issue.
I should note that it’s something of a mistake for poets to try to “target” specific themes that they think might be in a given issue. What I find exciting is that I can often match poems and stories from different writers who are unaware that they’re tapping into common themes. When writing for the magazine, write poems that interest you and submit them. I’ll worry about how the themes compliment what’s already in a given issue.
How did you become a poetry editor?
Back when Tales of the Talisman was first founded in 1995 under the name Hadrosaur Tales, a number of the writers I knew happened to be poets. They were doing interesting work and some of it had a distinctly SF/F character. I had also recently discovered the poetry of Ray Bradbury. It seemed there were things that could be explored in poetry that couldn't be done in fiction, so I decided to accept poetry to the magazine. I've been learning more and more about poetry ever since then.
What's your background? How has that affected your decisions, with regard to individual poems or types? Are you more critical of some genres, subgenres, or tropes than others? If so, why?
My degree is in physics, but I've been writing short stories as long as I can remember. However, I felt intimidated by poetry for a long time. The only poetry I really liked was by Edgar Allan Poe. I didn't really become a fan of poetry until I heard Ray Bradbury read some of his poems when I was in high school. There was a tremendous power when he spoke that I hadn't seen when I looked at words on a page. Even then, I still felt intimidated by the idea of actually writing poetry. I tinkered with poetry here and there, but I didn't really write seriously until I decided to accept poetry for Hadrosaur Tales. Basically, I realized if I was going to accept poetry for the magazine, I ought to understand it better and I should get to a point where my poetry is picked up by comparable magazines. After a few years of practice, I placed some poetry in places such as Star*Line and The Santa Clara Review. I've won awards in local poetry contests and was recently nominated for the Rhysling Award given by the Science Fiction Poetry Association. Basically I'm a self-taught poet who has graded himself through his sales and awards.
I don't really have a favorite poetic form. I think it's important that a poet not force their poem into a form. I've read too many poems where the rhyme scheme smacks you in the face and actually detracts from the poem. However, I'm really impressed when I read a poem and then suddenly realize after the fact that it was a rhyming poem or followed a particular meter.
Because of Tales of the Talisman's broad focus, I look for poetry that works in all of the speculative genres. One thing that's interesting is while I tend to see more fantasy short stories than other types of stories, I actually tend to see fewer fantasy poems than horror or science fiction poems. One trap that some people fall into -- and I've fallen into this as well -- is that there is a fine line between science fiction poetry and science poetry. Science poetry might simply be about a new discovery in astronomy, physics or biology. To cross the line to science fiction poetry, it must speculate about how humans will change in response to new or possible future science.
Because I am trained as a scientist and because I tend to see more of it than other genres, I'm probably somewhat more critical of science fiction poetry than poetry from others genres.
What good is a fantasy?
Fantasy is an essential escape. It lets us see that there is a world beyond our world. At the very least, fantasy helps us grasp the enormity of time and space. We can image worlds and places very different from our own. Fantasy lets us give name and voice to those hard-to-grasp spirits and forces that exist all around us. Sometimes such forces are called magic and the spirits are called fae or elves. However, fantasy has essentially no limits and the fantasy poet has a lot of room to create new mythologies or worlds. What good is a fantasy? Fantasy helps us humans understand those things that science has not yet explained or may never be able to explain.
What scares you?
In addition to editing Tales of the Talisman and writing, I work at an observatory. One night, while walking along a road with a dim flashlight, I saw what I thought was a big, slow-moving animal. It was one of the scariest things I'd ever encountered. I'd heard that there were mountain lions prowling about the area and thought this could be one, or something worse. It turned out the thing was a fairly small branch, but covered by lots of leaves. It looked like a big animal because of my expectations and the way the light hit it and the way the wind moved the leaves. My point here is that the very best horror is about atmosphere and the way an author builds up your expectations. Dracula scared me when I first read it, not because it made me believe in vampires, but because it made me conscious of the small noises in the dark and made me question what they could be. Do that, and you've written an effective horror poem in my book!
Where is the "science" in science fiction? How could SF help us to prepare for the future?
To me, what distinguishes science fiction from fantasy is that science fiction looks at things that could happen given certain changes to technology or our understanding of science. Fantasy imagines that forces outside our science or easy understanding are at work. Science Fiction helps us prepare for the future in a couple of ways. Sometimes it cautions us, telling us what could happen if we're not careful. Sometimes it gives us hope for the future and tells us what we can look forward to if things are done well.
Who are some of your favorite poets, and why?
I've already mentioned Ray Bradbury. I don't think anyone weaves words together like he does. He brings together a passion and a power to the way everyday people encounter the future or the fantastic that few other poets have captured.
Edgar Allan Poe is fantastic. He uses language very effectively and creates the atmosphere and expectation I was talking about in horror poetry.
Christina Sng is a contemporary poet who captures both the wonder of things that might come to pass through exploration and also creates genuinely atmospheric horror poetry. When reading her work, you feel as though you are viewing wonders or horrors through her eyes.
Gary Every is perhaps one of the best contemporary fantasy poets I know. He draws from a wide range of mythological sources including Native American and European lore and imagines people in the modern world interacting with the spirits of those worlds.
What makes a poem poetic?
I think a good poem has a sense of rhythm that somehow compliments the subject matter. The piece as a whole should engage the reader emotionally just as a good song will. On one hand, poetry allows you to shift gears without being constrained to musical notes or styling. However, poetry also has to do its work entirely with words. You don’t necessarily have a musical instrument to help you carry the emotions.
How do you feel about rhyme?
I don’t feel rhyme is a requirement for good poetry. In fact, if rhyme is too obvious or forced, it can be a detriment. However, if rhyme is used well, it can compliment a good poem. Going back to the idea of rhythm, some poems really benefit from the lyricism of rhyme. Other poems can find a rhythm that doesn’t require rhyme. Do what works for the poem at hand.
What are some of your favorite poetic forms? What catches your eye when you read a submission?
I enjoy sonnets, villanelles, haiku and even limericks, but I don’t really give a lot of thought to those forms when I buy. For me, a poem has to create some emotional response on the first reading. If it fails that test, I don’t look at it again. If a poem creates an emotional response on the first reading, I’ll go back and read it again. If there is some deeper sense of craftsmanship -- such as form used effectively or a second layer of meaning I didn’t catch the first time -- there’s a good chance I’ll give the poem strong consideration for purchase. That said, if the form does not enhance the poem, then it could be a distraction.
Which would you rather see in your slush: a SpecFic narrative that's easy to follow, or imagery/lyricism that blows your mind? How compatible are these two elements?
In an ideal world, I’d love to see a poem that accomplished both jobs. That said, I would probably gravitate toward the SpecFic narrative that’s easy to follow because it’s the kind of poem that’s most likely to work for me on one reading. Still, if a poem’s imagery and/or lyricism really blows my mind on the first reading, it doesn’t need the easy-to-follow narrative. So, I don’t really see this as an either/or question when I’m selecting poems -- but I probably do have a slight personal leaning toward the narrative.
What do find that submitters most often get wrong with their submissions? Is there anything outside of the obvious of the submitter not following your guidelines that recurs in the slush? What advice would you give to those submitting to Tales of the Talisman?
I don’t have a lot of problems with poetry submissions as a rule beyond the occasional person who just can’t follow guidelines. I give people basically three options for submitting stories and poetry to the magazine: In the text of an email, attached to an email as a rich text format document (which can be generated from essentially every word processing program with a “save as”), or via snail mail. Since formatting is so important to poetry, I would tend to recommend that poets submit their poems as a rich text attachment or via mail. Formatting does have a tendency to get lost in the body of emails.
This is not specified in my guidelines, but when a submission is made as a rich text attachment, I prefer that all of the poems be collected into a single document. It’s easier for me to click one attachment and read the file, than to click on several, separate attachments.
Basically my best advice is, follow the guidelines and be courteous and to the point in your correspondence. A short biographical statement of who you are in your cover letter is nice to see. A lengthy discourse on your poetic philosophy should be saved for your blog. I don’t want or need it in your cover letter.
Is there anything you would like to see more of? Less of?
I would really like to see more fantasy poetry. I see a lot of science fiction and horror poetry -- please keep it coming -- but I don’t see as many people trying their hands at fantasy. I’d love to see more poets who are inspired by mythology -- especially non-European mythology. There’s a whole world of possibility out there, I’d love to see more of it explored poetically.
-- David Lee Sommers, Tales of the Talisman