An Interview with Mike Allen

Hats are sometimes used as a metaphor for things one cannot be all at once, implying one must take off the one hat before putting on the other. You have a Poetry Guy hat, but you are also a journalist, accomplished novelist and short fiction writer, and editor; do you have a hat for each? Do these different writerly identities conflict with, enable, or inform each other?

I think the correct answer has to be "all of the above." I might simplify the metaphor you've proposed a little bit. Journalism is one hat, a well-worn business fedora. Editing, writing fiction and writing poetry are a second hat, kind of like a beloved toboggan — with the brim rolled up for poetry, pulled down to cover the ears for the longer prose hikes, drawn completely over the face like a scary ski mask for editing. Once in a blue moon I get to slap the fedora on top of it.

Or maybe I just made the metaphor way more complicated.

All writing takes time, and if your life revolves around producing more than one kind on a regular basis, of course they'll interfere with one another. They can feed one another, too.

What a journalist does, essentially, is tread through the lives of others and tell the world what she sees. I've been party to moments of astonishing beauty and I've been exposed to awful things that I'll never forget however much I might want to. When it comes to composing art, that breadth of life experience becomes a gold mine for transmutation.

Though the diction differs, assembling a news story can be a lot like assembling a poem, in the sense that you're trying to convey ideas and information in efficient ways that aren't necessarily linear. And sometimes, when a news story I'm reporting on particularly moves me, I can feel the same sort of instincts kick in that happen when a poem or piece of fiction wants to write itself. On the other end of the spectrum, skill with action narratives comes in handy when trying to convert conflicting court testimony into a single timeline.

Do you ever write long-hand? If so, when?

I always write things out longhand — even my first novel, which I had to finish at breakneck speed, has long stretches that started out hand-written.

I carry a steno pad everywhere I go. A slow moment somewhere, at a party, in line at the DMV, wherever, means I can at least jot down a few additions to a work in progress. Heck, the cycle of poems in this issue started out as scribblings in a steno.

I tried to figure out when this habit started — writing out stories and poems by hand — and realized I've basically done it all my life. It's composing in the computer that's foreign to me. Sometimes I have to get away from the screen, and take one of my stenos somewhere like a cafe or library, just to get anything done at all.

You once wrote a collection of ekphrastic poetry, titled Disturbing Muses; how, if at all, did that affect your process? Have you written other poems in dialogue with other arts?

It's funny, I developed a fascination with early twentieth century artists like Picasso, Dali, MirĂ³, when I was in middle school, which isn't a typical thing for someone raised on Tolkien and Star Trek. I liked to draw, too, and wasn't bad at it — there was a time when I thought my destiny lay in the visual arts, not writing. So maybe the surprise is that it took me so long to attempt an ekphrastic poem. If you count college lit mags, my first published poem came out in 1991, but "Saturn Devours His Children," inspired by Goya, didn't come about until 2001. And the next one, "Escher's Bed," appeared in 2004. And then it didn't dawn on me until I sold "MirĂ³'s Mirror" to Pedestal Magazine later that year that I had a series on my hands. Strong encouragement from my dear friend Sonya Taaffe and a mind-blowing visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art led me to crank out many more and put Disturbing Muses together. And I've added to the series since.

I have a process that's specific to this kind of poem — I imagine these paintings as renditions of things the artists actually witnessed, and run with that, usually blending in details from the artists' lives to create some sort of narrative. It's born interesting fruit. A couple years go Nicole Kornher-Stace challenged me to write a story the same way I would write a poem, about the same time that Patty Templeton showed me a series of amazing altered photographs called "Sodom and Gomorrah" by Italian artist Alessandro Bavari. I answered Nicole's challenge by imagining Bavari's images were scenes from a far future reality, and that's turned into another series, with stories "Twa Sisters" and "Still Life With Skull" appearing in Not One of Us and Solaris Rising 2, respectively, and related poem "Dearly Beloved" coming out in Postscripts to Darkness.

Tell us about your novel, The Black Fire Concerto.

Like a number of my stories and poems, the inspiration for it came from a nightmare. Curiously, this time it was someone else's nightmare, handed off to me to use. I combined that bad dream with some ideas of my own to arrive at a post-apocalyptic future where magic has drastically reshaped the world and the people in it.

My heroines are musicians. Gunslinger and pipe-playing sorceress Olyssa takes on a young harpist named Erzelle as her apprentice after rescuing her from a floating fortress called The Red Empress, where wealthy cultists pay to eat the flesh of the undead in order to make themselves immortal. (Told you it was a nightmare!)

Olyssa is trying to find her missing sister, whose life is connected to the pipe Olyssa plays. They meet friendly fox-people called Vulpines, some not-so-friendly characters known as the Grey Ones and some even less friendlier things that I call corpse-machines. Erzelle ends up coming into powers of her own in a rather surprising way, and it turns out she and Olyssa really, really need the extra strength her new magic provides, with the caveat that said powers are addictive and just about as dangerous to the user as they are to the target.

In other words, it's written with my usual cheerful demeanor. I should note that C.S.E. Cooney, a known favorite of Your Highness, was the book's editor.

If any of that makes people curious, the publishers have generously posted lengthy excerpts from sampling. Part One is available at the Haunted Stars Publishing website, and the beginning of Part Two can be found at Black Gate.

You've written the tremendously impressive "The King of Cats, the Queen of Wolves" in collaboration with other poets much beloved of Goblin Fruit, Sonya Taaffe and Nicole Kornher-Stace. How did you go about that together? Have you collaborated on other poems before or since?

I had the idea for "The King of Cats, the Queen of Wolves" about the same time that I was working on the poems for Disturbing Muses. I approached Sonya, with whom I'd collaborated before, because try as I might my attempts to get the poem started just didn't work. But her take did, just as I suspected it would. She and I traded off stanzas for the free verse first section, set in the time of legends, and the dual sestinas of the second section, set roughly in Renaissance times. That went on for at least a year or two. I had always imagined the third stanza taking place in a post-apocalyptic future, but once we got there I was stumped as to how to start, and so was Sonya. What we didn't know then was that we hadn't yet met our third collaborator. I met Nicole in 2008 and we became close friends about a year later — and it dawned on me that Nicole's skills with far future wastelands might be exactly what we needed to bring the poem home. And I was right!

I've collaborated with a number of different people over the years, on poems and stories — Charles M. Saplak, Ian Watson, Christina Sng, Kendall Evans, David C. Kopaska-Merkel. And also with my wife, Anita. It's fun to do. Sometimes it's just a matter of trading verses, sometimes I'm rewriting the other person's work, sometimes I'm the one being rewritten. It's fun to do.

Do you have a preferred writerly beverage? Something you drink while writing, we mean, not a preferred beverage distilled from writers.

Chocolate milk. No joke.

...If you could distill a particular writer into a beverage (thereby assuming their powers), which writer would you choose, and what would the resulting drink be?

Can I blend them? There are so many people whose powers I'd be delighted to purloin. A shot of Peter Straub, a dash of Catherynne M. Valente, a splash of Laird Barron, a jigger of Ursula K. Le Guin, a tenth of Joe Hill, a split of Thomas Ligotti. Oh, I can think of many, many writers I'd love to see on tap.

Thirsty work indeed. Thank you for your participation, imp Mike. We're always delighted to have you in the orchard.

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