I am always reading three books at a time. You? maybe more. It is interesting how a book of fiction, an autobiography and a graphic novel start to draw parallels. How any three books that are bedside start to call and respond to one another. So it is not surprising that Nikia Chaney, the fourth poet laureate of the Inland Empire, has me dog earing the book of poetry that she edited entitled
San Bernardino, Singing while Mark and I revisited and prepped her
new book on Bamboo Dart Press that is out today entitled Three, Walking. I can’t help but marry both books together. They are similarly titled and both survey the people and the landscape, possible escape and the resignation of trying to make a lesser world a better one. That which is beyond our control weighs heavy in both books and so much of the poetic writing in Chaney’s new book calls me back to look at a specific poem by a different writer in the book of poetry that she edited.
Chaney, in the physical world of ours, has done all of the above, and beyond that, served to open doors for students, for writers in workshops, worked for justice, to light the darker recesses and lend relief maps to those traveling rough terrain. Her talent and her singular voice is rich and real. No showboat, no Queen Mary rust gathering. Chaney’s Three, Walking is otherworldly but not distant. She calls it Science Fiction. I would agree if we are terming Octavia Butler a Sci-fi writer, Andrei Tarkovsky a Sci-fi director & Margaret Brundage a Sci-fi painter. Otherworldly, but not distant.
Three, Walking came to me as a work of science fiction. It is such a maligned genre, was it your intent to write a work of science fiction or did the story come to you without that intent?
Oh I absolutely intended a science fiction story. Sci fi or speculative fiction is my gateway into reading. While I am primarily a poet, I fondly remember being very young and intensely interested in new worlds and different ways to look at the question of being human. Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Leguin were my favorite. Butler wrote about society in a way that the characters themselves revealed the central thems. And Leguin’s work was all about the ways human beings make community. Other writers like Asimov and Sagan wrote short stories that simply blew my mind away. I loved short stories the best as they quickly introduced the characters, setting, and essential questions. These stories, though were still a bit of an experiment. I wanted to know if I could do it. That was crazy fun, though: discovering a new genre of writing.
Giving nothing away to the reader, the lighthearted Goebbels-esque treatment of those that inhabit the keep-pen by the narrator in chapter one is not rooted far from reality. The story can work on a level as simple as campfire oration fantasy, or as dense as a Shirley Jackson short story that is deep on parables without being pretentious.
That story is most like one of the more frightening ones of the three. It started with those first images “wooly heads, keep pen, wild”. As the story developed I keep the picture of the events visually and just went where it needed to go. Inhabiting the speaker was so hard as it takes the pov of someone I find abhorrent. Yet it was a good exercise in exploring resistance, a theme I absolutely love.
Some of your poetry experiments with the absence of words, linking verbs and such are omitted, giving the reader pause. One of the characters in this book does a bit of that. The absence of words – is she new to this language, an immigrant, an alien, a tortured human? Is it a shorthand effort to get this backstory and these possibilities into a short story?
Language. I love love love language. Again this must relate to me being a poet but I also experiment with textual art, so having the story do that felt natural. I also wanted to make it universal in the sense that the reader can place the characters where ever they seemed to be. The beauty of speculative fiction (for me) is that the point of the story isn’t so much the plot but the experience of looking at humanity (as I believe all sci-fi stories touch on humanity) from a very different viewpoint.
The working title for your book was Three Women, Leaving (Walking), I am surely far off in the deep end, but it called to my mind a riff on the Robert Altman film “Three Women”, the ambiguity and amorphous nature of the women in the keep-pen in your book.
Oh I wasn’t thinking of the Robert Altman film, though I have to definitely check that out. I was thinking of Nina Simone’s “Four Women”, but since there are three stories. Ha! The walking comes from this idea of leaving home, breaking out, taking a risk to push against the confines (keep-pen) of the world in some essential way. I love this story by Stephen King, “The Long Walk” and I always think about how the characters react to the stress of their journey. Walking too for me is this strange act in which we use our bodies, or limbs to move slowly away, not run, but walk. As if we are still going but taking our time.
You are working on a memoir. Ladybug, due out in 2022. You have written poetry that is of a personal nature in the past, but I wonder if writing memoir is more difficult to come to than poetry or essays? Curious as you work on this book how you are approaching it.
Oh yes, memoir is the most difficult of all. In memoir there is no hiding or building complexities and creations to get at themes. And pain has to be looked at directly as this happened, this happened to me. For poetry I always feel I can play. I can sing or paint words on the page that look pleasing so what I am actually saying takes a bit of back seat. Writing fiction, though sci fi has taught me that I can build worlds slowly and inhabit them with people (who may look like me) in order to show us the mirror of ourselves. All three genres take different approaches. Equally they ask for the same things though. Truth, the willingness to look at pain, the need to find beauty, and the surprising way it always ends where the writer needs it to end at a new beginning a new story or line in the reader’s hands.