Parable — Michael Meyerhofer
On the morning of the great battle,
the knights woke in such a fuss
that they dressed themselves backwards–
metal first, then cloth, then flesh
and last of all, their organs, hung like
ripe apples from the war-tree.
Well, this is embarrassing,they said,
then saw their enemies had done likewise.
How to fight once you’ve seen
the contents of your foe’s stomach,
the sad obstructions around his heart?
Peace spread across Europe
which lead to boredom, which led
to war. Except the men’s sons rebelled
and war their armor on the outside.
Their fathers gathered on the road
to watch them ride off. The old men’s tears
rusted their insides. Outside,
though, they still looked
as always like they were blushing.
Justin Hamm: It’s a limited perspective, of course, but I figure most folks probably wouldn’t expect a well-established writer of contemporary poetry to also be deep into fantasy. And yet, to anyone who reads your poems, the connection makes perfect sense. Though most are grounded in this time and place, so many of them display that fascination with history characteristic of fantasy writers. And in poems like “Parable” the connection is even more obvious.
Can you talk a little about your path to being a poet/fantasy writer, how those identities converge and diverge for you?
Michael Meyerhofer: Sure, glad to! I suppose my interest in poetry comes from the same basic place as my interest in fantasy. Despite being very shy as a kid, I was bursting with curiosity. I had this sense that everything was a metaphor for something else, so it wasn’t enough to know the names and functions of the parts of a cell. I wanted to know WHY they did what they did, and how they got there, because that surely had something to do with how we got here. I think I’ve been fortunate enough to keep my sense of curiosity as I’ve gotten older. I’m genuinely fascinated by science and history, and I love being able to incorporate that into my writing.
Sometimes, that takes the form of a poem about the nature of the atom or some tidbit from Greek history. Other times, I can pattern a fantasy character or event after something I read about that stuck with me. So to me, the gulf between poetry and fantasy doesn’t seem all that great. The trick is just making sure that the work itself is honest. In other words, I want my work to be accessible, fun, and meaningful, NOT pretentious. Using poetry as an example, I’d never want someone to read a poem like Parable then walk away thinking that the author sure knows a lot about armor. Instead, I’d prefer to give people something fun to think about, maybe a new, small way of looking at something, a kind of koan that I probably can’t totally explain myself, with whomever wrote it actually being pretty irrelevant (though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have plenty of writer’s ego in me).
JH: The first time I read “Parable,” the concept and the execution/language both just slayed me. It’s like a genuine fairy tale–it has that highly particular weirdness–but at the same time it resonates deeply with contemporary concerns. On subsequent reads, I’ve come to appreciate the way the language manages to be both grotesque and beautiful. I admit it; this is a poem that makes me jealous.
What can you tell me about its origins?
MM: First off, thanks very much! I’m glad you enjoyed the poem. That was kind of a weird one to write because I was just thinking about armor one day, how it’s a layer almost the way skin is a layer, which got me thinking of strata. At the same time, I was probably thinking about the pattern of repeated violence throughout history, how each subsequent generation THINKS it’s rebelling against its forebears but often ends up repeating the same old mistakes. Readers of poetry and fantasy are smart, though, so I knew that stating that history repeats itself would be preaching to the choir, which is boring at best and insulting at worst. I like the idea of reversing stories, reversing layers, whenever possible. So I went back to the idea of strata, turned it on its head, and… well, “Parable” is what I ended up with.
JH: The poem, in miniature, contains a mixture of magic and grittiness that characterizes some of the best fantasy writing, stuff like George R.R. Martin’s ASOIAF, which I know we both love. Can you talk about this mixture in the poem? Does that style apply to Wytchfire as well?
MM: Martin’s been one of my heroes for a long time, mainly because he writes fantasy that focuses on character development. I think what keeps him honest is that he keeps things gritty and realistic, no matter how fanciful some elements may appear. That’s something I try to emulate because I love the sheer, imaginative freedom that comes with fantasy, but I think that kind of wildness is most effective when it has a driving purpose behind it. I’ve tried to maintain that balancing act in Wytchfire by offering characters that I hope readers will find exciting and unique, while still using this new, invented world to say a little something about our own.
JH: One question I like to ask poets I admire is what they hope their poem will do when it gets out into the world. I’d like to ask that of you, as well, but I want to modify it. Do you have different expectations for what a poem will do when it gets out into the world as opposed to what you hope your fiction will do?
MM: Good question! Whether it’s a poem or a novel, I hope first and foremost that it’ll be enjoyed. If people get something deeper out of it, that’s fantastic. Beyond that, I suppose there are some definite differences between my hopes for poetry versus my hopes for fiction.
Poetry has a smaller audience, so frankly, the goal (beyond self-expression, and the thrill of being part of what Whitman called the powerful play) is that published poems will lead to more recognition, which (hopefully) bears fruit in the form of more poetry books, and maybe somewhere down the line, an editing and/or a tenure-track teaching gig.
With fiction, the hope (beyond the pleasure of writing and having one’s work enjoyed) is similar in that you want recognition and sales, of course, but you’re also trying to connect with an audience that isn’t necessarily affiliated with a major university. With poetry, you give readings here and there, which is a lot of fun, but a bit different from the interviews, book signings, and social networking plugs that go with fiction (which are maybe a bit more commercially-minded, I suppose, but can be just as fun).
JH: Last one, Michael. What are you working on now?
MM: Ha, I probably tend to try and spin too many plates for my own good. Right now, I’m polishing the sequel to Wytchfire, tentatively titled The Knight of the Crane. I’m also about halfway through the rough draft of the trilogy’s conclusion, tentatively called The War of the Lotus. I also have a completely different fantasy trilogy and a stand-alone novel I’m working on, a little bit at a time. Meanwhile, I’m always working on poems here and there, when I find time. I have two book-length poetry manuscripts looking for a home. Finding time to submit stuff is practically a full time job in and of itself, though, so I’ve been backlogged with manuscripts for quite a while.
Thanks again for your thoughtful questions… not to mention your badass poetry!
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Michael Meyerhofer, author of Wytchfire, grew up in Iowa, where he learned to cope with the unbridled excitement of the Midwest by reading books and not getting his hopes up, Probably due to his father’s influence, he developed a fondness for Star Trek, weight lifting, and collecting medieval weapons. He is also addicted to caffeine and the History Channel. Michael Meyerhofer’s third poetry book, Damnatio Memoriae, won the Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. His previous books of poetry are Blue Collar Eulogies (Steel Toe Books, finalist for the Grub Street Book Prize) and Leaving Iowa (winner of the Liam Rector First Book Award). He has also published five chapbooks: Pure Elysium (winner of the Palettes and Quills Chapbook Contest), The Clay-Shaper’s Husband (winner of the Codhill Press Chapbook Award), Real Courage (winner of the Terminus Magazine and Jeanne Duval Editions Poetry Chapbook Prize), The Right Madness of Beggars (winner of the Uccelli Press 3rd Annual Chapbook Competition), and Cardboard Urn (winner of the Copperdome Chapbook Contest). Individual poems won the Marjorie J. Wilson Best Poem Contest, the Laureate Prize for Poetry, the James Wright Poetry Award, and the Annie Finch Prize for Poetry. He is the Poetry Editor of Atticus Review. His work has appeared in a number of journals including Ploughshares, Hayden’s Ferry Review, North American Review, River Styx, and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.