Conversations with Speculative Poets: F. J. Bergmann

The Conversations with Speculative Poets Series features interviews with writers of science fiction and fantasy poetry. For the eleventh post in this series, I spoke with poet F. J. Bergmann about her collection, A Catalogue of the Further Suns (Gold Line Press 2017).

F. J. Bergmann lives in Madison, Wisconsin (for at least the fifth time), and imagines tragedies on or near exoplanets. She is the poetry editor for Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, the vice president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, for which she edited Star*Line, its flagship quarterly, for five years, the managing editor of MadHat Press, and poetry editor for Weird House Press. She freelances as a copy editor and book designer.

Her writing awards include SFPA Rhysling Awards for both long and short poems and SFPA Elgin Awards for two recent chapbooks: Out of the Black Forest (Centennial Press, 2012), a collection of conflated fairy tales, and A Catalogue of the Further Suns, first-contact reports from interstellar expeditions, winner of the 2017 Gold Line Press manuscript competition. She was a 2019 quarter-winner for Writers of the Future. Venues where her poems have appeared include Asimov’s SF, Missouri Review, Polu Texni, Spectral Realms and Vastarien; her speculative fiction has been published in Abyss & Apex, Little Blue Marble (CA), Pulp Literature (CA), Soft Cartel, WriteAhead/The Future Looms (UK), and elsewhere.

T.D. Walker: First, a question about the structure of A Catalogue of the Further Suns: The collection begins with “Overtures,” a poem about literal and figurative wounds, which sets up a major theme of the book. We see the explorers unintentionally harming the inhabitants of the planets they visit, such as in “Cultural Exchange,” and the inhabitants of the visited planets harming themselves, such as in “Code of Ethics.”

Did you initially envision the collection as a series of poems focused on this theme of harm? Or did the theme emerge as you wrote the poems? And why end the book with the poem “Duration,” in which the explorers and inhabitants were unable to communicate directly, but the speaker “wondered if they had a word for bliss“?

Cover of A Catalogue of the Further Suns

F. J. Bergmann: “Overtures,” like many of the other poems in the collection, is about religion. I was brought up without any particular religious instruction, and the ridiculous belief systems that humans are willing to inflict upon themselves has always amazed and horrified me. Of course the destruction of the environment and the climate are also a major subtext.
I had originally sequenced the poems from encounters intended as benevolent to the purely observational to those overtly exploitative, but another poet suggested opening with “Overtures,” as one of the most shocking/striking poems (as well as the most appropriately titled).
“Duration” is not only a reference to colonialism, as are a number of the other poems (and perhaps to some extent the focus of the whole concept of voyages of “discovery” when it comes to meeting other sentient beings), but also, given how much trouble we have with interacting and communicating with other humans, how vastly more difficult those tasks will be when we do encounter aliens. I’ve explored the degree to which aliens, when we finally encounter them, are likely to be not only incomprehensible, but unrecognizable, in some poems not included here, notably “Envoy“, which appeared in Polu Texni and has been nominated for the 2020 Rhysling Award.

TDW: The voices in the poems demonstrate curiosity and yet they also seem to distance themselves from their subject, as a reader might expect from the book’s subtitle: “Précis of Reports Compiled by the Preliminary Survey Expeditions.” The objectivity creates a tension with the heartbreaking reality of the missions, some of which ended in the destruction of populations.

For me, it was difficult not to read your book as both a work of science fiction poetry and as social commentary about the ways in which humans engage with each other, with the environment, and so on. What prompted you to use the voice you chose for these poems–with its invested objectivity, if I can call it that–and did that drive the particular details you chose to focus on for each poem? What questions were you aiming to raise in your readers after they engaged with your poems?

Author photo of F.J. BergmannFJB: My natural voice appears to be not only objective and elevated, but generally the first-person plural; however, the “we” in these poems is not necessarily the same “we”–and not necessarily humans. The expedition members narrating these interactions range from selfless rescuers to exploiters, from hapless scientists to agenda-driven bureaucrats–who are mirrored, not necessarily in the same poem, in those they encounter. Of course the “we” can also be used as a disclaimer of individual responsibility–nearly as useful as the passive voice!
The questions I hoped to elicit were all the ones we ask ourselves today as we embroil ourselves in the social and physical aspects of this world. Most, if not all, people have an idea of what constitutes “greater good” as opposed to merely benefiting themselves in the short term, and most of them like to think that they are, in some way, working toward that goal, but there is a demonstrable difference in how they choose or hope to implement their efforts. Nearly all of these poems, I’m afraid, show the failure of well-meant efforts on the part of either the expeditions or their contactees, with the possible exception of “Xenoaesthetics” and “The Planet of Ideal Readers,” which are about encounters via the arts. And perhaps the arts are the vehicle with which the most progress can be made in reaching out to others with differing views.

TDW: The poem that resonated with me most in this collection is “Exobiology II,” in which the inhabitants of a planet willingly kill themselves (or each other) with “war machines.” The speaker notes the survival of “their most ordinary / objects,” which are also poignantly human: “worn-out garden tools, old shoes / blankets, erasers” along with data about all the inhabitants’ lives.

Perhaps what was so compelling for me about this poem is that it takes Cold War-Era fears of nuclear annihilation and sets them against the age of social media, an age in which so many of us have, essentially, recordings of our lives spread out through various corporate servers. What, then, brought your speaker to note: “They left us / no instructions on how to proceed.”? And are we all complicit in whatever destruction we bring on ourselves in the same sense that the planet’s inhabitants “pass[ed] a comprehensive test / before turning on the war machines.”?

FJB: Certainly the poem stems from the fear of nuclear war, but also asks the question: In the face of extinction, what would you choose to leave as a message for posterity? In this case, of course, it’s global extinction via suicide, or possibly deliberate mutual fratricide (suicide-by-army as opposed to suicide-by-cop). And to some extent reiterates the final message of Citizen Kane: that what is held most dear by another may make absolutely no sense to an unfamiliar observer. I have other poems where doomed civilizations choose to booby-trap what they leave behind for a future discoverer.…

TDW: Are there speculative poetry collections that explore the same themes as A Catalogue of the Further Suns does that you’d like to recommend to readers of Luna Station Quarterly?

FJB: The only collection I know of that is purely first-contact is Ann K. Schwader‘s fabulous Chthulhu-Mythos sonnet sequence In the Yaddith Time (Mythos Books, 2007), which I unreservedly endorse. For formalist horror-poetry fans, Wade German’s Dreams from a Black Nebula (Hippocampus Press, 2014) is a rich compilation. I’m crazy about Wendy Rathbone’s poetry, in particular Dead Starships (Eye Scry Publications, 2016), and I enjoyed Space Traveler by Benjamin S. Grossberg (University of Tampa Press, 2014); not only an astronaut narrative, but also navigating a gay marriage. I’m certainly influenced by speculative poets of the caliber of Max Ingram, John Rinehart, Laura Madeline Wiseman, and countless others. And for humorous as well as horrific encounters with aliens, David C. Kopaska-Merkel is unsurpassed–especially in the title poem of his newest collection, The Ambassador Takes One for the Team (Diminuendo Press, 2019). I should mention that I’m now the poetry editor for Weird House Press, which will shortly release Robert Borski’s Carpe Noctem, followed by Ann K. Schwader’s Unquiet Stars later this year, both of which I adore.