Chatting with T.D. Walker
T.D. shares her love of shortwave radio and poetry radio shows, changing between publishers, applying programming skills to creating poetry, and adopting personas for different writing genres.
T.D. Walker is the author of the poetry collections Small Waiting Objects (CW Books, 2019), Maps of a Hollowed World (Another New Calligraphy, 2020), and Doubt & Circuitry (Southern Arizona Press, 2023). Her poems and stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Fireside, Jet Fuel Review, The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Luna Station Quarterly, and elsewhere. Walker curates and hosts Line Break, a program created for broadcast on shortwave radio that features poets reading their work. Find out more at tdwalker.net.
T.D. is also the author of the poem “The Poet Responds to an Invitation from the AI on the Moon” from Radon issue 5.
Q: We’d love to hear about your 2023 poetry collection, Doubt & Circuitry?
Doubt & Circuitrycame out of my interest in crisis communication during the first two years of the pandemic. At the same time as I was clinging to news coverage of COVID, I was also curious about why that coverage was presented as it was. I've also been interested in the sonnet as a means for making arguments and how sonnets could be linked to make an extended exploration of contentious topics. So, I used the crown of sonnets in two voices, one before and one after the turn in each individual sonnet, to think about how crisis communication can fail in the first and last poems in the book.
Controversies and conspiracies surrounding COVID as well as CONELRAD in the 1960s. Chernobyl in the 1980s opened up more questions about how communication can fail, which led to the middle section of the book. The poems, particularly those in the voice of the HAARP antenna array, are a pause in the middle of the book to meditate on those failures.
Q: What brought you to change publishers for each of your poetry collections?
Each publisher for my three poetry collections sought something different. For Small Waiting Objects, I sought out a publisher willing to take a risk on more experimental poetry, which CW Books publishes. The poems in this book are, like my others, literary in style but science fiction in context, and that overlap pushes the poems into that experimental territory.
Maps of a Hollowed Worldalso contains literary style science fiction poems. Since this book loosely tells the story of people aboard a generation ship, I wanted a publisher who specialized in chapbooks that are thematically bound together. Another New Calligraphy specializes in this type of collection. I had an amazing experience working with the editor, who turned my work into a beautifully formatted book that presented challenges due to the line lengths of the cleave poems.
And for Doubt & Circuitry, I sought out a more science fiction-focused press, since the poems in this book were both the most personal I've written. I wanted to keep the focus not on my own experiences parenting during the pandemic but on the questions the science fictional contexts raised about them.
I'm fortunate to have had fantastic experiences with the editors of all three presses, from formatting to cover design to release day and long after.
Q: Tell us about Line Break, a poetry program you host over shortwave?
I've been a radio geek since I was a kid, though more recently, I've given that more time. (I just upgraded my amateur radio license to general in July, for example.) Shortwave radio in particular fascinates me because of its potential to reach a worldwide audience. When we turn on radios in our cars or at home, we expect to hear local news and music from a station broadcasting somewhere relatively nearby. Shortwave, which is a band between the AM and FM bands, has the capacity to move beyond a local area and can propagate almost around the Earth, given the right conditions. (Here in Dallas, for instance, I've picked up stations broadcasting from New Zealand, Japan, and The Philippines as well as from Europe, South America, and elsewhere in Asia.)
Radio, particularly shortwave radio, requires an act of attention—you have to very purposefully seek out the station you want, tune it in, and ensure that you mitigate interference from other electronics that might degrade the signal. Reading or listening to poetry requires that same kind of attention, even if the details of seeking it out and focusing on it differ somewhat. I wanted to put these two together because in shortwave there is an audience of listeners who do give the kind of attention to listening that poetry requires, even if they're not usually poetry readers. I received a lot of good feedback from the audience who appreciated the shows, both Line Break in 2022-2023 and an earlier, longer-form show I did in 2019.
The show is on hiatus now, but I hope to bring poetry to shortwave radio again sometime next year.
Q: How do you select the poets you discuss and feature on Line Break?
For the poets whose work I read, I picked the poets and poems because I was interested in their work. I'm fascinated by poetry from the early 20th century because of the ways in which they engaged with scientific, social, and philosophical advances. Imagist poems work well on the radio, I think, because of the concentrated language. For example, I started with Amy Lowell because I appreciate the way in which she distilled experience to a series of intense images.
I also put out a call for poets, particularly speculative poets, to read on the show. Science and science fiction poetry resonate quite well with our audience, because so many of us shortwave listeners are interested in science and technology. So the synthesis worked out nicely for our audience. Plus, I'm a fan of science fiction poetry myself, of course, so I enjoyed the entire process of listening to the poets and incorporating their readings into the show.
Q: How did you get into shortwave radio and how does it compare to you to podcasts?
I've been a radio listener since I was a kid. My mother suggested I listen at night because I couldn't sleep. Which helped and didn't: I was able to let go of worries and focus on what I was listening to, which was relaxing, but often, I was so interested in what I was listening to that I'd stay up! I probably heard about shortwave radio when I was in high school or college, but I didn't think I could afford a radio then. Years later, I did get a radio, and tuning in around the world fascinated me from the start.
I do listen more carefully to the radio than to podcasts because I can rewind and stop podcasts as needed. So when I'm listening to shortwave, I'm often more focused. Beyond the attention question, there's a question of content. I listen to a lot of podcasts because of the content, most of which can't be found on radio. One of my goals for my radio shows is to bring the sort of content you'd find on podcasts--such as poetry—to shortwave.
Q: Once you had your graduate degree in English Literature, how did you move into software?
I've always been interested in science and technology but was encouraged to pursue arts and humanities. After I graduated, I worked and taught for a university group, and my assignments included working with IT on updated course management systems and user requirements for data management. I was so interested in the IT aspect that I took classes on computer programming and database administration. My supervisor at my first software developer job did say that, given my background, he thought that I'd document my code thoroughly, which was a nice way for both my fields of study to come together in my career.
Q: How do you use your programming expertise in crafting poetry?
I apply my programming skills to writing poetry in a couple ways. First, not to get too far into the technical weeds here, I do think about concepts such as recursion and looping in structuring my poems. We write programs to solve problems, and it's the same for poems. Even though I strive for clarity in programming and leave room for ambiguity in writing poems, I'm still thinking about what problem I'm trying to solve with the structure. For a program, it might be determining an output based on a string of inputs; for a poem, it might be determining the kinds of questions I want the reader to leave the poem with. But the underlying movement feels very similar.
Second, succeeding at studying computer science and working in the field gave me the confidence I needed to try to write science fiction. I've read science fiction since I was a kid, but I never felt confident enough in my connections to science to write it. My graduate work focused on literary poetry and fiction. But having those technical skill sets took away some of that worry, and most of the poems I write now do concern questions from the realm of science fiction.
Q: How did you obtain your monthly column at Luna Station Quarterly called "Conversations with Speculative Poets" and how is it going?
I pitched the column to Luna Station Quarterly after writing "rwx: Read/Write/eXplicate" for them between 2014 and 2017. The poetry column ran from 2019 to 2020, after which I started writing interviews for Interstellar Flight Magazine. The press associated with IFM publishes speculative poetry collections, and the managing editor, Holly Lyn Walrath, is an award-winning speculative poet, so I think the magazine's work with poets and poetry fits better than with LSQ, which does not publish poetry.
While I don't write regularly for IFM, I do interview poets as I can. Reading collections deeply with the intention to interview the poets has been good for my knowledge of craft, and I'm grateful for what I've learned from other poets through their responses to my questions. So I'd say it's going well.
Q: What poets have informed your own work?
So very many poets have informed my work that it's hard to narrow down to just a few! In grad school, I studied the Modernist poets most intently, and I consider their concerns about imagery and universality when I'm crafting my own poems. Poets such as H. D., Amy Lowell and Nancy Cunard were of particular interest to me, not only because of their poetry and how it addressed the questions of their time, but also how it incorporated and pushed against the edits of poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Later poets I first encountered in grad school whose work I return to include Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, and Bridget Pegeen Kelly.
And there are so many poets writing compelling speculative poetry that I do try to learn from, even if it's how to take those underlying questions in a different direction that is more aligned with my vision of poetry. Just to name a few, I am indebted to the work of poets such as Jeannine Hall Gailey, Akua Lezli Hope, Jessy Randall, Bryan Thao Worra, AJ Odasso, Shannon Connor Winward and so many others not only because I admire their poetry but also because their poems gave me new ways of seeing my own work. And that fresh perspective leads to growth.
Q: Can you tell us about your current manuscript which features your Radon poem “The Poet Responds to an Invitation from the AI on the Moon?” What themes or ideas are you exploring in this collection?
My new manuscript, tentatively titled Parallax, asks how close we'll allow ourselves to come to a memorial to someone we loved when that memorial is created by artificial intelligence. On the surface, the premise is that an ancient stone monument has been destroyed in protest, and the daughter of the photographer who popularized the monument tries to make something that will memorialize both the stone and her father. I'm trying to show the points of view of those involved in the monument, from the programmer to the archaeoastronomer who studied the monument to the poet who was briefly linked to the photographer. I've even given voice to the fallen stone monument and the AI, the latter of which takes on the language of the poet as more of her work is used to seed the patterns the AI uses to create the monument.
My underlying concern is what to do with AI-generated memorials. Are they useful? Do they give us space to consider who and what they (are intended to) honor? Or do they somehow introduce something artificial into the process of remembrance? I think AI memorials are inevitable—scraping together information about a person's life and cobbling together words and images is something AI is more than capable of doing now, even if there are issues such as the AI "hallucinating" facts that aren't true. So I think this question is worth asking now: what can be problematic about this beyond the issues we're seeing with AI now.
Q: Tell us about your decision to use different pen names for your poetry and cozy fiction. Do you take on a different persona or process as a mystery author vs. as a poet?
They're both me, of course, but yes, I do have different personae and processes.
T.D. Walker, my poetry and SF pen name, was my attempt in my 20s when I first started publishing poems to obscure my gender and distance myself from the associations my first name might have with Texas or the south in general. After I came back to writing in my late 30s, I continued on with that pen name.
Tammy D. Walker is the pen name I use for writing cozy mysteries. Because these stories come out of Texas and grapple with questions that concern class and rural life, as in my first cozy, and how to be a good ally and supportive family member to people in the LGBTQIA+ community, as in my forthcoming second cozy, I'm happy to use my real first name. I'm from Texas, I'm from the working class, and even though I do write literary poetry and have a PhD, I'm able to carry my background into that.
As far as writing processes go, I'm an outliner, both for fiction and poetry. That said, I tend to sit with poems far longer than I do with fiction, since I'm using language for different ends with both genres. Also, I want both poems and fiction to ask questions, but for different purposes. My aim for my poems is to lead the reader to ask their own questions rather than offering my solutions.
For fiction, however, I am interested in offering up my ideas on how those questions can be addressed. In my first cozy, the main character has to work out how best to support workers who will go on strike. And I think she does support her friends even if she knows she could do more in future. In my second cozy, I want my main characters to find a way to be understanding, supportive parents, even if they are struggling to do so. One very valid criticism of "small town cozy" books is that they often present rural communities that are diverse, supportive, and open-minded. Which, unfortunately, doesn't reflect the reality in most small, rural communities. So I want to be able to present those ideal towns, but it's also my job as a writer to show the work the characters do in order to make those places good for everyone who lives there. So those are the kinds of questions I want to ask and in some ways answer.