Conversation with Brian U. Garrison
Brian examines the duality of writing poetry alongside picture books, life as SFPA's secretary, and answers if robots can be programmed to love.
Brian U. Garrison serves as Secretary for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. His poetry has traveled to Mars aboard NASA's MAVEN Mission, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama (among other cities) aboard Asimov's Science Fiction, through the interwebs aboard Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics, and to bookshelves aboard his chapbook New Yesterdays, New Tomorrows. He writes and dreams in Portland, OR. See more at www.bugthewriter.com
Brian is also the author of the poem “Domestic Tranquility” from Radon Issue 2.
In addition to writing poetry you are also seeking representation for your picture book manuscripts. How has that process been?
Writing picture books and working with critique partners in kidlit (children's literature) has been amazing. The community is full of warm, welcoming writers who want everyone to succeed.
Coming from a background of poetry, it has been an ongoing education to take new ideas and build them into "proper" stories. I still love creative book structures, but understanding the typical story arc was a first hill to climb.
On the business side, looking for an agent has definitely been a slog. There's a reason they call it the query trenches! I sent almost 300 queries to agents from 2016 to 2022, and 130 of those were in 2020. It has been a test of persistence in continuing to send my work around.
What about writing stories and poetry for picture books draws you in?
I love the final work of art that is a picture book. There's an incredible variety in the visual art and structures you'll encounter in a pile of picture books (the structure might be a plot or it might be conceptual, like an ABC book). If you walk down the library shelves picking out books at random, it could be a long time before you find two that are similar!
The intertwining of words and pictures brings new layers and new possibilities. Reading a picture book is often intended to be interactive, whether it's one adult reading to one child or a teacher engaging their classroom. The whole format is structured around creating space for positive interactions and relationship building.
A child with a picture book is building several connections: between language and written text, between themselves and the caregiver, and between themselves and where they fit in the world. There's a lot of power in that space. Sometimes a book can provide a moment of respite, but it can also provide a launching point into difficult conversations.
What story elements make up a great children's book compared to a poem?
Back to the infinite structures in picture books, some of my favorites blur the lines between poem, story, poster, dictionary, game, etc. Eric Carle plays with the physical design by punching holes through the pages of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and with creative foldouts in Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me. I am a huge fan of Amy Krouse Rosenthal's book This Plus That: Life's Little Equations. Is it a bunch of poems? Kind of. Is it a math book? Sure. Is it amazing? Absolutely.
I think that both forms of art call for the writer to do a lot with only a few words. If you're truly aiming for a story, then there's plenty to discuss regarding a standard story arc. When a picture book leans more toward conceptual, there's usually discussion of how to fit a gentle narrative arc over the otherwise disconnected elements. How can you create movement? Writers might use the progression from morning to night, from season to season, or from the start to the end of a hike.
In poetry, though, I think writers are often given more room to imply a story without writing out the entire arc. Or, the point of a poem might be to simply invite the reader to dwell in one particular moment. The movement can be much more subtle or even nonexistent.
Do you find any similarities or differences in creating poems for children compared to adults?
For me there's a love of wordplay no matter what age I'm writing for. When writing for children, I might lean more into warped rhymes to push boundary of sound. For adults I might lean more into warped meanings to push the boundary of language.
For both age groups, I get in trouble for not putting enough emotion onto the page. I guess that's the price to pay for writing on science-y topics. I'm driven by curiosity—is that not an emotion? The desire to understand how things work? It sometimes makes me wonder if I'm doing something wrong, or if I'm just presenting my window on life. I dunno, but I'll keep writing.
How has working with Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA) and seeing so much SF poetry shaped your writing?
I was on the fence about joining when I first learned about the SFPA. Some of that resistance stemmed from the Vonnegut mindset of not wanting to be pigeonholed as a writer of lowly genre writing. But I think I've mostly overcome my shyness and learned to embrace that speculative writing is what I like to read and write. And importantly, I've always accepted that genre art can do all the same things as mainstream art. It can tell important truths, it can evaluate the human condition (whatever that means), it can be funny, it can be simply for unhumorous nerdy musings.
What I want as an artist is an audience. I think being part of the community has its ups and downs as we agree or disagree about life. That goes with any group endeavor. Being steeped in the shared love of speculative poetry assures me that there are other people interested in the type of art I'm creating.
Knowing about the audience frees me to write whatever interests me. Shared interests can also be a driving force. With my Radon poem “Domestic Tranquility,” I went searching for folklore knowing that retellings carry broad appeal. While reflecting on an elves-and-shoemaker scenario, I sympathized with the workers and words started appearing on the page.
Has being the SFPA Secretary been a rewarding experience?
As I alluded to above, there is plenty of drama to sift through. Being in a leadership position prevents me from taking a happy-go-lucky approach to life. I can't just set aside the problems because I'm responsible for more than just my own actions.
Where does this leave me, though? I appreciate the perspectives I've gained by collaborating with others. I cherish the connections with other poets that have been forged because of my greater involvement. And, I'm proud of my contributions to help keep our publications and community going.
If you had to pitch SFPA to a poet who is not yet a member, what would you say?
Stop by and make some friends! We have a few areas where anyone can connect with other writers even if you're not interested in a membership.
There's a Facebook group and an email list (through groups.io) where open discussion happens. We did set up a Discord server to stay hip to the future, but that's currently members-only.
Tell us about the new site you launched in 2022 called Word Nerd?
I thought it would be a nice way to share my unique skills and experience with the writing community. The intention is to answer tech questions specific to the needs of writers. There's a lot of useful technology out there, but all the inventions in the world are only useful if they're actually used!
People can send questions and I'll answer what I can: www.wrd-nrd.com/p/about.html
Do you believe that love would be easy to program in a robot?
What do you want from love? A human might say, "I could never love a robot," which is the human's failing and doesn't address the original question anyway. We're looking at the robot's love, not the human's.
Certainly, there's the perception issue (pause for groans). Human physiology relies on a lot of input that we don't think about. How does a person establish a gut feeling? When you're nervously excited on a first date, what does that feel like?
Input might arrive externally: your eyes focus on the charming human you're meeting for dinner. The input might come from the downstream connections: your eyes tell your brain that there's an attractive human and your brain forgets how to talk; then, your brain tells your body, your muscles tighten, your stomach jitters, your face flushes, and you feel that.
For a robot, maybe the engineer is trying to recreate the butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling. That's just a matter of using the right tactile sensors. Sensors already exist for all varieties of robot perception. Maybe there are already robots out there with all the feels.