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Conversation with Tristan Beiter

Tristan describes his Poetics PhD at University of Buffalo, his relationship to academia, his Strange Horizons review series, how to grow the readership for speculative poetry, and revealing who the Asteroid Miner is.

Conversation with Tristan Beiter

Tristan Beiter is a queer poet and speculative fiction nerd originally from central Pennsylvania. His poetry and criticism have previously appeared in such venues as Strange Horizons, Chicago Review, Liminality, Abyss & Apex, and the 2022 Rhysling Anthology. When not reading and writing, you can find him doing needlecrafts, crafting absurdities with his boyfriend, and yelling about literary theory. Find him on Twitter and Bluesky at @TristanBeiter or at his website

Tristan is the author of “To Asteroid Miner, in the Lobby of Central Spaceport Rasalas from Radon Issue 7.

Q: How are you enjoying your PhD in Poetics at University of Buffalo? Would you suggest pursuing a PhD for other poets or literary critics?

I’m really enjoying my time at the University at Buffalo! UB has been a great place to be, with lots of really exciting scholars in the department and in my cohort. This first year of the program has been energizing and illuminating.

Regarding whether or not I would suggest pursuing a PhD, I think that really depends on what those other poets and critics are looking for. It’s totally not necessary to write good poems or to have good thoughts on things you’re reading. On the other hand, the stability of the PhD (even though it doesn’t pay all that well) combined with the fact that my main job is thinking has been really good for me. The PhD can be a great place to make space for work you’ve been meaning to read, for expanding your horizons as a reader of both literature and criticism, and for learning to think in a more sustained and focused sort of way.

On the other hand, most PhDs don’t provide much by way of direct creative opportunities—you have to find them just the way you do when you’re working any other kind of day job. So it’s been great for me, but I think I only recommend it for other writers if they’re really specifically interested in doing the work of the PhD.

Q: What is your current relationship to academia? Are you aiming to move into the professor track and publish humanities research papers?

Like basically every academic, I think if I needed to assign a single word to my relationship to the academy, it would be “ambivalent.” I really believe in the project of devoting one’s life and career to thinking seriously and to the creation and sharing of knowledge. I’m really enjoying getting to spend my time now working academically, including planning on spending some serious time this summer doing more research and revising some work I did in my first year of PhD coursework with an eye towards potential future publication.

But I am also acutely aware of the ways the university (in general, not UB in particular) is both flawed and embattled. It is historically and materially embroiled with all kinds of injustice, including encouraging/requiring exploitative labor conditions, publish-or-perish culture, landlordism and unscrupulous investments, and more. Because of that, I want to criticize it. At the same time, it is also under constant pressure from external forces that would like nothing more than to see all transmission of knowledge and thinking halted, that want to reduce ideas to techniques, and want to close off what (often limited) capacity for social mobility the university has managed to produce, which makes me want to defend it again. And because of all that it feels dangerous to be too invested in the academy even as I want to protect it.

I would love to end up in the professoriate and have a long career of professional academic publication of humanities research. That being said, I would also love for my dissertation (assuming that five years from now, it ends up being on the same things I’m thinking about now) to eventually win me a Best Related Work Hugo for my writing about speculative poetry. Less flippantly, as of right now I fully intend to try for a permanent full-time academic career, but I know very few of us who will get doctoral degrees will actually find a job like that, so I’ll be working to keep my options open while I continue through graduate school. Maybe I’ll end up in a high school, or in a literary organization, or in academic publishing, and I think that, for me, it’s worth keeping in mind that I can find work that is worth doing in lots of places, not just as a professor.

Q: What draws you to Role-Playing Games (RPGs)?

I think RPGs are a great chance to think about stories as things that we are involved in. When reading a novel, it’s easy to imagine that the story is something that happens to the characters and the creation of it is something done by a distant and dispassionate author. When writing, I’m reminded that I am involved in the process of creation, but I never feel like I am the one experiencing what I’m writing—it’s always an idea I’m exploring, or a feeling I’m projecting. In an RPG, especially with TTRPGs, I have to participate in the movement of the story in an active way, but I don’t have the level of control that authorship would give me. In this way, they remind me that the stories I read are also things that I participate in making, that the story doesn’t exist for me until I read it.

Q: Will you be resuming your Strange Horizons review series in 2024?

I sure hope so! I’ve actually had two reviews appear there so far this year, of Arvo Villars’s Violently Dancing Portraits and Jacob Budnez’s Tea Leaves. Both were interesting books and well worth reading. The magazine usually reaches out a couple times a year regarding books they’ve received for review, and I also contact them if I find a new book that I don’t expect to be on their radar. I love reviewing for them; the editing is really exceptional, they’re great to work with, I’ve been able to really think deeply about what’s happening in speculative fiction as a result, and it’s a great way to make sure I actually read books that are less than 3 years old (something I otherwise almost never manage to do more than maybe once a year).

Q: As speculative poetry (SpecPo) genre gears up to approach mainstream acceptance through SFWA membership and a Nebula award category, is there anything you feel that poets and editors could be doing to help bring SpecPo to the masses?

Read widely! Write for a wide audience! One of the big hurdles I’ve found as someone trying to share SpecPo with people is that often, when I try to show it to people who mostly read speculative fiction, they wish that the poems behaved more like prose fiction and when I show it to people who read poetry, they find SpecPo to be basically just prose with line breaks, missing the verbal panache of the poetry they like (even when the speculative work is more rigidly metered and rhymed). That is, they accuse it of being too much like fiction.

I think the best speculative poetry is always in conversation with both the whole range of SFF fiction and the whole range of contemporary poetry. By making sure that we’re reading and thinking about a wide range of literature, we enrich our writing in ways that hopefully allow us to show fiction fans that poetry offers something special that fiction can’t do and poetry readers that the speculative conceits of these poems are actually central to how they work as poems, rather than devices that take them out of poetry.

Q: Do you prefer free verse or any specific form?

That’s a really hard question. My favorite fixed form is the sestina; I’ve written several and published one. Most of my poems, though, are free verse. I think that often trying to force a poem to be any particular form makes it worse, but so does refusing to accept that what I have in front of me is the a rhyming quatrain, or the first six lines of a sestina, or the beginning of a sonnet. Which I guess is to say that I try to let the poem tell me what it needs to be, and I love to read or write a good fixed-form poem, but most of the time, I think that free verse is the right move for what I’m writing.

Q: In what ways is writing a poem different from reading a poem?

When I’m reading, I’m usually spending most of my mental effort on enjoying and understanding the effects of language as I read: what does the poem sound like, how does it make me feel, how does its craft contribute to the production of those effects? It isn’t that I’m not thinking about that when I’m writing, I am, but the attitude of reception and of production are so different. The eternal hunt for “the best” way to write the poem—to blatantly misappropriate T.S. Eliot’s thinking, the search for an “objective correlative” for the as-yet-undiscovered central magic of a poem—is alienating and consuming in a way that the analysis and appreciation of someone else’s choices (whether or not I believe it to serve as this sort of ideal reflection of an inner truth) is not. And maybe that’s the heart of it, that word “analysis,” perhaps reading is analytic and writing is synthetic.

Q: What is your relationship to Ursula Le Guin’s seminal work, The Left Hand of Darkeness?

I love Left Hand. I first read it in a course on feminist science fiction in my master’s degree and was fascinated by its exploration of the social function of gender, as well as its combination of space opera politics, polar memoir plot, and scholar’s eye. The structural role that folklore, field notes, and cultural documents play in the novel, though not as fully realized as in a later novel like Always Coming Home really captured my attention and offer rich possibilities for thinking of fiction as thinking and doing feminism by imagining another world in all its complexity. Even the simple acknowledgement that the alien culture imagined would be a whole culture were it real goes a long way towards making the novel’s examination of gender and its artifices more compelling.

Q: Have you found success in shopping around your poetry chapbook the past few years?

I haven’t had a lot of success, though I’m currently in the process of trying to revise the extant chapbook manuscript and send it around. It’s just barely 20 pages in manuscript, so it’s a bit difficult to find places that will consider it. I’m excited about working towards a second, potentially longer (more like 25 or 30 pages) project that’s building on some spell and prayer poems—maybe I’ll even combine the two projects, but I’ll try the older manuscript at a couple more places before I do it.

Q: Who is the Asteroid Miner who is in the Lobby of Central Spaceport Rasalas?

He’s a statue in the style of New Deal or Soviet public propaganda art, an entirely invented celebration of an imaginary rugged masculinity of hard manual labor. Like a lot of art in this mode, he was originally installed in the spaceport as much as an instruction as a promise: a command to imitate him, whether or not that imitation is, in the long run, truly healthy or sustainable (and persisting as both demand and promise long after the world has moved on).

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