This summer I was given the opportunity to guest-edit an issue of Eye to the Telescope, the online literary magazine of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. As editor I chose the theme “Ghosts”, which I thought was fitting for the Halloween season and reflective of my lifelong love of the subject:
From an early age, I have been consumed with the question of what happens after we die; perhaps not the most psychologically healthy preoccupation for a little girl, but certainly a fruitful one for a budding speculative writer. In literature, as in real life, I am fascinated with ghosts—specters, hauntings, poltergeists, bean-sidhe, È Guǐ,—stories of spirit sightings that suggest our souls go on about their business even after our bodies go into ground. [From “Editor’s Intro, Eye to the Telescope #22]
The response to this issue was amazing. The SFPA received a record number of submissions. The overall quality was humbling; it was a challenge and an honor to curate the “Ghosts” issue in a way that I feel truly represents the breadth and vision of modern speculative poetry.
ETTT#22, “Ghosts” went “live” on October 15, 2016, with a super-sized issue of twenty-seven poets, including veteran speculative writers and promising new voices in the field.
To celebrate the “Ghosts” issue launch, I thought I would take us into Halloween by featuring various poems from the issue. You can read the full text over on the ETTT website (and I hope you will!). Here, I’d like to look at highlights of the 27 “ghost” poems from an editor’s perspective, including what won me over about each and why I feel these poems took the tropes of ghosts and ghost stories in new, unexpected directions.
Tulpa by L.W. Salinas
If ghosts are the memory of a person bound to a place,
then what are words bound to paper but another form of ghost?
…With each word we resurrect the dead, allowing them inside.
A convenient definition of “Tulpa” refers to “a being or object created through sheer spiritual or mental discipline”. While the idea has roots in early Buddhist teachings, it has parallels in many mystical traditions (modern occultists posit that magic is possible because thought has form; add intent to form and you get power). The concept of “tulpa” has even found its way into modern internet culture.
This was one of the later poems I received, after ETTT #22 was already taking form in my imagination, and in my computer’s notes. So it was late to the party and at a disadvantage due its density of language (each issue of ETTT comes with a budget, and poems are paid per word). It’s also one of the less genre-y poems in the batch. While the literary ghosts that haunt “Tulpa” may also be literal, the poet really just posits a possibility: what if the written word is a kind of ghost — an afterlife in a sense, by which we can go on to haunt the living — the readers — even after our bodies are long gone?
Hypothetical, but creepy, if you think about it. And let us not forget that “what if” is the true heart of speculative literature. Everything sci-fi and fantasy and undefinable or not-yet-defined — heck, even science itself — begins with the question.
Also the idea of a poem about words as ghosts as the introduction to a collection of ghost poems was too deliciously meta to pass up. Once I realized how perfect “Tulpa” was as a gateway to the ideas in this issue, it’s fate was (forgive me) writ in stone.
Plus, “Tulpa” offers us poetry that is simply beautiful in its own right:
Memories sheltered and protected between leather covers
like the last thylacine at a zoo, precious and endangered.
Or like the last polio virus, terrifying in scope.
Ghosts that weep, rage, laugh, and ponder in their thin paper hallways
and always find their way back to haunt the living who seek them.
L. W. Salinas is a podcaster, a voice actress, a writer, and a crafter from Houston, Texas. Her fiction has previously been published in the collection Ten Days of Madness. This is her first poetry publication. She can be found at lawofalltrades.wordpress.com
Hart Island by Holly Lyn Walrath
There are too many ghosts here. The ferry brings more each day.
Its prow breaks the brown water, the cranes lifting our shells over masts,
into mass graves. Or else the current brings us more, sucking boats into its maw
and cracking them in its teeth like sunflower seeds.
If “Tulpa” was a treasure in the last wave of submissions, “Hart Island” was the very first poem to win my heart. I knew I had to have it from the first read, even before I’d done my due googling and learned that the titular island is a real place with a fascinating and appalling history.
Walrath’s descriptive prowess is the kind that makes my chest hurt. I couldn’t tear my eyes away, and when the poem finally dropped me off a cliff with that abrupt and mysterious final stanza, I went back and read it another few dozen times, and kept reading it until I could send the poet an official “yes”.
What I wanted most for the “Ghosts” issue of Eye to the Telescope were poems of “the unexpected, the unmeasured… poems that belie the limits of life and afterlife and what we think a ghost story should be”. With its nightmare vision of souls heaped and shoveled like so much refuse, “served up like a feast for the island’s heart”, “Hart Island” delivered the unexpected in spades, while still evoking the sense of place and tragedy that all good hauntings require.
I particularly like the element of the unexplained in this poem: the unknown “He” at the end, and the sense that there are stories within stories, here; archeological layers of humanity to lay bare, and haunted places within this haunted place, where even the ghosts dare not go.
Holly Lyn Walrath’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Abyss & Apex, Liminality and Kaleidotrope, among others. She lives in Seabrook, Texas, just five minutes from NASA. She wrangles writers as a freelance editor and volunteers as the associate director of Writespace, a nonprofit literary center in Houston, Texas. Find her online @hollylynwalrath or hlwalrath.com
Mysticeti by Akua Lezli Hope
When Inuits pray to whale
their prayer boat captain lifts his arms
sings aloud that all be kept from harm
that this vessel of life will surrender
relinquish its one self for their many
and that all whale is and carries
When I began to select poems for the “Ghosts” issue, I found that many presented themselves to me as couples; distinct but complimentary spins on similar genres, ideas or themes. While “Mysticeti” and “Hart Island” are very different poems, they both struck me with their imaginative and epic depictions of afterlife. They are also both concerned with the fate of ghostly bodies, positing unusual landscapes in which the dead take up space, however supernaturally redefined — and they both raise questions of personal autonomy vested — or taken — from the “surviving” soul.
“Mysticeti” (which refers to a species of whale, often called “great whales”) was possibly the most unusual ghost story I came across. In this poem, the spirits of drowned people cast from slave ships are sustained, woven to an ancient whale, protecting her from the same type of profit-minded greed that stole their earthly lives. Perhaps the whale carried old Inuit prayers on her body, enabling her to catch up the souls of the dying as if with a net. Or, perhaps there was some mystical symbiosis at work, born from kindred experience among victims, among the hunted. Either way,”Mysticeti” offers us the hauntingly beautiful image of the ghost-wreathed whale, living out her life untouched, her autonomy preserved.
As one of the trio of poems to usher in the “Ghosts” issue, “Mysticeti” informs the reader that we are heading into uncharted waters.
Akua Lezli Hope is a creator who uses sound, words, fiber, glass and metal to create poems, patterns, stories, music, ornaments, wearables, sculpture, adornments and peace whenever possible. Her awards include two Artists Fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, a Ragdale U.S.-Africa Fellowship, a Hurston-Wright scholarship, and a Creative Writing Fellowship from The National Endowment for The Arts. Her first collection, EMBOUCHURE, Poems on Jazz and Other Musics, won the Writer’s Digest book award for poetry. Her manuscript Them Gone, awarded Red Paint Hill Publishing’s Editor’s Prize, will be published in 2016. She won the 2015 SFPA short poem prize. A paraplegic, she’s developing a paratransit nonprofit so that she and others may get around in her small town.