Bull Spec Poetry Issues 1-3
Edited by Samuel Montgomery-Blinn (1&2) and Dan Campbell (3)
Reviewed by Erik Amundsen
Bull Spec is a newish quarterly SF magazine with some poetry in the back. Okay, that’s a bad foot to get off on, but it does get my back up, just a bit, in a poetry-centric review, to see the poetry all crowded to the back of the magazine. This is, however, standard practice for many, many publications, and just because it steps on my precious little poetry toes doesn’t mean I have to grouse about it. It also isn’t fair to single out Bull Spec for doing it. So, I won’t grouse, but I do feel it bears mentioning. In one sense it does make doing a poetry-only review of the first three issues easier, since there’s not a lot of hunting around I have to do for the poems.
I’ll be looking at each issue in turn and then doing an overview of the three together to see what I can divine from what’s included.
Issue 1 has two pretty short poems closing it off. First is Kaolin Fire’s “Inspired by Windmills” which did not grab me on the first reading, but I decided after two or three more runs through it that I like the conceit behind it, and I like the fairly light touch of the last stanza. I think it might have been a little stronger without the slightly preachy middle stanza. The other is “Ratang” by Ralan Conley, which, at first I did not get, sorry to say, but I think that’s the fault of my own tired brain. On repeat readings, I figured out what Conley was talking about (I suspect most people will get it on the first go, I was being dense). Very minimal and a little, well nasty in a way I appreciate (though I like rats), it’s a fun little poem. These two take up half a page together, sharing it with the end of a review.
Moving on to issue 2, there are four poems spread out over two pages, and one of them is quite long, taking the entirety of the second page. The first “The Spear of the Moment” by David M. Harris, focuses on quantum physics by way of the old chestnut of Schrodinger’s thought experiment about the cat. Which, if you’ll pardon, is kind of old-hat, and I’m afraid nothing Harris does makes it any fresher. The next poem is far more effective, Helen R. Peterson’s “Death Could not Part Them,” which has some genuine creep in there and a strong sense of grief gone bad. Strongest poem of the issue, I think. “Mother’s Garden” by Reggie Lutz is… well, it’s cute. But not in a bad way. Desultory hostilities between a garden gnome and a water feature, it ends on a really good image, actually.
The last poem in issue 2 is “The Torturer’s Boy” by J. P. Wickwire, which, I think, details the early life to Call to Adventure of a lad raised in a torture chamber. This should be clearer to me, except for the fact that I have attempted to read the poem five times and never been able to force myself to finish in one go. I have to take breaks from it. It sort of rhymes, it sort of has a refrain that’s picked up and dropped, and those things are distracting enough, but the fact that every line is absolutely drenched in cliché; I had to break not because of any factor so much as eyestrain from all the times I rolled the damned things.
My entrance hither was forbidden;
My curiosity came unbidden.
I can pick a line at random. I chose these two because they rhyme. And here I think I am going to indulge in a little soap boxing about poetry. Imagine I told you these two lines were the least filthy lines in an erotic poem. Now they are from a poem about some kids finding an alien crash site in a field. Now, they are a poem about a dusty mythos scholar wandering into the bad side of a Yog Sothoth. Same two lines. They could be anywhere.
Moving on to issue 3 and the beginning of the funny formatting, and gods help me, it seems like this review is bound to cement my reputation as the Versification reviewer that poets and publishers hope they don’t get, and a petty jerk besides. I get that this is a print magazine, and that page count matters and that layout is not an easy thing to do. I did my time copyediting a college newspaper in the early 90s and I know what went into it then, and learned I was not cut out for layout, but when you split two poems over two columns and crowd everything in together, it doesn’t do justice to the poems you do accept and it makes them hard to read. Deborah Walker’s “Dolly Bone Dream” is the first of this issue, jumping columns and taking the top third of the page. It’s a sufficiently spooky piece, though the last line did fall flat for me and the mention of a necroscope made me have to search the internet to see if Brian Lumley’s eponymous mythos had made it into more general use. David Sklar takes the bottom of the page with “When I Grow Up,” which is really effective in places (I enjoy the parenthetical stanzas, except, perhaps the meta one), though it does make me a little uncomfortable with its first-world shamanic bent. Still, not a bad poem. One thing, though, it ends in an open parenthesis with no punctuation, which, given the layout makes me think that there were a couple of lines cut off the end. There’s nothing else in the poem which makes me think it was deliberate, so either the poet totally threw me or the layout was funnier than I originally imagined.
The last page of issue 3 contains 4 poems crammed together, titles for 5, and a little box with an announcement about a poet not, as far as I can tell, featured in this issue. In short, it’s a crowded mess. The top left goes to Rob Elkind’s “Magnetic Moment,” which, if nothing else, puts Roy Orbison in my head. Sadly, Elkind is no Orbison, and I am going to have to be very careful about what SF poetry I review if “boy meets girl as described by physical process” is as common as I have been told, because it is a no sell for me.
Lower left goes to Matt Ronquillo’s “Thread Head” which is one of those poems. Short, totally opaque, probably quite private and personally meaningful, but it says nothing to me, other than of agitation and bright colors. A psychedelic mishap in an abandoned house? It is very effective at conveying a sense of agitation, anyway, though I am not sure why, for one line only, Ronquillo needed to turn an ing into an in’. It’s kind of distracting.
Deborah Walker gets a second appearance in the top right, with “The Standing Stones have Fallen, but the Debt Remains,” which is really good, a strong, steady voice, a better command over subject and language than her other outing in this issue and some nice alliteration at the beginning. This was the poem that I read aloud (I read them all aloud) and liked the sound. I feel like I could read this poem in front of an audience and walk away having done us both a good turn, and that’s quite gratifying to see. It’s my favorite of all three of the first issues.
And then things get… Weird. I’m not sure what’s going on here, so I’m just going to copy-paste what I see next and leave it for the reader to decide. This is what I see on the page as I see it:
WHAT THE POET WROTE AFTER HIS WIFE
PUT THAT BIG SEED POD UNDER HIS BED
WITH A CHANCE OF SUCKING VACUUM
A poem begins under the second title and byline. So yeah. I don’t know what to make of this. I love that orphan title and if that’s the whole of the poem, bravo, very clever. No really. I actually like little things like that as long as they are very occasional or a well-established tradition. Here, it just looks like another layout mistake. “With a Chance of Sucking Vacuum” doesn’t suck. Actually, I kind of like it, which is unusual for an astronaut poem, but still, I want to know about that seed pod.
I’ll be coming back for the next three issues shortly. In the meantime, Bull Spec has unfortunately given me a really uneven impression on the poetry. There are both some really strong and really painful poems in these issues and the layout for issue 3 is really quite buggy and distracting. Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be much of a sense of editor in the choices, so far. Some of these selections are fantasy, some warts-and-all-SF SF poetry, some are scary, there is low speculative content and there is high; it could be that Bull Spec is casting a broad net on purpose or that the editorial vision in regards to the poetry hasn’t come together. I’ll be interested to see how this continues to develop.