Stone Telling Issue Six: Catalyst
Edited by Rose Lemberg and Shweta Narayan
Reviewed by Erik Amundsen
I am not an editor. When I attempt to understand the editorial mind, either in the service of reviews or in the throes of rejectomancy, I have to speculate. I know editors, I have worked with them, but I have always been on this side of the big desk, as it were. Sometimes when I try to know the editorial mind, I guess right. This time, I did not have to guess. I read the introduction for Stone Telling, Issue 6 last, and it confirmed everything I knew to be true from reading what Rose Lemberg and Shweta Narayan selected.
As I read and listened, I knew this issue had an origin story with Cat Valente as its radioactive spider. Let me explain. Better yet, let Rose and Shweta explain; I will give you the very short version. When she was editor at Apex, Cat put out a plea, something that I know resonated with some of us out here in the SF poetry community, for a different sort of SF poetry than what she had been seeing. What she had been seeing is what you and I see: the principles and the Big Ideas of SF denatured, dissected and arranged in a format that looks like poetry. Sometimes it even is. Sometimes, it’s even good poetry; a large part of my education as a reviewer has been learning to appreciate these poems on their own terms. Cat wanted something more or something different. SF, by tradition, has its priorities fixed on the technical or on the abstract. In the prose world, how many articles, rants and posts have I read from people decrying the lack of Big Idea SF, hell, just in the last year? I’ve lost count. Valente, to my interpretation, was asking for a different set of priorities, looking for the human or the alien first, or looking at the language.
This was not a call to exterminate Big Ideas. The Big Idea is always going to be the engine that drives SF, but, let’s be frank, engines do nothing useful without the ship, or someone (or something) at the helm. I say the Big Idea as a subordinate priority to language, to humanity or alienation, makes better poetry. That is what I got from Valente’s call to arms.
It’s a spider bite that has been circulating in the bloodstream for a little while, now. Thing is, to drag this metaphor out longer than the too-long it has, it’s not the bite or the spider that makes the hero.
What I mean to say here is that Stone Telling has always held itself to Great Responsibility, and I think, in this issue, a little more than the others, it has grown into its Great Power.
Where to begin; this is the first time an issue of a magazine to which I have (disclosure) submitted and been rejected has come out where imagining what might have happened had I been accepted and someone else’s poem been rejected terrifies me. Which one would I not get to read? I very rarely find it difficult to see an editor’s reasoning in the choices they made that weren’t me and most of the time, I agree with them, but I always have that nagging feeling in the back of my head that I could have been there, I could have stood well with all the others. Not this time. Not even a little.
The rest of this review is going to include a lot of gushing. Just a fair warning.
First things first; ST6 does not exterminate the Big Idea. They act on the Big Idea, choosing several poems that experiment with form. Sofia Samatar’s “Girl Hours” begins with historical references, intercuts with prose poetry and a brilliant couplet:
brushed and buttoned, smelling of healthy soap,
and not allowed to touch the telescope.
Mary Alexandra Agner includes computer code in “Lovelace Nocturnes” to map family dynamics between creator, created and lovers. Lyn Coffin uses line length to capture the rhythm of a drawn out chase ending in victory and death in “The Chute.” Normally, I am skeptical of unusual formatting in poems, I had to work to think of a way not to call it formatting tricks, which is how I usually view them. These do not feel like tricks. They work.
J.C. Runolfson chronicles a historical trick, a hoax in “The Exposure of William H. Mumler” and makes of it a tragedy. I normally place my sympathies with the skeptics, but Runolfson exposes my allegiance:
Skeptics are always illusionists.
They want to know
how the trick is done.
There is a quartet of poems that I group together in my mind, though this is not how they appear, for the sake of understanding what I should look for in more traditional SF poetry. Maria Velasquez takes astronomical phenomenon to describe the actions of human beings, in this case, her parents creating her in “Gas Giants.” I’ve seen this before, but I don’t remember seeing it done better. Athena Andreadis speaks to the alienation of one human who travels interstellar distances and recognition between two bound to that fate. I’ve seen this before, but if I remember it being done better, then I am pretty sure it was done by Andreadis herself. Na’amen Tilahun chronicles a harrowing encounter with a cybernetic lover in “In Memory of Dreamt Clockwork.” I’ve seen this before, and I might have seen it done better, but I can count on one finger by whom. Finally, there is a thorough exploration of the human form from Alyza Tguilaso with “Three Movements of Anatomy.” I’ve seen this before, but I don’t remember seeing such a deft balance between essential humanity and alienation.
There are those I love for their voices; Alex Dally MacFarlane’s “Sung Around Alsar-Scented Fires” and its warrior’s account of triumph against alien invaders. There is Jazz Sexton’s account of monstrosity in “How to Eat Gourmet Crow on a Low-Fare Airline:”
remember weakness begets a lesser human. Here we believe fear should taste satisfying.
Both the poems about Mars count in this last category: C.S.E Cooney’s “Postcards from Mars” features the narrator’s mother saving for a life on Mars and ends with my two favorite lines in the issue:
I finish the jam, wash out the jar.
Three pennies, a dime and a quarter so far.
Finally Tori Truslow takes the idea of terraforming Mars and turns it inside out, weaving a new identity that I hope will be what Martians we’ll one day be in “Terraunform.”
It wasn’t new Earth we wanted, but to be
double-mooned, double-dreamed, multiformed in
mix-matched parts; to put our bodies on
each day, in shapes to fit our hearts
So, yes, I think ST6 succeeds. I think it succeeds on the terms of Cat Valente’s call for SF poetry, I think it succeeds in Rose and Shweta’s commitment to the mission and tone and goals of Stone Telling as a poetry magazine, and I think it does a very good job balancing some of the best of what I expect to see in SF poetry and things that I didn’t expect at all. I like Stone Telling in general, for Rose Lemberg and Shweta Narayan’s vision and ambition, and the great responsibility they take with every issue, but this one I think has managed to find even greater power than I would have believed.