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[GUEST POST] Michael Pogach (THE SPIDER IN THE LAUREL) Likes Dead Scottish Sci-Fi Poets. Wanna Make Something of It?

POGACH photoMichael Pogach began writing stories in grade school. He doesn’t remember these early masterpieces, but his parents tell him everyone in them died. He’s gained some humanity since then, even occasionally allowing characters to escape his stories alive. Michael lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and daughter. The Spider in the Laurel is his first novel.

I Like Dead Scottish Sci-Fi Poets. Big Whoop, Wanna Fight About It?

by Michael Pogach

There’s no shortage of “Look Who Inspired Me” articles out there. Every author is asked the question sooner or later, usually far more than once. Truth is, they can be great discussions. Enlightening. Revealing. But have you noticed that many of them circle back to the same canon of authors? King. Asimov. Bradbury. Lovecraft. Marquez. Rushdie. Willis. Vonnegut. Adams. Atwood. And so forth.

I always like the ones that name authors I’ve never heard of. The ones that make me jot names in my phone’s memo app so I can order books later that night.

To that end, let me introduce you to Edwin Morgan. The first Scots Makar (national poet of Scotland). Last survivor of Scotland’s literary Big Seven. Translator of Beowulf – the 1952 version that many scholars referred to up until Seamus Heaney’s 2001 interpretation. Morgan was also a sci-fi poet pioneer, lending heavy literary weight to a genre in the 1960’s and 1970’s that was still seen as B-side and niche.

I had the pleasure of meeting Morgan in the summer of 2002. I was studying abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was one of those moments that you can look back on with serendipitous fondness, mostly because it almost didn’t happen. I didn’t want to go to the poetry reading of the guy I’d never heard of before. Sure, a book of his poetry was on the reading list for the following week, but back then I wasn’t the kind of person who looked ahead.

Lucky for me, my friends prompted and prodded until I gave in. We arrived a few moments late to a small room with a small man at the head, finishing an introduction in a charming Glasgow accent. Then he opened a book and began reading “The Loch Ness Monster’s Song.”

Sssnnnwhuffffll?
Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.

No, I’m not joking. Those are the first three lines. Search it online. You can find recordings of him doing it. Dead serious. Beautiful, really. It’s somehow Shakespeare, Lovecraft, and Mel Brooks all at once. I was hooked. He read for over an hour that night, taking time to offer little bits of insight into each piece. He was eloquent and elegant. Erudite and hilarious. I was hooked.

After, I stuck around and chatted with him about this and that. I wasn’t taking myself seriously as a writer then. It was just something I dabbled in. But that night I wanted to be an author. And he encouraged me, saying something about being able to tell I could feel the beat. And if I could do that, I had an author in me somewhere. I don’t know – maybe I’m making that more profound than it was. But that’s how I remember it going.

I also remember, clear and bright, his poem “The First Men on Mercury.” This one is pure sci-fi, 1950’s style. It begins with two lines by human explorers, followed by one line by the indigenous Mercurian:

– We come in peace from the third planet.
Would you take us to your leader?

– Bawr stretter! Bawr. Bawr. Stretterhawl?

He loved language, did Edwin Morgan. He invented it the way Tolkien did. Not just making up words for words’ sake. His Mercurians don’t just have vocabulary. They have language. They have culture. Here’s an excerpt from a little later in the poem. The first bit, again, is the men speaking. The second is the Mercurian.

– Atoms are peacegawl in our harraban.
Menbat worrabost from tan hannahanna.

– You men we know bawrhossoptant. Bawr.
We know yuleeda. Go strawg backspetter quick.

Their languages have bled into each other. Not unlike the way a poetic beat can bleed into a half-hung-over grad student during a poetry reading. “The First Men on Mercury” is a masterpiece, I think, offering discourse on “othering,” linguistics, postcolonial literature, and on identity. Best of all it is science fiction. It’s a wonderful example of what sci-fi has to offer because it lets us look at ourselves from afar.

Edwin Morgan inspired me with his art, his openness, and that little nudge he offered me. Now, I don’t have any designs on becoming a poet. But neither did I have any plans to write science fiction when I finally did devote myself to making my dabbles into something more substantial. In any case, I hope there’s a wee dram of Morgan’s glamour in what I do. And I hope you get the chance to visit Mercury one day or hear the Loch Ness Monster sing her song. Either one is enough to redefine you.

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