Space Opera, eight linked poems employing Science Fiction imagery, contains willed ironies reflective of the element of ambiguity so inherent to the works of the writer concerned, ‘hermetic artist’ A. C. Evans.
Neogaea – New Earth – as a term summons up hopeful visions by association, while Space Opera calls upon the reader to expect epic, even glorious, space adventure. Yet, in fact, the sections cumulatively ‘tell a story’, insofar as clear and sequential narrative can be drawn from the image data projected by these pieces (even the use of the word ‘poem’ is rendered ambiguous by Evans’ own preference for the term ‘texts’) not of hope or wonder but of flawed personnel with fractured motivation bedeviled by fragmented data and encountering, finally, only failure of ‘a great attempt’.
This ‘great attempt’ – to explore the massive outer space planet Neogaea and its alien-inhabited satellite Neon, where strange non-human ‘cathedrals’ dominate a bizarre landscape (which is told in the Space Opera itself, and also affects a prior but unrelated Evans piece, ‘Contact Zero’), relates to many illustrations, and continues as an ‘undertow’ or concealed reference point in some of his more recent work – should have been a notable landmark in the development of speculative poetry in Britain.
That this was not so is a function, I suspect, partly of the difficulty of the work, a density of form, and demands on reader concentration more familiar in the ‘cutting edge’ areas of American speculative poetry of the time. It is also, perhaps, a result of the actual place of publication. The sequence appeared not in a genre outlet (though, as an aside, attempts by other writers at experimental work in UK genre outlets at about the same time also met little response), but in a more ‘mainstream’ group of publications, namely issues of Rupert Loydell’s little magazine Stride and related booklets from the same editor’s press: Stride Publications.
As the passage of time gives the perspective to appreciate more easily the importance of the achievement represented by Space Opera, and as a growing number of genre readers develop a capacity to attempt the appreciation of work which combines SF iconography with experiments in communicative form, therefore there is a value in returning to the sequence.
In an interview with Stride’s editor in Spring 1985, published in Stride 20, A. C. Evans gave considerable insight into his sources, inspirations, and methodology; but this interview had concentrated heavily on his artwork, rather than his poetry, and at no point in time overtly touched on the use of Science Fiction or speculative themes and imagery. I felt an interview directed to clarifying these areas would be of value, particularly in terms of contexting the powerful Space Opera sequence.
I began by asking about the use by the writer of the term ‘texts’ for this and other written work.
A. C. Evans: I use the term to distance myself from traditional verse writing. I actually prefer the phrase ‘poems and/or texts’ – so referring to the material as ‘prose-poems’ or just ‘poems’ is not a problem at all.
A related group of questions followed, aiming to elicit the roots of Evans’ use of Science Fiction material, and its meaning to his writing.
Steve Sneyd: How do you see your work in relation to Speculative poetry as a whole – do you see a connection? Are you influenced by others, and if so, who?
A.C. Evans: Regrettably, I am not in touch with Speculative, or Science Fiction, poetry in the UK (although I guess I should be!), so I can’t identify any influences in this context. My only formal connection with the Speculative scene was the appearance of a couple of drawings in the American magazine Velocities (1983), which is definitely “a magazine of speculative poetry”. Influences do surface of course, but they are external to current small press SF. Quite a complex area this, but if asked I would cite J. G. Ballard and Olaf Stapledon (crucial). American influences would be William Burroughs (inescapable) and H.P. Lovecraft, and possibly Harlan Ellison. But the SF influence generally is non-specific, culled from mass media SF and SF/Fantasy art, etc. etc.
Are you someone who has come to these forms/topics via an interest in Science Fiction?
Science Fiction has always been part of the cultural landscape (for me), so SF topics were a natural element in the ‘symbolic repertoire’. I have no real intention of being an SF writer – SF is just a component of the mass media environment we inhabit. I’m using SF as raw material, in fact, so I’m not really working from within the genre – this accentuates the alienation-distancing effect I hope to project. The details of the SF scenario I use probably derive from the mass media SF I mentioned: Dr. Who, Star Trek, or 1960s TV plays such as Collin Kapp’s ‘Lambda 1’; also the films of Andrei Tarkovsky – Solaris and Stalker, and the use of SF in David Bowie’s music (‘Space Oddity’, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs) which gave a new slant to things circa 1972.
The use I make of SF material? I use the idea of endless voyages through multi-dimensional space(s) as some kind of metaphor for an underlying theme of voidness (that is, ideas of outer limits, alienation, non-communication, and angst). SF-type ideas fit in with this – or seem to. After all, where are the (scientific) outer limits? High Energy Physics and Cosmology enter in – so some of this comes out like SF, but actually derived from Cosmology – e.g. Black Hole Singularities. This endless voyage thing is archetypal: look at Jung and Coleridge.
It also overlaps with a ‘symbolic repertoire’ of ‘occult themes’, such as the astral plane. I should also note a continuity with other more traditional sources, particularly Apocalyptic/Millenarian visionary materials – hence angels and cathedrals all mixed up with Starfleet Command in Space Opera.
Do you see yourself as part of the SF/Speculative poetry world?
As I said, I’m not ‘in touch’ enough to be part of the Speculative scene – but having said that, I’m not against being classified in this way.
Your very experimental approach is almost unique in this century, certainly within this area of genre poetry in the 80s. What reaction have you found from editors to this kind of material?
I have only worked with a small number of editors who’ve been very supportive – particularly the editors of Stride and Memes. My feeling is that the material we are discussing runs counter to the anecdotal/humanistic mould of most small press straight ‘poetry-verse’, so one regards blank reactions as understandable, given the overtly hermetic and inaccessible style of the pieces themselves. Getting down to the cutting edge inevitably means getting into an area where rational communication starts to break down, and I expect editors not to relate to this sort of thing – although I haven’t submitted poems to pure SF editors, ever, so have no idea how they would react.
Was the Space Opera sequence conceived as a whole?
Yes, although ‘Neogaea’ (Space Opera 5) was actually written first, in 1984. The other parts were derived from it some months later. ‘Space Opera (The First Report)’ was published in Stride 21. I think ‘Gaze Of The Medusa’ was especially written for The Serendipity Caper anthology, as a sort of introduction to the sequence.
Does any other work relate to the sequence?
It was linked to ‘Contact Zero’, which also appeared in The Serendipity Caper, and initially in Stride 19. The Space Opera texts also stimulated a number of drawings such as ‘Centre Of Gravity’ from 1984; and ‘Life On Neogaea’, ‘Angel With Raiding Party’, ‘Styx Insect’, ‘The NeoNova’, ‘Destination Tomorrow’, and others, from 1985.
Have you written other Science Fiction texts?
There are SF-type poems in both of my Stride booklets (Exosphere and Decaying Orbits) – such as ‘Metacropolis’ – which are not part of the Neogaea complex.
Finally, could you explain what you were trying to achieve with the Space Opera sequence, the extent to which you think you achieved your aims, and, perhaps, a few words on how it – the sequence – relates to your body of work as a whole?
It’s easier to answer the last part of the question first. Space Opera fits into a range of discursive prose texts subverted by surreal and aleatoric elements. The Xantras (1992) is a more recent example. It was an attempt to see how ‘far out’ (or in) you can get without being too abstract (I don’t really believe in pure abstraction) or too conceptual. Also, as we’ve said, the sequence relates to graphics like Contact Zero (not in this volume) and a number of line drawings (some of which are in this volume): I like to think there’s a non-rational continuum in my work in all media – unexpected links connecting things in half-hidden patterns. pathways to the outer limits.
I tried to achieve a fusion of ‘genre’ thematics with an ‘experimental’ prose style in order to, as it were, get the genre aspects into another gear - it was a clash of disparate elements – a populist space opera scenario filtered through a linguistic style derived from a more refined ‘arty’ ethos. But technical, aesthetic considerations are only part of the equation. There’s an entertainment factor as well. So if the reader finds the sequence dull then I’ve failed in my objective of translating the reader into another sphere. I wouldn’t want to change or revise any of the sequence – so I guess I feel I achieved my aims. Only the readers can say if Space Opera works for them.
(c) Steve Sneyd, 1995