Deborah L. Davitt’s poem “Vintage Years” [in our July/August issue, available now], pairs regional differences between grapes with trigonometry, like a good red wine paired with—not dinner, but time. Below, Deborah talks with us about poetic form, choosing between the words “rhyme” and “rime,” the importance of contrast, and the contents of her bookshelf.
Asimov’s Editor: How did this poem come to you?
DLD: This piece is a triolet, a short, rhymed French form that I oddly find myself fond of. When you’re writing form poetry, I like to say that form is your coauthor. You have to be flexible, and you might not get quite to the place you thought you were going, but you might wind up someplace you needed to be. (Yes. Form poetry is Zen navigation, as in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.)
In this case, I started by outlining the form, and came up with the first line: “Rolling it on the tongue like red wine” and then I outlined the remaining lines with their rhyme scheme and some placeholder words that would fit that rhyme scheme.
And then I unfocused my mind a bit and started looking for what would work in the space I had. I knew I wanted to write about time—it’s a common theme for my work, whether it’s history, futurism, or how time’s passage shifts and shapes us. And once I had the wine metaphor, I figured I had to hit the kinds of things that wine-drinkers look for. Color. Taste. Mouth-feel.
I was particularly pleased when I was able to put a word like terroir (the notion that you can taste the environmental difference between grapes grown in one region, as compared to another) in the same line as sine (a mathematical concept that has to do with graphing trigonometry, in an endless pattern of waves), because contrast is one of the biggest tools in my writing toolkit, and I will use it mercilessly when I have the opportunity.
Triolets demand repetition as part of their structure; the first line repeats three times, the second twice, so you have to make them as vivid as possible, and take the opportunity to go for a major turn or shift of imagery in the second stanza.
In this case, I had the word rime as a placeholder at the end of the second stanza, and also rhyme. If I’d aimed for rhyme, the poem could have become a poem about poetry itself, and I considered that briefly, but if I’m going to go meta, I’d prefer to make the whole piece meta. So I focused on rime, an older term for ice. And still thinking about the concept of ingesting time, appreciating it like some exotic cocktail, I hit on rolling it on the palate tinged with entropy. Again, I like throwing old words up against newer ones, the fantastic paired with the scientific.
Because contrast is important. Pairing concepts for new synthesis is important. It opens the mind up, at least a little, to new ideas. Also, it’s fun, which a triolet really needs to be.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
DLD: Poetry titles usually come after the writing is done. In this case, it was a fun little pun on the notion of a vintage wine, and on the concept of vintage years/clothing, etc., coupled up with the extended metaphor of time as something we drink or consume or appreciate. It seemed to fit!
“Again, I like throwing old words up against newer ones, the fantastic paired with the scientific. Because contrast is important. Pairing concepts for new synthesis is important. It opens the mind up, at least a little, to new ideas.”
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
DLD: As I mentioned earlier, time is definitely a concept I return to again and again. I have a deep love of history and mythology, as well as science and futurism. For me, time is all one piece, and I long ago took to heart the notion that “people who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.”
So, for example, in my first full-length poetry collection, The Gates of Never, you’ll find poems that focus on mythology and history through the first sections, re-interpretations of fairy tales through a modern lens . . . and then at the end, as we move into the future, we take a tour of planets and moons of our solar system, looking at them both as we know them through science, and contrasting their reality with their mythological names. I was bold enough to tag Alan Stern of the New Horizons project with a couple of my Pluto poems, and he liked them enough to retweet them. So there’s that, heh.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
DLD: I read science news with great regularity, and take direct inspiration from new discoveries. I find political news and the comments section thereof to be mind-boggling frustrating, and frustration isn’t the best place for me to work from.
I can and I have taken inspiration from other writers, particularly conclusions that I have found objectionable, and I totally can and have written stories as responses/reactions to them. I mean, I have been having a long-form argument with Boethius’ concept that “free will is totally compatible with pre-destination, honest” for . . . decades? But current events are a thing I actively try to avoid including in my work, on the theory that other people will find it as annoying as I do when I read a story in which someone is clearly taking up for a current political cause.
My general feeling is that I don’t want anyone to preach at me—not their politics and not their religion. I should do others the same courtesy that I want extended to me, shouldn’t I?
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
DLD: I have two other poetry collections and a chapbook out making the publishers’ rounds. I have a bunch of other prose works in progress, but with my son home every day for the foreseeable future due to coronavirus issues, that’s a major stumbling block for my productivity.
That being said, if anyone wants to read my poetry, short stories, novellas, or even my Edda-Earth novels, I have an extensive back catalogue of works, many of which are free to read. Check out www.edda-earth.com/bibliography.
AE: What are you reading right now?
DLD: Oddly, I mostly read nonfiction these days. Articles on archaeology, Bronze and Iron Age history, development of biological robots, advances in technology, you name it, I’ll read it. I have an entire shelf of Terry Pratchett Discworld books that are my comfort food reading; Jim Butcher is a newer favorite I’ve stumbled onto.
Sitting on my coffee table, waiting to be read since I asked for them for Christmas? Horse Soldiers, Spillover (David Quammen on the “next human pandemic,” hah), and Johannes Cabal, the Detective. Goodness only knows when I will shake loose time to read them, but that’s kind of the way all my reading goes. My tastes are wide, varied, and yet also, I’m incredibly picky. A piece can’t have logic holes or I fall right out of the story. It can’t have historical inaccuracies or inconsistencies, or I’ll sit there tearing it apart.
AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
DLD: Coin toss between Babylon 5’s, if I could jump forward in time to do so, or Stargate SG-1’s, if I’m limited to current-day. Both are essentially hopeful places, where intelligent people actually make the world better by being in it. And while they’ve encountered terrible risks to the planet along the way, they learn and grow and improve themselves. Even people who were once enemies have a shot at redemption in it.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
DLD: Elimination of most diseases and senescence. Of course, we’d need commensurate population control and room on other planets to make that work, so . . . almost every positive SF prediction, heh.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
DLD: I’ve taught technical writing and rhetoric at the college level; I also spent seventeen years as a technical writer for projects ranging from nuclear submarines to the ISS, and then for a major computer manufacturer. Those experiences taught me to prize clarity above all else in my writing—and when I first started writhing a fairly well-received fan fiction back in the day, the sheer raw number of questions I got from readers (literally thousands of emails) taught me again that my job is to convey my thoughts as clearly as possible.
I can’t stop readers from reading into a piece something that they brought with them, out of their own experiences. But I can clearly delineate my world and the thoughts of my characters, so that there are fewer barriers to communication.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
DLD: There’s my website, www.edda-earth.com. I’m also on Facebook, as Deborah Davitt (deborah.davitt.3) and, more rarely, on Twitter as @DavittDL.