Q&A with Betsy Aoki

Betsy Aoki is a poet and game producer who comes from a journalism background. Her new poem “Messaging the Dead” bridges attempts to bridge the distance between the living and the dead, and you can read it [in our January/February issue, on sale now!]

Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
BA: “Messaging the Dead” came about as I was thinking about how we wait for our computers and devices to complete our sentences. Search engines will suggest how to complete your search terms; your phone autocorrect will try to guess what word(s) you want to offer up next. It’s an interruptive act, with a machine trying to be helpful.  Once upon a time, in the early days of messenger software (chat rooms, icq, etc.) we were amazed how new words took life without our typing them. Now, we have daemons inside the software whispering in our ear, suggesting intent and phrasing to us.
We talk about machines and phone lines as if they are alive. Magical. Even as so many of us are typing into the absence of others: widows, widowers, the newly-orphaned, the bereaved.  All of the places and people they used to type words to on a daily basis are now closed account, dead machines, wiped phones.
Like the artist’s Wind Telephone in Ōtsuchi, Japan where folks pick up the phone to have conversations with their departed loved ones, for my poem “Messaging the Dead” I envisioned a messenger app that would let the speaker of my poem talk to their dead.  I wanted a poem that was specific to grief and the distance the dead are from us (or paradoxically their feeling of closeness) but I simultaneously wanted blurred lines, pushing into the mysteries of what we can’t program, can’t pre-record, can’t know how to autocorrect. I wanted to capture the elusiveness that true communication presents, and that the ineffable face that the dead present to the living.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
BA: I wrote the poem first and then looked up to the first line and realized what the title had to be.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this piece?
BA: Asimov’s was an easy choice of home for the poem; it’s an amazing magazine that has dealt with technology and death themes in powerful ways.  I also thought it important the poem was semi-conversational, matter-of-fact, bordering on chatty.  Asimov’s fiction often brings the reader into intensely human situations with ordinary language. For those reasons, I was glad that the poem was selected.

AE: What is your process?
BA: If left to myself and able to indulge my own biorhythms (a writing residency, or a vacation), I do my best generative work from about 8 a.m. until noon. After a break for lunch and some kind of exercise (walk, gym, etc.) I can then pick up new reading in the genre I am working in, or editing/revising pieces not worked on during the morning period. Afternoons are also good for editing-type freelance projects or tasks on the business side of writing.
During non-vacation times, generally I don’t have the juice for generative writing until Sunday morning.  Best strategy for me has been taking a Friday off, doing all manner of errands and household tasks on that day, and then I find the generative writing brain comes back to me for a full Saturday and Sunday stint.  
The final point in my process is that I fight with myself about submitting.  It’s like the boss battle of writing to me! Submitting means facing the demons of not being good enough and even with great tools like Submittable and Moksha the demons lie in wait while choosing what to send and faithfully tracking rejections. Editor Sheila Williams at Asimov’s kindly chided me at Readercon about my fiction process because I was taking rejection as a sign to rewrite each and every fiction piece before resubmitting them elsewhere. That meant sometimes years between submitting pieces.  Forget that! she said (I am paraphrasing here).  Submit—submit—submit and once you run out of outlets, trunk.  Write something new if you run out of stuff to send.

AE: How did you break into speculative writing?
BA: I was fortunate enough to attend a few one-day workshops put on by Clarion West, and then after that submitted pieces that got me into the six-week workshop.
Ironically though the six-week residency at Clarion West helped my fiction writing take a quantum leap, it took me some months (and wise words from Julia Rios, who was poetry editor at Uncanny Magazine at that time), to take on writing speculative poetry.  A few poems I had already written were definitely speculative without me consciously thinking about it. Others found their way to me with the clear intent to go to a speculative market.
What makes a poem speculative was a question I wrestled with then and still wrestle with to this day. It’s not the craft; I use the same moves in my speculative poetry that I do in the ones that are tackling traditional literary subjects. But I do think speculative poetry, much like speculative fiction, requires a kind of literalism even as it is using imagery and metaphor. There is a contract with the reader that the speculative world being built is real, and the world is upheld/upholdable in the poem.  That the speculative poem opens up a world that is not the mundane world we live in today.
The fun and games begin of course when you write in the mode and craft of the literary poet and seduce them over to the genre ranks! Come to my dystopian robot face factories, my poetic invocations of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace like Greek gods, my alternate take on the Witcher mythos . . . all part of my first book of poems: Breakpoint.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
BA: For most of 2022 I will be promoting my first book of literary and speculative poetry called Breakpoint, published by Tebot Bach. and working on a manuscript about Japanese folklore and demonology. In addition to writing speculative short fiction, I am working with Cadwell Turnbull on the Many Worlds Project .
I currently serve as an assistant poetry editor for terrain.org, a journal about the built and natural environment.

I do think speculative poetry, much like speculative fiction, requires a kind of literalism even as it is using imagery and metaphor. There is a contract with the reader that the speculative world being built is real, and the world is upheld/upholdable in the poem.  

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
BA: Though I will cite credentials like my MFA degree in poetry and Clarion West Writers Workshop, these experiences are not the only paths to good writing and may in some ways hinder more than they help. Plenty of amazing writers (and those who are solidly making a living at it) have done well without those programs.  And, I am here to attest that having those credentials does not protect you from doubting your writing is any good.
What those two things do offer if done right is engage you the writer into a community where you can bounce ideas (literary or genre or both) against fellow writers and have conversations about where the art is taking you. There are other ways to find that community. National Write a Novel in a Month, a.k.a. Nanowrimo, is a great November event that creates local groups welcoming any and all writers.  Another superb resource is Writing the Other, which is a book and a series of classes taught by speculative writers about creating worlds and characters that reflect human diversity.
Design your own writing program if you can’t take time away from your day job for a residency or degree.  Listen to yourself and what your writing needs, and go from there.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
BA: Long before I worked in technology, and even before my graduate degree, I worked as a newspaper reporter. I had internships at the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post and went on to The Palm Beach Post where I worked my way up to General Assignment reporter. Later when I went into technology, The Seattle Times had me do a Sunday column called “Planet Northwest” as well as work on their web site.
This journalistic work taught me daily deadlines, enforced brevity, and not to bury the lede. I am not saying I mastered these skills but having to do that regimen in my first day job meant that what I write now is at least not as bad as what might have been sans that influence. Reporting also taught me about how to deconstruct misinformation—because people wanted to lie to journalists then as much as they do now—and understanding how to follow the money and hidden agendas will serve you well in any job.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
BA: You can find me on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/baoki
Instagram (which will get more active with Breakpoint publication) https://www.instagram.com/betsyaoki7669/
My general author site is http://www.betsyaoki.com .  (To contact me more reliably by email please use the form there.)

Elizabeth (Betsy) Aoki is a poet, short story writer and game producer. Her work has appeared in Strange HorizonsUncanny Magazine, and Asimov’s Magazine of Science Fiction, and is anthologized in Climbing Lightly Through Forests (Ursula K. Le Guin tribute poetry anthology). Her first poetry collection, Breakpoint, is a 2019 National Poetry Series Finalist and received the Patricia Bibby First Book Award in 2021, to be published by Tebot Bach in 2022.

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