Saturday, May 2, 2020

Interview _ Siobhan Logan

Siobhan Logan is a storyteller and poet.

Her first collection of poems and non-fiction, Firebridge to Skyshore: A Northern Lights Journey (original plus, 2009), was sponsored by auroral scientists at the University of Leicester. It was performed at the British Science Museum, the National Space Centre and Ledbury Poetry festival.

Her second collection, Mad, Hopeless & Possible: Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition, was also published by Original Plus Press, whilst Philae’s Book of Hours was published on the European Space Agency’s website.

Logan's poetry is widely published in magazines and short stories appear in various anthologies, including Wednesday’s Child (Factor Fiction, forthcoming 2020), Leicester Writes Anthology 2017 (Dahlia Books) and Mrs Rochester’s Attic (Mantle Press 2017). In 2014, she led a WW1 writing residency for 14-18 NOW and in 2015 co-edited a Five Leaves Books anthology for refugee solidarity, Over Land, Over Sea.

She is co-director of indie publisher, Space Cat Press, who published her poetry/ non-fiction collection Desert Moonfire: The Men Who Raced to Space in 2019. When not being led astray by stories or dodging the claws of an errant ‘space cat’, Logan teaches Creative Writing at De Montfort University.

In this interview, Siobhan Logan talks about poetry, Desert Moonfire and the race to space.

How would you describe Desert Moonfire: The Men Who Raced To Space?

Desert Moonfire is a collection of poetry and non-fiction about the era when humans became a space-faring species. The narrative centres on two scientists, Sergei Korolev and Wernher von Braun, who designed the rockets that got us there. These two rivals from either side of the Iron Curtain mirrored each other’s lives in uncanny ways, as they struggled to realise their dreams of spaceflight. And it turns out to be a rather dark tale with our protagonists passing through gulags and concentration camps as well as nuclear near misses along the way.

The rocket technology was very much a product of superpower conflict, with the Cold War driving the whole Sixties space project. So that stark front cover depicting a night-time rocket launch captures the mood of Desert Moonfire’s story – both ‘chilling and exhilarating.’ However, I did also get interested in how science fiction first sparked these impossible imaginings for early space pioneers. And indeed, how scientists eventually used sci-fi films and TV shows to harness the public’s support for realising such costly and dangerous ventures.

What influences does Desert Moonfire draw on?

I’m never aware of particular influences when I write. But years of reading – non-fiction, poetry, fiction – no doubt seeped into the boggy ground that I worked over for this project. And sometimes got lost in. It took me seven years, all told. Lots of biographies and books about the Space Race. Also immersing myself in films, TV shows and other art of the period. Because this book did feel rather like writing historical fiction.

I loved going back to read the sci-fi of Jules Verne, HG Wells and others and watching obscure Russian sci-fi films as well as Hollywood B movies etc.

The book began with a sequence of poems which are imaginative re-enactments of real-life events. My friend Rod Duncan has described these as ‘non-fiction poems’. But I approach the material as a storyteller and I’ve been drawn to other poets who write in narrative form. So I think of Susan Richardson’s marvellous sequences about Arctic explorers in Creatures of the Intertidal Zone (Cinnamon Press, 2007) or Lydia Towsey’s The Venus Papers (Burning Eye Books 2015) where the goddess washes ashore in the UK as a Mediterranean migrant. Or the poems of Emma Lee who unfolds tightly compressed narratives in a single poem with great delicacy. Like Desert Moonfire, Lee often draws upon true-life histories, whether WW2 children in the Blitz or women navigating refugee camps more recently. (See The Significance of a Dress, Arachne Press 2020). So yes, I enjoy poetry collections with lots of storytelling and big thematic sweeps, whether historical, mythical or contemporary.

Why does poetry matter?

Why does any creative work matter? Perhaps the instinct to create might counter that to destroy. Or at least keep us sane.

At a time when the world seems to be in free-fall, when we are racked by political crises, a global pandemic and the accelerating crisis of climate change, stories have never been more important. They are at the heart of who we are and how we envision our future as well as our past. They transmit our values and generate the stuff of identity.

My book about the Sixties Space Race came out in 2019 just as the world was moving into a second Space Race. Many countries and companies are chasing to colonise the Moon’s South Pole and its buried supplies of water and minerals. It’s worth looking back to understand the dynamics that drove the last Space Race and ask whether we want to write a different narrative this time round.

Poems to me are stories but in a sung form. Carol Ann Duffy talks about poems singing the stuff of our lives, the everyday as well as the big life events. Like the people singing in deserted streets or calling from balconies, poems will be passed across our spaces of isolation. They remind us of the hidden music of our lives and relationships.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work you put into Desert Moonfire?

The problematic aspects of the work always generate the most interesting material and push you to dig deep creatively. With non-fiction, it’s about doing masses of research and then compressing these large, complex narratives into a few chapters that each have their own distinct story arc. Trying to make sure the research doesn’t suffocate the narrative. So I’m using novelistic techniques to give pace and urgency to the story of two men caught up in this superpower to chase to the Moon.

For Wernher von Braun, the Prussian baron, it was always a matter of opportunism. Pitching his projects first to the Nazis and then to the American state, to win a chance at ‘the Big Time’, as he called it. But Sergei Korolev faced an ongoing struggle to survive the upheavals of Russia’s Civil war, Stalinist Purges and Soviet realpolitik.

Mostly this comes across as a very male world, as my title suggests. It’s typified by von Braun’s engineers decorating their V-2 test rockets with the logo of a naked woman astride a crescent moon. Women surfaced in sci-fi films as alien sirens or glamorous astronauts but seemed confined to the spectators’ stadium or the back office in the real space programme. The truth was more complex of course. It’s only recently that NASA’s begun to acknowledge and celebrate long-buried accounts of its female and Afro-American ‘Hidden Figures’.

The core of my narrative remains two men from either side of the Cold war locked into the machine of political conflict. But I did explore their relationships with women and wanted those voices to come through in certain poems.

The challenge with the poetry was to find a human centre, given this context of technology and global politics. While the non-fiction chapters conjure up vast social forces at work, the poems open intimate windows into the two men’s lives. They put us right there, in the immediacy of their world.

Often with poetry, it’s about finding a surprising metaphor or image that illuminates the scene. So when I was writing about Korolev sitting out the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, I came across a brief reference to his wife Nina serving up a watermelon. What a gift that was! The whole poem "Martian Watermelon" was built around that footnote, from the red fleshy fruit to the sound of the pips. His men had been trying to launch a rocket to Mars when their launch pad was taken over by the military to ready a nuclear missile for firing.

By contrast, I’d read several accounts of the night the secret police arrested him in the Thirties but couldn’t find out what music he put on the record player while he waited for the knock on the door. That gave me freedom to invent. The spiky rhythms of a tango inspired two poems about the police harassment that dogged his career. So these unexpected details pulled me into their world and I hope that works for the reader too.

What sets the book apart from other things you’ve written? And in what way is it similar to the others

Desert Moonfire is similar to my previous collections, such as Firebridge to Skyshore: A Northern Lights Journey, in that it combines poetry and non-fiction with a strong narrative structure and touches on science, history and politics along the way.

My chapbook Mad, Hopeless & Possible: Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition told an equally dramatic story of two linked Antarctic expeditions during 1914-17 when notions of empire-building and heroism collided in devastating ways. That was another all-male adventure shaped by the somewhat toxic ideologies of the time.

Yet Desert Moonfire is a scaled-up narrative. It starts off discussing the 19th century science-fiction which inspired a generation of rocketeers and rounds off their story in the 1970s, a century later. So yes, the ambition of this book marked a shift for me. I was in no hurry with it, wanting the book to find its own form and the right publishing home too.

Where Firebridge and Mad, Hopeless & Possible both centred on journeying across wild frozen landscapes, Desert Moonfire has a biographical impulse, tracing the life journeys of two men who lived through extraordinary times.

I have noticed there’s various styles and voices here, including poems about deserts and cars and movies, shape poems inspired by rocket technology, dramatic monologues in the voice of bystanders and loved ones, poems of gulags and concentration camps as well as space modules and two lunar book enders. So hopefully something for everyone.

How did you chose a publisher for the book? Why this publisher? And what advantages or disadvantages has this presented?

For some time, I weighed up whether to tilt this book more towards the popular non-fiction market, given the expanding scale of the narrative. Or alternatively to strip it down to a poetry chapbook with a tight focus on these two men’s intertwined lives. I researched possible publishers from both angles. In the end, I decided I wanted to try something different with this book. I knew from my previous collections that there is an audience for this kind of non-fiction and poetry combination but it is a niche audience that I encountered mainly by giving talks, shows and face-to-face readings.

With the sci-fi and space science strand in Desert Moonfire, I was thinking of taking this new book to SFF conventions too.

So I decided to set up my own imprint, Space Cat Press, with an eye on further space-themed books I have on the back-burner. And I was lucky enough to embark on that as a collaboration with freelance editor Darragh Logan Davies. She is the Kaylee of our Firefly rocket and without her, we’d never have got into orbit.

Having got that far, we considered the possibility of using our press to also publish work by other writers, in the form of space-themed anthologies. In that sense, Space Cat Press is a hybrid, combining an indie-author venture with micro-publishing at the non-commercial end of small presses. It’s enabled me to structure the Desert Moonfire book in exactly the way I wanted to and I’m thrilled with the design Darragh came up with. I love the feel and look of the finished article. Plus I’ve learnt a huge amount about how book production and marketing works.

The disadvantages are it takes a lot of time and energy. That’s definitely slowing my writing progress on new projects. We did rush into the anthology rather quickly after publishing Desert Moonfire, so it’s hard to get on with marketing that whilst editing our Race to the Stars submissions. But it’s been so much fun and a real inspiration to work with stories, poems and flash fiction by other writers and watching the anthology take shape. Everything from detailed structural and copy edits to budgeting to working out the brand of the book. And soon we’ll be getting to grips with e-publishing and doing virtual launches as well. Quite the small-press adventure.

What will your next book be about? And, what else are you working on?

Well, I’ll have editors’ credits on our Space Cat anthology, (working title Race to the Stars) which should be out in e-book format by the summer of 2020.

I then have a small chapbook lined up for the SCP roster with a sequence of poems about the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to chase a comet. An earlier digital version of this, Philae’s Book of Hours, appeared on the ESA website in 2015.

There’s another sprawling non-fiction book on the back-burner about those Space Race sci-fi films I got so engrossed with whilst researching Desert Moonfire. But on the front burner, right now, I’ve dividing my time between a poetry chapbook about my father (who passed away recently) and a dystopian fantasy novel which will probably develop into a trilogy - if I can ever get this first book edited into a readable shape!

So in between teaching creative writing at De Montfort University and running a small press publishing outfit, there are plenty of writing projects competing for my time.

See also:

Interview _ Siobhan Logan, Conversations with Writers, February 20, 2010
Interview _ Siobhan Logan, Conversations with Writers, 4 June 2007
Interview _ Siobhan Logan, Conversations with Writers, 11 April 2007