We talk to Paul French (whose hybrid fiction-poetry appeared in issue forty of Neon) about drugs, love, and science-fiction.
Your hybrid pieces in issue forty of Neon tell the story of a drug that can induce feelings of love. But what is love? Is the idea that a pill can create it fantasy or a fiction that you think might one day be reality? As you put it, “Can anything be too sacred for medicine?“
Wow, what a question to start! To be fair though, I guess it’s one begged. “What is love?” When I first started Love Machines, it wasn’t my goal to tab the almighty inquiry with an answer – that work being, I thought, more in the purview of self-help gurus and couples’ counsellors. I simply wanted to convey a deep suspicion of one’s feelings and consider how this suspicion informs/deforms the self.
There are conventions of feeling. There are ways to feel love, just as there are ways to feel patriotism. And since these conventions can often be reduced to appearance (What form does love take? What form does patriotism take?), appearance can, as Plato said, tyrannize over truth. In other words, the appearance of love can outweigh the reality of love from the perspective of culture, especially mass culture (McDonald’s anyone?).
So, as I was writing, the question of the reality of love became unavoidable. What is love, really? I’m definitely not the first to ask this question. Just turn on the radio. There’s a ton of classic pop love songs that are all about questioning love’s authenticity. In fact, the act of questioning love seems to be a marker of true love for many pop songs (“Is this love that I’m feeling?”). And that distinction between love and true love (between appearance and reality) is fraught with history, ranging back to the troubadours, Jesus, and then Plato – periods where the concept and practice of love underwent massive changes.
I think that in our history, poetic history especially, we have reached a new epoch for conceptualizing love. And it’s a scary one, because of a hyper-awareness (or wariness) to the way love can be manipulated to put out a product (and yes, I’m including poems in “product”; unfortunately nothing is safe). I want to write a love poem, a perfect love poem. But I can’t ignore that my understanding of love is the end of more than heart. There are other factors. Cultural. Biological. Still though, we want to be assured of that authenticity. We want love to be real, and so do I, in Love Machines, and it’s that struggle for an unalloyed capital T & capital L True Love that fires the book.
Since this answer’s been a little windy (in my defense, see question), I’ll keep my next answer short. Is the story of the love drug fiction or prediction? As with a lot of sci-fi, it’s both.
I’m interested by the unusual format of the snippets of Love Machines that I’ve seen so far. Why did this project end up as a hybrid of poetry and prose? Did something about the subject matter suggest that it should be more fluid that prose?
Here’s the practical reason for the prose poems in Love Machines. All of that conceptual stuff I mentioned in my last answer takes place at approx 30000 ft. I needed terra firma, not just for my readers, but for me. It’s difficult to write about those emotional problems if you don’t have something concrete (or fictionally concrete) to stick them to.
So I created a narrative that would give my speaker a world to inhabit. After reading the work of philosopher Patricia Churchland and discovering that endocrinologists have come close to determining completely how love works as a chemical process, I pictured a world where the fabled love potion existed, indeed where it was commercially available.
I’m a big fan of Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works Of Billy The Kid (thanks to Connie Voisine for introducing me to this) and used the way lyrical musing is balanced by prose narrative as a strategy for organizing my own work. Plus, as Anthony Madrid once noticed about my poetry, I focus on line break work a lot. The duplexes of meaning and tone that I build into my line breaks would, I felt, weigh down the narrative poems of Love Machines, which I wanted to work as the reader’s point of access for the issues.
The stories seem at first not to be too critical of the chemically-induced paradise of the love drug. Is this deliberate? Would you take it? Is a pleasure created by narcotics a real one?
It’s deliberate. If we openly deride the love manipulated by the love drug, should we not also deride the love manipulated by our culture? If you refer back to my first answer, you know there’s a big wrestling match involved in that question.
I think it would be too easy to reject the love potion. It would avoid the deep dilemma. If I had, instead, a book about two lovers who absolutely refused to take the love potion on principle and stood against their society then I’d have a successful teen blockbuster, not a book of poetry.
Your last question is one of the core questions of the book. If I had a comfortable answer I don’t know if I would’ve written it.
What, in your opinion, makes a good piece of science fiction? What is the function of sci-fi?
Function is the function of literary sci-fi, at least for me. The escapism of the genre should play as a mask, behind which there are whispers, telling us who we are, telling us what we should do, asking us what the four letter word on the jewellery billboard means. Of course, then there’s popcorn sci-fi too, which is just about escapism. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
You mention in your biography that you were previously a managing editor of Puerto Del Sol. Could you tell us a bit about that experience, and if it informed your writing at all?
Absolutely. I worked for three years under the poet Carmen Gimenez-Smith (who’s awesome, by the way) for Puerto, and it definitely gave me some perspective. For one thing, I learned that those rejection slips really don’t mean as much as you think they might. As you’re probably well aware, there are often more worthy submissions than space during any given reading period.
If poetry’s competent, publication often just comes down to editorial taste. I learned that, while you should definitely always focus on perfecting your craft, you shouldn’t let the anxiety of rejection get in the way of your instincts (since it’s almost like playing the lottery even if you’ve got a good poem in hand). It’s a delicate balance. One thing I’ve learned about the publishing game (and I’m bad about this) is you’ve got to submit, submit, submit, constantly, weekly, daily.
What would be the best way for readers to keep up with your work, and find out when Love Machines finds a publisher?
When the book’s published, I’ll be notifying all of the presses in which the work has appeared. So if your readers are vigilant, they’ll find out. Other than that, you can follow me on Facebook (look for the Paul French in Denver, CO) and I’m sure to make an announcement there. Also, if any publishers are reading this and want to see the full manuscript of Love Machines, they can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to send them a copy. Thanks so much.
Paul French was formerly the Managing Editor of Puerto Del Sol. His work has been featured in Word Riot, Slipstream, and Harpur Palate, among others. He was the recent winner of a Kevin McIlvoy and a Peter Harris-Kunz Fellowship. He has just finished the manuscript of Love Machines and is currently seeking a publisher.