Samantha Edmonds is the author of the chapbooks Pretty to Think So (Selcouth Station Press, 2019) and The Space Poet (Split/Lip Press, 2020). Her fiction and nonfiction appears in Gay Magazine, Ninth Letter, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, and Black Warrior Review, among others. A PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Missouri, she currently lives in Columbia. You can find her at www.samanthaedmonds.com.
A hybrid work of prose and poetry, The Space Poet explores questions of gender and sexuality, the body, isolation, and expectations through the experience of a poet sent to live on the International Space Station. I got to speak with Samantha over video chat.
Kate Finegan: If they were hiring a space poet, would you apply?
Samantha Edmonds: I really don’t think I would. Part of me wants to go to space so bad, but it doesn’t look like Star Trek; it’s not like the Enterprise, where you can walk around. I follow a bunch of astronauts on Twitter, and it actually looks really horrible up there on the International Space Station. Everyone’s cramped, and you have to be buckled into stuff, so I don’t know that I would if it looked like that.
KF: There’s a lot in the collection about contradictions and the ways that expectations don’t line up to reality. What makes writing about space the perfect avenue to discuss contradictions and our expectations versus reality?
SE: The glamour and romance of what we think space travel could be versus the limitations of our technological reality is a contradiction in itself. You think, “Oh, I want to go into the stars; this is where all life in the universe began.” But then you read the science behind it, and nothing really can live up there. There’s no oxygen, there’s no air, and barely any water. That contradiction is innately built into how humans look at the stars versus what it’s actually like up there. Space can also adapt to whatever theme you need. You can look at space and feel really, really small. But you can also feel really big. You feel included, like part of something. And there aren’t many things that can make you feel so miniscule and meaningless and also make you feel like the center of the universe. I really love that aspect of it, too, that you’re connected to all these stars. It’s unfathomably large, and you’re part of it. But you’re such a small part of it. Space is expanding and contracting.
KF: In “Microgravity: Part II,” the space poet notices “dead skin flakes float here, loose hairs, hangnails, everything your body loses during a day that usually falls to the floor, unnoticed.” In the vastness of space, these tiny things are even more present than on Earth. How did you approach writing the body in space?
SE: Space becomes a great magnifier. Things are so small in gravity, but when there’s microgravity, you’re forced to look at them. Having a body is uncomfortable all the time, and to put it in a space where everything feels different, where there’s no up or down or gravity, has to be even more uncomfortable. There are many parts about the corporeal form that can be really annoying, but at least you always know where the ground is. But then you get up there, and you don’t know where the ground is. That sense of feeling uncomfortable in your own body was really important to this book, that sensation of not knowing exactly how your body interacts with other bodies and the things around you.
KF: I love the line where the space poet asks Archie, “Do you ever feel like maybe Star Trek lied to you?” You touched on this already. I was going ask—did Star Trek ever lie to you? It sounds like it did.
SE: Star Trek did lie to me. Speaking of contradictions, my love of Star Trek exists simultaneously alongside this criticism of it. I know it’s science fiction, and I accept that they can live in space in a way that we actually can’t, but there’s also the sociopolitical vision of Star Trek. I love what the show stands for and what it strives for, but also through a critical race theory lens, there’s a lot that’s really troubling. There’s a line from the book: “diversity isn’t the same as race normativity.” The fact that there are people of color on the bridge of the Enterprise doesn’t mean that it’s a diverse cast if, in order to be there, they have to shed their culture and become European.
KF: Yeah, they pan away during an interracial kiss.
SE: Everyone says, “Oh, it’s this first kiss. It’s this big deal.” Several years ago, when I was watching through Star Trek, I was loving it, and I got to that kiss, and then the camera cuts. I don’t know how they define kissing, but lips have to touch! At the time, it was revolutionary, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.
KF: A lot of The Space Poet feels futuristic because it’s so foreign to people who are confined to Earth. But there’s a line about how people have been living in space since 2000, continuously. How did you approach writing about issues of race, gender, and sexuality against the backdrop of the kind of “present-tense future”?
SE: I don’t know that it was a decision. Inevitably, questions of sexuality and gender always show up in my work. It’s a sad book, but also a hopeful one. Because if this is the future, I think there’s cause for disappointment. If people are like, “Oh, we’re living in the future, we made it, this is it,” then there are tons of people that might look around and wonder, “This is it? Really?” The space poet is one of those people. She’s like, “People live in space now and can make phone calls, which is insane.” On one hand, it’s such an amazing feat of imagination, you can’t even believe it’s real. On the other hand, she’s still surrounded by people who wouldn’t accept her for the woman she loves. That sense of “here is the future, but we’re not there yet” is a juxtaposition—that despite all these amazing advancements, we haven’t advanced all the way and there’s still a lot of work to be done. And the International Space Station is not a home. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t someday be a home. I was balancing this sense of disappointment with hopefulness for the future.
KF: You end with “Panspermia, or the Opposite of Loneliness,” which does have an image of hope in the future. I wonder whether writing is itself an act of hope and an act against loneliness, even if you’re writing about sadness and loneliness.
SE: You know how different parts of your life seem to come together at certain moments? If you had interviewed me two weeks ago, I would have said, “Oh, maybe,” because I think of The Space Poet as a sad story about a sad person. But I recently had conversations with some friends and professors who were talking about hope or joy in my work. I couldn’t see that, but I’ve been thinking about it and wondering—is it joyous; is it hopeful? And I think the very act of writing, the act of documenting sadness, does alleviate something, which is not to say it cures anything. I do think there’s something to be said for looking at something and saying, “This isn’t right, right now, but right now will not last.” Sometimes things can feel really crushing, but it can be really encouraging to recognize that everything is impermanent.
KF: One thing I noticed in the work was also that some of your images and similes were so playful and harkened back to childhood, which also gave the collection a lightness. In “The Cupola,” you start with, “the large plastic bubbles that kids spy out of in sticky play-places.” Do you think that talking about space awakens an inner child?
SE: Yeah, absolutely. Children look up at the stars, or they play outside and actually pay attention to the sky, which is maybe not something that you do in adulthood, when you’re running late or you’re really tired or you’re always looking down. But children look up. There’s something to be said for that. Also, you go up in space, and you think, “At last, here I am.” Then you look around and realize that you’re all alone with only six other people on the station, and you might actually miss crowds and strangers and noise. That’s another child-like thing because children are—I say this with all the love in my heart—agents of chaos. If you’re in a place like space, or even on Earth and feeling isolated, that kind of chaos is really welcoming for some people.
KF: I also wanted to talk about the form because it’s a hybrid chapbook, and you’re talking about things that are—again, going back to contradiction—so huge, the vastness of space, but also so tiny, like the claustrophobic Space Station. Flash pieces can explore vastness in a very constricted space. How did you decide that you would write a hybrid chapbook with small flash pieces?
SE: Smarter people than I gave it the name hybrid. People heard me read it and said, “We love your poems.” I’m a prose writer. I’ve hardly written any poetry, but I wrote the first few of these pieces with line breaks. I sent them to some friends, and I distinctly remember one of them writing me back, saying, “This is so awesome. Put it in paragraphs.” That’s how I stumbled into this form. I think about it as fiction, but it borrows more from poetic elements than fictional elements. I actually wrote every single vignette or flash piece with line breaks, and then when I typed them up—because I write in my notebook first—I typed them into paragraphs. Some pieces still do weird things, like sometimes a paragraph breaks at a comma, but they don’t break at every line. I like that it feels like nebulous, that it’s hard to pin down. Partially I reached for this form because my interest was a poet’s. I wanted the image and the mood and the language. There’s a person with plenty of yearning, but there’s not a traditional plot that you would follow in a story with traditional scenes, and the form allows me to get away with that. If I was trying to write a 6,000-word story about the space poet in traditional paragraphs, people would say, “Nothing’s happening; she needs to do something.” But in poetry, the call to do something is not as strong as the call to feel something or notice something.