In some circles, writer H.P. Lovecraft is as known for his bigotry as he is his artistry. But this has just prompted other writers to take influence from the latter to comment on the former. In the following email interview with poet Brandon O’Brien, he explains how his first collection, Can You Sign My Tentacle? (paperback, Kindle), was not only influenced by Lovecraft, but also by people Lovecraft would’ve hated because of the color of their skin.
Let’s start with the basics: What is Can You Sign My Tentacle?
Well, Can You Sign My Tentacle? is, among other things, a collection of poems about the Great Old Ones revealing themselves to be huge fanboys. It’s about revealing that the things we assume are perfect and unfathomable are oftentimes just petty and insecure, and how the assumption that you must fear the things you do not know is just a fuel for that insecurity.
So did you decide to write a bunch of socially-conscious Lovecraftian poems or did you just one day realize you had written a bunch of them, enough to make a book?
I mention in the author’s note of the book that I had actually written this on a lark. I had a reading for a poetry event hosted by Uncanny Magazine, and I didn’t want to read something I had already written and published because, well, you can read those. So I decided to write a thing — I can’t recall what might have been bubbling in my brain at that point, but the end result was “Hastur Asks for Donald Glover’s Autograph.”
And I would have left it at that, to be honest. I had ideas for the other “Autograph” poems, but I didn’t have any real intention to write them at the time. I didn’t think it was a collection — in fact, I was working on a larger poetry collection at the time, one I’m still working on, and in my heart that was the first poetry thing I wanted to put out. But when Interstellar Flight opened to poetry collections, it was too far from done, and I didn’t want to send something I would worry was too incomplete, so I asked myself, “Is there something there?” And I’m grateful that I asked because not only does this book now exist, but also because now that it’s been out I keep discovering more and more new things within it that I hadn’t if I didn’t ask.
Is there a reason you decided to write a series of poems as opposed to one long epic one?
A long epic piece did come to mind — that was how I first imagined the “Lovecraft Thesis” cycle of poems — but at some point I also thought, “Why would it be long?” As in, “Why would one persona care so much about this?” Part of the reason the “Autograph” cycle is a series is because it’s about all of these individual personages of Blackness witnessing this moment in their own ways. Part of the reason the “Theses” are a series is because they’re different perspectives on the comparison points between hip-hop and the cosmic. Having that all be one voice seemed both egotistical and fatalistic, if that makes sense — on the one hand, whose voice is so important that it would address these things directly for so long? Mine? The Elder Gods’? Like, part of the joke is that Hastur is constantly showing up, and yet is always at a loss for words. How much would he have to say? And on the other hand, those other voices give us the chance to see not only themselves as multifaceted without attachment or comparison, but to see the cosmic through their own lenses without that comparison. They are having their own moments. I am just giving them space to have them. And none of those moments need to stick around for long, I think.
In a similar vein, why did you decide to do this as a book as opposed to a spoken word album or video?
I really do want to do this as a spoken word album, actually. Audiobook coming soon, hopefully. But also, there is an obvious kind of beauty in imagining the unimaginable on the page. That’s kind of why Lovecraft’s world-building stood out: the inherent incongruity of attempting to visualize that which can’t be captured, which you can only do when you fully grasp language, the only real tool we have for such a thing. And especially that I hope it gives the reader the same kind of room to compare the kinds of cosmic unfathomables of his work to the kinds of deeper cultural things that people tend not to fathom — not that they can’t, but that they’ve been told they mustn’t — when it comes to Black people’s actual lived experiences.
Why do you think H.P. Lovecraft’s general vibe meshes well with social issues? You would think the opposite, given how he was a huge racist.
Right? And I mean, in the very obvious ways, it still doesn’t mesh. And yet when I was trying to dig more deeply into what this collection wanted to say, I think I learned something about Lovecraft’s work that opened up the ways in which racist rhetoric take hold of someone’s ideology: fear. And that assumption makes me kind of judge Lovecraft less harshly, I think? Don’t get me wrong, he was still unbelievably nasty in his work, and allegedly his external life as well, until his passing. But when you view him through the themes of his own work, it’s kind of pitiable: he didn’t understand the world around him, and it frightened the heck out of him, and instead of wanting to get to know it better he wrote a world full of stories all about telling anyone who would listen that they should seek to know as little about it as he did, or else terrible things would happen.
But in the “Lovecraft Thesis” cycle, you learn that all kinds of communities have the same core attachments to that kind of fear. The fear that if you leave the world you know, you will be destroyed or lose yourself. The radical reverence of that which is true, that which is real. The fear that people you don’t know are secretly collecting themselves to come to where you stay and do terrible things to you. Like, the “Theses” are all about the fact that Lovecraft may have hated the comparison, but his work is, at its core, gangsta rap — just from the perspective of someone less charismatic, less fearless, less boastful. From the perspective of someone constantly afraid. That’s what I’m trying to get at in those pieces: that the fear is common, but that you become stronger than it by knowing, and by sharing that knowledge.
So aside from H.P. Lovecraft, who do you see as being the biggest influences on your poetic style, and in what ways did they influence you?
Oh, if I’m being honest, I don’t think I value Lovecraft that highly at all in my work. Again, this was all a kind of cosmic accident, this collection coming together in this way. But there are a lot of science fiction writers, and especially speculative poets, who I’m constantly inspired by: Amal El-Mohtar, Bogi Takács, RB Lemberg, CSE Cooney, Carlos Hernandez, Sara Norja, Terese Mason Pierre, Uche Ogbuji. I’m sure if I stopped to think about every single name, I’d be here for a while.
Also, I have a background in spoken word poetry, having worked with and around other poets since high school, so a lot of my process is still wrapped up in that as well. When you’re in a performance space, you still think a lot about how the thing you’re writing will translate on a stage, even when you’re writing primarily for a book, or even when the visual presentation of it on the page is part of the approach.
And I have to take a special space to shout out Shivanee Ramlochan. I have been in love with Shivanee’s poetry, and she’s so thoughtful as both a poet and a critic in ways that I wish to be.
How about non-literary influences; do you think the poems in Can You Sign My Tentacle? were influenced by any song lyrics or visual art?
I’d say that even outside of Can You Sign My Tentacle? in particular, hip-hop has always been a big part of my writing process. Music in general, really. I’m always listening to something, trying to find something interesting in the voice or the timing of something, and sometimes my personal practice is about just tinkering with that. I’ve been toying a lot in my private writing practice with, like, writing in the prosody of songs I’m listening to, or things like that. Back when I was heavily on Tumblr, before my professional science fiction writing career really “started” in that sense, I would write very bad rap freestyles and stuff like that. So from that angle, artists like Kendrick Lamar, Aesop Rock, MF DOOM, JME, The Roots — I wouldn’t say they’re in my work, but I’m always thinking about how to make work that reads like they sound. Parts of that process definitely did poke out here and there, especially in the pieces that deliberately derive their themes from hip-hop.
Along with being a writer, you used to be the poetry editor FIYAH: A Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. How do you think that influenced the poems in Can You Sign My Tentacle?
I guess one of the really big benefits of being an editor, of reading such a large mass of astoundingly talented poets in a slush pile — especially at FIYAH, where on a regular basis there are dozens of poems that are beyond brilliant — is that there are questions you ask about why this really good poem should get a spot in the next issue and this other really good poem shouldn’t. And the question, and the answer, doesn’t mean that the poem is unworthy or not the editor’s preference, just that it isn’t the poem’s time right now. And those are the same questions I ended up asking about my own work when I was putting it together. This was my first collection, and in a lot of ways I was very greedy about that — you can ask my editor, they’d tell you that I was actually adding poems into the manuscript well after it had been accepted — but for each of those poems, I was asking, “What does this say that the other one doesn’t?” “If both of these poems agree, which one speaks more clearly?” Questions like that. And of course, I’m still asking those questions even now that the book is out, but that’s because I want to believe they’re good questions to ask.
Now, as I’m sure you are aware, some people are going to think this is a big joke. Aren’t you worried you might be pissing off the wrong people? Because I’ve met Cthulhu at some video game events, and he does not have a sense of humor about himself.
I have no beef with Cthulhu! And at the very least, I don’t think the Great Old Ones have any beef with me.
Seriously, though, what do you say to people who are like, “This is a joke, right?”
I mean, it is a joke! Parts of it, anyway. It can be different things. I want people to be able to see multiple things in it, and get multiple things from it. I actually hope that people are laughing at least sometimes — that even when something more serious is happening in a stanza, there’s still room at least for a chuckle.
Though having said that, there are people who will feel you should’ve been more serious in writing about racial issues, or shouldn’t have evoked a racist like Lovecraft. And there are other people who may wish you’d not mention something so negative about one of the genre’s most revered writers.
I think it is possible for someone to assume this work exists to piss people off. Some people think we can have these discussions without calling Lovecraft’s name, and they’re right. There are better ways, even through speculative lenses, to have these discussions than seemingly giving more power to his mythos. But on the other hand, other people think we should show the “classics” their due respect and stop talking about these unfortunate truths about them. When we talk about creators with legacies like [Lovecraft’s], often it becomes difficult for us to separate our appreciation of the genre’s classics from our own perceptions of ourselves, and it can seem confrontational when people simply attempt to view that legacy more complexly, because people think that’s an attack. And if I’m being real, when I put the collection together, there was some drop of a desire to push back at some of the people I’ve seen on social media literally hurl insults at the new wave of writers of color in the SFF space, mispronouncing their names and rejecting their accolades and literally telling them to their face that they have no right to be here. As I type this, I have just seen someone on Twitter imply that to some of the most talented writers I can think of.
But then the collection taught me something more complex than that, in the process of writing it: that the fear that “other people” are trying to take your space is just a corruption of a truer, more noble urge to belong. And when you live your whole life being told, and internalizing, and telling other people, that there are strange unknown folks who are gonna “take this away from you” when they just want to belong…well, it sours your own belonging, and it denies other people of their own belonging. It reminds me that what I want is for everyone to be able to find space — but that means having something to say about the cultures that deny people space, and speaking up for the luxury of those people earning space as well.
So I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t mean to upset anyone, but whenever other writers, and other fans, feel like they can’t find a place to belong here because people are actively trying to shut them out, I wish we could have those conversations in more productive ways for their sake.
Finally, if someone enjoys Can You Sign My Tentacle?, what book of poetry by someone else would you recommend they check out and why that one?
Ooh…this is hard. Just one? Black Movie by Danez Smith. I can’t tell you why. I can’t spoil it like that. It’s something you’re gonna have to experience on your own.