By Bud Webster
Farewell to the Masters
In this, my final column for Helix, I'm going to exercise my editorial prerogative and set aside the usual format and subject. Those of you who have been with me from the beginning, or who have read the archives, will know that my first installment dealt not with a specific author, but with the more general topic of sf/fantasy set on the planet Mars. Hence, these two essays will serve to bookend the rest rather neatly, like a pair of ceramic Snoopys or a brace of cast-resin Monsters, Inc. figures.
First and foremost, I would like to express my gratitude and appreciation to Editor-in-Chief William Sanders and Managing Editor Lawrence Watt-Evans for their confidence in me (a confidence I didn't always live up to and frequently didn't share), and for their patience when I came in on the far side of a deadline. Both of these fine and honorable gentlemen put their trust in me to not only get my own copy in on time, but to ride herd on a plethora of poets — a task that, while not exactly Herculean, was more than occasionally not totally unlike stable-mucking.
I can look back at the past two-and-a-half years with a clear sense of pride and satisfaction; I bought a lot of good poems, I worked with a number of very fine and professional poets, and overall found the experience to be more rewarding than not. There was the occasional instance of amateur-hour behavior on the part of one or another, yes, but this is in the way of being the nature of the Poetic Beast, and truth be told, it happened far less often than I had any right to expect. Any regrets I might have aren't worth mentioning here, believe me, and stem as much from my own inexperience as from the petulance of Artistic Egos.
There have been a number of highlights: the publication of a new writer's very first sale; the honor of acquiring and publishing Jane Yolen's lovely and heart-breaking poems about the death of her husband; the thrill of reading the cutting-edge "The Gates, Or, He who sits at God's left hand has one hell of a right-hand Man..." by David Kopaska-Merkel and Greg Stewart for the first time. Those moments alone would be worth ten times whatever minor frustration I may have felt at other times.
I regret that I couldn't land one of my poets a Rhysling Award, although more than a few of them were nominated. I regret that there are so few magazines, print or online, who consider speculative poetry worthy of examination and review; had it been otherwise, perhaps those names and works in which I take such pride would be better known within the field of science fiction as a whole. I know that they deserve it.
In short, with all the pressures and strains of deadlines, with all the annoyances of coping with writers' egos (the experience has made me far more conscious of my attitude towards my own editors, you can damn-sure betcha), I am proud of every minute — every second — of my tenure as Poetry Editor for Helix.
My position on the editorial staff didn't guarantee me a place as a columnist, I should point out. Although I'd like to flatter myself that they were perhaps predisposed to give me the space and time, William and Lawrence were in no way obligated to allow me to flap my stfnal gums about those writers in our field who no longer hold the places of honor they once did. I had to pitch them the column idea, just like any other editors at any other market. Of course, they were both only too aware of my interests, and more than once I had been able to answer tough questions in the SFF-Net newsgroups about who wrote what and when, and where, so I figure even with having to read for the part, my chances were better than even.
Anyone who knows me at all well knows that I'll spend as much time as I'm permitted bitching and moaning about how These Kids Today have no sense of history, no real grasp of what was going on before they picked up their first sf novel. I can clear a room in ten flat just talking about how Marvel Tales never had a chance up against Astounding, and how rotten distribution killed any chance of success for Fantasy Book, regardless of their foresight in publishing Cordwainer Smith's amazing first story, "Scanners Live in Vain." Eyes glaze over, those around the edges of the room begin quietly slipping through doors and even out third-story windows, and anyone with whom I'm actually making eye contact at the time frantically tries to find their Happy Place.
The result of my obsession has been the instigation of several columns over the years, as well as a number of one-off articles. I've managed to assemble a reasonable reference library, frequently scoring hard-to-find and expensive books from library sales for only a few bucks. Others I've had to pay top whack for, but that's been balanced out by the ones I've written for and gotten contributor copies of.
Ultimately, I'm at least as well-known for my non-fiction about the field of sf/fantasy as I am for writing the stuff itself; I take a bizarre kind of pride in this, for some reason, although I do still commit fiction.
Helix has given me a voice to speak for those writers I grew up reading who are no longer as celebrated as they once were. Why? Because I feel that their work is still valid, still viable, and as enjoyable now as it was when it was first published. That it may no longer be in print in many cases is unfortunate, but beside the point — your local used book shops need your business far more than Amazon or Barks and Noodles do.
Whenever William asked me, almost always with some eagerness, who I was going to turn my attention to, I never had any trouble listing a dozen or more possibilities. This sucks. The Past Masters, who once walked among us as giants, deserve better than the ignominy of obscurity and anonymity, and although I try hard in my capacity of used bookseller at conventions and online to encourage newer readers to give these stfnal old farts a shot, I'm only one guy.
Writing about them one by one, including a basic bibliography of their work, highlighting their lives and careers, has been not only an attempt on my part to influence a wider audience (and William tells me that Past Masters is one of the most-read Helical departments, for which I thank you all), but my own clumsy and fumbling effort to pay them homage, to thank them for the years of delight — of Wonder! — they gave me. It's also been a stone gas. I take a great deal of glee in researching these columns, and if I'm forced by circumstance to pull down copies of their books and re-read them for the hundredth time, well, that's just the price I pay.
Almost always, the act of profiling one of my literary pantheon is a pleasure: Cordwainer Smith, Zenna Henderson, Fred Brown...I learned something new about each and every one of them, facts that shed a fresh light on their work.
But there have been times when my homage was not so happy. When Nelson Slade Bond died, I knew that I had to write about him, for all that he would have pooh-poohed the idea that anyone would want to read about him. Nelson was my friend, though, a man who acted over the years as a mentor for my own writing, who took enormous pride in my first sale (even though he hastened to give me the same advice he gave a young Isaac Asimov after his first sale: "Anyone can sell one story. Get to work writing and selling the next ones.") I cried as I wrote about him, I cried when I read the finished piece, and even now I find myself tearing up recalling him.
Past Masters has been a joy to write, even with the frustration that there is really no dearth of the Unfairly Forgotten to write about, that the list grows each year as worthy and wonderful books and stories fall, like their creators, by the wayside. I hope to continue the series somewhere.
When we decided — more than a year ago, now — that the tenth issue of Helix would be our last, I envisioned my going out on a bang, with an essay on Manly Wade Wellman, whose passing left many of us angry and bewildered. When the time came, I simply didn't have the heart to do it; too much had gone on and although I do intend to do the piece eventually, now is just not the time.
As a replacement, I had intended to use the above remarks as a lead-in to an article about the print magazines of the past and present, based partly on remarks made by Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick in one of their recent Dialogues from the SFWA Bulletin, but again, my heart just isn't in it. Not that their discussion wasn't interesting — it was, and always is — but the fact is that the topic is intrinsically depressing. There are only four pro-level print magazines in the field right now, and although there are many others online, there now will be one less, and I find that I just can't seem to grasp at the objectivity I'd require to write anything other than what I've just written.
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