Alas, the Poe Bicentennial: Studying Poe with Rob Velella

S.J. Chambers is an articles editor for Strange Horizons.  Not only has her work appeared in that fine forum, but also Tor.com, Fantasy, Bookslut, and The Baltimore Sun’s Read Street Blog.  She is also currently working with Jeff as his Master Archivist for The Steampunk Bible. You can find out more about S.J. at www.sjchambers.org.

This is my last post, and before I introduce my interviewee, I want to thank Jeff for giving me time and blog space, and I want to thank you, Ecstatic Days citizens, for reading my posts.  I really enjoyed the conversations and sharing art and ideas with you all.  If you happened to like the posts, more can be found at my Livejournal blog The Flightless Philosopher, and in various blogosphere haunts like Tor.com.

January 099

Rob Velella is an Independent Scholar and Poe blogger.  He is the author of  “The Edgar A. Poe Bicentennial Calendar” which was originally sold as a desk calendar, but has been posting almost daily throughout the year.  Through the Calendar,  Rob has highlighted unknown Poe facts and debunked popular myths.  It’s an impressive undertaking, and in addition to Poe studies, Rob is also interested in Poe’s contemporaries.  In addition to his fine scholarship, he is an accomplished orator, a performed playwright, and a gentleman.

S.J.:   Before we get into the Bicentennial, my first question for you is why Poe? Why do you care; why should others care?

R.V.: It’s a hard question to answer. I sort of just fell into Poe. I started with the typical mainstream image of Poe in my mind. When I realized he wasn’t just a crazy, drunken, drug-addicted horror fetishist, I felt like I’d been let into a secret society.  So the trick is to let others join that secret society too. Look beyond the “stereotype” of Poe.

S.J.:  But the mainstream image initially attracted you? Stories, poems? What was your gateway?

R.V.:  Like most people, I knew “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” and little else. I’d heard he was a druggy, that he was suicidal, insane, that alcohol fueled his writing. I’m happy to learn it’s much more complicated.

S.J.:  Yes, and I have to say, you’ve been doing a wonderful job of deconstructing and debunking Poe with your calendar.

R.V.:  Thanks. The idea was to expand our understanding of Poe.

S.J.:  I agree with what you said about the secret society, and that there is the desire to bring everyone in too.  I had hoped the Bicentennial would lead to a better understanding of Poe and his work beyond the mainstream image, but I’m not sure it has. What are your thoughts on what you have observed?

R.V.:  I have a love-hate relationship with the Poe bicentennial. The reality is that a good portion of it is reinforcing the Poe myth: wine tastings in catacombs, midnight vigils – the typical dark Poe stuff. But I can’t complain because it’s still pulling people towards Poe.  It’s like you said, there is a gateway of sorts. With any luck, at least a few of these (dare I say?) bandwagon Poe fans will join the secret society.

S.J.:  I do think there are certain readers that like their Poe drunk and mad, specifically those that are into writing about Poe as a character in fiction.

R.V.:  Poe fiction is very, very frustrating! In fact, my senior thesis as an undergraduate was on Poe in pop culture, particularly fiction.  The worst Poe book [My Savage Muse] I read was nothing more than a series of necrophilia scenes. I’m sure the author finished the manuscript and was quite satisfied that he’d nailed it.  My take on Poe as a fictional character is that authors choose one side of the historic Poe (his macabre side, his alcohol side, even his cryptographic problem-solving intelligent side) and present only that and nothing more–like it doesn’t occur to them he could be so complicated as to incorporate some of all of that.

S.J.:  Was there any book you found redeeming?

R.V.:  Matthew Pearl made a good decision when he chose not to include Poe as a character at all; he was already dead when The Poe Shadow begins.  There’s a small, self-published one called Coffee with Poe, which I also thought was great.

S.J.:  Now, are you in an academic program currently? I recall you were one of the rare breeds, the Independent scholar, at the conference.

R.V.:  I’m outside academics right now, and proud to be independent.

S.J.:   What does that mean to you?

R.V.:  I look at it this way: I don’t do this stuff (research, write papers, go to conferences) because I have to or because I’m trying to impress a tenure board. I do it because I have a genuine passion for it. It’s fun learning about dead people!  I already have a BA and MA; occasionally I think about going back for a PhD but…

S.J.:  You maybe wouldn’t have time for what you are doing; or in the way you are doing it?

R.V.:  I think what I do is different anyway. I think of myself as Prometheus. I steal the scholarship from the academics and distribute it to mankind.  My hope is to bring these dead writers back to the forefront of our collective consciousness. I do that by working with the mainstream readers.
I don’t think you’d get a lot of PhDs speaking to local historical societies, public high schools, and learning in retirement organizations. But those audiences are the ones that I want to get into reading Poe (and others).

S.J.:   Not just Poe, Longfellow and Griswold (of all people!)?  And you are right–not to get on a soap box here–but academia is a self-containment unit.  Knowledge should be spread far and wide, and unfortunately that isn’t happening outside of academic gates.

R.V.:  Exactly.  I’m particularly a proponent of poetry. People run away from it these days because it’s too hard to understand. My point is that it isn’t difficult–we just need the tools to read poetry properly.  I think this idea of bringing scholarship to the masses is why I have a blog. Utilizing this type of technology draws in a different crowd, I think (hope?).

S.J.:  I think it does….  My goals for the past few years were pretty akin to yours, but for genre readers. I wanted Fantasy and Sci-fi readers to know that Poe had a hand in that as well, not just horror, and beyond that the world to know how versatile he was.

R.V.:  Exactly! The reason why some academics don’t respect Poe is because they don’t know about his versatility.  Although, I still have to say, his horror works are still pretty important. On one level, they’re badass and fun–but they’re also very rich texts for deeper readings.

S.J.:  Yes! I agree with that. I have come to love his science fiction, but those stories don’t resonate with today the way the horrific ones do.

R.V.:  I think we should always problematize our assumptions–especially with Poe. I try to be open-minded–and I’ve heard a huge range of analyses, including some very bizarre ones.  Another thing that I find very important is putting Poe in context. The best example: I often hear people ask why Poe was afraid of being buried alive.  My usual response is that he wasn’t, but he was writing to an audience that was. You can’t read “The Fall of the House of Usher” without knowing a thing or two about so-called “safety coffins” and the like.  A colleague of mine once read aloud a newspaper clipping of a murder in the 1840s. It was gruesome, to say the least. Suddenly Poe’s horror tales look tame.

S.J.:   So Poe is your first love? You do other work with other writers, correct?

R.V.:  I have a top 10, though that list often cycles. Poe is my number one, I usually say. Even my girlfriend knows that.

S.J.:  Who is the current top 10?

R.V.:  I’ll give you a top 7. Right now, I’d say Poe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Margaret Fuller, and, of course, Rufus Griswold.  Oh, and Hawthorne.

S.J.:  I’m really curious about your work with Griswold.  I have to admit I literally know nothing aside from what is gleaned in Poe bios, etc….and that is he was a fiend!

PoeCalendar-Cover

R.V.:  Well, it’s like Poe: once you do some digging, all assumptions get complicated. The man was a lion. Both in good and bad ways. I’m learning that Griswold was the centerpiece of the beginnings of American literature. He knew everyone. And he really did have lofty goals with what he was doing. But he was also a liar, easily angered, and vengeful. I think he had a lot of self-doubt and self-esteem issues, for which he overcompensated. Poe was a flash in the pan for him. His career was a series of battles.

S.J.:  Do you attribute the Poe vendetta to Fanny Osgood or is it more personal, more literary than that?

R.V.:  I think it had less to do with Poe than we’ve assumed!  Osgood might be a factor, but I think it’s less to do with Poe’s life and more to do with what happens after October 7, 1849 (the day he died, of course).  If you’re trying to present yourself as an authority on something, if you’re vindictive and full of self-doubt like Griswold, if the veracity of that authority is questioned, what do you do?  You can back off and admit you’re wrong…or, you can just make it worse.

S.J.:  And you are speaking career wise?

R.V.:  I think it’s more of a personality problem. Griswold’s major attacks come when Poe’s defenders have already come forward and said Griswold was exaggerating the negative.

S.J.:  So it’s to spite them that he starts really attacking Poe?

R.V.:  I think. But there’s so much more going on here.  I’m hoping to have my book done in a few years.  The best part is what Griswold is going through in his personal life that will make it very, very hard not to sympathize with him.

S.J.:  Oh no! You love to hate him and hate to love him.  Just don’t tell me Elizabeth Ellet is redeemable, I refuse to believe it.

R.V.:  I haven’t found proof of that.

S.J.:  Well, to go back to the Bicentennial, you mentioned aspects you hated but you didn’t mention the loves.  What were your favorite bits of the Bicentennial, you were conveniently located to participate in quite a few.

R.V.:  Well, I love anything that brings Poe to the forefront. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to the funeral in Baltimore. I’d have loved it. I’m looking forward to the Poe exhibit at the Boston Public Library opening next month.  A first edition of “Tamerlane and Other Poems” is making its triumphant return to Boston!  Most of the exhibit is from the BPL collection.

S.J.:  But after that, there is a dearth of Poe events…what will you do now?

R.V.:  2010 is the year of Margaret Fuller!  Plus, I’m sure I’ll find some Poe stuff to attend to. Poe is a mainstay.  We didn’t need the Bicentennial to bring him back because he’d never left.

S.J.:  Hear, hear!

S.J. Chambers is an articles editor for Strange Horizons.  Not only has her work appeared in that fine forum, but also Tor.com, Fantasy, Bookslut, and The Baltimore Sun’s Read Street Blog. She is also currently working with Jeff as his Master Archivist for The Steampunk Bible. You can find out more about S.J. at www.sjchambers.org.

7 comments on “Alas, the Poe Bicentennial: Studying Poe with Rob Velella

  1. Dan says:

    You are cordially invited to a free exhibition
    at the Boston Public Library

    The Raven in the Frog Pond:
    Edgar Allan Poe and the City of Boston

    December 17, 2009 – March 31, 2010

    For details about Opening Events and other information, please see http://www.bc.edu/offices/pubaf/news/Poe_Exhibit2009_1202.html

  2. Rob Velella says:

    Thanks for the interview, SJC – it was a lot of fun.

    Dan posted above me inviting readers to the Poe exhibit at the Boston Public Library (as I did in the interview). He neglected to mention that I am assisting in the creation of this exhibit. It will be a good one, I think.

  3. Dan and Rob,

    Thanks for inviting everyone. I hope some of the more New England based readers can catch it for me, and maybe a ticket to Boston will manifest itself in my hand before March.

    Good luck with the exhibit, it sounds great!
    SJC

  4. jeff vandermeer says:

    Thanks so much for your posts!

  5. Jeff says:

    I would like to clarify the reasoning behind the events I organized in Baltimore for the bicentennial. I’ve been the curator at the Poe House over 30 years. One of the reasons I was hired by the City of Baltimore was to promote the Poe House. I’ve been doing that since the first day I was hired with special events, out reach programs and with whatever else is in my arsenal to hook people into Poe.

    The bicentennial events drew over 3,500 people to the Poe House, Poe’s grave and other Poe sites in Baltimore. While at first glance some of the events sounded cheesy let me assure you that everything was done in good taste with the purpose of educating the public about Poe, his life and his works.

    Poe’s funeral events brought in well over 1,000 people to Baltimore. These people went away with a better understanding of Poe.

    I fully understand there are certain Poe scholars that have a distain for public events and that’s fine. I was hired to promote Poe to the masses not to scholars. I’ve been highly successful in this purpose.

    Rob is a fine fellow and an excellent champion of Poe. His blog is an invaluable source of information about Poe and related topics. If I had the funds I would hire him in an instant.

    The response to our events has been so tremendous that I’m seriously thinking of extending the Poe Bicentennial well into 2010. Other cities will drop the interest in Poe like an empty bottle of Amontillado but Baltimore will continue to promote Poe like it has since 1875 and I will continue to showcase Poe with new inovative ways of bringing him to life for the public.

    As an aside, we are bringing Jeffrey Combs and his Nevermore performance to Baltimore on January 23 and 24, 2010 for the annual Poe Birthday Celebration.

  6. Thank you, Jeff. I was happy to see your events were such a success. There are many facets to Poe and Poe Scholarship, and without your efforts with the Poe House and with the Baltimore Poe Society, much precious information about Poe would be lost.

    If anyone out there wants to know more about Jeff Jerome and the mock funeral, here are some links:

    http://www.washingtontimes.com/photos/galleries/honor-to-poe/
    http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/poe/bal-edgar-allan-poe-events-pg,0,2687420.photogallery
    http://www.eapoe.org

  7. Rob V. says:

    Jeff: I would never criticize the work that is done in Baltimore. It is because of these events that have kept Poe at the forefront of modern thought. Thank you for your kind words – and keep up the good work out there!

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