A common love and respect for the works of Edgar Allan Poe brought authors Elizabeth Hand, John Crowley, and Martín Espada to Bowker Auditorium Oct. 29 to read some of their favorite Poe pieces along with their own writings.
The UMass English department sponsored the Oct. 29 event as well as a weekend of Poe events to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of one of New England’s most influential authors in 1809. The readings were an introduction to the weekend’s events where the guest authors would be present along with Poe inspired music and art and, a Poe impersonator.
Science fiction writer and Conway resident, John Crowley, explains that Poe’s work remains important because of its timelessness. “The reason to talk about him [Poe] and read his works is because they are deathless,” he says. Novelist, Elizabeth Hand, believes that Poe’s influence can be found in a lot of modern writing. “Things that you wouldn’t think of having been influenced by Poe, if you trace all the way back you’ll find him there,” Hand explains. For poet, Martín Espada, Poe’s work represents a window into the workings of humanity. For this, he will always remain relevant. “I think any writer who connects us with what it means to be a human is relevant,” says Espada. “I read Poe today, not just because it reminds me of what it means to be human today, but also because it gives me a glimpse into the mind of a 19th century man, who also happened to be a genius, who did something that had never been done before, and, in some ways, has never been done since.”
For Hand, Crowley, and Espada, their personal introductions to Poe’s work all came at a young age. Crowley says it is important to read Poe as a child to fully appreciate his work at an older age. “He is actually always the eternal adolescent. If you don’t read Poe when you’re an adolescent you aren’t going to enjoy him that much later on” he explains. “I started reading Poe when I was 8, 9, 10, 11 years old and Martín’s reading of the Cask of Amontillado is just great because it brought instantly back the feelings I had when I first read that story.”
For Espada, being exposed to Poe’s works helped to change him from a failing English student to a successful poet and English professor. “I flunked English in the 8th grade, and today I am a professor of English, which shows you something about the direction in which your life can go,” says Espada. “There were a number of turning points in my life where I heard something or read something that would give me a jolt, a bump in the right direction…When I was in high school, busy flunking English, I heard one day, in school, a recording of Basil Rathbone reading an Edgar Allan Poe story called The Cask of Amontillado… I had no idea that anybody could animate Edgar Allan Poe, or any writer, the way that he did. Listening to that story set me in the direction of reading Edgar Allan Poe. I loved it.”
The story that Hand tells of her first encounter with Poe’s works is almost stranger than fiction. “One day when we [Hand and her family] were camping somewhere, I kind of wandered off and I met a girl who was exactly my age, and she looked very much like me,” Hand recalls. “We sat down on a log and she began telling me this story. It was the most amazing scary story that I’d ever heard in my life.” After this meeting, she never saw the girl again. She later discovered that the story the girl told was actually Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. Hand says that even to this day, that girl’s retelling is the scariest she has ever heard.
Since their first exposures, the works of Edgar Allan Poe has meant something different to each author. From the moment she first heard The Pit and the Pendulum, Elizabeth Hand was set on her path as a horror writer. “I really did get jump-started when I was a kid by hearing somebody tell a ghost story that turned out years later, I learned, was The Pit and the Pendulum. And I just thought that the girl telling it was such a genius that she made up this great story,” says Hand. For her, being inspired by Poe’s work is nothing new. “I think he’s sort of in the DNA of anyone writing. Even what we now call ‘magic realism,” explains Hand.
Poe’s literary technique greatly influenced Martín Espada as well. “Now, I am not a fiction writer myself, but I am a poet and I am a storytelling poet,” explains Espada. “I think there are certain storytelling devices that poetry and prose share in common, and I am certain that I learned quite a bit, consciously or not, from Mr. Poe way back in the day.”
John Crowley says he and Poe are very different writers. “I can’t say that Poe influenced anything that I’ve actually written,” claims Crowley. However, as a science fiction writer, it is interesting that Crowley is most fond of an aspect of Poe’s writing that is generally overlooked when it is read strictly for literary value. “The most interesting thing about Poe to me now, which wasn’t as interesting when I was reading him as a kid…was how he used what was then cutting edge science to make points in his story,” says Crowley.
This celebration of the 200th birthday of Edgar Allen Poe speaks not of the times, but rather how far his literacy influence has spread. As this event shows, Poe’s works are still worth talking about centuries later because they still have the ability to inspire and frighten us in a time when most thrilling entertainment is overly sensationalist. Hand, Espada, and Crowley demonstrate that the power of Poe’s writing is universal and has the ability to inspire modern day poets and science fiction writers alike.