Adam Bolivar

[This issue, we sit down with poet and author, Adam Bolivar. Here, he discusses his love of formal verse and weird fiction; his collection, The Lay of Old Hex; his work with marionettes; and his upcoming projects.]

ev0ke: Your work is often classified as weird fiction. What draws you to that genre? What do you find so compelling about it?

Adam Bolivar: I have always been interested in mythology and folklore, and this naturally led me to read fantasy. Since I am also of a dark bent, I am attracted to horror as well, although not the gory kind. Weird fiction is the perfect liminal space between fantasy and horror, and has the same kind of haunted quality that appeals to me in folklore.

ev0ke: You have written both poetry and short fiction. Which is your favorite form of poetry to compose in, and which of your poems was the most difficult — but ultimately satisfying — to complete?

AB: I write exclusively in formal verse — in meter and rhyme, which is often derided nowadays as outdated or stifling. It is an underappreciated craft, however, and much more difficult than it appears. It took me years to learn to compose verse in meter competently. It’s like learning to play a musical instrument. You have to practice chords before you can play the guitar. 

My specialty is balladry because of its narrative nature. I want to tell a story with beautiful words.

It’s hard to say which was my most difficult poem to write. Almost all of them are difficult when I’m working on them, and I’m amazed I’m able to finish them. I’m often stuck midway through a poem and on the verge of giving up when inspiration strikes and I finish it in a frenzy.

ev0ke: Your poem “The Rime of the Eldritch Mariner” was awarded the Rhysling Award (long form) by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. Congratulations! What inspired that poem, and how did you go about writing it?

AB: Since my preferred form is balladry, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge came up a lot in conversations. Someone suggested that I write “The Rime of the Eldritch Mariner,” so I set out to do just that. It occurred to me that the mariner in Coleridge’s poem could be the sole survivor of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” — a mad-eyed sailor who unburdens himself of his tale to a hapless guest at a wedding feast. Once I started writing it, the two narratives dovetailed perfectly, and the whole thing flowed from there. It’s probably my best poem.

ev0ke: You contributed the short story “Down and Out in Mythos City” to Amazing Stories of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. How did you become involved with that project, and just how much glee do you take in bragging that you published a story dedicated to His Noodly Appendage?

AB: Several years ago, I attended the BizarroCon in Portland, Oregon, where I live. I got to know one of the editors of Eraserhead Press, who invited me to submit to a Flying Spaghetti Monster anthology he was putting together. So I did. The story was unlike most things I write — off the wall and silly — but I’m glad I did. It challenged me as a writer. The story involves the FSM’s application to become a legitimate god, for which he is interviewed by a council of existing gods, including Yahweh, Athena, Thor, and Charlie Sheen.

ev0ke: You released The Lay of Old Hex, a collection of “spectral ballads and weird jack tales,” through Hippocampus Press. How much research went into this collection? Did you have stacks of books on Appalachian lore and cultures, Lovecraftian lore, and so on? 

AB: I first stumbled upon The Jack Tales in the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was an unassuming blue volume of folktales recorded in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1930s. Reading these stories about a deceptively genial trickster named Jack engendered a lifelong fascination in me. Everyone has heard of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and a few know of “Jack the Giant-Killer.” In the Appalachians, however, there was an oral tradition of many tales about Jack, in which he outwits witches, the Devil — even Death himself. The same families who told the Jack Tales also passed down ballads from England and Scotland known only to them, preserved for centuries by their isolation from the outside world. I could go on about it at great length! Needless to say, I have stacks of books about the subject, including the ballad collections of Francis James Child and the Appalachian ballads collected by the great English folklorist Cecil Sharp.

ev0ke: In addition to writing, you also work with marionettes. How did you become interested in them, and do you see marionettes as hobby, as art, as both or neither?

AB: A little over twenty-five years ago, my friend Dave Yondernod witnessed a street marionette show in Prague, and was inspired to put on a marionette show himself. We collaborated on a play, which I wrote, called The House That Jack Built, about a scarecrow, Jack Straw, who strikes a deal with a traveling salesman named Solomon Scratch. Dave built the marionettes and we performed the show together. This was in Boston (where I’m from) in 1995. A couple years later, Dave moved to Berkeley, and I followed soon after. We revived our troupe, the Scratch Brothers’ Prestodigital Phantasmagoria, and wrote and staged bigger and bigger marionette shows. The biggest one we did, The Snow Witch, was performed six times to sold out performances. We got picked up by the local papers and were something of a local sensation at the time. This was in 1998 and 1999.

The Scratch Brothers disbanded soon afterwards. In 2003, I moved to Portland, Oregon to join one of the people who had been in our troupe. Together we started a new troupe and performed shows around Portland. We’ve since split up over creative differences, but I still write and perform shows on my own — with a little help from my friends. Most recently I did a run of a play called Ye Historie of Jack o’ Lanthorne, written entirely in verse, about the Jack of the Halloween legend, who is cast out of Heaven and Hell and doomed to wander the earth with a lantern lit by a hellish spark.

ev0ke: How have you come by the marionettes used in your plays? Did you create them, commission them, purchase them?

AB: I make them myself. I carve them out of wood, sew costumes for them, and string them up. The construction method I use (which I learned from Dave) was developed by a 1930s puppeteer named William Dwiggins. Each marionette takes many months to make — truly a labor of love. It’s certainly an art!

ev0ke: What other weird fiction and horror authors would you recommend to fans of your work?

AB: I’m going to stick to poets for this question. I will always recommend K. A. Opperman, Ashley Dioses, and D. L. Myers. They are fellow formalists and all absolutely brilliant. The four of us belong to a poetic cult called the Crimson Circle, which is whispered about in shadows. Other excellent formal poets include Kyla Lee Ward, Leigh Blackmore, Charles Danny Lovecraft, Ann K. Schwader, Fred Phillips, Wade German, and Frank Coffman. I’d be remiss not to mention Clark Ashton Smith, of course, Donald Sidney-Fryer, and Leah Bodine Drake

I’ll throw in one fiction writer: Manly Wade Wellman. He wrote stories about John the Balladeer, who wanders the Appalachians playing a guitar with silver strings that ward off supernatural terrors. I recommend them highly. They are very akin to Jack Tales.

ev0ke: Where can people find your work?

AB: My work has appeared in numerous publications. Probably the best place to start would be my website.

ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?

AB: In 2021, I have a poetry collection forthcoming from Hippocampus Press called Ballads for the Witching Hour. I am currently at work writing a series of short stories for a new collection, which is untitled as yet. Many of the stories in my new collection feature a character named John Drake, a 1920s Boston Brahmin supernatural detective in the mold of William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki and Manly Wade Wellman’s John Thunstone.