The following is an excerpt from Peter’s interview in "From Earth to the Stars," Asimov's Author & Editor Blog (April 2018)
Believe it or not, Peter Payack has been appearing in our magazine for five decades now. Below, he details his writing history, including his long relationship with Asimov’s,and the story behind the invention of the Stonehenge Watch. Read on and catch Peter’s latest poem, “The Evolutionary Race,” in the current issue.
My whole life I’ve been interested in science, philosophy, history, science fiction, and the classical Greek and Roman world. I also have run 92,000 miles, 24 marathons (including 12 Bostons) and I coach wrestling at the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School. I am a strong advocate of the Latin adage that a strong mind needs a strong body, usually attributed to the classical poet Juvenal, which is quite fitting.
I always say, “I read, write, and run” every day. I am all over the place in reading, and lately I’ve been multitasking by listening to the “Great Courses Plus” lessons while I run. So in a typical day, I write for a few hours in the morning. I might listen to a thirty-minute lecture on the “Great African Rift Valley” while running, look up something about archeoastronomy when I get home, then listen to a lecture on “Aquinas and the Problem of Aristotle” on my evening run after wrestling practice, where we exercise in ninety-degree heat and have the latest rap music blasting.
I used to carry a notebook with me at all times, where I would scribble any ideas down. Now I type every thing in my iPhone. In fact, for my last book, “The Book of Conceptual Anarchy, Vol. 1,” I wrote all my ideas in my iPhone before I typed them out on my computer.
Living in Cambridge, I have friends who want to talk about politics, the Red Sox, Martin Buber, poetry, kids, or grandkids. I say I write by inspiration, which really means anything that pops into my head! But, you can see, there is a lot to pick from.
Also I taught “Technical & Scientific Communication” at the University of Massachusetts Lowell for 25 years, so I also learned a lot from my students. I would have them write what they know, and Iwould learn anything from “How to Make a Silicon Wafer,” to being the “Captain on a Nuclear Sub,” “How to Hack into a Computer System,” to the “Latest Innovations from Draper Labs.”
And then I taught Communications at The Berklee College of Music for fifteen years, and that opened my mind to a whole different world of experiences.
My latest book I am putting together is “The Migration of Darkness and Other Classic Science Fiction Poems,” many of which I first published in Asimov’s!
MY HISTORY WITH ASIMOV’S
Proudly, I have been publishing in Asimov’s since 1978. That makes me one of the few poets/writers who have had the honor of appearing in Asimov’s for five decades! Of the dozens of poems I’ve published here, “The Migration of Darkness” (August 1979) won the 1980 Rhysling Award for the best poem in science fiction poetry.
This poem has subsequently been anthologized and republished dozens of times and in the last few years has picked up a few more honors.
In 2007, the notable writer and critic Greg Beatty said, “the poet and the poem were canonized” as part of science fiction literary history. And more recently, Quirk Press named it as the Numero Uno poem that combines poetry and art. On top of all that, the science fiction website io9 named it number five of the top ten science fiction poems of all time.
And the poem is now being taught on a number of college campuses and websites, as a unit of the “What is Science Fiction?” and “New Materialism and Ecocriticism” curriculum.
And all this while I’m just sitting on my fat ass! Metaphorically, that is. I am running again, after my two knee replacements, as evidenced by “The Evolutionary Race.”
STORY BEHIND “THE EVOLUTIONARY RACE”
My poem is actually a true story. I was running on Revere Beach in Massachusetts. I am pathetically slow at age 68, and I did pass a horseshoe crab.
As for the title: In my work, I find the title can be the keystone of the whole poem, particularly for a minimal poem, where you say the most with the least. I ran on it for a few days until “The Evolutionary Race” popped into my head. I played with “The Sands of Time,” and “The Sands of (Deep) Time” but ultimately felt “The Evolutionary Race” put it into a poem. And as a kicker, our species has evolved to such a state where we not only understand science and “deep time,” but I have two artificial knees which demonstrates how advanced (and caring) our civilization has become.
STORY BEHIND THE STONEHENGE WATCH™
I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and back in 1980, I was running through Harvard Yard when I noticed a sign for an upcoming lecture that read, “Is Stonehenge a Prehistoric Observatory?” I thought, “Hey, it’s not just an observatory, but it’s also a time piece!”
At the time, we didn’t have personal computers, or the web, so I ran to the Cambridge Library and found pictures of old pocket watches and Stonehenge. I made copies on an old Xerox machine, went home and made a collage by placing a cutout of Stonehenge onto a picture of an antique pocket watchcase. Then I created a fictitious ad, advertising “Gentleman’s Watch” that said, among other things, “Guaranteed for 5,000 years!” I used it as a header for my personal stationery and George H. Scithers, the editor of Asimov’s at the time, asked if they could print it!
Before I could answer him, David H. Ahl, founding editor of Creative Computing Magazine, published it, and hundreds of dollars of orders flowed in for the fictitious watch. Shortly after, my friend Steve Sharpe, who was studying at LSU, drew up the schematics and his brother George, who was the foreman at a plastics manufacturing plant in New Jersey, agreed to manufacture it.
Now the Stonehenge Watch is displayed in museums around the world, is in college astronomy textbooks, was named a Yahoo top-100 all-time gadget and was named the eclipse predictor for the Great American Total Eclipse 2017 by Jay Pasachoff in the American Journal of Physics. It has also been selected to be in the VIP celebrity gift bags for the 2017 Emmys, the 2018 Oscars and the upcoming 2018 MTV Awards by LA-based WOW! Creations.
This 5th millennial edition of the Stonehenge Watch™ is specially crafted to keep the integrity of the original construction of Stonehenge, so when you open the watchcase, you can use the built-to-scale model of Stonehenge as a shadow-clock to tell time, mark the four seasons, and note the passage of the years. Every astronomical function that was intended by the original builders of Stonehenge can be accomplished with the watch.
By owning the Stonehenge Watch™, users will quickly learn that Stonehenge is, at once, the oldest and newest way to tell time. Begin a “Great Leap Backward in Time” by pressing the watch stem button atop the rugged alloy watchcase and witness the mystery of Stonehenge revealed. Inside, see the exact scale replica of the major components of the 5,000-year-old megalithic monument known as Stonehenge. Orient yourself with the watch’s accompanying high viscosity compass to tell local apparent time just as the builders of Stonehenge did thousands of years ago.