June 28th, 2008


SF Poetry Fracas

My new SF poetry chapbook, Constellation of the Dragonfly was recently reviewed in the Madison, WI, Capital Times (see madison.com/tct/entertainment/292195). A link to the article was posted on the Science Fiction Poetry Association listserv (sfpanet@yahoogroups.com), which occasioned some discussion that I would like to address here. For the record, I am not “tenure-track,” and I have no connection with literary academia; I studied psychology and biochemistry in college and obtained merely a B.Sc., lo, these thirty years ago.

Heather Schroeder, who interviewed me for the article, quotes me thus: "’Science fiction poetry tends to be much worse than mainstream (poetry),’ she said. ‘I really don't know why. It appears to be very much stuck in much older literary conventions. There are exceptions of course, but just to make general comments, I've noticed in sci-fi/fantasy poems, the language tends to be very elevated and antiquated, and the poets pontificate a lot and deal in vague generalities.’”

I’d like to stress that the quote is neither incorrect nor decontextualized, and that the accuracy of the interview is certainly not an issue. I, personally, do feel that as far as published poems in many of the “heavyweight” journals are concerned, speculative poetry in general tends to be worse than general literary poetry (mainstream can have a more specific meaning in poetics, but I’m just using it here as a general term). The quote was “Science fiction poetry tends to be much worse ...”; again, that was intended to be umbrella terminology; fantasy and horror poetry certainly deserve to also be included in my statement.

In any pursuit that involves aesthetics, tastes will differ and a wide range of ideologies will be imposed on its practice. The acrimonious disputes that invariably follow are perennially stimulating, but this isn’t meant to be a discussion of idiosyncratic partialities. What I meant by “worse” is what I see as basic flaws in the craft of writing poetry, which seem more prevalent—or at least more tolerated in published form—in the SF genre.

There are three faults—major problems, in my opinion—that I’ve encountered most often. First, and most annoying, is the use of an artificially-elevated and/or inauthentically-archaic voice (this is usually—but not always—more common in fantasy and horror poetry; the equivalent in science-fiction poems would be the fuzzy, kitchen-sink-faux-physics generalities about how, like, vast the Universe is). No one enjoys sesquipedality more than I, and there are many high-fantasy works where archaic language is appropriate and convincing, but I’ve read too many poems where the highfalutin’ verbiage is used inconsistently or inappropriately at best, and in combination with truly dreadful grammatical and spelling skills at worst. One could do no better than to take Joe Haldeman’s brilliant paired sestina “Saul’s Death” as an sterling example of how to do it right ( see writing-world.com/poetry/schimel4.shtml [where it is incorrectly described as a double sestina, a much longer, and much, much more complicated form]). Haldeman uses plain language to achieve a powerful effect, despite the fact that the setting is “olden times” (see OnSpec’s submission guidelines for a heartwarming diatribe on this subject). And I have had it up to here with hackneyed, generic folk tales or pseudo-chivalric lays in the Ye Olde Faerye Shoppe style. This commonly manifests in the work of beginner poets, genre and non- genre alike, whose reading list ends with the 19th century; the difference being that in the non-genre world, these excrescences go straight from the slushpile to the wastebasket. It also goes hand in-hand with a tendency to write dreadful rhyming poetry, largely accounting for the prejudice that many editors have against formal verse.

Which brings me to my second complaint. I have nothing against well-written poems in form, but formal poetry is very difficult to write well; much more difficult than writing free verse or prose poems (although it’s hilarious to do it badly on purpose!), one reason why I don’t do it often. I certainly admire formal poetry when it’s good; a poem nominated for the Rhysling this year is an absolutely stellar example of a rhymed and metered poem, “Given to the Frost,” by Ann K. Schwader (see strangehorizons.com/2007/20071210/schwader-p.shtml). Note that I do not know Ms. Schwader nor, as far as I can tell, have I ever encountered her, in the flesh or on the internet. However, there are many ill-conceived, poorly-crafted attempts at rhyming poetry (sometimes without any pretense at meter, which is even worse) making it into publication. Again, these are of a quality that would quickly be rejected by the better non-genre journals.

The third practice I deplore is demonstrable failure to do research. This would include improper spellings and word usage, as well as incorrectly-used scientific terminology and “fancy words,” to say nothing of passages in foreign languages apparently written with Babelfish, in the absence of a bilingual proofreader (there’s no excuse for this; most colleges have foreign language departments where a once-over can be arranged, and the planetasf@gruposyahoo.com.ar listserv is full of cooperative SF folks who speak all kinds of languages). These flaws are not merely the poet’s responsibility (it is impossible to reliably proofread one’s own work), but are, in particular, aspects where editors have failed in their duty. The occasional typo will slip through the most stringent editorial practices, but when I see multiple errors in a publication, I cringe.


I’m also concerned about the definition of the genre; i.e., what constitutes speculative fiction. While it is meet that SF should be included within, rather than ostracized by, mainstream literature, the reverse is pointless. And it’s appropriate for SFPA to formulate and maintain the “official” parameters that encompass science-fiction poetry. Perhaps SFPA itself should consider being more, rather than less restrictive. As non-genre journals become more open to SF—that’s where most of my published SF poems have appeared, so I can vouch for the trend—if the SF pubs become more inclusive as well, there will soon be little difference. (NB: Billy Collins had an SF poem in the New Yorker a few months ago, which pleases me no end.) Individual editors can and should impose whatever arbitrary criteria suit them—and the wide variety of resultant aesthetics is greatly to our advantage—but I notice that a number of publications claiming to be devoted to a “pure” definition of the genre are accepting works that are not, strictly speaking, SF.

The categories that I think fall outside the genre are works that refer strictly to science, without speculative-fictional aspects; those that use SF metaphorically rather than literally; and poetry that is surreal and/or experimental, rather than speculative. Let me reiterate that I strongly support individual journals differentiating their aesthetics as much as possible—but perhaps it would be constructive for the Science Fiction Poetry Association, for its in-house publications in particular, to maintain a more rigorous focus. I’m guilty myself of submitting—and subsequently having published in the recent SFPA sonnet contest anthology—a poem that should probably not have been accepted, as it uses SF only metaphorically, and only in the last two lines of the poem: “... by gloating, evil wizards./We watch their golden goslings turn to lizards.” I sent it in because hey, I don’t write very many sonnets and was sorta reaching, but mainly because its content was a vituperative castigation of the Bush régime. Possibly that content proved to be an equally-irresistible temptation to the contest judges. Anyway, mea culpa.

I do not consider myself to be strictly a genre poet, and I think it’s sad to limit oneself to that extent. At most, a writer should say, “So far, all my work is ____,” or “Right now, I really enjoy writing _____,” rather than “I only write _____.” And allowing genre to restrict, rather than direct, one’s reading tastes is even sadder, and doubtless one of the practices responsible for the relative poverty of SF poetry as a genre. If you don’t read a wide range of contemporary poetry and contemporary poetry journals, you are grossly hindering yourself as a poet; the same thing goes for other forms of writing. I love speculative fiction better than any other kind of literature, but I try to read enough other stuff to have a basis for comparison. That being said, I think that the best science fiction has for several decades been better than the best mainstream literature, both in originality and in quality of writing, and that the opposite, unfortunately, can be said of SF poetry. No, I’m not going to give bad examples. I’m not out to embarrass or offend individuals—at least, not here and now.

A constant dialogue concerning the preferences and goals of individual poets and editors, to say nothing of the ideal attributes of speculative poetry itself can only benefit the genre. I do not regret stepping in the sacred cowpie, and invite your responses and comments.