Divided by a Common Genre

Denise Dumars is an experienced writer of spirituality, horror and poetry, an editor, and a teacher and tutor of English at the college level. She has published two collections of short stories; two non-fiction books, including The Dark Archetype (with Lori Nyx), and numerous chapbooks of poetry, the most recent of which is Letting in the Dark (Yellow Bat Press).

It’s been said that Great Britain and the United States are two countries divided by a common language. I’m going to posit the idea that the same ironic relationship occurs between writers of SF/F/H poetry and fiction. Whether we write poetry or fiction, we all love the same genres, and we all write in those genres. But as Sfnal poets, we are the pariahs of the genre. Why?

First, let’s look at our history: the U.S. is an anti-intellectual society which finds anything even remotely intellectual suspect, if not outright evil. Too strongly stated? Have you seen the news lately? In the U.S., poetry is thought of as something from and for the ivory tower, not the common individual, as is the fiction of the imaginative genres. This would not compute in many other societies, in which there are popular poets and poetry is just as much a genre for the people as popular fiction. So, the first mistake many genre fiction writers make is in thinking that, since poetry is of the ivory tower, it cannot be part of popular literature, unless it exists at the extreme opposite of the spectrum as fan poetry.

My fellow members of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA) find it extremely hard to get SF conventions to take us seriously; in fact, at Loscon in Los Angeles, we were rebuffed as “professionals” by people who felt that the ONLY poetry appropriate at an SF convention is fan poetry. Again, why? Can no one fathom the idea of the poetic form in the genres that we share as anything other than fannish? Can no one fathom that poetry can be popular as well as high falutin’?

Professional fiction writers find it hard to believe that we actually write real genre poetry because they don’t understand why someone would want to write something that doesn’t pay. Well, kids, let me tell you something: Sfnal poetry pays much better, in many cases, than so-called “literary” poetry. Finally, the San Diego Convention ConDor embraced the SFPA and I cannot even tell you how healing it has been to gather there and not only read with other Sfnal poets but teach the writing of genre poetry as well.

I ran a poetry reading series in Hermosa Beach, CA for five years with fellow SF poet Nancy Ellis Taylor. No one kicked us out of town because we like genre poetry as well as other types. No one called us snooty because we get paid for our poetry, and no one treated us as though we were not “literary” enough.

I would like to invite some genre fiction writers to read our poetry and see if they enjoy it. I’d like to show them the poetry market listings on the SFPA website, so they can see that poetry does pay. And increasingly, I see that writers of genre poetry—like myself and many other members of the SFPA—write genre fiction, too. I’d like to invite genre fiction writers to read my columns in Star*Line, titled “Stealth SF.” The column is built around the idea that even in today’s literary journals, genre poetry is embraced.

In today’s multimedia society isn’t it about time that we embraced genre poetry as part of the larger spectrum of the genre, a genre that exists in pretty much every other form of popular entertainment and art forms? Who knows? We might even convince some people that poetry can be popular, too.

5 thoughts on “Divided by a Common Genre

  • May 21, 2012 at 2:09 am
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    Thought provoking opinion piece!

    While I don’t dispute your point about American anti-intellectualism, I feel the need to point out that it wasn’t always the case. In the horror genre, Edgar Allan Poe established his career almost as much on the basis of his poetry as on his short fiction ( if I’m not mistaken, “The Raven” may have been his most popular piece, during his lifetime). Poe also wrote an entire small book, THEORY OF POETRY. In fact, his famous essay “The Philosophy of Composition” (so often cited to short story authors as laying out his case for a “unity of effect” in short fiction) is almost-exclusively about poetry!

    I’m not sure exactly when horror started to stroll away from poetry. Maybe during the pulp era of the original 20s, 30s and 40s version of WEIRD TALES? I mean, obviously pulp authors like Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith were writing poetry, but many of the horror pulps seemed to popularize a certain action-adventure template. Then there’s the horror boom of the ’70s and ’80s, with its (in my opinion, dysfunctional) reliance on book-to-film adaptations.

    Perhaps there is some hope, though. After attending ReaderCon last year, I started reading speculative poetry and found some to my liking. (ReaderCon had a poetry reading, actually…something that I’d enjoy seeing at other cons). I’ve also started reading the prose-poetry of W.H. Pugmire. Let’s also not forget that Toby Barlow seemed to pull off the impossible by writing a (at least somewhat) commercially successful horror free verse, epic poem (marketed as a novel…but my understanding is it was a free verse epic poem), SHARP TEETH.

    So perhaps all’s not lost?

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  • May 21, 2012 at 3:12 am
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    A great piece! Often times it can feel like an uphill battle that to me spoke more of the deplorable state of poetry education in the US in the 20th century whose effects we still feel today. Even as people love poems like ‘The Raven’ they don’t connect what other speculative poems are capable of reaching for. I think there’s great reason to be optimistic, in light of recent growth and diversification in the field.

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  • May 21, 2012 at 5:13 pm
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    On the one hand, I have at some conventions and in some conversations with writers encountered the sort of attitudes Denise writes about. On the other hand, I don’t agree with the idea that those of us who write poetry are somehow pariahs. We *are* often under the radar, and so if we really care about what we’re doing it’s up to us to make the most of it when we manage to register a blip.

    On the third hand, ReaderCon, for example, has been very accommodating to poetry, and has acknowledged that the new people drawn in by that thread have brought new energy to their convention. Anita (my wife) ran a poetry reading at the World Fantasy Convention in 2010 that the attendees didn’t want to end after two hours, and Rose Lemberg ran one at WFC 2011 that I understand was a huge hit.

    It’s true that many genre fiction review venues ignore the poems for reasons that seem silly — as Gemma observed in the previous entry, often “speculative poetry is speculative fiction writ smallest.” But there is a review venue for poems, Versification, ( http://www.versification.org ), Tor.com has run poetry reviews, and some blog reviewers out there such as Terry Weyna roll up their sleeves and tackle the poetry too.

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