The Invisible Prominence of SF Poetry

F.J. Bergmann is the editor of Star*Line, the journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and the poetry editor of Mobius: The Journal of Social Change. Her poetry awards include a Rhysling. Her fourth chapbook, Out of the Black Forest, a series of conflated fairy-tale poems, will be published by Centennial Press in 2012. She manifests variously at Fibitz Reality Adjustment.

In my capacity as the editor of Star*Line (and as a speculative poet), I was asked recently—and not for the first time—“Why do you think sci-fi poetry doesn’t have a wider audience and/or isn’t taken more seriously?” To which my response was that mainstream poetry doesn’t have a wide audience and isn’t taken seriously either. Gone are the days, alas, when a touring poet could draw crowds of thousands from the general public. However, I will admit that SF poetry flies considerably further below the radar than non-genre poetry. The Locus Roundtable post that occasioned this discussion of speculative poetry made it clear that, even among science-fiction writers, poetry within their own genre appears to go unnoticed.

It is interesting to consider why that is. Poetry does appear in publications that publish pro-level SF writers, but, only partly due to differences in length, is considerably less remunerative, and the stature of writers within the speculative genre (for SFWA purposes, anyway) is directly related to payment rates. SF poetry’s lesser role may also be related to awards—there is only one major (to spec poets) prize for speculative poetry, specifically: the Rhysling award, given each year by the Science Fiction Poetry Association for the best long and short poems. The only other genre poetry award of any significance is the Stoker award for horror poetry books. In contrast, within speculative fiction we have the Hugos, the Nebulas, the Tiptree, and a host of other important awards that help keep those who win them in the public eye.

I hold the genre poetry community itself responsible for part of the lack of brand recognition. Achievements or publication by speculative poets outside their own narrow field are not recognized or appreciated within it, despite mounting evidence that speculative poetry, like speculative fiction, is now welcome in most mainstream literary venues. Self-identified science-fiction poets Andrew Joron and Lewis Turco have become eminent within modern poetics and been influential with respect to both experimental and traditional forms. For the last decade, I have read and published poems widely outside speculative poetry, and my impression as a reader and editor (Mobius, for which I also edit, is a non-genre journal) is that spec poets are more apt to be out of touch with contemporary poetics and modern literary conventions.

However, the best among those writing speculative poetry are marvelously good by any standards; the quality of the work I’ve been able to accept for Star*Line since becoming its editor in January 2012 delights me. I have also made an effort to encourage submissions from poets outside the traditional self-identified genre poetry community; I knew a number of poets who were writing speculative work, but were not aware of SFPA or genre markets, and others who became interested in speculative poetry as a result of judicious prodding.

The poets whose work I admire are numerous. Here are a few examples of speculative poems I have especially enjoyed:

Bubba”, Robert Borski
The Future”, Billy Collins
Saul’s Death”, Joe Haldeman
Violence on Television”, Louis Jenkins
Death on Other Planets”, Joanne Merriam
Given to the Frost”, Ann K. Schwader

I hope that SF fans, writers and readers alike, will begin paying more attention to the spectacular speculative poems that appear in the genre fiction venues like Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Ideomancer, Niteblade, On Spec, Silver Blade, Space and Time, Unspoken Water, Weird Tales, and elsewhere. I also hope that some consumers will develop a taste for these delicacies and be moved to seek out the marvelous journals, both print and online, that specialize in speculative poetry, such as Astropoetica, Inkscrawl, Paper Crow, Scifaikuest—and Star*Line itself. To say nothing of SFPA’s new online journal, Eye to the Telescope.

As with fiction, poetry benefits from working within the constraints—and with the greater freedoms—that characterize speculative work. While the SF tropes require the presence of a more overt narrative, the ability to give one’s imagination free rein without the limitations of what passes for reality more than compensates for the restrictions of the genre.

3 thoughts on “The Invisible Prominence of SF Poetry

  • May 28, 2012 at 1:04 pm
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    I agree that SF poets could do a better job of communicating outside their small world. Could and should. No’s gonna come aknockin’ if they can’t find our door.

    I disagree that SF poetry requires narrative (if I understood your point). Tropes can represent without narrative, in my view.

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