623 Words About Speculative Poetry
Award-winning horror author Gemma Files is also a film critic, teacher, screenwriter, Writer’s Guild of Canada member, wife and mother. In 1999, her story “The Emperor’s Old Bones” won an International Horror Guild award for Best Short Fiction. Her most recent book is A Rope of Thorns, with A Tree of Bones coming out later this year.
Although I’ve written poetry since I was a child—my first “real” sale was a piece called “Earthquake!”, to Cricket Magazine, at age 11—I’ve never thought of myself as a poet, per se. The prime urge of my writing goes always towards the explicitly narrative, the literal telling of stories, while poetry strikes me as a far more intimate art-form; what I tend to admire most in poets is their ability to analyze their own responses to things, then re-phrase them in such a way that everyone who reads their work can understand exactly what it must have been like to be them at that particular moment of realization. Particularly with some of my favourite poets—Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Ted Hughes, etc.—there’s often a vague sense of reading someone else’s diary, a series of beautiful phrase-turns just a hair or two away from being in-jokes, the personal made public.
But this makes poetry sound hyper-realistic by nature, and we all know it doesn’t have to be. The fact is, just as much poetry does “tell a story”, obviously, as the work of those same poets ably demonstrates. Think about Sexton’s retellings of Grimm fairytales, or Hughes’ cycle of myths about the Trickster-god Crow, or Plath’s poem “The Applicant”, which reframes the “typical” marriage as some sort of horrific Pygmalion-parody. MacEwen used her gift to imagine herself variously as a Christian cultist persecuted under the Roman Emperor Nero, as the Babylonian hero Adapa (who broke the wings of the South Wind, then accidentally refused immortality), as the sister/lover of heretic Egyptian pharoah Akhenaton’s co-ruler Smenkhare, as the pilot of a trans-dimensional starship fleeing a dead Earth, bent on repopulating the universe. Or she could just as easily simply record her daily experiences and draw parallels between them and a larger universe, not just of history piled on history—acknowledging that most of what we now think of as history actually began as poetry, almost indistinguishable from myth—but of a Jungian archetype-soup embracing all religions and bestiaries, all interlocking pantheons of gods and monsters.
Since most of my ideas are speculative (horror, fantasy, whatever), what makes any idea I get “a poem”, then, rather than something else? I can only speak for myself, from inside my own instincts—and the fact that both my parents are actors probably has a certain amount of influence, here—but what seems to set the urges I have towards poetry apart from everything else that I do is a certain performative element. If I can hear myself saying it out loud, then it’s “right”, somehow. I can be anyone, just by speaking in their voice; I can do anything I can conceive of, or even things I can’t. And I can do it in one page or in half rather than in 300, while adding a pattern of resonance which renders it as immediately memorable as any song-lyric. It’s this declarative aspect—I am a stag: of seven tines…/I am a wizard: who but I/sets the cool head aflame with smoke?/…I am the tomb: of every hope (“Amergin’s Song”); —Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air (Plath, “Lady Lazarus”); I have come to possess your darkness, only this. (MacEwen, “The Shadow-Maker”)—which peels fiction back to its most ancient base, the voice in the darkness telling tales, setting a scene, laying the foundation of an alchemy which makes solid things from mere words.
So speculative poetry is speculative fiction writ smallest, basically. You can find it almost anywhere, because if your inclination is towards things like that, it will almost inevitably jump out and smack you in the fact. And that’s pretty much all I know.
2 thoughts on “623 Words About Speculative Poetry”
Beautifully said! I’m printing out a copy so I can quote you at conferences!
After evaluating both prose and poetry submissions for James Gunn’s Ad Astra (http://adastra.ku.edu/) in advance of our first “issue” in June, I learned a few things about SF/F/H poets. Those who submitted early on sent an average of three to four poems for consideration. One sent an entire evolving collection. I wasn’t expecting multiple poems per submission, probably because I’m used to prose periodical guidelines prohibiting or discouraging multiple submissions per author. This seemed to me to reinforce a discussion I had with one author who lamented the dearth of markets for SF/F/H poetry. Even poets who have had success publishing their work in the past seemed almost overjoyed to have a new market they could submit to.
Another pleasant discovery was how the submissions were almost universally free of obvious typos and formatting mistakes. They may not have always followed the page layout rules we set forth in our guidelines (neither did the prose pieces, frankly), but they were good, clean manuscripts. This may be easily attributed to a poet’s innate carefulness with the words he or she chooses to put on the page, but I think there’s something more to it than that. I’ll leave it to others to debate what that might be.
Finally, some of the themes in the poems we received were top-notch SF/F/H ideas — and this was taking into consideration that we were looking for work that would fit into our chosen theme of “communication and information” for the issue. Even many we chose to pass on addressed topics that would make for good discussion fodder. Mind you, not all of them did so, but I was again pleasantly surprised at what we received.
Hopefully there will always be space in the SF/F/H fields for poetry, because if we dismiss it too readily, we risk killing the very sense of wonder and “what if” thinking that birthed our genres in the first place.