Mike Allen’s first short story collection, The Button Bin and Other Horrors, is scheduled for an early fall release from Apex Publications. He’s been a finalist for the Nebula Award for short fiction and won the Rhysling Award for poetry three times. He’s written two novels, both of which are house-hunting. He’s also editor of the poetry journal Mythic Delirium (new issue here) and the acclaimed anthology series Clockwork Phoenix. He records a monthly column, “Tour of the Abattoir”, for the Tales to Terrify podcast site. He lives in Roanoke, Va., with his wife Anita, a goofy dog, and two cats with varying degrees of psychosis.
Have you read Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Eight Legs of Grandmother Spider“?
Or Theodora Goss’s “Octavia Is Lost in the Hall of Masks“?
(Or even this little favorite of mine, by a writer you’ve likely not heard of, Ken Duffin, called “Meeting Place“?)
Go ahead and click. I can wait. If not, I hope you’ll go back and read them all, and not stop there. If you’ve clicked even two or three, you’ll note that these are all poems. There’s hundreds, hundreds more I could pick from – these are just a few that are dear to me.
When I get asked to talk about speculative poetry, this is what I do: stand up in front of the audience and read a few poems and talk about them. Today I’m projecting out into the blogosphere, so we’ll have to use the honor system.
There’s no hard boundary that defines what counts as “speculative poetry,” “science fiction poetry,” “poetry of the fantastic,” whatever you want to call it. A purist would tell you it’s a poem that’s clearly set in a reality other than our own. Examples of that abound, of course, going back to “Beowulf” and “The Odyssey”, though I’m not so sure the creators of those epics thought of their contents as fantasy fiction.
But you’ll notice that the very first poem I showed you, by Cat Valente, doesn’t follow this rule. It’s a colorful recounting of an old myth, but it’s also a haunting memoir, a weaving of non-fiction and fable. That’s just fine. My days of being a purist are well behind me. This poem satisfies that urge I have to experience and be moved by the otherworldly that drew me to science fiction and fantasy over and over again.
The others I’m tossing at you: they’re closer to that “other reality” stricture, but they’re still all over the place. Haldeman offers a simple, elegant mediation on what the passage of millennia can mean. Landis, a NASA scientist, gives us a portrait of the universe that leaves the lecture hall to gaze at the stars — Walt Whitman surely would have applauded. Anticipating steampunk, the late Mike Ford re-imagines Camelot as a train station, building an engine in verse powerful enough to earn the adoration of the 1989 World Fantasy Award judges – taking home the Lovecraft head for short fiction, interestingly enough. Here I’ll point out that speculative poems often function like tiny short stories, mini-narratives, tale-telling in another format.
And here are examples of this at two opposite extremes. Gotlieb’s silly and surreal madhouse Beat poem demands to be recited aloud at a poetry slam, but what kind of science fiction is this? A Frankenstein monster made of random household junk? Goss’s tragic fever dream has corsets and daggers, but is there really anything magical going on here? Are these masks only given voice in our doomed heroine’s head? And yet they feel like fantastic tales, and they set out to do what they want to do with remarkable economy.
(Duffin’s piece, wistfully imagining a romantic reunion after the universe ends? Well, I just like it. Make of it what you will.)
This is one aspect of speculative poetry worth noting: authors who have won Hugos and Nebulas, been New York Times bestsellers and critical darlings, who are venerable old hands or edgy newcomers, doing work that’s just as evocative and thought-provoking in a form measured by lines rather than SFWA-defined word counts.
Where do you find this work? For one, in the same places you find short fiction: Asimov’s Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Bull Spec, Abyss & Apex, sometimes even Analog. There’s also some spectacular websites and old-school DIY zines devoted completely to this particular subdivision of the arts: Stone Telling, Goblin Fruit, Mythic Delirium, Dreams & Nightmares, Jabberworcky, Star*Line, to name a few. Each one has a unique approach. Some even strive to fill gaps in the literature: Goblin Fruit, for example, focusing on fantasy and myth; Stone Telling focusing on diversity in all its forms.
Watch for readings at conventions, too. (Here’s a tip: do not, do not, do not miss a chance to hear C.S.E. Cooney perform her poem “The Sea King’s Second Bride“.)
I make no claims that speculative poetry is some profound literary movement. Rather it’s a steady trickle that’s been here all along and will continue to flow for as long as the act of composing poetry remains a thing humans do. I’m simply suggesting that if you’re a completist, if you are truly curious about everything speculative, and you haven’t ventured outside the kingdom of novels to test waters in the poetry stream, then there’s some amazing stuff you’re missing out on.
So stop missing out. Have a taste, or two, on me.