Speculative Poetry: A Symposium, Part 1 of 2

By Mike Allen, Alan DeNiro, Theodora Goss, and Matthew Cheney (ed.)

Introduction by Matthew Cheney

In November 2004 I sent emails to Theodora Goss, Mike Allen, and Alan DeNiro, asking if they would be interested in corresponding with each other about poetry within the science fiction and fantasy field. I wanted to create, I said, a "mini-symposium" I could run on my weblog, The Mumpsimus. I had chosen these participants because I had discussed SF poetry with each of them at some point, and I knew they were passionate and knowledgeable, and, most importantly, had very different points of view.

By the end of February 2005, Alan, Mike, and Dora had accumulated nearly 15,000 words of thoughts, ideas, questions, provocations, criticisms, and stabs in the dark. Clearly, the symposium was no longer mini, and a weblog would not be a comfortable format in which to present it. Strange Horizons seemed like the best venue for presenting the symposium, since it has been a home to writing by each of the participants and it has always supported various forms of speculative poetry.

After the discussion had finished, I edited it down to its current length and rearranged some of the material to cluster certain ideas together. It was a wide-ranging, spontaneous conversation, though, and I have tried not to tame it into something that hides every loose end, because from the beginning we hoped this would be an exploration of as many ideas as possible.

The Participants

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Mike Allen is president of the Science Fiction Poetry Association and editor of the speculative poetry journal Mythic Delirium. Mike's fiction has appeared in Flesh & Blood and Interzone, his poetry in Asimov's and Weird Tales. His first book-length poetry collection, Strange Wisdoms of the Dead, is scheduled for publication later this year as part of the Aegis poetry series from Prime Books. His Rhysling Award-winning poem "Epochs in Exile: A Fantasy Trilogy," coauthored with fellow Roanoke writer Charles Saplak, is included in Nebula Awards Showcase 2005. His poems can also be found in The 2004 Rhysling Anthology and the Strange Horizons archives.

Alan DeNiro is the author of two poetry chapbooks: The Black Hare and Atari Ecologues. Since 1997 he has edited Taverner's Koans, an online poetry confluence. He is the poetry editor for Say. . ., and has also had 3 stories appear in Strange Horizons.

Theodora Goss's stories have appeared in a number of print and online publications, including Strange Horizons, Alchemy, Realms of Fantasy, Polyphony, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Fantastic Metropolis. Her poetry has been published in both genre and mainstream magazines such as Mythic Delirium and The Lyric, and online in The Journal of Mythic Arts. She has won the Rhysling Award for speculative poetry. Currently, she has a chapbook, The Rose in Twelve Petals & Other Stories, available from Small Beer Press, and a short story collection forthcoming from Prime Books. She lives in Boston, where she is completing a Ph.D. in English literature, with her husband, daughter, and too many cats.

Opening Statements: Definitions and Challenges

Matthew Cheney: Let's start out by giving each other something to talk about. Definitions might be useful, so we know what we're talking about. How would you define the kind of poetry we're discussing here, and what challenges do you see such poetry encountering?

Mike Allen: Actually, I don't want to discuss what SF poetry is, because there are many others who've done it better than I ever could; or whether or not "SF poetry" or "speculative poetry" are legit as labels or genre categories—debates over that sort of thing always strike me as trivial exercises in word-mincing. I guess what I tend to do is not so much ponder What Is as What's Coming.

I see two challenges facing the field. Those few critics who pay attention to SF poetry sometimes razz it collectively for not being in touch with what's going on in other branches of modern poetry. Frankly, this doesn't concern me so much—but what does concern me is that SF poetry has little sense of its own past. It's hard to imagine the field growing in any coherent way with no understanding of its roots. SF poetry has existed as a distinct entity since the early 1970s, as a by-product of sorts of the New Wave, but what your typical upcoming SF poet has most likely seen is just the other poetry published in the same publishing markets he or she is trying to break into. (Until fairly recently, I fit that profile myself.)

The other challenge I see is simply reaching a wider audience, a problem intertwined with the previous one. It's unrealistic to think there's a huge untapped audience for SF poetry, but I'm willing to bet there's at least a slightly bigger audience than we're reaching from the filler space in Asimov's. But as of yet, our field has no multimillion-dollar backer, so we're on our own. I've worked hard to make Mythic Delirium and (with many others' help) the Science Fiction Poetry Association a little more visible, but we're far from being able to send hard-selling storm troopers into all the bookstores with orders to recruit readers. I've noticed, though, that out in the wilds of the Internet people are talking about us who aren't card-carrying members of the SF poetry commune, and that gives me hope. I think the best that SF poetry has to offer is as good as anything else out there, and at least we now have glowing buoys like Strange Horizons or the new SFPA website where readers attracted by the light can swim in and sample what we've got.

Alan DeNiro: For me, at some point it's a recognition of an alternate method of reading, that has the same contours as the image-building in speculative fiction. In both, image-building is the same as "world-building," even if bolstered by scientific inquiry. But it doesn't necessarily have to involve science at all, but rather having the language enter a speculative space. Here, different possibilities of language can interact. Much like in a science fiction story, this world where new poetries come about doesn't quite exist, but neither does it not exist. But ultimately, the case can be made that all poetry is speculative, tenuous (though no less powerful), and to pretend otherwise only creates illusions within illusions.

This speculative process has almost nothing to do with content, but rather the inquiry itself. And it doesn't have anything to do with a formal or metrical argument of one particular sort—although any one scheme can work in any given situation and context. I think a lot of people are looking to alternatives to a certain type of bland "workshoppy" poem—a poem based in personal experience and "lived" realism that competently and smoothly arrives at safe epiphanies. Oddly, I think that the speculative poetry within the genre itself is moving more towards this direction—as a way to learn the lessons of the "mainstream" of poetry. But I think they bring about poems that coexist in the worst of both worlds. These are the kinds of poems that exist as little more than one-liners—you read the speculation in the title and the entire poem is nothing more than a checklist of images revolving around that central idea. On the other extreme, there's the kind of neoformalism that eschews any type of idiom or poetics crafted after the year 1926 or so. But poetic exploration should be curious, unrelenting—there really are boundless (or at least what appear to be boundless) models out there.

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It's really helped me to read more generously, to give me tools to grapple with big abstractions, to put syntax in play as a speculative element. Writers who have entertained valuable speculations of one sort or another: Clark Coolidge (The Crystal Text), J.H. Prynne, Kevin Davies (Comp., Pause Button), Brenda Hillman (Cascadia).

Theodora Goss: It's all about Mary Coleridge.

Several years ago, I taught a class on English and American poetry at Boston University. I taught from the Norton Anthology; we all teach from the Norton Anthology. And Mary Coleridge wasn't in there. (I taught her anyway, of course, from photocopies.) But Mary Coleridge wrote at least two poems that are important to English literary history (and many more that have given me, at least, a great deal of pleasure): "The Other Side of a Mirror" and "The White Women."

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The first of these is about a woman who looks into a mirror and sees, not the everyday face she expects, but the monstrous face of her unexpressed and unfulfilled desires. It's a difficult poem to teach in a poetry class, because it doesn't seem to fit between Browning and Hardy. The best way to teach it, and to understand it, I think, is as part of the history of the gothic in English literature. It could be taught, most obviously, with Jane Eyre, in a discussion on female identity in the Victorian era. But scenes of monstrous doubling, particularly in mirrors and portraits, have a history that goes back to the beginning of the gothic. It could also be taught with Poe's "William Wilson," LeFanu's Carmilla, Stevenson's "Olalla," Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, or Lovecraft's "The Outsider." I've taught it with all of these, in a class on the fantasy tradition. "The Other Side of a Mirror" is part of that tradition. If you can place it in the history of gothic fantasy, you can understand both the poem and its importance to English literature as a whole: it's part of a century-long dialog about identity and the gothic fear that, under the veneer of modern civility, we are all monsters.

"The White Women" is, I think, one of the most beautiful poems in the English language. My students tend to laugh at the central idea: a society of women living without men, who reproduce by—well, the wind's involved, evidently. It's a dream, of course, of women untainted by original sin or the corrupting influences of civilization, who are pure, beautiful, deadly. A particularly Victorian dream, which incorporates both the Victorian idealization of women and a rejection of it, a wild desire for freedom from social constraints. If you want to understand the poem, read it in the context of stories about Amazons, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, Joanna Russ's "A Few Things I Know About Whileaway," and Suzy McKee Charnas's Motherlines. It's as much a part of the history of science fiction as anything else (although nowadays we would substitute some form of cloning).

We don't talk much about poetry as part of a fantasy tradition, at my university. Poetry is taught as a separate subject with its own history, as it usually is at the university level. As a society, we've also come to see poetry as a subject unto itself, something separate not only from our ordinary lives but also from the literature we read, especially the literature we like. We don't expect to enjoy or even understand it.

The fantasy tradition has been marginalized in English literature (and to a certain extent in American literature, although less so); fantastic poetry exists at the margin of the margin. It's difficult to find. When I put together the syllabus for my class on fantasy, I tried to find a poetry anthology to teach from and found not one, although there are several excellent anthologies of fantastic prose. That's when I began working on Poems of the Fantastic and Macabre. And fantastic poetry may never be more than the margin of the margin. But I hope that we who love fantasy will search for it and support it. It's part of the literature we care about, after all.

Content and Style, History and Genre

Mike Allen: I get a sense from Alan's opener that he defines speculative poetry as something that happens at the level of language, rather than at the level of underlying concept (which is where I tend to stake my tent), and longs to see more poems within the SF poetry field that reflect this. I don't find the two definitions at all exclusive; speculative poetry is a broad, open tent with recognizable if hazy boundaries.

(I do agree with Alan that, technically, all poetry is speculative, as is all fiction. However, when I use the term speculative poetry, or SF poetry, I definitely have a distinct set in mind. It's hard to put it much more simply than Suzette Haden Elgin does in The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook: "A science fiction poem must be about a reality that is in some way different from the existing reality." There are many nuances, but that's the meat of it.)

Speculative poetry that makes edgier use of language (as opposed to full-out "Language poetry") seems more prominent during the field's earliest days of self-awareness. Here's an example from Andrew Joron, who started out a homegrown SF poet before migrating to "literary" pastures, from his 1980 Rhysling winner, "The Sonic Flowerfall of Primes":

We absolve ourselves there & above, wash in the Absolute
Most through his absolutions, his blood-soluble
Emotions
. . . Piquant telemetries, per hour passed downlink, into rooms
Where no shadow is

Fly in electra, he
Suspends our veiled supper of the Masses
So that even as we view him now, orbiting nightward
A blue-green blip on verdigris'd scanners
One favored dwarf or fool; the player on his oud
Must pluck blossoms of this Sun-heightened music
Holy notes to nerve the optick stem

"The Sonic Flowerfall of Primes" (which, frankly, is a challenge to decipher) would be unlikely to win a Rhysling these days, and though it might be nominated, if you take any recent Rhysling Anthology as a sampling of the sort of speculative poetry written, read, and appreciated by those who actively call themselves speculative poets, "Flowerfall" would stand out in style and approach as being hard against the grain.

If you want to show a then vs. now contrast in speculative poetry, it's hard to imagine a starker contrast in style between that poem and, say, the 2002 Rhysling Winner for long poem, Lawrence Schimel's "How to Make a Human":

Take the cat out of the sphynx
and what is left? Riddle me that.

Take the horse from the centaur
and you take away the sleek grace,
the strength of harnessed power.
What is left can still run across fields,
after a fashion, but is easily winded;
what is left will therefore erect buildings
to divide the open plains . . .

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I'd like to address Alan's "worst of both worlds" comment. I agree with the conditions he describes but not his conclusion. Personal experience-based poetry has indeed infiltrated speculative poetry in a very noticeable way: consider Maureen McHugh's "Alternate History" or Roger Dutcher's "Just Distance" (winners, respectively, of last year's Asimov's Readers' Choice Award for poetry and the Rhysling Award for short poem; both can be found in The 2004 Rhysling Anthology). These can indeed be described as following the "title and image" structure Alan portrays.

Is this trend really a terrible thing? I don't think so. Experimentation is a noble pursuit, but so is communication; so is resonating with a reader. Consider G.O. Clark's "Family Tree," a poem that could be said to epitomize Alan's complaint. The structure is so simple and repetitive it seems a complete beginner could have thought of it, and yet . . . here is a poem that distills to its essence that "sense of wonder" that some say can't be found in current SF, and does it in a way that feels as close to home as your own doorstep.

That said, I also have to agree that speculative poetry should keep a sharp cutting edge, and these days that edge is dulled—but to sharpen it, there needs to be a forum for the sharpening. Strange Horizons for now seems to be the closest thing. Is there any sort of theory or operating principle for a poet or editor to learn who wants to take that path?

Another trend I've observed in speculative poetry these days is an increased delving into world mythology, a trend where relatively new voices like Tim Pratt and Sonya Taaffe are walking the front line. It's intriguing to me that these poems often spark enthusiasm from some of the same critics who complain about SF poetry as seeming antimodern. To me, this influx of myth amplifies the emphasis on nostalgia within the field.

This, I think, is how I bridge to Dora, though I don't feel a need to debate her points, as I don't see anything to disagree with. How handy her Poems of the Fantastic and Macabre anthology is, that I could just hop over and read the Coleridge poems she talks about.

However, for all the emphasis on futurity, science fiction is often a nostalgic genre, as most certainly is fantasy. I think most writers who actively call themselves speculative poets are SF, fantasy, and/or horror writers using poetry for expression, rather than poets using SF/fantasy/horror for expression (though examples of the latter do wander through, such as Andrew Joron, Adam Cornford, or lately, Daphne Gottlieb). Thus appearances by the modern or postmodern are fleeting.

Anecdotally, it seems to me that fantasy is eclipsing SF somewhat in profile and popularity, and it makes me curious whether this will filter down to the poetry level, with myth- and fantasy-based poetry coming to dominate and SF poems becoming more the property of an Old Guard within the field. On the other hand, let's be honest—with the field being as small and flexible as it is, available markets will control its shape as much as any sort of global current.

Theodora Goss: How do we know that a poem involves fantasy? Well, it contains a witch, or a society of women who reproduce parthenogenically, or something like that. The sort of thing that fantasy fiction would contain. This misses another way of being fantastic rather than realistic, which I think Alan focuses on: a way that has to do with strangeness of perspective and style.

Alan has provided modern examples, so I'll give an earlier one: Chidiock Tichborne's "My prime of youth is but a frost of cares," often called his "Elegy." There are no explicitly fantastic elements in this poem, but the poem sounds like fantasy: it exists in a macabre space that is as different from the allegorical and religious themes of standard Renaissance poetry as I can imagine.

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I noticed that we all use slightly different terms to talk about essentially the same sort of poetry. I think I like "speculative poetry" best, although in a sense it means the least. We know, or at least we think we know, what science fiction and fantasy are; they are old traditions that provide us with a set of assumptions to argue around. But what is speculation? Define it broadly enough and, as Alan said, any poetry is speculative. I don't want to define it that broadly, not broadly enough to include poetry that accepts our world as it is. I want to use it for poetry structured around a central "What if?" What if there were monsters (Beowulf)? What if our terror of death and loss could take material shape, and we could be visited by it? What would that do to us (Poe's "The Raven")? What if language could express without meaning (Sitwell's "Sir Beelzebub")?

What if, in other words, the world were not as our ordinary experiences tell us it is? "Speculative poetry" gives us room: to talk about content or style, or both, and to apply the term in ways we might not originally have expected. It stretches, like spandex.

I'd also like to talk about history. I agree with Mike that poets who want to write speculative poetry should understand its recent past, the shape it has taken in the modern era. But I also want them to understand its older forms.

In college I took a poetry workshop, where we were required to read books by our favorite poets—as long as they were writing during or after the 1960s. And many of the students seemed to know only those poets. But I think that knowing only three decades of poetry (this was at the end of the 1980s) can be crippling for a poet. Certainly the poetry that came out of that workshop was imitative—it sounded like what the students were reading. Writers of speculative poetry often have a different but related problem: they take their models from the poetry written between, say, 1870 and 1900. Predictable formalism is as bad as predictable free verse. If you're going to write poetry, you should know as much of its history as you can, and you should feel free to take from that entire history.

Which brings me to form. I'm so disappointed when I see a venue for poetry, particularly speculative poetry, that only considers free verse submissions. The difference between formal and free verse, really (I mean from the perspective of the poor poetry editor), is that bad free verse is more difficult to spot. Bad formal verse is generally glaring. I agree with Alan that the solution is not a safe neoformalism. But I would like to see more poets experimenting with form, the way architects are now building thoroughly modern houses with traditional proportions, or references, or materials. The possibilities of poetry are, as Alan says, boundless—or they ought to be. It seems curious to me that writer and critics should try to impose restrictions on it, from either side, mainstream or genre.

There seems to be so little attention within the genre to speculative poetry. Why, and what do we do about it? New venues for speculative poetry? More publishers willing to do poetry chapbooks? Anyone, anywhere, to review what comes out? Panels at conventions that are hopefully attended by more than the faithful? What should we do? Or are we content with the status quo?

Alan DeNiro: One commonality, for sure, that I see we do have involves the "mainstream" (or Official Verse Culture as it is sometimes called, OVC for short) of poetry. In that each in our own way we're seeking alternatives to it. This might not be for one specific facet (narrative, sincerity, tepid scansion, etc.), but rather a total package where each of these elements working together produces a model of how poetry ought to be—which is picked up by many MFA programs, literary magazines, etc.

K. Silem Mohammed wrote:

A mainstream is a forceful, central current that carries in its path all the debris and livestock and entire vacationing families that get vortexed into it. It is not a carefully constructed iron walkway that escorts the effete peripatetic poet safely above a scenic view of the countryside and its filthy horizon. In the mainstream, you have to shout to be heard above the roar of the already-tired water metaphor I'm spinning out here. In the mainstream, the weasels with clown faces have uzis. The mainstream is the scary global video game we live in, everyday, and it has nothing to do with some absurd publishing scam within which a few bloodless surrealists and failed classicists and Tools of the Homespun False Consciousness get to define what is normative.

Realizing this is liberating. It took me a long time to figure this out.

The OVC bugbears that at times feel to be so oppressive are rather modest. The perceived stakes, financial or otherwise, for poetry are so low that we can paradoxically find ourselves in more fluid, unclaimed territories. The audience is there, but it has to be self-created to a large extent: through the Internet, through poetry readings in one's community, through publishing books and chapbooks. Which is what's happening, more broadly, in speculative fiction and other fields. My question in relation to poetry is how this relates to genre, and whether it should in the first place.

Perhaps this is the major place where I differ with my two esteemed colleagues. Poetry is the most resistant art form to genre—it slips between the cracks of categorizational distinctions. I don't see Language poetry or the New York School or projective verse to be genres but rather approaches to writing—stances—and loose confederations of poets excited about each other's work and building off of it.

Does "playing it straight" with genre provide enough voltage for the here and now? I think it's hit and miss. And, yes, there are going to be at times wide gulfs between idiosyncratic tastes. There are so many little byways and little communities talking past one another.

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Certainly, Dora, form is very important. It's good to read from Caedmon's Hymn onward—understand the development of accentual poetry to accentual-syllabic poetry. If one is going to write poetry of any sort, reading voraciously is of course essential. But how does this transmute what we write?

But here, I don't know whether we're talking about speculative poetry, or poetry poetry. See how it veers to a universalism? That undertow is necessary—otherwise, we're in danger of calcification.

Theodora Goss: I wonder, is it fair to say that the fantasy end of the speculative poetry spectrum is more continuous with the long past of speculative poetry than the science fiction end? It seems right to me that science fiction poetry, defined strictly as poetry that incorporates elements of science fiction rather than used as a general term for all types of speculative poetry, is a relatively recent phenomenon, one that comes after the development of science fiction itself as a genre. I don't mean to be unbearably academic about definitions. I'm trying, awkwardly, to convey a sense of the tradition I feel that I'm working in when I write speculative poetry.

Audiences and Communities

Matthew Cheney: Assuming there is something called speculative poetry, and assuming it is of value, do you think there's an audience for it? How can the audience grow?

Mike Allen: When I say that I'm concerned about newer SF poets not knowing the history of SF poetry, I'm also saying, even proclaiming with a shade of defiance, that there is a history to learn. A small subcurrent in the great rush of poetry's timeline, for sure, but still one that can be identified and tracked. As we're small, and not as yet demonstratively influential on pop culture, and as we've only got one or two scholar-types seriously tracking us that I know of, it's for now up to the poets themselves to assemble that history (perhaps a dangerous thing to put poets in charge of).

As for what do we do to raise awareness—I find I have to frame that question in terms of the organization that, for better or for worse, chose me as leader. The simple answer is: do more stuff. Get more active. As thinly spread as SFPA is, it's hard for volunteers to do a lot, but we're doing more collectively in terms of contacting the outside world than the association has done in a long time. We're putting out books. We're passing out fliers. We're hoping to have both an awards presentation and a dealer's table at the upcoming Readercon. Et cetera. There's a unique situation within SFPA right now, with a lot of new blood and new ideas pouring in at the same time that several prominent longtime members have stepped out of retirement to pitch in. It can be contentious, but it's also rather electric.

Alan DeNiro: Mike, have you thought about setting up a central archive of mp3 files of speculative poets reading? With audio blogging and the like, it's easy enough to even have people read poems into a phone and post them online. I know that a lot of experimental poets' work, in particular, can gain unbelievable inflections when hearing it read (e.g., if there's a weird line break, having it read—listening for the correct pauses—can make me go, ohhh, so that's what they were trying to do!).

Also (for the two of you)—how do you see cons and the like as being part of the community of speculative poetry? Is that a double-edged sword? I would love to have more speculative poetry out in the community. Maybe this is already being done—but to present work in coffee shops, prison programs, wherever.

Mike Allen: Alan, your mp3 idea is terrific. I will look into whether that can be made real.

I don't personally see conventions as having any kind of major role in SF poetry, or vice versa. Last year's Worldcon held a poetry panel, with folks like Joe Haldeman and David C. Kopaska-Merkel as panelists, but the title imposed on the panel was something dumb, along the lines of "Why Do SF Fans Hate Poetry?" On the other hand, bigger cons like Arisia have had entire programming tracks devoted to poetry. And maybe we're due for a change. One of my goals has been to make SFPA more extroverted; slowly, and with plenty of help from other volunteers, it seems to be happening.

Theodora Goss: In terms of the genre community, I think it needs poetry. We all love literature—that's why we write it—but there is an emphasis in the community on writing as a profession, on sales. Paying attention to poetry allows us to get away from that for a while, to focus on writing for its own sake. And I think it's an excellent way for writers to learn their craft. Nothing makes you focus as much on how you use words as writing a poem. I would love to see (reasonably well-attended) poetry readings at cons. We tend to cut poetry out, as a community—few of the major magazines publish it, and it's not reviewed in Locus. I think we need to put it back in. For one thing, I'm convinced that it will make us better and more serious writers. Mike, I would love to see a magazine specifically for the fantasy end of speculative poetry. Honestly, I've thought of doing something like that myself, and intend to if I can find the time.

(Continued next week. . . .)


Matthew Cheney is a monthly columnist for Strange Horizons and writes frequently about various topics at his weblog, The Mumpsimus.