Speculative Poetry: A Symposium, Part 2 of 2

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

[Editor's Note: This is a continuation of the symposium which began last week. Please also note that biographical sketches of the participants can be found here.]

Creating a Canon

Matthew Cheney: If speculative poetry were to become more visible in the world, what would happen? Popularity tends to lead to things becoming more bound by definitions and borders, and part of the fun, I think, of speculative poetry is that nobody's been able to impose many borders on it yet, so we can have conversations like the one we're currently having.

Theodora Goss: It interests me that we come from such different perspectives. Mike and Alan, if you were asked to create an anthology of "speculative poetry" (defined however you like), and given the financial resources to do so, what would your anthology look like? What would you include, and what would be the organizing philosophy behind your choices? If I were asked that question, it would be fairly easy to answer, since I would create something very much like Poems of the Fantastic and Macabre (although hopefully more quickly). I would try to create a Norton Anthology of fantasy poetry through the ages. But I would include modern poets, like Robert Graves and Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose poems are still under copyright in the United States, which is currently beyond my resources. I would focus on trying to show that fantasy in poetry has a history, and that poets are responding to that history—the way that Warner, for example, rewrites the medieval ballad "The Gypsy Countess" in her poem "Earl Cassilis's Lady." And I would emphasize poets whose works have been forgotten by the official poetry culture, who don't make the Norton Anthology, like Alfred Noyes—and of course Mary Coleridge.

bookcover

Alan DeNiro: In terms of an anthology—I'd really have to think about specific works. But (very scattershot) some of the writers would have to include Blake (The Book of Urizen!), Poe, Yeats (particularly "Sailing to Byzantium"), Jack Spicer, Robert Kelly ("The Cruise of the Pnyx"), Andrew Joron, Daphne Gottlieb, and probably about 90 others. Maybe I'll compile a web-accessible list for perusal by everyone.

Mike Allen: I don't have a hard and fast canon engraved in my mind. As for an anthology, honestly, I would cheat. I would go to people like yourselves, and very learned folks within SFPA like Robert Frazier, Roger Dutcher, and Drew Morse, and ask, what needs to be in this thing? (After all, isn't surrounding yourself with more knowledgeable people what a President is supposed to do?)

I would hope what I ultimately pulled together would be a balanced blend of ancient and modern, of popular treasures and obscure jewels, that truly displayed speculative poetry's dynamic range.

Fantasy and Reality, Form and Content

Alan DeNiro: Here's another paradox—I've found that speculative poetry is a bizarrely effective tool for dealing with emotions and messy, stupid passions. Not necessarily in a confessional way. I've been writing this rather long poem this year that I've been considering in my own head as "speculative" (we'll see what anyone else thinks about it). Anyway, it jumps all over the place—generation starships, space stations, 1860s Minnesota (with rocs . . . don't ask). It has a few recurring, very, very loose characters, but one of the few stipulations that I gave myself is that it has to have "I" appear at least once in every section. And it has to fuse some type of emotional inflection that I, the actual I, is feeling into whatever linguistic speculation is present in that particular section. It's been totally counterintuitive, but damn, it's been a blast. Even, dare I say it, a therapeutic blast. Weird negative capability.

So I guess I'm asking . . . how do you all see the "I" in this type of poetry? And I'm not talking about Browningesque persona poems necessarily.

Mike Allen: While I can't imagine that it's a phenomenon restricted only to this type of writing, I do find it uniquely satisfying to toss cross sections of my past or current psyche into the mix, even into poems where it's not at all an obvious element. This leads to my answer to your "I" question, which may be simpler-minded than what you're asking, but here goes:

It's really not uncommon for the narrator "I" to turn up in speculative poetry, as so much of it is narrative—many have the feel of vignettes or flash fictions. I think it would be only natural for a casual reader to assume that the "I" found in mainstream poetry is more autobiographical, while the "I" found in speculative poetry is more invention, as the world the "I" exists in is invented. But that doesn't have to be the case.

I've been pushing myself to instead use a kind of "blender" approach to cobble I and "I." Recent pieces I've had in Strange Horizons, for example, all "I" poems—"How I Will Outwit the Time Thieves," "Space War," "Strange Cargo"—are in their own ways deeply personal, though not necessarily because of what you might detect from the surface.

Again, what I'm talking about isn't new to poetry, or even fiction; but I think in speculative poetry it has something of a new feel, and it's something that will likely spread as more SF poetry writers and editors think beyond genre borders and search for ways to communicate that don't require a working knowledge of tired genre tropes.

Mythic Delirium

Theodora Goss: I've heard fantasy fiction, in particular, criticized as regressive or escapist, and I'm sure that poetry incorporating fantasy elements comes in for some of that criticism. But (and I'm not arguing with Mike or Alan here, only with those critics) every story or poem we write is necessarily about us, whether it involves dragons, robots, or accountants. We can't help writing about our world, however obliquely. We can't escape our context. I hope the increasing emphasis on myth, folklore, and fairy tale—on fantasy elements—in speculative poetry appeals to a wider audience, not because that poetry feels "comfortable" to an audience nostalgic for a world that never existed but because it speaks to something in us, whatever we share (I don't want to sound Jungian—I'm intensely wary of the idea of universal archetypes) that gives those literary forms their broad appeal. (Certainly, Mythic Delirium has been on the front lines in publishing poems on the fantasy end of speculative poetry—one reason it's among my favorite magazines!)

Alan, I realize that I never responded to your question about the "I" in speculative poetry. Once, at a workshop, I was told that I should put more of myself into my writing. It took me a while to realize that the critique didn't work for me (I always tend to think that critiques are right)—that I put the most of myself into stories that seem the least personal. I tend to do the same in my poetry. Distancing is one way—at least one of my ways—to deal with emotional stuff. My poem "What Her Mother Said" doesn't seem particularly personal, since I'm retelling a fairy tale, but it was written after the birth of my daughter, out of the sudden and frightening realization that I was now responsible for someone else's life. So, for me, not having to say "I" is freeing—it allows me to reveal myself. That's one thing I value in speculative poetry. Which isn't an adequate answer, I realize.

Alan DeNiro: Dora, I've avoided putting the "I" in many poems for a long time, too. In fact, one of the things that I like beginning poetry students to do is to break away from the assumption that the speaker in the poem has to be "you." (Here's one of my exercises: Wrecking the First Person). I keep going back on my own assumptions, though. And I've been playing more and more with the idea of direct address (though sometimes threaded together with, well, oblique passages).

This is my disjointed, open-ended final (rhetorical) question: is form nothing more than an extension of content (paraphrasing Charles Olson)? On most days I believe this is true. That is, we can look at world-building, for example, as a kind of approach, a way to achieve a certain density of information. This is the content—the desire to speculate on worlds—so what is the form? How does this work in terms of the structure of the poem on the page? Is it based on one or more of these: (a) the syllable, (b) the line, (c) the sentence, (d) the stanza, (e) the page as a whole, (f) all of the above? I'd lean towards (f), depending on the situation, but then the tricky part becomes the context and texture—and how does each part relate to writing speculatively? If the best use of transmitting a specific world is through any one of these schemes, then we have to embrace it wholeheartedly, as a writer; and understand the connective tissue that the writer is trying to invoke (wow, that was a mixed metaphor), as a reader. And what does it mean to invoke contradictory schemes in a single poem?

Mike Allen: As for Alan's larger point about form, I only feel comfortable answering in the personal, that for me often content determines form, but occasionally I've gone the opposite direction, with fun results. And I agree that this type of dialogue is exactly what the field needs to expand.

bookcover

Theodora Goss: I haven't read Charles Olson since college, so I had to look up his statement. ("Form is never more than an extension of content," which he attributes to Robert Creeley? The Norton Anthology is useful for some things, after all.) Honestly, I think it depends on the poem. Olson is talking about free verse, in which the content determines the poet's formal choices. But I think it's possible, even in free verse, to choose a form first, and see what content it finds. And some poems are about their form (for example, the Sitwell poem I mentioned earlier, in which the content seems to be determined by the sound).

For me, the basic components of a poem are the word, the line, the stanza, and then the poem as a whole—those are what I focus on when I think of the poem's form. But then, my poetry isn't particularly experimental. What I'm most interested in is the music a poem can achieve, the way it appeals not only to the intellect, but to the ear. (That, I suppose, is why I'm interested in the ideas behind the New Formalism, although often not particularly interested in the poetry it has produced.) I don't have a problem with using contradictory formal schemes in a poem, and probably wouldn't call such schemes contradictory, which implies that they are antagonistic to each other or cannot coexist. I can't, writing this late at night, find a copy of Marianne Moore's "In Distrust of Merits," but I remember Louis Untermeyer pointing out that although most of the poem is syllabic, the concluding stanza shifts to accentual verse. The important question, for me, is whether that sort of shift is called for by the poem itself, whether it's appropriate and meaningful. (But correct me if I've misunderstood the point you were making. . . .)

But I wonder if these are issues for speculative poetry in particular, or for all poetry? I don't think the formal issues raised by speculative poetry are different than the formal issues raised by any other sort of poetry, although I'm certainly willing to be convinced otherwise. My sense is that every poem raises different formal issues, and these differences (between individual poems) are greater than differences based on what "genre" (to the extent we can identify genres based on content, such as science fiction poetry, religious poetry, etc.) a poem falls into. (I should add, too, that I suspect most poets write by instinct, rather than theory, so it's only later that they go back and say, "Hey, I changed my formal scheme halfway through. I wonder why?" And then they decide whether to keep it that way or not depending on whether it "sounds right." Although of course critics have the right to look at it afterward and make their own determination based on more theoretical considerations.) But this is a purely personal answer, and I would love to hear the argument otherwise, that speculative poetry does, by its nature, call on us to make different stylistic choices. I agree that these are the questions we need to ask.

Alan DeNiro: When "content" was mentioned, I was thinking more than just "subject matter"; as my dictionary calls it, "the events, physical detail, and information in a work of art." "Information" is interesting, and tricky, because in a way, a poem becomes a poem by the density of its information (i.e., content). Is that from form or the information itself? And I definitely understand where you're coming from, Dora, in terms of musicality and the form itself as a baseline. I've written most sestinas (not that I've written many!) with pretty much the idea of "I'm going to write a sestina," and letting whatever comes out, out. But at the same time, my head is filled to the brim with "content"—my physical location, my past, random bits of syntax and interesting words, etc. So who's to say how this informs, on some level, the writing of a hypothetical sestina? Very chicken and egg. But it also comes down to audience, real and imagined—how you, as a writer, desire to connect with people.

Ron Silliman had this quote from an interview that stuck with me:

Each subgenre of poetry today reflects a different audience, a different community. Disputes as to the "excellence" of one kind of writing or another are in fact sub rosa arguments as to which social group will dominate the other. What we need to understand is how a subgenre of poetry both creates and is created by that social construct we call an audience.

And this, I think, is a segue into thinking about how a speculative poetry community provides a platform for "content" (speculative inquiry, science, SF tropes, etc.) Does it provide a platform for form? What it might do is provide opportunities for new—or older, reclaimed—forms to come into being and coexist. A gaggle, then.

But this confusion—this fact that no one set of interpretive tools, no single form, is quite good enough—is actually pretty exciting. It's one of the things that poetry, at its best, does best. And speculative poetry is, or can be, right at the center of this. Precisely because it's not one particular mind-set or benchmark of quality, and that it tends to be very aware of how important reading protocols are for building meaning (as with prose SF).

What Poetry Can Do

Alan DeNiro: One last quote that deals with some of the stuff I've been talking about, about trandescending genre and the like:

What poetry can do, however, that no other field can do so well, is to offer new modes of language, different ways of writing one's engagement with the world, not a field of study but a way of living and writing that can never be contained by the dynamics of fields and their struggles. Poetry cannot always change the world. But it can, sometimes, show us what a changed world might look like.
Mark Wallace, "Looking Beyond the Fields of Poetry"

This strikes me as the heart of what speculative poetry can do—not in a Pollyannish or utopic way, but (in tapping into all of the traditions available to us) in a way that allows poets and readers to dwell, if even but for a short time, in a changed world. Words as a conduit between people. I go back and forth on this continually—does poetry, even more than fiction (because of its immediacy and mutability?) allow for an emancipatory process to take place? What should the poet's role be in the world? And I think, as we were talking about with the "I," there's some really intriguing—and even uncharted—directions in this regard with speculative poetry, precisely because of the "nonrealistic" techniques and processes used.

Theodora Goss: Mike mentioned Tim Pratt and Sonya Taaffe. I think they're both wonderful poets. Take a look at Tim's "Clutch Purse" and Sonya's "Storm Gods of the Connecticut River Valley" in The 2004 Rhysling Anthology. (Sonya has two other poems in the anthology—I'm mentioning my favorite.)

bookcover

Mike, we do differ, I think, in how we see the history of speculative poetry. I see speculative poetry as very old, not recent at all—as, really, the oldest sort of poetry. I think that's because I focus on the fantasy side of it. (The Odyssey, for example—it's got a giant, a witch. . . .) But I also think of its recent history as going back further. If we want to see it as a tradition separate from mainstream poetry, then I think it's already there in Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, all of whom wrote poetry (though I make no claims for quality!).

But they're on the mythic rather than scientific side. When I was looking for a poetry anthology for my class on fantasy literature, the only one I came across was August Derleth's Dark of the Moon, which tries to be a collection of speculative poetry (though he doesn't use that term) through the ages. So even the impulse to anthologize speculative poetry is pretty old (1947, according to the Harvard library catalog—I don't have the book checked out, so I hope that's accurate). I see speculative poetry not as a recent subcurrent but as a parallel current in English poetry that has sometimes been the main current (the Romantic era, for instance) and sometimes a subsidiary one (the Enlightenment, and now). You talk about an increased attention to myth in the field, and say that it amplifies the field's tendency toward nostalgia. "Nostalgia" often has a negative connotation, so I want to ask if you see this attention to myth as a bad thing. I see poets grappling with myth as a positive, as a sign of courage. It takes courage to write about Orpheus, who's been written about so many times before, and to tackle the issues the figure of Orpheus raises. (See Tim Pratt's "Orpheus Among the Cabbages.") And writing about mythic material, or folklore or fairy tale, is one way of communicating, since your audience already knows the story. You can rely on that knowledge and do something inventive, something that wouldn't communicate if your audience weren't aware of the underlying myth. I tried something like that in "The Ophelia Cantos." (By the way, Terri Windling's Endicott Studio site is an excellent place to find myth-, folktale-, and fairy tale-related poetry.)

I think one paradox of using traditional materials and techniques is that they can be freeing, even though we often assume they will be confining. Finding a way to make the sonnet new (by abolishing the rhymes, for example) can be as interesting and inventive an act as abolishing the sonnet.

Alan, you're absolutely right that I'm seeking an alternative to what I often see in the mainstream poetry culture, a sort of safe, polite verse—polite isn't quite the right word. Say, a verse in good taste. Often about landscapes (New England or somewhere in a desert, California or Arizona). I'll give as an example a poem by Dana Gioia, because to the extent that there is a poetry establishment, he gives the impression of being at its center: his "California Hills in August." There's nothing particularly wrong with the poem, but for me there's nothing particularly right about it either. It doesn't make the hair at the back of my neck stand up. (Is it terribly rude of me to criticize Gioia's poem? I suspect that he, of any poet out there, can best take it.)

bookcover

Which brings me to your question about how poetry relates to genre. I want to turn that around and talk about how genre relates to poetry, because I think you're right that poetry itself is resistant to genre, and we shouldn't seek to impose genre on it. A couple of years ago, I read Northrop Frye (I'm not sure of the specific title, but it may have been The Secular Scripture), who believes that "high" literary forms need to be continually revitalized by "low" or popular ones. (Not my favorite terms, but they express pretty well what he means.) So (theoretically), opera needs the musical, and the mainstream novel, whose central concern is social realism, needs crime fiction. To me, speculative poetry offers something new, exciting directions and possibilities that a poem like Gioia's seems closed off from. It's one (certainly not the only) place for experimentation.

A final thought. Alan, I love your description of what speculative poetry can do: show us a changed world. I'm not sure that poetry is more emancipatory than fiction, but I do think that speculative fiction and poetry have a particular emancipatory power.

The poet's role in the world? I have no idea, other than as a consumer of Ramen noodles. But showing us what the world could be sounds like a pretty good one.

Mike Allen: Dora, you seem to be picking up a vibe that I swear I'm not trying to transmit. I don't see the history of SF poetry as starting from scratch in 1978! (Though I do think something special, interesting, and new starts about that time.) I could show you an editorial from Mythic Delirium (Issue 4, to be precise) in which I made essentially the same statement you do: that the roots of speculative poetry run deep into the past. Nor do I see the trend toward "myth" as a bad thing; after all, I think it's fair to say I'm one of the architects of the trend, as is Tim Pratt as editor first of Star*Line and now Flytrap. It's also a trend that I think will lead, perhaps is leading now, to wider appeal.

When I wrote about the mythic tendency, I had in the back of my mind many criticisms I've read of speculative poetry, some ignorant cheap shots, some quite legitimate—one of the more interesting ones being that as a field it's regressive rather than progressive; that it ignores the new in favor of the outmoded. I think it's interesting that one of the solutions to this appears to be to take the tendency several steps further, and create new ways to embrace the ancient.

I can understand why folks balk at speaking of poetry in terms of genre. But. Look at W. Gregory Stewart's "the button and what you know," the only poem ever to be nominated for the Nebula Award. (Reprinted in Nebula Awards 27, for the curious). It's flip on the surface, but with powerful things moving underneath; and there is really no better way to describe what it is than as a "science fiction poem." Sometimes a thing just is what it is.

I agree with all that there are vast unexplored universes here, and so far only a few relatively unsung explorers, with any number of interesting paths to take.

Really, all the better for us.

Matthew Cheney: Let's hope that there are more explorers in the future, and that we hear their songs. The ideas that we've worked through here, or at least thrown around a bit, leave me quite optimistic not just about one type of poetry or another, but about the possibilities for poetry in general. The diversity that just this discussion represents is electrifying, and my own hope is that the diversity only grows, creating richness, instead of narrowing into a monoculture.

Thanks everybody. I look forward to reading your next poems!


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