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Speculative Poetry
November 2, 2008 5:08 AM   Subscribe

When we think of contemporary poetry, what comes to mind is difficult footnotes, scorching confessions, bardic combat, or maybe a new translation of a classic. Look to the land of children and you spy the sidewalk's end or a pack of Thneeds. Somewhere between the gravid and the childlike is the realm of speculative poetry.

Speculative poetry has little in the way of defined form, though the SciFaiku has its adherents, but it focuses on speculative subject matter: fantasy, horror, science fiction. How is it? Sort of like all poetry: some great, some horrible, and much in between. Rhyme and meter seem a bit more common than in poetry generally these days, but not universal. Many speculative poets belong to the Science Fiction Poetry Association, as well as an annual award. If you want an idea of who writes this stuff, click that last link, and you may see names of SF writers you know.

Who else writes this stuff?

Well, did you know Robert E. Howard wrote poetry, and rather a lot of it? Conan's creator wrote many volumes of weird, wonderful verse, all worth hunting down.

One of Howard's contemporaries, Clark Ashton Smith, was a prominent poet in the earlier part of the 20th century who lived a typically poetic life of penury, wrote many volumes, was well reviewed, and is today best known for association with matters tentacular.

Joseph Payne Brennan came along a bit later, but was likewise prolific. Many SF aficionados remember his stories, but I've always preferred his verse to his fiction. Sadly, a few minutes poking around on Google an exhaustive search revealed none of it online. Get thee to a library if you care about fantastic and subtly disturbing poetry.

The audience for speculative poetry is, as you might guess, not humongous. The web has allowed for much flowering and greater publicity, however, from online publications to online symposia. Poets give interviews about their work, and there's help out there for those who want to learn how to write it.

Finally, where do you go to read more of it? Check the online symposia links in the previous paragraphs: lots of links in there. Also, check the Wikipedia entry for speculative fiction for online venues for speculative poetry.
posted by cupcakeninja (31 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
I know this is your first post, so I'll provide a few gentle hints. In the first place, the post is way too long; it could easily have been boiled down to a paragraph or two, with far fewer links. The entire opening paragraph is superfluous (which is a pity, since it's all that's visible on the front page); you're not posting about "contemporary poetry" (and are you seriously suggesting that T.S. Eliot is contemporary?) but about science fiction poetry (and you should call it that, not "speculative poetry," a phrase that means nothing to anybody but you, whoever wrote the Wikipedia article, and a few others—I didn't know what it was supposed to mean, and I own books of the stuff). I think pretty much everyone who cares about Robert E. Howard knows that he wrote poetry, and it's simply not true to say that Clark Ashton Smith was "a prominent poet" except in his own mind. You've put in way too much of your own thoughts on the subject, leaving yourself open to GYOB comments, and you've linked to a Wikipedia article not once but twice. I hope that my friendly exposition of all this will preempt some flames, and I'm sure you'll do better with your next post.

Oh, and I'm afraid most sf poetry is total crap, and by "most" I mean "even more than is inevitable as a result of Sturgeon's Law." So it goes.
posted by languagehat at 5:58 AM on November 2, 2008


Thank you for the feedback, languagehat. I'll try to do better next time on all the counts you mention.
posted by cupcakeninja at 6:36 AM on November 2, 2008


When you mentioned Thneads, my Sneetch ears were burning. (Actually it was a Who with a candle whispering in my ear.)
One great thing about the annual sci-fi poetry contest is that it is one of the few ones that is free to enter. One bad thing is that they didn't send me my winnings they promised.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:45 AM on November 2, 2008


When I think of "contemporary poetry" I don't think of poets who have been dead for decades.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:06 AM on November 2, 2008


One great thing about the annual sci-fi poetry contest is that it is one of the few ones that is free to enter. One bad thing is that they didn't send me my winnings they promised.
That's tragic. You should write a poem about it (and include a stanza about how languagehat might be gentle with you too).
posted by tellurian at 8:14 AM on November 2, 2008


I haven't read the links, but it seemed germane to suggest Shanxing Wang, whose book Mad Science In Imperial City was recently published by Future Poems. He has a graduate degree in mechanical engineering, so many of his poems contain derivatives and laws from physics, typically used as metaphors for love and human relationships. In addition to having competed at Wimbledon in ping pong, he also protested at Tiananmen Square.

Future poems blurb

Interview at JACKET


His blog, which is titled Beyond Standard Model: Large Hadron Collider, Path Integral, Head Rhyme, Banana Loop and Ergo Sum - Why Can Physics, History, Music, Table Tennis and Philosophy Communicate to a New Poetry and Poetics?

...

Also, the poet Bryan Thao Warra has called explicitly referred to his book The Other Side of the Eye as speculative poetry...
posted by johnasdf at 8:16 AM on November 2, 2008


I'm most familiar with the term "gravid" to mean literally pregnant, carrying eggs, whatever. Have I just been living under a rock and it's in common use to mean "weighty" or something similar?

That said, if it is, the word-play of "in between the gravid and the childlike" would be pretty neat.
posted by kavasa at 9:21 AM on November 2, 2008


trek-ku:

Home is at WorldCon
where I can be understood
if I speak Klingon
posted by kuujjuarapik at 9:57 AM on November 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


How hast it come to be,
here on the plains of Jupiter,
such arrogance should be born
at the mere mention of

poetry

(I think that's a winner right there.)
posted by scarello at 10:06 AM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


You should call it [science fiction poetry], not "speculative poetry," a phrase that means nothing to anybody but you

Disagree. 'Speculative fiction' is a commonly used term and is not a synonym for 'science fiction'.

(Although you're right that a better description above the fold would have helped those mefite who don't read in those genres and might not have been able to make the intuitive leap between 'speculative fiction' and 'speculative poetry'.)
posted by the latin mouse at 10:07 AM on November 2, 2008


Gene Wolfe's "The Computer Iterates the Greater Trumps" is my favorite "speculative poem," and I can't seem to find a copy of it.
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:52 AM on November 2, 2008


I just can't convince myself that poetry, or most fiction in general, is relevant any more. There are just too many easier, better mediums for story telling, wordplay, or conceptualizing.
posted by cmoj at 11:22 AM on November 2, 2008


science fiction poetry (and you should call it that, not "speculative poetry," a phrase that means nothing to anybody but you, whoever wrote the Wikipedia article, and a few others

Speculative poetry includes horror poetry and fantasy poetry, which science fiction poetry does not. Although, perhaps I shouldn't say anything, since I'm the one who originally created that Wikipedia page.
posted by joannemerriam at 11:37 AM on November 2, 2008


sonic meat machine, try here.
posted by joannemerriam at 11:40 AM on November 2, 2008


There are just too many easier, better mediums for story telling, wordplay, or conceptualizing.

Easier != better. I'd argue that more complex methods of story-telling (from a reader's standpoint) are often more successful at communicating . . . whatever it is you're trying to communicate.

That being said, I'd probably agree that most good poetry and fiction are largely irrelevant nowadays, regardless of quality.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:57 AM on November 2, 2008


joanne, I'm aware of that book but I don't like most of the Rhyslings so don't want to spend $15, and I've been unable to find it in a library system as yet.
posted by sonic meat machine at 12:22 PM on November 2, 2008


I just can't convince myself that poetry, or most fiction in general, is relevant any more.

"Relevance" is and has always been a terrible criterion to apply to literature. To whom or what was Paradise Lost or The Cantos (or whatever example floats your boat) "relevant"?
posted by DaDaDaDave at 12:29 PM on November 2, 2008


Joannemerriam, thanks for creating that page in the first place. Having it to point to was useful, as there's nothing else quite like it out there. As to the issue of naming, of course, I agree.
posted by cupcakeninja at 12:31 PM on November 2, 2008


sonic meat machine, that's understandable. It was, briefly, here; maybe you can find a cached copy of that page from 2006 (google doesn't have it).
posted by joannemerriam at 12:37 PM on November 2, 2008


But hey, if there's one thing that can make poetry relevant again, it's more barbarians and space-ships!
posted by No-sword at 3:10 PM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]



[i]
But hey, if there's one thing that can make poetry relevant again, it's more barbarians and space-ships![/i]

Long live Conan the Sonnetist!
posted by scarello at 3:34 PM on November 2, 2008


I just can't convince myself that poetry, or most fiction in general, is relevant any more. There are just too many easier, better mediums for story telling, wordplay, or conceptualizing.

There are better mediums for story telling than "fiction in general"?

Huh?
posted by mediareport at 4:55 PM on November 2, 2008


Disagree. 'Speculative fiction' is a commonly used term and is not a synonym for 'science fiction'.

(Although you're right that a better description above the fold would have helped those mefite who don't read in those genres and might not have been able to make the intuitive leap between 'speculative fiction' and 'speculative poetry'.)


I don't even know where to begin. In the first place, we're talking about "speculative poetry," not "speculative fiction," so pointing out that the latter "is a commonly used term" is beside the point. In the second place, I'm willing to bet I've read more sf than you have (plus having been a member of LASFS at the same time as Larry Niven and Fuzzy Pink and chatted with Isaac Asimov at WorldCon, not to pull rank or anything), and I wasn't "able to make the intuitive leap," for the very good reason that (as indicated above) they're two different phrases, one of which exists outside of Wikipedia and the other of which doesn't. Nothing against joannemerriam, and I understand the theoretical reasons for wanting such a phrase to exist, and maybe someday it will be accepted, but at present to expect people to understand it is not sensible.
posted by languagehat at 4:58 PM on November 2, 2008


The fantasy poetry I've read has been flat. And by fantasy I don't mean Yeats.
posted by ersatz at 5:53 PM on November 2, 2008


Oh, I don't take it personally, languagehat. I didn't invent the term, I just use it because it seems more apt than sf poetry (which also doesn't seem to be particularly well-known), and it's in wide use in the literary circles that I run in. The Magazine of Speculative Poetry (which doesn't have a website, but the editor has a site here) has been around since 1984, so the term has been in use for at least that long. The Science Fiction Poetry Association uses the term. So do sf markets like Asimov's, Dreams & Nightmares, Fortean Bureau, and Strange Horizons, to name a few.

I agree that a general audience can't be expected to have heard of speculative poetry. That's different from saying that the term isn't in use within the sf community.
posted by joannemerriam at 6:09 PM on November 2, 2008


The fantasy poetry I've read has been flat. And by fantasy I don't mean Yeats.

This is the problem I've had with this type of poetry, too. Looking through the lit-zines, it's as if the last ninety years in poetry haven't happened. It's not just formal, but mostly pretty stilted, stiff. Most of the writers could benefit from some serious focus on craft, I think, and from reading all sorts of contemporary poetry although there are, of course, exceptions, I'm sure.

At the same time, I think the contemporary po' scene could use a nice dose of good, exciting ideas--and speculative fiction/fantasy/sci-fi are good places for that--but in my experience in my MFA program, including these sorts of tropes do not go over well in workshop settings; people don't know what to do with them, and they're asked to take these elements out. The result is that it's really, really difficult to focus both on craft and spec. fic ideas in a formal setting. I don't know the solution to this. If anyone does, they should let me know.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:11 PM on November 2, 2008


I wonder if the contemporary poetry here has to pertain to only contemporary sci-fi (not a fan). If on the other hand, contemporary poetry about 60's and 70's scifi concepts qualifies for this sort of thing...then man, pencil me in!

I think a problem with contemporary poetry is that there is just so little demand for it. Most bookstores do carry the staple classics and a handful of really big names in current poetry...
but the vast majority of books on the shelves are political, celebrity memoirs, sports, how to cope with your problems, how to get rich by screwing people etc.

I mean lets's face it. The Wall-E foreshadowed society of we live in today does not seem to have the attention span for poetry.

Eh. nevermind me I'm just being pessimistic.

Interesting post.
posted by rabbit at 7:43 PM on November 2, 2008


Languagehat, in so far as there is a community of writers and readers of speculative poetry, the phrase is in use. By making this post, I have, in fact, done a very little bit to spread the use of the term, though that wasn't the point of the post. Frankly, most non-SF people I meet have no idea what "speculative" could mean in the context of fiction. I have to explain what I mean when I say I read and write speculative fiction, and thus I'm not bothered by the prospect of having to explain myself with regard to speculative poetry. Better that, I think, than stay with a term that doesn't really represent what I read or write.

PhoBWanKenobi, I've noticed the same problems. I think that authors like Jonathan Lethem, David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, etc. are ones to point to as authors who manage both. But agreed on the difficulty of speculation in the MFA setting. I read an article about this recently in The Writer's Chronicle -- "Pulp Faction: Teaching "Genre Fiction" in the Academy," by Nick Mamatas -- that I thought was reasonably insightful, pointing out (1) the difficulties you mentioned, and (2) the rise in low-residency, genre-friendly MFA programs, as well as programs that have hired one or more spec fic authors to teach. Not common, true, but it's hard to imagine any mainstream grad-level workshop knowing what to do with Neal Stephenson or Angela Carter, really.
posted by cupcakeninja at 2:29 AM on November 3, 2008


I agree that a general audience can't be expected to have heard of speculative poetry. That's different from saying that the term isn't in use within the sf community.

OK, fair enough, and I have nothing against the term itself, I just think anyone using it outside that community should explain it ("speculative poetry, which refers to poetry using the concepts of science fiction and fantasy" or something of the sort).
posted by languagehat at 6:03 AM on November 3, 2008


PhoBWanKenobi, I've noticed the same problems. I think that authors like Jonathan Lethem, David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, etc. are ones to point to as authors who manage both. But agreed on the difficulty of speculation in the MFA setting. I read an article about this recently in The Writer's Chronicle -- "Pulp Faction: Teaching "Genre Fiction" in the Academy," by Nick Mamatas -- that I thought was reasonably insightful, pointing out (1) the difficulties you mentioned, and (2) the rise in low-residency, genre-friendly MFA programs, as well as programs that have hired one or more spec fic authors to teach. Not common, true, but it's hard to imagine any mainstream grad-level workshop knowing what to do with Neal Stephenson or Angela Carter, really.

I read that, and thought it was really insightful--especially since they placed it next to the Nancy Kress interview, and Kress seemed a bit (understandably) defensive about the whole thing. I'd venture to say that the real problem is prejudices against genre work, and of (really!) not reading widely enough. Here in MFA land, I've heard the following things said: 1. "I hate Stephen King. I've never read any of his books, but based on the movie of Carrie, I think he's really over-rated." 2. "Science fiction doesn't exist for me." 3. "You can't take fiction workshops if you write science fiction. We don't read science fiction here and we don't know how to talk about aliens or spaceships." This frustrates me because I really just want to talk about how to write good dialog and create compelling stories. I'm starting to feel like the only real "solution" is self-study, but that could be a result of the program I chose, an environment especially inhospitable to genre writing. But it's funny because before I came here, I wasn't really nearly so acutely aware of genre ghettoization. I thought writers just read whatever thrilled them--after all, it's what I've always done. Clearly, I was naive.

Anyway, good post--I did want to note that I've always found strange horizons to be the exemplary exception to what I said about spec. poetry above--I really think it's an excellent example of what speculative poetry could be.

cupcakeninja, hope you don't mind, but I'm friending you on LJ. Obvs, I'm interested in people who are interested in the writing of such things!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:23 AM on November 3, 2008


languagehat, that totally makes sense.

PhoBWanKenobi, nice to see props being given to Strange Horizons, which is also my favourite place for speculative poetry. The split between "literary" and "genre" writing is a real problem for good writers of genre, because it seems like everybody wants you to choose a side. I haven't done an MFA (when I was going through university, there were like two programs in all of Canada, and it just wasn't on my radar) but have done a lot of non-academic workshops (mostly ones run by the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia) and they're friendlier to genre, I've found.

I feel like I have to defend myself a lot, even though I have good bona fides as a literary writer as well, and unfortunately the prejudice isn't entirely baseless. There's a lot of speculative poetry being published which doesn't meet what I would consider to be a basic poetic standard (although I'd be stymied if you asked me to define what I mean by that), and the defense for that is that the ideas are so wonderful - which, while frequently true, doesn't seem to me to be sufficient. No other art form would say that about itself. Frustratingly, I've had people in the sf community tell me my writing is too literary - there's a suggestion that I'm being elitist by employing basic poetic devices.

But it's getting better! People in both communities are starting to recognize that there's a lot of crossover (instead of dismissing obvious crossover authors as exceptions), and are increasingly embracing that.
posted by joannemerriam at 4:33 PM on November 3, 2008


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