On Genre Poetry

If you think about it, it’s kind of weird that speculative fiction even exists as a genre. In a way, all fiction is speculative. If we weren’t imagining a world that is other than the one we know in some fashion, it wouldn’t be fiction.

But it goes beyond that, because once upon a time, there wasn’t a special word for fiction that was fanciful, fiction that included monsters and magic or even mechanical marvels. Those were all just part and parcel of the storyteller’s palette. The people who spun myths into tales were both entertainers and historians. There was no sharp, bright line. It took a long time for the idea of telling stories grounded in mundane reality to catch on to the point that we need a special word for stories that deal with glittering fantasticality.

This is perhaps even more true when it comes to poetry. So many poets throughout even recent history have worked in mythic realms, trafficking in fantastic or spiritual symbolism, incorporating folklore and legend into their verses. Poetry often deals heavily in metaphor, of course, so the argument about whether a given poem is really a work of fantasy or merely using fantasy to make a point while not actually telling a story could go on forever in some cases, if anybody felt it was worth their time to make it.

So we might ask ourselves: is there any need to label speculative poetry, genre poetry, SF/F poetry, or whatever you might want to call it?

Despite the case I just laid out, I would say that yes, it is a useful distinction to make… just not an absolute one. People tend to want to read things that speak to their interests, after all. We like what we like. If what you like is robots and artificial intelligences or mermaids and dragons—or robot dragons and artificially intelligent mermaids—then it might well be that speculative poetry would be right up your alley, even if most of the poetry you’ve encountered has done nothing for you.

I wouldn’t know how big and rich the world of speculative poetry is if not for the friendship of Elizabeth R. McClellan, who introduced me to it first through her participation in its fandom and then, increasingly, through her own career as a poet. I spent years watching from the fringes, convinced that this was all that I could do, that I didn’t have the right skills or anything to say.

That changed when I wrote “Institutional Memory“, a poem that started out as a short story that just wouldn’t come together. The time scale I wanted to capture was too grand, the point of view too diffuse. I couldn’t make it work as a story, so basically on a lark I tried it as a poem.

It worked, and I caught the bug. I’ve written easily a dozen solid poems since then, and sold four of them so far. The first sale was “Institutional Memory”. It was bought by the magazine arm of the SFPA, the Speculative Fiction Poetry Association. The fee wasn’t large in any objective sense, but it paid most of a year’s dues to the SFPA, which struck me as a fitting way to spend it.

Now, the SFPA isn’t like the similarly named SFWA, the Science Fiction& Fantasy Writer’s Association. Note that it’s the Poetry Association, not the Poet’s Association. This is not an organization for professionals but one for appreciators. In practice I suspect that most people who join the organization are or hope to be poets, and I also suspect the benefits of joining such an organization are more immediately clear if you are or hope to be a poet, but you don’t have to prove your right to be there. I had my first pro sale when I joined the SFPA, but that is not a requirement. There is no requirement. Nothing is required, everything is permitted.

Earlier in the year, I announced plans to promote speculative poetry through a website called The Every World Poetry Digest. My goal would be twofold: to let readers know what’s out there to read, and help poets learn what’s out there for them to sell to. I had planned on launching the project in earnest in May. That has been pushed back until I’m done with Angels of the Meanwhile, an unplanned and unexpected labor of love on behalf of Elizabeth R. McClellan, though it’s still coming.

In the meantime, I’m still going to do two things to promote my chosen field of poetry.

The first is to highlight the fact that the SFPA exists, it has open membership, and for as little as $15 a year you can be a member, get a quarterly PDF zine with poems from both career writers and rank neophytes and a chance to nominate for and vote on the Rhysling Awards (the equivalent of the SFWA’s Nebulas). The SFPA can be found online at http://www.sfpoetry.com/

The second is to mention that if you want to know some names you should be paying attention to in the genre poetry scene, you should seriously check out Angels of the MeanwhileThere are some serious big name, big time poets in there, along with some people I think will be well worth watching in the years to come. It’s by no means an exhaustive list; I’m not saying “Anyone who is anyone is in this collection.” But if you’re looking for a place to start, it should be a good one.

Actually, I’m going to do a third thing. I’m going to ask people to comment with the poem or two (or if you really can’t decide, three, but let’s keep things reasonable) that they would most recommend to others as a starting point if they’re interested in exploring the topic but not 100% sure where to look. It can be a classic work like Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” or one of Poe’s grim fancies, or something that came out more recently, but ideally it should be something that folks can find and read online for free, because I’m going to take them and collect them into a Speculative Poetry primer post of sorts.

There is a surprising (and growing) wealth of genre poetry on the internet, but one thing I am absolutely convinced of is that there are far more people who would read it than who, at current time, do. What I want to do—with this post, and with the Every World Poetry Digest—is give the world a signpost for finding it.