An Ocean Going Back to the Skies

By Matthew Cheney

Events and encounters have kept me thinking about the overlaps, echoes, and coincidental cross-overs between the worlds of genre fiction and poetry. First, there was the poet Reginald Shepherd's new collection of essays, Orpheus in the Bronx, which includes not only thought-provoking manifestos about the power and function of poetry, but also an essay about Samuel R. Delany, whom he cites as an influence. Then I happened to attend the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference for a day, where in a conversation with Rain Taxi editor Eric Lorberer, I got an assignment to write a review of Orpheus in the Bronx. I returned home and finished reading the book, then checked online to see what Shepherd had been up to recently. Though I knew of his own excellent blog, I hadn't realized he was also writing for the Poetry Foundation's blog, and going there I discovered that he had sparked some controversy with a few posts, starting with one titled, "AWP, Communazis, and Me". I read with fascination, because though I have watched certain poets for quite a while, and have been vaguely aware of various factional tiffs and name-calling, I am little more than a tourist in the worlds of poetry.

One of the ideas that flitted around in my mind while reading the many comments on Shepherd's post, and also some of the responses to him by other bloggers, was that it's a shame Samuel Delany's essay collection Starboard Wine wasn't more readily available (though it will be again soon). Particularly in the essays "Dichtung und Science Fiction" and "Reflections on Historical Models," Delany presents a nuanced and thoughtful study of the differences that constitute science fiction as a field of its own, separate both from other sorts of popular fiction and from the literary mainstream. (And he also, not coincidentally, talks a lot about poetry.) These are differences of many kinds—the importance of magazine and anthology editors to the genre's progression, the influence of fans in letters columns and at conventions, the schedules and distribution patterns of pulp magazines and paperbacks, the "general economic organization of SF textual production," the different structures of narrative created by the many SF series built from separate short stories and novels (such series, Delany says, sometimes seem to have "more in common with the large-composition serial poem favored by so many 20th-century poets than . . . with the novel.")

As I watched all the poets arguing with Shepherd and each other about terminology and history, I yearned for someone to get a bit more analytical and less polemic, because it looked to me—from the outside glancing in—that they were beating each other up over differences that could be better explained by discussions of how different publishing practices affect poems and the communities that receive them than by arguing who belongs to which ideology and who gets to play with whose red wheelbarrow. (Of course, this is a naive perception, because at a certain point the economic organization of textual practices comes into play—that is, who gets paid what, and why.) The conversation only seemed strange for a moment, though, because then I realized how much it reminded me of fights amongst various fervent fans of certain types of science fiction and fantasy.

I don't think such fights are necessarily bad things, because for any community to remain vibrant it needs some tension, but over the past year or so I've found myself desiring from the SF world similar things to what I was desiring from the discussions around Shepherd's ideas—more analysis, less derision. This is why I am attracted to Shepherd's idea that the younger generation of poets is taking techniques from various factions and using them without feeling the need to declare one particular way of writing or another to be verboten or reactionary. My own shallow reading of the works of younger poets confirms this magpie tendency, and it is a tendency I see also in many fiction writers whose careers are still young. Much has been written about these tendencies, but there is room—and need—for more, because the territory is not simply an aesthetic one, but one that influences and is influenced by techniques and traditions of publishing and reading. Literary cultures of all sorts are kept vigorous by tectonic shifts, but such shifts can be frightening to the citizens of the landmasses that get reconfigured by them, and particularly so for people who have devoted much of their lives and passions to erecting solid institutions on the land. The fright causes some of the screaming, but it would be better if fewer people stuck stakes into their little bits of land and instead joined in the joy of a new cartography.

Change does not have to mean destruction. In 1926, Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories magazine and helped spawn many of the support institutions for written science fiction in the U.S. I don't know what elements of those institutions will survive the many changes and challenges they currently face (falling circulation figures for magazines, the effects of the internet and other media, the decline of reading as an entertainment activity, etc.), but genre publishing has always had to come to terms with change—whether the change toward a more serious readership with John W. Campbell's first years at Astounding Stories in the late 1930s . . . or the reconfigurations brought by the rise of SF publishing companies . . . or the seismic audience shifts with the ascendancy of popular SF movies, TV shows, and video games that have provided a mass audience with the "sense of wonder" previously only available in stories and books.

Stepping forward while looking back is more possible in literary movements than in physical reality, and some of the most interesting writing to seize on the instabilities of our current age has come from an exciting variety of writers, most of whom cast about in the 80-plus-year history of SF publishing for some of the material from which to fashion new dreams and visions, but who don't limit themselves only to that material. These are people who see ever-present change as more opportunity than threat. Anthologies have been particularly fertile ground for this sort of work, and as has been the case throughout science fiction's lifetime, intrepid editors have been just as important as authors in helping to shape and reshape ideas of SF's possibilities. Just think of a list of anthologies that have thrived on joyful reimaginations—an utterly incomplete list might include David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's vigorously polemical deconstructions of old terminology in The Hard SF Renaissance and The Space Opera Renaissance, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel's marvelously eclectic and provocative explorations of the past decade or so of mixing and melding in Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology and Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, Kelly Link's seminal Trampoline, Jeff VanderMeer's ahead-of-its-time Leviathan series, and others. These books are as important in their own ways as Groff Conklin's Best of Science Fiction, Healy and McComas's Adventures in Time and Space, Frederick Pohl's Star Science Fiction, Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions, Pamela Sargent's Women of Wonder, Kirby McCauley's Dark Forces, and Michael Bishop's Light Years and Dark.

Looking at Rewired right now, the epigraph to the introduction caught my eye—it's from a 1985 letter from Bruce Sterling to John Kessel, wherein Sterling writes: ". . . I don't worry much about the future of razor's edge technopunk. It will be bowdlerized and parodized and reduced to a formula, just as all other SF innovations have been. It scarcely matters much, because as a 'movement,' 'Punk SF' is a joke. Gibson's a litterateur who happens to have an unrivalled grasp of the modern pop aesthetic. Shiner writes mainstream and mysteries. Rucker's crazy; Shirley's a surrealist; Pat Cadigan's a technophobe. By '95 we'll all have something else cooking." I love what Sterling says there, because it captures the fluidity of categorization, the fun of wearing an artistic identity for a while without pretending it's an essence.

Ultimately, what attracts me to Reginald Shepherd's view of poetry is a similar skepticism about fixed identities, both artistic and ideological. In one of his controversial blog posts, he quotes the music critic Alex Ross quoting the avant-garde musician John Cage (from a 1992 radio interview), and Cage's words are ones that are as applicable to many different types of literature, whether poetry or science fiction, today: "We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist upon a river of time, that we have come to a delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies."

It's a great metaphor that's expressed in Cage's fractured, conversational sentence, and one worth contemplating: all our tributaries converging, moving beyond a delta into an ocean of no single origin, no single influence, reaching toward a horizon made of many skies.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including One Story, Locus, SF Site, Failbetter.com, and the anthologies Logorrhea and Interfictions. He is the series editor for Best American Fantasy from Prime Books, and he writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. Read more of his columns in our archives.