For this special issue of Strange Horizons, our three poetry editors set out to describe their visions for speculative poetry. This is where they ended up.
Romie Stott: Speculative poetry is somewhat peculiar as a category. Normally, when categorizing or analyzing poetry, you define it by one or more of the following:
- form/method—(limerick, free verse, ghazal, slam, computer-generated, etc.)
- subject—(love, death, embarrassment)
- audience—(children's, greeting card, commencement address, funeral)
- author/era—(Imagist, Romantic, Metaphysical, New York School)
Whereas spec could be any of these things, and in fact one finds it throughout mainstream poetry and throughout Western poetic history. Beowulf is speculative poetry, as is The Odyssey. Shakespeare wrote about fairies. I'd claim a lot of 19th century poems as speculative—"Ozymandias," "The Song of Hiawatha," "The New Colossus," and Byron's many vampires. It's rare to flip through a contemporary multi-author anthology and not run into at least one riff on Greek mythology—usually several, alongside personifications of nature, anthropomorphized machines, and speculation concerning the atom bomb or colony collapse.
What makes poetry speculative is a feeling and/or set of references. It's an "I know it when I see it" category. Yet it's not as individualized a category as "good poetry (i.e. poems I like)." If you browse Duotrope, you find speculative poetry markets cluster in the semi-pro payment category, even dominate it; literary markets either pay a lot more or pay next to nothing. This clustering implies to me that speculative poetry is niche publishing—but a respected niche, a niche readers are willing to pay something to support. In other words, enough of us agree what "speculative poetry" means that it has definition, however nebulous, in the same way we could group poems that are vulgar without necessarily being able to define what makes them vulgar.
Poetry's intense, elevated language lends itself to the exploration of larger-than-life—or the profoundly intimate. It scales up to eternity and down to the subatomic. This provides, perhaps, a working definition for speculative poetry: it is poetry on a scale that is not merely human. For me, spec is most successful when it is mainstream—when it works as poetry and not just rhyming with elves. I like speculative poetry which is very much about the here and now, the personal—and uses something much larger or much smaller than the single human to operate on at least two levels, so that one is transported, but also here. Astrally projected, if you like. An in-and-out-of-body experience.
Although I doubt my views represent the consensus, I look to speculative poetry to push the mainstream forward. Lovecraft famously invented Lovecraftian horror because science had shown, as far as he was concerned, that the old bogies—vampires, ghosts, witchcraft—weren't real, and so we needed fresh embodiments for our fears. Speculative poetry takes on this role of symbol-making—instead of a sunset, a blue screen of death. It refreshes old archetypes, perhaps replacing the Furies with the judges of a reality-TV singing competition. It seeks out underexplored modern cultural references in a time of mass media, welcoming those who identify more with Samus Aran than with Ophelia (while also embracing Ophelia).
I am still waiting for a poem that will reflect my complicated emotional response to grocery stores that were not 24-hour and then were and now aren't again. The future was here, and then it was snatched away! Perhaps I jumped timelines.
AJ Odasso: Coming at this from a completely different angle, my impression of the term speculative poetry is vague at best and uneasy at worst. I seem to recall that, the first time the three of us met together in person for dessert and a chat, we had come to the surprising conclusion that speculative poetry, as such, may not even exist as a clear-cut genre. This point has haunted me ever since; it resonated with me on a profound and personal level largely because of the experiences I've had when it comes to the submission and publication of my own work. The poetry venues most often labeled speculative are those that will accept the pieces of work in which more mainstream poetry publications seem to take no interest.
To my mind, there's something too sharp, too bright, too gloriously intimate about the work we call speculative: regardless the subject matter, be it classical mythology or personal mythology or anything in between/outside those lines, there is the sense that these poems are not tame poems, are not conformist poems, are not comfortable poems by any stretch. I delight in this quality, as it's just the kind of poetry I have always found to be the best kind of poetry. I found myself reading SF/F/Spec magazines and wondering why all of the really excellent stuff was in those and why, meanwhile, the stuff that made me go meh or left me for the most part cold was gracing the pages of Poetry magazine and similar. Inasmuch as I think speculative poetry exists as a classifiable genre, the one feature I can concretely use as a metric is that it's the work that challenges me, makes me gasp, makes me grin my face off, makes me shiver. I don't want tame, fashionable verse with all the sharp edges filed off; I want to be delighted, I want to be frightened, I want to be moved.
Here at Strange Horizons, we agree that we strive first and foremost to publish poetry that we love. I'll be the first person to agree that much of what I've accepted for publication thus far in my tenure here (and that's only a year and seven months to date) could just as easily have been accepted and published in what we think of as mainstream publications—and yet, I get the impression that many of the poets we publish, if not most of them, have had little to no luck when submitting their work to venues we'd call strictly literary. That's certainly been my personal experience as a speculative poet, if indeed that's the only term we have for what we are. Inhabiting such a seemingly liminal territory would be enough to give any poet, any poem, a crisis of identity.
I do agree with what Romie has said, especially with regard to symbol-making and the creation of fresh embodiments for our aspirations and our grief, our fears and our hope. We use speculative poetry, this liminal space we've carved out for ourselves, as an incubator for new and relevant narratives even when the verse we pen and publish may be using much older stories as vehicles for exploration. Most importantly, it is diverse and inclusive space where previously unheard voices gain footholds and flourish.
Romie: The way you describe contemporary speculative poetry and the way it interacts with (or doesn't interact with) literary venues like Poetry magazine makes me think of historical movements within painting —the way the Impressionists had to create separate shows because they were rejected by the Academie, which was dominant at the time. "This isn't what reality looks like," said the Academie. "This is absolutely what reality looks like," said the Impressionists. Or the Pre-Raphaelites, who were separatist for another reason. "Reality isn't the point," said the Pre-Raphaelites.
I wonder whether we're seeing poetry at large start to follow a sort of "gallery" mode—groups of poets coming together to release multi-author collections that feel more like exhibitions than chapbooks, made possible by the increasing ease with which small presses can release a title (or an internet-based magazine). I certainly feel my role at Strange Horizons is more similar to curating than to editing. To some extent, poetry has always been that way, but centered around a city with a publishing industry or a college with a printing press. Whereas the speculative poets we publish are spread over several continents (although by pure coincidence, the three of us live in the same metro area). I think the same holds for most poetry magazines right now.
Sonya Taaffe: And I am afraid I'm going to take the discussion in another direction again, because I disagree with both my fellow editors' starting positions: I don't find it very useful either to project a contemporary genre distinction back through two thousand years or define it primarily by opposition in the present day, because the first approach generalizes speculative poetry to the point where it loses all utility as a description (and runs a great risk of anachronism in explicitly claiming older work: it was neither possible nor necessary to speak of "speculative poetry" before there was "speculative fiction" to provide the analogy) and the second limits it to whatever's left around the edges of the mainstream (while assuming an automatic edge up on it, when I know there are clichés of speculative poetry I find as frustrating or boring as the stereotypical postmodern confessional; the markets I like most are the ones that refuse them). In January I picked up an issue of Poetry magazine, "the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English-speaking world," and found three glosses on HBO's Game of Thrones and an extended mondegreen of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" taking the time-slippage elements as literal. Whether or not I like any of them as well as pieces I can read in Not One of Us or Stone Telling or Through the Gate, it would be willfully missing the point to argue that they're fake geek poems; they identify themselves within the genre, setting themselves in conversation with it. I'll name any number of recognized mainstream poets who have provided me with that jolt of otherwhere, sparked the inside of my head with their words. I can't agree that the Odyssey is speculative, because what reads to us as an exercise in the fantastic was religion and tradition to its original audience, but I can't agree either that the strategic reworking of those source myths automatically makes for modernism, because the Alexandrian poets were remix artists par excellence and none of them were, thank God, Ezra Pound. If speculative poetry is to be a real genre and not just a tautology (a poem is speculative when published in a market that publishes speculative poetry), I need it to mean something in its own right, not just as reaction or perpetuation. Otherwise we're all still at the Danish Pastry House in Medford, 2012, wondering if we edit a thing that actually exists.
Where I agree with both Romie and AJ is the idea that speculative poetry, defined however handwavily as a mood or a mode rather than content or context, is deeply tied to boundaries: pushing, blurring, coming into being between. I value the liminal, the polyphonal, the ambiguous and the marginalized; it is not a new thing to transform a story in the telling, but I love that we can now see re-transformations, illuminating and overturning assumptions about the ways in which we receive and interpret all manner of familiar tropes. Because I dislike the popular dichotomy that fantasy is the past and science fiction is the future, I welcome work that sees no reason to decide for one or the other or even accept the division in the first place. I like to see science treated as evocatively and intimately as a folkway. I like myths with jagged edges. I love things that are not easily classified. I love things that exist in more than one state at once. I don't think any of these qualities are unique to speculative poetry. I think they are actively and increasingly encouraged within the community that identifies itself by that name and may in time point toward a definition rather than a loose collection of clustering traits, although I reserve equally the possibilities that the genre as a formal entity may dissolve or go in some other direction entirely—I find it interesting that we have conducted this entire roundtable without even addressing the question of professional organizations, although many of the poets reviewed, discussed, interviewed, and published in this issue are Rhysling winners or nominees. It speaks, I think, to the uncertain identity of the field—and in that respect, speculative poetry is right there with its counterpart fiction, figuring out which future it wants to be.
Reading the discussion of symbol-making, I was reminded of one of my favorite passages from the Preface of David Jones' In Parenthesis (1937), an extraordinary poetic combination of World War I memoir and medieval Welsh epic:
It is not easy in considering a trench-mortar barrage to give praise for the action proper to chemicals—full though it may be of beauty. We feel a rubicon has been passed between striking with a hand weapon as men used to do and loosing poison from the sky as we do ourselves . . . We who are of the same world of sense with hairy ass and furry wolf and who presume to other and more radiant affinities, are finding it difficult, as yet, to recognise these creatures of chemicals as true extensions of ourselves, that we may feel for them a native affection, which alone can make them magical for us. It would be interesting to know how we shall ennoble our new media as we have already ennobled and made significant our old—candle-light, fire-light, Cups, Wands and Swords, to choose at random.
By now, the trenches of World War I have become as powerfully symbolic as the arcana of the Tarot; so have gas and barbed wire. Jones lived until 1975, well into the atomic era: the mushroom cloud, too, was instantly iconic. Both events are now sufficiently in the past to serve not only as temporal markers, but as a kind of mythscape. I keep saying that I know we're living in the future because it is now possible to lose a supercomputer down a toilet. If Romie's correct that speculative poetry is a way of charging the everyday with the significance of the cosmic, and AJ that it's a way of untaming language to encompass experiences outside of the conventional frame, then I want it to be the space in which our new media are not just ennobled, but transformed along with older sigils and stories, as simultaneously as a thought experiment. We might have to figure out what they are first—pace Jones, not all instruments of war. But this reminds me that I've wanted to write a poem called "The Trinitite Golem" since last summer, and there I might as well leave this statement. That's my manifesto. If speculative poetry doesn't exist, make it. If it does, write stranger things. It's a stranger world we live in.