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There is a long tradition of fantastic poetry, going back to medieval romances—heck, going back to The Epic of Gilgamesh. But I'm going to start my history with Holding your Eight Hands, an anthology by Edward Lucie-Smith. It was published in 1969 and was part of the English burst of energy that produced The Beatles, the Michael Moorcock version of New Worlds, and a lot of fine writing, music, art, and clothing design.

The poetry in Eight Hands explicitly drew on modern science fiction, rather than traditional myths and legends. It was part of 1960s fascination with contemporary popular culture. The best of the poetry in the collection is excellent.

In the US, Suzette Hayden Elgin founded the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA) in 1978. SFPA established the Rhysling Award for SF poetry, named after Robert Heinlein's bard in “The Green Hills of Earth.” Most years, the winning poems are publishing in the Nebula Anthology. They also appear in the annual SFPA anthology of Rhysling nominated poems.

Another SF poetry anthology, Burning with a Vision, edited by Robert Frazier, appeared in 1984. Other collections are Time Gum, edited by Terry A. Garey (1988), Time Frames, also edited by Terry A. Garey (1991) and Lady Poetesses from Hell, edited by the Bag Person Press Collective (2012).

Lady Poetesses from Hell have been doing readings at Wiscon and local Twin Cities cons for years. The core group of Twin Cities poets are joined by distinguished out-of-town writers such as Jane Yolen and Ellen Klages. The best of the poetry is very fine, and it's often funny. The size of the audience varies, but LPFH has played to packed rooms and enthusiastic listeners.

Fantastic poetry has not been put in a ghetto the way SF fiction has. My friend Ruth Berman says she had little trouble placing her fantastic poems in mainstream literary magazines that refuse to look at SF fiction. This may be one reason fantastic poetry has been less prominent and respected in the SF community than it deserves. It lacks the genre hallmark and the imprimatur that comes from mainstream hostility or indifference. The other reason is—many intelligent and enthusiastic readers of SF fiction don't like poetry and refuse to read it.

This is a mistake. You miss out on some of the best fantastic tales ever composed—Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Beowulf, the Arthurian romances, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, The Idylls of the King—because they are poems.

Yes, you can read prose versions, but this is like reading Classic Comics or CliffsNotes. You aren't reading the real story.

Why am I telling you this? I want you to explore SF poetry. The anthologies I have mentioned are all available at Amazon. The SFPA magazine Star*Line is available online. As mentioned before, the Nebula anthologies contain Rhysling Award winners. Asimov’s publishes poetry regularly. Don’t skip over the poems. Read them. Many are fine.

In addition, I recommend The Last Selchie Child by Jane Yolen, Fairy Tales for Writers by Lawrence Schimel, Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar, The Adventures of the Faithful Counselor by Anne Sheldon, The Receptionist by Leslie Wheeler, and any books of poetry by John Calvin Resmerski you can find. These are not the only books of science fiction and fantasy poetry available. I am simply listing what I found when I looked through my bookshelves. Many of them are by poets or publishers I know as individuals. Do not limit yourself to this list.

Finally, some examples.




cell walls break

DNA prisoners are on the lam

           sprinkling characteristics

           like loot


my body is like wildfire

dancing in the night

           leaping forward

           to the stars


only a woman, they said

would care to take the chance

           only a woman, I said

           would need to.

                                                                    Terry A. Garey



The Boy in the Golden Atom


I want the miniaturized solar systems back.

I want the electrons orbiting

The nuclear sun,


                 And my true tiny love

                 In his toga and scientific sandals

                 Inventing a space ship


So that when I invent my nano-miniaturizing fluid

And fall into the immensity of space within the gold

In search of him,


                 He'll find me.

                                                                   Ruth Berman



Programmable Ruby Slippers

for Rebecca


Guaranteed to get you home,

           wherever your little heart determines

                    home needs to be. Just write down


the coordinates of home on a little

           slip of paper (the back of a fortune

                    cookie is ideal for the purpose),


fold it up and tuck it into one little

           toe-tip. Or if you're pressed for time

                    when it's time to go home, you just


speak into one of the little heels and say,

           “Emergency override sequence O–Z;

                    code words No, Place, Like.”


That should do it. A wizard said so.

           Home's sweet, home is;

                    any home in a storm.

                                                                   John Calvin Rezmerski



Why the Coffee at Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota, Tastes the Way It Does


An old cowpoke came riding

through the Badlands dust.

His hair was white as silver.

His horse was red as rust.


In his hand he carried

a pot as black as sin.

The same dark liquid trickled out

no matter what went in.


“Pard, I'm going to a place

where cookies never call,

‘Get up you lazy cowpokes,’

and cattle never bawl,


“Where irons stay unheated

and ropes remain untied.

No one needs a rifle

or a six gun at his side.


“No need for bitter coffee

in that place of perfect rest.

So take this goddam coffee pot.”

And he vanished in the west.

                                                   Eleanor Arnason


I suppose the last poem is only borderline fantasy. But I think of the cowboy as a kind of ghost, and the pot is certainly magical, since the coffee it makes is always—always—awful.

The coffee at Wall Drug in South Dakota, which led me to write this poem, is awful, at least the last time I was there. The cinnamon rolls are fine, and there is a splendid bookshop devoted to books on the West. Other shops in the complex are devoted to western clothing and souvenirs. There are dinosaurs out back. I have never checked them out, so I don't know if they are effigies or mechanical or alive. Never miss a chance to stop at Wall Drug or to visit the Badlands National Monument, which is nearby.

Eleanor Arnason published her first story in 1973. Since then she has published six novels, two chapbooks and over thirty short stories. Her fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People, won the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the Mythopoeic Society Award. Her fifth novel, Ring of Swords, won a Minnesota Book Award. Her short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Sidewise, and World Fantasy Awards. Her most recent book, Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens, is available from Aqueduct Press. You can find her blog here.
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