On Science Fiction Poetry

I just had my first acceptance by an out and out science fiction magazine!

Unfortunately, it is a poem. (What they accepted, not the magazine itself, silly.)

This is unfortunate only because I’ve been trying to get SF stories of mine published for a few years but have failed dramatically.  Technically, either you fail or succeed, there’s no inbetween; the dramatically comes in with the loud SIGH I give every time one of my stories is rejected, the railing against the heavens and editors that follows, and the faux-death scene I perform for anyone who happens to be around (generally, just my cat Jeoffrey).

In this case, I’m really excited to have a poem accepted.  No sighing, no railing, and no dying.

But the truth is that I have a complicated relationship with science-fiction poetry.

1. In part, this comes from a background in – well, I guess the only way to say it is “literary” poetry, though I’m not really convinced such a thing exists.  It’s true that most of my education in poetry came through school (but who is this not true for?) and that, after classes and workshops galore in both grade school and college, I went on to get my MFA & Ph.D. in poetry.  So, truth be told, if there is such a thing as literary poetry, I reside in the belly of the beast.

2. I don’t really believe that poetry can be science fiction, any more than it can be horror, or romance, or true crime.  No, that’s the wrong way to go about explaining.

Here’s the deal: For me, poetry already exists in another world.  Poems are stitched together from metaphor and voice.  In poems, objects transform into other objects with no warning (and, often, no comment) and location can be changed instantly, without even the afterglow of a Star Trek transporter.  Poetry, in my view, is already unreal, so labeling it science fiction is simply redundant.

3. My first experiences with SF poetry came in the various science fiction awards books published in the sixties and seventies.  The Nebula Awards, for example, though, without the books in front of me I can’t tell you which included poetry and which didn’t.  These poems were often clumsy in that they shoehorned in scientific terms and theories without regard to language or sound, or they were simply bad. (And if you’re going to say that “bad” is simply my opinion, then you haven’t read enough poetry.)

4. I’ve known that current speculative fiction magazines (including fantasy, horror, science fiction, slipstream, etc.) have published poetry for a while.  But I figured that it couldn’t possibly be any good.

5. Calling something “science fiction poetry” is like calling something “vampire poetry”.  It may be true, but it narrowly limits your horizons.

6. Still, I like science fiction.  I like fantasy.  I like horror.  Those genres make up about half of what I read every year, if not more (closely followed by poetry books and literary journals).  So why should I be pre-emptively ashamed to have my poetry directly associated with those labels?  Honestly, most of my poetry contains elements that are directly related to fantasy, horror, or science fiction.  I mean, I’m writing a series of poems based off of John Carpenter movies (technically, an imagined third-space connecting to both the title and the subject of the movie).

7. One of my favorite quotes from Auden involves a lawn that opens up like a lid, and something rising from underneath that ground.  And if Auden can do it, I should certainly feel no qualms.

This is not that quote from Auden, but another from the same poem.

And now with sudden swift emergence
Come the women in dark glasses and the humpbacked surgeons
And the scissor man.

I know I don’t want to meet the scissor man in a dark alley.  Or a well-lit alley, for that matter.

8. Which is all to say that I think I’ve gotten over it.  My lack of comfort with the SF poetry label.  Really, it doesn’t matter what you call my poem, as long as you read it.

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