Science Fiction Poetry: Worlds of Potential

by on Apr 2, 2013 in Nonfiction | 10 comments

By Amal El-Mohtar

People who know me as the editor of Goblin Fruit, a poetry quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry, might find it odd to see me writing a defense of science fiction poetry. Fantasy and Science Fiction have such a long and storied history of being on opposite sides of a gendered binary, after all. As it happens, I dislike the term “science fiction poetry,” and have in the past participated in vigorous debates over whether or not the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA) should change its name to something like the Speculative Poetry Association, or have the “F” in its acronym do double duty like the one in SFWA does, the better to reflect the variety of writing its membership produces. But as it turns out, when people professing to Know Something About Poetry insist on lumping the poetry I love with the poetry I dislike under the heading of Science Fiction Poetry, I feel I ought to say something.

Recently Paul Cook wrote an essay titled “Why Science Fiction Poetry is Embarrassingly Bad,” in which he claimed that it was impossible for science fiction poetry to be good because “it is literal, realistic, and usually–unless it’s rhymed and metered–lacks any lyrical cadence within its delivery.” He based this conclusion on the reading of three poems published in magazines which bill themselves primarily as venues for short fiction–venues which, by his own admission, use poetry as “filler” in between their very fine prose. His methodology was, to put it kindly, flawed; presumably one wouldn’t begin composing a thesis on why science fiction novels are incapable of being good on the strength of Michael Crichton’s The Lost World while blithely deeming Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Connie Willis, and Junot Diaz to be irrelevant to one’s argument.

Cook also lumps “Rhysling winners” (recipients of the Rhysling award for poetry, put out every year by the SFPA) in with his “very serious” writers of science fiction poetry, in spite of the fact that the magazines in which his sample poems appear–Analog, Asimov’s, and Fantasy & Science Fiction–haven’t generated a great many Rhysling-winning poems in the last ten years.  According to this list, F&SF had one winner in 1988, Analog has never had any, and the last time a poem from Asimov’s won was in 2003.

Given how little familiarity he seems to have with the award, Cook’s statement that if you “stand any contemporary Rhysling Award winner up against Philip Levine or Mark Strand…you’d see immediately that their poems seem puerile and, more often than not, embarrassing,” carries little weight.  I would happily stand Catherynne Valente’s “Seven Red Devils of Central California” against any number of poems by Pulitzer winners and expect its brilliance to be self-evident; likewise Sonya Taaffe’s “Matlacihuatl’s Gift,” or Theodora Goss’ “Octavia Is Lost in the Hall of Masks.” While no award is exempt from grumbling about the ultimate worth of its processes, nominees, and recipients, Cook’s dismissal of the Rhysling out of hand as a source of “embarrassing” work is a little embarrassing itself, particularly when the award’s been received by Jane Yolen, Joe Haldeman, and Ursula K Le Guin.

I am no stranger to impassioned statements that science fiction poetry is bad. I’ve sometimes made them myself. So has Cat Valente, a former editor of Apex Magazine; so has Mike Allen, editor of Mythic Delirium, and former President of the SFPA. Nor do I have a problem with someone looking at any poem and saying “this is terrible.” In fact, I wish more people would; it’s far more common for the average reader (and reviewer) of a publication containing both prose and poetry to ignore the latter completely. I wouldn’t even particularly disagree with Cook about his assessment of the few poems he considers in his essay. But there’s a stark difference between editors criticizing the poems in their slush piles and communities for falling short of an established ideal, and a self-proclaimed poetry aficionado declaring that science fiction poetry cannot be anything but terrible based on the evidence provided by a sample drawn from publications which don’t focus on poetry. There is, after all, such a thing as Sturgeon’s Law.

I could go on about the many errors, inconsistencies, and infelicities of Cook’s essay, but happily many commentators have already done a thorough job of addressing them on the post itself. But what I will do is respond to this one core assertion of his piece:

This is the curse of science fiction poetry: structure it as you will, put in as many familiar tropes as you wish, it will still read like prose, it will tell us all we need to know….We’ll have a good time …but we’ll never be back. There’s no reason to go back. It’s all there, all we need to know.

Every single time I publish an issue of Goblin Fruit, I find myself visiting it, sometimes multiple times a day, to read the poems I’ve more or less already learned by heart over the course of assembling the table of contents. I do the same with Stone Telling, with my favourite poems in Strange Horizons, with my copy of Lisel Mueller’s Alive Together. I adore poetry. I crave the friendship of those who will let me read it aloud to them, who will read it aloud to me, who will discuss it with intensity and investment because it’s important.

So let me show you some science fiction poems.

A fantastic source for these that merits reading from beginning to end is Stone Telling‘s science and science fiction issue, titled Catalyst, which editors Rose Lemberg and Shweta Narayan explain came about in response to Cat Valente’s post about the “heart-breaking sameness” of science fiction poetry. The result is magnificent: twelve poems treating space exploration, science history, terraforming, aliens, and anatomy with solemnity, grace, variety, and language to steal the breath. I have re-read Sofia Samatar’s “Girl Hours,” CSE Cooney’s “Postcards from Mars,” and Tori Truslow’s “Terrunforming” more times than I can count, with each reading giving me something new and precious. I defy Paul Cook or anyone else to read these poems and tell me they lack “lyrical cadence.”

Another poem by CSE Cooney, “The Last Crone on the Moon,” struck me as so beautiful that I had to publish it in Goblin Fruit in spite of our stated policy of not considering science fiction poems. She has a talent for imbuing space exploration with emotion, tenderness, and wonder, as evident in a poem of hers published here in Apex, “Dogstar Men”:

All the men I might have loved
Have gone to Sirius

Sirius, the Dogstar
The Dreadstar of Summer
That Cranberry Bog, that Red Lamp District
Promising Scarlet Women, Scarlet Waves of Grain
A Wine-Stained Sea

My lovely men are gone
Leaving their braids behind them

I invite Paul Cook to tut-tut at this science fiction poem’s literalness, its realism, its lack of lyrical cadence.

Shweta Narayan wrote a science fiction poem published in Mythic Delirium called “Cave-smell,” in which she used science fictional tropes to articulate and interrogate issues of language politics, culture loss, and education. Catherynne Valente wrote a poem called “The Melancholy of Mecha-Girl,” also in Mythic Delirium, which muses on gender roles, identity, and body experience. Kendall Evans wrote a “Dramatic Poem in Two Parts” titled In Deepspace Shadows, which manages the unusual feat of being a Renaissance drama about artificially intelligent robots on a spaceship in the far future in iambic pentameter and be good.

Here is my point again: it is, in fact, possible for poems to contain the science fictional and be good. Not in spite of their science fictional elements, but through them. It’s astonishing to me that I’m even having to make this statement.

I agree completely with Valente’s view that the science fictional element is never enough on its own–nor would any fantasy element be. Nor is a couplet that consists of “suddenly / the angst” an effective piece of writing. It’s utterly true that “you need something else, some meaning, some feeling, some voice, some beauty, some ugliness, some violence, some pain, some apotheosis, some damnation, some glory, some putrescence, some desire, some need, some disappointment, some loss, some girls, some gays, some love, some sacrifice, some ambition–some point.” I’m grateful to her for articulating this, for not letting those who write science fiction poetry off her Ereshkigalean hook. We should always, all of us, be striving to read more and write better.

I certainly hope Paul Cook will.


More from Amal El-Mohtar:

Amal El-Mohtar

Photo Credit: Stephanie J. Boland

Amal El-Mohtar is the Nebula-nominated author of The Honey Month, a collection of spontaneous short stories and poems written to the taste of twenty-eight different kinds of honey. She is a two-time winner of the Rhysling Award for Best Short Poem, and edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry. Her work has most recently appeared in Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution, edited by Ann VanderMeer, and in Chicks Unravel Time, a volume of essays on Doctor Who edited by L. M. Myles and Deborah Stanish. Find her online at amalelmohtar.com.

10 Comments

  1. Thank you for replying to Paul Cook. I found his essay wrong and angering, much like the literary critics who explain that science fiction is not real fiction. There are all kinds of blurry lines here. Science fiction poetry and fantastic poetry are not, it seems to me, sharply divided. Nor is SF poetry sharply divided from poetry about science. Nor is fantastic poetry sharply divided from “literary” poetry that draws on fantasy, romance and myth. I don’t know enough to carefully divide all these categories and compare them. I don’t think Cook has done the job.

    • Thank you so much for reading! I agree very much about the blurry lines. I much prefer to see literary genres as flexible, porous membranes that allow for creative osmosis, rather than rigidly calcified carapaces forbidding any mixing or sharing. But that’s a whole other essay.

      (PS: “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” is one of my favourite stories in the world, ever. Thank you for that too.)

  2. Amal, thanks for the further depth, and for the discussion of the further aspects of the sub-genres, and for the lovely examples. Criticizing spec poetry is not a problem; criticizing it from a platform of willful narrowness is.

  3. A well thought out, sensitive response to an ill thought out, insensitive article.

    Thank you, also, for providing numerous links to good SF(F) poetry! I know the majority, but there are some that I will now be taking a first look at.

    • Thank you for reading! And I would love to know what you think of the poems new to you.

  4. Thank you for this, Amal. And thank you for the links to those poems, most of which I’ve read before (some more than once already) but which are always worth re-reading.

    • It’s pure delight to talk about the poetry I love! Thank you for reading.

  5. Excellent article! I’ve enjoyed lots of scifi poems myself. They are beautiful in their own right. And as with all publications, there are great works and less than stellar ones, but isolated instances shouldn’t be the measuring rod for ALL work written in that genre.

  6. Hey, Amal! I’m still correct here. But let me add that because of science fiction poetry’s reliance on literalness, there is no real potential for sci-fi poetry to explore the metaphorical. Thus the poem you quoted above:
    All the men I might have loved
    Have gone to Sirius
    Sirius, the Dogstar
    The Dreadstar of Summer
    That Cranberry Bog, that Red Lamp District
    Promising Scarlet Women, Scarlet Waves of Grain
    A Wine-Stained Sea
    My lovely men are gone
    Leaving their braids behind them

    What in this poem transcends the literalness of its language? There is no use of metaphor here. True, there is some interesting images “scarlet waves of grain”, for example, but that’s reduced to an embarrassing banality by its association to “amber waves of grain”. It’s a terrible poem that doesn’t “leap” (to use Robert Bly’s term) into that extra-imaginative realm of metaphor. The poem simply tells us what this person is feeling about the men leaving in her life. Wow. Fantastic. The poem has no musical cadence (and I’m not talking about rhyme or rhythm) and once read, there is no more reason to read it again. We read poems over and over again because we see something in them we didn’t see before. All poetry is meant to be illusive (and allusive) and indirect, even obscure. This rules out the kind of sci-fi poetry you folks value so much.

    However, Norman Dubie (a poet you don’t know) has published at Blackbird Magazine (online) a sci-fi poem called “The Spirit Tablets at Goa Lake” that takes place on Mars. (I am not the Paul mentioned in the poem.) Here’s the first few lines:

    PROLOGUE

    I dreamt of wild horses bathing in white water again.
    One stood and ate the salmon like a bear.
    What of the Wishbone Pulsar, those cooling wicks
    of the dark mother, lodged
    deep in the throat of Cygnus; the merchants’ charcoal-
    ballasted ships crossing the dead cluster district

    where two of the lost tablets

    are miming the iron lamps of a black dwarf.

    I.
    (.1/.9 jibes.)

    Help us, Paul, to understand. The photon stockgrams
    found us in New Philadelphia —
    your drawing of the yarrow sticks
    has been copied by your sister
    who, with her usual seriousness
    about your poems, insists these new hexagrams
    are just simply more of them.
    Your poems, that is. They are insane

    but lovely
    in their ratios of fear to arrogance. You will
    never change. By example,
    ‘Martha Smythe, naked, weeding out in your garden’
    is long dead, but you say
    ‘her breasts like faux plaster waves
    mechanically lift before the lilac hedges.’ Or, of course,
    in the opera pit
    tigers are eating the three cellists?
    Listen to me, son:

    I am not the black Khandro wiring
    a voice back
    along some faded logarithmic bubble…
    this is just your mother, saying
    those false, plaster waves are
    some dead schoolgirl’s breasts,

    your poor memory
    of a watercolorist’s horizon and its sea. This is
    the seminary’s first production
    of your father’ s version
    of Shakespeare’s most excellent last play.
    Your chewing gum on my yellow gloves and hair.
    Our young cadets studying

    religion and then war, war
    and then religion, while wondering why
    that old magician
    didn’t want his dukedom back
    now that he could have it.

    Eight years later and they are all shipwrecked
    on a strange moon; well,
    I can’t imagine what you’ve witnessed:
    their cruiser entering, with two hundred sleepers
    in suspension, that crushing
    brim light of a data-clear nova. Yet,
    distanced from it, so that their many dreams
    became the one dream
    they wake to screaming — first blood

    at their nostrils and then machines
    everywhere reading the flat line.

    ‘weeding the garden indeed.’ How
    you lived through these things? Your father
    always wondered what you did for a living?
    I didn’t. I’m sorry but if I’m speaking
    of him, I should make this quick addendum:

    Samuel died this new year eating mescaline
    in that burnt-out Mercedes
    and his two German Shepherds were with him.

    I spoke to his corpse with no kindness.

    It’s all a joke, of course.
    Like your young cadets in their basaltic wilderness
    with goats standing
    to their bellies in a white mud
    and in the high loft of the chapel
    the rose light focused
    on Martha Smythe’s dress
    just where her breasts
    separate beneath it
    featuring that pitted copper crucifix.

    Those violet ash-paper hives in winter,
    she said,
    had been opened for the sugar
    by two large-boned naked men,
    hair cropped by the mayor, their love
    was a cannibalism of branches to the sky,
    the horror occurring not in the burning barns
    of their village
    but in the songs of a chloraplastik
    spring offensive.

    They are trying to forget the hill fires,
    bloated animals flying into the night, birds crying:

    né-too vic, né-too vic ,

    the six syllables like a butcher’s knives.

    The cousin saw the naked men and their young sister.
    The men with a fur wrapped around them,
    joined at the hip, their black high heels
    with a small jewel in the eyebrow or lip.

    They were walking out among the land mines
    in hill fog.

    I had you there, old mole! For a moment?
    Asparagus slips in the vinegar jar. And rowing, rowing.

    Paul, you make me sick…

    ———–

    As soon as someone writes like this, using sci-fi tropes and conceits but mixing in an interesting narrative couched in curious metaphors, well, I’ll admit that it can be done. Norman Dubie (look him up) is a major poet of his generation (born in 1945). This is what science fiction poetry can do and should do.

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