Science Fiction Poetry: Worlds of Potential6 min read

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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.

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