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Alchemical Post-Its
A Primer on Fantastic Poetry
Part 1

by Robert Frazier

If you pay attention to summer blockbusters, everyone seems to have a secret identity…transforming into Darth Vader, the Batman, or Half-Blood Prince.

Mine is a bit weirder.  I write a good deal of poetry, and, appropriately enough, much of it concerns science or science fiction.  What is this poetry you might wonder?  Actually, the genre is blossoming in popularity, spawning a number of book collections and small press publications.

Science fiction poetry suffers from an identity crisis.  It will suffer through eternity.

As a three-word label for a small sub-set of two great and distinct literary forms, “science fiction poetry” offers a handy label.  Handy, yes, but clunky as all hell.  How do you reconcile using the words fiction and poetry in such proximity?  Which form does it adhere to the most?  The problem is insignificant, but it generates debate among a growing population of poets.

Let's clarify one thing.  Foremost, a science fiction poem is a poem.  It looks like one.  It feels like one.  When you turn the handle on an SF poem, it goes ping, not rattlety-trap rattlety-trap bidda bang bong.  Unfortunately, a genre category for fiction writing has been cobbled on, yet we also employ less-than-ideal terminology when we invoke concrete poetry or cowboy poetry as a label.

Okay, I can live with a smidgen of split personality, but further inquiry seems prudent.  Let’s take a look at the history of SF poetry, the tradition of the genre’s Rhysling Awards, and the poetics involved.

You can point toward the Odyssey and Tennyson and Blake and Poe and any number of precedents, but for all intents and purposes, science fiction poetry existed in a dormant state until the latter Sixties, when poetry began regular appearances in science fiction publications on both sides of the Atlantic.  To cite two of several high profile examples, poems were consistently collected in the Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction anthologies and New Worlds.

Also at that time, contemporary poets from the United Kingdom, raised on science fiction and the promises of technology, began to explore both inner and outer space using science as a metaphor.  All three poets in Penguin Modern Poets #11—D.M. Black, Peter Redgrove, and D. M. Thomas—offered such speculations in 1968, as did Edwin Morgan in 1969 in Penguin Modern Poets #15, but the works of Thomas most explicitly referenced SF themes like androids, lifeforms on distant planets, etc.  His personal collection from 1968, Two Voices, seemed to break hard ground...partly because it gathered several of the PMP science fiction poems with other major non-SF works (thus the "two voices" of the title poem accrued another level of meaning), and partly because it contained what many consider to be the landmark SF poem, "The Head-Rape," set in a future when telepathic humanity has created devices and taboos insuring mental privacy.

            and she could not help but see, he re-
            re-felt his lust, being carboned in her brain,
            she re-re-felt the hysteria
            that he re-felt, so he re-re-re-felt—
            Their bedroom infinite: two facing mirrors.

This poem was reprinted in 1969 by editor Edward Lucie-Smith in the anthology Holding Your Eight Hands, An Anthology of Science Fiction Verse, and, along with the inclusion of pieces like "In Sobieski's Shield" by Morgan and "A Vacation on Earth" by Disch, it solidified HYEH's position as a holy text for the next crop of science fiction poets that emerged on the landscape. With the support of John Fairfax's Frontier of Going (Panther, 1969) and Robert Vas Dias's Inside Outer Space (Doubleday, 1970), enough modern SF poetry was available to readers to set the stage for the Seventies.

Ah, the Seventies…it was a time when poets explored factual science and science fictional themes with fresh zeal.

Edwin Morgan collected From Glasgow to Saturn in 1973 and Star Gate: Science Fiction Poems in 1978, and he wrote about the former volume in the Poetry Book Society Bulletin (#77).  “Another group of poems is perhaps best described as science-fiction, though I would regard these as natural extensions of the imagination in an age of science.  The poet, I think, is entitled to set up his camp on other worlds than this, and to bring back what he can in the way of human relevance.”

With professional SF magazines and original book anthologies offering, on occasion, equal billing to poetic works, and, too, an expanding number of small press SF publications shifting focus toward poetic content, it can be said that science fiction poetry truly emerged from the shadows in this decade, emerged from its previous role as page filler or comic relief in the field. Even mainstream literary magazines like Pacific Quarterly and Edge featured special issues with SF poetry.  The interchangeable term “speculative poetry” also emerged as a trimmer, more inclusive umbrella for other fantastical poems that stood beside SF works in many publications, including surreal, experimental, dark horror, and pure science poems.

"In the time since this material was first gathered," wrote Duane Ackerson about his SF poetry anthology Rocket Candy: Speculative Poetry (Dragonfly Press, 1977), "several magazines devoted to speculative poetry have appeared. I had not seen the term ‘speculative poetry’ used in print, though it stuck me as a much apter and less awkward phrase than "science fiction poetry."  The appearance of a magazine called Speculative Poetry Review has confirmed my suspicion I was on the right track."

The watershed years are easily pinpointed: 1977 and 1978.  A small sample from this 24-month span contains single-author collections like Windows & Mirrors, Michael Bishop (Moravian Press); Tomorrow May Be Even Worse, John Brunner (NESFA Press); Shooting Scripts, Adam Cornford (Black Stone Press); Spaced, David Calder (Toulouse Press); as well as pure science poets Diane Ackerman with Wife of Light (William Morrow) and Loren Eiseley with the delayed and posthumous All the Night Wings (Times Books). Bellevue Press, who later published collections by Disch and Jack Dann, issued an SF poetry postcard series with short works by Disch, Dann, Le Guin, Dorman, Bishop and Brian Aldiss.

In the small press, Ackerson edited Rocket Candy, and three homespun magazines emerged that were devoted solely to speculative poetry:  Treaders of Starlight, edited by Mark Rich, Umbral, edited by Steve Rasnic Tem, and my effort Speculative Poetry Review (SPR).  Also, the scholarly review Cthulhu Calls ran an SF poetry contest and subsequently published many fine winners and runners-up.  A significant number of poets surfaced in these publications who devoted most of their writing—at least for a time—to speculative poetry, including influential figures like Bruce Boston, Kathryn Rantala (K.E. Roney), Steve Sneyd, Gene van Troyer, David Lunde, Peter Dillingham, and Andrew Joron.

Suzette Haden Elgin must have sensed the oncoming wave as it crested, for she instituted the Science Fiction Poetry Association, its regular newsletter “Star*Line,” and the Rhysling Awards in 1978.  She unified a movement before it hit the docks and rocked the boats in the Eighties, and she offered the Rhyslings Awards as a method of assessing not only the best the field had to offer, but the direction this new field of poetry was taking.

 Next week: Part 2 will cover this interesting subset of poetry, and take it into the present.

© Yesterday's Island - 2005