My response to Amazing Stories blogger Paul Cook's recent entry, "Why Science Fiction Poetry is Embarrassingly Bad" (I just couldn't stay out of it! I swear I tried to resist.) [UPDATE: Out of moderation now.]
Hi, Paul! I have a bit of an earful for you.
To my knowledge we’ve never met — so I may or may not be one of these too-serious speculative poets you condescendingly dismiss without actually naming any names. As I had never heard of you prior to being pointed at this blog post, I’m going to assume likewise on your part, so you can fairly assess what my biases are.
I’ve written over 200 poems, a handful of which have appeared in Asimov’s, though most of what I consider to be my best work, for better or for worse, has appeared in Strange Horizons, one of those newfangled webzine things you might want to consider “finding a copy of.” Other works of mine have appeared in Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, Inkscrawl, and really, all over the place. I edit a poetry journal of my own, Mythic Delirium (an actual print zine, at least for a little while longer, though I also have one of those website thingies.) I am former president of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and volunteer for many years, who left the organization altogether two years ago for what I’ll characterize as philosophical differences. Of the poems that have won Rhysling Awards in the past decade, I wrote 2-1/2 of them (my poems are very prosaic, but really fun to perform at readings) and published five more of them in Mythic Delirium. I do not claim and have never claimed that any of them equal or surpass the artistry of Emily Dickinson.
I mention that I’m also the editor of the Clockwork Phoenix anthologies and a previous Nebula Award finalist just so you know I don’t live by poetry alone.
There are points in this post I agree with. I think that generally, your critique of the kind of poetry that Asimov’s selects is dead on. But you have mistaken one thread of speculative poetry for the entire kit and kaboodle, and presented this error as fact.
Let me start here:
“at least the kinds of ‘verse’ (I use the term hesitantly) that currently appears in the three main short fiction journals in the field: Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Analog … Stand any contemporary Rhysling Award winner up against Philip Levine or Mark Strand and you’d see immediately that their poems seem puerile and, more often than not, embarrassing.”
This makes me question whether you’ve read any Rhysling Award winning poems at all, because these are not equivalent assertions. The last time a poem from Asimov’s won the Rhysling was in 2003. The only time a poem from F&SF won a Rhysling was in 1988. No poem from Analog has ever won.
You would be correct about Asimov’s setting the standard for speculative poetry if this were, oh, 2000 (when they published Joe Haldeman’s “January Fires” — a terrific poem by any standard.) Unfortunately for your credibility it’s 2012. (Addendum: …or at least it was 2012 two months ago. ;-)) That pixel-stained wretch Strange Horizons knocked Asimov’s off the hill in the early 2000s, with an editorial team drawn together from several of the more interesting poetry-only small press print zines of that time, which you’re likely completely unaware of. Now, many of the poets you see in Asimov’s can also be found there, but have been able to do much more interesting things — at least some of the time — because of the freedom a website brings. Filler no more!
In 2006 a pair of young poets who weren’t satisfied with what Strange Horizons was publishing, and wanted to see more of their preferred style of poetry, founded Goblin Fruit, the name taken obviously from the Rossetti poem “Goblin Market.” Two years ago another poet and writer created Stone Telling, named after an Ursula Le Guin character, to encourage poems that explore the perspectives and predicaments of groups underrepresented in sf and fantasy poetry (and the genre as a whole.) Interestingly, too, there’s been a recent turnover at Strange Horizons, with the new editorial team now more closely aligned with the approaches found at Goblin Fruit and Stone Telling.
There’s plenty of other nuances, factions, trends, etc., etc., that I could elaborate on. My points are a) that any of our small but vocal numbers who read this post will immediately recognize that that you’ve ranted at strawmen of your own invention without having any real knowledge of the field you're criticizing and b) your cluelessly-wielded broad brush spatters and insults a number of people who not only have nothing to do with your intended target, but who would probably agree with your general argument if it had been artfully presented — i.e., if you hadn’t blithely assumed all of sf poetry to be an unvariegated monolith.
Your argument can be boiled down to two things. Generally, it’s a long-winded equivalent of “Hip-hop sucks! Beethoven rules!” Specifically, it’s “This is how I’d like to see an sf poem written, and because I’ve never personally seen it in Asimov’s, it’s never been done.”
You may well dislike everything you see at the other venues I’ve mentioned, but at least you wouldn’t be condemning in ignorance.
By the way, this might be a good place for you to start “finding copies of things” — it’s a roundup of recommended poems by small press poetry editors: http://roselemberg.net/?p=536
I find myself having less and less patience with people who try to dismiss an entire genre based on the one or two, or handful of things they've read as if a tiny percentage clearly represents the whole. It's like watching a couple bad or so-so episodes of one of the Star Trek series and declaring the entire canon to be horrible. Kudos to you for having the patience to point out where he can find more information and being so polite when you told him that basically he has no idea what he's talking about.
I almost added that people do not typically head to The New Yorker to read poetry. They do go to Poetry or the New American Review or Agni for that, which is the point I suspect those real poets he mentions were trying to make, even as they continued to submit to the New Yorker and the Atlantic.
The same, honestly, is true of Asimov's. Part of the reason that I've blogged about this and added a comment is that it is really not fair to slam Asimov's about poetry since Asimov's stated focus is on fiction. Yes, years back when there were almost no speculative poetry venues Asimov's did get a lot of great stuff by default, but we have more venues now.
Paul, your summary here of what you said … isn’t what you said. You have made an all-encompassing blanket condemnation, whether you want to admit it or not. And I challenge you to point to anything in my response that constitutes evidence that I’m *personally* insulted. No so. I respond with passion because a) I do care about sf poetry and b) you are someone who is “Wrong on the Internet,” to quote the famous XKCD cartoon.
Now: as for asserting that you’ve missed the good stuff, I specifically stated that you might well not like what you find in the other venues you had no clue about. But I still feel you should at least LOOK.
You’re certainly allowed to criticize sf poetry. It might blow your mind to know that even “sf poets” criticize “sf poetry.” You continue this ridiculous assumption that we’re all a hivemind.
Another trend you’re apparently unaware of is that there are so-called “real poets,” as you call them, who write using genre tropes, but come at them through the arena of pop culture rather than through fandom, and get published first in literary journals, then discover the sf zines as they seek more places to sell their work. It’s a bigger tent than you seem to want to accept. To use glaringly obvious examples, Margaret Atwood and Billy Collins have appeared in recent Rhysling Anthologies. To get a little more down to Earth, I proffer Jeannine Hall Gailey as one example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeannine_Hall_Gailey
And finally, yes, we’re arguing about art and craft here. You get to criticize my field. I get to criticize your approach. Evokes passions, happens all the time, that’s what art is for. Makes for blog hits!
I'm too lazy to make a login over there to post, so I'll rant here instead. :-P
Any time somebody says "X is incapable of Y," my eyebrows go up. SF poetry is incapable of being allusive, lyrical, metaphorical, etc? If you want to convince me of that, you have to do more than simply assert it, and quote a couple of third-rate poems as proof. You have to talk about why the genre is structurally incapable of such things. Otherwise my answer is that nobody has done it yet, or (as is the case here) people have done it where you haven't been looking.
The kicker here, which I totally expected when I started reading because I've seen it so often before, is the phrase "true poetry". He then lists his qualifications for true poetry, including iambic meter, and condemns what he claims are the styles ("realistic", etc.) of science fiction poetry.
The problem is that he isn't just ignorant of SF poetry; he also seems ignorant of modern poetry in general. And by modern I mean from the last half-century-plus. Very little non-SF poetry meets his criteria for "true poetry" nowadays, so why he's specifically condemning speculative work befuddles me.