Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook and science fiction poetics

Next week, I'll be giving a lecture to a class in New York on fantasy, horror and science fiction poetry, or what we tend to call speculative poetry these days. To that end, this week and next I'll be discussing a number of issues and opportunities related to the subject that may be of assistance.

One of the leading organizations on the subject is the Science Fiction Poetry Association, founded in 1978 by the writer Suzette Haden Elgin. One can only imagine the initial number of eyebrows raised at the notion. In 2005, Elgin published The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook through Sam's Dot Publishing, which has also published my two collections, On The Other Side Of The Eye (2007) and BARROW (2009).

As a quick background, Arkansas resident Suzette Haden Elgin is also a novelist, known for Coyote Jones and The Ozark Trilogy. She also has a number of non-fiction books under her belt including The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense, Genderspeak and How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable. Alas, given the tenor of much of today's political debates, clearly many would-be candidates have not read these. She's been retired since 1980 and had run the Ozark Center for Language Studies.

The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook is the first official book of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, although they produce a fairly regular newsletter, Star*Line.

To Elgin, personally, there are three key elements of science fiction poetry:

"1. A science fiction poem must be about a reality that is in some way different from the existing reality.

2. It must contain some element of science as part of its focus.

3. It must contain some element of narrative-some "story" element."

This is principally her personal definition, mind you. But it's an interesting starting ground. To that end, one might expect that for horror and fantasy poetry, the key change is in principle 2: "It must contain some element of horror or fantasy as part of its focus," would be the presumed, logical iteration.

I do think there's a nice out for science fiction poetry in Elgin's definition in that she does not strictly include 'accurate science.' Although one might argue it's inferred.

I think the field has diversified dramatically today in terms of the languages, styles, and subject matter that ask to be considered science fiction poetry. So, I personally weigh in that there are some parts of the Elgin definition that can be quibbled with, and lead me to prefer the term speculative poetry.

If we're going to call it science fiction poetry, then, by the use of the word fiction, there must be a narrative.

But there are forms of poetry that are not strictly narrative in the conventional sense. Symphonic or tone poetry comes immediately to mind, which had its roots in the dada movement and other examples of surrealist and absurdist poetry. Hugo Balls' "Gadji beri bimba" which is the inspiration for the Talking Heads song, "I Zimbra" is a good example of poetry absent of narrative. To me, it's almost a European koan. But it's not impossible to create poetic work with elements clearly influenced by the imagination we normally reserve for science fiction, fantasy and horror.

To me, a poem, if we choose to write a poem, should clearly be a poem, and not a short story or a novel with bad formatting.

We see in books like Toby Barlowe's Sharp Teeth, an interesting example of the speculative prose poem. While it deals with lycanthropes in modern California, it would not strictly be considered science fiction under the Elgin definition. Under that definition, we would have to look for where science must be a focus in part of the poem. It's possible to find it, but it also feels like we're stretching it.

Ridiculous as it is, the notorious satire Elektronik Supersonik is a fairly good example of an experiment in science fiction poetics set to music, but not necessarily a coherent narrative.

This is part of why I prefer the term speculative poetry. To me it catches a wider swath of some of the interesting things being done in the field. The term speculative poetry can encompass the scifaiku movement, for example.

One ongoing point of interest is how we will see the development of multicultural speculative poetics. 

What is interesting to a speculative poet in one culture, might not even be considered speculative poetry in another.  There may be critique regarding the use of language and repurposing of cultural symbols and myths, or the degree to how far someone presents a reality unlike our existing reality. 

If alt-history poetics is just starting to emerge, what will happen within multicultural or post-colonial alt-history poetics? Is it science fiction poetry to present sonnet about a world where French did not colonize Indochina, for example? Or do we need to incorporate something outlandish such as steampunk technology to fully cross the threshold?

There can be some humorous exchanges that emerge with speculative poetry. One's use of an alien language or language such as that in Caroll's Jabberwocky might not get called out, but bad French or English grammar, questionable romanization of Indian or Lao, or misuse of the Oxford comma and punctuation? That's fair game.

I've had poems called out for suggesting that the legendary nak could be found at the Talaat Sao marketplace in Vientiane, for example.

The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook provides some interesting things to consider. Elgin asks us to consider how a poem looks, how it sounds, and how we choose words to make our poems successful. These are good ideas that can be applied and considered in any form of poetry. She discusses the additional challenge a poet faces when one has to address the suspension of disbelief, or the credibility gap.

How does Poe engage us in "The Raven" that we so readily accept a big black bird coming in to a narrator's room to perch upon a bust and taunt's him with the word "Nevermore!"

There's great deal of world-building in Homer's The Iliad, Dante's Inferno or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, but how do we get to the point where we say: Ok, I understand the rules of this poem and what can and can't happen here so that suddenly this becomes fantastic and interesting, but not so ridiculous I give up on it.

The ghost of Virgil can lead a man through the layers of hell, but speculative poets today can have a hard time getting their audiences to go with them to Mars. These are some of the questions that can intrigue those of us who are working with speculative poetry.

For several of us working with Lao American literature, speculative poetry and fiction is of interest to us for the liberty we have to address sensitive taboo topics or gaps and unresolvable conflicts in the historical record. For many other cultures, I imagine there will come a point where they, too will start to discover the possibilities inherent within this approach.

Some find a metaphor of wolf totems, the grass mud horse or river crabs useful to them. Others may turn to more traditional symbols or try to create ones that serve as a better stand-in to address our present and emerging concerns. Planet of the Apes, Godzilla and Night of the Living Dead are significant examples of how we engage in social critique through speculative literature.

In the 20th and 21st century, it's been a while since a poem in English has captured the imagination and consciousness of the community, particularly a speculative poem, but there is ample precedent, such as the Aeneid or Orlando Furioso that we should consider.

To be fair, we should expect the process will also create some very, very terrible things once in a while:

But we press on!

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