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The Clarion Writer’s Craft #39 – What makes a poem SF/Fantasy?

September 26, 2011
Jack-o'-Spec: Tales of Halloween and Fantasy

Jack-o'-Spec: Tales of Halloween and Fantasy, edited by Karen A. Romanko

Karen A. Romanko is editor of four speculative fiction and poetry anthologies, SPORTY SPEC: GAMES OF THE FANTASTIC (2007), CINEMA SPEC: TALES OF HOLLYWOOD AND FANTASY (2009), RETRO SPEC: TALES OF FANTASY AND NOSTALGIA (2010), and JACK-O’-SPEC: TALES OF HALLOWEEN AND FANTASY (coming September 2011), all from Raven Electrick Ink. She has seen over 100 of her poems and short stories published in venues such as Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, and The Pedestal Magazine.


Every time the question of defining SF/Fantasy poetry arises, I’m reminded of the comment Justice Potter Stewart made about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Yes, a lot is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to definitions of SF poetry, but perhaps we can try to clarify our vision at least.

Many practitioners believe that there must be some element of SPECULATION to make a poem SF/Fantasy. In that view it’s not enough to use speculative elements simply as metaphors–time travel, dragons, ghosts, etc.–the SF/Fantasy elements must be LITERAL.

In my poem, “They Threw Their Daughters into the Sea” (Goblin Fruit, Spring 2007), the ghosts of drowned women are quite real:

Now on moonless nights
while their intended ones sleep,
the sea’s daughters board men’s ships,

filling the vessels with silt,
pulling their husbands down, down
to meet their new father

And yet, in my upcoming anthology Jack-o’-Spec: Tales of Halloween and Fantasy (September 13, 2011), as editor, I selected a poem about metaphorical ghosts. In “All Soul’s Day” by Shannon Connor Winward the ghosts are merely memories of the selves left behind:

If I close my eyes, I can feel them
drawn like spirits to light
a fairy-ring of once-was girls
a circle of the ghosts of me

Of course, this poem could be about alternate realities–poetry has that funny way of hinting at more than one meaning–and that “funniness” (or fuzziness) makes this definition business even harder.

So, what makes an SF/Fantasy poem for you? Are genre tropes enough even if they’re only metaphorical?

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2011 9:06 am

    HI, I wanted to say that I enjoyed both of these poems, so thank you for sharing them :-)

    I’m not well exposed to poetry, mainly Pablo Neruda and Louise Gluck. In my humble opinion, poets are more like philosophers and psychologists than writers. They find ways to express concepts that slip past our mind’s filter, and this requires incredible skill and intelligence. Having said that, I will now say I usually don’t like poetry, because I’m often not sure what the poet is trying to say, and whatever is, why the hell can’t they state it more simply :-)

    Because of this ambiguity, I don’t think SF/Fantasy applies, as all poems could fall under this category. Take the below, for example. In what fantasy world do carnations shoot off fire?

    “I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
    or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
    I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
    in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

  2. September 27, 2011 12:20 am

    In Neruda’s poem, the fire shoots off carnations, specifically arrows of carnations — that is, sparks. It’s a metaphor, and there’s nothing of fantasy in it. Fires in our reality shoot off sparks.

    On the other hand, ghosts are always fantasy, and even if they’re used as a metaphor or simile, the idea wouldn’t work without the weight of fantasy behind it. Fairy rings exist only in fantasy, so an allusion to them evokes fantasy. Whether the poem is fantasy or not, it wouldn’t work without fantasy.

  3. September 27, 2011 5:57 am

    Oh my, what a broad topic! In my opinion, very many types of poems can be SF/Fantasy Poetry, one need merely look at this years Rhysling Award Nominees (and winners) to become aware of that. A wide range of topics (space, time travel, ghosts, technology that doesn’t yet exist, goblins and unicorns, planets and galaxies, etc.) but I think that what really makes SF/F poetry different from something simply metaphorical like Neruda’s above poem is that there is usually some sort of story told, a narrative, which takes us out of our reality and into a future, fantasy or alternate history reality.

  4. September 27, 2011 12:52 pm

    I agree that narrative is often a part of speculative poetry, but I think that poems can be speculative without a narrative element. Here are a couple of examples I published at Raven Electrick e-zine:

    Entropy by JE Stanley:

    http://www.ravenelectrick.com/ravenpoetrick/entropy.html

    Application of Einstein’s Theories to Personal Affairs by David C. Kopaska-Merkel:

    http://www.ravenelectrick.com/ravenpoetrick/einsteinstheories.html

  5. September 29, 2011 11:48 pm

    I like both of those poems and you’re right that Stanley’s isn’t narrative. But I would argue that there is an implicit narrative in David Kopaska-Merkel’s poem. A sort of implied background story, if you will.

    I agree that Spec poetry doesn’t have to have a narrative quality, but it often does. If I’m not mistaken that aspect is what Suzette Haden Elgin says sets Science Fiction poetry apart from science poetry at least.

    Thanks for the opportunity to discuss!

  6. September 30, 2011 1:38 pm

    Yes, interesting discussion! I have enjoyed being a part of Karen’s “Spec-themed” collections and in reading the contents of each and all.

    A wide variety of styles and subjects on the separate themes is a bonus!

  7. September 30, 2011 7:40 pm

    I agree that narrative (including implied narrative) is essential to the speculative element of speculative poetry. What’s necessary for the poetry part is a duality, or layering of meanings. This may result in ambiguity for those who distrust that duality or who are not used to having to think about a piece of writing in more than one way. The duality can be obtained through metaphor, through enjambment that suggests one meaning and then surprises the reader with another on the following line, through a suggested subtext, and other not-so-simple tricks from the poetry toolbox, or even gain an additional mannered layer through the constraint of a form.

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