"All poetry is experimental poetry," Wallace Stevens once said. And the world of contemporary poetry is much like the world of fantastical and science fictional prose narratives. And if you value diversity, weirdness, and contradiction in your reading, you could do a lot worse than to develop a taste for both science fiction and poetry.
I've really done it now. I've invoked a forbidden word: poetry. Purveyors of poetry are inherently suspect in most circles. We are seen as a cross between broccoli-pushers ("Try it, you'll like it!") and emissaries from the imperial courts of high culture come to impose our foreign customs on the subjugated masses.
As a fan of science fiction and poetry, I find myself in a delicate position, desiring neither to push roughage or impose verbiage, but wanting very much to be able to share with readers of poetry what I love about scifi (and with readers of scifi what I love about poetry). If you love scifi and want to get your feet wet in the world of poetry, here are a few places to start.
Of course there are scifi readers who already really like poetry—and poetry readers who really like scifi—but we tend to exist (however passionate we are about our sestinas and our ray-guns) in the fringes of both communities.
I've been speaking of scifi and poetry as if they never coincided, a disingenuous tactic. Consider it a demonstration of a rhetorical problem: the way we tend to use terms like "science fiction," "fantasy," and "poetry" is often really limiting. My guess is that when I write "science fiction," the first things that come to mind aren't Lucretius' De rerum natura (1st century B.C.) or Margaret Cavendish's seventeenth century sonnets about atoms.
I've never been persuaded that retroactively applying modern genre labels is a particularly useful exercise—and I'm not really doing that here. What I want to establish is that there's a long history of English language poetry on both scientific and fantastical themes and that these themes are still active concerns for contemporary poets.
In the scifi and fantasy communities, magazines like Strange Horizons and Apex often publish what is sometimes called "speculative poetry" (though not all poets who write on fantastical and science fictional themes embrace the label). Some online literary magazines, like the Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica P. Wick edited Goblin Fruit, are entirely devoted to poetry on mythic and folkloric subjects.
There's also the Rhysling Award established in 1978 by Suzette Haden Elgin, which is given out yearly by the Science Fiction Poetry Association. (Notable recipients have included Ursula LeGuin and Theodora Goss.) Meanwhile, a variety of recent publications in mainstream poetry—inasmuch as you can ever call poetry "mainstream"—are also taking on the tropes and the concerns of science fiction and fantasy in compelling and formally exciting ways.
Speaking of form, one of the obstacles that often seems to keep readers of prose away from poetry is the way it looks. Poems need not look all that different from prose—the prose poem's block of text is only notionally different from a regular old paragraph—but many do. The arrangement of words into lines and stanzas can change the reading experience fundamentally—the speed at which you read, your sense of the textures and the rhythms of the language—and summons up, for some, poisonous memories of being forced to scan for dactyls and spondees during the poetry unit of freshman English class. Interpretive analysis is one way to respond to poetry—and often a fascinating and rewarding one—but it's certainly not the only way.
Some poetry is hard (just as some prose is) but you don't necessarily need a technical vocabulary to enjoy it. If you don't enjoy thinking of literature as a puzzle, then don't (though the literature-as-puzzle model certainly has its pleasures). If you're new to poetry, one way of approaching it is to think about it not as a way of writing but as a way of reading, a way of being alive to the possibilities of words.
It's often tempting to start out by asking what a poem is saying—it's not a bad question. But maybe the most helpful initial questions about any given poem are a little different, questions like how am I responding to this? or what am I experiencing in reading this poem? The poet Wallace Stevens wrote that "all poetry is experimental." It's a statement with which readers of science fiction and fantasy, also literatures of experiment, probably have some sympathy. At its best, the experience of reading poetry can feel like testing a risky, new hypothesis, entering, if only for a moment, another world that is this one.
If you're already a fan of both SFF and contemporary poetry, give yourself a gold star! (And maybe tell me what you're reading?) If you're not but you think you might want to be, you probably have a few questions. One of them is most likely this one: "What kinds of poetry should you be reading if you're a fan of science fictional prose who doesn't have a lot of exposure to poetry?" Any survey of contemporary poetry is bound to bet both partial and selective but here are a few modest recommendations.
Cyborgia by Susan Slaviero (Mayapple Press 2010)
Representative lines: "Theoretically, there's a way to create a ribcage from guitar strings, to fashion jawbones from vintage bracelets. It so happens that a female frame is best woven from titanium knitting needles, peppermint hips, the ends of French cigarettes. The dog might notice she isn't real, but no one else can tell the difference. You'll find she is content" ("Phenomena of Probability" 8)
Working questions: This collection is deeply interested in bodies, particularly in womens' experience of what it means to inhabit a body in a machine age. Slaviero alludes to and ventriloquizes mythic figures from Briar Rose to Eve in playful, erudite language with plenty of vivid sensory detail.
For: Fans of Catherynne M. Valente; folklorists; post-human theorists.
Multiversal by Amy Catanzano (Fordham University Press 2009)
Representative lines: "Now that the future is unfolding all the time you are away. It will readily absorb the light. If the wavelength is slightly changed, then the atoms, then the light. It's the one falling in who sees the clock" ("The Book of Imaginary Planets" 3).
Working questions: What does a "quantum poetics" look like? If we assume we live in a multiverse rather than a universe, how, then, do we think about human experience—love, confusion, mortality—in light of that overwhelming fact? (Note that a book of poems is made up of many verses, a universe just one.) Poems with titles like "Notes on the Enclosure of Spheres" and "Clinamen Principium" think about the physics of celestial bodies and the physics of self through swift, elastic images. "The Barbelith Poems" invoke Grant Morrison's Invisibles.
For: Fans of Grant Morrison; Lewisian metaphysicians; lovers.
Quantum Lyrics by A. Van Jordan (W.W. Norton & Company 2009)
the cat is forever dead
and alive. My phantom has existed for years
in limbo, believing life would be more
pastel if he were paying the bills,
sweating through rejection,
or figuring out what tie to wear
as Ray Palmer. I never know
if he's there or not, until jealousy
gets the better of him and he comes
out of paradox into a scene,
for which, there is no future. ("The Superposition of the Atom" 82)
Working questions: The Atom and the Green Lantern, Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger, Miles Davis and Marian Anderson — in Quantum Lyrics, Jordan constellates icons of pop culture, science, and music in order to pose questions about ethics, physics, and black masculinity in America. The book's meditations on superheroes are particularly striking. Poems like "The Atom and Hawkman Discuss Metaphysics" and "The Green Lantern Unlocks the Secrets of Black Body Theory" are concerned, ultimately, with what Jordan has called "an exploration of male vulnerability."
For: Fans of Green Lantern; physicists; blues singers.
Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize by Elizabeth Marie Young (Fence Books 2009)
Representative lines: Master, lead us back to Rome. We want a city so abstract and tinged with pink, it will try to nestle in the petals of your single dreaming eye" ("Another Ruler Triumphantly atop His House of Fame" 3)
Working questions: The weight of the past is everywhere. Young (a classicist by training) wants to know how we sift through the stories, objects, and attitudes we inherit—some of which are marvelous and some too horrific to bear—to build our own narratives, our own houses. Each of the prose poems in this collection is a little world, full of violets, pluots, and bullets.
For: Fans of Sandman; classicists; makers.
Mad Science in Imperial City by Shanxing Wang (Futurepoem 2005)
I, the bronze man, seared by raging flames,
held inside the aging mold of rusty
steel alloyed with tungsten liars, lead traps,
yanked my metallic ears, for poetry.
Your broken chips refill my hungry mouth;
by trial-and-error, I am making love
to you anew, to find our bonding strength,
rebuffing what supreme computers give.
Suck up all my free electrons, plasm!
Press. Covalent diamond. Manic. Vacuum. ("PVD" 11-12)
Working questions: Can the disciplines of science and poetry help you, in any way, to process political injustice? Shuttling between New York, where Wang now lives, and his experiences of China in the 1980s, Mad Science borrows the vocabulary of materials science to talk about displacement, revolution, and exile. Wang, who participated in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering (The last of the book's four sections is called "T-Square.") Equations and diagrams pepper the book, as much a part of the poetry as the words themselves.
For: Fans of George Orwell; engineers; activists.
Top illustration by Vladimir Kush.