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Letters from Proxima Thule

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catvalente
This is a difficult post for me to make. I almost didn't. I almost kept quiet, suffering in silence, weeping in the small corners of my house and bearing within my solitary soul the knowledge of this horror, these crimes.

But fuck, dude, when you've made some weird commitment to the internet to post every day, there's no such thing as keeping it to yourself. Ahoy, my precious intertubes.

But seriously, I almost didn't post. Because some people are going to get mad. And think I'm talking about them specifically. And I'm not. I am not talking about you. If I didn't have love in my heart I would just look at the trainwrecks that come through my inbox and cry lollerskates for honor and glory. But I do know love, humanity, and puppies and kittens and everything. And I can't stand by. This is a greater issue, one I've been quietly observing for years, in workshops, in anthologies. But now I'm an editor, and it's my job to witness this thing, and if it's my job to suffer for poetry, by god, y'all are going to suffer with me.

So.

What the hell is wrong with science fiction poetry?

Now, I'm a card-carrying member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (I actually don't think we have cards) and I've won a Rhysling Award. It's not like I'm not invested here. Everything I am about to say is because I want SF poetry to grow up and mature and be good, so good it breaks your heart. I want it to be awesome. But I went through my entire poetry slushpile last night, and it was 90% SF poetry, and 100% the same as all the SF poetry I've had to read in workshops and in anthologies for quite some time. It's that heartbreaking sameness that deeply creeps me out. It worries me, because I don't think anyone is conferring on the rules of SF poetry. And yet, the vast majority of the SF poetry I've seen seems to think that simply explaining an oft-used science fictional concept and putting those words in a column is sufficient to create poetry and access the great profit and literary respect available to science fiction poets everywhere. And since haiku is for some inexplicable reason SUPER POPULAR among the SF set, they're also often extremely short. And/or have puns. In fact, almost all the SF poetry I have ever read goes a lot like this:

STATEMENT OF SF CONCEPT.
PUN.

PEACE OUT.

That is not a poem. That is not even content. And I am not actually exaggerating. Now, of course, there are some exceptions--please do not list for me all the amazing SF poetry I am ignorant of in the comments. There are always exceptions. And obviously, your poetry is wonderful and delicate and perfect. It's those other guys, the vast majority of SF poetry that has ever burned my eyeballs, that I'm talking about. If I didn't see this 900 times more often than I didn't, I'd be having breakfast right now instead of writing this. I've had to come up with positive things to say about poems of this kind for years in workshops, and I can't take it anymore.

Time travel.
You know?
Yeah.


I know that a lot of people in the SFPA hate fantasy poetry and think fantasy poets like myself should not be allowed in the SFPA. But I find that at least when I'm presented with a fantasy poem, there is more effort involved than just using a big Science!Word and taking a Lovitz-style bow. They're trying to say something about the fantasy concept, or how fantasy and real life come together, or something, anything, beyond: elves man. WTF? And I look at an SF poem and think: this is your cry to heaven, your expression of your deepest self, what you are desperate and aching to say, what you must say, because it burns you not to, and you could not find it expressed anywhere else the way it sparks and flames in your soul?

Wouldn't it be awesome
if the world ended?
I'm so there.

KURTZWEIL, YO.

I feel like this has something to do with the whole "SF stories are IDEA STORIES and shouldn't have, like CHARACTERS or FEELINGS because those are GAY and also for GIRLS." Because poetry, despite having been written by straight white dudes for many eons without any problem, falls into the category of things that are gay and for girls, at least in the minds of people who make statements of that kind on forums and private email lists and such. So maybe there's a defensiveness about the very act of writing an SF poem--poems almost always deal in emotion and rich images, it's kind of poetry's thing. So obviously, the way to make these poems Proper SF is to strip away any feeling, or adjectives, or speakers which might be characters, and to put in a pun because Douglas Adams made that ok, and poems have to have wordplay, right? (Puns are arguably never funny. But puns in SF poetry are definitely never funny.)

Space elevator, man.
So weird
right?


I mean, there's a reason that fantasy poetry has dominated the Rhysling Awards for the last several years. No one wants to be the one to say this, but when you put contemporary fantasy poetry next to contemporary SF poetry, there's just no comparison at all. And perhaps it's possible that there's a reason we don't get to play with the big poetry kids. And I'm not sayig fantasy rules, SF drools. SF can be awesome. I've been an SF reader my whole life. But somehow, the idea has gotten into a whole lot of people's head that the IDEA of SF is enough. You don't need sophisticated language or passion or a connection to human experience. Just say the idea, then go on break.

Humanity is a virus.
I am so deep.


I mean, maybe this is it. This is the ultimate SF. All idea, nothing else. Pure. Unvarnished. Unadulterated. The ultimate proof of that horrible meme that says that SF is better than all the rules of literature.

You know, this one time when I was in college, I had this idea that meaning in literature was like, the man getting me down or something. (Don't even smirk like that.) I had a reasoning at the time, that language could be beautiful on its own and perfect logic from one image to another wasn't strictly the most important thing ever, and emotional meaning could arise from non-meaning. Dude, whatever, I was in college, and it's not that dumb. But then my professor told me about the language poets, and how they had this idea before me (SHOCKING) and he gave me some of their work to read and it was all green/czechoslovakia/cumulus and it was terrible. And I thought: oh, it sucks. That's the part I wasn't understanding. Surrealism is fine but we need some meaning. And I went on to be a mildly famous genre writer who posts stuff on the internet.

I wish that lesson on all of us. If you take away everything but the OMG IDEA of SF, it sucks. You need something else, some meaning, some feeling, some voice, some beauty, some ugliness, some violence, some pain, some apotheosis, some damnation, some glory, some putrescence, some desire, some need, some disappointment, some loss, some girls, some gays, some love, some sacrifice, some ambition--some point.

Singularity, dude.
Like, whoa.
Like, Turing, and stuff.
I can be on BoingBoing now?
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Montana Wildhack
built my car.

Ectoplasmic pig
You light up my PKE
Readings off the chart

You sexy ghost swine
My proton pack is ready
Let's go cross the streams

SF slush is not improved
when written in meter,
or when the made-up words rhyme.

That's more or less my reaction -- sound a lot like typical depressing slush percentages.

---L.

You make me want to try my hand at writing a sonnet with SF themes, just for the rejection letter.

Dare you. Double-tribble dare you. And I might actually do one too ;)

WORD.

I don't have anything to add except that.

WORD. Preach it, sister!

Wholeheartedly agree. And may I respectfully point you in the direction of Shweta Narayan's Cave Smell, an SF Poem that Could? It is featured on the Mythic Deliriym page here: http://www.mythicdelirium.com/

I would call that borderline fantasy.

ROFL.

But just because I am really sensitive about Douglas Adams, I want to express some ♥ for the genuine article. He was genius, but of course copying genius kinda takes away the genius part.

(Oops. Finger slipped.)

Edited at 2010-07-01 07:51 pm (UTC)

Innovation and Deeper Meanings Transform Us
A verbose SCIFFY poet awaits
Babe, ludicrous!

BTW, I'm loving your 30 days project, but Congress called and their extending our reader benefits another 270 days... can you keep it up, please?

Dude, I gotta tell you, it's a lot of work to do a full essay every day. Maybe I'll do a kickstarter page, and if people want another 30 day block...

I mean, maybe this is it. This is the ultimate SF. All idea, nothing else. Pure. Unvarnished. Unadulterated. Got it in one.

I don't write SF.
I write Space Opera.
Retro futures of gleaming ships
And handsome cleancut white men
in shiny uniforms.
In love.
With each other.



Every now and again, I commit poetry. When I subbed "The Ballad of Angelina Calamity" for a steampunk anthology, I made darn sure it was both steampunk and a ballad. (It can actually be sung)

I don't write SF.
I write Space Opera.
Retro futures of gleaming ships
And handsome cleancut white men
in shiny uniforms.
In love.
With each other.


++++++++

Who'd look so awesome
in skiffy-stompin' mech armor?
Cat M. Valente

With apologies for the presumptive and uninvited red pen, I humbly suggest "Cat M. F. Valente" to convey the correct purple lightsaber effect.

I've got one I could send you, but it kinda sucks... are you overloaded on suck yet? :(

You should never preface an offer with "it sucks." If it sucks, then no, don't send it. Work on it til it doesn't suck.

I had this exact same reaction when I started paying attention to the SF poetry out there.

I mean, I'm not a poet. My experience with poetry is extremely limited1. But holy hell in a bucket of burning sodium! Stuff that gets published and nominated for awards can be eye-clawingly awful.

At this point I have a much clearer idea of how terrible things get published, it's the award nominations that kind of baffle me.

A long time ago, in another life, I did game design. I bought a groundbreaking book on artificial intelligence because that was one of my major areas of interest. The book opened with a poem by the authors.

Alan Turing would have shot them were he alive.

That poem, which actually made me throw the book, was better than a lot of the SF poetry I see now.

1 Though I never went out of my way to read poetry until the last couple years, I was read William Blake and ee cummings as a kid, and my grandmother regularly quoted Shakespeare at us, so maybe I had a certain idea of quality inculcated pretty early.

The people who vote for awards often have agendas involving what SF should be, and or favor an author, not necessarily the work.

AI Poem? (Anonymous) Expand
I was just talking about this. Well, not exactly this, but the whole "tyranny of the idea" thing in SF and whatever.

This makes me want to try my hand, though I haven't written poetry for longer than I'd care to admit. Sounds like a good challenge, though.

Oh, and I wasn't sure whether it's OK or not, but I've just added you. Hello!

Didn't know there was a SFPA

http://www.elfwood.com/~valdary1/email-from-dav-5.3435742.html

http://www.elfwood.com/~valdary1/Launch-of-Naiad-Sulis.3435747.html

http://www.elfwood.com/~valdary1/In-The-Light-of-Einstein.3435746.html

Is about all I've written in the SF vein but if there are people who like SF and think it's real poetry I might write some more

.. for some perverse reason now I want to try writing SF poetry. Mostly because it occurs to me I don't think I've ever tried. Huh.

Honestly, it makes me want to do a whole collection of SF poetry so that I can point to it when someone says I'm just being mean.

Are there submission guidelines somewhere?

If you go to Apex's website, they have a page dedicated to the guidelines.

http://www.apexbookcompany.com/submissions/

Poetry is a dead art. I can't understand why people just won't let it rest in peace already....

Still, that last poem above was BRILLIANT!

The one in my entry or in the comments?

Also, look, as someone whose written five collections of poetry, it's not a dead art, and seriously, don't say that. It's all about excellence, of the work itself, the actual pieces. There is so much poetry being written--yes much of it is bad, much of everything is bad. There's no need to dismiss one of the oldest and greatest forms of art known to man.

Oh my yes.

What can we do about it? I've wanted to try to put together an anthology of internationally recognized professional poets who also write SF poetry. When I go to SF poetry readings at events, I bring their poetry, not mine -- because I feel like people need to be exposed to it. There are brilliant poets working in this space utterly unrecognized by the community -- Lawrence Raab, Robert Hass, Michael Meyerhofer, Rilke for chrissakes. Marvin Bell's "Mars Being Red" _is_ a heartbreaking SF poem.

It's gotten to the point that I've stopped sending out my own poetry because I know how far I have to go and the SF market is not a sufficient editorial vetting gauntlet to determine whether the work is good enough (barring specific examples like Mythic Delirium as mentioned below, and, I think, Not One of Us). I flirt with traditional poetry communities, but most of them are full of problems (e.g. hate) too. And it's not that the SFPA etc are _wrong_ for their haikus and whatnot, it's just that we can be so much more.

What do we do? Lead me, oh prophet of poetry that does not suck!

I think Robert Hass and Rilke have plenty of recognition, but the SFPA is not for them to some extent. However, plenty of Rhyslings have been given out to mainstream, recognized poets.

I think the only thing we can do is write better poetry.

Your Name Here (Anonymous) Expand
I went into Borderlands once and asked Alan, "Do you have any good, blow-your-mind fantasy? Like the way good science fiction can end and just demolish and rebuild your preconceptions and ideas about humanity?" (I was thinking about Palimpsest, FYI.)

Science Fiction poetry is often Rockets! Nanotech! Cool! while I find fantasy prose is often Elves! Adventure! Awesomeness! There's so much sci-fi I've read that really sticks the landing, or at least stumbles only a little. I can't seem to find much fantasy that has the same WOW to it. And then the roles are reversed in poetry.

The thing is, fantasy or sci-fi, it shouldn't be strictly about the technology, or the magic, or otherwise you've got a very elaborate technical manual. At the bottom, it's about the people, whether they're androids or mermaids. The material has to relate back to us, whoever we are. Otherwise, we might as well read about the mating habits of daisies.

Wow, I think SF these days is really falling down on the job, not innovating or creating new things, but aping the old, over and over. Fantasy is where it's at, in my mind. The novels that make me gape. I even posted a year or so ago about is there any awesome SF the way fantasy has become exciting and awesome and languageful and gorgeous these days, and basically people came up with Dhalgren, a 40 year old book.

Humanity is a virus.
I am so deep.


I actually indeed laughed out loud.

Maybe part of it is SF's nuts-and-bolts reputation -- it must explain shit! It should try to prophesize! -- making a lot of writers not even think to write SF poetry. I've barely thought about SF poetry, though I'm trying to be a better poetry appreciator, but yeah, it could be AWESOME. And SF can be poetic. I'm a greygirlbeast fan going back to 2003, I've seen at least recent examples.

It's easy to joke, and even easier to go with an easy joke, when you don't understand something. Maybe that's also a factor in the joke SF poems you've seen: go with the simplistic, crack wise (or seem to), and profit! out. Or perhaps it's a lack of confidence that one can explain the SF concept in the confines of a poem so that readers will get what you're talking about. It's lack of confidence, I feel more sure is a factor.

Now I'm even more glad that, as far as I know, Stephen King has not written SF poetry. (As much as I like him, he should not write poems. Or lyrics.)

I dunno, the piece he did for Playboy a few months back was really good. Fantasy, not sci-fi, really, but damn. Weird and cool and good.

Would I could write
Vogon poetry
Burma shave

~falls down giggling @ "Burma shave"~ Nice.

You know, signs like that still happen in Illinois? (or did two or three years ago)

I think I have one reference point for good SF poetry. I didn't even know there were enough attempts at it to constitute a genre.

It is this: http://escapepod.org/2005/11/15/ep-poem-making-monsters/

Which sticks in my brain.

My creative writing teacher this year tried to impress upon us greatly how stories should not be about ideas because that makes you "clever" and people don't like clever. I resisted this because I don't know how you write anything without *an* idea, but what you've said makes it clearer what he was describing as being the problem.

There's a whole organization, the SFPA. It's kind of a thing.

Hm. And while I generally quite like Pratt, I'm not wowed by that poem.

But then my professor told me about the language poets, and how they had this idea before me (SHOCKING)

Ha! This reminds me of the collegiate ducklings next door who were earnestly discussing tripping and engaging in an orgy AS IF THEY WERE THE FIRST PEOPLE EVER TO CONSIDER IT.

Then they gave the lady with a baby a funny look.

College, man, college.

Edited at 2010-07-01 08:15 pm (UTC)

THEY ARE THE FIRST SEX AND DRUGS GET REINVENTED WITH EVERY FRESHMAN CLASS IT'S THE RULES.

Even though I know next-to-nothing about SF poetry, I still love these posts, because you say things that crack me up. PEACE OUT.

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