Writing: The Sad State of Poetry in Speculative Fiction

Waaay back, when I first started to get serious about writing, I wrote poetry. Okay I started writing poetry at the angst-ridden edge of twelve, and shelved much of it until my twenties. Eventually though, my poetry grew up and ventured into the world.

My first professional sale was for a whole $1.45 and yes it was a science fiction poem to Star*line. I continued to sell a poem here and there for usually five bucks and a copy of the magazine/book. Then I hit it big and sold a poem to Amazing Stories; $36 USD. Wow! And from that, I was invited (they actually contacted me) to join the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), THE professional organization for science fiction writers throughout North America. (I  don’t think I’d ever heard of SF Canada way back then.)

Thirty-six dollars and SFWA membership. SFWA works on a third of the pie idea. Three pro sales makes you a real writer. One or two-thirds makes you an Associate. You still pay the same amount but you get fewer privileges and can’t vote for the board or the Nebulas. What does it get you? That may be a different post but there is a wee bit of prestige, a very wee bit if you stay Associate forever.

I’ve sold more poems and stories since then, but everything must be speculative obviously for SFWA’s requirements. The publication that your piece appears in must meet the demands of a high production number, be a long running publication, pay pro rates, be American (and a few, very few Canadian magazines), etc. for membership qualification. Oh and poetry, well SFWA decided to drop it like a hot potato. No longer can you become a member on poetry alone. Not even if you’re the best poet in the world. Bruce Boston is probably the best Speculative poet out there. Certainly the most well-known. Canada’s own Sandra Kasturi is no pale shadow either. And there are numerous more.

But here’ is thesad state of the beleaguered poem. Someone got it in their head that because a poem is a hundred words or a hundred lines then why, it’s gotta be easy and fast to write. I’ve spent days, even months writing a poem (in some cases, years, but not constantly). I doubt it was any poet who said, scrap the poems from SFWA. And if three measly poems were just too few for a full membership, then why not make it six or nine or a dozen? Nope, SFWA allows stories, novellas, novelettes, books, even flash fiction in the right circumstances (though I hear that’s iffy) but poetry. Ick. That stuff is for intellectuals pontificating down their noses. Who reads it?

And really, that is part of the problem, isn’t it? Who reads poetry? There is a small point here that I believe poetry is part of the old bardic tradition and really is meant to be heard and seen. Look at poetry slams (a discussion for another day). Many people read it…sometimes, for it to still be bought in some places. But enough? And poetry, well it’s unfathomable, bizarre, esoteric. And spec poetry has just gotta be worse. Doesn’t it? I mean aliens in a story gives you time to paint an elaborate picture, but a vignette? Well, we don’t have time to look at that.

Sigh, there was an era where everyone was taught to read poetry. And what is “The Cremation of Sam McGee” if not speculative poetry? Poetry doesn’t have to be unfathomable or above people’s heads though I’ve had the most straightforward poems rejected by editors who said their audience wouldn’t understand them. Say the poem is confusing but don’t lower the intelligence of your readers, please.

Oh and did I mention that speculative fiction is the worst paid genre out there (except, would you believe, erotic fiction)? Yes, I can write a poem and receive $100 for it from Descant, or a story for a lit mag and get anywhere from $100-$1000, or I can write an article for anywhere from thirty cents a word to a dollar and more. Sure ,there’s a range but if you’re writing poetry and speculative poetry, well you really are the dregs of society. Not even as good as the tentacle waving scum of speculative story writers. No sirree. You’re filler on those pages that don’t have a story long enough.

That is the sad sate of speculative poetry. Alas. And this attitude is often held by those who have never written it or tried to understand it. SFWA has some pretty old-fashioned ideas that makes me wonder on the value of continuing to be a member when I’m a small time Canadian writer.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Writing: The Sad State of Poetry in Speculative Fiction

  1. I agree with you on some bits, and have some things to add on others. I would agree that poetry is hard to write, harder than most people think. It’s why I stick to my prose, I just don’t have the brain to be a serious poet. And I write speculative fiction, but I can’t even imagine how one would go about writing poetry in that genre, so props to you!

    I don’t think that poetry is looked down on quite as much as you say here though, and in fact seems to be held in much greater esteem than prose. I’m from America, so maybe this gives me a different perspective, but here we have the poet laureate of the country, a poet designated by the president to be America’s poet…but no prose laureate. In fact, poetry is regarded by most in my experience to be the higher of the two arts, probably a hold over from the beat generation when all the big names were poets. In fact…I can probably name more poets than prose writers, even though I read more prose than poetry. But that’s just the two genres as a whole. I can see where a speculative poet would have a hard time of things when that genre as a whole is considered to be sub-par to Literature.

    • colleenanderson

      You make good points and in fact Canada has a poet laureate too though if I recall I think Vancouver got its first poet laureate last year. http://www.vancouververse.ca/ I don’t know if there is a prose laureate. Perhaps I muddied the waters but this was meant to be about speculative poetry and how it’s been relegated to the back benches. SFWA took it out of their requirements for membership completely. SF Canada has no such limitations and in fact the Aurora Awards (for spec works) is considering a category with poetry since it was mixed in with other ones in the past. We’ll see what happens there. Thanks for other perspectives.

  2. johann

    Ah tis true
    tis sad
    Poetry where art thou?Now?

    I enjoy reading your stuff when I remember
    to look
    😉
    keep it up.

    I wonder if one of my favorite
    speculative fiction stories is
    poetry?

    I think it is by Tuli Kupfenberg
    (of the FUGs & other fame)
    it is in one of Harlans “dangerous visons “anthologies
    billed as (possibly)the shortest science fiction story.

    from memory

    “~ Did you hear of the atom bomb that
    wanted to be a bullet?

    It seems he missed the personal touch~”

    the end

    Isttd& reading ,even poetry
    even sam woudl say it is cold.

    • colleenanderson

      Hmm, well the boundaries are fuzzy. There are prose poems, which seem to confuse some poets and prose writers. I wouldn’t call this a poem or a story but I guess a piece of prose, though it seems more a joke. These days, we have flash fiction, which is anything under 500 words, or 1000 in some places. They can get shorter than this one in trying to tell a story.

  3. SaraMiller

    Sadly not many friends of mine read poetry i still love to write it.

  4. Interesting post! Many people I know will say they do not enjoy reading poetry…and despise speculative poetry, until I take them on a journey that exposes them to it.

    Quite a few young adults I know because of my kids seem open to reading it and some of these people have started to write speculative poetry. They are surprised how dificult it is to write a decent poem.

    I, too, have spent more time than I care to remember writing speculative poems, but when they are finished, I’m always glad I did.

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