SFPA

Science Fiction Poetry Association

“What Is Speculative Poetry” Survey

Executive Committee Report

January 25, 2017

 

The Science Fiction Poetry Association maintains two forums (a yahoo list-serv and a FB group page) where members of the SFPA and the broader community discuss topics relevant to the speculative poetry field.  The SFPA awards, projects, and publications are items of perennial interest; we often hear suggestions for changes to our rules and procedures, and debate their relative merits.

One ongoing debate within the forums (and indeed, in the literary world) is the exact definition of speculative.  In its constitution, the SFPA defines itself as an organization dedicated “the genres of science fiction, science, fantasy, horror, speculative, and all other areas of poetry and related thematic interest which current practitioners and readers commonly accept as inclusive within the broadest reasonable limits of the term.”  Nevertheless, members of our community consistently disagree on what constitutes “the broadest reasonable limits”.

While this may seem like a philosophical or semantic question, it’s also a practical one.  Each year the SFPA publishes two award anthologies (the Rhysling Award and the Dwarf Stars) of speculative poetry, bestows the Elgin Award for chapbook and book-length speculative poetry manuscripts, and hosts a speculative poetry contest with cash prizes, with the express purpose of highlighting the very best speculative poetry being written today. The need for a definition of speculative poetry as it pertains to eligibility for these awards, as well as our quarterly publications—namely Star*Line (the official SFPA newsletter) and Eye to the Telescope (the SFPA online magazine)—is a concern frequently raised by SFPA members, and has at times left the community vulnerable to controversy.

In response to these concerns, the SFPA officers published an informal online survey entitled “What Is Speculative Poetry” in November 2016. The main purpose of this survey was to determine whether there is an overall consensus among the membership regarding what genres or sub-genres of poetry belong under the heading “speculative”, assuming no other genre elements are present.  Little to no definitions of each suggested genre were provided, by design; the intention was to leave it up to survey participants to decide, based on their own understandings, which categories should be included.

As of January 25th, 2017, 89 people participated in this survey.  A detailed report of the results appears below, along with select comments from participants.

 *Correction: “SFF Tropes used only as metaphor appears twice.  This is an error.  The second appearance (at 37%) should read “Science used only as metaphor”.  See below for results table.

Survey Results

As indicated in the graph and table below, the results of the “What Is Speculative Poetry” survey represent a wide spectrum of opinion regarding what counts as “speculative”.  On the upper end of consensus, we find categories that are understood across the literary landscape as falling within the speculative umbrella, including Science Fiction, Space science & exploration, Fantasy, Magic, Supernatural Horror, Myth and Folklore, Fairy Tales, Alternative History, SF&F pop culture, Superheroes, Surrealism, Slipstream, Fabulism, and Weird and “What If”.

Genres that fell more towards the middle of the spectrum—that is, those receiving support by 40-65%  of responders, included Science (physics, chemistry, biology, etc), Domestic Fabulism, Dinosaurs, “Interstitial” works, biographies of speculative poets, and poems in which traditional SF&F tropes as literary device (analogy, simile).

On the lower end of the spectrum—those genres that are most controversial, according to responders—we find Bizzaro, SF&F tropes as metaphor (bit of inconsistency there), biographies of scientists and (non-speculative) poets, Mundane Horror, Nature, Religion, Gender, Real history, Cowboy & Western, and Romance.

Genre

# of Votes % of Votes

Science fiction

88 99%
Fantasy 86 97%
Horror with supernatural elements 80 90%
Mythological 80 90%
Alternate history 80 90%
Weird poetry (ala Lovecraft) 79 89%
Magical realism 79 89%
Fairy Tales 77 87%
Urban fantasy 76 85%
Cosmic horror 73 82%
Riffs on pop SFFH culture 72 81%
Folklore 70 79%
Astrology, magic, occult 64 72%
Space (astronomy, real-world space exploration) 63 71%
Fabulism 63 71%
surrealism 62 70%
slipstream 62 70%
superheroes 62 70%
“What if” poetry 61 69%
science (physics, chemistry, biology, etc) 56 63%
SFF tropes used only as metaphor 50 56%
Domestic fabulism 47 53%
Interstitial 44 49%
Dinosaurs 42 47%
SFF tropes used only as analogy 41 46%
SFF tropes used only as simile 41 46%
Speculative poets (biographical) 40 45%
Bizzaro 33 37%
Science used only as metaphor 33 37%
Scientists (biographical) 28 31%
Mundane (real-world) horror 21 24%
Nature 17 19%
Current religions 9 10%
Cowboy & Western 5 6%
Real-world human history 5 6%
Poets (biographical) 5 6%
Gender topics 5 6%
Romance 2 2%

 

Additionally, participants were given an opportunity to suggest categories overlooked by this survey.  Responses were as varied one might expect.  Selected responses include “oniric or dream content”, “time travel”, “post-apocalyptic”, “steampunk”, “experimental”, “robots”,  “mysticism”, “fanfic poetry”, and what is, to many, the ultimate yardstick—”I know it when I see it.”

So Now What?

As mentioned above, the purpose of the “What Is Speculative Poetry” survey was to determine informally whether there is an overall consensus among the membership regarding what genres or sub-genres of poetry belong under the heading “speculative”.

Based on the results, the answer to that question is clear as mud–yes, there is consensus, and no, there really isn’t.  Are we surprised? Not really!

Nevertheless, it is the consensus of the SFPA executive committee that this survey was, at least, an interesting experiment.  We feel that you, our members and colleagues, will also find it interesting, and that, in regards to eligibility for our awards and publications, this survey can also be a useful tool to future SFPA editors and award Chairs, who are tasked with answering the practical question, “What is speculative poetry?

As of the writing of this summary, the SFPA’s implicit policy is that the determination of eligibility of poems (and poetry collections) as speculative is subject to the discretion of our appointed editors and chairs, with oversight by the SFPA executive committee.  This policy may change, and/or be made more explicit in our official guidelines, pursuant to ongoing (and future) review.  As ever, we encourage discussion and feedback on this and other topics of interest to our community.  In the meantime, we want to express our sincere thanks to everyone who participated in this survey—as well as the members of our discussion forums—for your investment in the SFPA and the speculative poetry community.

Science Fiction Poetry Association

“Rhysling Maximum Length” Survey

Executive Committee Report

January 25, 2017

 The Science Fiction Poetry Association maintains two forums (a yahoo list-serv and a FB group page) where members of the SFPA and the broader community discuss topics relevant to the speculative poetry field.  The SFPA awards, projects, and publications are items of perennial interest; we often hear suggestions for changes to our rules and procedures, and debate their relative merits.

One such discussion pertained to the Rhysling award “Long Poem” category – specifically, what, if anything, should be done with especially long poems that are nominated for the award.  Several members voiced concerns that poems above a certain length might strain the budget for the Rhysling anthology by adding in extra pages and printing costs.  Others expressed the idea that particularly long poems might be better considered as a distinct genre, rather than competing against poems of a more easily-consumed length.

In response to these concerns, the SFPA officers published an online survey entitled “Rhysling Maximum Length”, in November 2016. The main purpose of this survey was to determine whether there is an overall consensus among the membership on these (and related) questions.  The secondary purpose of this survey was to determine if, based on the responses, an official proposal for policy change should be considered.

The “Rhysling Maximum Length” survey included one main question: Should there be an upper line limit to long length Rhysling nominated poems?along with five follow-up questions.

As of January 25th, 2017, 100 people participated in this survey.  A detailed report of the results appears below, along with select comments from participants both for and against the overall question of whether any upper line limit to poems eligible for the Rhysling Long Poem category.

*

Survey Results

Question #1: Should there be an upper line limit to long length Rhysling nominated poems?

While not every participant responded to all six questions; this fundamental question received exactly 100 responses, revealing a pure 50/50 split in member opinion:

No – 50 (50%)

Yes – 50 (50%)

 

Additionally, participants were given an opportunity to express their thoughts at the end of the survey.  Comments generally were in favor or against defining limits to works eligible for the Long Poem category:

Against an upper limit:

“Would the Best of Anthologies for short stories abridge their works?”

“I believe length will be self-selecting; the longer the poem, the more it would have to blow the voting members’ minds to be selected; therefore, i support no limit to the length of poems.”

“…if it’s not published as a chapbook, I don’t think it’s fair to hold [a single poem] up against other chapbooks [that were] published first as a chap.”

“Regardless of length, the quality of the poem should be the only deciding factor, but a separate category for extra-long poems might be worth considering.”

In favor of an upper limit:

“I’m a cynic & I don’t think readers (other than the poet & their ever-loving parents) have the attention span to read over-long poetry.”

“As an editor, I understand that there has to be a balance between desire to showcase a piece of work and anthology formatting. These are useful parameters to define.”

“We have to set some reasonable limits based upon our publishing resources.”

“Rhysling should not be given for short stories in verse.”

*

Question #2: If yes, what should the upper limit be?

Assuming the membership voted in favor of an upper line limit for poems in the “Long Poem” Rhysling category, it would be necessary to define said limit.

The first option, “9 pages / 5K words / 500 lines” was designed to dovetail upper length limit for Rhysling “Long Poems” with the minimum length requirements for the SFPA’s Elgin Award for book-length works.  Out of 51 responses, this option received a majority vote.

9 pages / 5K words / 500 lines – 30 (59%)

Other – 21 (41%)

Participants who answered “other” were invited to supply alternative length requirements.  Responses ranged from 2 to 27 pages (or an equivalent word/line length), with an average of 10 pages.

*

Question #3: If yes, should single poems longer than the upper limit for Rhysling Long Poems (i.e. in excess of 9 pages) be eligible for the Elgin Awards, regardless of how formatted when published?

Out of 61 responses, a majority of responders voted in favor of allowing poems that are over the Rhysling Long Poem length (assuming one is defined) to compete in the Elgin Awards instead—irrespective of whether the poem was published as a book-length manuscript.

No – 28 (46%)

Yes – 33 (54%)

If the SFPA were to move forward with an upper line limit of 9 pages / 5K words / 500 lines (as preferred in Question #2), this would allow a smooth division of eligibility between the Rhysling and the Elgin, with no poems being left out of consideration and recognition due to length restrictions.

*

Question #4: Should single poems in the Long Poem Rhysling category be excerpted for the print anthology if over a certain length? (Extra-long poems could and would appear in their entirety in the Anthology PDF edition)

Unlike Questions 3 & 4, this question is not dependent on either a Yes or No answer to Question 1.  That is, rather than addressing the issue of eligibility based on length, it asks whether members would support the idea of simply excerpting particularly long poems, in the interest of space and budgetary limitations.

Out of 99 responses, a majority of responders supported the idea of excerpting particularly long poems in the print anthology (provided the poems would be published in their entirety in PDF).

No (we should print them in their entirety) – 45 (45%)

Yes – 54 (55%)

*

Question #5: If yes, what should the excerpt length be?

For this question, the officers tried to offer a range of options which, while somewhat arbitrary, reflect the “9 pages / 5K words / 500 lines” upper limit that dovetails with the Elgin lower limit—though, again, responses to this question are not dependent on a Yes or No answer to the Elgin eligibility question (Question #3).

Of 50* responses, a majority of participants were in favor of excerpting long poems after 5 pages (or the equivalent word/line length)—which is roughly half of a chapbook (as defined by the Elgin guidelines).

5 pages / 2K words / 200 lines – 20 (40%)

4 pages / 1.5K words / 150 lines – 10 (20%)

3 pages / 1K words / 100 lines – 14 (28%)

Other – 6 (12%)

Participants who answered “other” were invited to supply alternative length requirements.  Responses ranged from 2 to 10+ pages (or an equivalent word/line length), with an average of 8 pages.

*Some write-in responses were essentially “No” votes to other questions or duplicate answers to Question #6, and thus could not be averaged and were removed from the overall count for this particular question.

*

Question #6: How should the excerpt be chosen?

Out of 72 responses, a significant majority of responders voted in favor of allowing the Rhysling Anthology editor (Rhysling Chair) and the author of a nominated poem to excerpt particularly long poems by mutual agreement (assuming the membership is in favor of excerpting long poems at all)

By the anthology editor – 3 (4%)

By the poet – 18 (25%)

By the editor and the poet together – 46 (64%)

Arbitrarily at the determined lined limit – 5 (7%)

*

So Now What?

As mentioned above, the driving question for this survey was Should there be an upper line limit to long length Rhysling nominated poems? Given that responses to this driving question were exactly split, it is the opinion of the SFPA executive committee that maintaining the status quo would be less divisive than imposing limitations that are only supported by half of (responding) membership.

In other words, there are no plans at this time to define an upper line limit for works nominated in the Rhysling Long Poem category.

However, the question of whether particularly long poems in this category should be excerpted in the print version of the Rhysling Anthology remains open.  A majority of (responding) members voted in favor of excerpting—though not an overwhelming majority.  On the other hand, a significant majority of responders (64%) indicated that excerpting long poems would be acceptable if the Rhysling Chair and nominated poet worked together to determine what portion of the poem would appear in print—which although not an explicit policy, is an option that has been exercised in the past.

Given these considerations, it is the opinion of the SFPA executive committee that excerpting works in the Rhysling Long Poem category (in the print anthology) will remain an option, to be considered on a case-by-case basis, with respect to the relative length of the poem in question, the space and budget restrictions of the particular anthology, and the concordance of both the Rhysling Chair and the nominated poet, with oversight by the executive committee.  Further, in the interest of transparency and clarity, this decision will be reflected in the Rhysling’s posted nomination guidelines.

The SFPA executive committee would like to thank the survey responders—all 100 of you!—as well as the members of our discussion forums for your investment in the SFPA and the speculative poetry community.

 

In Case You’re Just Tuning In

Earlier this week a controversy developed over poems that were nominated by members of the Science Fiction Poetry Association for the 2017 Rhysling Award anthology, posted to the SFPA’s website, and then later removed because they’d been deemed ineligible by the Rhysling Chair on the grounds that they were not sufficiently speculative to qualify.  The removal of a poem by Tlotlo Tsamaase, “I Will Be Your Grave”, which first appeared in Strange Horizons, was met with particular dismay, with concerns that the exclusion of the poem demonstrates, at best, cultural insensitivity on the part of the Rhysling Chair and executive committee.

After further review, two of the disqualified poems, including “I Will Be Your Grave”, have since be reinstated (though it appears not to have made it back to the website at the time of this writing).  This was done not only as a gesture of good faith in answer to the grave concerns of the speculative poetry community, but also because the decision to disqualify the poems had not been unanimous in the first place.  Even among so small a group (six volunteers), the definition of “speculative” is highly variable—and problematic.

SFPA President Bryan Thao Worra has made a public statement regarding this issue which touches on the overarching goals of the organization; goals that include “inclusion, imagination, innovation, and community”, as well as active dialog among disparate points of view, even on sensitive and uncomfortable matters.  I encourage anyone following this issue to read it, if you haven’t already.

As an officer of the SFPA, I have held back on commenting on the matter – even as online discussions became heated, and colleagues and friends on all sides suffered personal attacks—because to me, the heart of the problem stems from a breakdown in communication, particularly among the SFPA officers.  In addition to the very serious and distressing political situation here in the states (and globally!), many of us are also facing personal hardships which make it challenging to conduct business in real time at the best of times, let alone when controversy hits with the lightning speed of social media.  It has taken some effort for all of us, in completely different time zones, to connect, review our notes, reiterate our positions, and reach a meaningful consensus.

Now that the matter is, hopefully, behind us, I would first like to apologize to anyone who has felt aggrieved by these events.  I am confident that was not the intent of the Chair or the officers, even if that was the result.   I personally feel that there was much we, as an executive body, could have done earlier to prevent this, for reasons I will touch on in a moment.  My heart is heavy over the fallout from this situation, but I am hoping we can learn from it and use its momentum to improve our policies and process in the future.

Secondly, I’d like to share my thoughts, as both a writer and fan of speculative poetry as well as an SFPA officer with firsthand knowledge of the events that transpired.  I believe that, although it may be at times uncomfortable, this is one of those difficult conversations that needs to be had.

WHAT IS SPECULATIVE POETRY?

One of the first issues to appear on my radar as an elected officer of the SFPA was the fact that, even within an organization dedicated to speculative poetry, not everyone agrees on what “speculative” means.  While this may seem like a philosophical or semantic question, it’s also a practical one.  The SFPA exists to foster community among people who read and write speculative poetry.  Each year the SFPA publishes two award anthologies (the Rhysling and the Dwarf Stars) of speculative poetry, bestows the Elgin Award for chapbook and book-length speculative poetry manuscripts, and hosts a speculative poetry contest with cash prizes, with the express purpose of highlighting the very best speculative poetry being written today.  Without a clear, working consensus of what speculative poetry is, what’s the fucking point?

The problem (as our members and colleagues have consistently and eloquently pointed out in many impassioned and drawn-out debates)is that a universally accepted definition of “speculative” is the stuff of fantasy (pun intended).  If you ask ten poets to define the genre you will get eleventy-seven conflicting answers.  Each writer and reader brings to the page an understanding informed by culture, marketing trends, historical framing, personal preference and bias… I don’t believe that straight science poetry belongs in science fiction, for example, but there are plenty of people who vehemently disagree.  And that’s okay.  Because what happens when we start trying to draw lines in the moon dust to define what belongs and what doesn’t? We end up with a divided community which, in the end, defeats the fucking point. 

So while I have my own personal opinions about what constitutes “speculative”, I have taken to heart the wisdom of members who, when asked the question, caution the community to err on the side of inclusion.  If it means that a few poems squeak by that are (arguably) less representative of the field than others, so be it. The upshot of fuzzy boundaries is that it allows for diversity, and diversity is a good thing.  Diversity freshens the poetic gene pool.  It educates, opens new doors of possibility, broadens horizons and raises new speculation and isn’t that the fucking point?

And yet.  As an officer of the SFPA, it is my responsibility to help recruit, vet, and assist those people we appoint as Editors and Chairs of our organization’s endeavors.  This year’s Rhysling Chair, David Kopaska-Merkel, is a notable member of the SFPA and the wider speculative poetry community – a person with a breadth of experience and demonstrated ability.  We were thrilled to have him take the helm for this project, and to vest him with the responsibilities as well as the discretion required for the role.

I am deeply troubled by the accusations on social media that David acted irresponsibly in deeming certain poems ineligible, or that his actions were done with malice, with the intent of purposely excluding some voices.  As Rhysling Chair, it is David’s job to ensure that all nominated poems meet the criteria for eligibility, which by extension includes determining whether the poems count as speculative, even though there is not – as yet – any clear policy to guide him in this.  David’s solution was to bring  each poem that he found questionable to the attention of the executive committee, seeking our input, before making his final determination.  His was a measured, conscientious approach.  And while I did not personally agree with each decision that he made, I was willing to support them.

Members of the SFPA and in the greater community have questioned the right of one person to decide what counts as speculative – and given that as a community we’ve yet to land on a universal definition, it’s a valid question.  It has been argued that the fact the nominated poem first appeared in one of the most celebrated speculative markets in the field should automatically qualify the poem as speculative, which is also an excellent point—I even suggested as much myself at one point during one of the many discussions in our list-serv, saying that any poem published in a speculative journal had already been vetted by an editor and should get an automatic pass.

But on the other hand, a point that I haven’t seen vocalized is the fact that magazine editors, too, exercise personal discretion.  They make decisions based on the same personally or culturally defined and often arbitrary standards and preferences and biases that we, as readers, exercise—and they have the right to do so, because of the task that has been entrusted to them.  Similarly, the Rhysling Chair is tasked with interpreting the organization’s guidelines to the best of his or her ability, which also implies a degree of individual, even arbitrary discretion—and that is what happened.  Without any clear guidance in the form of official policy, and with only the less-than-unanimous opinions of the executive committee (a microcosm of the larger spec community), he made a judgment call.

Personally, I am glad that “I Will Be Your Grave” was reinstated.  I believe that surrealism has a place in the speculative genre, and that poems like this are doing interesting things with language and imagery and genre tropes that should be recognized.  But as an officer, I believe the takeaway from this issue has less to do with righting a perceived injustice, and more to do with improving the Rhysling process.

I think, as a community, we need to look at the central issue –how do we define speculative, and, more importantly, who/how do we empower to apply that definition when it comes to featuring poems in our annual award programs—including our anthologies, which we hold up to the world as the best representatives of what speculative poetry is?

To accomplish this, we need to move away from the merry-go-round of debate (and name-calling) that is endemic in our social media and forums.  We need to work together to define clear and equitable guidelines for both the nomination process and the vetting system—assuming a vetting system for “speculative” should even exist.

Rather than writing the SFPA off as an exclusive or broken community, which I see happening (and which breaks my heart) I encourage anyone who is invested in speculative poetry and the issues raised herein to participate in making us better.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

For one thing, membership equals a vote.  We need membership dollars to exist and we need member votes to make policy.  Information about membership rates and benefits can be found here.

Secondly, if you have not already, please visit the WHAT IS SPECULATIVE  survey and share your opinions with us.  We were planning to close the poll soon, but given the events of the last week I think it behooves us to leave it open a bit longer.  This is an informal poll, not a binding ballot, but it may help provide a measure of member consensus on this very challenging topic that guide us—or at the very least, a way to frame the question.

Third, help us improve the process.

As Secretary, it has been a priority of mine to codify the various SFPA volunteer positions, including that of the award/contest Chairs and publication editors, so that people coming into these roles have a clear understanding of what is expected of them without the added burden of having to figure out how to do everything by scratch each time.  We now have official contracts that outline the duties and timelines for each position, but clearly there are still things we need to address, such as how/when to post nominated poems, how/whether to vet nominating poems for genre eligibility and how/when to handle poems that have been disqualified.   These are all part of a conversation that has been ongoing among the officers, but needs to be taken up with renewed urgency, out of respect for the frustration and hurt that was caused by our failure to provide clearer policies in time.

In the coming weeks, I would like to see these issues addressed as clearly-worded proposals to be approved by the membership and adopted as policy, to be cited in our official documents and posted guidelines.  Hopefully, we can reach a consensus and have these policies in place in advance not just of next year’s Rhyslings, but also our other upcoming 2017 projects, such as the Dwarf Stars, where the question of “What is speculative” is also relevant.

To that aim, I invite members of the SFPA and other interested parties to contact me with your thoughts on the matter.  Please note, I am NOT interested in further finger-pointing or recriminations.  What I am interested in are your suggestions for policy reform.

I am committed to leaving this organization better than I found it.  If you would like to help me accomplish that, please feel free to reach out.  I can be reached through Facebook or via email: ladytairngire @ yahoo dot com

In Closing

I realize that, to some, this incident has raised serious concerns.  I hope that in this long rambling I’ve made it clear that these concerns are not falling on deaf ears, and that many of us who are working within the SFPA are striving for an inclusive community of poets who will continue to challenge and broaden and enrich the speculative genre(s).  If we falter (and we will) I hope that passionate people will continue to call us on it.  In particular, I want to thank those who have done so with open minds and measured words, as this, I believe, is the surest way to create positive change.

Sincerely,

Shannon Connor Winward

SFPA Secretary