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
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.
Shannon Connor Winward