Tribute to Speculative Poetry
Rhina P. Espaillat & Timothy Steele
So much of contemporary poetry is self-oriented, pseudo-biographical, and set in something like the present reality that it’s easy to forget that poetry doesn’t have to be so grounded—and that the current dominance of psychological realism is far from the historical norm. In fact, the oldest poems we still have—the ancient epics of Gilgamesh, the Mahabarata, the Iliad, and so on—might all be described by an impartial observer as “speculative.” King Gilgamesh himself may have been a historical figure, but the gods and goddess, the wild man Enkidu, and the monstrous Humbaba are all pure imagination. Think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Faerie Queen.
This is what we mean by “speculative,” a term often attributed to Robert A. Heinlein as a broader alternative to science fiction. Whether poetry or prose, speculative writing always creates a new world. Suzette Haden Elgin, founder of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, defines speculative poetry succinctly as writing “about a reality that is in some way different from the existing reality.” This includes science fiction (whether hard or soft), fantasy, horror, supernatural, superhero, utopian, dystopian, apocalyptic, alternate history, and anything else along those lines that’s yet to be defined.
But why speculate on what might be speculative? As always, we put out a call for submissions, this time for “otherworldly” subjects, and let the community of writers dictate where the boundaries might be. The result is the 50-page feature section—35 poems culled from some 10,000 offerings. A Viking party, broken up by police. A slime mold’s singularity. Alien frat boys. A garden of words that give weeds a whole new meaning. Androids, asteroids, X-Men. In one poem, never-ending stairs appear in a hole outside of town. In another, Rocket J. Squirrel goes (alone) to couples therapy.
Clearly this is a journey somewhere strange, which raises the question: Why embark at all? Isn’t speculative writing just a form of escapist genre fiction—daydreams of another world that help us avoid addressing this one? Quite often that does seem to be the case. Countless submissions constructed vast and bizarre universes with the deftest of verse, but left us wondering, what for? Other poems, though—those that follow, and more—managed the transformative magic that makes real poetry. They say what cannot be said another way; they construct new worlds in response to the confines of this one. They make what’s strange, and leave you feeling changed. And unlike the real world, it’s never a dull ride.
Issue #38 also includes a large selection of open poetry, interviews with formalists Rhina P. Espaillat and Timothy Steele, and the 2012 Rattle Poetry Prize winners. In addition to the $5,000 winner, Heidi Shuler’s “Trials of a Teenage Transvestite’s Single Mother,” subscribers are invited to vote for the first annual $1,000 Readers’ Choice Award from among the finalists.
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