Speculative Poetry: What You Should Know About Science Fiction and Fantasy in Verse

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It's been a good long while since we've had a guest post on Poetic Asides, so I was excited to hear from Randi Anderson about covering the topic of speculative poetry, or science fiction and fantasy poetry. (If you have a good guest post topic, send it to me at robert.brewer@fwmedia.com. I'm always interested in poetry-related topics.)

Randi Anderson

Randi Anderson

Randi Anderson is a poet and fantasy writer who tells stories inspired by world folklore and religion. Watch her tackle poetry and big life questions on her blog, Why am I here, again?, where you can also download a free PDF of her Russian-inspired fairy tale, “Five Living Stars.”

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Mention the term speculative poetry to an unsuspecting listener, and you might get a reaction like this…

Ray guns and rhyme schemes, Batman! What is THAT?

Speculative poetry tends to fly under the radar, whether it wants to or not. Many eye it with suspicion, as if it were just a rhymed and metered version of pulp sci-fi and therefore not “serious literature.”

Don’t be fooled. In the field of speculative poetry, as in fiction, you’ll find a long history as well as some stellar talent. Under the name “science fiction poetry,” the genre even has its own award: namely the annual Rhysling Awards, named for a character in Heinlein’s short story “The Green Hills of Earth.”

If you’re a poet and fan of the fantastic, you need to check this out. Here’s a quick primer on how to get involved.

What Is (And Is Not) Speculative Poetry

Contrary to the suspicions I mentioned above, speculative poetry is not simply genre fiction told in verse.

It is, first and foremost, poetry. It comes in all forms and styles—from traditional forms through free verse and beyond—but bears this difference: It explores the human experience through a speculative lens. And by “speculative lens” I mean through creatures, settings, mythological figures, and other elements common to fantasy, science fiction and horror.

This is not a new thing.

Dark romanticist poems about vampires, ghosts, and the Erlkönig (looking at you, Goethe) could also fall in this category. I’d even ruffle some feathers by arguing that classic epics like the Odyssey and the Divine Comedy are early forms of speculative poetry, though we don’t often think of them that way.

In any case, despite its history, speculative poetry does have its critics. Some believe it’s not serious enough, that the subject itself makes it impossible to write good poems. You may find otherwise when you read some of the talented poets working in this genre, including Sonya Taaffe, Catherynne Valente, and others presented in this defense of science fiction poetry by Amal El-Mohtar. (Worth the read, if you have doubts.)

Where to Read and Publish Online

Fortunately for poetic SFF fans, you can find speculative poetry both online and in print. (Huzzah!) For our purposes, though, online journals are more accessible and will give you a quick, broad sampling of the genre.

To get started reading, I recommend beginning with a list of past Rhysling Award winners. Then, if you have access to Writer’s Market, browse the SFF publications and look for those with poetry guidelines and websites. Otherwise, a smart Google search will serve you well.

Here are just a few online magazines I’ve read and recommend:

If you find a poem you like, check out the poet’s bio to see where else they’ve published. Soon you should have a long list of favorite journals to return to.

How to Get Started With Your Own Poetry

The best way to venture out into speculative poetry is, first of all, to read it. Get an idea of what’s out there, as well as how people are challenging genre tropes or playing with them in ways fiction can’t.

Then, start experimenting. Take your favorite folktale or legend and try out a new angle, a different voice, a familiar concept turned on its head. If you write fiction, you could also take one of your story ideas and explore a theme or character through verse. Once you have a piece you like, get feedback -- whether from fellow poets or from SFF fans.

In fact, why not start now?

Post your science fiction, fantasy, or horror poem in the comments below, and let’s see what we’ve got.

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