Have You Read Speculative Poetry?

I met Shelly Bryant at the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators Conference, and one of the first things she told me was that she wrote speculative poetry and translated Chinese to English. I’d never really read speculative poetry unless you count Kubla Khan, and I have a huge amount of respect for any foreigner who can speak Chinese (it’s not the easiest thing to do, I can tell you that),  let alone write or translate it. When I looked at her work, I found that a lot of it is influenced by her interactions with the orient.

I was fascinated. I requested her to appear in my ongoing series of creative writing professionals, and she was kind enough to agree. In her guest post today, she speaks about speculative poetry, what it is, and why she writes it. Take it away, Shelly!


When asked why I focus on speculative poetry, I often reply that my goal is to make sure to limit my readership as much as possible.

Of course, that’s not true. Not only do I prefer to have as wide an audience as possible for my work, but I’ve actually found a fairly good sized readership within one of poetry’s fastest growing fields, speculative poetry. There are numerous journals and websites dedicated mostly or exclusively to the genre, and the poets working in the field form an active, supportive community – a community which includes, but is not limited to, the Science Fiction Poetry Association. I have enjoyed being a part of this community since 2007, when my first piece of speculative poetry was published. Since then, I’ve had over 600 pieces of creative work accepted for publication, the large majority of which are speculative poems.

While some poets prefer to the term “sci-fi poetry” to describe the field, I usually go with the more inclusive “speculative,” because much of what circulates in genre publications is neither science nor fiction. For me, what sets speculative poetry apart from mainstream verse is its focus on and approach to a “what if.” The poem that grows out of the poet’s engagement with a “what if” question may end up being sci-fi, fantasy, horror, surreal, dystopian, mythic, slipstream, or perhaps a combination of several of these. Which term best describes a particular poem depends on both the question asked and the approach taken to exploring it.

Most readers of English literature have encountered speculative poetry at some point, even if they have not called it that. Some examples: Beowulf, Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry, samples from Edwin Morgan’s poetry, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, 1974 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Harry Martinson (author of Aniara)

Some other notable authors who are more known for their fiction have also published speculative poetry, including: Ursula Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Orson Scott Card, Janet Yolen

Other poets might be less recognizable to the wider reading public, but are very active within the field. Some important names are: Bruce Boston, Susan Slaviero, G. O. Clark, Kendall Evans, Marge Simon, Frederick Turner, David Kopaska-Merkel, Joshua Gage, Albert Goldbarth, Deborah Kolodji

(Of course, any list is bound to overlook many worthy names. I’ve only provided a sampler here.)

The inspiration for a speculative poem can be found anywhere. Several years ago, when I was browsing the materials in the Reading Room at the Chinese Academy of Science in Shanghai, I came across an article describing the recent findings of the Hubble Telescope, including several exoplanets. In its description of HD69830c, the article raised the question of what seasons would be like on a planet with the features observed on HD69830c. And with that “what if,” I knew I had the starting point for a new poem. The result was this sijo (first published in Dreams and Nightmares, September 2012):

alone with you
on HD69830c

watching the meteor shower
that nightly lights the skies

we await the change of seasons
for which we still have no names

All of that is well and good, but it still does not answer the question of why I personally choose to write speculative poetry. For me, it is no different from the question of why I read so much speculative poetry and fiction. In the speculative genres, I find space to explore topics that are often either too messy or too big to treat in situations that are recognizably my own. When the issues are distanced in a defamiliarized world, I might not come to answers, but there is more freedom to explore the problems.

The most prominent recurring theme in my body of work is the question of Otherness. In speculative fiction, I can consider not only questions of racism, gender politics, or all the other “real” world areas where Otherness creates such difficulties, but can really push the boundaries and ask myself how far I can go in trying to empathize with something that seems so completely alien to me. What happens in most speculative fiction and poetry is that the reading (or writing) experience draws me close to the Other, opening the way for sympathy and understanding, perhaps even allowing me to abandon the sort of thinking that creates Others in my mind in the first place, and moving me to recognize all creatures as not Other, but as one like me.


Poems by Shelly Bryant
Shelly Bryant

Shelly Bryant divides her year between Shanghai and Singapore, working as a teacher, writer, researcher, and translator. She is the author of six volumes of poetry and a pair of travel guides for the cities of Suzhou and Shanghai. She has translated work from the Chinese for Penguin Books, Epigram Publishing, the National Library Board in Singapore, Giramondo Books, and Rinchen Books.

Shelly’s poetry has appeared in journals, magazines, and websites around the world, as well as in several art exhibitions, including dark ’til dawn, Things Disappear, and Studio White, Exhibition 2011.


I’ve highlighted the last para of Shelly’s post above because I found it simply beautiful, and so relevant to our times, and didn’t want anyone to miss it.

I’ve really enjoyed reading Shelly’s poetry and have written about it. Have you ever read speculative poetry? Would you like to give it a try? (I’ll be giving out copies of Shelly’s The Lined Palm to two randomly chosen commenters.) Do you have questions for Shelly Bryant?

I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !


Add Yours
  1. Lavinia

    Hello,I also write speculative poetry,I’m an aspiring poet.I love writing fantastic romance but I’m not so sure,I’m trying to find my own style,is it ok to try anything regarding the rules of a poem’s form?I usually write in free verse,I use short verses.I’m working on a poetry book which I hope to publish through the years.

    • Shelly

      Hi Lavinia,

      There is plenty of latitude in regards to form among the various journals that specialise in speculative poetry. Some focus on formal verse, and others prefer free verse. If you browse the Links page at the Science Fiction Poetry Association website (http://www.sfpoetry.com), you will find plenty of markets that look for genre poetry. It’s a very good starting point.

      I’ll look forward to reading your work in those magazines in the near future!

  2. Julia Lund

    I have to admit that I am not a frequent reader of poetry and was ignorantly unaware of the speculative genre. I am off now to look up some examples, guided by what you have written, Shelly.

    • Shelly

      Thank you, Hilary. I hope you’ll enjoy some of the new poets listed too. There really is some outstanding work available in the field of speculative poetry.

  3. Jemima Pett

    I’m another who hadn’t heard of speculative fiction before. Thank you so much, Damyanti and Shelly – I really enjoyed that piece.

  4. joleemerrey

    Thanks for a great post! I have always found speculative fiction a more useful label than science fiction/fantasy. I like the idea of speculative poetry. It makes sense. ‘What if’ questions are great for poems and I can see it would be good to use them more in my writing. Also, I hadn’t thought of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as speculative poetry before. I can see some wonderful hours heading down that particular research rabbit-hole. Thank you!

    • Shelly

      Thanks, joleemerrey. I’m glad you liked the post, and that it will trigger some hours of reading and thinking for you. That’s pretty much how it was for me when I first stumbled across the idea of speculative poetry. I’d always preferred writing in this way, but didn’t realise there was a community who did the same. It was like coming home.

      I think the ‘what if’ questions are a natural starting point, for me. What is exciting is not only the answers I come across, but the additional questions that are stirred up too.

    • Shelly

      That’s right, P. S. There are some poets who prefer the term science fiction poetry, and they insist that there must be a narrative element to the poem too. Some of my work fits neatly into that description, but some of it is neither science nor narrative, so I tend to prefer “speculative”.

    • Shelly

      Thanks, Sherry. Some people might just call it poetry, but there is a community out there who tends mostly toward this sort, and we tend to call it speculative poetry, or perhaps science fiction poetry. The first time I ever heard of it was in a discussion of Edwin Morgan’s work, and the latter term was used then.

  5. Lori L MacLaughlin

    Thank you for the enlightening post! I’d never heard the term speculative poetry before, though I’ve read poems by Poe and others. I’ll definitely look more into it. I particularly like the last line of the highlighted paragraph. I find it to be very profound and something we should all strive for.

  6. Peter Nena

    She counts Poe as one of the Speculative Poets, and Poe is one of my all-time favourite poets, So then, I have read Speculative Poems. Also, that ‘Goblin Market’ by Rossetti is a wonderful story. Nevertheless, I should like to read Shelly’s more of work, and I will be haunting her blog from today. Thanks, Damyanti, for bringing her to our notice.

  7. daveynorthcott

    Interesting piece. I’ve never read any speculative poetry before but I like the feel of the example here and the question it seems (to me) to ask: why are we so interested in things that are out there and don’t really concern us? It’s a good question but without a doubt the unknown is fascinating and as beings with exploratory, imaginative minds I suppose we’ll never stop wondering, which is I suppose the premise of this type of poetry. I’ll be checking out some more of your poems, Shelly. Thanks for sharing you thoughts.

    • Shelly

      Thanks, Davey! I hope you enjoy the poems you find.

      I like your summary of the question this poem raises. Maybe, in some sense, that’s one of the fundamental questions behind a lot of speculative poetry. The world “out there” (and also “in there”) is just so huge and offers so much material for exploration, I suppose there’s not much else we can do. Speculation is a fundamental part of the kind of creatures we are.

    • Shelly

      You never know, Sue. (kidding!)

      It’s kind of nice to hear that so many readers of Damyanti’s blog haven’t read speculative poetry before. I hope it means there will be new readers and writers in the community soon.

  8. wraxdec

    Really enjoyed your article: I’m a poet myself but haven’t written in this genre so far. I’ll pass it on to a poet friend, who I’m sure will be interested in your remarks.

  9. Sammy D.

    I’m not familiar with the term “speculative poetry” and greatly appreciate the introduction and references to many active writers in the genre. I agree with Damyanti – the premise of the highlighted paragraph is so important, and is a key insight I discovered immediately as a novice blogger – our Otherness can become our Togetherness if we open our minds and hearts to the gifts we offer each other. I am constantly encouraged and challenged to broaden my understanding and soften my boundaries of acceptance.

    • Shelly

      Thank you, Sammy. I have been humbled, through various responses to my poetry over time, by the knowledge that there are so many people who believe the same way about Otherness. Otherness is so often seen as a curse, rather than an opportunity for growth and expansion. When we offer that gift to one another and work together to make Otherness our Togetherness, though, it is truly beautiful.

  10. bardconstantine

    I actually wrote speculative poetry, not knowing there was a name for that particular brand of poetry. I just found out about the label last year, in fact. I published a collection a few year back and haven’t written much since, mainly because my focus has been novel writing. But I love it. It’s really the only type of poetry that holds my interest.

    • Shelly

      I have heard several poets say something similar, bardconstantine. The “field” of speculative poetry has pretty nebulous boundaries, since a lot of poets write work that could easily be classed genre poetry, even though they don’t label it that way themselves. Like you said, many don’t even know this community of speculative poets exists.

      I’ve found the community helpful because it connects me with readers and poets who are interested in the same sort of poetry I am. It has been invigorating to find and interact with this community.

  11. Shery Alexander Heinis

    Otherness – a subject I find intriguing since in my adopted country, the very definition of who I am is “the other” – a “visible minority.”. Thanks for this article. Although I’d heard of speculative poetry before, the post greatly expanded my knowledge and understanding.

    • Shelly

      Thanks, Shery. I am not sure if living overseas has heightened my awareness of Otherness, or if my engagement with Otherness led me to live all of my adult life overseas. Maybe both.

        • Shelly

          Very much agree, Shery. Writing about Otherness and how we can learn to turn away from the negative attitudes and toward a more embracing approach to difference is something I read a lot, so I suppose it is natural it comes out in my own poetry too.

  12. Dan Antion

    I’ve always been drawn to science fiction and fiction that explores, or perhaps extends current issues into a new reality. I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I didn’t know that people were actively working in this genre today, let alone that it was thriving. Thanks for the education, obviously, I need to look around a little.

    • Shelly

      Dan, there are many magazines dedicated mostly, some solely, to speculative poetry. The Science Fiction Poetry Association is active, publishing Star*Line once a quarter and overseeing the giving of several awards for speculative poetry each year. The centre of activity seems to be in the US, but there are also active pockets in the UK and Australia, and there’s even a magazine in Singapore dedicated to speculative fiction and poetry. (Lontar http://lontarjournal.com).

      The publisher of my volumes of poetry, Alban Lake (http://albanlake.com), also produces several magazines and journals that either include or are exclusively geared toward speculative poetry.