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
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.
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?