GUEST POST, by Mae Empson: Speculative Poetry 101

Today, the Inkpunks invited me to talk about speculative poetry.  April is National Poetry Writing Month  in which poets often try to write a poem a day.  Like all writing, poetry benefits from continued on-going practice, so I encourage you, if you are interested in writing poetry, to set yourself goals.  A poem a week might be more realistic, though.

In this blog, I’ve tried to answer some questions that I think might be on reader’s minds about speculative poetry.  If I don’t address a question that is of interest to you, put it in the comments and we can keep the dialogue going.

What is speculative poetry?  Any poem that addresses a topic that could be the subject of a speculative short story is going to fit into this category.  So that includes:  a poem about a character who is recognizably part of any speculative fiction genre (sci fi, fantasy, horror, fairy tale, magic realism), a poem that describes an event or object that implies the existence of magic or the supernatural, or a poem that is set in a place that is recognizably other (2nd world fantasy, another planet, etc). 

Do speculative poets have an organization?  Yes, SFPA —The Science Fiction Poetry Association.  Note that this group covers all speculative poetry, and not solely science fiction.  This organization selects each year’s Rhysling Awards.

Which markets publish speculative poetry?  There’s a great list of markets  at the web-site for SFPA at.  Some key markets which accept open submission include Stone TellingGoblin FruitStrange HorizonsThe Pedestal MagazineMythic Delirium, and Eye to the Telescope.   Also, keep an eye out for anthologies that accept poetry on the usual market search engines, like Duotrope.

What makes a good speculative poem?  This is subjective, like all writing, but one of the reasons I highlighted the markets that publish speculative poetry is to encourage you to read work that others have found worth publishing, so you can see for yourself.  The use of powerful images – sharp unexpected vivid description – is one key. 

What makes a poem sell?  This relates to the quality of the poem, but there are a few more tips to consider here.  Like with short fiction, assume that each market and associated editors have their own preferences.  Look at what has been published previously by that market.  Do they seem to prefer free verse or form, or do they publish a mix?  Most markets will tell you what their length preference is.  For example, Ink Scrawl only accepts poems of ten lines or less.  You may also see a preference for a particular genre, or subject matter.  Also, look for “theme” issues, and be sure that you follow the theme. Remember that the brilliant poets with whom you compete for any given market may not have something in their trunk for a very specific call, so that can be an opportunity.  Examples of recent theme calls related to the type of poem include:  persona poetry and ekphrastic poetry.  Don’t be intimidated if you aren’t initially familiar with the type; the internet will give you plenty of relevant examples.  Ekphrastic poetry, for example, addresses a work of visual art.  The poem that I published in the current issue of The Pedestal Magazine was written specifically for that call.  As another example, Eye to the Telescope is currently looking for a topic theme: LGBT, gender-neutral, and intersexual themed speculative poems, due by June 15.

How do you write a formal poem?  (And, why bother if you can just write free verse)?  A formal poem follows a known poetic form.  This creates constraints related to the number of lines, the stresses and/or syllables per line, the use of rhyme, and the use of repeated words or lines.  For me, writing a formal poem is similar to writing a short story to a very specific submission call – the specificity forces you beyond your first idea and into something new that you might not otherwise have written, and there is beauty in what happens when you are working within constraints.  Common forms include:  haikutankavillanellesonnet, and sestina.  Less common forms include:  acrosticpantoumtrioletterzanelle, and terza rima.  When formal poetry works well, the form does not seem intrusive.  It shouldn’t feel like an idea is getting contorted into an uncomfortable shape – it should feel like there is something about the form that reinforces the idea.  For example, I used a sestina for Future Lovecraft because, to my mind, there is something evocative of madness and of Lovecraftian writing in general in the repetition of a few key words over and over.

How did you learn to write poetry?  Practice is key, but I will confess that I’ve had more practice than most people.  I come from a family of amateur poetry writers, so we wrote poems for birthdays, and graduations, and funerals, and other celebrations.  I also studied poetry writing as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which included training in many poetic forms. 

I hope aspiring poets have found this overview helpful.  I do think the practice of writing poetry will also improve your short fiction.  So, even if you never publish a poem, it may be a useful craft to practice. 

Good luck!

Mae Empson

Bio:  Mae Empson has a Master’s degree in English literature from Indiana University at Bloomington, and graduated with honors in English and in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she received the Robert B. House Memorial Prize in Poetry in 1995.  She lives in Seattle, Washington.  Her poems have been or will be published in anthologies from Prime Books and Innsmouth Free Press, and on-line in The Pedestal Magazine. Follow Mae on twitter at www.twitter.com/maeempson.  Read Mae’s blog at http://maeempson.wordpress.com.

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