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Guest Post: Science Fiction Poetry vs. Mainstream Poetry by Elizabeth Barrette

Most people don’t pay much attention to poetry today, because it’s not a big part of life in conventional society. The science fiction subculture, however, takes a different approach — and that’s where things get interesting.

In the mainstream, poetry has largely faded from public view. The poets in academic circles write mainly for each other, in a style that doesn’t appeal much to general audiences. Its focus is primarily inward. The popular manifestations of verse — such as pop songs and advertising jingles — aren’t thought of as poetry per se.

In science fiction, poetry doesn’t just look inward. It looks around and ahead. SF poets often draw inspiration from the latest scientific discoveries, whatever field they favor, encouraging us to think about what we’re doing. They also envision the future in terms that invite is to go find it. While SF poetry can be academic in style, it can also be classic or whimsical or anything else; the diversity is high. It sticks in the mind well and pulls in new readers. (How many of you can recite at least one of the verses from Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels? This has been going on for decades. The Science Fiction Poetry Association is 32 years old, still managing the Rhysling Award (nominations will open soon) and the magazine Star*Line.

As cyberspace becomes a more popular medium for sharing and discussing poetry, the mainstream and science fiction branches begin to cross over more. People who learned how to analyze a poem in literature classes come across science fiction poems and take them apart to see what makes them tick. People who read science fiction books, and may have seen a few poems in Asimov’s Science Fiction & Fact or another magazine, find that the Internet is swarming with poems and some of those have SF themes. People who write poetry are discovering new ways to connect with their audiences: social networks (see the Poetry group on Facebook), blogging (see the Poetry community on Dreamwidth), and crowdfunding (see the Crowdfunding community on LiveJournal).

Another nifty thing about cyberspace is the leveling effect. You want to read poetry? There’s a ton of it out there, most for free. But you can also direct your money to poets you like, and encourage them to write more on your favorite topics. You want to share your poetry with the world? Pop it on your blog or personal website. You want to become a hobby-editor and point other folks to the good stuff? They’ll be thrilled that they don’t have to wade through all the junk to find something worth reading; they can just go to your webzine. Electronic publishing has been around for over 15 years and people are just starting to take it seriously, but ebooks in particular are gaining momentum fast now.

Science fiction is about the journeys we take in our minds. Poetry is about describing them in a way that makes it worth the trip. What you choose to make of that is up to you. What star will you steer by?


Elizabeth Barrette lives in central Illinois, where she works as a writer and editor. She writes poetry, nonfiction and fiction. Her main fields include speculative fiction, gender studies, and alternative religions. Her two new books are Prismatica: Science Fiction Poetry Spanning the Spectrum and From Nature’s Patient Hands: A Collection of Poetry. Past poetry awards include Sol Magazine’s Poet Laureate (2003), Left Coast Eisteddfod (2009), Rose and Bay Award: Poetry (2010), and Dwarf Stars Award (2010); plus six poems nominated for the Rhysling Award (2005, 2007, 2010). Each month she hosts a live poetry activity in her LiveJournal; the next will be Tuesday, Dec. 7. She enjoys suspension-of-disbelief bungee-jumping and spelunking in other people’s reality tunnels.