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From the Golden Age of San Francisco Science-Fiction Poetry to the New Age of Quantum Poetics

By Harriet Staff

We’d like to dig a little deeper into this science fiction and poetry thing. And since City Lights Books has a new must-read blog, we shall recommend this post by Andrew Joron: “Looking Back on my Origins as a Science-Fiction Poet in the World of Tomorrow.” Joron starts off explaining the Kessler syndrome, a threat facing spacecraft’s passable travel due to the increasing in density of debris rings in Earth’s orbit. The Kessler syndrome poses “a situation in which humanity’s access to space would be barred for decades, if not centuries.”

Joron goes on to discuss his fascination with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the 1960s counterculture that spawned (sorry) literary science-fiction by the likes of Samuel Delany, J. G. Ballard, Ursula LeGuin, and Joanna Russ. As for Joron’s place in it:

I avidly followed the revolution within science fiction, attempting to achieve in my juvenile prose that fusion of technoscience and psychedelia I had first encountered in 2001. The boldest literary experiments in the genre were taking place in the British magazine New Worlds; moreover, its editors and writers hung out with progressive rock musicians (such as the band Hawkwind) who, in turn, adopted science-fiction stylings. This was a mix I desperately wanted to enter…

And what does it all lead to? Yep, science-fiction poetry, which Joron eventually had to admit he was writing:

Science fiction (SF), with its visionary take on reality, constituted my entire worldview––my natal religion, as it were. I was not about to leave this church; my turn toward poetry would not turn me away from the genre. To the contrary, I was convinced I’d enhanced the genre by inventing a new form: the modernist science-fiction poem.

Of course, given the degree of modernist literary innovation occurring within science fiction, it was only a matter of time before others would independently come up with the idea. Among the classified advertisements in of Locus, the “newspaper” of the genre, I spotted a call for submissions to The Speculative Poetry Review. Its editor, Robert Frazier, had also arrived at the notion of a modernist SF poetry––one that would, as he fiercely argued in an editorial, apply the lessons of Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” to science fiction. I wasn’t sure who Charles Olson was, but I knew I had come to the right place. Frazier immediately accepted “Asleep in the Arms of Mother Night,” one of my earliest poems, for publication in his magazine (this was, in fact, my first acceptance; I was twenty-two years old).

Frazier’s mag was one node in a network of SF-poetry journals that sprung up in the late seventies; the network was eventually unified by the Science Fiction Poetry Association, founded by the SF writer Suzette Haden Elgin in 1978. I got to know Bruce Boston, one of SF poetry’s major practitioners, as well as Adam Cornford, a City Lights author who also has made notable contributions to SF poetry; like me, both of them resided in Berkeley at that time. The late seventies and early eighties were undoubtedly the golden era of SF poetry, a period in which the parameters and potentials of what many of us considered a new literary form were worked out for the first time. Beginning as a subculture within the science-fiction community, SF poetry soon gained a foothold in the genre’s mass-market magazines and anthologies. During this time, my own poems, along with those I wrote in collaboration with Frazier, appeared in Amazing Stories and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. And my long-standing desire to be published in New Worlds was fulfilled when my poem “The Sonic Flowerfall of Primes” appeared in the magazine’s final issue in 1980.

Several significant anthologies of SF poetry were issued around this time: The Umbral Anthology (Umbral Press, 1982), edited by Steve Rasnic Tem; Burning with a Vision (Owlswick Press, 1984), edited by Robert Frazier; and Poly (Ocean View Books, 1989), edited by Lee Ballentine (the editors are all important speculative poets in their own right). A new branch of science fiction had grown and was flowering into prominence.

For more about Joron and “speculative poetry,” read the full post here. Joron’s Trance Archive is available at City Lights and SPD.

Another good read on this subject includes Amy Catanzano’s four-part essay, “Quantum Poetics: Writing the Speed of Light” on Jerome Rothenberg’s blog, Poems and Poetics. In the essay, writes Catanzano, she “appl[ies] principles in theoretical physics to poetry, investigating the visual and temporal spacetime of the page, the open and closed strings in string theory in relation to open and closed texts, and poetry as ‘pataphysics, furthering what Alfred Jarry refers to as ‘imaginary solutions.'” It’s pretty far out:

If language is not merely descriptive but participates in the formation of physical reality, then poetry might be said to constitute a manipulation of physics, which would redefine poetry as not just a phenomenon of consciousness or an ontological and/or epistemological activity, but also as a clinamatic mutation on physical reality, or what might be thought of as nature. Poetry in this context could be capable of what Christian Bök identifies in ’Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science (Northwestern University Press, 2001) as the “prohibited hypothesis” of ’pataphysics, where “the most radical gesture in science” through the “impulse to revolutionize the condition of the species” could entail “the abolition of the species itself.” It certainly seems possible that the most radical gesture in poetry could destroy poetry by redefining it, as innovations in poetry might be thought of as abolishing the relevancies of its previous forms; this is the avant-garde. However, if poetry is a physical mutation on nature, which includes humanity, could its most radical gesture, like the most radical gesture in science, destroy the species?

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, February 24th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.