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Science Fiction Poetry

By Cathy Park Hong

I have not gotten my hands on Andrew Joron’s latest 2008 collection, The Sound Mirror, so I’d like to push his older collection, Science Fiction, published in 1992. I’ve been curious about poetry that adopts genre narratives, especially sci-fi poetry, although I haven’t had a chance to do any serious research. Of course, there are over a million links when you type in “science fiction” and “poetry”: links to contests, conventions, and essays that attempt to define sci-fi poetry (It’s speculative, it must have narrative, and “SFP fans know it when they see it.”). There’s even a handbook.

Earlier in his career, Andrew Joron was known for writing poetry for science fiction magazines, finding ways to integrate poetic avant-garde techniques with the genre. “Science Fiction” is perhaps his last collection that directly experiments with the genre before he began to focus on how poetics should be more involved with current political situations. The preface of this collection, however, is prescient of his concerns in later works like “The Cry at Zero” where he asks “What good is poetry at a time like this?” I’ll quote the preface of “Science Fiction” in its entirety.

“It’s all science fiction now” – a realization made simultaneously by Allen Ginsberg, Arthur C. Clarke, Carol Emshwiller and others. We are living in the future NOW: it is our unique way of experiencing the present.

Science fiction came into being at the same time that industrialization moved out of the sphere of production into the sphere of consumption – at the same time, and for the same reason, that advertising came into being. Science Fiction and advertising are both means of assimilating our consciousness to the industrialization of everyday life. Science fiction completes the curve of history in the imagination; advertising, however, effaces it.

Advertising—the commoditiy language—is the secret positivism at the core of current aesthetic thought and practice. Conversely, science fiction is the only “populist” mode of writing that is capable of representing the industrialization of desire as an acceleration of history—that is capable , in other words, of imaginative take-off by making the materialist assumption that consciousness is rooted in social being.

The poem, by becoming science-fictional, simultaneously subsumes and frees itself from its commodity status. Then the poem’s emergence in the commodity system recapitulates the mystery of the emergence of mind in natural history. What is “poetic” always exists on the border between the human and the inhuman. In science fiction, what is human emerges as an inhuman construct. To thematize the loss of subjectivity as an act of awakening is the moment of resistance in the speculative poem.

And here is a taste of his poetry from “Science Fiction”:
In semi-darkness
& lacking nothing of the living
Meat’s precision
Her prosthetic hand reaches for a cigarette
Whining softly, tiny motors
Press & release: tip to tip
On each glass fingernail glows a readout
Its motion in series—a miniature chase scene
A design for future assassinations.
For more recent examples of poetry that borrow from science fiction, read Jasper Bernes’ densely layered Starsdown and Joyelle McSweeney’s ridiculous Flet.

Comments (15)

  • On December 5, 2008 at 2:42 pm John Sakkis wrote:

    i read Juliana Spahr’s Response as an early X-Files episode…

  • On December 5, 2008 at 4:24 pm Doodle wrote:

    I never thought about it till now, but it’s like Juliana Spahr is Scully and Joshua Clover is Mulder!

  • On December 5, 2008 at 5:17 pm Samm. wrote:

    Peter Shippy has a cool verse novel from Rose Metal Press, that has sci-fi elements–robots, talking gorillas, Sophocles and roof cows that live on your… roof.

  • On December 5, 2008 at 6:46 pm Steve wrote:

    I second the recommendation on Jasper Bernes. For additional poetry that incorporates sf techniques– poetry that I like- read Cathy Park Hong’s own latest volume, Dance Dance Revolution, and then perhaps Les Murray’s much longer Fredy Neptune– though Fredy is technically “fantasy set on our Earth,” rather than sf (the nonrealist parts use “magic,” or Christian miracles), while Cathy Park Hong’s book is certainly an sf narrative poem. Bernes has gone as far as anyone in using sf techniques for lyric, or at least for nonnarrative, poems. How to go farther?

  • On December 6, 2008 at 11:43 am Emily Warn wrote:

    To read more on Andrew Joron’s ideas on the emergent qualities of poetry, read this article in which he thinks about the similarities between water and language:
    “Once poetic language was released from the constraint of having to tell the stories of gods and kings and later, of having to express individual and social identity, it began to discover—or rediscover—its sources in the mysterious movement of language itself, in the manifestation of a meaning in words that goes somehow beyond words. In the modernist and the postmodernist poem, language is finally manifested as a self-exceeding system, and to explain what I mean by this, I’m going to resort, very much in the spirit of Leonardo, to the properties of water.”

  • On December 7, 2008 at 1:48 pm Mike Allen wrote:

    There’s actually a whole community of us “science fiction poetry” folks, and some of us, myself included, have read Ms. Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution. It’s a small group, but a lively one.
    Since 1978, there’s even been an award for achievement in speculative poetry, called the Rhysling Award, given out every year by the Science Fiction Poetry Association or SFPA (sfpoetry.com); Andrew Joron has won it three times.
    I had a hand in publishing the handbook linked to here, by Suzette Haden Elgin, who founded the SFPA. Not everyone agrees with her definition of what “sci-fi poetry” is; the late Tom Disch, who was also a Rhysling Award winner, thought the very idea poetry could be divided by genre to be ridiculous.
    I can understand why doing “serious research” into the subject might seem a little daunting; there isn’t much out there to be found in the way of scholarship on this topic. As starting points — well, I have my biases, but I would recommend this symposium that I participated in at the website Strange Horizons, and also this article by Michael Collings.

  • On December 7, 2008 at 2:41 pm Deborah P Kolodji wrote:

    If you’d like to learn more about science fiction poetry, one place to start is the Science Fiction Poetry Association, which was founded in 1978 by Suzette Haden Elgin. We currently have about 250 members, world wide.
    Each year, the SFPA bestows the Rhysling Award for the best sf poem (in two categories, long & short). Andrew Joron won in the short form category, in a three-way tie with Duane Ackerson and Sonya Dorman, for his poem, “Asleep in the Arms of Mother Night.”
    Deborah P Kolodji
    President, Science Fiction Poetry Association

  • On December 7, 2008 at 5:33 pm Thom Martin wrote:

    The Shippy book rocks the po-fi-sci–el camion de bomberos rojo va muy rapido. His press, Rust Metal, publishes lots of impressive hybrid stuff. Also, let’s not forget NBA finalistista Matthea Harvey & her MODERN LIFE (from the estimable Gray Wolf Press) with it’s terror futures & future terrors & robot prose poems.

  • On December 7, 2008 at 7:34 pm Aaron Fagan wrote:

    Aniara: An Epic Science Fiction Poem by 1974 Nobel Prize–winning Swedish poet Harry Martinson.

  • On December 7, 2008 at 10:11 pm Mike Allen wrote:

    Alas, the links that I posted earlier don’t seem to work.
    The symposium is here:
    The article is here:

  • On December 8, 2008 at 7:58 am Cathy wrote:

    Thanks for the recommendations! I’ll look into all these links and books.

  • On December 8, 2008 at 11:53 am Don Share wrote:

    Forest Ackerman, who founded Famous Monsters of Filmland, discovered Ray Bradbury, and invented the term “sci-fi,” has just passed away. Amusingly, he said that the label “sci-fi” came to him in 1954 when he was listening to a car radio and heard an announcer mention “hi-fi;” his wife said, “Forget it, Forry, it will never catch on.”

  • On December 8, 2008 at 9:06 pm Michael Gushue wrote:

    There was a science fiction poetry anthology in the 70’s edited by Edward Lucie-Smith called Holding Your Eight Hands. Tom Disch was in it, along with some writers known for their poetry, and some known for writing science fiction. It’s probably hopelessly dated by now, but it was fun back then.

  • On December 30, 2008 at 5:56 pm scott wrote:

    A memorable sci-fi poetry book by a non-English writer is Harry Martinson’s “Aniara.” Sadly out of print, but should be easily found through a decent library or if all else fails through interlibrary loan. Well worth it, shades of Huxley in it.

  • On January 2, 2009 at 6:08 am Harry Gilonis wrote:

    You won’t find it online, and it may well prove hard to find at all, but section 4 of the Irish poet Brian Coffey’s long poem “Advent” deals with aliens arriving on earth in a “space ark” – and intriguingly investigates the theological implications of such an eventuality. Not an easy read; but he’s a major (and largely-forgotten) modernist poet, also a trained scientist and professional philosopher, who had an obsessive interest in science-fiction. (See also his poem ‘The Monument”, which covers some of the same concerns from a different perspective.)

Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, December 5th, 2008 by Cathy Park Hong.