A Speculative Kerfuffle

The Science Fiction Poetry Association is taking nominations from members for the Rhysling Awards until February 15. A.J. Odasso, Strange Horizons Senior Poetry Editor, nominated two poems published by Strange Horizons (which is within the rules) but originally one of them was rejected as insufficiently speculative. The nomination was soon restored – amid charges of racism against Rhysling Award decision makers,  and raking up the personal history of another SFPA volulnteer. And debate continues over the elusive definition of “speculative poetry.”

A.J. Odasso protested against the original decision in a January 14 tweet and followed up on January 17 with a blog post “Concern re: removal of a 2017 Rhysling Award nomination”.

Since nominations are currently open until February 15th for this year’s Rhysling Awards, I did what I usually do: nominate one short poem and one long poem, both of which happened to be poems that I and one of my co-editors had published in Strange Horizons during the course of 2016.  In addition to meeting the line-count requirements, both poems were published in the correct year, in a magazine of speculative literature.  There are rules against nominating your own work, but there are no rules against nominating work you’ve had a hand in publishing.  And it’s a good thing there aren’t, because reading submissions guarantees you’re at the front lines of reading the most exciting new work your community has to offer.

[The poem was selected for Strange Horizons by another poetry editor. Strange Horizons has four.] 

… While I was at Arisia this past weekend dashing from panel to panel, I received an upsetting message from the current Rhysling Anthology Chair [previous SFPA president David Kopaska-Merkel].  My nomination for the Short Poem category, Layla Al-Bedawi’s “Propagation,” had been accepted, but my Long Poem nomination, Tlotlo Tsamaase’s “I Will Be Your Grave,” had been rejected.  I was being asked to find a different long poem to nominate because Tlotlo’s piece was apparently not speculative enough.  First of all, I’d never heard of nominations being rejected; second of all, the nomination had already been made public on the website.  Poets had already been engaged in excitedly congratulating each other on their nominations for more than a week.  I was instantly outraged on Tlotlo’s behalf, as I can’t think of any universe in which publicly announcing a nomination and then deciding to revoke it after the fact isn’t bad form.  I spent a number of hours on email urging the [award] Chair to reconsider this decision in light of the fact that it would be deeply, deeply hurtful to the poet after they’d already seen their nomination, but Tlotlo’s piece was removed before the day was over.

… Mistake or not, this action is problematic for more reasons than I can reasonably delineate in one blog post.  At worst, it’s exclusionary and, yes, even racist to claim that a poem by a writer of color, published in a speculative magazine, is not speculative enough by white/Western standards to be worthy of nomination.  At best, it really is just a mistake, but even at that juncture, it had been publicly posted before being revoked.  It’s flat-out bad form to essentially tell someone, hey, congrats, you’ve earned this honor, and then say, oh, oops, sorry, our bad, it just didn’t conform to standards, we’ve got to pull it.  No matter which way you consider it (and, frankly, I consider it in both), Tlotlo’s owed an apology.

SFPA President Bryan Thao Worra responded the same day as the first tweet —

The same day that Odasso’s post was published, Lev Mirov took up the racial issue.

Elizabeth Barrette, in “Rhysling Award discrimination”, vigorously prosecuted the charges of racism and cultural insensitivity, beginning with an explanation of the African literary context of the poem, then launching into populist arguments against SFPA leadership.

…These perspectives are routinely excluded from white society and, especially, recognition such as awards. Often there’s no representation at all; when black people win awards, it tends to make the news because it doesn’t happen much. It’s usually not because the people rejecting them are the kind of racists who think black people are inferior. It’s because they think black ideas are uninteresting and irrelevant — in this case, “not speculative enough.” Not “good enough.” Not “really” speculative poetry. Not “worthy” of being permitted to compete at all. The awards typically go to things closer to the middle of the bell curve. Usually it’s because people don’t vote for black literature; the perspective shown by the award chairs and officers of the SFPA is common, though by no means universal. But sometimes it’s enforced from the top down, like this case when an African poem shows up to the literary lunch counter and is thrown out the door by organizational fiat. The member who nominated it is not permitted to have a voice regarding what speculative poetry “is,” the poem is not permitted to compete in the award despite meeting the technical standards, its author is excluded from the privileged circle of nominees, and the general membership is prevented from voicing our opinion about what is or is not “speculative enough” and “good enough” through our votes for the Rhysling Award. At the same time, this high-handed move directly blocks everyone else’s mindful efforts to promote diversity in speculative poetry by forcibly removing the option of voting for this poem. Our opinions and work don’t matter; we don’t get a choice. Someone else gets to decide that. Someone with more power. Someone more important. Someone who gets to say which poems and poets can sit at the literary lunch counter, or not. Institutionalized racism is difficult to fix precisely because of examples like this where someone in power can directly thwart other people’s hard work in solving the problem.

The Twitter exchange continued on January 17 –

Then, on January 18, this bluntly-worded tweet came out from the SFPA Twitter account.

And A.J. Odasso, in a comment added to the orignal post, asserted —

The SFPA is populated by a handful of people who really are as exclusionary as they appear to be, and they’ll go to any lengths to insist that they aren’t. And they don’t even seem to understand that a thing can still be racist even if they don’t intend it to be. Like we haven’t covered that enough?

In a further exchange of comments, Odasso laid the blame for the SFPA tweet at the feet of F.J. Bergmann, because SFPA’s webmaster had earlier tweeted an unsympathetic response from her personal account, and immediately dragged Bergmann’s WisCon controversies into the discussion.

However, Bergmann proved not to be the author of the SFPA tweet, that was SFPA officer Diane Severson:

I am Diane Severson, membership and communications chair of the SFPA, who tweets from @sfpoetry . It was not FJ Bergmann who made those blunders on Twitter, but me. I feel sick about this whole situation. I find it very difficult to respond to accusations such as had been made within the context of a tweet.

… We put our collective foot in it with Tlotlo Tsamaase’s poem. I hate that this sort of thing keeps happening to us. We are not evil. An unfortunate few (6 people) are tasked with running the organization. It is the desire of ALL of us to increase inclusivity and diversity within the organization and in our publications. I know that many feel it is not our job to police what is SpecPo. It has never been our intention to do so. With regard to early nominations, we had an unfortunate misunderstanding among those of us determining a nominated poem’s eligibility, which is not just whether it is Spec or not, since there are actual mistakes nominators make in regards to eligibility (year of publication, length, nominators membership, etc.). It was always our intention to ask the nominator for an “explanation” in the event the chair thought it didn’t seem speculative. It’s unclear to me whether that happened, AJ. Barring that we had intended that if only one of the officers thought it was “spec enough” it should be included. In this case, they were split in their impressions and the chair mistakenly thought we’d agreed it should be unanimous.

Odasso responded with an apology to Severson:

I’d like to apologize for my less tactful moments in all of this, too, up to and including assuming the identity of who made the tweets.

Severson continued:

It’s so hard to navigate these issues. No one gets the benefit of the doubt that missteps are unintentional and therefore one is always put in a defensive position. Instead of being informed of one’s errors and given a chance to rectify things, accusation and yes, intolerance is very often what’s led with. Like I said, I’m sick that this keeps happening, but I also have a hard time understanding why people don’t talk to us before tearing us a new one.

Severson also told Odasso that she actually owed the apology to Bergmann, but Odasso replied that Bergmann was deserving of her comments.

SFPA President Bryan Thao Worra made a public statement on January 19, to which he appended this unofficial comment showing he favored the restored nomination:

I always hope that we respect the premise that even if we don’t think of a particular poem as speculative by our personal definitions, at least one of our other members esteemed that poem enough to nominate for consideration. It stands, then, that we recognize those works as a professional courtesy, within reason. Or unreason, if that’s your thing.

The next day, on January 20, SFPA Secretary Shannon Connor Winward, gave her perspective in “Arbitrating Spec”.

….I’d like to share my thoughts, as both a writer and fan of speculative poetry as well as an SFPA officer with firsthand knowledge of the events that transpired.  I believe that, although it may be at times uncomfortable, this is one of those difficult conversations that needs to be had.

WHAT IS SPECULATIVE POETRY?

One of the first issues to appear on my radar as an elected officer of the SFPA was the fact that, even within an organization dedicated to speculative poetry, not everyone agrees on what “speculative” means.  While this may seem like a philosophical or semantic question, it’s also a practical one.  The SFPA exists to foster community among people who read and write speculative poetry.  Each year the SFPA publishes two award anthologies (the Rhysling and the Dwarf Stars) of speculative poetry, bestows the Elgin Award for chapbook and book-length speculative poetry manuscripts, and hosts a speculative poetry contest with cash prizes, with the express purpose of highlighting the very best speculative poetry being written today.  Without a clear, working consensus of what speculative poetry is, what’s the fucking point?

…And yet.  As an officer of the SFPA, it is my responsibility to help recruit, vet, and assist those people we appoint as Editors and Chairs of our organization’s endeavors.  This year’s Rhysling Chair, David Kopaska-Merkel, is a notable member of the SFPA and the wider speculative poetry community – a person with a breadth of experience and demonstrated ability.  We were thrilled to have him take the helm for this project, and to vest him with the responsibilities as well as the discretion required for the role.

I am deeply troubled by the accusations on social media that David acted irresponsibly in deeming certain poems ineligible, or that his actions were done with malice, with the intent of purposely excluding some voices.  As Rhysling Chair, it is David’s job to ensure that all nominated poems meet the criteria for eligibility, which by extension includes determining whether the poems count as speculative, even though there is not – as yet – any clear policy to guide him in this.  David’s solution was to bring each poem that he found questionable to the attention of the executive committee, seeking our input, before making his final determination.  His was a measured, conscientious approach.  And while I did not personally agree with each decision that he made, I was willing to support them.

Members of the SFPA and in the greater community have questioned the right of one person to decide what counts as speculative – and given that as a community we’ve yet to land on a universal definition, it’s a valid question.  It has been argued that the fact the nominated poem first appeared in one of the most celebrated speculative markets in the field should automatically qualify the poem as speculative, which is also an excellent point—I even suggested as much myself at one point during one of the many discussions in our list-serv, saying that any poem published in a speculative journal had already been vetted by an editor and should get an automatic pass.

But on the other hand, a point that I haven’t seen vocalized is the fact that magazine editors, too, exercise personal discretion.  They make decisions based on the same personally or culturally defined and often arbitrary standards and preferences and biases that we, as readers, exercise—and they have the right to do so, because of the task that has been entrusted to them.  Similarly, the Rhysling Chair is tasked with interpreting the organization’s guidelines to the best of his or her ability, which also implies a degree of individual, even arbitrary discretion—and that is what happened.  Without any clear guidance in the form of official policy, and with only the less-than-unanimous opinions of the executive committee (a microcosm of the larger spec community), he made a judgment call.

Personally, I am glad that “I Will Be Your Grave” was reinstated.  I believe that surrealism has a place in the speculative genre, and that poems like this are doing interesting things with language and imagery and genre tropes that should be recognized.  But as an officer, I believe the takeaway from this issue has less to do with righting a perceived injustice, and more to do with improving the Rhysling process.

I think, as a community, we need to look at the central issue –how do we define speculative, and, more importantly, who/how do we empower to apply that definition when it comes to featuring poems in our annual award programs—including our anthologies, which we hold up to the world as the best representatives of what speculative poetry is?

To accomplish this, we need to move away from the merry-go-round of debate (and name-calling) that is endemic in our social media and forums.  We need to work together to define clear and equitable guidelines for both the nomination process and the vetting system—assuming a vetting system for “speculative” should even exist….

It so happened that Winward had already opened a poll on her website asking people what is and isn’t “speculative.” Now the results are in — establishing that, much like the definition of “science fiction,” few can agree on what it is.

[Thanks to Robin A. Reid for the story.]

28 thoughts on “A Speculative Kerfuffle

  1. To avoid any confusion, there is also another science fiction organization, the Southern Fandom Press Alliance apa (originally formed in the 1960s and still going strong), which also goes by the abbreviation/acronym SFPA. No connection between the two organizations, but many of the apa members refer to themselves as SFPA members, or SFPAns.

  2. What I never figured out, though, was what speculative content the poem is supposed to have had. I read it, and I didn’t see anything. Did I miss something?

  3. @Greg

    This article is linked and says:

    Look at the speculative elements and you can see why this happened: “Knocking on my bones / The door of my soul” and “She’s searching for dismissive gods,” and “Life leaking with time / Elapse of immortality, the air stills.” Bones, souls, a plurality of higher powers, and distinctive conceptualizations of eternity and immortality are core motifs appearing throughout African culture and literature. Naturally when Africans turn to speculative fiction — and African science fiction is quite big right now — they use the motifs meaningful to them from their experiences, and thus the futures they imagine or the mystical realms they explore are deliciously different from those generated by European or North American backgrounds. These are readily recognizable to anyone familiar with African traditions, but often unfamiliar to outsiders

  4. Rich Lynch: Until you attached this explanation to a post about the poetry SFPA no one was in danger of becoming confused, because the only people who had ever heard of the apa already knew the difference.

  5. Sounds like they need to, at a minimum, change their process to do any vetting before the nominations are announced. That should be an easy fix. Redoing the vetting process sounds also necessary, but more difficult.

  6. @Mark

    This article is linked and says:

    Look at the speculative elements and you can see why this happened: “Knocking on my bones / The door of my soul” and “She’s searching for dismissive gods,” and “Life leaking with time / Elapse of immortality, the air stills.” Bones, souls, a plurality of higher powers, and distinctive conceptualizations of eternity and immortality are core motifs appearing throughout African culture and literature. Naturally when Africans turn to speculative fiction — and African science fiction is quite big right now — they use the motifs meaningful to them from their experiences, and thus the futures they imagine or the mystical realms they explore are deliciously different from those generated by European or North American backgrounds. These are readily recognizable to anyone familiar with African traditions, but often unfamiliar to outsiders

    I saw that; I just didn’t buy it. Part of what makes me suspicious is that Africa is so large and diverse I doubt there’s a meaningful notion of “African Traditions.”

    Second, I’ve read a number of African SFF stories now, including ones published in Nigeria’s Omenana and they’ve all had clear speculative elements in them. They’re definitely different, but they’re not that different. Of course, they’re not poetry either.

    But even if we grant a few speculative elements, they hardly seem central to the piece. Would anyone consider Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to be science fiction because it contains these lines:

    This day before dawn I ascended a hill and look’d at the
    Crowded heaven,
    And I said to my spirit When we become the enfolders of those
    Orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of every thing in
    Them, shall we be fill’d and satisfied then?
    And my spirit said No, we but level that lift to pass and
    Continue beyond.

    (The poem is 15,800 words long, and that’s all there is that’s speculative.)

    On the other hand, if you count every metaphor as speculative, then almost all poetry is SFF.

    “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And knowing I could not travel both,
    And be one traveler, there I stood . . .”

    Is Robert Frost writing SFF because he imagines cloning himself?

    Is Blake’s “The Tyger” SFF because it talks about a manufactured tiger?

    Maybe a case could be made for this poem that wouldn’t also include half of all the poems ever written, but I still don’t see it.

  7. This essay by Suzette Haden Elgin on SF poetry is instructive in how she holds that there has to be some rigor when it comes to defining it. It must both be a poem and have a science element too. She includes two poems of her own to illustrate her point also.

    About Science Fiction Poetry

  8. @Greg

    One of my great personal failings is a near-total inability to appreciate poetry, so I’ve got no way to judge whether it is genuinely speculative or not. That said, the actual author thought it was speculative enough to send to Strange Horizons, who thought it was speculative enough to publish it, etc etc. The author of the piece I quoted appears to be a scholar of the subject and also thinks so. In short, it passes the “what I point to” test for them.

  9. @Mark

    The fact that it didn’t pass muster with those reviewing it isn’t chopped liver though. The standards at Strange Horizons may not be ones those administering the award have. The essay I linked to by Elgin posits a standard that some speculative poems may meet, but other not. I think there’s room for honest disagreement about how skiffy a poem is, as well as the poetic quality of a lot of SF doggerel.

  10. The fact that it didn’t pass muster with those reviewing it isn’t chopped liver though. The standards at Strange Horizons may not be ones those administering the award have.

    Yeah, I remember lots of pretty darn bad poetry in SF digests in the past (Analog, I’m pretty sure. Others may have published them, too.) The publishing criterion seemed to be “we’ve got x inches of blank space to fill on this page, this’ll fit.”

  11. @David W

    Oh absolutely, it’s eye of the beholder and all that. I believe the article says the reviewers were split though, not unanimously against.
    I suppose my view is that if I personally don’t think something is speculative, but other people honestly believe that it is, then I should accept that their decision is valid for them. That doesn’t require me to like the story/poem/etc, but I shouldn’t get between them and what they like.

  12. “This keeps happening”
    As they say in Al-Anon, once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence and three times is a pattern. Any suggestions about how to break the pattern, as it clearly bothers people?
    I’d say Blake is spec because he’s Blake.

  13. I should think that leaving it up to the voters to determine, in their opinion, whether the piece is both speculative and award-worthy might save a certain amount of trouble.

  14. Gravity, and If You Were A Dinosaur My Love, and Wakulla Springs are all not speculative enough. So say I.

    Lots of people disagree with me, though. I think the standard pretty much has to be “if the author and publisher think so then it is.” Or even ” ‘Speculative’ is in the eye of the beholder.”

  15. Gravity does have that mysterious force which causes objects in the same orbit to be travelling at different speeds, so that’s somewhat speculative.

  16. Nickphea, and the other mysterious force which says that a person in orbit holding onto an object in orbit will immediately and rapidly “fall away” from the object they’re holding simply by releasing their grip…

    (I wanted to like that movie. I really did. But the physics were so BADLY broken….)

  17. You both say that like non-speculative movies don’t do the same sort of thing every day….

  18. When it comes to awards, there is a good reason to be hard-core about whether a story is sufficiently speculative: it’s a lot easier to write conventional fiction. No challenge of giving the reader key facts without an infodump. No issue of needing to know scientific or mythological details. So it’s unfair to allow a conventional story to compete against truly speculative ones.

  19. it’s a lot easier to write conventional fiction.

    You did not just do that. I call bullshit.

    And I AM a speculative writer.

  20. it’s a lot easier to write conventional fiction.

    Which is why, done well, speculative fiction can be considerably harder to write than literary fiction. I can tell you from experience, as an author, as a reviewer, and after spending two years as a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award and reading around 150 novels, that when readers are paying that much close attention to every hint and clue, the writer needs to have their internal logic, consistency of character and scene-setting absolutely nailed down. Readers have to be convinced that this unfamiliar world is solidly real if they’re ever going to suspend disbelief and accept the unreal, whether that’s magic and dragons or faster-than-light travel.

    You absolutely cannot obscure underlying weakness with waffle. Otherwise the emails will arrive, picking up on discrepancies. Not just for the sake of point-scoring or nitpicking but because fans become so engaged with imaginary worlds and so passionate about their characters.

    The genre debate: Science fiction travels farther than literary fiction

  21. The problem is that speculative is subjective. If you want to be “hardcore” about what it is, then have a completely juried award and be done.

    I don’t buy that non-speculative is necessarily easier to write. And I can’t see how that would give it an unfair advantage anyway. If most voters don’t think something fits the definition of the award, then it won’t matter how well-written it is.

  22. when readers are paying that much close attention to every hint and clue, the writer needs to have their internal logic, consistency of character and scene-setting absolutely nailed down. Readers have to be convinced that this unfamiliar world is solidly real if they’re ever going to suspend disbelief and accept the unreal, whether that’s magic and dragons or faster-than-light travel

    Well, that means that Christopher Priest’s supposed science fiction isn’t SF at all. I guess we’d better go demand that he give his Campbell, Clarke and BSFA trophies back.

  23. One of the reasons why, when I set magical stories in “the real world” I use a fictional city set at the meeting of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, and not the actual Winnipeg situated there, is because of the ways that it makes the process of telling the story I want easier. There’s no bakery on that block? Fine. Don’t want to name check and risk offending the owners of that restaurant, or give them a neice that doesn’t exist? Easy.

    And Speculative fiction isn’t the only sort of fiction that requires conveying often complex information about alien cultures; any historical that is trying to be a true deep historical and not a fluffier mock-historical with more modern sensibilities hidden in it (There’s a market for the fluff, I don’t begrudge it, but I do differentiate it) needs to accurately describe an alien culture, unfamiliar technology, AND simultaneously undo a loft of misconceptions. (And that’s true whether the historical is depicting medieval Japan, the supposed Wild West, the ancient Greeks…)

    And conveying that kind of information is ONE way fiction has of being difficult, anyhow, not THE way. Since we’re also currently discussing poetry, a form of writing, especially in fiction, that many find has its own other challenges, pointing out that one aspect of writing as if it were the be all and end all is even more nonsensical than it is in prose.

    The kind of fiction that is hard is the kind the writer finds hard to write.

  24. I’m pleased to see people talking about the nature of speculative fiction and how awards should be handled. Good practice makes good progress. I’m glad I could contribute to that.

  25. The Rhysling Award nomination process has been that any member may nominated one poem each in the Long and Short categories, which are automatically included in the Rhysling Anthology. It has become increasingly worrisome in the wake of the Hugo messes that we had no means of excluding nominations that do not represent speculative poetry–last year, one poem nominated was accompanied by a statement that the nominator didn’t feel the poem was actually speculative, but deserved to be included anyway. Many SFPA members–including A.J. Odasso–have stated publicly that the inclusion of inappropriate poems is a problem.

    This year, it was decided that the Rhysling Chair would eliminate poems he felt could not be considered speculative, of which “I Will Be Your Grave” was one (3 so far, plus the usual array of nominations ineligible for other reasons–wrong length, wrong year, etc.). It was also decided that if the Executive Committee did not unanimously agree with the Chair’s determination, the poem in question would be reinstated. One member of the Committee–out of six–thought the poem could be considered speculative; therefore, it was reinstated. During the initial discussion, at no time did the nominating member explain what it was about the poem she considered speculative–instead, the SFPA staff was first accused of racism and then pressured to accept it by virtue of the nominator’s editorial position.

  26. As Vice President of SFPA, I did tell David Kopaska Merkel that he had the right to decide whether a poem fit his criteria of speculative. My own poetry tends to be interstitial, hovering on the line between speculative and mainstream. I read the poem several times and found it evocative, but if speculative is “what if?” I did not really see that happening. I saw it a description of Africa now, not in the future or in a fantastic other realm such as Nnedi Okorafor’s Ginen. What did the author mean with the title “I Am Your Grave?” Who was the persona? Was it Africa? Things didn’t fall in line for me. I wondered if the poem became speculative simply because some of the tropes of speculative and horror poetry were used,, but are tropes enough? Suzette Hayden Elgin frequently said that an SF poem had to tell a story by definition? What story did the poem tell? I wasn’t sure. Elgin would probably have excluded some surrealism and mundane horror from her definition. Should we accept every nomination from every member in good standing? If so then how can we stand by our claim that the anthology represents the best of a year? What questions should we ask when we “interrogate” a nomination? What if a sad or sick puppy nominates a poem that is clearly inappropriate. Surely we need a process to that poets can use for defending the speculative nature of a poem that has been questioned. We will work on this.
    .

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