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 —
— thaoworra (@thaoworra) January 15, 2017
The same day that Odasso’s post was published, Lev Mirov took up the racial issue.
— Lev Mirov (@thelionmachine) January 17, 2017
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.
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.
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.]