Adventures in Speculative Poetry: National Poetry Month 26

With the arrival of April, the United States gets to mark another year observing National Poetry Month, first established in 1996. Of course, I’m of the mind that in a way every month is National Poetry Month when you’re a poet, whether emerging or established.

I’m grateful to have met so many kindred souls in speculative poetry over the last 3 decades. For those of you new to the term, at its simplest definition, this is verse that is consistently engaged with science fiction, fantasy, horror and other imaginative genres.

The following remarks are my personal opinion, and not those of any networks, organizations or associations I am connected to.

Where would poetry be without Poe and Milton, Dante, and Lewis Carroll? Sun Ra, Louise Erdrich, Linda D. Addison, Jane Yolen, Tracy K. Smith, and so many others widen our sense of the possible through their poems. For all that has been written so far, so much more is clearly possible, and I appreciate what my fellow speculative poets are inspiring.

Lao refugees and I are preparing to observe 50 years in the United States soon. Time has flown since the end of the 20th century Southeast Asian conflicts that included the Vietnam War and the Secret War for Laos. These decades have been particularly significant as a chance to express, often for the very first time, futures we can see ourselves in while we transition from authoritarian systems to democracies. Only recently have we begun to fully define ourselves: Who we are, have been, could have been, and could yet be. So many take this for granted, but we cannot.

Lao culture stretches back over 700 years to the kingdom of Lan Xang, but science fiction has only recently begun to emerge in our culture. Our exposure to US science fiction was often through comics, novels, and cinema, but not necessarily poetry. Since the end of the war, there have been fewer than 50 books in our own words, on our own terms in America.

I think about this as I reflect on recent news that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America changed their guidelines to make it easier for people to become members.

Founded in 1965, SFWA is “an organization for published authors and industry professionals in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, and related genres.” They do some remarkable work in advocacy, support for legal defenses, training new and even established writers, providing strong networking opportunities and other benefits for writers. Overall, laudable goals, but qualifying for membership often required substantial achievement in terms of story or book sales. Some might argue those requirements were deeply prohibitive.

In March, 2022, they shared their new guidelines for what qualified writers for Full or Associate membership.

I was happy to see them reducing the barriers for many writers who need access to the types of resources they provide, but I was also taken aback by one of their firm points of exclusion that make it improbable for writers like me to ever become a member any time soon.

Normally, I might have let it go by without much remark except that in a matter of days after this announcement, my peers and I were scheduled to participate in the first events and readings of National Poetry Month 2022.

SFWA makes it VERY clear that “Genre non-fiction and poetry are not accepted as payments towards membership at this time.” You can imagine where I’m going to object.

I rarely run into poets able to make something close to a living the way I do. Mine was a route that largely operated outside of both academia and mainstream publishing. But I am proof that it’s possible. It’s not easy, but I accepted that in my journey, particularly over the last two decades. I know there are others who would enjoy a similar path where they focus first on their creation of verse rather than prose.

Given the SFWA threshold of $1,000 I feel comfortable in saying my catalog of paid work more than exceeds that requirement. But the prohibition against claiming poetry dramatically disadvantages writers like myself.

A poet earns funds in a variety of ways, some mundane, some extraordinary. But for this discussion, in book sales and sales to magazines, anthologies and other print media, I’m well over 8K after 8 poetry books and publications across the globe. With $91,000+ in fellowships and grants specifically for speculative poetry projects between 2009-2020, my earnings would entail almost $100K, which I acknowledge is peanuts at certain tiers of the prose publishing world, but for a Lao writer taking on poetry addressing science fiction, fantasy and horror in this climate? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that’s not bad.

In the Horror Writers Association, my earnings in poetry were considered enough to qualify me for membership, but not so in the SFWA. But considering how hard one has to work to make even $1,000 writing poetry, I would think that any poet who can achieve that should be given consideration.

Why is there such a virulent and firm disparagement of earnings derived from speculative poetry sales? I can not find a formal conversation on the matter, but perhaps some of you will be able to outline the history where the general membership and its leadership found it acceptable to specifically dismiss works of poetry when defining the monetary criteria for professional peerage.

It’s not as if poets don’t also read prose or that somehow the forms are so different any feedback a poet can give to a prose writer or vice-versa would be unproductive. But, speculations aside, what is to be done?

I’m not absolutely torn up about this exclusion. It’s not a career killer for me. After decades, I can be philosophical about the matter because we see similar attitudes and a lack of support in many other corners of the literary and cultural arts, and yet poets continue to create verse. This is just one more unfortunate venue. As a matter of principle, I feel I have to object because someday, someone else may find themselves far more successful in speculative poetry than prose, and I think it’s a shoddy thing to bar them from membership in an institution such as the SFWA when it also allows writers who write for video games and role-playing games, television, cinema, and other forms besides short stories and novels.

Sometimes a poet’s writing rivals Homer, others just a Vogon. That’s the field. But I believe more people do need to call out this anti-poetry bias in the SFWA. Maybe one day, their members will encourage the powers that be to rethink their policy, understanding the disparities that creates for many of our creators across the globe.

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