Speculative Poets Renegotiate Femininity & the Strange

Recommended Reading from the Elgin Awards

Holly Lyn Walrath
Sep 9 · 10 min read
Image Courtesy the SFPA blog, Specpo

I’ve been a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA) for a few years now, and I usually vote in all of the awards as a member. This year, I’m extra obsessed with the pool of candidates for the Elgin Award for best book and best chapbook published in the preceding year because, well, I’m nominated!

But when I started reading my fellow nominees, I felt even more honored to be counted among this group. I wanted to share the works that I’m recommending for this year’s award because there’s one defining similarity between them all which I think is important: They are all works by femmes that engage with questions of womanhood, gender, sexuality, and of course, the speculative! I think this is representative of how contemporary speculative poets are renegotiating the intersection of these topics today.

My only complaint about the pool of nominees is that I’d love to see more work by writers of color, international, & LGBTQIA+ writers. The SFPA does not take any identification data from nominees, so it’s difficult to tell what the spectrum of identities is here. We can’t ask all women poets to represent all women, nor to represent all of themselves on the page. But the SFPA membership has space for more promotion of an even wider spectrum of works. (BTW: I’m always interested in reading speculative works for review or award consideration. If you’ve written something, send it my way!)

I think that SFPA has perhaps garnered a reputation in the past for not being entirely inclusive, and while I wasn’t coming up as a writer during that time, I think it’s a valid discussion to have. But this year’s crop of Elgin nominees should be noted for their approach to the feminine. These works are the future of speculative poetry come early. They are femme. They are bitches. They are witches. They are beasts. They are diverse. They are angry. They are lush. They are beautiful.

Recommended Chapbooks

Cover of Death by Sex Machine, woman’s head severed in half and screaming
Cover of Death by Sex Machine, woman’s head severed in half and screaming
Cover Image Courtesy Sibling Rivalry Press

question: how does a ruined girl yield / the way a knight yields? whose pipeline am i blowing / up, exactly? if you ask a man to drink / from your faucet, do you become him?

Franny Choi is a queer, Korean-American writer with a killer voice. Be sure to listen along to the author’s Spotify playlist as you read this arresting work of short poems. Choi’s work eschews standard ideas of structure, content, & language for a short piece of work made up of general mayhem & feminist deconstruction of the bot culture SFF is obsessed with. Titled after two popular sayings, Choi explains how she wanted to twist expectations with this powerful collection: “I hoped the double resonance of “death by chocolate” (capitalism making women eat things) and “sex machine” (James Brown making liberatory joy through art) would translate into something that feels lively and complicated and also fun to say” (Adroit Journal). These poems delve into the intersection of gender, feminism, technology, and sexuality in a lush syntax that will leave you hitting Google for more of Choi’s words. This work was on my list of nominations last year, and I’m stoked to see that it’s back on the list because I’m basically in love with DEATH BY SEX MACHINE.

Cover of Every Girl Becomes the Wolf, image of woman with axe standing in kitchen, two author photos
Cover of Every Girl Becomes the Wolf, image of woman with axe standing in kitchen, two author photos
Image Courtesy Finishing Line Press

We go to where the grotto offers its opening, a dark chamber, an oven, or maybe a house, wet with melting drip of frost and iron-streaked, like caramel or chocolate, or a kind of sweetness. The witch is here, we say and enter holding hands.

It’s refreshing to see a collaborative duo on the nominees list this year, let alone this double-punch of talented femmes. I’ve been a fan of both Andrea & Laura’s work for a while, so I was stoked to get to read a copy of this phenomenal work. It’s addressing all the feminist speculative touchstones for me: witches, fairy tales, pop culture, Baba Yaga, & Psycho (the movie!) I enjoyed how the poems weren’t a conversation so much as a convocation, as well as the prose-like quality of the narratives within this short, thematic collection.

Cover of Glimmerglass Girl, image of glass-winged butterfly
Cover of Glimmerglass Girl, image of glass-winged butterfly
Image Courtesy the Author

if you open her box / she unfolds at her ankles / and sound / wavers out of her prison / her eyes wander / the mirror / radiates nuclear emissions / blue casts her in a favorable light / for her skin is impossible porcelain / filling the sink of her / skin / faking radiation in her cheeks / she imagines the feel of / his hand in hers

The first rule of author club is that you must promote your work. I am obligated to mention that my first-ever chapbook collection of speculative feminist poems is nominated this year. But really, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my book ended up among the other femmes on this list. I feel like it’s meant to be. I am so honored to be among this collective, and I hope you’ll consider giving it a read.

Recommended Full-Length Books

Image Courtesy the Author

Time is linear, masculine, a thrusting forward, but the Year of the Witch is feminine; the curve of a belly or breast; the crowning head of a babe; the cup of an outstretched hand.

Winward’s last chapbook won the 2016 Elgin Award, so it was no surprise to me to see this title on the list. The Year of the Witch opens with a compelling invocation that asks the reader to view the book as “a circle, not a line.” What I loved about this book was the structure of the seasons, the hybrid descriptions of holidays, and the very deep and personal works within. It’s the story of an everyday woman told in haunting lyricism. This is a stunning collection that you’ll want to read because Winward is one of the best speculative poets of our time.

Image Courtesy Sycorax Press

myself / wings luminous / in the darkness of before / i spread my thighs / breathing the first breath / and birthed sun / too brilliant / I caught him between my wings / took his light /

Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer, and she’s bringing all her Pagan rites to bear on this collection. Goddesses, fairy tales, and myths fill the pages of Buchanan’s work, but what I enjoyed most was the humor and simplicity of these poems.

It always begins with the good intentions of men.

Each poem in Holland’s Instagram-beloved book is based on a fictional character from horror cinema. The title comes from a trope in horror films that has long been dissected for its feminism and ability to place male viewers in an empathetic position of submission. These “final girls” (the ones who survived) populate the pages of Holland’s work with a murmuring of strength & power, like a crowd of angry knife-wielding women.

My body speaks the ugly testament that took all winter. It says: Gluttony & grief balloon, darling. Only kindness is specific.

I read Petrosino’s book last year and fell in love with its overpowering language & luscious self-effacing humor. Witch Wife has managed to straddle the line between realism & genre in a way that’s frankly impressive. It was listed by the NYT as a best in poetry & is now in reprint due to its popularity. The book features eighteen villanelles, prose poems, a sestina, a ghazal, and a pantoum. It engages with the body, blackness, & speculative feminism in a way that I think is truly representative of what speculative poetry can be — and what walls it can knock down.

You sure knew how to piss me off. / What useless teeth you have / you hissed once when I bit down / on your neck. With you / my body held back nearly everything: / I left your neck intact.

Cosmovore engages with the body, eating, & relationship. It tells the story of a goddess who must journey into the five sections of the book — titled Luna, Mars, Mercury, Pluto, and Void. “Having been long-enamored with art dealing with the surreal as well as art that is transparently political made the persona the book is named for emerge naturally” (The Chapbook Interview). Carter’s work is heavy and a bit intellectual, as well as arresting & provocative.

A girl is a beast in moon’s clothing. A beast is a girl howling at a moon. I was a girl when Zeus pinned me, priesthood and all, to the empty sky, shifted my skin to hoof and hide.

Bergamino takes queer speculative poetry and turns it on its head in Unmanned — a book of persona poems written from the perspective of the two Voyager Space probes as queer femmes while they complete their Grand Tour of the outer planets. By approaching the personas of two inhuman characters, Bergamino is exploring a radical form of feminism that takes men out of the equation (as the title suggests). It explores femininity in SFF pop culture from Star Wars to Barbarella when Voyager Two begins to “try on” different personas. It’s a complicated work, but one worth reading.

The Full List of Nominated Works from SFPA

Built to ServeG. O. Clark (Alban Lake, 2017)
Crossing Paths at MidnightAlan Katerinsky (CWP Collective Press, 2017)
Dark MattersRussell Jones (Tapsalteerie Press, 2018)
Death by Sex MachineFranny Choi (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017)
Dispatches from the Mushroom KingdomNoel Pabillo Mariano (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2018)
Every Girl Becomes the WolfLaura Madeline Wiseman & Andrea Blythe (Finishing Line Press, 2018)
Glimmerglass GirlHolly Lyn Walrath (Finishing Line Press, 2018)
Origami LiliesJoshua Gage (The Poet’s Haven, 2018)
Pocket Full of HorrorHerb Kauderer (Written Image Press, 2018)
ScreamingJohn Reinhart (Lion Tamer Press, 2017)

Absolute ZeroDavid Lunde (Mayapple Press, 2018)
ArtifactsBruce Boston (Independent Legions, 2018)
Bleeding SaffronDavid E. Cowen (Weasel Press, 2018)
The Bone JoinerSandi Leibowitz (Sycorax Press, 2018)
Candle & PinsJacqueline West (Alban Lake, 2018)
The Comfort of ScreamsG. O. Clark (Alban Lake, 2018)
CosmovoreKristi Carter (Aqueduct Press, 2017)
Dame Evergreen: And Other Poems of Myth, Magic & MadnessRebecca Buchanan (Sycorax Press, 2018)
DebudaderrahRobin Wyatt Dunn (John Ott, 2018)
The Devil’s DreamlandSara Tantlinger (Strangehouse Books, 2018)
EntanglementDavid C. Kopaska-Merkel & Kendall Evans (Diminuendo Press, 2018)
Flying Solo: The Lana Invasion — Herb Kauderer (The Poet’s Haven, 2017)
Future AnthropologyJean-Paul L. Garnier (Space Cowboy Books, 2018)
I Am Not Your Final Girl: PoemsClaire C. Holland (Glass Poet Press, 2018)
If the Hero of Time Was BlackAshley Harris (Weasel Press, 2018)
InvocabularyGemma Files (Aqueduct Press, 2018)
No Comet, That Serpent in the Sky Means NoiseSueyeun Juliette Lee (Kore Press, 2017)
The Pastime MachineLester Smith (Popcorn Press, 2018)
Planet HunterAlan Ira Gordon (Alban Lake, 2018)
Poetry for the Neon ApocalypseJake Tringali (Transcendent Zero Press, 2018)
Recalibrating the FutureHerb Kauderer (Diminuendo Press, 2018)
Single BoundBryan D. Dietrich (Wordfarm Press, 2018)
UnmannedJessica Rae Bergamino (Noemi Press, 2018)
WarMarge Simon & Alessandro Manzetti (Crystal Lake Publishing, 2018)
Witch WifeKiki Petrosino (Sarabande Books, 2017)
The Year of the Witch Shannon Connor Winward (Sycorax Press, 2018)

Voting for the SFPA Elgin Awards ends 9/15. Members receive a link to vote via email.


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Interstellar Flight Magazine publishes essays on what’s new in the world of speculative genres. In the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, we need “writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.” We use affiliate links and Patreon to pay our writers a fair wage. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

Interstellar Flight Magazine

Interstellar Flight Press is a new speculative publishing house. We publish essays on science fiction and fantasy, pop culture, and geek fandom.

Holly Lyn Walrath

Written by

I'm a writer, editor, and poet. Find me online at www.hlwalrath.com.

Interstellar Flight Magazine

Interstellar Flight Press is a new speculative publishing house. We publish essays on science fiction and fantasy, pop culture, and geek fandom.

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