Books

The Best Speculative Poetry Engages in Experimental Forms

Recommended Reading from the 2020 Elgin Awards

Holly Lyn Walrath
Aug 31 · 9 min read
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Artwork from The Book of Fly by John Philip Johnson, artist Brie Underhill

he Elgin Award, named for Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA) founder Suzette Haden Elgin, are presented annually by SFPA for books published in the preceding two years in two categories, Chapbook (10–39 pages) and Book (40+ pages). The Elgin Awards attempt to highlight the best of speculative or science fiction and fantasy (SFF) poetry published in the previous two years. Books are nominated and voted on by members of SFPA. This year’s voting deadline is September 15, 2020.

Last year, I pointed out how the contenders for the award were some of the best female-identifying poets in the contemporary speculative poetry genre. This year, I’m struck by how each poet negotiates genre and that many of the selected works contain experimental elements. These ain’t your normal rhyming sonnets; these poets push the envelope in new and exciting ways.

One of the misconceptions of science fiction and fantasy works is that they aren’t “literary” or don’t in some way engage with a higher quality or standard of style that elevates the work beyond so-called “escapism.” Yet if you read speculative books regularly, you’ll see that while many works in the genre are lovely, slam-bang, shoot-em-up, thrilling works of adventure, there are also many works worth examining for their uniqueness in approach, use of literary devices, and experimental structures. The same can be said for speculative poetry, and this year’s Elgin crop is a showcase of the new, strange, and exciting.

Chapbooks

(10–39 pages)

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Select artwork from The Book of Fly by John Philip Johnson, used with permission from the author
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The Book of Fly

by John Philip Johnson

If you love comic books, you’ll want to check out this collection of “graphic poetry” — visual poems created as a collaboration with comic artists. Each poem is short but illustrated in a different artist’s style. My favorite is “Shadowfolk” (pictured above right). The black and white art pairs with a story of shadow-humanoids who are slowly ignored by humans until they waste away. Visual Verse isn’t new — it dates back to the time of illuminated manuscripts in the early days when books were first being created. But this serial-style set of poems is unique in how it engages with comic book art to draw the reader in, a reader who may not already be familiar with poetry. John Philip Johnson’s The Book of Fly is named after the title poem (illustrated by J.M Lewis), which recently won the Pushcart Prize, proving that speculative poetry can transcend the so-called genre barrier.

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Tales from the House of Vasquez

by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland

When I asked Gilliland how she came to write this chap, she said, “These poems were among the first I wrote after my son’s traumatic birth, which led to PTSD for me. I changed so much in his babyhood that I didn’t even recognize myself anymore. I suspect I wrote Tales to give myself a frame of reference, a foundation, in which to build myself up again.” Gilliland is a Mexican-American poet whose work shines with the warmth of home and family. The speculative aspects of poems are steeped in folklore and biblical recapitulations, such as “The Tale of the Serpent,” a retelling of the Eve story, and “The Tale of Kitchen Spirits,” a poem that questions the age-old role of women as nourishers of the soul. Slowly, the poems unfold a story of magic, death, birth, faith, and family.

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Havoc in Silence

by Tiffany Morris

Mi’kmaw poet Tiffany Morris writes with a keen attention to word choice. Her poems are small but weighty, begging the tongue to speak them out loud. Whether she is meditating on the meaning of words (see: bloodripe: peelsour. / pulpteeth: softscrape.) or else the nature of women ( organstretchscream / peer / between / cracks / where the wives do the / patient work / of stitch / of slaughter), Morris comes to stand on a cliff with the idea of the poem and gently pushes it over the edge. Alya Lamba says of E.E. Cummings, “meaning can be created through the absence of rules, too,” and I find that fits Morris’ chapbook perfectly.

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Titania in Yellow

by Dayna Patterson

Speaking of the absence of rules, Porkbelly Press is known for its tiny poetry books like Titania in Yellow, a chapbook that follows the queen of the fairies from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream into new worlds. The book opens with “Self-Portrait as Titania, Spellbound” and we are to understand that the narrator is comparing herself to Titania being in love with an ass. In this case, an ex-lover. The poems explore unique structures, such as answers to an adoption form or a word-bank style conglomeration of phrases. It’s pleasant to see Shakespeare’s ladies gain a new voice in Patterson’s lyricism.

Full-Length Collections

(40+ pages)

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Soft Science

by Franny Choi

It’s no secret I’m a Choi fan girl. Franny Choi’s Soft Science begins with a “Glossary of Terms,” in table format, assigning meaning to words like “star,” “ghost,” “mouth,” “sea” — along with antonyms and what the word “dreams to be.” From a literal Turing Test for the reader to a poem formatted like CSS called “Program for the Morning After,” Soft Science uses form to deconstruct meaning, but also to teach the reader how to read the poems. There is the usual obsession with how problematic the female cyborg is, but also a pushing back against the anglo-normative storyline, a negotiation that Choi calls, “lol parody, written, or oil, to rage” (“The Cyborg Wants to Make Sure She Heard You Right.”) Choi borrows from other poets like Langston Hughes, Nate Marshall, Lo Kwa me-En, in a conversation about what it means to be a woman, to be a poet, to be queer, to be Korean-American, to ask for equality. This is one you’ll want to buy for the bookshelf, dear reader.

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Your Strange Fortune

by Chloe N. Clarke

Chloe Clarke is a prolific poet. She has published hundreds of poems in hundreds of journals and magazines. I always enjoy finding her work when I come upon it, like running into a friend at the grocery store you just saw that morning. Happenstance is a large part of Clark’s work, and Your Strange Fortune is structured in sections titled “Past,” “Present,” “Future,” and “Now.” Clark’s poems are getting more and more complicated and strange, and I for one appreciate the new maturity in this book. As usual, Clark’s dedication to the body, and specifically the female body, is a revisited theme, but also storytelling and what it means to be human. To live in an era of apocalypsi. This is a poet that will be with us long after those who would silence women writers are gone.

If you like Your Strange Fortune, check out Collective Gravities, Clark’s collection of short stories recently featured on NPR.

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The Octopus Museum

by Brenda Shaughnessy

The Octopus Museum is structured as an imaginary “exhibit” in a museum. This collection asks what it means to be human but not to fit in, or rather, where will those who are marginalized ever fit in? “What could be queerer than this queer tug-lust for what already is, who already am, but other of it?” Trauma, wildness, and ambiguity intertwine in poems that are prosey, conversational, confessional without the cringe factor. On the speculative side, you’ll find sea monsters in the depths of this book, as well as fairy tales and apocalypses.

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Algorithmic Shapeshifting

by Bogi Takács

The first section in Algorithmic Shapeshifting is called “Trans Love is”, perhaps named after the “love is” comic by New Zealand cartoonist Kim Casali that always featured cishet characters. It’s astounding how very close to eir heart Bogi Takács brings us, an act that is not what I would call brave, because that seems dismissive of the faith it takes to let people in, but what I would call necessary because this is the kind of book the world needs to read. These poems pay careful attention to the idea of the liminal, and IFP was lucky enough to interview Takács; this is what eir had to say about the topic:

“Boundary-crossing happened to me in a very physical sense because I’m a migrant. I also find myself thinking a lot about the boundaries of the body, probably related to my being autistic and not having a good sense of my body in space, but also possibly related to transness / intersex-ness. I had a lot of experiences, especially in a medical context, where people would not respect the boundaries of my body or even me as a person.”

One would hope that by exploring these themes with such precision, poets can transcend our society’s boundaries too.

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Elemental Haiku

by Mary Soon Lee

Mary Soon Lee has created a poetic opus in Elemental Haiku — a book that includes one haiku for every element on the periodic table (that’s 118 total, plus a closing haiku for element 119, not yet synthesized). The poems originally appeared in Science magazine, When it debuted, the book hit the bestseller list on Amazon in science, not poetry, which is just proof that science poetry is a force to be reckoned with. Also, people love books that are lovingly crafted, and this book is utterly gorgeous in print.

It never ceases to amaze me how prolific Mary Soon Lee is — or how she can take just three lines and 17 syllables and make me question the universe, like in “Helium”:

Begin universe.
Wait three minutes to enter.
Stay cool. Don’t react.

This book makes science fun. There, I said it, this one’s going on the poetry shelf and staying there until I die or the house burns down. Either way, it’s a book I’m sure I’ll come back to read even if I’m dead because it’s just too good to resist.

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hose are my top reading recs for this year’s Elgins! As usual, there are so many great books in this year’s crop. I am constantly impressed by the state of speculative poetry. While it never gets the recognition I feel it deserves, the field is broadening in ways that are blasting apart the mainstream canon like, well, a cannon. Although I’ve focused this article on the pieces that challenge the canon or are experimental in some way, I should also mention that these additional works are worth a read as well:

The Apocalyptic Mannequin

by Stephanie M. Wytovich

The Year of the Witch

by Shannon Connor Winward

Small Waiting Objects

by T.D. Walker

Age of Glass

by Anna Maria Hong

As always, the books nominated for the 2020 Elgin Award express a serious lack of representation of marginalized voices. While, like last year, there are a number of fantastic female-identifying voices on this list and a few queer voices, I would love to see more works nominated in the future that are by LGBTQ2IA+ folks, writers from marginalized backgrounds, writers of color, and disabled writers. It is my hope that by talking about this dearth we will one day overcome it.

Members of SFPA: You can vote for the Elgin Award up until 9/15. Do your civic duty!

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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.

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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.

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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