I enjoyed getting to be a panelist, moderator, and Q&A wrangler at Worldcon this week. But in my last panel, the one on speculative poetry, I didn’t have a chance to chime in on one audience question because we were almost out of time. Normally that wouldn’t be an issue, but I’m not convinced we fully answered the submitter’s question. I’ll try to address it here.
What do you look for in a good speculative poem? (I think that was the phrasing.) While I agree with my fellow panelists that it’s highly subjective—indeed, what makes a poem good even if it’s not speculative, or for that matter, what makes a poem a poem in the first place?—I don’t think that’s a satisfying, complete answer. I believe that through the lens of one’s subjectivity, one can still pinpoint a few criteria that others may find helpful.
When filtered through my own subjectivity, I look at the following: 1) imagery, 2) word choice, and 3) format. And these apply to any poem, speculative or not. When a poet creates striking, memorable images (often constructed from concrete details and engaging multiple senses), using beautiful language (often employing words in unexpected yet effective ways), and arranges it all on the page in a presentation that feels cohesive to what the poem is intended to be (making the poem feel even more like something that only this poet could have created), that combination is most likely to stick with me. That’s what gets me sneaking back to the poem to revisit that moment, that impression, that alchemy the poet has crafted.
And yes, what “checks the box” for me will be highly subjective. When I talk about beautiful language, that can take so many forms. Horror, humor, despondence, wonder. It depends on what I interpret to be the poem’s intended effect. It’s part of the poem’s synergy, how the whole transcends the sum of its parts. I wish we’d had more time to really do this topic justice.