Beyond the Kind Horizon: Reading for Diversity in the 2010 Rhysling Anthology
Each year, the Science Fiction Poetry Association hosts the Rhysling Awards to honor science fiction and fantasy poetry. Consisting of two categories, the Best Short Poem and the Best Long Poem, the Rhysling Awards are peer-nominated and then put to a vote by that same constituency using the Rhysling Anthology-- a reprint collection of all the poems nominated-- to permit ease of consideration of all nominees. As such, the Rhysling Anthology is a compelling artifact: a yearly snapshot of what the active members of the SFPA consider to be the finest science fiction and fantasy poetry published in the preceding year.
In 2010, the Rhysling Award for Best Short Poem was awarded to "To Theia" by Ann K. Schwader, with second and third place going to "The Changeling Always Wins" by Nicole Kornher-Stace and "Nine Views of the Oracle" by Rachel Manija Brown respectively. "To Theia" spins enthralling poetry from moon-formation theory, invoking protoplanets and might-have-beens in sorrowful rhythm. "The Changeling Always Wins," on the other hand, is an intensely personal reflection on motherhood and the horrors sometimes implicit in impish offspring. "Nine Views of the Oracle" is something else again, almost a prose poem, inspired by Elise Matthesen's necklace "Nine Things About Oracles." The poem is comprised, naturally, of nine parts and describes various functions of an Oracle with Zen pragmatism - though Brown seems mostly to draw on a Greco-Roman understanding of the titular figure, her material references suggest the ubiquitousness of the Oracle across cultures.
First place in the Best Long Poetry category went to "In the Astronaut Asylum" by Kendall Evans and Samantha Henderson, with "Rattlebox III" by Mike Allen, Kendall Evans, and David C. Kopaska-Merkel and "The First Story" by Lana Hechtman Ayers placing as runners-up. Unfortunately, "In the Astronaut Asylum" seems to be missing a stanza in the printed anthology - Mike Allen, the editor of Mythic Delirium (in which the poem first appeared), has kindly reprinted it online here. This poem is both riddled with sci-fi tropes and influenced by balladic tradition, delivering a captivating and delirious twirl through the afflictions that might come to affect life-long space explorers. "Rattlebox III" is, frankly, brilliant fun, utilizing the visual component of printed poetry to great effect and tumbling through Skinner, Schrödinger, Jack and Jill, Pandora, Sleeping Beauty, and more in a dizzying romp: reading this poem never gets old, and I can see why it took three people to compose it. Ayers' "The First Story" is likewise impressive, but on an entirely visceral level through the evocation of women's lives and transformation using the darkest of fairy tale tropes.
These six poems were rather fine specimens from those nominated, and certainly deserving of their respective wins. The remainder of the anthology ranges from fairy tale re-tellings (Snow White in space in Mary Alexandra Agner's “The Glass Ship”) and two-part call-and-response poems between mythical figures (Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica Paige Wick's "Apple Jack Tangles the Maidy Lac with a Red, Red Ribbon," for one) to clever narrative pieces by mercilessly compassionate bridge-keepers (“City of Bridges” by J.E. Stanley) or impulsive joy-riders of the future (“Joyride,” naturally, by Angel Favazza) to Lovecraftian pieces (Michael Kriesel's “Fungi from Yuggoth”) and surprisingly fun poetry instructing body-snatching aliens on the proper installation inside the human host ("Owner's Manual" by Marcie Lynn Tentchoff). Altogether, the anthology showcases a fairly solid collection of poetry with a double handful of stand-out compositions. There are also a few poems I considered borderline offensive, such as "The Men All Pause (a poem on Global Warming)" by Stephen M. Wilson, a brief and obtuse piece in which the Mother Earth concept is played for a menopause joke: the brevity of the piece and the pun in the title suggest the poem is meant to provoke a chuckle rather than engage in any meaningful way with the concept of global warming or planetary evolution. Another poem that careens over the border into offensive territory is David C. Kopaska-Merkel's “Hillbilly Invasion,” which plays off a redneck voice and forced pregnancy for a laugh. There is certainly a space to talk about forced impregnation by an invasive alien body in science fiction poetry, but a poem seemingly meant to amuse people by poking at ignorant hillbilly fecundity and compromising a woman's control over her own body is in no way appropriate.
On the other hand, positive stand-outs within the Rhysling Anthology include "The Qin Golem" by Francesca Forrest, a visceral collision of Chinese political arrays both past and present through the eyes of a beleaguered terra-cotta soldier become golem. Shweta Narayan's "Apsara" is intoxicating and as beautiful as it is sad: the poem explores cultural displacement in compelling rhythm. "When Her Eyes Open" by Shira Lipkin is a hardcore sci-fi poem that hits all the sweet spots between the emotional interior and the material science. Olga Pavlinova Olenich's "Medea of Melbourne" is a fantastic modernization of the Jason and Medea myth, critical of trade abuse. "Corrected Maps of Your City" by Kendall Evans and David C. Kopaska-Merkel depicts an M.C. Escher-like existence of ever-shifting reality, while "Two Kinds of Time" by Meliors Simms enumerates the different experiences of linear and non-linear movement in relation to time. These poems, along with this year's winners and a handful more, represent the best of the collection. As these selections demonstrate, the anthology easily encompasses diversity in genre, plot, and topic.
However, one element that gave me pause while considering the anthology as a whole was the lack of diversity in voice. A few important defining features of science fiction and fantasy are the inborn opportunities to push boundaries, to challenge established social conventions, and to teach us all how wide and variable the world truly is. I would expect that any collection of poetry ostensibly comprised of the best and brightest in the realm of science fiction and fantasy would include a wide variety of perspectives, from non-Western cultures to queer identities to moving beyond a gender binary, and further. Yet, in the 2010 Rhysling anthology, I find less than twenty notable examples of non-Western perspectives out of nearly 100 poems, and only a handful of those twenty can be said to come from a truly non-Western perspective.
A few of them are mentioned already above, as in Forrest's "The Qin Golem" and Narayan's "Apsara." Marsheila Rockwell constructs a beautifully sad reflection on the displacement of native gods in "Of Amaranth and Honey," a South American poem from the perspective of Huitzilopochtli (a sun god and patron of Tenochtitlan): her poem is a short one, yet includes nuanced references to religious idols being adapted to reflect the faces of the converted ("a brown-faced virgin" ) and contemporary life in South America involving television and low-fat tortillas.
Each of Elizabeth Barrette's four included poems involve non-Western cultures to some extent, from Babylon and Sumer in "Fallen Gardens" and Africa in "The Mummy Child" to the native Americas in both "The Dreamgod" and "How the Aztecs Conquered Cortez." Unfortunately, her perspectives are often shallow or exoticizing, and so do not fully and positively encompass diverse perspectives. "The Mummy Child" is powerfully visceral, but delivers starvation imagery in Africa without delving deeper than television imagery familiar to the majority of Americans. In "How the Aztecs Conquered Cortez," she draws upon death magic and bloody mythology, all too popular tropes for South American narratives, while demonizing native sexuality and transmuting Cortez' natural death into a revenge narrative. "The Dreamgod" depicts a cornucopia of substances that alter human consciousness, encompassing some references to native American flora and vague Native American wording. She perhaps succeeds best in embodying a non-Western perspective in "Fallen Gardens," if one could accept the undefined desert priestess as being a native voice out of time; unfortunately, I think perhaps the voice is that of neo-pagan reflection and so it loses its poetic strength.
"John Amen's "Rampage" is aptly named, rampaging across the world and through cultures with impunity. His poem rambles on at length, ultimately leaving a deep impression of unfocused fervor; "Rampage" is a mishmash that cannot ultimately be called a representation of non-Western cultures, for all its global references. A few other poems can be categorized similarly, including "Godzilla's Better Half" by Matt Betts, which is a tongue-in-cheek and fanciful reflection on a romantic relationship with Gojira and includes Japanese references to the extent of Gojira running amok through Tokyo - which is to say, no real Japanese perspective at all. Likewise, I'm hesitant to mention "In the Astronaut Asylum" by Kendall Evans and Samantha Henderson and Lana Hechtman Ayers "The First Story," which include only brief references to Soviet cosmonauts and Slavic Baba Yaga.
One reading of J.E. Stanley's "Cabaret" might suggest it as a science fiction analogy to slavery, with its references to the blues, Chicago, and performing at the behest of alien masters who will otherwise punish them and theirs. "Medea of Melbourne" by Olga Pavlinova Olenich is obviously an interpretation of Greco-Roman myth, but critiques the abuse of an economically dominant power of a disenfranchised culture. There are a good number of Greco-Roman-inspired poems in the Rhysling Anthology, but I did not count any apart from "Medea of Melbourne" when seeking cultural diversity, considering that the Greek and Roman cultures compose the bedrock of the Western world.
Alex Dally MacFarlane's "Beautifully Mutilated, Instantly Antiquated" revolves around the darkly surreal and beautifully depicted self-alteration of a woman with "clove-dark skin," and supports chromatic diversity even if there's no great focus on another culture (although, it could be argued that her piece supports the subculture of body modification). From the queer perspective, it seems only the winning "Rattlebox III" even suggests moving beyond heterosexuality and cisgender in its reference to a "JackJill," while Mary Alexandra Agner's "The Glass Ship" is the only piece with a concrete reference to a homosexual relationship: the Snow White figure is horrified to find the dead body of a former female lover upon awakening from cryogenic stasis.
So little documentable diversity is a very concerning dearth: it may be so that there is a small amount of truly diverse speculative poetry published in English each year, but that doesn't mean there isn't more than is represented here. Reflecting on 2009 through the venues of Goblin Fruit, edited by Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica Paige Wick, and Scheherezade's Bequest, edited by Erzebet Yellowboy, immediately suggests a number of poems deserving of inclusion in a survey of the year's best science fiction and fantasy poetry: Margaret Bashaar's "Kalypso" is a horrifyingly beautiful invocation of that goddess and her relationship with Odysseus; "Dsonoqua Daughters" by Neile Graham is redolent with the autumnal earth and rife with wordplay as it engages with Canadian native folklore. "Secret Identity" by Gale Acuff suggests a coming out story through Superman's subtextual relationship with Jimmy Olsen and also questions gender roles. Each of these is an excellent poem from Goblin Fruit, well deserving of further showcase; I haven't even mentioned Mary Alexander Agner's "Sumerian Love Song" or "Coyote Does Chicago" by C.S.E. Cooney. Likewise, in Erzebet Yellowboy's Scheherezade's Bequest, Daniel A. Rabuzzi's provocative "Before St. George Came"-- with its Old World Christian dragons hunted for imagined and projected wrongs-- springs instantly to mind, along with Helen Ogden's "Troll Boy" and its castigation of institutionalized abuse based on physiological difference. On a closing note, one cannot discuss the field of speculative poetry without mentioning Mike Allen's Mythic Delirium, of which one volume was published in 2009: within that issue, Adrienne J. Odasso's "Journeying" provides an evocatively lyrical depiction of a same-sex pairing in a suggestively medieval period. Odasso's poem would have made a fine addition to the anthology.
Diversity – of culture, of identity, of sexuality – are the warp and weft of this life; if there is anywhere that variety of perspective should shine brighter than suns and fly farther than the edges of the galaxy, it is in the poetry of the fantastic. In years to come, I hope to see this reflected in the Rhysling Anthology.