The State of the Art: A Look at Speculative Poetry on the Web

The State of the Art: A Look at Speculative Poetry on the Web

Stephen M. Davis

There is, of course, a story behind this essay, which didn’t start out as a look at Web poetry at all. In fact, the first idea I’d had was to look at speculative poetry in the print medium. What I discovered is that this is no easy task: most speculative poetry is originally printed in the Small (well, Teenie, if truth be told) Press, in magazines that occasionally have runs of 200 copies.

I then decided to see what the Internet could provide. And while there are definitely advantages to Web publication, there are disadvantages for the critic, as well.

One major disadvantage to the Web for a critic is that everything is there. And I mean everything. Most people can’t afford to spend several thousand dollars to lay out a magazine, pay contributors, and have a printer run off copies. The Web makes it possible for people to dress up dreadful product in attractive garb, and it becomes difficult to separate wheat from chaff quickly.

This essay, then, has become my way of pointing people to places where there is some quality speculative poetry. This is most certainly not intended to be an exhaustive examination of speculative poetry on the Web, but is merely intended to give readers some starting points.

One good beginning is the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry site, created by Jonathan Vos Post. Mr. Vos Post has created chapters which span everything from Victorian fantasy poetry to a listing of Small Press magazines. The page has not been updated in some time, and a number of the magazines listed are no longer publishing, but there is some excellent information here.

The most impressive collection of speculative poetry on the Internet that I came across is located here. What was originally intended as a print anthology has been broken into six sections, each dealing loosely with a sub-category of speculative poetry, like science fiction, or ghosts. Most of the poetry here is not trivial. By that, I mean that these tend to be works that were meant to be poems first and, coincidentally, happened to have speculative elements in them; they are not generally pieces of cliched fantasy that an author crammed into a poetic shape.

For instance, Bruce Boston, in his poem “The Inevitability of Light” writes of how a gross of mountain-sized nails “and a hammer like a moon” are used “to keep the night from curling up at dawn,” and the result is a nice poem. In the section “How the Blind Become the Dead,” Brett Rutherford writes of Medea:

He always feared her,
though she never refused his mounting urge.
Yet loving her was thrusting manhood
into a cache of spiders, her womb
not silk but the clinging of arachnid webs,
holding him in until his terrified seed

Finally, Eileen Kernaghan gives us a picture of Turing’s Garden, in a poem with many nice images:

these branches
sprouting symmetries like petals
round the hearts of flowers
chimes in the quantum wind
the harmonies
of particles colliding
in dim undergrowth
the stirring
of vast ambiguous animals

The “Home to Dreams and Nightmares Magazine” has poetry by its publisher, who manages to create some nice effects. In “Foreign Shades,” for instance, Mr. Kopaska-Merkel gives us “Said it? you said it,/ the windows pealed antiphony like/ Frozen cakes of mud,/ blue-nosed to the ears,/ and groomed as close as houses.” I have no idea what that means, but the beauty of poetry is its ability to inspire recognition, even when cognition fails us utterly.

Another example of this can be found here. Mark Cashman gives us the unfortunate “Death of a Good Man,” but redeems himself a bit with “Historical Act” : “Fear the death of the cello/ In the sparking embrace of the sample/ Fear the death of canvas, pigment daubed in an act of the cave.” Again, who knows? I like the lines anyway.

Then, of course, there is the typical work by a poet I shall keep anonymous:

I drove my car across three states,
twenty miles over the speed limit,
hoping to fatigue them so much
they would just have to quit.

If the ghouls don’t catch him, the meter will probably give him a good whooping.

There is, thank God, humorous fantasy (i.e. fantasy poetry intended to be humorous) on the web. Witness, for instance, “Kiss the Darkness,” by Richard Behrens, which can be found in Planet Magazine:

travelers on this road
ignore the signs
they can’t read English
don’t know what a verb is
they take wrong turns
end up in barnyards
feeding chickens
and shoveling
the cows.

And, in this same e-zine, Romeo Esparrago pays homage to Star Trek with “Tanka.”

“Can’t resist your charm,
languid long legs, wicked waist,
nimble nanoprobes,
resistance is so futile
Voyager’s Seven of Nine!”

Wasting good alliteration on a Borg — even a reformed one — is probably futile, as well. Let me end this cursory glance through web-based speculative poetry with some lines by Maryann Hazen-Stearns, whose poem “Laughing Cat & the Island Crone” can be found at

Laughing Cat did go there.
Crow there. Dancing Dog and
demons sow there.
Nowhere. He been there.
He take me take me too there,
you there, come we go there too.

There are, finally, two points I would like to make for those readers who are thinking of springing poetry onto the world: regardless of what you’ve heard, most poetry that “comes from the heart” is positively dreadful. In reality, most good poetry comes from people who are almost pathologically concerned with language and with what words mean. If you are thinking of writing and publishing poetry, read all the poetry you can by the very best poets that are available to you. If you are not a good writer to begin with, it is almost a dead certainty that you will be an even worse poet. And secondly, resist the urge to personify. If you read through your poetry and find that the moon is crying, or the geraniums are peering at someone around a corner, you probably need extensive revision. I offer these points as an aside, based on several days’ perusal of web poetry.

I wish I could say that there is an awful lot of splendid speculative poetry on the World Wide Web. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case. Of course, there isn’t a lot of splendid poetry on the Web or off, so this isn’t terribly surprising. I will continue to browse, and as I find talented writers, and worthwhile sites, I will pass the information along, if I am able.

Stephen M. Davis is an instructor of English at the University of New Orleans. He is a longstanding contributor to the SF Site, where he writes book reviews.

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