The poetry department of Strange Horizons
operates on a rota system; there are three of us, and although we speak frequently (both online and in person) and have a shared vision (which is mostly "we like poems that are good"), we alternate, on a bimonthly basis, which of us accepts poems. Functionally, that means not only that we use reading periods - we aim to accept 4 to 6 poems each calendar month and rarely hold poems over* - but that depending on the month you submit, your poem is read by a different editor. Unsurprisingly, Sonya
, and I are not identical. There's considerable overlap, but there are also, shall we say, foibles.
I'm not going to try to break down what the editors at large are looking for, but I can tell you a little bit about my
preferences, and that I mainly read submissions sent in August/September and February/March
My favorite poetry, spec or otherwise, delights in its own creation. I like Frank O'Hara's "I do this; I do that" poems. I like slant rhymes and clever distortions, like those found in Ogden Nash and Edward Lear. I'm extremely fond of the Best American Poetry series, Albert Goldbarth, David Kirby, Jennifer Knox, The Hat
, and Boulevard
. It is fair to say I have an appreciation for the Absurd.
I believe poetry, science, and speculative elements do well together because they aim to enter the same heightened, liminal space.
My favorite Strange Horizons
poems of 2011 and 2012:
," by Sofia Samatar
"Scene I, graveyard
," by Rachael Jennings
"The Second Law of Thermodynamics
," by David Barber
"bell, book, candle
," by Gwynne Garfinkle
"The Vampire Astronomer
," by Chris Willrich
," by Mari Ness
"Wendy Darling Has Bad Dreams
," by Sally Rosen Kindred
"Reconciling Fundamental Forces and Matter
," by Marci Rae Johnson
"The Book of Drowned Things
," by Adrienne J. Odasso**
"Come to Venice
," by Cythera
These poems offer much in little and take advantage of their poem-ness to open a chink in the wall. Each of them does one or more of these things:
1. Has an image that is haunting, unique, and expressive, which will reoccur to me throughout the next several days.
2. Expresses something satisfying when taken on its own, but also comments on something outside itself, whether cultural, psychological, or philosophical.
3. Uses language that is specific and bracing, but leaves shadow in which things can flutter. I don't know a better way to put this; some things are throbbing and if you nail them down they lose their vividness. When trying to express the uncanny or the infinite, it can't be taken head-on. For me, this is where SF poetry really comes into its own; it can give unsettling half-glimpses and put the world at an angle, whereas in fiction the author would really need to lock that down.
4. Feels grounded in real emotion or real experience, even if the subject is fantastic. I think it's very easy for poetry to get maudlin, with word choice that is either sing-song or tortured, rote or cryptic. When I feel like you're showing me a piece of truth, giving me a window into a real moment, that's something special - that's a gift, an experience I get to have that didn't come from my own life.
In terms of what I'm less interested in, I don't usually care for highly allusive poems - these feel mostly like they're congratulating you and themselves for getting the references, not like they're really adding to them. I'm also not partial to long-form narrative poetry. (Yes, I know, Beowulf and Homer and so forth, but I feel like that sort of poem is all about memorization and recitation and performance, and isn't a native fit for the Internet.) I don't like poems that draw my attention to the work the poet is doing rather than the ideas expressed. I like when poems defy gravity. It is, of course, possible to have this lightness of touch and still be an allusive long-form narrative, such as "The Birds
" by Josh Burson, which I liked a good deal.
Classical mythology is an extremely hard sell to me. It feels uncomfortably played out and parochial as references go, and I'm bored by it. I view the Norse pantheon with similar although slightly less prejudice. If somebody's going to write about gods, I want gods that could shake up my life. If somebody's going to write about a doomed romance, I want the woman involved to feel like a flesh-and-blood woman and not an outdated ideal. In general, if the mythic figures you're writing about are just an abstraction or archetype to you, I don't see how they're supposed to make me
feel something. (Think about this if you're writing an alternate-perspective fairytale as well.) If you're going to make allusions, what is fandom but a shared language of references? Your audience didn't grow up translating Horace, but I bet most of them watch Dr. Who
and read Dragonriders of Pern
What I'm looking for from speculative fiction poetry is the new pantheon, new symbols. I want poems about the Internet, about radium, about drone warfare, about space elevators. If dragons, what is a dragon now
, a dragon from your
neighborhood? How do you feel about the shifts of understanding in paleontology from cold-blooded to warm-blooded to feathers and scavengers, and do you find that parallels your own life? When you think of Death, do you think of a skeleton man in a hood, or do you think of white nose syndrome
? What does it mean that more and more of us are cancer survivors and how do mammograms relate to banshees?
Bear in mind also that I like humor. I like ease
(or unease). I'm not saying everything has to be funny, which is not always appropriate. But I'm going to be more impressed by fresh insight in a shambling style than really polished stanzas that feel airless. Unless they're supposed to feel airless and it's a poem about vacuum, in which case, well done.
If any of that sounds like something you might write, send it my way in October. Submission guidelines are at the website
In terms of possible future plans for the poetry department, some projects I dream of us taking on include:
- Adding photos/illustrations/diagrams to some poems, and otherwise taking advantage of the electronic nature of our medium
- creating (perhaps even pioneering) poetry music videos
- pulling together an SF poetry anthology, including both poems and essays (and perhaps debates over whether such a genre even exists, and if so what it is. I tell you now my position: existentialism but with spaceships)
- bringing about encounters and collaborations between scientists and poets
- researching grants for the above
- writing and soliciting essays on common poetic SF symbols (dragons, spaceships, stars, etc)
- holding readings at the Grolier
if they'll let us
- attending relevant conventions
- broadening the pool of people who submit to us by cold-calling poets and scientists I find interesting, who may not think of themselves as SF poets or know that SF poetry exists (see previous mention of debate on whether it in fact does)
I look forward to seeing your poems and/or your comments. Boldly go.
Romie* So if you're sending a poem in August/September, you are being judged against August/September poems, and you will probably get an acceptance or rejection by the end of October.
** I'm copying this list from one I assembled while I was being interviewed, before AJ or I were editors and before I'd met her or had any notion she was also applying to be an editor, so it was kind of a nice surprise to see this name turn up on my list and go "oh, right, that was her!" Incidentally, I also published a poem in Strange Horizons some years ago, "Summer and Austin Have Left Their Apartment for a House," and to round things out, here's one of several by Sonya.
*** In other words, what I want is completely counter to the usual fiction guideline, the rote "no Tolkien elves and Vampire: The Masquerade vampires." I do want that. I want your poem in which Data has a conversation with Maria from Metropolis. And I want you to be explicit about it; I don't want "hmm this seems a lot like Data, but he's got a different hair color." And - this is the important bit - I want you to tell me what makes Tolkien or roleplaying or androids mean something beyond themselves.