For some months, the Science Fiction Poetry Association has been squabbling over the definition of speculative poetry, what qualifies as "speculative enough," and in a slightly overlapping discussion, the name of the organization and whether it should say something other than "science fiction." I and several other folks experienced in poetry and small organizations have pointed out that trying to force your pet definition on other people will consistently start arguments and frequently cause people to leave.
Now it's Rhysling Award nomination season, and the officers rejected a poem for not being speculative enough. Said poem was originally published in a speculative magazine, Strange Horizons -- which means the author, the editors, and the nominator all thought it was a speculative poem. But their opinions are irrelevant; the poem is excluded from consideration because someone else doesn't think it's speculative enough, people in a position of power that allows them to dictate other people's actions.
Predictably, this happened. Here is the poem, "I Will Be Your Grave."
Regarding the allegations of racism: As a scholar of literature, world religions, and ethnic studies I concur with the editor's statement that "At worst, it's exclusionary and, yes, even racist to claim that a poem by a writer of color, published in a speculative magazine, is not speculative enough by white/Western standards to be worthy of nomination."
Look at the speculative elements and you can see why this happened: "Knocking on my bones / The door of my soul" and "She's searching for dismissive gods," and "Life leaking with time / Elapse of immortality, the air stills." Bones, souls, a plurality of higher powers, and distinctive conceptualizations of eternity and immortality are core motifs appearing throughout African culture and literature. Naturally when Africans turn to speculative fiction -- and African science fiction is quite big right now -- they use the motifs meaningful to them from their experiences, and thus the futures they imagine or the mystical realms they explore are deliciously different from those generated by European or North American backgrounds. These are readily recognizable to anyone familiar with African traditions, but often unfamiliar to outsiders.
These perspectives are routinely excluded from white society and, especially, recognition such as awards. Often there's no representation at all; when black people win awards, it tends to make the news because it doesn't happen much. It's usually not because the people rejecting them are the kind of racists who think black people are inferior. It's because they think black ideas are uninteresting and irrelevant -- in this case, "not speculative enough." Not "good enough." Not "really" speculative poetry. Not "worthy" of being permitted to compete at all. The awards typically go to things closer to the middle of the bell curve. Usually it's because people don't vote for black literature; the perspective shown by the award chairs and officers of the SFPA is common, though by no means universal. But sometimes it's enforced from the top down, like this case when an African poem shows up to the literary lunch counter and is thrown out the door by organizational fiat. The member who nominated it is not permitted to have a voice regarding what speculative poetry "is," the poem is not permitted to compete in the award despite meeting the technical standards, its author is excluded from the privileged circle of nominees, and the general membership is prevented from voicing our opinion about what is or is not "speculative enough" and "good enough" through our votes for the Rhysling Award. At the same time, this high-handed move directly blocks everyone else's mindful efforts to promote diversity in speculative poetry by forcibly removing the option of voting for this poem. Our opinions and work don't matter; we don't get a choice. Someone else gets to decide that. Someone with more power. Someone more important. Someone who gets to say which poems and poets can sit at the literary lunch counter, or not. Institutionalized racism is difficult to fix precisely because of examples like this where someone in power can directly thwart other people's hard work in solving the problem.
Which is a pity, because "I Will Be Your Grave" is a great poem that would've done wonders for fixing the problem of speculative literature being prevailingly white and having a reputation as an elitist clique. I would happily have voted for it.
One year I had four poems nominated, and they were all multicultural poems about different societies. My fans love that stuff. Someone complained that the poems were "exoticizing" other cultures. Well, that's a matter of interpretation; along with that complaint, I have readers of diverse colors and cultures who support me precisely because I incorporate all different perspectives and they like how I do so. Four different people liked these enough to nominate them. I suppose I should be grateful they got in at all, because they were a lot like the poem under dispute -- weird, luscious little musings about very different dimensions of experience.
The Rhysling Award for speculative poetry is open to nomination by SFPA members only, which means people pay for the privilege of nominating and voting for these poems. These are not uneducated dilettantes; they are serious mavens willing and able to put their money where their mouth is for the sake of showing the world what they consider the best speculative poetry of the year. The Rhysling anthology has consistently done that.
It is my stance that writing and reading about different cultures promotes tolerance. If some efforts are inept, this is a natural part of the learning process; if you're not making any mistakes, you're not learning, you're coasting. If some works are not to someone's taste, and if definitions of genre or quality vary, these are normal parts of the literary field; there is no intellectual exploration and discussion without dissent. These are features, not bugs. The problems start when someone in a position of power attempts to force their personal opinion on unwilling others by tampering with the process of an award or other activity. It undermines the integrity of the organization, taints the award, and contributes to social problems such as racism and waning literacy that are already quite bad enough without any more help. An organization can say whatever it wants about being fair and inclusive, but it is the actions which prove or disprove these claims.
I feel that the SFPA should reinstate "I Will Be Your Grave" to the Rhysling Award nominees and issue an apology to the poem, the nominator, the editors of Strange Horizons, and the membership at large; and they should cease tampering with selections by rejecting poems, unless disqualified by objective technical standards such as length or publication date. I am dubious that this will occur, but I wish to log my stance as a scholar, a diversity activist, a poet, and a poetry maven.
UPDATE: I have heard that the poem has been reinstated among nominees, but has not yet reappeared on the webpage.