At first glance, poetry and science fiction/fantasy may seem an unlikely pair. However, these genres have far more in common—and far more to teach each other—than one might expect.
This past week, I was invited by Wells College to give a reading and a master class on writing. I enjoyed writing this, and as I was, I was thinking it would be fun to share this with the folks at Rykaworld.
So, when I was asked if I might post what I chatted about, so I thought this would be the perfect place to post my lecture!
So, if you are from Wells College, it’s good to meet you again. If not, I hope you enjoy a chat about how moving between poetry and science fiction/fantasy can give both readers and writers new ways to peer at the stars, peek behind rainbows, and imagine how different our world could be!
I would like to thank Wells College, the Visiting Writers Series and the Women, Transgender, and Queer Studies Program for inviting me to visit you this afternoon.
This is presented as a master class, but I think of this as more “inviting a writer to come and share her thoughts with you.”
It's been a while since I have been out of school, and I've lived a few years since leaving Ithaca. They've not all been great years, but enough of them were that I've reached a place in my writing where I have people and things to be grateful for.
All my life I have wanted to be a writer. Even when I was discouraged from writing, and even when I was studying chemistry or working, I wrote. Even as I was growing as queer and trans—writing was integral to that—the first time I ever appeared in public as Ryka was at a poetry festival.
And right now, my writing is in a really good place. I can look at my writing and feel…yeah, I’ve done okay. And that’s kind of cool in itself because even while pushing toward a lifelong goal, one always wonders—what if it does not live up to my expectations?
They do say, “Be careful what you ask for, after all.”
But so far…things have been wonderful. It is goofy fun to walk into a random Barnes and Noble with a Sharpie and sign my books. Ice cream really does tastes better now that I have published books that I am proud of.
I earned my MFA in Creative Writing in Poetry from Cornell University. But it took me years after I left my MFA program to find my voice, and years after that to find a home for it, and years after that to relax a little and enjoy the ride.
For so many years, my writing was really frustrating. I was working super hard—writing, performing, touring, submitting—getting a cartload of rejections. Knowing inside I deserved them—except the ones I didn’t which only made me more upset.
In fact, the one thing that keeps me from flying off into the land of impostor syndrome is I can’t forget how much and how often the writing hurt when I was doing it.
It's not that writing hadn't been good to me along the way. I have written work that I'm very proud of. Some was published, even recognized.
But it was a lack of agency, a lack of control over my work that was so frustrating. Yes, I had poems I wanted to write, but they never came out the way I wanted them to.
It was like I was missing something. Something deep.
In some ways, in some very important ways, this was like discovering that one is trans. You are kind of like hanging out with boys and hanging out with girls and hanging out with straight people and hanging out with gay people…and none of it's working right until one realizes that one is transgender.
Because no matter how hard you were working, there was no way to relate to the people around you if you until you had your own personal coordinate system set.
There's the old adage of working smart and not hard. But even more than that…just be yourself.
Goodness knows it took long enough, but I finally feel I'm beginning to have my personal coordinate system set.
And what was really weird…was at least for me, to get to the poetry that I want you to write and more importantly to become a writer that I kind of like being, I had to go back to many of the things that I did before I became a “writer” or at least a serious one or at least a literary one or at least one from Ithaca NY.
I mean I'm talking about Star Trek and comic books and playing Dungeons & Dragons in high school outside my English class. I'm talking about fandom and cosplay and anime and anime and manga and manga and more anime.
All things that I wasn't thinking about at Cornell.
This is all why I wanted to come to Wells College and speak. Because I wanted to share a bit of my experience in the hope that it encourages you, helps you frame your own work, and maybe even helps you get closer, faster, to the writer and the writing that you are holding dear to you, right now.
One of my biggest discoveries—writing isn’t all obligation, or an ongoing test. Writing doesn’t have to hurt all the time. As sometimes making things difficult for yourself is not doing anything but making things difficult for yourself.
I don't think you can become a writer without working hard, but a little bit of smarts goes a long way, too. And if you’re not laughing once in a while something is seriously wrong, because poetry is life and life without laughter is not much of a life.
When I teach poetry, I try to give a sense of wonder and even of ambition to poets. As poets, we pride ourselves in our imagery, how we can capture the forgotten and the unseen. As queer, I write poems in the name of those fallen, in an attempt to bring their lives to readers so they understand the loss I felt when they left this world to soon.
However, a poet is more than a witness. Poems can also aspire. They can imagine. They can reassure and point the way.
When we think about which genre has done more to influence our future—science fiction or poetry—it’s not an easy question to answer. We think as poets that our words should speak of a better future.
Yet our world is full of people whose very careers and lives were molded by seeing Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. Seeing a holodeck, communicator, a tricorder. Thinking about what it means to fall to the Dark side of the Force.
A couple of years before the pandemic, I was faculty at the Lamba Literary Emerging Writers retreat. Here were 12 of the most promising, brilliant queer poets in front of me, and I was to teach them something.
Having read their work, I knew their brilliance was obvious—nothing to teach there. I would be proud to be in anthology next to any of them. However, I did feel I could give them something to consider.
Queer voices are so expected to state identity and bear witness—the present and the past.
But what about the stars?
One night, I gathered them all in the park across the street and we for a moon viewing. But was a cloudy evening, and foggy. I could sense some of them wondering what we were going to do—maybe we would cancel and grab French fries at the bowling alley café.
However, I continued the moon viewing…even in the clouds and fog. Because the duty of a poet is to see the moon when nobody else can.
And the stars, as well.
Here are some exercises for poets that borrow from SF/F
Is the Force with you? Try writing a poem that looks to/assumes some future that we might want to live in. It doesn’t have to exist or be now—but write a poem with the assumption that good triumphs over evil. Try writing a dystopia that will be beatable—one day.
Do you go where no one has gone before? Try getting out of the neighborhood and write from elsewhere—this might not mean from another planet, but from another point of view, another perspective. Try writing a poem where maybe the truths you held were not so true.
Do your poems go to infinity and beyond?—can your poems laugh at themselves? Like few other genres, humorless science fiction gets really painful really quickly. And, even though poetry seems like a more serious genre (otherwise it’s light verse) humor and laughter are all parts of the human experience.
Do your poems go plus ultra? This is from the anime My Hero Academia, and by this, I mean giving everything you have to your work—even if you risk yourself or the poem looking silly. Write a poem that is not afraid to stand out of the crowd.
And one structural matter. Are your poems rewarding to read? Are they internally consistent—logical? Any Easter Eggs? Yes, poems don’t have to make sense, and they can contradict themselves, but these are best as intentional poetic devices—lazy logic weakens poems. Internal logic and structure help a reader feel that someone cared. Easter eggs are even better. SF/F writers talk about world building all the time—but poets are the original world builders.
Cover: By Michael Ocampo from United States - FanimeCon 2018 391, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78232695
*By A screenshot of The Empire Strikes Back., Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3913820
**By NASA - Great Images in NASA Description, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6480135
***By http://www.moviestillsdb.com/movies/toy-story-3-i435761/20c11d67, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44184427