2014 Rhysling Award Winners

Rhysling2014CoverLast week, the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA) announced the winners of the 2014 Rhysling Awards. The SFPA awards the Rhysling in two length categories for the best science fiction, fantasy, or horror poem published during the previous year.

Short Poem Category (less than 50 lines):

First Place: “Turning the Leaves” by Amal El-Motar, Apex Magazine 55

Second Place: “Rivers” by Geoffrey A. Landis, Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 2013

Third Place: “Music of the Stars” by Bruce Boston, 2013 Balticon Program Book

Long Poem Category (50 or more lines)

First Place: “Interregnum” by Mary Soon Lee, Star*Line 36.4

Second Place: “Hungry Constellations” by Mike Allen, Goblin Fruit, Fall 2013

Third Place: “I will show you a single treasure from the treasures of Shah Niyaz” by Rose Lemberg, Goblin Fruit, Summer 2013

Congratulations to the winners, runner-ups, and all the nominees. Looking forward to another year of great speculative poetry.


Unfolding the Triptych

Last week I discussed the Collapsar, a poetry form that I’ve claimed as my own. This week, I’d like to introduce another poetry form that fits my own style: the Triptych.

Originally, a Triptych was a three-sectioned painting, the center panel usually being larger than the other two. Each panel had its own image, though the three fit together thematically.

There are two types of Triptych poetry forms:

  • A poem of three stanzas. The first stanza comments on the past, the second comments on the present, and the third comments on the future. The second stanza is twice as long as the first and third.
  • A poem consisting of three poems of equal length displayed side-by-side, like the panels of a triptych painting. Not only do the poems work together thematically, like the painting, they actually form a fourth poem. The fourth poem is read horizontally across the three poems. This fourth poem completes the theme of the Triptych.

I prefer the second version because, even though nailing that fourth poem requires some mental gymnastics, I believe it remains true to the original definition of a Triptych by tying all three together to the central theme.

2013 Dwarf StarsI agonized over the following Triptych for weeks before I made all the parts agree grammatically. Most difficult poem I’ve ever written (form-wise, that is). My efforts, however, paid off: I earned publication and nominations for the 2013 Rhysling Award and the Dwarf Stars Award. Now, if I only had the stamina to write more than a few Triptychs a year.


by Kurt MacPhearson

strange how       the aliens           open up
their                     third eye            like a window
perceiving          views                  with shades
can invoke         emotions            showing
revulsion            as                         proof
inside                  a spectrum        of lying

originally appeared in Star*Line, 35.4

Collapsar: A Poem of Collapsed Sentences

Science Fiction Poetry HandbookI don’t claim to have invented this form of poetry. I don’t know if anyone is writing anything like it, and the truth is, I really don’t care. I’m claiming this form as my own. Though to be fair, I must explain from where I co-opted it.

Suzette Haden Elgin dedicates an entire chapter in The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook on how poets exploit grammar rules. At one point, she discusses how poets since ancient Japan have eliminated words at the end of a line that are similar to the ones at the beginning of the next line. The following is her example and explanation:

I bridled a unicorn
is a mythical beast
is under the mountain

“It collapses ‘I bridled a unicorn’ with ‘a unicorn is a mythical beast’ by deleting one instance of ‘a unicorn’. It collapses ‘a unicorn is a mythical beast’ with ‘a mythical beast is under the mountain’ by deleting one instance of ‘a mythical beast.’”

I’ve co-opted this technique and applied to every line in a form I call “collapsar.” I chose this name for three reasons:

  • The lines of the poem are collapsed into each other
  • In scientific terms, a “collapsar” is short for a collapsed star
  • The previous two reasons “collapse” into one perfect name for a speculative-themed poem

The “collapsar” form is more than just collapsed sentences. Each collapsar begins with a statement, such as “Don’t think there’s nothing to fear.” The following line begins with a verb, such as “ripples,” which connects a segment of the first line to create a new statement: “fear ripples through all composite things.” This process continues line-by-line through the poem. The last line, however, incorporates words from the first line to make a new statement. This new statement should reflect or comment on the theme of the poem.

by Kurt MacPhearson

Don’t think there’s nothing to fear
ripples through all composite things
decay into sepulchral echoes
extrapolate like telescopes
peek into the unknown
lurk in ominous shadows
fall after an uttered curse
tastes of wormwood
swills in polystyrene
outlasts most ancient relics
incite fervor in the heart
encapsules time like flies
observe from a crumbling wall
displays a rusty civil defense symbol
reminds us of a bygone era
acts often as an anodyne
struggles to conquer paranoia
keeps us on our toes
hold fast to party lines
confuse conversation’s context
dictates a particular existence
stems from tiny quarks
explode from split atoms
shudder when we think

Originally appeared in Star*Line 36.2

Finding Speculative Poetry

SFPA logoEvery year since 1978, members of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA) have nominated speculative poetry published the prior year for the Rhysling Award. These poems are collected in the annual Rhysling Anthology. Once the membership receives their copies of the anthology, they cast votes for their three favorite poems in each of two categories: “Best Short Poem” (1-49 lines) and “Best Long Poem” (50 or more lines). The 2014 anthology came out a little late this year, but it was well worth waiting to lose myself in the astounding imagery offered by poets from around the world.

The 2014 Rhysling Anthology isn’t yet available for public sale, however, I’d like to use this opportunity to share a few links to speculative poetry publications.


Goblin Fruit

Quarterly poetry zine with a focus on the mythic and fantastical.


A new quarterly speculative poetry zine with poems “that touch the heart as much as the head.”

Note: Read Diane Severson’s review of Luminality’s first issue which includes four audio versions of the peoms here.

Strange Horizons

Weekly poem, story, article, review, etc., all with a speculative bent.


 Dreams and Nightmares Magazine

 Science Fiction and Fantasy poetry, often with a touch of horror.


The Journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. Speculative poetry of all types.

Tales of the Talisman

Quarterly magazine packed with speculative fiction and imaginative poetry.


Inner Space

About a year after I started writing speculative poetry I submitted a batch of poems to Star*Line, the Journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA). I was particularly proud of one called “Red Blinky Thing,” which focused on a dead planet that had been fitted with a blinking red beacon. I had a few poems published already, but nothing I’d written before could compare to the stunning imagery and profound message I’d stuffed into that poem. In less than a week, however, then editor Marge Simon responded with what was the most effective rejection I’d ever received.

 “…overkill. See too much of this. Try me with the ‘inner space’ in your head.”

At first, I struggled with her statement. Why would I be searching inside my head, when I’m trying to write about outer space? The only thing that sort of searching would accomplish would be to dredge up all the crap in my life that I didn’t want to think about. I didn’t want self-examination. That’s what therapy is for!

What I wanted out of speculative poetry was freedom. I wanted to explore places I’d never been, and perhaps make up a few things along the way like a 16th Century cartographer who scrawls “Here there be dragons!” on an uncharted region just to toy with the minds of his peers. Inner space? Please. Marge Simon obviously didn’t have a clue about speculative poetry.

Click here if you’d like to see how wrong I was.

So I bit my tongue, closed my eyes, and proceeded to try it her way. But ever so cautious. I could bump into strange things in the dank recesses of my mind. Hell, I might not even find my way back. It may sound a bit facetious, but that was how I felt stepping into that inner space. And those dark thoughts led me to black holes.

Event Horizon STRLNJLGST2010
by Kurt MacPhearson 

a pin-prick point
of everything
and nothing
lodged in the heart

 a cosmic eraser
leaving empty
theoretic explanations
as the soul rides

 originally appeared in Star*Line 28.3

I challenge all who read this entry to take Marge Simon’s advice. Search that inner space in your head and explore places you’ve never been, see things you thought you’d never see, and, in the speculative spirt, make up a few things along the way.

Short Answers

 I’ve never been much for talking face-to-face with people I don’t know. Can’t say where this aversion comes from, but what I do know that I have a fear of saying the wrong thing. Which is why when asked questions about myself, I usually go with the short answer.

Just a few of hundreds every night

Camshafts. Just a few of hundreds every night.

When asked what I do, I give the short answer: I inspect engine parts. It’s boring. And it sound boring enough to others that I’m rarely asked more. Which is a good thing because all I do is examine hundreds of parts for defects. It’s so boring that five minutes into my shift a fog settles over my mind, and I usually get lost in the fog for the duration. Regardless of how I feel about my job, however, it pays the bills.

What I usually don’t tell people is that I’m also a poet. I love to write. I love words and how they fit together to form images I can only see with my mind’s eye. I think about words when I’m inspecting parts, mowing the lawn, and even when pretending to listen to my wife. I cannot not think about words.

I don’t tell people I’m a poet because of the questions that follow. The first one is about the stacks of cash I make writing poetry. Well, I’ve been writing poetry under a pen name for fifteen years and have sold over 200 individual poems, but I never wrote a poem that paid a bill.

Questions about subject matter soon follow. The short answer is that I write speculative poetry. However, the short answer usually elicits strange looks and more questions. Questions requiring answers of increasing length and difficulty. And with these answers comes the fear that I will make a fool of myself trying to explain what I love. So, when it comes down to it, that’s the purpose of this blog.

So what is Speculative Poetry?

The short answer: Speculative poetry is poetry that incorporates science fiction, fantasy, and horror images and themes. Here is an example:

by Kurt MacPhearson

A nebulous toddler
woven over epochs
into blubbery orange and yellow swirls
with blazing green quasars for eyes
and a single curly tuft of blue
upon its bald, lopsided head
sits as a greedy Buddha
at the edge of spaceSTRLNJLGST2010
gobbling galaxies
like peanut clusters
and ignoring the dark matter
stuck between its two gaseous teeth
as it reaches for red giant crumbs
with tentacle fingers
squeezing avaricely
till knuckles form
all the while broadcasting
a collective mine-mine-mine!
in gamma ray belches
from deep within its black gullet
as a warning to the cosmos
should it learn to crawl

Originally appeared in Star*Line, 33.4

Long answers about speculative poetry are soon to follow, along with plenty of examples, thoughts, writing tips, and just about anything else relevant to promoting what I love. I hope you will join me and come to love speculative poetry as much as I do.