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Towards Speculative Poetry


Poetry is a genre without an audience.

That’s how I start out describing modern poetry. But soon I am humbled. The phrase is misleading; there is an audience for poetry. Many audiences. Pockets of poetry flourish.

The Academic poet is steady as ever, fed on the rivulets of poetry, students, that stream through MFA programs. If a poem isn’t naive arts, it is emblazoned with academic propriety. Distance from the reader, please. No overfamiliarity, please. Everyone but Sentimentality welcome. Slam poetry grows up through the cracks. Strong local casts are in the big cities, wherever poets congregate.  Online creative communities have always had strong poetry traditions. Deviant Art screeds. WattPad love ballads. Twitter haiku.

It is still true, however, that any individual poet is likely to only embrace a small audience.

Maybe we should stop pretending poetry speaks a universal glot.



Contemporary poetry is the same three topics, written in the same three poetic registers. I’m starving on the Academics. Literary poetry tastes like ash.  It’s all I’ve eaten for years.

I turn over rocks of the riverbed until I find speculative poetry. The search is short. I hadn’t wanted to wade to the sandbars to find it. Speculative poetry thrives in colonies. It is more hopeful, horrifying than all of the Li-Young Lee imitators put together. Some of it is written by scientists. You can always tell which ones do science. They mistake procedure for structure.



I read TJ McIntyre’s Isotropes. I read Christopher Vera’s Transmissions to the Mystic Nebula. What the hell is speculative poetry is doing? Collectively.



I read manifestos. I find Alan DeNiro’s Notes on a Speculative Poetry. The manifesto itself is a poem. I’m shouted down for calling it a poem at a poets’ group.



Speculative poetry is a practice of poetry about things that do not exist, or ideas that have not been thought. The trick is how to engage in a dialogue with the future, not only before we die, but before those that ever knew us also die. This “trick”, which is decidedly not a trick, is hope.



Alan DeNiro believes that all poetry is rooted in the speculative.

There is a chasm after every line break, and a deep unknowing of the next line until it is reached.

I agree until I remember the poems I read on Wattpad. I knew them before they were even done. The rawness of feeling, and the tumult of close-pressed clichés: I’d written these poems too. There is something decidedly unspeculative about popular poetry. A sense of familiarity. We move from one line to the next because of that community with the author that we feel even before the last break is broken, and we go.

These are poems too.

There’s nothing wrong with speaking in the language we fumble to make immaterial.



Another oddness crops up.  Odd that speculative poetry would be resisting the impulses of transhumanism. The movement to become more through technology. Aren’t the only folks who care about transhumanism deep in the realm of speculative fiction already? That is to say, on this sandbar, the grains of sand debate when they will be swept into the stream. But what about the banks? The trees? The rocks under those trees? They aren’t concerned with sand.  How does speculative poetry reach out to the rocks under those trees?

All poetry grows up from a concern with the doings and goings-on of humanity. The speculative poetry that I’ve read seems to imagine the future as a living present.  The same concerns of living, hope and, horror in the garments of Other Spaces. Whether we’re human, or transhuman, more flesh, or more machine, isn’t that the business of the humanity? Isn’t transhumanity also humanity?

That is to say, the impulse to transform the human condition through technology is a fundamentally human desire.  I don’t think that resisting transhumanism is the deep task of speculative poetry. Exposing it perhaps. Imagining the weakness of human abilities in the face of this technological paradigm, perhaps.

Speculative poetry expands what is considered “adequately serious” material for poetic expression.



This manifesto comes from a writer who’s written a 165-page speculative poem. Perhaps it will help me understand Alan DeNiro’s Stations better. Even Alan DeNiro must know that this free pdf still has a cost.



I read Stations.

I understand even less.



In 2005, in a writers’ group, we meet for the first time in a small meeting room with high-backed chairs. I sit near the tall window, so I can gaze out at the park. The sun falls in large scales on floor. There are twelve of us, a motley crew of all ages. A man in his 40s sits next to me. We don’t make small talk.

The group leader calls the meeting to session. she says: “unlike other workshops, I am going to accept science fiction and fantasy stories–not just that magical realism bullshit–whatever you want to write. We’re living in the future. We shouldn’t pretend that we’re not.”

None of us have brought science fiction. I clear my throat and immediately look embarrassed when I have nothing to say. A woman across from shuffles the pages in her draft. We share a look around the group. We’ve all brought Robert Coover/Mark Strand knock-offs.

You know: bullshit.



Memories of the past are about as reliable as memories of the future.



Speculative poetry is the work of the present. It imagines what most of us will get wrong, a future more complicated and snaking, slow or quick, and wholly terrifying than what we will dream. Maybe this poem is about bees and maybe it isn’t; I won’t know until it’s too late for it to be anything else.

I imagine that I am 95% wrong. I’m a product of universities too.


Sections in italic are quotes from Alan DeNiro’s Notes on a Speculative Poetry. Illustration: “Towards a Center” by Tracy McCusker.

Tracy McCusker

Tracy McCusker is an artist / writer from Southern California currently working as a freelance graphic designer.

Latest posts by Tracy McCusker (see all)

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  1. By Playtime: speculative poetry edition « Catecinem on December 19, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    [...] her latest Playtime post (seriously, the woman is a dynamo!), Tracy delivers a rejoinder to Alan DeNiro’s manifesto, Notes on Speculative Poetry. Appropriately, it is in the form of [...]