Black Speculative Poetry

Poetry hasn’t always been my thing. Then, I spent a year and a half reading slush for an online Americana magazine and started attending my local writer’s open mic nights. I learned what types of poetry I don’t like — and which types I actually do. With that in mind, I’ve started looking for poets to actually look up.

The roots of Black speculative poetry run deep. From jazz poets Sun Ra and Gil Scott-Heron, to hip-hop and slam poets, to U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith and 2020 SFPA Grand Master of Speculative Poetry Linda D. Addison, our panelists discuss the precedents, present, and future of the genre.

These are notes from the titular panel at WorldCon 80, otherwise known as ChiCon 8. The panelists were as follows: Sharee Renée Thomas, Brandon O’Brien, and Terese Mason Pierre as moderator.

Why Black Speculative Poetry?

It’s an umbrella term for voices, stories, and histories.

  • By giving the subgenre its own categorization, it gives it shelf-space
  • It helps those in the community connect
  • Shows black writers where their work may fit in the collective community

Simply adding a robot or speculative element to a regular poem doesn’t really take full advantage of the speculative genre. You need to build worlds or bring a new take to the familiar. To be good black speculative poetry, you need to be both good speculative element, but also bring in something unique from the black experience.

Obviously, Black Speculative poetry isn’t something I’m qualified to write. But that doesn’t mean I can’t read and appreciate it.

Some poets explore how much greater the black experience might be without the context they find themselves living in. Others explore the concept of otherness — or who really is the monster.

There is a tradition called griot, for any class of musician-entertainers of western Africa to include tribal histories and genealogies in their performances.

By having separate space for specifically Black Speculative works, it sets up a cultural expectation. Even within the broader umbrella, everyone brings a different experience and context to the medium. Sharee Renée Thomas shared a story about entering a horror contest, and she didn’t find the winner’s tale of experienced racism scary, but, because of a shared experience, her mother had creeping chills from the same story.

But context matters. Who gets to describe what is real and what is speculative?

Ways the panelists incorporate their cultures and experiences into their works

  • burial rights
  • hoodoo
  • non-hierarchal, without a middleman
  • experiences that shake the traditional narrative
  • twisting language, based on having had a different mother tongue
  • incorporating their folklore and the ways that historical fears were incorporated into the tales
    • the soucouyant – shapechanging bloodsucker
    • the lagohoo – a shapechanging beast who carries a coffin on its neck
  • exploring ways in which violence is accepted — and ways it is not
  • exploring what is ‘real’
  • integrating racism
  • prioritizing stories over themes, but embracing the themes that emerge

Themes that resonate for the panelists

  • futurism
  • that which complicates the idea of ‘body’
  • experiencing time in a different way
  • ways society elevates and pulls down
  • those that thwart expectations
  • play on language
  • alternate history or timelines
  • when a meter or form is followed — or broken to good effect
  • persona poetry

Poet Recommendations

I didn’t catch all of the names and recommendations, if you were at the panel, please share any names I missed in the comments below.

As the panelists said, poetry can be a character study, a metaphor stretched, or that one perfect bite of food when you taste a moment in time.

Do you have any Black speculative poets you’d like to recommend?

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