Every year since 1978, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA) has released a new iteration of the Rhysling Anthology of speculative poetry.
Inclusion of one's work in the series has come to be seen as a fairly notable badge of honor for a writer of SFF verse. On blog and in bio, poets proudly advertise the selection of their poem(s) for the Anthology. Journals take out paid ads in other venues to celebrate the inclusion of pieces that were first published in their pages. And should a chapbook or personal poetry collection happen to contain a poem that was given a Rhysling nod, you can be almost sure that this fact will be mentioned somewhere on the cover.
The contents of each Rhysling Anthology are drawn exclusively from English-language poetry first published in the preceding year in sci-fi, fantasy, and related genres. Pieces that make the final cut represent the latest line-up of confirmed nominees for the Rhysling Award, a prize conferred annually by the SFPA on two poems chosen via membership-wide vote: one "short poem" of up to 49 lines in length and one "long poem" of 50 lines or more.
All Rhysling nominees are selected by the SFPA to begin with, with each active member of the association holding the right to name a maximum of two poems--one in each length division--that they deem represent the best of the best of the previous year's specpo. No one can nominate a piece they themself wrote, but otherwise, the field's wide open.
As you might imagine, then, as more and more English-medium publications online and in print make room for speculative verse, the amount of eligible work available to choose from increases dramatically with every decade. Potential nominators in 2019 really had their work cut out for them.
A decent proportion of said potential nominators have stepped up, though. This year’s Rhysling Anthology, available now, brings together a total of 139 poems put forward by 89 different members of the SFPA.
(NB: several of the poems nominated this round have been posted online! You can follow the green hyperlinks in this list of current candidates to read these for free even if you aren't at the moment willing or able to shell out for access to a full copy of the present Anthology.)
The finalized nominee count for 2019 represents a slight decrease from the 2018 Rhysling Anthology’s inventory of 150 poems, but it's still representative of the SFPA's growing membership and participation levels over time. Compare, for example, the first-ever Rhysling Anthology, published in 1978, which had only 14 candidates for that year’s award on its table of contents, or the Y2K edition, which rang in the current century with a selection of just 47 poems.
For those particularly interested in the Rhysling Award and its associated proceedings as indicators of larger trends in SFF writing, reading, and criticism, the remainder of this post will take a closer look at a few quantitatively breakdown-able aspects of the present Rhysling Anthology. (It's all charts and ratios from here on out; I'm not going to do much poem-by-poem analysis in this article. Again, though, do note that many of the individual poems up for this year's Rhysling can be read for free online, and I encourage you to check them out for yourself!)
We'll begin with a look at the length of poems nominated this year in the "short" category:
As the graph above illustrates, poems of fewer than 50 lines that made it into the 2019 Rhysling Anthology cluster around the middle of the designated length range for nominations to this category. This year, there were 4 nominees of 9 lines or fewer, 23 nominees of 10-19 lines*, 29 nominees of 20-29 lines, 23 nominees of 30-39 lines, and 6 nominees of 40-49 lines.
*Included in the 10-19 line count for the purposes of this graph are two pieces that could arguably have been measured differently. The first of these, Herb Kauderer's "Stand and Wait," is a twist on the haibun form that substitutes a trisected G.K. Chesterton quote for the traditional terminal haiku. The prose portion of "Stand and Wait" has, of course, no set line breaks, but it runs 14 lines as printed in the Rhysling Anthology. Adding this to the closing quote, the poem comes to 17 lines, and I have counted it as such. The second piece is Michelle Muenzler's "The Dissolution of Icarus, or Julia Child's Favorite Roast Chicken Recipe," an erasure. I've counted only the highlighted bits of text toward the total length (16 lines) in this case, and not the "erased" portions of the underlying source text.
Though I haven't done the arithmetical legwork when it comes to previous years' offerings, impressionistically, a bell-curve-style breakdown of nominee lengths in the "short" category strikes me as pretty well in line with Rhysling Anthologies of the past. For one reason or another, poems of a middle-ish length seem to regularly garner more attention from nominators than poems that approach either length limit.
It's because of this apparent preference among SFF readers for poems that are neither very short nor very long, in fact, that the Rhysling Award is split into two length categories in the first place: the prize's creators wanted to give noticeably longer pieces a fighting chance at recognition.
This state of affairs is also why the SFPA nowadays administers a yearly Dwarf Stars Award for best SFF poem of 10 lines or fewer, an honor handled via a voting process kept entirely separate from that of the Rhysling and boasting its own associated annual anthology of nominees.
This year, there were in fact 6 nominees in the Rhysling "short poem" category of under 11 lines in length. As the editor of the 2019 Anthology, David C. Kopaska-Merkel, notes in his introduction to the volume, "it’s interesting that some people choose to nominate poems for the Rhysling that they could, and maybe will, nominate for Dwarf Stars. Maybe someday a poem will win both awards. It could happen.” The fact that less than 8% of the current "short poem" Rhysling line-up consists of pieces which are also eligible for the Dwarf Stars suggests to me that the odds of a double win occurring this time around are very slim, but Kopaska-Merkel is right: it is a possibility.
The chart for lengths of poems in the 50+ lines division of this year's Rhysling Anthology skews quite differently from that of the "short" category:
In this case, nominees cluster toward the lower limit of the allotted range. In the 2019 Rhysling Anthology, there are 15 poems of 50-59 lines, 11 of 60-69 lines*, 7 of 70-79 lines, 4 of 80-89 lines, and 5 of 90-99 lines, plus one prose poem of 632 words. I was agreeably surprised, however, to see that 11 pieces of 100+ lines also made the cut--more than I expected given the overall preference for lower-limit pieces that seems to apply in most years.
*I assigned David F. Shultz' "five sigils," a series of linked Arthurian haibun, a total line count of 60, in accordance with the layout the piece received in the Anthology.
Next, we'll have a look at the poetic structures and forms represented by the "short" nominees for this year's Rhysling Award:
As the above chart shows, free verse is the best represented poetic style in the 2019 line-up, by far, with 59 nominees to the "short" category identifiable as works of the type. Coming in at a distant second, 16 pieces nominated feature rhyme and/or a regular metrical scheme throughout, 6 represent non-metered and non-rhyming traditional forms like haibun or haiku, and a mere 4 are probably best classifiable as other non-free-verse forms of poetry (like the erasure mentioned above). There were no prose poems nominated to the "short" category this year.
The chart for poetic structures represented in this year's "long poem" category looks remarkably similar to that of the "short" division:
With 42 free-verse nominees, 9 poems featuring regular meter and/or rhyme, 1 prose poem, and 2 poems of other traditional poetic forms, the "long" division of this year's Rhysling Anthology looks--in stylistic terms--remarkably similar at a glance to the make-up of recent editions of many high-profile "literary" (i.e. non-SFF-focused) poetry journals. Compare the latest installments of Poetry Magazine or Rattle, for instance.
Whether the present decade's pronounced emphasis on free verse across genres in English-language poetry publications is due primarily to reader demand, to editorial preference, or to writerly fashion is anyone's guess. I personally suspect it's a combination of all three factors, and that each trend has been helping bolster the others in an endless feedback loop. Whatever the case may be, though, free verse currently rules the day, and this fact is reflected in the contents of the 2019 Rhysling Anthology.
Four of the free-verse poems that made the present Anthology, by the by, were recommended in the very first post that went up here at specpotpourri: Peri Fae Blomquist’s “Mother Giant," Nitoo Das’ “The Cat’s Daughters," August Huerta’s “Concerning President Carter and the UFO Sighting," and Katherine Inskip’s “Fortune Favours the Cold.” My very warm congratulations to these four poets on the nomination of their work! The distinction is richly deserved in each case, and no matter how these poems place in the final vote, I think this year’s Rhysling Anthology is enhanced by their inclusion.
It's also worth noting that (barring past publications under pen-names I'm not aware of) this is the first time Blomquist, Das, Huerta, and Inskip have had work nominated for the Rhysling. In fact, in Inskip's case, from what I understand, the nominated poem was actually the writer's first-ever paid specpo publication!
And they're in very good company. Over a third of the poets with pieces nominated this year (44 out of 101, to be exact) are new to the Rhysling scene:
It's worth noting, though, that most of this year’s Rhysling newcomers have contributed one single poem apiece to the Anthology, while some poets whose work received nominations in previous years have earned multiple entries in the ToC.
For example, Deborah L. Davitt--a prolific writer who penned a few past years' Rhysling nominees--appears to have been especially active in “long poem” territory in 2018. No fewer than 5 of the 54 "long" pieces nominated for this year's Rhysling were written by her--and, on top of that, her shorter work has scored a couple of nominations for the award, too! Herb Kauderer, another Rhysling veteran, has a total of 5 poems in this anthology (including the innovative sci-fi haibun mentioned earlier). And so on.
That being said, I was glad to see how even the split between poets whose work had been included in a previous Rhysling Anthology and those who were nominated for the first time this year was. And the situation re: venues of publication from which nominees for the 2019 Rhysling have been drawn is similar. Almost half of the places nominators came across their top picks for the award were publications that had never before featured a Rhysling-nominated piece:
And the great majority of venues that have a piece in the running this year are publications that have yet to feature a poem awarded first, second, or third place in previous Rhysling votes:
Habitual readers of speculative verse will, in their hunt for possible Rhysling candidates, naturally gravitate to authors who have already made a name for themselves and to publications from which they've come to expect good things. This can't be helped, and there's no real reason it should be. Work by certain writers, editors, and publishers has, after all, made the list of nominees again and again precisely because these people labored long and diligently to hone their craft, and readers have rightly recognized the resulting quality of their output across the years.
At the same time, however, it's heartening to see that the figures for the 2019 Rhysling suggest nominators are not restricting themselves solely to the well-established and familiar (or, for that matter, solely to SFPA-run venues of publication like Star*Line or Eye to the Telescope, though both of these journals make a decent showing, as usual).
Up-and-coming poets, editors, and publishers have an awful lot to offer the specpo community. I'm glad the latest Rhysling Anthology shines the spotlight on the efforts of relatively new and unknown artists alongside the work of those already fairly fixed in the public eye.
Thanks for reading. Make sure to give the 2019 Rhysling Anthology a proper read-through for yourself if you haven't yet. And congratulations again to all the poets, editors, and publishers whose work made it into this year's line-up!