We’re now fully in Elgin voting season with the final votes due September 15th. This year we really want to see as many of our members as possible voting to help us pick the speculative poetry book and chapbook of the year, given that this is our 40th anniversary. What follows are some of my unofficial remarks, but I hope they’ll provide a helpful perspective and approach to what’s ahead.
Both new members and even longtime members of the SFPA might feel a little intimidated by the 51 nominees (21 in chapbooks, 30 in full-length collections) to read, even as we ought to be very excited and delighted there are so many to consider. It says wonderful things about our corner of the literary arts, instilling us with great optimism about its growth and future.
That being said, 51 books can be a lot! How does one responsibly judge and review all of them?
As of this first week in July, we now have 10 weeks or a little under 70 days to work with. That’s approximately “a book a day” with some change to spare. We could do a bunch of math to show how many pages per day you could/should be reading, but every reading and voting member has to determine the pace that’s going to be best for them.
If a member can figure out a way to winnow the field down by approximately 5 books a week, they’re in good shape.
The SFPA doesn’t employ any form of tracking software to see who’s opened up which books or whether anyone read every single page and how long they mulled over a given verse.
But what we ARE hoping is that among the books whose titles or authors catch your eye, that you’ll give them a fair and thorough assessment, with an eye towards quality and likely longevity. Without overthinking things at the same time. This may seem counterintuitive and even contradictory advice, but history bears out this approach.
History demonstrates that often, readers, reviewers and literati of any given age have varying degrees of success identifying works of enduring merit and literary impact. Who actually survives into the next decades, let alone the next centuries as “must read” authors is often very surprising, whether it’s in mainstream literature, pulp fiction and genre offerings.
That being said, here are some grounding principles:
- You don’t have to read a book that’s not grabbing you all of the way through. With a full-length chapbook or book, we’re looking for works that are consistently outstanding, not one filled with one amazing gem to rival “The Raven” and 99 uninspiring verses filling out the rest of the set.
- This isn’t the search for the greatest of all time, but within the set of this year. You don’t necessarily need to fret about how well a given book stands up against the great works of the last 5 to 100 years. You can leave that concern at the door. But are you reading a book where you can see yourself recommending it to another, and returning to it regularly yourself?
- Try breaking your options into batches. Picking 3 out of 30 is difficult, but when one starts by sorting it into more manageable batches of approximately 5 to 6 books, it becomes easier to pick your 2 favorites of that batch, and then in the final set, identifying your three favorites.
- Each member has their own tastes, preferred literary traditions and forms, and if you come across a text that isn’t meeting your tastes, that’s fine. Fans of a particular style are more likely to vote it up into the effective running than those who aren’t. So if you’re not a scifaiku fan, feel free to weigh in if you want, but you can also “sit it out” on that text if you don’t feel strongly about what you’re reading.
- You should strive to be fair and consistent, with your own personal judging scale, whether it’s a 5-point or a 10-point system (or whichever number you think will be helpful for you.) Some of the things one might look for is: originality of voice, consistency of quality, nuance, range, and coherence. You might also ask if it’s taking risks, is it ‘disruptive’ and artful? Is it effective within its particular traditions or breaking particular rules in an innovative way and deliberately? \
- At the end of the day, is what you have before you clearly a good book a poetry, a good book of speculative literature, and a good book of speculative poetry?
There are of course other ways our members have found to make their reviewing and voting a smoother process, and I hope you’ll share particular techniques below in the comments for consideration. Some form small reading groups of fellow members to keep them accountable, for example. Others eat a delicious dessert after finding one they REALLY like. There’s endless possibilities.
There’s no right or wrong way to find your favorite book of speculative poetry of the year. As in the past, our nominators have all been very responsible and selected very credible and enjoyable entries for consideration. What we’d like to see in the SFPA is your participation with honest enthusiasm for the texts that warrant it, and sharing the journey with us as we discover new and emerging talents, as well as where our more established voices are taking their work.
I hope these thoughts are helpful and energizing for you! See you all at the reading tables, and enjoy!
~Bryan Thao Worra