Rhysling Revamp

Report from the committee on the June 2022 Survey

from the committee: Colleen Anderson, F. J. Bergmann, Deborah Davitt, Brian Garrison, and Geoffrey Landis

Where We Are

The Rhysling Awards are in their 45th year of recognizing excellent speculative poetry, presented by The Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA). Leaders have been monitoring the Rhysling Anthology as it grew along with membership numbers. The anthology has ballooned from 42 poems in 2002 to 180 poems in 2022. Continued growth would result in an anthology that is not feasible to print or read.

Growth of the Rhysling nominee list across 20 years

Every nominated and approved poem is included in the anthology (print and electronic). The anthology has served as the ballot that members use when voting for the award winners. This year’s anthology required space-saving techniques while preparing the print file. However, printing this year’s poems still required a book with more than 300 pages. The book would have been even bulkier if all 400+ members had offered up nominations. A sustainable award process is needed.

Where We Are Going

The overhaul is upon us. Ballot and anthology length are primary concerns that sparked this initiative. Future awards must provide a reasonable number of final nominees for members to read and consider. Likewise, future awards must allow for a printable anthology of reasonable size and cost. The Rhysling Revamp committee was formed to collect member input and propose revisions to the Rhysling awards process.

A first survey went out in June 2022. Members were asked to indicate their needs and preferences as the awards evolve. Responses will inform the proposed revisions and help SFPA leadership plan for operational needs.

Survey Results

120 members responded to the June 2022 survey. Responding members indicated specific numbers about their preference for anthology length as well as their level of agreement or disagreement on certain statements. Quantitative results are presented in the graphs below with explanation. To simplify the view, responses of “strongly agree” and “agree” are combined on each graph. “Strongly disagree” and “disagree” were similarly combined. Full data is available as a table at the end.

Short answer responses are considered in the qualitative analysis section.

Anthology Length: How to Set the Boundary

**On all graphs, the following options were combined to a single bar:
Agree and Strongly Agree = “Agree”
Disagree and Strongly Disagree = “Disagree”

To create a nominee list and anthology of a manageable length, respondents were most open to the idea of using a jury. Overall agreement was not quite a majority (49% agreeing) and disagreement was relatively low (33% disagreeing), indicating more favor than the other options considered.

Only 38% of respondents agree that poems should require two nominations to make the final list, while slightly more respondents (39%) disagreed with that statement.

Some responding members indicated a willingness to give up print copies for voting (38% disagree that it is important to receive a paper copy for voting). However, individuals were not receptive to creating an abridged anthology after voting solely on an electronic ballot (41% disagree).

Respondents were strongly against the possibility of decreasing the number of nominations allowed to each member (21% agree, 63% disagree). Respondents were mixed on whether a poem should need to receive multiple nominations to make the ballot (38% agree, 39% disagree).

Anthology Length: How Many Poems to Include

In considering how many poems to include in each category, about a quarter of respondents indicated that 25 would be too many. About a quarter indicated a preference for somewhere close to 50 poems. Not many would want the anthology to go above 50. It is unclear whether the preference would be to have the two categories contain the same number of poems on the final list of nominees.

The questions about the size of an abridged anthology will not be considered due to the lack of support for that possibility (bottom of page 5 on the PDF printout).

Additional Nomination Considerations

Responses were scattered regarding the logistics of having the list of nominated poets appear online. (This practice may contribute in a minor way to creating a longer ballot, but could not be the sole fix to maintaining a smaller ballot.) The idea of offering members the opportunity to nominate more poems also received scattered responses. Of all the questions, the least popular idea was to have final winners selected by a jury (70% disagree) instead of having all members vote. The practical and member-supported way forward appears to be using a jury during the selection of nominees.

Categories

A continual discussion point among members is the question of “double dipping” on awards. Most respondents support that Elgin-length poems not be considered for the Rhysling (64%). A slight majority agree at setting a maximum line length for the Rhysling (53%), which would be consistent with considering extra-long poems being only eligible for the Elgins. On the other side of the spectrum, there is generally support (49%) for Dwarf Stars to be the only award that can catch the 1-10 line poems. Only 25% of respondents disagreed about keeping Dwarf-Stars-eligible poems out of the Rhyslings.

There was very little support for adjusting the length definitions, but lots of ambivalence showing in the swell of neutral responses (44%).

Ethics & Operations

Of the items on the survey, respondents agreed most strongly about family-member nominations. 61% agreed overall on disallowing members from nominating family members, and 30% marked “Strongly Agree,” more than for any other survey item. Likewise, only 3% marked “Strongly Disagree.”

On the question of voting for oneself, it would be difficult to arrange less consensus. Responses were very evenly spread across all five options, with ever so slight gravitation toward “Strongly Agree” and “Strongly Disagree.”

A lot of support arose for implementing measures that prevent a rush of member registrations that would influence nominations or voting. The most strongly favored item of all was disallowing members to vote if they were not signed up by April 1 (the start of Rhysling voting), with 25% indicating “Strongly Agree.” There was slightly less agreement about timing of membership for nomination (64% overall), though 26% still indicated “Strongly Agree.”

Note: the term “good standing” was not intended to indicate any restrictions on long-term members, but simply to refer to new members who would join just to nominate or vote for a specific individual’s poem.

Qualitative Analysis

Overall, responses to the short answer questions showed wide acceptance that the anthology and ballot needs to be a reasonable length. It is also widely agreed that member participation should be widely encouraged in the voting process. There is not clear agreement on an exact number of poems to include, but respondents do agree that care is needed while considering limits to the anthology and revisions to the selection process.

Responses emphasized that the SFPA needs to maintain the diversity of the nominee pool. If a poem requires two nominations to be included in the anthology, this would decrease the wide reach of the awards. It is widely agreed that the Rhysling Anthology should serve to lift up excellent poetry from everywhere, not just the known voices.

If finding the right length means relying on a jury, many respondents described a need for transparency and fairness. Clear guidelines will be needed for the processes of selecting a jury as well as the directives given for decision making. As an example, a requirement might include that the same person cannot serve on the jury two years in a row.

One goal of the revamp process is to maintain relative simplicity. However, some members suggested creating additional categories or including more poems for consideration. For example, SFPA could run the Rhyslings more like the Dwarf Stars and give members unlimited opportunity to suggest poems for the chair(s) or jury to consider. Suggestions like this could potentially broaden the reach of the SFPA. However, they also become impractical as the logistics are considered. As a volunteer-run organization, the SFPA needs to ensure that the awards can be handled without undue burden or causing volunteer burnout.

Responses defended both the desire for a long list of nominees as well as the possibility of shortening the list. Some indicated that 100 poems is not too many to read. Others thought that tightening the list might increase the prestige of being a nominee. Numbers given were as low as five or ten poems per category would serve as an appropriate ballot length. It may be a precarious balance to find the agreeable path forward, but options do exist!

Other award processes came up, such as the Nebulas and their two-step voting process. A second round of member voting might include a runoff among the top 5 or top 10 poems in each category. Additional member input would be needed to determine the level of support for this type of approach.

Conclusions

Questions remain as the SFPA seeks a path forward. Since a jury appears to be the more palatable option to create an appropriately sized anthology, we would need to determine selection criteria, how many people should serve each year, and expectations for how they would narrow down the nominees to a final list. After the jury’s selections are released in the anthology, the SFPA could maintain one round of voting, though the survey did not ask about the potential of having run-off voting among the top selections.

Given that curtailing family nominations received the strongest agreement of all questions, additional surveys would do well to solidify the boundaries of a potential policy. Other than spouses, would this also apply to children, parents, cousins, etc.?

The survey did start to assess how many poems to include, and somewhere under 50 appears to be the resounding answer. More precision is needed before the SFPA settles on a number. Likewise, there was no question asking whether members felt that the short and long categories should contain the same number of nominees. These will be important details as the process moves toward intentionally defining the number of poems that appear on the final list.

Members are clearly interested in helping to define the SFPA’s path forward. These member responses will guide the next stages of member and committee discussions on the Rhysling process. The Rhysling Revamp committee will continue to seek input, find details, and consider changes that will lead to a sensible proposal.

Additional Data

Tables with raw number of respondents who selected each option.

Survey page 1
Survey page 2
Survey page 3

Full Survey Printout

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