from the committee: Colleen Anderson, F. J. Bergmann, Deborah Davitt, Brian Garrison, Geoffrey Landis, and Angela Yuriko Smith
Where We Are
The Rhysling Revamp Committee is moving toward the final proposed guidelines to steer the future Rhysling Award process of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA). We seek to craft reasonable adjustments based on member input. Following the write up and open discussion from the June survey, we assessed what final questions we needed to ask of the membership before revisions. This became the second Revamp survey, which was sent out in late August and collected answers through early September. Results are presented below.
Where We Are Going
The goal of collecting all this member input is to inform proposed guidelines, and have the guidelines approved and in-use for the 2023 Rhysling Awards. The input we have gathered prepares us for the next step of suggesting specific amendments and filling in details of adding a jury. Recall that the primary objective is to keep the Rhysling Anthology within a reasonable size. Too big of an anthology becomes a financial burden in regards to printing and mailing. Likewise, a bloated anthology becomes unwieldy for voting members to commit the time to carefully consider each nominee.
We will use what we have gathered so far to draft a new set of guidelines. These proposed guidelines will be shared for feedback from the executives and membership, then offered to the Executives for approval (with final refinements as necessary).
89 members responded to the September 2022 survey. A PDF printout is available for review at the end of this article.
Respondents offered their more detailed preferences for anthology length, responded to additional questions that arose from open discussion, and weighed in on the details of family-nominations. Graphs below cover the qualitative analysis of these questions.
Respondents also offered open-ended input on the guiding principles for the jury process, including juror eligibility and selection criteria. Qualitative analysis is presented below as it relates to crafting the guiding documents for the future awards process.
Anthology & Ballot Length
Responses from the June survey indicated that 50 or fewer poems in each category was an ideal length for the general membership to consider if the list of nominees needed to be shortened. The first two questions on the September survey allowed respondents to type a number between 10 and 50. Both histograms below show the distribution of responses in groups of five (6-10, 11-15, 16-20, …46-50).
Responses were spread for the number of short poems to include on the final ballot, but there was a clear cluster. Of the 89 respondents, 45 (just over 50%) wanted the ballot and print anthology to include 50 short poems.
Responses were less unified for the long poems, but of the three main clusters, the largest was right in the middle. Of the 89 respondents, 26 (just shy of 30%) wanted the ballot and print anthology to include 25 long poems.
This doesn’t reflect a majority of respondents, but it does provide a central compromise within the otherwise split preferences for more or fewer long poems.
From the ongoing discussion about revising the awards process, two additional items were brought for consideration. Like the charts for the June survey, responses of “strongly agree” and “agree” (as well as “strongly disagree” and “disagree”) are combined on to simplify the view.
Respondents did not feel strongly about coordinating the calendar to have all SFPA award voting close on the same date (43% neutral). Of those who were not neutral, there was a tendency away from synchronized voting (39% disagree).
Respondents also did not feel strongly that the short and long categories should contain the same number of poems (35% neutral). As above, there was a slight tendency toward disagreement even outweighing the neutral (39% disagree). This matches with the numeric clusters above suggesting a final anthology and ballot of 50 short poems and 25 long poems.
Ethics: Family Nominations
The June survey revealed very strong desires to clear up a long-standing element for potential unfairness in the awards process: nominations by family members. Family is not the only tie that might bind together a cabal, but this overwhelming preference signals a desire among the membership that poetry should be evaluated and nominated on the merit of its writing, not the name or connections of its writer.
A fill-in-the-blank statement in combination multiple-choice agreement options evaluated how wide-reaching of a policy to suggest. A(n) _____________ should count as family for the purposes of nomination restrictions.
There was overwhelming agreement that members should not be allowed to nominate their closest relatives. Options for child/parent, sibling, and spouse all received 80% or more agreement overall.
Looking more closely in the graph below, the highest items in the group received a majority (over 50%) of “Strongly Agree” responses, whereas the others remained under 30%.
On Nomination Integrity
Enforceability was the main concern with the idea of adding a rule about family nominations. However, there was a lot of shared distaste for favoritism or other collusion. Almost all respondents agreed that it is problematic to advance unworthy work of an employer/employee, student/teacher, family, friends, etc. Though we need more than just social acceptability to provide guidance, it is reassuring that the community appears to rally behind evaluating poetry on the merits of the text.
Some individuals noted that a jury process adds a layer of quality control for times when an otherwise unworthy poem is nominated. For example, two friends nominating each other. If the text of a poem doesn’t carry additional merits, it may not make the list of finalists. In previous years, every nominated piece appeared in the anthology. The only layer of evaluation was whether a poem was speculative, there was no evaluation of quality. Every year strong poems are left out, but the proposed structure increases the chances that only strong poems are part of the final anthology and ballot. That is, a group of jurors evaluating for quality guards against a single individual inserting an unsuitable nomination.
Of course, as some respondents point out, a jury is also made of potentially biased individuals. However, the intention is to establish a process that decreases the potential for collusion or improper behavior.
The committee appreciates the way that the community has rallied to provide input and guidance as we build toward a fair process.
On Establishing a Jury
Many respondents expressed the importance of the jury reflecting the wide range of individuals and thought among speculative literary communities. Specifically, there were several calls for the jury to include a diverse range of individuals across measures of ethnicity, race, gender, sex, location, schooling, etc.
Similarly, it was frequently mentioned that the jury process should achieve diversity across time. That is, there should be a rotation or term limits (i.e., no serving back-to-back years) to prevent the same tastemakers from having too much steering power.
A handful of respondents mentioned that the jury might be restricted to SFPA members only. However, that seems to counter the goal of reaching the broader community of writers and readers as the SFPA aims to invite fresh perspectives.
It will be important, though, to ensure that jury members have some connection and experience with speculative poetry. It would be unfortunate for a disconnected academic to take on the role simply to earn the mark on their CV. For that, we will be somewhat dependent on the Executives as they review and approve applications.
A few respondents noted that SFPA executives should not serve on the jury, presumably to help spread influence rather than concentrate it within just a few individuals. Like the calls for diversity, the preference is to spread influence rather than concentrate it within just a few individuals. This also makes sense since the executives will be the ones approving jury member applications and providing additional oversight.
Bias and conflict of interest
Respondents frequently noted conflicts of interest as an important factor. Where there are family, educational, or professional connections to the writer of a poem, a common solution was to have the jury member recuse themselves from evaluating that poem.
Some recommended that jury members similarly step aside if their own poem were nominated. However, this introduces a short path to quid pro quo where two jury members might team up to advance each others’ poems. The committee believes the best approach is for jury members’ poems to be ineligible in the category they’re serving (short or long). (The intention is to have a jury for each category as a way to allow writers of award-worthy long poems to still be eligible to serve on the jury for short poems and vice versa.)
Respondents recognized that jury members will need to engage their fellow volunteers respectfully and provide clear-minded evaluation of the nominated poems. History of bigoted behavior, argumentativeness, or violating the SFPA code of conduct with online communication were considered worthy of rejecting an applicant’s request to serve on the jury.
The jury will likely have certain freedoms from year to year to find the group decision making that narrows the list from all nominees to a mix of finalists. But, there was concern about falling toward a “mediocre middle” depending on how the jury selects each poem to advance (e.g., each person rates each poem to create a list of top scores). Noting will prevent every great poem from being left behind, but one suggestion was to allow each juror some number of favorite picks. Even if they are the only juror who believes in the merits of a poem, it was recommended to maintain a path for the poem to be considered by the full membership and included in the anthology.
With the second survey taken into consideration, we are ready to propose specific revisions to the Rhysling process.
For the print anthology, a goal of 50 short and 25 long poems will provide a reasonable size. These limits provide a much more manageable size for both mailing and reading through the full list. Members will more readily be able to use their time to carefully evaluate the merits of all final nominees.
The suggestions on matching number of nominees (short & long) and synchronized voting lack clear support and do not require specific action to be taken.
To shore up the current concerns of ethics in nominations, the committee recommends making any nomination invalid where a member nominates someone in their immediate family (child, parent, sibling, spouse). There is generally support for a broader , but as many respondents pointed out, enforceability becomes an issue. It will be impossible to have absolute oversight even with these first steps in place.
However, one solution would be to add a checkbox on the nomination form. Nominators would confirm that the work was not written by a family member. This will provide a reminder and first level of self-policing. Also, nominators should recognize the broad and strong support for implementing these limits. Anyone who knowingly attempts to push undeserving nominations wouldn’t be fighting against administrative overreach, they would be on the opposite side of public opinion.
With these many considerations in mind, the Rhysling Revamp Committee will continue the conversation and propose specific changes to the Rhysling Guidelines that are intended to take effect for the 2023 awards process.
One thought on “Rhysling Revamp Continues”
Of course jurors have to be knowledgeable about poetry, but I think they must be familiar with spec. poetry as well. Mainstream-only poets are unfamiliar with tropes, and with what has been written before in the genre. Jurors don’t have to be SFPA members.