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Memories of Past and Future: Speculative Poetry from Medieval to Modern

A.J. Odasso,                     
Core: Writing & Speaking


Speculative poetry has been defined as a genre of verse focusing on fantastic, mythological, and science fictional themes.  Often labeled “fantastic” or “slipstream,” it is distinguished from other poetic genres and movements by its subject matter; form plays little to no part in its classification.  While many 19th-century Romantic poets used retellings of myths and folklore as an angle for the exploration of alternative viewpoints and social issues in these accepted narratives, poets during the Middle Ages—worldwide— frequently utilized similar approaches and used non-traditional viewpoints (up to and including articulate objects and sentient birds, as seen in the anonymous Exeter Book Riddles and Farid ud-Din Attar’s Conference of Birds) to explore their subjects.  Although speculative poetry’s founding as a genre is often cited as having occurred during the 1960s-1970s (with the emergence of such publications as Asimov’s Science Fiction and the founding of the Science Fiction Poetry Association by Suzette Haden Elgin), these themes and approaches in literature have been with us for much longer than we think.  Beginning with the genre’s influences and origins in the verse of the Middle Ages, this writing-intensive course will explore how speculative poetry continues to foster self-expression through fantastic discourse, unexpected viewpoints, and exploration of realms often requiring suspension of disbelief.  Where traditional creative writing courses focus on craft and workshopping, this writing-intensive course, in addition to a creative workshop component, will critically examine medieval fantastic poetry alongside modern speculative poetry.  It will introduce you to the concept of speculative poetry as a genre, and it will also familiarize you with the multifaceted (and often ancient) origins of its varied, ever-changing styles.

“About Science Fiction Poetry” (Suzette Haden Elgin)

“Notes On a Speculative Poetry” (Anya Johanna DeNiro)

“Speculative Poetry: A Symposium” (Mike Allen, Anya DeNiro, Theodora Goss, and Matthew Cheney)

“Defining Speculative Poetry: Three Manifestos” (A.J. Odasso, Romie Stott, and Sonya Taaffe)

Li Sao (Encountering Sorrow) (Qu Yuan, Modern English tr. from Chinese)

Exeter Book Riddles (Anonymous, Modern English tr. from Old English)

Ink Dark Moon Selections (Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Modern English tr. from Japanese)

Bisclavret (Marie de France, Modern English tr. from Anglo-Norman)

The Conference of Birds (Farid ud-Din Attar, Modern English tr. from Farsi)

The Knight in Panther Skin (Shota Rustaveli, Modern English tr. from Georgian)

Saint Erkenwald (Anonymous, Modern English tr. from Middle English dialect)

The Franklin’s Tale (Geoffrey Chaucer, in Middle English)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (The Pearl-Poet, Modern English tr. from Middle English dialect)

Heer Ranjha (Waris Shah, Modern English tr. from Punjabi)

Additionally, each of these historical poems will be paired with a poem from a modern speculative poet; these will always be handed out a week in advance of the class in which we will discuss them.

We will also have in-class discussions of speculative poetry in other media: the Pre-Raphaelite artists’ Tennyson-influenced paintings, for example, as well as modern musical settings of poems from the Middle Ages and Romantic era by recording artists such as Medieval Baebes and Loreena McKennitt. 


You will be required to attend class, participate in discussions to the fullest possible extent, write two 5-8 page essays (one comparison/contrast close reading; one research), and write/workshop between two and four poems (either two short or one long per each individual workshop slot) each.  You will also be assigned both out-of-class and in-class short writing reactions to reading assignments.

A.J. Odasso holds degrees from Wellesley College (B.A.), University of York (M.A.), and Boston University (M.F.A.), where she spent 2015-16 as a Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing.  She is poet (Lost Books and The Dishonesty of Dreams from Flipped Eye Publishing) and writer of short fiction; she also serves as Senior Poetry Editor at Strange Horizons magazine.  Her interests include creative writing, editorial practice, Middle English alliterative verse, modern poetry, and SF/F/Speculative literature.