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The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook
Suzette Haden Elgin
Sam's Dot Publishing, 126 pages

The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook
Suzette Haden Elgin
Suzette Haden Elgin was born in Missouri in 1936. In order to finance her post-graduate education, she began writing science fiction novels to pay her tuition. She went on to teach linguistics at San Diego State University, and then retired in 1980 to the Arkansas Ozarks. Her first novel, The Communipaths, was published as half of an Ace double in 1970. Her second, Furthest, was published as an Ace Science Fiction Special in 1971. She is perhaps best known for The Ozark Trilogy (Twelve Fair Kingdoms, The Grand Jubilee, And Then There'll Be Fireworks) published in 1981. In her spare time, she runs a home-based virtual business (the Ozark Center for Language Studies/OCLS) dedicated to the two goals of reducing violence in the U.S. and getting information about linguistics out to the public.

Suzette Haden Elgin Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Chris Przybyszewski

If there is anyone to talk about science fiction and poetry, Suzette Haden Elgin is the person. Elgin, the founder of the Science Fiction Poetry Organization, was a career linguist at the University of San Diego State University, where she retired in 1980. She's also a novelist and author of the Ozark Trilogy and the Native Tongue series.

Credentials aside, Elgin has got a good book on her hands in the form of The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook. The Handbook offers readers a ubiquitously practical guide beginning with poetry basics (surprisingly hard to find in much contemporary analysis), advanced poetics (e.g., graphic, phonological, lexical, and syntactic patterns), and then the 'rough and ready' world of the professional writer who markets and sells his/her work.

Ideal for beginning writers who want to become serious about writing professionally, Elgin's keen sense of the 'real' world of fantasy can be an invaluable tool. Peppered throughout the text are illustrative examples, written by the author for the sole purpose of educating the reader. Instead of using 'big name' poets to give the book credulity, Elgin instead relies on her own considerable analysis.

Elgin uses her poem samples to highlight a primary difference between poetry and prose: in the former, sound and meaning are of primary importance. In the latter, grammar is important as well.

The sentence "Tracy was an orphan, and she missed them both," might not be acceptable in prose (Gertrude Stein notwithstanding). Elgin points out that while the sentence's grammar doesn't work, its meaning that an orphan misses both her parents is clear. "The poet relies on the reader to be willing to work hard to recover the meaning from the surface shape provided," Elgin says. "In ordinary language, that's forbidden; in poetry, it's encouraged."

She then illustrates how this sentence might look in (fantasy) poetic form:

"Poor Tracy"
Tracy was
an orphan, and
all eleven.
of them.
Here, as a fantasy poem, Tracy now has eleven parents instead of two.

As can be inferred from the previous example, Elgin's emphasis on science fiction and fantasy poetry is a major consideration of this text and not a simple marketing ploy. Elgin has been a figure in the poetic publishing field for generations, and she shares her considerable knowledge. Those interested in writing poetry should take a look at this book, yes, but Elgin's considerable knowledge of language (on the theoretical side) and publishing (on the practical side) cannot be minimized for general audiences.

The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook is an accessible resource for anyone interested in writing genre poetry or in writing poetry at all. It has been my experience that good beginning handbooks on poetry are difficult to find, and so I personally welcome this addition to my reference shelf.

Copyright © 2005 Chris Przybyszewski

Chris learned to read from books of fantasy and science fiction, in that order. And any time he can find a graphic novel that inspires, that's good too.

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