Suzette Haden Elgin – RIP

SuzetteHadenElgin-030418 (1)Do you know who Suzette Haden Elgin was? If not, you should! She was a very important writer, poet and figure within the Science Fiction Community. I never had the opportunity to meet her, or correspond with her, but I was profoundly affected by her novel Native Tongue, which was read and discussed by the Feminist Science Fiction Fantasy and Utopian Literature ListServ / Bookgroup many years ago, when I was just rediscovering my love for Science Fiction. When I discovered Science Fiction Poetry and the Science Fiction Poetry Association I was delighted to find it had been founded by this extraordinary writer, linguist and poet. It was part of my decision to join the Association. Unfortunately, though, she had already withdrawn from the writing and online world due to illness (Alzheimers) by the time I discovered SF Poetry and the SFPA, so I was never able to meet her or correspond with her. I have true regret for this fact, for now she is truly gone, after having withdrawn from the writing world in 2009 due to advancing Alzheimer’s Disease. She passed away on 27 January 2015.

In addition to writing Science Fiction SHE also wrote non-fiction, and it’s for this oeuvre for which she is most well known outside of SF Fandom. Her most renowned book is The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-defense. I just bought a copy (and a copy of The Gentle Art of Communicating with Kids (which is oh so apropos) and am looking forward to learning (even) more from her.

Science Fiction Poetry handbookThe first purchase I made from the SFPA was Elgin’s Science Fiction Poetry Handbook. I quickly realized that it is very much a handbook for poets, and what she believes is important to Science Fiction Poetry. I picked it up again last week, because I feel I will get more out of it and it believe it will make me a better reviewer and appreciator of Speculative Poetry even while I still can’t call myself an actual poet.

There are whole chapters dedicated to aspects of poetry: What makes a poem, specifically a Science Fiction Poem; The graphic elements of poetry, or how it looks; How a poem sounds (particularly important to me); how poets choose their words; syntax, semantics and grammar and how poets use the rules; credibility as it pertains to SF poetry a reader’s perception of it; how to market and promote your poetry; how to do poetry readings, workshops and panels at conventions, etc.; and a fascinating history of the SFPA. There is also an index of recommended reading (poetry) and reference books on poetry (some of them pertaining to Science Fiction Poetry, but not most of them). There is also a record of Rhysling winning poems from 1978 through 2004). Read an excerpt here.

Elgin’s writing style is very accessible and while she doesn’t shy away from using technical terms (i.e. “big words”) – it is, after all, aimed toward people who presumably have some sort of scientific background and/or are sufficiently educated to be able to deal with it – the information is so well presented that her explanations are exceedingly clear.

There are poetic examples, which illustrate the subject at hand with analyses accompanying them. I would like to highlight a couple, to show you how brilliantly Elgin brings the point home.

In the first chapter about “Graphics Patterning” she uses a short 4-line poem, which she wrote, to illustrate. She then gives us 3 different versions where the words are all the same, the arrangement on the page, however, has been altered. See if you can hear the difference (please forgive the stuffy nose!):

The 2nd version still has four lines, but the breaks occur in a different place. The 3rd is 2 lines and the 4th ends up 7 lines long and is perhaps the most interesting visually.

Last week, in my review of Max Ingram’s The Endless Machine, I criticized the way he broke up the lines. Elgin illustrates perfectly how the entire poem changes if you change the graphics, or how a poem looks on a page. It emphasizes or de-emphasizes certain words or phrases, and if read aloud this becomes very obvious, if you give the line breaks any sort of treatment in your recitation.

In the chapter called “Phonological Patterning: How the Poem Sounds” Elgin also includes an example poem (as with all the example poems she wrote it herself), in which she goes to great lengths to evoke pain and suffering, and impediments to speech. She later says this is a poetic mistake, because, in her opinion, “poetry should be made pleasant to read aloud; it should feel good in the mouth”. Now, as a singer, I often encounter text, which is difficult to spit out, if you will, but it’s my job to make it seem easy. See if you can hear what Elgin was trying to do in this poem, through rhyme, phonemes (sound units) types of words and the lack thereof:

These are just 2 short examples of the practical things Elgin looks at in this manual. It’s clear and concise. She shows how writing Science Fiction Poetry (and often any type of speculative poetry) is different from traditional/mainstream poetry. How much fun it can be and how creative one can be in the genre. She also points out how easy it is to write trite or clichéd poetry – but that’s true of any type of poetry. She makes a good case for rhymed and metered poetry’s worth in our community and in poetry in general.

In her chapter on the history of the SFPA she relates how it was borne out of a need for a way for poets to communicate and share their work. More poets than she expected joined the association right off the blocks and it quickly grew beyond what she could handle on her own and so it became a full blown association with Bylaws and Officers. It is not a perfect organization, but I believe those most active within it are truly in it for the community, so that like-minded poets (and poetry lovers like me), can share and work toward more visibility and respect. This is what SHE was striving for when she founded it and I’d like to think we’ve carried on with her vision in a way she would approve of. I hope so anyway.

As I write this tribute/review, I find myself wishing more and more that I’d had the opportunity to meet her, talk with her, and learn from her. I can read her work and her writing, but I wish she’d been my teacher, or my mentor, you know? I may go for that linguistics degree I’ve always had in the back of my mind…

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