Twenty-One Novel Poems

Suzette Haden Elgin

Frequently Asked Questions

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Q-1. Why did you decide to write these twenty-one stories as poems? Isn't that a waste?

A-1. It's only a waste if you believe that a poem doesn't have the same importance — as a literary work — as a short story or a novel.

It's easy to understand why that position might seem plausible. We read glowing accounts of "debut novels"; we never hear about "debut books of poetry." Books of poetry don't become Major Motion Pictures. A poem often takes only a short time to type, while typing a short story or novel can take many days; it seems intuitively obvious that writing poems is a lot less work than writing longer fiction. You can't qualify for membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) by publishing poems, no matter how many you publish and no matter how much you're paid for them. Writers of longer fiction can have rock-star status in the United States; almost no poets have even pebble-star status.

Myself, I believe that a great narrative poem is equivalent as a literary work to a great novel or a great short story. I think it's just as hard — just as much work, and sometimes more work — to write a narrative poem as it is to write a novel or short story, because you have so much less room to work in.

Q-2. Why did you decide to call the book Twenty-One Novel Poems?

A-2. Because I believe that the poems — as a group — are novel, and because I believe that I could easily have written each one of the twenty-one poems as a novel.

Q-3. It's hard to see why we need a separate genre called "science fiction poetry." We already have narrative poetry as a genre; we already have "speculative poetry," which includes fantasy and horror poems as well as science fiction poems. Why do you want this separate niche? What is science fiction poetry?

A-3. For me, a science fiction poem has to meet two specific criteria: It has to have a science component and it has to have a narrative component. Those components don't have to be large in size or scope, but they do have to be there. Even in "Leafenkind," for example — the least "scientific" poem in the book — there is a science component having to do with linguistics and interspecies communication. Most of the poets working in the genre today disagree with me about this definition, and prefer not to be bound by it, and I support them in that; there's no reason why they should accept my definition. It matters to me because I want sf poetry to be a distinct literary entity; I think that those two constraints are important to the future of the genre. But I have no desire to impose them on other people.

Q-4. How could I get started writing SF poetry?

A-4. I'd suggest that you start by going to the Science Fiction Poetry Association's website and exploring the materials posted there. You might also want to take a look at another one of my books — The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook. It introduces all the basic information about the genre in a nontechnical form, with lots of examples, and includes a section on marketing and promoting your work, as well as a bibliography.

Q-5. Where can I find more SF poetry?

A-5. If you just go to and type "science fiction poetry online" in the search box, you'll get an abundance of links to sources for sf poetry.

Q-6. Why did you decide to share your rough drafts via LiveJournal?

A-6. There were two reasons. First, one of the complaints that has surfaced in the reading/writing community since most writers switched from typewriters (or handwriting) to computers is that we no longer have any history available for literary works. It used to be possible to read earlier drafts, to see which sequences of language had been crossed out and replaced, to see insertions and deletions that the writer had made, and all of that information was valuable for understanding literature. With the computer, that's all gone, and we usually get to see only the Final Product. It occurred to me that with LiveJournal — if I could muster up the courage to work on some poems in public — I'd have a way to respond to that complaint and provide at least some partial history. Secondly, I wanted a way to take advantage of the interactiveness of the Internet — an option that isn't available with traditional printed materials — and opening a discussion of the poems on LiveJournal was one way to do that.

Q-7. Do you really think the future will be like what you described in your poetry?

A-7. I have no idea; my crystal ball is just as flawed as anyone else's. I do try very hard to write plausible futures, extrapolating from this present time as I perceive it. Unlike any other genre, science fiction does give us a way to "try out" possible futures of a multitude of different kinds and experience them through the characters in the narratives.

Q-8. Is there any way I can get my copy of your book autographed?

A-8. Sure. Just send it to me at PO Box 1137, Huntsville, AR 72740-1137, USA, with a return envelope and return postage; I'll be glad to autograph it. Be sure to include instructions telling me exactly what you'd like the autograph to say and whether you want the autograph to include a date.

Twenty-One Novel Poems Index