Q&A with Richard Schiffman

An environmental journalist when he isn’t a poet, Richard Schiffman views science fiction poetry as “another flavor of nature poetry.” Below, he discusses this confluence of genres, the word “ecstasy,” and the specific pleasures he finds in poetry-writing and in SF. “Planets,” which draws on the boundless optimism of the Space Age, is his third poem to grace Asimov’s pages [in our July/August issue, on sale now].


Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece? How did the title for this piece come to you?

RS: They call people in my generation “Baby Boomers,” but we might just as well be called “Space Agers,” because we grew up when human beings were leaving the home planet for the first time. It was a hopeful and expansive time that young people today may find difficult to imagine. In rereading over this poem, I realize that it is about that sense of optimism and of breaking free of limits, entering a future that was incredibly exciting and full of previously undreamt possibilities.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

RS: This is the third poem of mine to appear in Asimov’s Science Fiction. Science fiction poetry encourages my imagination to soar in ways that more earthbound themes do not always allow for. For me, it is another flavor of nature poetry, but nature on a cosmic scale. We are parts of something vastly bigger than ourselves. It is both humbling and incredibly inspiring to contemplate our place in the larger scheme of things. That is the great gift of science fiction, to put us in touch with this awareness of something incomprehensibly greater.

AE: What inspired you to start writing? How much or little do current events impact your writing?

RS: I am an environmental journalist who writes about science for the NY Times and other publications. I love doing reporting and feel that a lot of creativity goes into a well-told news story. But when I really want to sing with words, I turn to poetry. Reading it and writing it can put me into an ecstatic state. When I was a kid, I loved the word “ecstasy” and knew that it was something that I wanted to share with others.

AE: What is your process?

RS: Walking and being outdoors in nature helps to get my creative juices flowing. Sometimes I’ll take notes—images, phrases, metaphors—that I later weave into a poem. More rarely, the poem just writes itself full-blown from start to finish, but usually it involves a lot of revising and editing. The final version may end up completely different from what I had in mind at the beginning.


“Any civilization that has survived through the technological phase of its development without destroying itself or its home planet must have evolved morally and ethically to a high degree. So ideally science fiction can give us some hints about how they pulled that off.”


 

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

RS: I don’t often get writers’ block. But it can take a while to get into the mood and actually start writing a poem. Having said that, however, not every poem that I write is necessarily a keeper. A thin little poetry book can take years to produce, not because it takes a long time to write the words down, but because it takes a long time to figure out what you really want to say and then to actually say it in the most eloquent fashion. So much of the pleasure of poetry for me is getting the words just right. That can take time. I love the revision process as much as writing the first draft. I can work on a poem over a year or longer before it arrives at its final form.

AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?

RS: What I have always loved about science fiction is that it allows us to re-envision our life on earth—by imagining how other advanced civilizations have dealt with the issues that we ourselves are facing. Any civilization that has survived through the technological phase of its development without destroying itself or its home planet must have evolved morally and ethically to a high degree. So ideally science fiction can give us some hints about how they pulled that off.

AE: What kind of SF do you like?

RS: I’m not interested in writing that simply transposes our wars, ecological disasters, and social divisions out onto a larger cosmic stage. That’s boring. Science fiction should be a visionary and spiritual literature that helps us to think about how we can outgrow these lethal habits and become more truly universal, tolerant and cosmically intelligent. If it is not offering a vision of a better world, I have no use for it.

Do I think that such advanced spiritual civilizations actually exist? Yes, absolutely, they exist—and as soon as we humans get our collective act together and begin to rise above our provincialism, our aggressiveness, and our speciesist prejudices, we will get incontrovertible proof of this. I had dinner with moon astronaut Edgar Mitchell some years ago, and he said very much the same thing. Other galactic civilizations won’t fully reveal themselves until we are mature enough to merit that contact. But for those who are paying attention, the signs of their presence are already there. . . .

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

RS: My journalism: https://richschiff.contently.com

My poetry: https://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=414&a=296

Twitter handle: @Schiffman108


Richard Schiffman is an environmental journalist, poet and author of two biographies. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals and other venues including the New York Times, BBC Radio, Writer’s Almanac, This American Life in Poetry, Verse Daily, and many other publications. His poetry collection What the Dust Doesn’t Know was published last year by Salmon Poetry.

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