Last summer a friend and I began exchanging a poem a week. She’s a visual artist and I’m a writer, but neither of us consider ourselves poets. We just love poems and wanted to grow a few between us. At first, we used the works of established poets to plant the seeds, poems we liked that made us feel we had something of our own to say on the subject. But we soon found we didn’t need the prompt and began writing simply from the stuff of life. We wrote narrative poems, three line poems, silly poems, serious poems, poems that tackled the biggies such as joy, love and grief, and poems that seemed to bubble up from the unconscious with no warning at all. For me, the resulting harvest is rich with story ideas and language I might not have tilled any other way.
Poetry, as Newbery author Karen Hesse says, is addicting. “It’s like chocolate, once you start eating it you can’t stop” It’s also a great way to see more deeply into your prose, which is why poetry is at the heart of the VCFAWC residency this summer. For starters, each faculty lecture includes a poem or poetic reference. Visiting author Karen Hesse http://us.macmillan.com/author/karenhesse wowed folks with her twelve inch thick (at least!) binder of her poetry output for a year. And a faculty panel discussion featuring Tom Birdseye, Amanda Jenkins, Louise Hawes and Sharon Darrow dissected what poetry means to each of the panelists on a personal and professional level.
While some of these distinguished writers don’t mind calling themselves poets, others shy away from the term. But they all read, respect and love poetry. That’s the beauty of what they had to say, which is that poetry is not scary or inaccessible or meant only for the erudite few. Poetry is for everyone. And poetic language is everywhere, as familiar as our heartbeat. From ads, to nursery rhymes, to popular songs, to prose lines to daily free poems on Writer’s Almanac. http://writersalmanac.org/ And for writers, reading and practicing poetry can enhance your prose and narrative non-fiction in several ways.
Here are a few suggestions:
Try rewording your paragraphs sentence by sentence with an eye to word choice and poetic line breaks, this can be a revelation when it comes to cutting unnecessary words and phrases, and in general sharpens your voice.
Write a poem from each of your character’s points of view to help you discover motivation and voice.
And as Louise Hawes suggests, write a poem for each scene or chapter of your novel as a way to uncover the main emotion you need to convey in that scene or chapter. When seen in poetic form, you can more easily note any gaps in your narrative arc, or missing elements from your beginning, middle or end. (Lou as she’s affectionately known, holds word play workshops she calls Play Shops around the globe). http://www.louisehawes.com/bio.html
In his lecture on metaphor, VCFA faculty and author Mark Karlins notes that metaphor “can’t be translated.” Rather, you must intuit your way in. Because metaphor goes “deeper than thought, and is rooted in the human soul. That place where the inner self and the world merge.” That place is the stuff of poetry. Poetry distills. Poetry re-sees. Poetry provides a metaphorical lens that isn’t about thinking, but about intuiting. And it does this most often by capturing a moment that speaks to what is larger than that moment, and larger than ourselves. The world in a grain of sand.
Often these grains of sand can add up to larger works. You might find your next book in your poetry, as Karen Hesse did. Or that, like author Pam Houston (whom I spoke with last spring and whose process seems to me so like poetry writing that I wanted to mention her here), you are developing your own poetic form. Houston’s novel, Contents May Have Shifted, while not written in verse, is a series of short chapters that hover between genres and flash off the page in a form she calls “glimmer writing.” Glimmer writing, Houston explains, http://lehab.org/2015/04/09/pam-houston-glimmers/ is about opening yourself to the world each day, and recording what sticks, what sparks insight and holds richness, much like the contents of a poem. What says, in her words, “Hey writer, over here, pay attention.” In encouraging writers to capture their own glimmers, Houston believes that what sticks, what coalesces on the page, will provide the themes and storylines you’re meant to tell.
Reach for the poetic in your writing. Find those glimmers and keep them as a poem or a paragraph, because in the very act of giving a moment attention, it becomes a habit of deep listening, both to the outer world and your own inner experience of it. That’s were words resonate. In that space beneath and beyond the self that lives for the reader. That space between the marks on the page and the life created as one reads them.