The Imagination Has Its Orders

When I moved to a new house a couple of years ago, I went through a stack of old AWP WRITER’S CHRONICLES and saved a few articles I thought I might like to read at some later date. Not long ago, I ran across one of these saved articles from the October/November 1998 issue and finally took the time to read the interview by Bonnie Riedinger called “The Imagination Has Its Orders: Cross-Genre Writing with Carol Muske and Molly Peacock.” What I discovered were some wonderful excerpts I’d like to share with you today from two poets who are also drawn to writing prose. When Ms. Riedinger asked each of them how they would define poetry and prose, Molly Peacock said:

“Prose operates with language that’s built from phrases into clauses into sentences. These sentences are built into paragraphs. Poetry operates with the sentence plus the line. You are writing to rhythm in prose, but it’s a rhythm that unfolds out over time. The rhythm that you write to in poetry uses the rhythm of the sentence, but it is underpinned by the rhythm of the line. The poem does not unfold or expand over time, it keeps returning and it is also self-contained.

“My poems—even my narrative poems—are usually about one emotional moment. Interestingly, in my prose I’m not doing so much musing about a moment as setting a scene, as in a play. Time in poetry has to do with the intensity of a moment, but prose has to do with the unfolding of events over time. Prose works with a kind of development, whereas the poem has to do with a kind of quickening.”

Carol Muske responded with:

“Fiction requires more carpentry work than poetry. You have to really build a house unless you’re writing very experimental fiction…. You have to lay a foundation. You have to put up joists, the wall beams, the floor, and so on, all the way to the roof. Unlike poetry, where you can occasionally leap in and out of windows and fly through the roof.”

Ms. Muske also said:

” …(T)he narrative focuses the mind differently. It is incremental, as the lyric is ecstatic. …(W)hat I mean by incremental is that it does not illuminate and then go dark the way the lyric does, it holds the note, then finds the next note. It sustains the vision, rather than isolating the visionary. The imaginations of the greatest poets, I think, are esemplastic—their minds are able to “shape” experience, disparate experience, into a unified whole. These “shapes” intrigue me because they leave distinctions like lyric and narrative behind—thus “shape-making” defies categorization. All poems are shapes, they are actions of the mind….”


Because I write in more than one genre myself, I can also confirm an assertion of Ms. Peacock later in the article. She compares crossing genres to knowing another language. For me, the study of poetry has broadened my vision of what words on the page, along with the white space surrounding them, can do, in fiction, poetry, and in memoir. My study of prose has given me better sentences from which to construct better lines in my poems. The things I don’t allow myself to do in prose, I won’t allow into my poems and vice versa. One of my favorite writing experiences—and experiments—was writing TRASH, a long narrative in poems, in which I was able to combine what I knew and could figure out about narrative, the character’s emotional arc, the poetic line, and negative space into a work that partook of and crossed boundaries between poetry and prose.

I’m so happy that in our VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults we have been able to keep the lines of communication open between genres and our students can move back and forth between prose (fiction and nonfiction) and poetry, as well as through the ages and stages of literature for young people from picture book through young adult. With our recent foray into Poetry Off the Page, with its exhibit of visual images and reading/performance, we’ve opened another door for our creative explorations to enter. While the world of the publishing business becomes ever more “brand” oriented, we as creative artists can continue to try out new things, things that will bring new life and energy to all our work, branded or not.




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Of Slow Shifts and School Supplies

Leda spoke eloquently of transitions in her recent post and I will speak of them crankily, specifically in relation to these final weeks of summer. I love this golden time, with the coneflowers blooming and the cicadas singing their final song. There should be wine coolers on the deck and corn grilling and the relishing of tomatoes ripe from the vine. Kids in bare feet, a few sighs, reminiscences. Instead … Staples sale signs … towers of bright notebooks at Target … the boxes of college stuff in the neighbor boy’s car. Deserted pools. Halloween candy!

Why rush too soon into Keats’s “season of mist and mellow fruitfulness”? Or, for that matter, into masks and candy corn?

Why leap when we might experience (and appreciate) the slow shift from one season to the next? When we might dwell for a while in an ending?

So, what does all this have to do with writing? (Ah, yes, I do need to do more than wring my summer-tan hands.)

Writing deadlines keep us busy. There are to-do lists to attend to, new, shiny projects to embrace. Right now, I am finishing up a creative project that I loved and labored over and learned a lot from. And I don’t want to rush through it. Nope. I want to give the whole thing its final moments, well, of summer, if you will. I want to offer it one last tangy wine cooler, a lingering good-bye, and thanks for being in my head and on my desk for lo these many months.

And now, I’m off to order my daughter’s high school textbooks. She’s taken a page from her mom, I guess, and puts that off till the last moment.

Wishing you a golden close to the summer.


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Ramblings about change and transition

John Tenniel

John Tenniel


Advance twice, set to partners…/Change lobsters, and retire in same order.  Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I have a very difficult time with transitions, with big and small changes, and of course I am not alone. In some areas, I’m an early adopter. It’s that curiosity thing I have spoken of so often. But life in general? No. Not so much. Change=worrisome.

What about transitions in writing? Early on, I remember being puzzled by details. To propel a character from bed to breakfast, for example, did I have to include getting out of bed, turning the doorknob, peeing, brushing teeth, traipsing downstairs, letting the dogs out, back in, out again, back in, out again, and so on? If not, would the reader understand what was going on? Of course the reader understands, and the accumulation of unnecessary details only leads to the cheese sandwich.*   “I woke up. For breakfast, had pancakes [a nod to Tobin Anderson, who just adores pancakes in books, ha], and went to work.”  [THIS IS JUST AN EXAMPLE. I WOULD NEVER BEGIN ANYTHING WITH WAKING UP AND HAVING BREAKFAST (Exception: Winnie Wakes Up). AND NEITHER WOULD YOU.]

I read, I thought, I listened, and I wrote. I learned to eliminate, cut, eviscerate; to tell only what propels the story. Studying how other writers moved characters about was ever so helpful. In fact, I soon wondered why I had puzzled so. Jump. Slow down when necessary. Crowding and leaping. Etc.

In real life, transitions are a wee bit more challenging. Change often=scary.

Life is its own journey, presupposes its own change and movement, and one tries to arrest them at one’s eternal peril. Laurens Van der Post, Venture to the Interior

Transition: I am no longer teaching at VCFA. This has been a particularly challenging change and not one I am navigating with great success. It is odd indeed to pop in for a visit and recognize none of the students. It is odd that they don’t recognize me. It is odd to have new faculty members I don’t really know. It is odd to become an outsider. I am lucky, however. I do get to pop in from time to time.

I do have my sources, however. They tell me the July residency was terrific.The Allies in Wonderland have graduated (and doesn’t the class name say it all? Aren’t we all allies in wonderland at VCFA and in the children’s book world?) Now they face the real world. When they return to campus, which almost all of them will at some point, they will see unfamiliar faces and may feel a bit lost. They’ll schedule group retreats and reunions; they’ll share writing online. Some will drift away. Some will be best friends forever.

Change everything, except your loves. Voltaire, Sur L’Usage de la Vie

My own VCFA class graduated in January, 2004. During the mini-residency, ten of us gathered once again on campus. All are writing. All still love each other. We ate, laughed, gossiped, and caught up. Marriages, divorces, publishing successes, children, grandchildren. Fortunately, no one is very ill and no one has died. For us, for now, the changes are mostly good ones, and for that I am very, very grateful.

I wish everybody a cheery end of summer, filled with good changes only.

In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways. Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance


All quotes from Bartlett’s.

*the cheese sandwich: Many VCFA students and alums will remember that this was from a talk by Alan Cumyn. If you bore your readers too much, they’ll go to make a cheese sandwich and likely not return.


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Too Old to Write YA?

We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.

(from Roger Angell’s piece in the New Yorker, “This old Man,” 2/17/14)

 If you haven’t read the essay from which the above excerpt is taken, don’t miss it. It’s a gloriously written, truly felt piece that perfectly describes what it’s like to walk among you with a sound mind in an aging body. Do yourself and your horizons a favor, and read the whole thing. Today, though, I’d like to narrow the focus a bit, and take a look at a particular sub-genre of “elders”—dare we call them “poplars?”—older authors who write fiction for young adults.

I don’t know how many of us there are, but to judge from my informal survey of colleagues and from the regular round of faces I see at state and national book festivals and conferences, I’d say a fair number of writers for young readers are already, or on the verge of, collecting social security. Which means they are also fair game for the naysayers who insist that, if your phone is dumb and your jeans sit at the waist, you have no business authoring books for anyone under 20. Beyond the fact that jeans and phones are irrelevant if you write historical fiction, how much sense does this dismissive prejudice make when it comes to novels set in the here and now? Or for that matter, stories that travel to tomorrow and beyond?

What compels any writer to write the book she does? I never sit down and tell myself, I’m going to write a young adult novel today. Or, Now for an adult short story, or, I feel like a picture book. I write what I need to write, go where I have to go; many of my most pressing personal emotional issues can be traced back to adolescence, so that’s often the age of my protagonists. If I don’t learn and grow from the journeys I take in my writing, neither will my readers. I never write down to young readers or “up” to adults; it’s simply that blooms of one kind seem to beg for a slender vase, flowers of another sort look better in a wide goblet. The arrangement in either case calls for skill and caring and yes, passion.


The young woman I was at thirteen was probably more idealistic, more romantic, more passionate than she has ever been since. The turmoil and heart-clutching theater of that period in my life keep calling me back. But at the age I’ve been blessed to reach now, I have lots of other periods calling me back, too: I’ve written short fiction that was published (and therefore labeled) as adult, YA, and middle grade; a picture book for young readers and a graphic novel for older ones; poetry; novels—books for all the juicy stages of me and you. So the logic of demanding that a YA author be young escapes me. I can appreciate, barely, the conviction that a teen author will have trouble portraying credible adult characters, whose experiences that young writer hasn’t yet lived. But to suggest that older writers have such heart fog they can’t reclaim their past, can’t revisit the young woman or man who helped make them who they are today? Not so much.

In fact, we mature types have what might be considered an edge over those still embroiled in the pangs and ecstatic highs of adolescence. We’ve been there, done that; and we have “crossed over” to the other side of that roiling time. By going back to it, we are, in effect, offering our young readers, not a helping hand, but company for the road. Someone to walk beside them, someone who can convincingly testify that they’re likely to get out alive. And maybe even wiser, happier for the trip.




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Facing up to my Shame



By Tim Wynne-Jones


Ruth Graham’s piece in Slate advising us that we ought to be ashamed of reading young adult novels caused some seismic activity on the faculty listserv, earlier this month, and we were all, I suppose, happy to see a well-wrought rejoinder by Alyssa Rosenberg in The Washington Post. I’ve just read Graham’s piece again and it’s actually harmless, well written and quite interesting. Do none of us ever question our reading? More to the point, do we not all care a great deal about how reading impacts on our lives and especially on our writing lives? Upon rereading the article in Slate, I went on to read pages and pages of commentary. I was encouraged by the fact that most people disagreed with Graham, but not quite so encouraged by the disposition of some of the commentators. But that’s freedom of speech, for you. The Internet introduces you to a world of opinions some of which you’d be happy never to have heard.

Many reviewers made the point that YA is not a genre. Amen. And many people made the point that reading at all is already a very good thing. Amen to that, too.

My only point here today is about holding sway over the books I read. I seldom acknowledge the injunction that there is a book, let alone a type of book, that I have to read. And yet I can suddenly and with great fervor want a book someone mentions that, for whatever reason, strikes me as hugely pertinent right at that moment.

In a good year I might read sixty books. I have my own little Oscar Night every New Year’s, where I decide upon the top five or six titles. Last year I see in my notes that Robert Cormier’s Fade stood cheek by jowl with How It All Began by Penelope Lively and Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lahane. The latter two are adult books, but the Lahane is a mystery and therefore, I suppose, only worthy of Ms. Grahams scorn, despite the excellence of his prose, since the mystery genre also gets side-swiped in her obloquy (or lowblowquy I’m tempted to call it). But is the Lively book literature by Graham’s standards? It’s such a cracking good story; can it possibly be good for me? Because there is, I think, in Graham’s rant, a whiff of prescription if not proscription. In 2012 my top picks included Robert Harris’ The Fear Index, a thriller in a way, but also a quite brilliant retelling of Frankenstein, which, come to think of it is also a thriller. Does that make the adult grade? Here’s my point: I fear that what Graham is talking about is “literature” and I’m not all that interested in “literature,” as such. I like Shakespeare and John Le Carre, Jane Austen and Barbara Kingsolver. I also happen to love The Fault in Our Stars and Wolf Hall, not to mention The House at Pooh Corner. I like Story. I don’t find enough Story in, say, Don DeLillo or Michael Ondaatje, but that’s just me. The words get in the way, to my mind. There’s a lot of shimmering surface dance. Is that what Graham thinks we should be reading?

I can’t read everything nor do I feel the slightest compunction to keep abreast of the times, let alone every brilliant new release in the field in which I write. What I read matters too much to me to be either cajoled or bludgeoned into reading anything but what I need to read for my own weird reasons and well being.

To me, youth is a renewable resource. I read YA and children’s books – Heavens! Let’s not forget picture books – because, at best, they replenish the sense of wonder, the vibrancy of what it is to be new to the shocks and joys of becoming fully human. I believe books for young people are about getting a grip and books intended for adults are about letting go. I’m quiet prepared to let go, bit by bit, and take my place in the line-up tottering towards the end of this mortal moving walkway. I don’t read young adult books out of nostalgia – God forbid I should be a teenager again! – but out of a profound and ongoing need to keep getting a grip. Keep holding fast.


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ImageI’m just home from a minor, unskilled role, helping with a wedding. One of the authors who has been part of my writing life for more than a decade, now, is a graduate of VCFA and has taught there a few semesters, too–Deborah Wiles. I got to see one of the first copies of Revolution, a story of the 60s and of Freedom Summer and of her own childhood memories spending summers with her family in the South. Her house is a home full of warmth, music,friends, good food, quirky stuff, and generosity. Since her youngest child was getting married…all the more so. We told a lot of stories and talked about traditions and family stuff that swirls in everyone’s life.

As we writers think about our characters and their families, sometimes we’re trapped by what we know–only able to play in our own playgrounds. We coax up a motivation that seems to fit perfectly for our protagonist and plan a scene using logic: what would make sense for this person to do or say under the circumstances? There’s nothing like a wedding to remind me that actions and reactions can be a tangle of barely-understood yearning and other emotions we hide even from ourselves. When a writer gets it right, though, we know.

A student recently included Eleanor and Park in her annotated bibliography and she wrote this: “One scene really hit me— Christmas Day the stepfather is in a seemingly good mood, but the more he drinks the family knows it is too good to last. Sure enough, he comes to dessert and wants to know where’s the pumpkin pie? He curses and flings rice pudding, and leaves. Then ‘Eleanor’s mom picked up the bowl with what was left of the rice pudding, and then skimmed the top off the pile of pudding on the floor. ‘Who wants cherry sauce?’ she said. They all did’ (199).

Up with families in all their messy glory–the gift to writers that keeps on giving.


by | May 26, 2014 · 2:52 pm

Trung Rain



Cu nvm.”  So say the Trung, as they refer to a particular type of rain, “the rain that falls when hunters are soon to return.”* The Trung live in Yunnan province in China; the language itself is one of many dying languages. According to one study, of the close to 7,000 world languages, approximately 50-90% will be gone by the year 2100. These figures are startling and saddening, and raise a large number of cultural questions.

But what does Trung rain have to do with writing? How does it affect me, granted a rather small way to look at things? My first response was to the sheer beauty and unusualness of the word. Reading it shifted my usual way of seeing things. It woke me up.

Rain is not only a natural phenomenon. It is also a cultural one. For the Trung, or, more likely, their ancestors, hunting is central enough to merit a word for a type of rain, one which is experienced only when hunters are about to return. We also hear something else in that word for rain — the desire for one’s loved ones to return. Rain filled with longing.

We also hear language working, turning and shifting upon itself, until it articulates just the right and culturally nuanced message. Not just “rain” or “sprinkles” or “showers” but a word that swells with hunger, desire, history, terrain, an image from the last hunt when your husband was mauled by the claws of a tiger: The rain that falls when hunters are soon to return.

Rain, its beauty and strangeness. Since I’m listening as a cultural outsider, the name for rain sounds differently in my ears than it does in the ears of a native Trung speaker. For me, the word rain has become defamiliarized. I hear the word slowly. I hear it poetically. That which has been taken for granted, in language and the world, has shifted to center stage in my consciousness.

Rain, a word in my novel. I’m currently taking a short novel through its zillionth draft. The novel takes place in NYC. In a few scenes, it’s raining. The hunters, though, are not coming home. There are no hunters. It’s contemporary NY, actually Staten Island. How do I describe the rain so that it has the same impact for the reader as the Trung word for rain? Right now, as it sits in my novel, rain slides prosaically and barely noticed. How do I prolong the rain, the word or words for it?

Maybe I should just let it rain and be done with it.


Not every word and sentence needs to be defamiliarized and not every drop of rain or tree leaf needs to be seen with new eyes or in a prolonged fashion. Sometimes we, our sentences and paragraphs and novels, just need to get on with things. On my walk to the bank later today, I can’t pause at every interesting pebble or gaze into every puddle nor, if they were making the same walk, can my characters. There are, after all, accounts to be transferred, bills to be paid. On page such and such, a character needs to be able to get out of her car and walk to the front door by the end of a brief sentence. (We’re much more interested in what will happen once she steps through that door and sees. . . .)

But now and then our sentences need to be slowed and our perceptions need to be more than automatic. Perception and the physical world, to borrow from Shklovsky who coined the term defamiliarization, needs to be made more aesthetic. We need prose to make it through a day, but we also need poetry to deepen it. We need Trung rain. Now and then, language and the world must “appear strange and wonderful” (Shklovsky quoting Aristotle).

The task is to decide when and why — to what purpose. How does the moment of shifted perception finally matter to our novels and to the characters within them? After all, the Trung don’t think about their word for rain; its simply part of how things are for them. But still. . . . When rain shifts, when a word shifts into something slow and rich and full of depth, into what new world are we stepping?

*Ross Perlin, “Vng Gyey Svr: How to Read the Dictionary of an Endangered Language,” Harper’s, August 2013.

Mark Karlins



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