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.