When A Poem Can’t Tell the Whole Story: AWP Panel Reflection #2

An essay idea has been rolling around in my head for a while, one that is based on the representational significance of streetlights. I know, I know, it doesn’t sound very fascinating right now, but snippets of it have been living in my notebooks for a while. The panel When a Poem Can’t Tell the Whole Story: Why Poets are Taking up Nonfiction (my second favorite one at AWP) seemed designed to answer some of my questions about how to make the transition from poetry to successful essay work. Featuring writers working in both genres (Gregory Orr, Danielle Deulen, Katharine Cole, Julia Koets, and Linwood Rumsey), the format of the panel was fairly informal with each participating writer answering a question proposed by the moderator Julia Koets, the first of which was “How did you start writing non-fiction?”

Gregory Orr’s first response was “Reluctantly.” He went on to explain himself, starting with what he loves about poetry – its form, its structure, how it showed him the possibilities of escaping his circumstances in the world through imagination, how he could “create out of language an urgent, other world.” But, as he shared some of his life experiences with the audience (including some Civil Rights work in Mississippi among other things), he explained his realization that certain experiences are not escapable. These become the material of memoir or prose as there is too much to be assimilated into a poem’s forced intensity. He spoke of how poetry, especially the lyric, doesn’t really acknowledge that we live in a real world narrative. So much of experience needs a historical or social context that only prose can provide.

What a great start. I believe he was at the heart of things when he spoke of the poem’s focused form and intensity not being able to bear the weight or the breadth of some experiences. This is not to say that poems cannot address events with weight or breadth, but that some things are better suited to prose.

Danielle Deulen continued along that thread with the interesting comment that reading Virginia Woolf’s “The Wave” was a crossroads moment for her, making her realize that she could take a poet’s approach to non-fiction, go at it from a structural and syntactical sense. She discussed using language as a tool to “order chaos,” to seek emotional authenticity and variations of truth. She also discussed how writers are pushing the envelope of the essay structure, breaking and re-making form, etc., to create new and creative versions of non-fiction. But my favorite comment of hers was that “bad poems can be unrealized essays.” Light bulb. Mind blown. How many drafts of narrative, non-working poems sit in my computer folders because I just can’t make them work? Maybe some of those poems are really prose crying out to be extended. This idea makes me incredibly happy – a new way to look at revising! I love revising! (Seriously. I do. I’m not kidding.)

Where poems and prose begin was Katharine Cole’s approach. She shared her idea that choosing the appropriate genre is a matter of ratio of internal to external experience – poems engage in passionate thinking, live in the realm of the body, the senses, immediate experience, and prose enacts the events of the self in the world.
She argued that the differences between prose and poetry have little to do with factuality – that both are lived and reconstructed material – but the methods by which the inventions occur are very different, that the prose writer has a large identity instead of the intense identity of the poet.

Lastly, Linwood Rumney’s approach was a bit more practical – publishing non-fiction can be helpful if seeking work in the academy when you need to collect print publications. But he also mentioned that the skills one develops as a poet are very much applicable to non-fiction. He warned, however, about getting bogged down in initial drafting because you are approaching language as a poet. Once you are writing prose, he says, you can also explore the aspects and energy of the sentence to inform you poetry, especially linebreaks.

Although I have been branching out into other genres besides poetry, I honestly haven’t considered, in any sort of measured way, the impact that the skills developed in one genre could have on another. It’s dusk here, and the streetlights are coming on. Maybe it’s time to give that essay a whirl.

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