When verse meets prose

How writing poems can enhance your fiction – and vice versa.

Verse meets prose
Writing verse can help improve your prose. Photo by stockphoto mania/Shutterstock

Are you a two-genre writer? Fiction, say, and poetry too? If you are, you’ve surely noticed some advantages of working in two genres. If you’re not, and you’re drawn to either, give it a try. The two overlap quite a bit, and there are distinct benefits of writing both. 

First, when you write both fiction and poetry, you strengthen your ability to handle language. As a creative writer, you must find ways to place readers in your world. Certainly, as conscious creatures, we live in the world of the mind. But we also live in a world of the five senses. As readers, we like to be fully present, concretely there in the imaginative literature we read. If you work in both genres, you’ll have double the practice at placing readers in both internal and external worlds. 

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Second, there is the matter of rhythm or pacing, the pulse of the language itself. What is the right pacing for this poem, this story? What tempo do you need to create the voice that needs to come through? Voice is essential to drive both fiction and poetry. 

Voice also relates to perspective. Have you created the right lens for this poem or story? Is there a better one? A more interesting one?

Naturally, the more you work as both poet and fiction writer, the more you will hone your ability to handle these and other key elements of imaginative writing. 

Still, it may not be easy to manage working in two genres. What’s the best way to juggle a dual writing schedule to produce your best work? And what about that mysterious, that magical element of all imaginative writing – the process? Are they the same? Could they be? 

Let’s hear what the pros say. 

The process of writing both fiction and poetry

Tess Gallagher, author of numerous works of poetry and fiction, looks back to when she adopted husband Raymond Carver’s process for writing fiction: Don’t stop until the draft is complete. 

“He advised me not to lift my pen from the paper before finishing a draft of a story. I had been used to revising as I went along, and it was slowing down the motion of the writing. He told me to just put a dash when I didn’t know something and then fill that in when I reworked the story – but to stay in the swim, the flow of the story as I wrote it,” she says. 

She began to adopt this process for her poetry as well. Writing stories as well as poems “at speed” has meant she’s been able to keep herself “in a fluid state during composition, which leads to more discoveries and opens the work up considerably.” 

While Gallagher follows the same process for both genres, she arrives at poems differently from stories – and this, too, goes back a ways.  

“Sometimes I had dreamed entire poems and written them upon waking. I never had that experience with stories. Poems seem to come from a quite mysterious and cathartic place in my psyche,” she says. 

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Stories, though, required more intentionality: “To write stories, I felt I had to become more careful in putting down my breadcrumbs so I could be followed in the forest.” 

Where exactly do stories come from? And poems? Whether it’s an intuitive process or an intentional one, probably some sort of catalyst sparks creative work.  

Maybe it’s a dream, maybe a memory, maybe an image. For Gary Fincke, author of more than 30 books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, the catalyst for both poems and stories is usually something sensory – often visual or aural. “The poems most often begin in image; the stories nearly always begin in voice, one that I need to listen to over a period of time, one that I can hear well enough and long enough to have it take me beneath the surface of that character’s life.” Being attentive to a sensory trigger is important to Fincke because he wants the reader to “be somewhere” and “with someone.” And, regardless of the difference in the two genres’ demands – fiction requiring character development, poetry requiring “associative thinking” – both genres need the writer to engage the reader and create some sort of emotional resonance early on. 

Maybe what sparks your writing is different. Maybe it’s something you’ve read, a movie you’ve seen, or an idea you’ve been mulling over. Nevertheless, one thing you should keep in mind about process – regardless of genre – is the importance of discovery, of surprise. Knowing everything in advance about your poem or story may not be a good idea. 

In fact, being “full of uncertainty” is essential to Fincke as he enters the drafting process.  He doesn’t want the answers ahead of time; he wants to find them out as he writes. For Julianna Baggott, author of 16 novels and several volumes of poetry, the process is working just right when she “knows the questions but none of the answers.” 

“There might be a word or image I know I’m driving at,” she says. “I don’t know how I’ll get there, but when I’m finished with the poem or the scene – surprised that it’s suddenly night because I was unaware of the bleed from afternoon through dusk – I’ve kind of arrived at it or past it. When I’m writing well it feels good, the same kind of good, regardless of genre. It’s genre-blind.”

Experimentation is good in both genres. It’s wise to give your imagination free rein. But it also doesn’t hurt to go with patterns you’re familiar with, old friends you’re comfortable with, and simply see what happens. 

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For Jim Daniels, author of several works of fiction as well as poetry, the pattern is invariably narrative. “I have always been primarily a writer of narrative, regardless of genre. In fact, I’ve been writing narrative poems for a long time, and more than one person over the years either questioned whether my poems were actually poems or advised me to focus on fiction.” 

Though Daniels works in several genres – poetry, fiction, and film – he’s surprised at how a given genre can shape similar material into a whole new thing. “I don’t usually sit down thinking I’m going to write a poem or story – I’m just sitting down to write and see what happens.”

You don’t have to see genre, then, as a limiting thing. You can work conveniently across genres. Daniels states, “As writers, we can’t listen to people trying to steer us into little boxes and keep us penned in. One of the amusing things I’ve seen in recent years is writers publishing prose poems and publishing the same pieces as flash fiction pieces. Everything gets pretty blurry, and sometimes trying to make genre distinctions can be a distraction from the quality of the work itself.”

Choosing genres at any given time

If you’re already writing in two genres – or plan to – how should you manage your writing given the ordinary demands and constraints of day-to-day life? What about work demands? What’s the best time to write poetry, the best time to write fiction? (Is there even one?) Can you write poetry in the middle of writing fiction, and vice versa? 

Until his recent retirement, Fincke directed the Susquehanna University Writers Institute and taught a full course load. Breaks and summers, he found, were best for fiction writing. He loves both genres, but fiction writing simply required more time for the process. 

Daniels’ experience is similar. A professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, he tends to write more poems during the regular school year and more fiction in the summer, when he has longer stretches of uninterrupted time. “It’s easier for me to pick up the thread of the stories when I don’t have the interruptions and interference of other obligations,” he says. But there are always exceptions – when some idea really takes hold of him: “Then all bets are off.” And these rules only apply to first drafts: “I find that I can work on revisions of both at any time,” he says.

But even if you aren’t restricted by career or job, ordinary distractions might determine which genre you can handle at any given time. For Gallagher, it’s the story that takes the most concentration. “If one is likely to be dislodged from one’s solitude, then the poem is easier to write in the smaller time period. You can lose a story by being interrupted in the writing of it. Ray and I maintained strict periods of solitude. I never entered his writing office without a quiet knock for permission.” 

Time factors surely apply to everyone. But what about emotional factors? Does writer’s block pick and choose genres? As humans, we’ve got our predilections and our moods. You’d probably do well to go with them. 

But ask yourself this: Which of the two genres is your real life-blood? Is one more geared to who you are, what you really need or want, than the other? 

For Baggott, it’s writing fiction: “I can go long stretches without poetry, but not fiction. It’s a daily blue-collar grind, and it keeps me grounded and engaged. It always has been. And I love the long marriage with the page. I wouldn’t know how to operate without being engrossed in the building of novels and trilogies. I love the enormous architecture. So mostly that’s where I dwell. Except when I can’t. Then, poems.” 

When her life feels “more fragmented” due to emotional pressures of various kinds bearing down on her, like “loss, fear, and trauma,” she turns to poetry. At times like these, says Baggott, “my observations are heightened – sometimes because of adrenaline – and my patience with words has worn thin.” In this emotional condition, she chooses to write poetry because it allows her “to say something urgent – vicious, fearful, angry, bereft.” In this emotional state, she would feel “too urgent to dawdle in fiction.”

“I don’t usually sit down thinking I’m going to write a poem or story – I’m just sitting down to write and see what happens.” – Jim Daniels

The materials Gallagher generates in the early stages of writing tend to decide the choice of genre for her. “If the actions involved bring forward a cast of characters, then it has to be a story. If there are only a couple of people or one speaker, that would indicate a poem could carry it.” 

Yet there’s more to her choice of genres at any given time than this. There’s also a sort of existential need that causes her to produce creative materials in the first place. On the one hand, she claims an addiction to “wit and story:” In the Northwest of Ireland, where she spends about a third of her time, Gallagher feels she’s “sure to encounter daily both of these elements.” But presently, she’s more drawn to poetry, which satisfies her current need for the less straightforward, less nailed down. “I go to poetry these days because the nature of what I’m exploring seems more episodic and untethered. I have more questions than details.” 

For her, poetry is characterized by mystery. With this form, she can meet the challenge that presently works in her to express the ineffable: “When unknowns accumulate, maybe one has to take refuge in the malleability, the mystery of words, that smaller unit.” Story, on the other hand, “seems lodged more in sentences and paragraphs, in being able to extend the actions until they reveal their mysteries.” And, at present, Gallagher is more into knotting than unraveling – she’s more interested in a form that is anchored in tightly woven conundrums: “Poetry asks for distillations, and curvatures, and disjunctions, overlap, and most of all emotion, feeling.” 

She also doesn’t find it possible to write poetry when she’s devoting her energies to story writing. “Writing fiction gets in the way of writing poetry, and I feel quite unable to do so when I am in a period of story writing. The two minds, though related, really are very distinct for me.” 

“Story writing seems discursive and tends to be ‘about’ something, whereas poetry seems a full immersion into language and event,” she continues. “I never feel ‘outside’ when writing poems but always as if I am inside the cocoon, spinning.” 

“Image and epiphany are poetry’s greatest gifts to the fiction writer. – Julianna Baggott

Fincke feels much the same way. He finds it difficult to begin a new poem if he’s busy crafting a short story. Revision is a different matter, though. He can take a first or second draft of a poem and revise it while immersed in a story draft. When he’s hit a blank wall with a story, this strategy works quite well for him. 

When Daniels is at work on fiction, he often begins his day revising poems. Doing so builds him up for the day by giving him a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes fiction writing produces “very little in terms of actual pages,” says Daniels, and he feels he’s at least got these revised poems to show for his day’s work. “Also,” he says, “it just helps ease me into the calm state of mind that helps me focus on longer fiction pieces.”