The payoffs of working in more than one genre
Can writing poetry help you write fiction? Can writing fiction help you write poetry? According to the pros, you will benefit on both ends.
“The challenges of form and language that poetry presents have seeped into my fiction,” Fincke says. He’s seen a number of important carryovers. For one thing, he’s not “bound to the chronological” but feels free to adopt an associative story structure. Because of writing poetry, he is more attentive to “precise, evocative language,” including metaphor and allusion. In a larger way, he’s more able to ground his stories in the contexts of place, time, character, and culture. And fiction helps with poetry, too: “It’s always good to be reminded that it’s the subject under the surface rather than the one in plain sight that might drive a poem’s narrative as well as a story’s.”
For Gallagher, writing fiction has meant writing better poetry. This was true going back to her years with Carver: “I began to write poetry which carried a stronger narrative thread after I joined Raymond Carver in our life together in 1978. I also became Ray’s first reader for his stories, which got me interested in writing my own – something he greatly encouraged. A new clarity of motion came into my poetry as a result of writing fiction.” She terms this “a crisper, cleaner lion’s leap to my poetry. A conciseness.” She believes she’s built up her readership because her work is more accessible.
“Poetry is so empowered by voice that I made a lot of use of that element when I could carry it over to my fiction writing,” Gallagher says.
“On the fiction side of things, poetry carries a singing quality,” she explains, “and helped me sustain voice in certain stories such as ‘The Lover of Horses,’” in which a “female speaker had to speak across time yet also move in the present.”
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Writing poetry, says Daniels, helps him with fiction in terms of compression of language, voice, and rhythm. Writing fiction also has its payoffs for his poetry. He credits fiction writing with making him a more patient writer. He usually has to take a story through several drafts, and in doing so he has to “scrap” a lot. While this practice is frustrating, it’s nonetheless paid off in poetry writing. Recently, for instance, he “crystalized” a long poem down to three short stanzas, evidence of the same kind of economy he’s achieved in fiction writing.
“The skills are transferrable,” agrees Baggott. Writing poetry helps her write fiction. “Image and epiphany are poetry’s greatest gifts to the fiction writer. I know certain characters’ emotional beats because I’ve worked through these things in poems. The truth is that my most commercial fiction is where I allow myself to be my most poetic. Commercial fiction and poetry share a spareness, a directness, and the terrain is fertile. But writing fiction also helps you write poetry. And, of course, narrative line is what fiction brings to poetry.”
Experimenting with verse and prose
On paper, poetry and fiction may seem like two different genres, but at some point, because of their similarities and how writers have experimented with the boundaries between them, it’s not always easy to label a particular work as one or the other. Is this a prose poem? Or a flash fiction piece? Will your idea bloom into a short story or a narrative poem? Do you want to arrive at a conclusion via a story, or leave your questions unanswered in verse? Should you even think in terms of genre? Genre-crossing tells us something about the age we live in – a more relativistic one, where exact lines between things are disappearing. We realize that we need not be so caught up in reductive labels that we stifle living, breathing things. And literature, if anything, is living and breathing. This is one great value of writing in these two genres: having broadened your range, you will get to know this truth more fully, experientially.
Jack Smith is the author of four novels, two books of nonfiction, and numerous articles and interviews.