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hey remember my first love?

October 24, 2010

deceiving title. my first writing love was poetry.


maybe it’s not a surprise to some of you, because i’ve told you, but i was not always a fiction writer. i started out writing poetry. at queen’s, when my friend carly convinced me to take carolyn smart’s creative writing classes, it was only poetry that i applied to. it was only poetry i took and wrote until i wrote one short story in my final year of taking creative writing classes in undergrad. i had never workshopped a story before, and i was paralysed. luckily it wasn’t crap, and i took that story and turned it into my main piece for my application for UBC, and now the idea of that story is becoming my thesis (maybe, if i ever finish. this blog post is completely procrastination for writing said thesis.)

therefore, you may know me as a fiction writer, but i’m just a writer. i’m finally coming back to poetry after a year of not writing poetry, and i have a few things to say on the subject of poetry and fiction. (i will not say “vs” because i think they are complementary forms of writing, not to be pitted against each other, and anyone who says differently is angling for a fight.)

anyway. what i am about to say might be inflammatory. sorry in advance, or not sorry. let’s see where this goes.

truth time: i find poets much more egotistical than fiction writers. there is a certain sense of snobbery in the poetry world, and since i’ve been in both worlds, i am allowed to say this. this egotism can be both negative or positive, so don’t always assume that i’m referring to it in the negative sense. poets think about the word more than fiction writers – the word, and how it fits into the sentence, and how to break lines (enjamb, or no?) and if to tab, and where to use the m-dash, and where to instead use the comma, and should they use a different word for this word because the assonance is off, the consonance is askew and that one word is what the poem is hinging on so it has to be right and it has to be perfect. i think that, often, poetry is a shorter form than fiction, and that is why poets have to be completely on point when it comes to word choice and ending and title. poetry is an explosive page – it gets the message across in less words, less space, and you don’t have the space or time to fiddle around with exposition, with description. pick thy words, and pick them damn well, or fall flat and trite. poetry writers, i think, are therefore always in a cloud, a world of words. and i guess in a way they are allowed to feel high and mighty and pretentious about that, because it is such a specific and focused mindset. it’s not for everyone. they are a gorgeous, focused subset.

i am kind of pretentious, but the flip side is that i write really well.

fiction writing seems to me to be a little different. i was amazed when i first wrote a story because i hadn’t been aware of how much space there was to be had. fiction gives me paragraphs, and chapters, and characters that i can design any way i want. i have people when i write fiction. i have these beautiful little people that i have made, and who wait for me behind my keyboard and my computer screen, wait for me to sit down and move them around on that chessboard of writing, moving them to one place, and then taking it back and moving them back and seeing what feels best. i become attached to worlds, the scenes, the people i make. call it a god complex, but it’s actually so humbling. there is much, much more to edit, litres and litres of words, and so much more that you are attached to that you might have to change. there is more opportunity for failure, for triteness, and the sheer lenght of some fiction makes it feel like a never-ending maze of penance.

this is not a book of poetry i am reading.

i write poetry when i want to convey a tangible feeling, something i want the reader to taste, to feel – arousal in their groin, salt on their tongue, the music in their ears. if something has happened to me that is powerful and moving and visceral, it often translates very well to poetry. i always have trouble with line breaks/titles/endings, but for me, it’s the body of the poem that matters the most, the way i focus on combining the most jarring and most unique combinations of words to render the reader breathless – the way a punch in the diaphragm might. when i write poetry, i want to take your breath away. i want to hear that satisfied rumble in the back of your throat when you finish reading it. i want it to be an orgasm, something that ends in semen or release or an exhalation of breath.

i write fiction to bring you on a journey with me, to set up a heart-breaking story for you. short fiction and long fiction are different, and i have written both. long fiction is a penance, a passage, something that can change your life. it’s serious and i write it because i want you to see everything. there is no room for wiggling here. some of my words might be blander but that is to make way for the paragraphs that are going to make you cry. i’m not sure i could accomplish that in poetry, but by building something up in fiction, i can create a heightened sense of being, of scene, of character, and when i bring the hammer down, that is when you feel it most. short fiction is somewhat similar, though it’s more of a vignette, a clip of a movie that gives you a tantalizing peephole into a life that isn’t yours. fiction gives me room to breathe and wax and expand laterally, instead of always pushing forward. it’s not a train, it’s a field.

that was a lot of writing that i just did and now my head is hurting, but i need to think about why i write poetry and why i write fiction. i attended a poetry event at the VIWF last night, and i remembered how much of an exclusive club poetry is, how “old boys” the poets sometimes feel. is fiction more forgiving, softer to land in than poetry? i’m not sure of that. either world is going to flagellate you if you really suck. this is something that i have to think on, but there you have it. if you believed that i never wrote/cannot write poetry, you are wrong. if you thought that i always wrote fiction, you are also wrong. i have sevenfold more poetry than fiction. if you thought that i was afraid of poetry, you are also wrong.

earle birney would like you to think on it.

think on it.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Sigal permalink
    October 24, 2010 1:57 pm

    Really enjoyed reading this!

    • October 24, 2010 3:50 pm

      thank you my little friend! it’s something i think about a lot, how one can be pigeon-holed as one type of writer and that’s that. how can writing be so cut and dry?

  2. October 24, 2010 4:34 pm

    What about novel-length poetry? The thought of it makes me tired.

    I have always thought the two were complimentary. I feel more comfortable in prose, but poetry is rewarding–so rewarding–when it works.

    Thank-you for writing this.

    • October 24, 2010 5:28 pm

      Novel length poetry. Honestly? I think it’s a tired genre. I think it’s a genre that had its hey-day with Homer, but that is me being narrow-minded and a classics freak. I feel like that is a very specific genre that takes a lot of specific talent. Do you know of any incandescent examples?

      • October 24, 2010 7:41 pm

        No. I cannot think of incandescent examples, as I don’t particularly count epic poetry anyway. Epic poetry has less of the intense focus the sort of poetry you’re talking about has. Otherwise I’d say PL and FQ.

        There are some Canadian examples (Dionne Brand, Daphne Marlatt), but I am not a huge fan. Again, they are just tiring. It’s too hard to hold that sort of intensity for the length of a novel.

        This is why I brought the example up. What happens when you try to do both?

  3. Sierra permalink
    October 24, 2010 7:25 pm

    This is not the first orgasm you have given me. think on that.

  4. October 24, 2010 10:11 pm

    “poetry is an explosive page.” Can I quote you on this, repeatedly? To quote yet another writer, our own Keith Maillard: “Poetry is what we turn to when nothing else will do.”

    I love your journey, your insights, and your passion for words in whatever form they come. God complex, or vessel? I’ve always considered myself a vessel and maintained that the poems don’t really belong to me, but the worlds and people and circumstances that generated them. I will “think on it.”

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