20 October 2008

Oil + Water

The other day Greek poet/novelist/journalist Alexis Stamatis visited my class. I asked him a bunch of questions, including one about writing both poetry and fiction, and whether one genre can strengthen the other. I surprised to hear that he didn't share my opinion that poetry and fiction complement each other. In fact, he said that you need to turn your poetry machine off if you want to write good fiction (I'm paraphrasing; he didn't call it a poetry machine).

How do you feel about this, especially those of you who write in multiple genres?

I ultimately chose to focus on poetry because the workshop photocopies were cheaper, but I don't think I ever had the attention span to be a good fiction writer. I took a number of fiction workshops and enjoyed them, and didn't hate the stories, and when I was able to turn that machine off and switch over to poetry, it was exhilarating. I still read fiction for pleasure. Reading it is even more helpful than writing it.

When I write stories they aren't the long versions of my poems, just with all of the left out parts left in. They come from a separate impulse. Like singing versus playing the piano. It's all music. Fiction reminds me of what I love in poetry: story, but story told through detail. Writing fiction makes me impatient, in a good way.

Some day, maybe when I'm on sabbatical, I'm going to give fiction another try. You hear that, Wasserman?

Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, I'm sure that you read this blog all of the time and wouldn't mind responding at length. So let's hear your view on it.

In the meantime, what do others think?


Jay Robinson said...

Sometimes I write fiction. Mostly I write poetry. I have never been able to focus on both at the same time. For me, it takes two different voices, two different sentences to construct, two very different sets of variables. I've always had more fun writing fiction, however, because I don't feel much pressure in doing so. I don't define myself as a fiction writer, so if I write something that doesn't work it doesn't bother me at all.

Or at least it hasn't since I was ten and I tried to write a novel. After 100 pages of an attempted mystery/thriller, I quit and went to poetry. Like you, I didn't (at least then) have the attention span for fiction.

julie platt said...

I took a fiction workshop once. I really struggled with avoiding writing "gimmicky" stories. Poetry was much more natural to me, and when I started reading and trying to write CNF I turned away from fiction more and more. For me, CNF and poetry are much more closely linked than poetry and fiction.

I still read fiction for pleasure, but I usually return again and again to a few favorite books. I avoid talking about fiction because I feel like I don't really "get" it. It seems very far away, like a piece of artwork I can admire for its beauty but not really understand on any intellectual level. That's okay, I still like poetry and CNF best.

Karen J. Weyant said...

I tried fiction once, when I was an undergrad. In fact, I even took an advanced fiction writing workshop. Nope, it's not for me. And now I struggle when I teach fiction writing.

I do think, however, that some novelists have a "poetic voice." I just wrote about this on my blog.

C. Dale said...

My "voice" in fiction, in my stories, is very different from how it is in poems. The experience of writing them to me is totally different. There are similar concerns with language, but also very different concerns regarding many other things. My experience in writing them is even totally different. With my poems I ususally know the last line first. With stories I never know how they end when I start them. I usually have a sentence, usually the first sentence or one near the beginning. And even the way my brain works in writing the two is very different. Of course, my friends who are novelists think of stories and poems as being quite similar, but I suspect it is because they look at both from the massive mountain of the novel. With poems, I have a sense of discovery about the speaker. In stories, I usually have discoveries about the actual story!

Collin said...

Poetry has made me a better fiction writer, so I have to disagree with Stamatis. In my novel, one of the characters is a poet, so I've incorporated poetry into the narrative. I think the idea that you have to turn off the "poetry machine" is false. Sure, there's a different set of parameters to follow when writing fiction, but there's no reason it can't be lyrical.

Michael said...

I think it's way different. In fact a poet writing fiction is kind of like infidelity. ;)

Steven D. Schroeder said...

I understand you have to turn off your biceps to do a bench press too. Wait, that doesn't make any damn sense.

Amy said...

Oh this is a hot topic for me. I've really tried to write fiction (and am in a fiction workshop where they tolerate me), but have been smacked down if there is even a hint of poetry. I don't think they're mutually exclusive, but it seems that way. When I read current fiction now, I wish the language was more interesting, and the plot machine less obvious. Personal opinion: fiction can learn a lot from poetry.

Charles said...

My favorite fiction is that written with a lyric eye and ear.

My two favorite books of this kind:

Mary Gaitskill's Veronica, for its elliptical, hypnotic storytelling structure

Jennifer Egan's Look at Me, but the gorgeous and vivid descriptive language.

Rob Jewell said...

Mary and friends,

Hope you will continue the conversation on the Wick Poetry Center blog: http://wickpoetrycenter.blogspot.com/

Rob Jewell

P. J. said...

Pish-posh. The lesson of poetry is the value of words. Fiction uses more of them, that's all.

I'm a reductionist, obviously.

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