Musings: Literary Forms

Writing fiction has always come naturally to me. This is not to say that it’s easy—oftentimes it’s quite taxing. However, the structure of sentences, the weight of paragraphs, the investigations into character motivations are all things I have practiced for so long that I can at least tell if what I’m writing is any good. Partly, this is because I’ve written a lot of fiction, but mostly it’s because I’ve read a lot of fiction.

I have had the enormous fortune of being born to English literature professors. My home is filled to the brim with books, and reading has always been encouraged. I used to read the books my mom would teach in her classes, and discuss them with her at home. Well, I say used to as though it was a long time ago, and to be fair it started a long time ago, but it has continued up until this past semester when we read Exhalation: Stories and Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang together. My parents always read my stories, and they usually have spot-on suggestions for critique.

So it’s strange, then, that I find such immense difficulty in writing poetry and drama, when my parents and my schools have also always encouraged me to read these literary forms too. I love both very much. A Streetcar Named Desire was the first play to really capture my imagination, and some of my fondest childhood memories involve staying up past my bedtime while my father read me poems. Yet try as I might, I can never make my own poetic and dramatic compositions measure up to my narrative forms.

This week I’ve been in the process of packing all my belongings up in preparation to move to my dorm on Sunday. I’m excited for the conclusion of ten months of pandemic-inflicted exile from my college life, and emotions are certainly high. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that I’ve been trying to write (largely mediocre) poetry in the meantime.

There’s a special sort of economy that all good poems need. Every word holds more weight to it. The sound of the language matters more—rhythm, rhyme, consonance, assonance, alliteration, repetition, etc. Emotion must be tangible, and meaning palpable if not always immediately transparent. At its best, poetry isn’t talking in codes, it’s talking in feelings.

When I try to replicate this, my first (and second, and twentieth) attempts almost always lean into melodrama. I like to try to toy with cliché, but too often this means I wind up perpetuating instead of subverting it. Revitalizing stale language is a difficult task. It’s easy to get too precious with the language and wind up with a string of meaningless four-syllable words that sound pretty out loud but don’t say anything worth hearing. It’s also easy to swing the other way and wind up with something so bare it sounds like nothing at all.

I ran into this sort of problem writing a play in the fall for a playwriting course I took. Too often, my dialogue was obvious, flat, uninspired. Dramatic writing, like poetic writing, also relies heavily on economy and emotion, but with the added benefit (or challenge, depending who you ask) of physical space and creative interpretation. Actors on a stage transform the words on the page—this is why there are so, so many adaptations of Shakespeare. To be a good playwright you must have a collaborative attitude, and be willing to cede at least some control of the finished work. This is quite hard for me.

Given that these forms are more challenging for me than writing fiction or even narrative nonfiction, you may wonder why I even bother. The challenge is actually a large part of the appeal, but I also think that exercising all my writing muscles is important to improving at writing fiction. Tinkering with language in poetry has helped to sharpen my sentences in prose. Learning to convey information in dialogue without writing unwieldy monologues has certainly improved my ability to write conversations in fiction, and the pervasive sense of place that drama demands has helped me to see my scenes in three dimensions. But more importantly, the poet’s sense of audience and the playwright’s sense of collaboration have come in handy as I conceptualize my philosophical approach to writing. Storytelling is ultimately about people, regardless of the form it takes.

In my long car ride from Indiana to North Carolina, I will keep working at my current drafts of poems, trying to make them fresher, more salient. There isn’t really a guidebook I’ve found to the perfect way to edit a poem, no 10-point-plan or action guide. You simply work until it feels right, and maybe rework some more (here’s looking at you, Walt Whitman). Maybe eventually I’ll develop the same sort of sense for poems and drama that I have for fiction, and maybe I won’t. I’ll keep trying either way.

Poem: animal instincts

This piece was an honorable mention for the 2020 American Academy of Poets Prize at Duke University.

like a newborn foal—
bowlegged, pigeon-toed,
drawn in swift slips to the clover-cover
of the soft green ground

more joint than not, legs buckle
knees, knuckle, tiptoe
arch-fallen, spur-ridden,
hoof-cloven, hollow

graceless in shape, sinew,
slow-stumbling raceless
wide-eyed, wet-maned,
            still slick with womb-water,
            walking in heaves and shudders
            till the earth pushes,
                        sky pulls,
                        and—lighter than light—
                        canters forth

coy, a real wallflower at first,
then dashing across the floor
where we scramble-scuttle,
paws straining, claws out,
scratching wood-floor-empty-nothing

                                                and just when we’ve forgotten,

                                                                                    smirking out of reach
                                                                                    silent siren-song pulsing
                                                                                    ears unwaxed, teeth bared
                                                                                    we dive and scratch and stretch
                                                                                    and come up emptyhanded, bloody,
                                                                                                and when we think we’ve learned—

caught,            (we are hunters born)  but immaterial,

                                                we don’t notice when it’s gone

honeysuckle    evening
when the moon can’t              see us

hiding between the breaths     of flowers
sunsigh still                 over land
we don’t pierce the silence     it would bleed

even the crickets are muted in wonder

the water falls             upwards
            the frost     unfurls
                        we hold time hostage
            it surrenders

(katydids startle
fireflies fade

and we among them flash,      then falter)

later, when we have loosed our grip
it slips away from us

like a crow released from a ship’s bow—
landbound, seeking terrain,
            fleeing the throttlebend of albatross
            circling the stern like carrion,
            beelining for the horizon

(pyrite sunglint over wave-dapple)
drawn ever forwards by
            the kiss of distant shores
            and the promise of renaissance

                        the opposite of olive-branch
                        caged by scurvy sailors
                        until the stars scramble

            and instinct alone can guide us