Poetry is focused on words.
So is prose! But the way we talk about words in poetry is different from the way we talk about them in prose.
Merging the perspectives of poetry and prose has benefitted me enormously as a writer. That’s why I want to share what I’ve learned in my new class on Poetic Tools for Prose Writers.
Different genres have different priorities. Sometimes that’s inherent because of the form (poetry has so few words that it’s easier to concentrate on each one!), and sometimes that’s because of a historical tradition about how the form is written. For instance, science fiction workshops tend to be really good at talking about how readers will receive pieces commercially, and my experience in literary workshops is that they tend not to address that. (It made me a popular critiquer in literary workshops because I was trained to address the stories from that point of view.)
On the other hand, when it comes to close, line level reading of your sentences, a lot of genre workshops skim over that. I have gotten absolutely amazing prose-level advice from genre writers! Sometimes in class. But the class workshops (as opposed to private notes) rarely delve into specific sentences in the same way that some of my classes in my MFA program could.
That’s actually a rule in a lot of genre workshops: save the specific language critiques for one-on-one notes or discussion. It makes a lot of sense; you can’t actually go through a whole story on a sentence-by-sentence basis in the length of a workshop. Focusing on this can make it hard to address the other, holistic qualities of the story.
And sometimes — in workshop — that’s okay. I wish I’d understood this better going into my MFA program. Sometimes, the workshop really isn’t about your story. It’s about using your story as a teaching tool. One of my teachers at Mills said it’s like putting out a story as a sacrifice for everyone to pick at. The story may or may not benefit from the process, but now you know more about how people think about fiction. That can be really useful, especially because one thing you can learn is how successful, talented professionals — often your teachers — approach their processes. The lion’s share of what I learned from my MFA program that I still think about stems from that kind of learning.
It’s a good thing that different genres and workshops have different priorities. It creates an exciting potential diversity. People read in different ways; people write in different ways; people workshop in different ways.
My argument is: you can learn things from all of them.
I’ve taken classes in memoir, poetry, playwriting; I’ve written comics and adapted graphic novels; I’ve done all sorts of things. They let me concentrate on and tease out things that I don’t usually concentrate on or think about in detail. There’s always something to learn and take back to the main work of my fiction.
Through poetry, I’ve learned a lot about how to efficiently create intense imagery and emotional development. I’ve learned about rhythm, sound, and how the construction of sentences shapes the flow of the reader’s attention. Connotation, concrete detail, ambiguity, concision, making beautiful metaphors and similes–these are all tools that impact prose.
Workshops don’t always give poetic tools the attention they deserve. They’re often too busy giving attention to other important things (which may also not get the attention they deserve–writing is complicated!).
Words are important. We talk about “transparent prose” sometimes, but fiction is made of words and sentences; they never disappear. To get real transparent prose, minimalistic and effective and unnoticeable, takes a lot of labor.
My words have benefited enormously from learning poetic skills. That’s why I’m excited to start teaching this class on Poetic Tools for Prose Writers. There’s a fascinating intersection between prose and poetry for us to share and explore.