Thursday, July 21, 2011

Poets at Heart?

I’m teaching a five-week creative writing seminar for non-native speakers of English this summer. It’s fascinating work—I have 20 students from more than 10 nations. We’re writing poetry for two weeks before moving to fiction.

“Why not all fiction?” one student asked.

“Why not fiction, then poetry?” another asked.

The answer is simple: writing poetry always improves your fiction, so we not only make time for it; we begin with it.

At Bouchercon several years back, Dennis Lehane told an audience that he wrote poetry as writing practice, flexing his descriptive muscles. After all, the well-placed metaphor or unique description often serves as the proverbial picture that saves the writer a thousand words. Pick up anything by the late Ed McBain to see what I mean. (I often ask myself how he creates a complete character in 10 words, when the same sketch would take me 50.)

Three-time Shamus Award winner and author of the Moe Prager series (and one-time Sunday guest to this site), Reed Farrell Coleman studied poetry at Brooklyn College with David Lehman, Allen Ginsberg, and John Ashbery before discovering the detective fiction class. Coleman has claimed it was like thinking you’re decent “at basketball, then getting your ass kicked by Michael Jordan.” How can poetry improve your prose? Pick up one of Stephen Dobyns’s Saratoga mysteries featuring P.I. Charlie Bradshaw. Dobyns, far more well known for his award-winning poetry than his mysteries, is a fine prose stylist whose “The Church of Dead Girls” is listed as a must-read by Stephen King in “On Writing.”

Fiction writers can enhance their work by practicing poetry. The form forces one to embrace brevity, clarity, and the artful use of imagery. If you’d like to try your hand at practicing all three, the activity below is useful:

Read “Mirror” by Silvia Plath, then try your hand at a personification poem. Choose an object from this list or come up with one on your own—cell phone, car, a favorite book, computer, lipstick, writing desk, lamp, TV, coffee mug—and write the poem in the first person from the object’s point of view. What would the object say to you? How would the object characterize itself? Your goal: drop the title, then read the poem to someone. Can they guess the object?

Remember to be brief. Good luck.


Hannah Dennison said...

i've never felt brave enough to tackle poetry ... but I'm now reconsidering! Great post!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thank you for the exercise. I've just found out that one of the people in the creative writing course I'm going to be doing next month is interested in poetry. This is a great way to get the whole class involved.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Great idea. I'm thinking about take a poetry course.