ACROSS THE DIVIDE AND BACK
How Writing Poetry Is Changing My Nonfiction
by Vivian Wagner
I started out long ago as a poet, as many young writers do, in high school. I liked the brevity, simplicity, and mystery of poetry. But in the intervening years I’ve become a nonfiction writer, focusing on creative nonfiction, memoir, journalism, and academic writing. That has been my professional and personal identity, and I thought that’s the way it would stay.
That is, until I volunteered for the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, committing to write a poem a day for thirty days. I signed on to the project spontaneously, never thinking it would change my identity and my writing practice. But the experience ended up radically altering my perspective. The challenge brought me back to poetry, and it’s transformed both my nonfiction prose and my writerly identity.
The first obvious thing is that when writing nonfiction, I have much more room and space to fill. That sometimes leads to carelessness in word choice, because I’m often trying to meet a particular word count, measuring my output that way. Writing poetry has reminded me that every word matters and has value. There’s no time or language to waste. As a nonfiction writer, I’m constantly looking at the little number counter on the bottom of the page in Microsoft Word.
What I’ve found—or remembered?—with writing poetry, however, is that it’s not about the number of words, but their quality. Much of my poetry starts in handwritten form, and when I commit it to the screen, I’m more than likely cutting, rather than adding. I never look at the word count when I’m writing poetry. It just doesn’t matter. The fewer words, the better.
This is not likely to change the fact that I have to pay attention to word count while writing nonfiction, but—especially in the revising process—I’m now thinking more about the life in those words. I’m lingering with them. I’ve always loved freewriting and taking tangents, and this technique is still a good way for me to get my original material on the page or screen, both for nonfiction and for poetry. But writing poetry is teaching me to understand the joy in revising, cutting, and condensing. Expanding inward, rather than outward.
Writing poetry has also reminded me once again to pay attention to the rhythm of language. Rhythm is central in poetry, but I often overlook it when writing nonfiction. When we read anything, there’s a hidden music to it. We hear the words, as well as the relationship between the words, the stressed and unstressed syllables, the complex intertwining of word and phrase and sentence. Listening to rhythm is understood and expected in poetry, but I’m now more conscious that it’s just as important in nonfiction. I’ve been thinking much more about rhythm and flow. I’ve started reading my nonfiction aloud, as I do with my poetry. Since I’m a musician, I’ve always at least unconsciously understood the relationship between writing and melodic line and rhythm. Writing poetry, however, has reminded me of that relationship, made me sit up and take notice. And in recent months, my nonfiction, such as my short essay “Cut,” has become more rhythmic and musical.
It’s as if my nonfiction is now being written by a poet.
Imagery, too, has become more important to me. Imagery is there in my nonfiction, but it’s often secondary to story, scene, and character. In poetry, concrete, vivid imagery is central, and when meaning is there, it often expresses itself through imagery. Even my lyric essays focus on narrative, but I’m learning that those stories can take shape through images as well as through dialogue and scene and character. So just as my Tupelo 30/30 Project poem, “On Doing Yoga in the Basement of the United Methodist Church on High Street,” since published by Grandma Moses Press, weaves together imagery and narrative, my lyric essay, “Displaced Person,” tells its story through a series of images. In other words, imagery is no longer a secondary consideration for me in nonfiction. Images can express layered meanings, pushing a story in many ways at once.
I’m also finding that many poetry practice books lend themselves just as well to writing nonfiction as they do to poetry. Two of my favorites are Scott Wiggerman’s and David Meischen’s Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry and Diane Lockward’s The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop. The excellent prompts in these books—including creating word lists and timelines, gathering word hordes, collecting synonyms, and crafting collages—work just as well for nonfiction as they do for poetry. Many nonfiction prompts focus on storytelling, but these poetry prompts have been pushing my nonfiction in new and unexpected directions. This year, I’m also working my way through the wonderful book, The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice, by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano, and moderating a Facebook group for others doing the same. Most of the pieces I’m writing for this project are poems, but some might be classified more as lyric essays or prose poems. Honestly, I’m not too worried about genre anymore. I’m just writing.
It might be tempting to think of ourselves as belonging within the boundaries of only one genre, but I think it’s more helpful to embrace the possibilities afforded by crossing borders between genres. Creativity, after all, thrives in hybridity. Art lives in the spaces in between.
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Narratively, The Atlantic, Zone 3, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other places. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry chapbook, The Village (forthcoming from Aldrich Press-Kelsay Books). Visit her website to learn more.
Image credit: Morgan Sessions on Unsplash