New York Times ‘Writers On Writing’ series essay

The New York Times
December 20, 1999
Life of Prose and Poetry — An Inspiring Combination

Whenever I face an audience with at least minimal familiarity with my work, there are two questions always asked: “Why do youwrite both fiction and poetry?” “What’s the difference between writing poetry and fiction?” I have various glib answers I whip out of my failing brain. I mention that while it may be rarer for men to cross genre lines, some, like Richard Price, who produces fiction and film scripts, do. However, many women work in more than one genre, and then I rattle off a list: Margaret Atwood, Erica Jong, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Rita Dove, Colleen McElroy, Nikki Giovanni, Joan Didion, Lillian Hellman, Linda Hogan; and that’s without trying hard.

Sometimes I say that if a writer works in more than one genre, the chances of getting writer’s block are greatly diminished. If I am stuck in a difficult passage of a novel, I may jump ahead to smoother ground, or I may pause and work on poems exclusively for a time. If I lack ideas for one genre, sually I have them simmering for the other.

I am always going back and forth. It’s a rare period that is devoted only to one. That happens when I am revising a novel to a deadline, working every day until my eyes or my back gives out, and when I am putting a collection of poetry together, making a coherent artifact out of the poems of the last few years and reworking them as I go.

I see this essay as an opportunity to ask myself about writing both poetry and fiction in a more incisive way. Poetry feels as if I transcend myself while working on what is often very personal material. When I am fully engaged in writing a poem, the “I” is less intrusive, less present than at any other time except deep meditation. But the intense concentration of making a poem is quite different from the intense focus of meditation, because rather than clearing the mind, the mind is wildly busy and open. The stray images and thoughts that the meditator blows away are the rich suggestive stuff of poems. Every little gnat of irrelevancy may turn out to be what the poem is really about.

Some poems come entire, bless them, dictated by the muse or ha-Shem or the tooth fairy. They arrive. They may be important or trivial. When I am discussing inspiration with students, some of whom always want to overvalue the spontaneous, I tell the old chestnut about the Boston Brahmin who woke in the middle of the night from the revelation of the truth of human relationships, wrote down the awesome words and in the morning found, “Higgamous piggamous, men are polygamous; hoggamous, poggamous, women, monogamous.”

Poems start from a phrase, an image, an idea, a rhythm insistent in the back of the brain. I once wrote a poem when I realized I had been hearing a line from a David Bryne song entirely wrong, and I liked it my way. Some poems are a journey of discovery and exploration for the writer as well as the reader. I find out where I am going when I finally arrive, which may take years.

Poems hatch from memory, fantasy, the need to communicate with the living, the dead, the unborn. Poems come directly out of daily life, from the garden, the cats, the newspaper, the lives of friends, quarrels, a good or bad time in bed, from cooking, from writing itself, from disasters and nuisances, gifts and celebrations. They go back into daily life: people read them at weddings and funerals, give them to lovers or soon-to-be ex-lovers or those they lust for, put them up on their refrigerators or over their computers, use them to teach or to exhort, to vent joy or grief. The mind wraps itself around a poem. It is almost sensual, particularly if you work on a computer. You can turn the poem round and about and upside down, dancing with it a kind of bolero of two snakes twisting and coiling, until the poem has found its right and proper shape.

There is something so personal and so impersonal at once in the activity that it is addictive. I may be dealing with my own anger, my humiliation, my passion, my pleasure; but once I am working with it in a poem, it becomes molten ore. It becomes “not me.” And the being who works with it is not the normal, daily me. It has no sex, no shame, no ambition, no net. It eats silence like bread. I can’t stay in that white-hot place long, but when I am in it, there is nothing else. All the dearness and detritus of ordinary living falls away, even when that is the stuff of the poem. It is as remote as if I were an archaeologist working with the kitchen midden of a 4,000-year-old city.

Prose is prosier. No high-flying language here. My urge to write fiction comes from the same part of my psyche that cannot resist eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations in airports, in restaurants, in the supermarket. I am a nosy person. My mother was an amazing listener, and she radiated something that caused strangers on buses to sit down and begin to tell her their life stories or their troubles. I have learned to control that part of myself, but I am still a good interviewer and a good listener because I am madly curious about what people’s lives are like and what they think about them and say about them and the silences between the words.

I always want to hear how the stories come out, what happens next, a basic urge all writers bring to fiction and one pull that keeps readers turning page after page. Another drive is the desire to make sense of the random, chaotic, painful, terrifying, astonishing events of our lives. We want there to be grand patterns. We want there to be some sense in events, even if the sense is that no one is in charge and entropy conquers; that all is illusion or a baroque and tasteless joke. Each good novel has a vision of its world that informs what is put in and what is left out. I write character-centered fiction, which means it is almost never high concept, and my plots are neither tight nor ingenious. I get to know my major characters very well indeed before I write a word of the novel. Most of what happens simply proceeds from the interaction of the characters with one another and their environment, their history, their circumstances.

Some of my training as a novelist came from listening to adults, mostly women, talk, eavesdropping on gossip and scandal. My mother read palms and dispensed advice freely but clandestinely, for my father would have been furious if he had known. He disliked irrationality. I overheard and pondered: What did Mrs. G. walk in on between her husband and her sister? Why did Mr. A. disappear after he hit on the numbers? Why did my mother sigh whenever she mentioned the young woman next door?

My other early training was in the importance of viewpoint. My grandmother Hannah, who lived with us part of every year and shared my bed in our tiny house, was a storyteller in the shtetl mold. She told me tales of the golem, Lilith, dybbuks, flying rabbis, but also stories of our extended family. My mother told those stories, too, but uite differently. If I heard the same story from my Aunt Ruth, who was midway in age between my mother and me and more like my girlfriend than my other aunts, there were three versions of every story: the spiritual and moralistic, the sensational and dramatic, and the factual, exactly what happened and what was the evidence for various opinions.

For me the gifts of the novelist are empathy and imagination. I enter my characters and try to put on their worldviews, their ways of moving, their habits, their beliefs and the lies they tell themselves, their passions and antipathies, even the language in which they speak and think: the colors of their lives. Imagination has to do with moving those characters through events, has to do with entering another time, whether of the recent past or 300 or 500 years ago, in Prague or Paris or London or New York or the islands of the Pacific. It has to do with changing some variables and moving into imagined futures, while retaining a sense of character so strong the reader will believe in a landscape and in cities and worlds vastly different from our own.

Do the genres ever overlap? Oddly enough, fiction and poetry approach most closely when I am doing research for a novel. I have a series of poems in “Available Light” that come from researching “Gone to Soldiers,” finding the precise places where certain events happened during World War II.

The sense of place is extremely important to me in being able to enter a character’s past or present. I may not need long in a city or in landscape, just a matter of hours or days; but without that immersion, the writing is much harder. Out of these journeys poems arise, sometimes directly, finding the exact spot through a maze of logging roads in the Montagne Noir where the Armée Juive met the Germans in battle, from surviving descriptions; sometimes accidentally, as in encountering a hungry dog outside the ramparts of Aigues-Mortes, giving him a baguette as a joke and being shamed by his joy and pride in his find.

Ideas for poems come to me any old time, but not generally ideas for revising poems. The notion that revising poems is a different process from revising fiction occurred to me on the treadmill, but I cannot imagine that I would ever think about actually revising a poem there. When I rewrite a poem, I go back into the space of the poem and contemplate it. I read it aloud. The only other time when I work on revising a poem is the first or second time I read it to an audience, when all the weak and incoherent parts suddenly manifest themselves big as the writing on billboards. With fiction, since I live inside a novel for two or three years, the problem is letting go when I am done for the day. Ideas for what I am working on come in the night, in the tub, on planes, in the middle of supper. I keep a notebook on the night table, so that when an idea bombs in at 2 a.m., I will not get up and turn on the computer. One reason I learned to meditate was to control my fictional imagination and not let the characters take me over. Learning to let go except for those occasional flashes is central to keeping my sanity and my other, real relationships. Lastly, I perform poetry regularly for audiences and thus enjoy the same feedback a musician does: applause, emotional response, that heat a crowd whose attention you have captured gives off. With fiction I am dependent on fan mail and critical articles. Although people have asked me to write a novel for them about their lives, I have never been tempted. But with poetry I have written poems for occasions, as most poets do. I have also written liturgy that is used by some Reconstructionist and Reform congregations and also Unitarian, poetry intended for public performance by people who are not poets. I think poetry ultimately is a more communal activity than fiction, but I love both equally.

Copyright © Middlemarsh, Inc. 1999