As a career author/poet, I'm frequently the only novelist at the poetry reading and the only poet at the fiction workshop. I find this puzzling, because the two disciplines are so wonderfully complementary.
I suspect that this separation of forms derives from an ancient and powerful prejudice. Poetry is such a unique art that someone invented the word "prose" to mean, very specifically, "not poetry" (in the same way that "gentile" means "not Jewish"). I think authors envision poets conjuring their weirdly shaped stanzas in witches' cauldrons, while poets imagine authors chained to enormous boulders of narrative, inching them painfully forward.
Poetry and prose are both expressions of written language, inextricably attached to that thing we do when we open our mouths and sound comes out. And there are vast benefits to be culled from the territories in which they overlap.
But don't take my word for it. Take those of Diane Ackerman, Kim Addonizio and Naomi Shihab Nye, three of today's most successful author/poets, who help us explore the advantages of being a double threat.
HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE THE CREATIVE PROCESSES OF PROSE AND POETRY?
Ackerman: Among the many kinds of nests writers create for the feathered mysteries that live inside them, I find poems more like an arrangement of nesting stones and prose more like woven mud-and-twig nests. The architecture of each is slightly different and has its own rules, but both are good places to hatch ideas.
Addonizio: The image that just came to mind is this: The bottom-feeding fish have swum up and started leaping out of the water as thoughts, ideas and bits of language. I can tell the poem-fish from the prose-fish; the poem leaps higher, and its arc can be seen all at once, which is the great pleasure of writing a poem. In prose—especially when working on a novel—everything feels more furtive, less obvious. You can grab the poem-fish barehanded, but the novel requires sitting for a long time with your lure floating on the surface of the water.
Nye: I would say they're very close friends, next-door neighbors; a teaspoon of almond extract here, a snip of fresh mint leaves there. They feed each other. They sit down together. There's no clash. They never argue. I rarely turn one into the other, however. A poem starts out as a poem, a prose as prose. It's an instinct, I think. Good friends know when it's their turn to talk.
HOW DO THE TWO FORMS INTERACT? DO YOU EVER BORROW PHRASES OR IDEAS FROM ONE TO USE IN THE OTHER?
Ackerman: When I was an undergraduate, I had two female cats that got pregnant at the same time (my roommate let in a tom one night), and they had their kittens within days of each other. I guess their scents got confused, because they began stealing and nursing each other's kittens. My prose and poetry sometimes steal each other's kittens, as I try to decide where an image or observation belongs.
Addonizio: Once in a while, I've found myself stealing a phrase from one of my poems and slipping it into a novel. I know it's wrong, but I just can't help myself. It's like spiking the punch.
DOES ONE FORM EVER BRING UP A SUBJECT THAT YOU END UP PURSUING WITH THE OTHER FORM?
Ackerman: There are times when, after writing a nature essay, I find I have lots of emotional spillover and want to work on some poems. Jaguar of Sweet Laughter, for example, includes many poems set in the Amazon and Antarctic, which I wrote while traveling there to write essays included in The Moon by Whale Light. And sensory observations from both trips went into A Natural History of the Senses.
Addonizio: When I wrote my second book of poems, Jimmy & Rita, I did it as a verse novel. It's a story you have to read straight through, from first poem to last. I never considered writing it as a novel, maybe because I was too terrified to try the novel form. But later, I continued the story of those two characters—as a novel. I wanted to find out what happened to them after Jimmy & Rita ended. And this time, it felt like it could only be explored in prose, with a deeper attention to the lives and circumstances of the characters.
ARE THERE TIMES WHEN YOU'RE COMBINING THE FORMS OR, AT LEAST, WRITING SOMETHING IN-BETWEEN?
Ackerman: If I had a choice, every page of my prose books would be intense, image-laden poetry. But I know the sun can't always be at noon in a 300-page book. Books have to have transitions, contrasts, changes of pace. Still, it's the more poetic passages that satisfy me the most. Poetry is a special way of knowing the world but so is lyrical, imagistic prose; both usher me into a cyclone of intense alertness, in which every sensation and detail leaps out—a kind of deep-play rapture I love.
Addonizio: When we say of something that it's "pure poetry," what we mean is there's a certain state of being that we connect with through whatever art form is before us. Because verse on the page has the greatest capacity to bring us to that state through language, we've named it "poetry." So when you take the techniques of verse—lyricism, imagery, and, of course, concision, metaphor, and a heightened rhythmic sense—and use them in prose, the effect is ravishing.
DOES THE POETIC DEMAND FOR ECONOMY OF LANGUAGE HELP YOU IN YOUR PROSE?
Addonizio: Poetry taught me that I must use, as Coleridge put it, "the best words in the best order." I learned to work very hard at revision, to ruthlessly jettison what wasn't working and to keep challenging myself. I learned, on the practical level, how to be clear and concise and how to wake up my language. When I turned to fiction, I found that these things were an enormous advantage.
Nye: While working on my novel Going Going, I dramatically overwrote about five full drafts. One day I woke up realizing I could cut off the first 80 pages, and the thing would really fly. So that's what I did. I thought about how being a poet—slashing whole stanzas, feeling comfortable identifying the scaffolding in a poem and taking it off once the real poem heart emerges—has helped me do something so dramatic.
DOES THE TWOFOLD PURSUIT OFFER CAREER ADVANTAGES?
Addonizio: It was very gratifying to be paid for my first novel, Little Beauties. My agent sold the book just before I turned 50. My first book of poetry came out when I was 40. So I spent many years—before and after publication—working at various jobs and struggling financially. Now I feel I can breathe a bit easier.
Nye: Prose-writers are paid more than poets. It's a shock to many poets to receive a check for $300 or $400 for a single item (story, essay). I know it was to me! Poets are used to being paid a copy of the issue and $14.
WHAT ABOUT MARKETING CONSIDERATIONS?
Addonizio: I've found that readers of my poems—those who've written to tell me that my work moved them or mattered to them in some deep way—are amazing people. Poetry has to be sought out in our culture; it isn't generally put in front of us. Being a poet who's also a novelist means that maybe I can move poetry a bit more into the mainstream—whether it's my own or someone else's.
Nye: When my collection of personal essays, Never in a Hurry, was published, my neighbors acted as if I were finally a real writer. I'd finally published something they felt really comfortable with and actually read and recommended to one another. I also like being able to give readings that include both poetry and prose; it's easier on the listener, to have a longer narrative block included.
DOES IT HELP TO OPEN UP THE PERCEPTIVE FACULTIES? AND DOES IT GIVE YOU NEW CHALLENGES?
Ackerman: Writing has always been my form of celebration and prayer, but it's also the way I inquire about the world. Throughout my teens and twenties, poetry was all I knew. I loved trying to reduce something—the way someone walks, the flutter of a monk seal's eyelashes—to the rigorous pungency of an epigram. And still do. But I craved more elbowroom. So I struggled to learn to write prose, which didn't come naturally to me and was a nightmare chore for years. How I remember putting one sentence at the top of a page, one sentence at the bottom and having absolutely no idea what to put between them. I worked brutally hard at it for about 10 years. Then something finally clicked, and prose became a familiar country. I discovered that, for me at least, writing poetry and prose is like riding a bicycle and a horse: They're different experiences, but many of the same motor skills apply. Now I find it fun, fascinating, sometimes even thrilling to write prose. And my muse is happily miscellaneous. I feel lucky to have been able to use prose as a passport to some of the most astonishing landscapes.
Addonizio: I failed miserably as a fiction writer, over and over. I abandoned it many times, but something kept drawing me back, until I finally managed to gain some skills. Trying a new form, or simply trying any form of writing, is a difficult but worthwhile lesson. You have to confront your fears and your ego. You don't get past them, but you do grow. Then, of course, insanely, you want to do it all over again.