Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

Poetry as Creative Nonfiction

This past weekend, I had a wonderful opportunity to read poems as the keynote speaker at the Mississippi Philological Association annual conference held at Mississippi Valley State University. For those who are unfamiliar with this fine organization, it is a group of English and Languages faculty and students (graduates and undergraduates) from Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, as well as a few who come from further afield (Illinois and Missouri were represented this year) to read creative work and scholarship on language and literature.

My talk was a reading from Barrier Island Suite and new poems from my fourth collection. It was fun to read what I’ve been working on recently with the poems on Walter Inglis Anderson from BIS and explore some of the cross-fertilization that went on. After all, while researching and writing the poems for BIS, I was also writing poems that would end up in Time Capsules and in my fourth book (title still to be determined, though I have a couple of working titles). The poems I read are newer, but I can still see the connections in theme that grew out of the work on Anderson.

That’s what got me thinking about poetry as creative nonfiction. Well, that did, along working on my creative writing textbook, A Writer’s CraftIn the textbook, the chapter on creative nonfiction was one of the harder ones to write until I realized that I write nonfiction all the time: I just format it as poetry. I discuss the fact that nonfiction is a misnomer; it could as easily been called non-poetry (thanks to Jocelyn Bartkevicius for making this argument in The Fourth Genre).

Barrier Island Suite is my book that is most obviously like creative nonfiction. I researched Walter Anderson’s life, read his Horn Island Logs, read his wife Agnes Grinstead Anderson’s Approaching the Magic Hour, viewed his art and read art criticism on his work. All of this informed the poems, which were definitely not poems about me, but  poems on a subject. They move away from biography by functioning as poems. Though the annotiations bring some of that biography back in, the poems focus on a moment, on an emotion, on one kernel of his life without attempting to put the whole picture together in a narrative. They function as lyric, though the collection as a whole provides glimpses into the narrative, and I hope it provides a deeper understanding than biography could.

Barrier Island Suite is also filled with references to me and my own concerns. As much as it is about Walter Anderson, I also weave in references from my experience, such as allusions to Sumerian and Chinese literature that I have no way of knowing whether Anderson was aware of, and others that he refers to in his logs that are also favorites of mine. In this way, and by incorporating some of Anderson’s language from the logs into the poems, I felt that the collection became a conversation with Anderson across distance and across time.

That conversation continues in the next collection, though there are no poems on Walter Anderson. Instead they are largely poems drawn from my own experience, meditative poems like the sequence “Tombigbee River Haiku” or observations like the poems about our family’s maple tree that had to be cut down after it lost some big branches in a storm. Hardly confessional, these are poems that are both personal and about something beyond the writer. I’m interested in the same relationships between the human and the natural world as I was in Barrier Island Suite, and I’m interested in the life cycle and the cycles of the seasons as metaphor. These themes could just as easily be worked out in an essay (or blog post), but my chosen form is poetry. If creative nonfiction can have the lyric essay, it is time to recognize that poetry can have the essay-poem. There are many ways that poetry and creative nonfiction overlap and cross-polinate, as there are many hypbrids between all the genres of creative writing.

I might have said more of this on Friday night, but dinner was ready and smelled delicious, so I mostly read poems and let them do the talking.

Why 4 Genres?

In A Writer’s Craft, my textbook for introduction to creative writing

Talking to people at AWP about my forthcoming textbook, one question I get is why I teach an intro class with 4 genres. The other question is how I do it, which is a more involved answer, and something I hope to write about soon. “Why?” is a little easier to answer. It is something that has developed for me over time.

When I first started teaching at The W, there was one creative writing class, EN 312 Creative Writing. We still have this as our intro class today. There was also a rarely taught Seminar for Playwrights in theatre and a course with the lovely title Advanced Prose. I was happy to keep Creative Writing as a mixed genre course, and soon developed advanced workshops in poetry and fiction. This allowed me to justify teaching just poetry and fiction in the intro class. i felt nonfiction and playwriting could be handled elsewhere, even if the situation wasn’t ideal.

My textbook at the time, The Creative Process by Carole Burke and a Molly Best Tinsley, covered 3 genres. But I left out Creative Nonfiction and told students to take Advanced Prose, which we soon renamed Nonfiction Writing. Still, it began to bother me that I wasn’t covering one chapter in the book, and eventually I found ways to incorporate some Nonfiction as well. When I finally moved on to a new textbook, I had the same transition with drama, initially ignoring it because we had another class, and eventually experimenting with including some playwriting in my class. Now, though the emphasis isn’t exactly equal, I try to spend about as much time on all four genres, and I’ve found that it really helps my students.

Everyone in my class writes at least a short, early draft in each genre, and then develops finished pieces in the genres they choose. I do require some lyric and some story forms. Fiction writers learn from playwriting, as much as I always thought they would from poetry. Poets learn from drama and nonfiction, too. Having to think about how a scene or poem might be staged or spoken aloud affects how you see it in revision, even if the final product is poetry or fiction. Writing from life in creative nonfiction, or exploring the personal essay informs the fictional story or suggests structures and imagery for a poem.

And students have the opportunity to explore modes of writing that they never considered before. I’ve had very good, albeit beginning, playscripts, and I’ve had drama scenes that turn into a story or memoir or dramatic poem. Some fiction writers or poets have been turned on to memoir or essay. We now are revitalizing our playwriting class, in part because we have someone who can teach it more regularly, and in part because there is more interest. We can treat Nonfiction as more of a workshop class and less of an intro class. And each of the genres feed off each other more when they are introduced together. I’m happy that when we focus on poetry or Nonfiction, my fiction writers don’t feel left out because I treat it as part of a study of all genres that helps us learn from each the tools that can help us with our chosen genre, and I want students to not limit themselves to one.
I don’t feel that we have less time for fiction or poetry now that we include two more genres, in other words. I try to think in cross-genre ways and have more time for all the genres because we don’t study them as isolated things. When we do this, there are a lot of topics we can cover together about the writing process and even basic issues like character, voice, or point of víew. This is much more efficient than separate intro classes by genre, and it helps students find the genres they are actually good at instead of the ones they think they are good at (and I hope they add genres they like, not replace one with another).

Why 4 genres? Because it is challenging, rewarding, and fun to teach them together and learn things from each that can be applied to any genre.

Southern Literary Festival 2014

Each year in the South, a group of undergraduate English majors and their professors descends on one member institution for a weekend of readings, workshops, and fun. This year, the host school for the Southern Literary Festival was Ole Miss (University of Mississippi to the rest of the country), who did a fabulous job arranging panels and entertainment. It didn’t hurt that the festival ran concurrently with the Conference on the Book, an annual event hosted in Oxford, so there were quite a few other authors milling around and some of the events were combined. So, for instance, we all got to witness the live Thacker Mountain Radio program as it was recorded for public radio, there was a Blues performance, and of course there was a chance to wander around the Square and browse in Square Books. SLF panels included readings by Cheryl St. Germain, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Chiyuma Elliott and Dereck Harriell, Megan Abbott, and of course the student prize winners, whose work was published in the annual literary magazine of the festival. Students also had master classes in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and playwriting, and there was an open mic where anyone could read.

Started in 1937 at Blue Mountain College by a group of professors, which included Robert Penn Warren from LSU, the festival has a long and storied history. It has fostered many young writers, including the young Flannery O’Connor, and has featured many greats of Southern Literature. Each year is a little different, tailored to the strengths and talents of the host institution. Yet each year features the literary contest, readings, and workshop or master class experiences. It is a great asset for Southern schools, and membership is open. So if you are associated with a college or university in or near the South, contact me or the current host for more information.

The opportunity to hear good writing and have conversations about craft, and the chance to interact with students and teachers from schools around the region is an incredible experience. Though I know well how hard it can be to pry yourself loose from the demands of the current semester, those days spent in a festival like this can be incredibly invigorating and rewarding. If you don’t live in or near the South, search for opportunities like this in your area. Then make the time to attend. You won’t regret it.

Nonfiction, what is it?

I’m constantly being asked this question, since the creative writing program I teach in has a class in it (that I don’t teach, but I’m the program director, so I get asked a lot anyway). It’s a tough one to answer, and usually I list some of the kinds of writing, I think might be in the class with the caveat that since I don’t teach it, the person who does might have other ideas.

But today we were covering creative nonfiction in my creative writing class as we start to think about genre, so I tried to be a little more specific with the help of our textbook. We discussed why some people don’t like the term. It makes fiction seem like the norm and anything else is an aberration. Is poetry nonfiction? By this definition, it is. One writer I was reading in preparation for class wondered whether there should be a genre called non-poetry (and I have to believe she said this somewhat tongue-in-cheek). And why not? Isn’t all prose nonpoetry: somewhat poetic, but not entirely?

The textbook I use (Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing) talks of creative nonfiction primarily in terms of the essay that uses some techniques of fiction (and poetry). [My beef with this book is that it doesn’t really do justice to poetry, but I try to compensate.] And nonfiction does or can use strategies from the essay, though it doesn’t have to. It can use strategies, like scene and even character, from fiction, but it doesn’t have to, and it certainly doesn’t use them the same way fiction does, usually. Plot is often less important in nonfiction. The dramatic tension of a scene doesn’t have to be as high or might not even be present. A scene in nonfiction can simply take us to a moment or a place without any drama or change — in a story I would expect that of a scene.

But in a poem, we often have scenic treatment of the material (imagism, for instance) without a plot or dramatic tension. In a poem we might speak of lyric tension. The arrangement of images in a poem or the arrangement of scenes in creative nonfiction often work in similar ways. Juxtaposition is part of the argument. Associations formed between scenes or images that aren’t connected by plot or linear logic work in a poem or in an essay. The poet or nonfiction writer may comment or may not. Associations based on the sound of the language or on the connotations of the words may be as productive as associations strung together on a plot.

As we discussed sub-genres of creative nonfiction, one of my students raised the question of whether blogging would fit. I agreed that often it would, though some blogs may be fiction or poetry, and some blogs might not rise to the level (sink to the level?) that would be called creative. Blogging may be the most ubiquitous form of creative nonfiction: the personal not-quite-essay, not-quite-story, not-quite-lyric-prose-poem. Maybe one day we’ll have to call all other writing nonblogging once blogging becomes the norm and everything else an aberration.