E.L. Doctorow passed away last week. I've written a few times about being a proud graduate of Kenyon College, but Doctorow said one of the most poignant things about my tenure at Kenyon. So poignant, I have it on a coffee mug.
"Poetry is what we did at Kenyon, the way at Ohio State they played football."
I said to another Kenyon graduate during the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop how all Kenyon students are poets. She murmured dissent, even as an author. But I have fond memories of crowded nights spent in falling-down barns listening to poets reading their heart out, and even reading myself. If not for Kenyon College, I would not have the mad, true, thorough appreciation for poetry that now informs my prose.
I think of poetry as a cipher. The poet the creator, and each poem written where the language must be rolled around in the mouth to determine the meaning. I once told my friend, a poet, that her poems were like eating a good steak. I've described other poetry as the language being so thick, I want to reach out and touch it. Very few works of fiction have affected me in this way.
Poetry casts a spell over me and places me into this world of What If where I am both drowned and rescued at the same time.
I believe all writers should read poetry. All writers should go to poetry readings. They should hear how poetry rolls off the tongue, see it in their minds eye: the rhythm of it, the way the phrases fit together, so sparse with language but rich in imagery. Every word in a piece counts. In poetry every word hits hard, and fiction writers should make their words hit hard, too.
I am not very well versed in writing poetry. I say too much. I explain too much. Or too little. My skill is in prose, the ability to take 15-20 pages to explain what a poet can do in three. But a story is different than a poem. Poetry can be cathartic, a release. I have found the best, soul-siphoning poems are autobiographical, while my favorite stories involve aliens, fairies, or some other unreal element.
As a writer, I have an appreciation for non-fiction, creative non-fiction, literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, graphic novel, and philosophy, as well as poetry. I have a healthy understanding of how research informs the piece and makes it more valid, and makes me more authentic as a writer and author. While yes, fiction can just be made up, a phone call to establish truth adds an element of reality to make-believe.
It still bothers me in an otherwise heavily researched story about two Roman Gladiators, I said their swords were made of steel.
I have to allow the environment, history, my own knowledge, my own imagination, and research to inform my stories and books. I also have to allow my reading of novels, stories, comics, poetry, and news articles to inform my prose. Writing is a collection process as well as a creative process. We are hoarders of the creative, of the imagination, of time.
It goes like this: An off-handed comment in the Science Times one day may lend itself to a wide-eyed speculation that becomes a published science fiction story six months later. The rhythm of a poem about the ash bore beetle lends itself to the dialog of a madman in a novel about werewolves in Paris. Seeking out the personal account of a black friend (with their permission) as a white author assists in fleshing out a black character's experience in a short story a black woman.
I was a poet at Kenyon. Writing poems about smoking, the last line of which I still remember. Writing poems about the burden of breasts, most of which I still remember. I read many poems by my friend during her MFA at Columbia, many of whose lines I still remember. Some lines of poetry stick to your soul like caramel candy, never letting go.
I did not evolve from poet to fiction writer, I took my time finding what I wanted to be. It was a long meandering road that took a detour through Radio DJ and Social Worker, but I got here. There was a big bump at the end with a long drop. But it without poetry, I would have never opened that door.