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Monday, July 2, 2012

From Poetry to Prose and Back

I have this poem that I've been thinking about for inclusion in my manuscript. It's been published in a journal, I like its imagery a lot, but I've always felt that it didn't have the power behind that it had the potential to convey.

So last week I pruned it and pruned it, clearing out any words that could be abandoned  (something I really should have done before its prior publication--oops!). It was better, but still didn't have the effect that I knew the images in the poem could have.

So then I noticed that, unlike most of the poems I write, the line breaks didn't particularly contribute to the poem's impact. So I had a bright idea: I'll make it prose, a prose poem. I'll get rid of these line breaks that seem to be so superfluous anyway. And I liked it. I felt it was a big improvement. I put it away to have a look at it later with fresh eyes.

And when I did return to it, guess what? I didn't think it had the power I was looking for. I read through it, saw that it was better than the lineated version, but still not right. I put it away again.

Then by chance I happened to be reading Jeffrey Skinner's The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets, and I stumbled across this (on pg. 103):

"If you've done this work and the rhythm remains elusive it may mean that what you're struggling with wants to be prose--a prose poem, or "creative nonfiction" perhaps; or something between poetry and prose. Do you instantly see places where you want to cut, or write more? Often this is the case--the prose version suggests fresh paths of revision. Go ahead and do those revisions."

Yes, yes! I thought. I've done this--recognized that this poem doesn't want to be a poem, but wants to be prose. I've revised where prose suggested revisions necessary, and yet.....

Skinner's advice continues (still on pg. 103):

"Does the whole now feel more comfortable with the sound of the sentence than rhythm of the line? If so, maybe you've got yourself a prose poem. But if these operations don't lead to a new, more confident understanding of what the pome wants to be, put it away, and move. You can always come back to it later."

So I thought about that. There was still some rhythm in the prose poem, some sentences crying out to be the end of paragraphs, which I didn't want to do because I wanted a block prose poem, not one broken into paragraphs. Or wait.....maybe those were the ends of lines calling out to be recognized and so truncated? Maybe this wanted to be a poem after all, but one with much longer lines, so that the few lines that were aching to break themselves could do it with (yes) power and effect.

So I relineated the poem into long long lines (for me), included a few stanza breaks that hadn't been there in the first place (where I saw paragraphs forming in the prose version), and Shazam! ladies and gentlemen, we have the poem we were trying to find all along.

A long and circuitous route to getting here, but here we are now: a finished poem.


Tara Mae Mulroy said...

Thanks for sharing your process notes. I've never heard of the Skinner book, and it sounds really helpful. I, myself, struggle with line breaks vs. prose. I've also found that some of my prose poems either get snapped up immediately or never get published, which makes me wonder about how editors see the form. As an editor myself, I've read so many badly done prose poems that I imagine some might be put off by one.
Also, happy working on your manuscript. I'm there too.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hi Tara Mae,
The Skinner book came out not too long ago; it's a short book, really potent, and fun to read besides. I recommend it!

I too struggle with prose poems in a different way than with lineated poems. Like you, I've found they work or they don't and people can pretty much tell right away (though I can't always tell for awhile!)

Jessica Goodfellow said...

And good luck with your manuscript! This is part of the process I like. I wonder if many poets do.

Tara Mae Mulroy said...

You like working on the manuscript?? I guess I like knowing that I'm going /somewhere/, but man, it's hard when you know something about it isn't working right now and you have to wait to see if it'll work out!

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Working on individual poems strains my creativity by demanding new ways of writing each time. But working on the manuscript, ordering poems, looking for themes, finding the awkward phrasings I overlooked before, those kinds of tasks are more logical problems in general. I'm good at logic. Having to take leaps scares me (as is required in individual poems); I'm always afraid I exceeded my abilities. BUt organizing a manuscript? It has that magic word (or really, that word entirely devoid of magic), organizing. That I know i can do (although it requires leaps and original insights sometimes too.)

Jessica Goodfellow said...

I guess I should have said, I'm always afraid the task exceeds my abilities.