Friday, July 04, 2014

Poetry and/or Prose

I've always written both poetry and prose, but not always at the same time. When I was most definitely a fiction writer I continued to write poems sporadically, without really thinking too much about it. I've got poetry from when I'm 8 or 9, and I realise I've always written it, so that's nearly 40 years of doing something "sporadically".

Since 2010 when I had my Salt Modern Voices pamphlet published I've definitely been taking it more seriously, or rather, I've always taken it seriously, but been less circumspect about referring to myself (or being referred to) as a poet. It seems less fake than referring to myself as a novelist, when despite writing a few of them, I've never had one published.

Yet its still the case that I've very rarely just written poetry. I know a lot of poets who only write poems - or rather, they write plenty of prose in the form of reviews, Facebook postings, blogs, non-fiction etc. but never write short stories or other imaginative fiction. And quite a few of the fiction writers I know rarely if ever write poetry. Its also about inspiration. I've always read novels - but there are some poets who only read them rarely - and obviously some fiction writers who never once read poetry. You can pretty much go to any literary night in Manchester and there's a possibility that you might bump into me, but I can also pretty much tell you who might be at the poetry nights but not the fiction ones and vice versa. Strangely, even when there's a predilection for experimental work (such as the avant garde poetry night "The Other Room") quite a few of the poets I know from there have little knowledge of experimental or innovative fiction.

I've sometimes joked that poetry and prose are like the farmers and the cowmen in the song from the musical "Oklahoma", that they should be friends!

For myself, of course, I'm poet and prose writer in the same head, the same skin - and I don't think one has ever quite taken precedence over the other. Yet I do think that there are times when the space required for the one leads to less space for the other - and there definitely seem different parts of the brain, or at least different emotional skills, required for both. Oddly enough I've never felt that comfortable writing drama, which always feels much more of a craft than the other forms of writing - to my mind, its as far from writing lyric poetry as you can get, yet I know there's often a crossover between poets who write plays (and of course there's Shakespeare.) Ironic, as well, that though the workshopping of poems is commonplace I find it hard to do so - much harder than with fiction where, frankly, I always appreciate a different eye.

If maybe fiction is my head, poetry my heart, then like when you're young and falling for a friend, yuo sometimes muddle up the two. It might just be my artistic side, but I find there's often a little too much heart in my head, and maybe a little too much head in my heart, which probably explains why I'm drawn to both art forms. But though I'm drawn to them, I'm not one of those writers who essentially writes the same thing in different formats (e.g. always writing autobiography, or about nature.) I think its about different sensibilities: like wanting some music to dance to, and some music to cry to.

If I've been more poetry the last few years, I'm thinking I've shifted back a little in the last 9-12 months. I've certainly written more prose than for a good while - several short stories, as well as beginning a couple of thwarted novel ideas. Though I still take my notebook with me everywhere the poems dried up for a little while earlier this year. I think though I've always said I need more time to write prose, I need more emotional space to write poetry. I know plenty of poets in particular who use the art to help them through difficult times - but when the times get too difficult they just can't write.

I think for me things get a little confusing as I also write music - and it seems that it is that rather than poetry that usually disappears when I write prose - that's simply the time element I think. I pretty much stopped writing and recording music from 1999-2006 and that coincided with me writing lots and lots of fiction. Poetry as ever came and went, but was always there.

I suppose these musings aren't particular original and it might make a difference if I was particularly well known for one thing or the other - yet it seems in the cottage industry of contemporary literature, there's a lot more crossover than their used to be. I've heard of short story writers sending off poems, and poets dabbling with short stories. I guess the internet plays its part as the same sites that take on poetry often take on prose, and competitions from the MMU's prizes, to the Bridport, often have fiction and poetry strands. I don't think there's a common aesthetic between my poetry and fiction, other than a general tendency towards the urban and the contemporary (and a smattering of the surreal) - its not like I just write about one thing even in one of these genres. I've occasionally took a poem and rewrote it as fiction; and then there's the prose poem and flash fictions that sit uncomfortably in the hollow of the venn diagram between the two.

In my head, I'm currently a prose writer - but whether that means the heart is just taking a bit of time off from beating overindulgently, or a mature decision based on my ambitions for my work, I'm not sure I'm the best person to say. Call me a poet if you want to, it may turn out that I am one - if not this week, then maybe next.


Tim Love said...

I don't have the music complication, but I share your views. 3 points -

* Flash offers a non-threatening route for people stuck (by habit or reputation) on one side of the divide to visit the other. Matt Sweeney and David Gaffney could meet in the middle. Tania Hershman and Vanessa Gebbie might not have written poetry were it not for Flash.

* Some people who write poetry and prose use the same source material twice

* Though the boundary is porous for some writers it clearly isn't (as you say) for all of them, and it certainly isn't for many readers. Which may explain why so few poetry+prose writers produce books which mix poetry and prose (I was told that Updike did, but I've never checked). In the UK (less so the US, I think) mags that mix poetry and prose struggle.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I've puzzled about the 3rd of these - seems that high production magazines like Ambit and White Review do include poetry but suspect they are mostly bought for the fiction (or because they look nice) whereas poets - often serial submitters - tend to want a pure offering. New magazines seem a bit more comfortable with mixing both - and you're right, I think the flash scene has something to do with this.