Sunday, December 03, 2006

Poets as novelists...

Scott Pack has enlisted his readers' help for an article he's writing on the rash of poets as novelists. I guess its not a new rash - I wrote a similar article in 1999,(originally for PROP magazine, but never came out - you can read it here) noting how many were going down this route. It's strange, though, since most of the writers I know personally are either/or - they simply don't "get" the other discipline. I guess its more acute for fiction writers, who generally don't even seem to read poetry, never mind write it. Yet, there's quite a few poets I've met, mostly doing MA in poetry writing, admittedly, who can't imagine being fictionalists. Of course, many of these might stretch to the odd short story - and Comma Press, for instance, has often encouraged, not always wisely, this multi-tasking. Historically, the crossover has been minimal - at least amongst the successful ones - and this is probably the main point: if someone's successful at something, they'll keep at it, or if they're asked to do it, they'll keep at it. I've no doubt that a lot of the "brand name" contemporary poets, have simply decided to write novels as an alternative "day job" no less palatable than teaching or reviewing. The example of Nick Laird, who issued a debut novel and debut poetry collection in days of each other, is rare, but perhaps shouldn't have been - he's been around the literary edges for a while, and both a novel and a poetry collection take time. I'd be very surprised if he gave up writing novels until writing novels gives up on him; (i.e. he doesn't get a deal); whereas poetry is always possible as a glorified hobby with smaller publishers than Faber willing to take on board those ditched by the bigger publishers. From my survey a few years ago; the type of writers who thrive at both genres are those who've got a unique sensibility, and the form - poetry, short story or novel - hardly matters. These writers are usually more innovative - modernists or beats - their muse more important than the format, which has yet to be codified. At their best, they expand and join together the genres. I fear that many of the contemporary poet/fictionalists are merely moving their main subject into another genre, sometimes with less than sparkling results. So, there was something quite refreshing about Sophie Hannah's chick lit bon mots in her poetry, but turned into novels, she was suddenly in a very crowded field. Her latest successful book, is a thriller, a genre that, if successful, can be a career for life. Perhaps she's found her true calling? As for Simon Armitage his engaging poetry seemed to address a certain angsty working class male sensibility that you rarely found in poetry - yet in a novel, what is left, other than the plot and that predictable masculinity? Interesting that the more successful poet-novelists of late, Gerard Woodward's two autobiographical novels for instance, David Constantine's short stories, Jackie Kay's "Trumpet", have found subjects that translate well between the genres. Yet, Kay aside, they've perhaps been more "poets' poets", less known outside of the specialisms. It's perhaps too early to judge whether any of these writers will last - yet its interesting that Carcanet, the poetry specialists, has recently published poetry collections by writers more known as novelists, Anthony Burgess and Muriel Spark. Perhaps the lesson here, as with Plath, Lawrence, Joyce or Carver is that where a writer's sensibility is strong enough to be worth re-reading, then whatever they've written is worthy of investigation. Poets' beware, your "day job" novels could wreck your date with posterity! One thing we really encouraged with Lamport Court, and I'm sure will continue, was writing that didn't easily fit into the poetry or fiction (or even art) boxes. Artists like Tamzin Forster were as likely to be writing poetry or fiction for us as providing an art piece, whilst published poets like Togara Muzanenhemo and Chris McCabe were given room for longer pieces that were in many ways more narrative than poetry. Prose poems, and poetic pieces of prose rubbed shoulders with more traditional work.

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