Writing poetry vs. Writing fiction

Not too long ago, I did an interview with the famous and prolific Marge Piercy. To prepare, I read through several of her poetry books, one of her novels, and her nonfiction book, as well as at least 8 or 9 other interviews she had done. In one of her interviews, she was asked how she chooses to write prose vs. poetry. She says she seldom does them both on the same day. “Poetry is much more intense and I can only do it for two or three hours.  Prose I can write for much longer.”

For me, moving from writing poetry to writing prose is an endeavor that needs time. I really have to have a break between writing poetry and writing fiction before I can conceive of all that space. Poems are compact and precise, while narrative really allows pauses, descriptions, details, that would otherwise be irrelevant and too wordy in a poem. Now, I usually write poems in the morning, and, if I’m so moved, I write fiction at night.

Once of my professors said that once you stop writing in a particular genre, you stop growing in that area. Not having written fiction in some 4 or 5 years, I know, for a fact, I haven’t grown to be a better fiction writer. Being a better writer, poet, or essayist takes work. Period. I decided to try my hand at a fiction workshop and practice learning how to look at fiction critically and then writing it. I’ve also been encouraged in the past to try my hand at other genres of writing because it helps us look at our main genre differently. Hence why fiction writers should read poetry and try writing it. We, as poets, do great at creating images and that works well in a fiction piece, but I, and probably other poets, still need a good sense of plot development and character to create a decent fiction piece. It is not about boiling the skin off the skull like it is with poetry; it is about taking that skeleton and adding padding to it. That is where I struggle, getting into a “character’s” head.

Right now, I’m working on a story that pulls from some of my own experiences. For my honeymoon, my new husband and I went to Athens, Greece. We arrived in Greece the day before the economic riots in June. The two months up to the wedding, we were entirely ignorant of what was going on in our honeymoon destination. We were too busy throwing things together for our wedding, getting my school semester finished up, etc. We had picked Athens because it was different, because of our shared love for history, and because of my background in Ancient Greek and the classics while I was in undergrad.

Our first day in the city, we took a bus to Syntagma, the city center. The bus, for a reason we couldn’t figure out, stopped a mile outside the city center at the subway station. Since the bus driver couldn’t speak English and we couldn’t speak enough Greek, we could only tell that we needed to take the subway to the city center. We did so and found ourselves exiting the subway station in front of the Parliament building where the demonstrators had set up. We knew something was going on: tons of people all in one place, voices over a loud speaker, banners everywhere, everyone wearing bandannas and shirts with writing on it, but we weren’t involved, so we went along our way around the city. We visited the Acropolis, the Library of Hadrian, the Temple of Zeus, walked through the expensive shopping districts. Nearly all of the attractions were closed, but we enjoyed wandering around this strange city. Most of it was quiet. We had a wonderful lunch in a taverna and took pictures of ourselves kissing on the top of Acropolis, poised in front of the city shining behind us.

When we returned to Syntagma to take the subway home, we showed up after the violence had happened. There were large black vans, men carrying shields, most of the windows that faced the square on the first floor were broken or damaged. There were burning piles in the middle of the street. The whole area was locked down. Then, our eyes started burning and we realized that they were teargassing the people in the bandannas just a block over and it had carried over to us. We turned around and found another subway station to get home. The entire time this was happening, my new husband and I had no idea what to do. They could have decided to turn on us and we probably would have been just as bumbling, just as full of disbelief. We didn’t understand what was happening. When we did hear them speak in English, they kept repeating, “Freedom, freedom, freedom.” It was surreal, if anything.

The demonstrations went on for the entire 2 weeks we were there. The city center was a rather small part of the city and the demonstrating happened every night around 6, so we simply worked our schedule around that to avoid being anywhere near that area. There was only one more night where it was violent (most of the time, it was peaceful), and that happened to be at 1 in the morning after the voting was announced.

The story I’m working on has a couple traveling to Greece, experiencing the same sort of situation, but a more violent one, a more frightening one. The couple also has been married a while, recently lost a baby, and doesn’t really know how to deal with one another. I’ve written a draft so far, but it was a poor one. I tried to stick everything into one day because I’m a poet. I’m brief and to the point, if anything, but that’s not how fiction needs to be. It has to be built, slowly, carefully. There needs to be clearer character development, more realistic plot. More tension. So far, fiction has been a very slow process for me. I build it; I take it down; I build it a little bit better.

What’s important is that having a better understanding of narrative and character can help me be a better poet. Persona poems and Dramatic Monologues are character studies, and I’ve done poorly on those in the past. Similarly, fiction writers could learn how to better create significant images, play with language, etc. I know that I do well at dialogue, mostly because I keep things at a minimum. That, I learned, from poetry.

Do you write in multiple genres? Why or why not? How do you feel they influence one another?

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