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When poets turn to fiction
Why a novel, someone asked me recently. After four books of poetry, why not tell the story, such as it is, in poems. And it’s true, there is some overlap between my poetry and prose, and of course there is the novel in verse…but I did not want to write a novel in verse. Nor did I want to write a poetic novel. A poet’s novel, perhaps, but poetic novel, not at all.
Though I adore the way that certain writers elide genre, producing novels that defy category completely Mary Burger’s Sonny being a fabulous example, my simple desire in Autobiography of Childhood was to represent 24 hours in the life of a working class family attempting to come to terms with a sibling death in the present, when the haunting effects of a childhood sibling death were never healed.
It seemed to me that the novel is the place to accomplish that scope, though the models for it are monumental: Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, for example. The content might be better suited for poetry–the elegiac is expected–and a novel about death and its deep talons, is a hard sell. People want novels about lightness. Or so I am told. Though this reader doesn’t. I’m not against lightness in a novel, per se, I’m not against anything in novels, other than being told what they should or should not be, or what will or will not sell. If the publishing world worked with what was in front of it, not trying to forge replicas of the last thing that sold, we would all be better off, but that is apparently a fantasy.
Novels, to my mind, are a way to enter into the minds of people. They are a way of condensing worlds. Not necessarily replications of reality, but versions, slices, illuminations. And they are an opportunity to see the surface and also to tunnel under it. I want to see people in action, yes, but I also very much want to know what they are thinking. I want to see what gets in their way and how they handle it. And as Gertrude Stein points out in Wars I Have Seen, I want to hear about what they are eating, where they are walking, how they are sustaining themselves, what random thoughts appear in a flash, to aid or make more difficult, their journey.
I like to hear what they are saying, but more importantly I want to know how they are making sense of their world. How do they manage to stay upright when faced with August weather in March and January weather in April? How do they cope with the death of a child? The refusal of a government to deal with real issues–climate change oil dependency. Poverty. Lack of choices. How to they brace themselves against the engineers who appear in their lives, surveying for the latest superhighway to be built through their childhood ? The loss of a sibling too early? A violent death. Having to live in Alabama when their family is in Ontario? Being on a plane for work in the oil fields while their mother is ill and has no proper care? Wanting to do the right thing environmentally in a landscape that makes it impossible to do without oil, etc., etc.
Maybe it’s all too much for any genre, but I hope not. It seems to me we have enough distraction. Ideas are what is lacking. I have always turned to poetry to think. And I have always turned to fiction for ideas on how to cope.