Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Genre and the writer

            Like a lot of writers, I work in more than one genre. I gravitate toward poetry most of the time, but sometimes the essay draws me.
            Poems and essays are similar—more similar than fiction is to either genre. They both have argument as their spine, each making a case, gentle or strident, for some position. It’s not a typical way to think about poetry, and it’s certainly not the only way, but it’s true—most poems attempt to make some point, and they do it through evidence, often of the quietest sort. Components of the argument can even be tacit.
            There is no thesis to most fiction. Things happen; people feel stuff. In general, though, it’s a different animal than poetry or nonfiction.
            Last night I wrote about an old boyfriend in response to a call for submissions about terrible love stories. The genre was, for me, a no-brainer; a memoir was the only practical way to handle it, since an episodic story about a bad relationship, complete with narrative, would require something out of reach of most contemporary verse—I mean, a ballad might work, or some landlubber equivalent of the sea shanty. “The Ballad of Me and That Ridiculous Jerk I Used to Date” would be a fun novelty, but while I use a lot of humor, I try not to waste my poetry on trifles.
            I could write about that doofus in poetry, of course. For me, such a poem would take the form of a portrait of the guy, or my reaction to some incident during our whatever-the-hell-THAT-was. It could be fun to write a poem from the perspective of the waiter at the sushi restaurant who saw us together in all of our unlikeliness.
            But I don’t always go to the page with a subject in mind. Sometimes I just sit down to write. That, by the way, is when the writing is most interesting, both as a process and in terms of the product.
            Lately I’ve been thinking that my genre selection process is flawed. I realize that I go to poetry when I want to dwell in mystery, and I go to the essay when I think I have some special understanding to articulate. As an essayist, I have it all figured out. As a poet, I just don’t know what to think, and so I let the words duke it out.
            It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m a better poet than I am an essayist.
            All writing—even fiction, and including, I suspect, the novel—works better when surprises are in store for the writer. It’s all new to the reader, of course, but I think the writer’s discoveries inform the piece. Astonishment shows.

            There is the writing that we do because we want to write something, and there is the writing that we do because someone expects a piece of writing from us. But the writing that we do because we seek to discover or to understand? That’s the very best stuff. It’s the magician’s hat. It’s the alchemist’s kitchen.

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