I’m a short-story writer by temperament and inclination. By temperament, I mean what grabs my imagination is usually the stuff of short stories: a line of dialogue, a chance meeting, a curious detail – small moments after which things are completely different. By inclination, I mean what seems my natural range: I lack the stamina (and perhaps bravery) to take on the project of a longer work.
Because I work in the short story mode, I mostly read short stories. I want to see how other writers do it. How they present character, scene, dialogue and plot. This isn’t to say I didn’t or don’t read novels. I love novels. I’m envious of and intimidated by their immersive quality. But if there’s one genre I’ve typically neglected it is poetry. Except for the requisite course or two in college, poetry and I never had much of a relationship. Back then, poetry struck me as strange or obtuse, and I also worried that maybe I just wasn’t smart enough for it.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be required to read poetry again as part of my coursework at Johns Hopkins. It revealed that what before I believed was deliberate obfuscation on the part of many poets or my lack of intelligence was neither. My younger brain just wasn’t ready to read poems. I can’t tell you why. This time I found a literary form filled with compelling subjects, powerful emotions, and most importantly, vivid imagery.
Fiction writers are urged to use concrete images to draw the reader into a work. Give a reader something they can feel, taste, touch or hear and you’ve got them for the duration. Poetry, because of its condensed nature, must do that from the start. Poetry showed me how images could be all a writer needs to convey theme, emotion and character.
Read a few lines of Auden (In a lonely field the rain/lashes an abandoned train), or Weldon Kees (Early November, the dead leaves/Raked in piles, the wicker swing/Creaking.), or Rita Dove (He used to sleep like a glass of water/held up in the hand of a very young girl.). You’ll see what I mean.
Under the heady influence of such greats, such imagery, I then tried to write poems. Unfortunately, my verse wasn’t very good. But the attempt taught me something. I learned that poetry and its distilled imagery could really help my fiction.
My story “Men in White,” what I consider my first “professional” piece, published in The Tahoma Literary Review and now available at Great Jones Street, was initially conceived as a poem. As a poem it was doomed. It lacked a poem’s rhythm and music. However, when I took the images and used them as the foundation for setting, dialogue and characterization, I suddenly had a story. I’m not claiming the work is genius. I count myself very fortunate that Tahoma accepted it. I only want to say we should read outside our favored genres. We never know what might inspire our next work.