I’ve been zooming into lots of classes this semester (thanks for teaching RUE and inviting me, profs!). A common question I get, since I wrote poetry and creative nonfiction, has to do with how I know what genre a piece of writing should be in. Here’s a video of a reading and q&a I did for the Smith Creative Writers Reading Series at Penn State –Behrend where this question came up.
One answer I have given to this question is to say that the work will teach you its form, to just write, and see what shape it takes on. For example, I was struggling to write this essay about the English spy Tilly Matthews, who was committed to an asylum after he witnessed many atrocities during the French Revolution. He had delusions and conspiracy theories about the origin of human suffering that were both highly improbably, but that also made a lot of sense to me, insofar as human suffering really makes no sense at all. I struggled to convey the complex relationship between madness and reason in his story for a long time, until I tried using the poetic form of a pantoum to shape the prose essay. I found the relentless repetitions, the highly ordered nature of that repeating, and the disorientation of encountering a poetic form in a prose genre to be an excellent way to convey those parts of the story I was finding so hard to express.
But other times it can be really inspiring to choose the form first and discover the limits of your imagination as you reach for lines to fill the form. When I set out to write this essay about St. Dorothy, who was accused of witchcraft, I decided early on that I wanted to write an essay about her that would borrow its form from a crown of sonnets. I committed myself to creating fourteen stanza-paragraphs with 14 sentences each, and I paced each paragraph using the thesis-antithesis-volta-synthesis structure of a sonnet. This forced me to research St. Dorothy, other saints’ lives, the names of roses, witches broom and related plant disease, mystic poetry that references the rose as a symbolic image, and folklore related to the rosary which is a poetic form of prayer closely associated with sonnets crowns and roses. The essay exploded and I eventually published it using this form at Cleaver magazine. However, more recently, as I was revising essays for inclusion in my forthcoming book, The Witch of Eye, I found the sonnet forms was forcing me into an unnecessary wordiness. The new version of the essay is only a quarter as long as the earlier draft and has a much more open form, but it still draws together all of the threads the crown drew out of me.
So I would add that another way to decide what form you should be in is to experiment and play as you go, and to think of each form a piece takes as a necessary part of its metamorphosis. Love what you’re writing when it’s a nymph and then let it molt and become the dragonfly or grasshopper or jellyfish or barnacle or whatever final adult form it is reaching for.
Another observation I’ve shared about form and genre is that you can generate some really productive tension in your work by either leaning into or thwarting the expectations a reader may have. I note that readers typically come into a poem expecting to be given some intense emotion, meditative reflections, and a patient expectation that what they read will not necessarily make sense immediately or easily. Obviously not every poem fits these parameters, but this is a kind of idea about poems in the culture that readers bring to the page. And as a poet, I find it really satisfying to totally subvert those expectations by making my poems really chatty, incorporate rhetorical analyses and summaries of historical or scientific material, or offer lists of species with Latinate names. I like the way these unexpected modes can make the poem feel bracing and jolt the reader into a heightened state of attention. Here’s a poem of mine operating in this way. Daniel Borzutzky is one of my favorite poets who subverts readers’ expectations about poetry – “The Book of Non-Writing” is another good example of this.
With that same spirit of jarring the reader with a kind of oppositional-defiant attitude towards genre, I often approach essays, which I think readers expect to be narrative and/or educational, with a highly poetic tone. The ellipticism I tend to avoid in poems, I bring with glee and reckless abandon into poems. I sprinkle inexplicable images liberally, juxtapose unrelated observations wildly, and embrace the sonnets, pantoums, odes, and sestinas that I find too constraining for a poem. Here’s one of my contrary essays throwing all its poem feelings at the reader. When I’m trying to think about the potential in unexpected forms, I often look to the Mita Mahato’s work as a comic artist, which often crosses over into the realm of essays or nonfiction. You can see an example here.