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Click through to sign up for the National Poetry Month giveaway! Our culture at large has rather limited ideas about what poetry is. The average person on the street typically thinks of rhymed ditties about pretty panoramas, lovesick longings, or rainbow-laced dreams. Or perhaps broken-line ruminations on big topics like death, war, human nature, or tiny ones like butterfly wings, a twirling maple seed or tea leaves in the bottom of a cup. This sort of poetry, which focuses on description and feeling, is called lyric poetry.
But there's another whole branch that shares characteristics with fiction, like a plot, characters and sometimes even dialogue: narrative poetry. Narrative poetry comes out of oral tradition, when stories were shared around the fire. Rhythm, repetition, rhymes made the stories easier to remember and thus pass on from one hearer to another. Ancient, epic stories of adventure and valor, like The Odyssey and Beowulf are some of the earliest examples written down.
Over time, poets realized any kind of story could be made more memorable and even singable if set in verse. The troubadours of the Middle Ages told tales of tragic love, and talents like Geoffrey Chaucer wittily satirized the culture of the day through rollicking, bawdy tales in verse. Later, narrative poems became more like versified flash fiction, such as this striking piece by Robert Frost, "Out, out—".
Novels-in-verse are of course a type of narrative poetry. But like the epic poem form they derive from, each section tends to lose something when removed from the overall story. The sections or pieces are meant to be read as a unit. That aspect makes them trickier to write than one might initially expect.
If novels-in-verse interest but intimidate you, or you’re primarily a fiction writer wanting to try out poetry, short, free-verse narrative fiction is a great place to start. In fact, you might find benefit taking material you’ve already written and recreating it in verse format.
One of the poems in my collection Muddy-Fingered Midnights, “Storm Shelter” began as an experiment like this. I took a scene from my novel in progress, in which the protagonist’s boyfriend invites her to see his childhood secret hiding spot, and their relationship deepens because of it.
I summarized and trimmed the prose versions, worked in evocative vocabulary and sound patterns, and even experimented with portmanteau (blending two distinct words). There’s not a huge event at the center of this piece, but there is a plot arc, moving from entering the story world, to conflict, resolution and denouement. What makes it poetry is the condensed emotion, sparse words, sound patterns, and layers of meaning. (A more strongly plotted piece that wasn’t derived from prose is “North and South,” also reprinted in my collection.
Writing poetry a great way to develop not only your writing skills, but also your publishing credits. There are thousands upon thousands of literary journals seeking poetry submissions. If you’ve done any writing at all, you have raw material. (For ideas on how to turn delected scenes into poems, see my post Giving Life to Peripheral Stories.) Read, learn from, and emulate published poets, and you too can write stories that sing.
Laurel Garver is a magazine editor and author of the poetry collection Muddy-Fingered Midnights and the novel Never Gone. Her poems have appeared in Ancient Paths, Every Day Poets, Poetry Pact volume 1, Rubber Lemon, Daily Love and Drown in My Own Fears. An indie film enthusiast and incurable Anglophole, she lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.
My junior year in college I took my favorite course of all time, adolescent literature. It was the year I discovered books from my adolescence I hadn't known existed before, books like HATCHET and JACOB HAVE I LOVED. It was the year I fell in love with newer titles, like THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE and LONG NIGHT DANCE. It was the year Sharon Creech won the Newbery for her gorgeous WALK TWO MOONS.
I continued to read Sharon's books over the years, the impossible-to-put down ABSOLUTELY NORMAL CHAOS, the feels-like-home-to-this-gal-who-attended-international-school BLOOMABILITY, the simple and stunning verse novel, HEARTBEAT, and this gem, LOVE THAT DOG.
The poem below I started a few years ago after first reading DOG. Last year, after a second reading, I pulled it out and worked on it again.
With the #SharpSchu book club scheduled to discuss LOVE THAT DOG and MAY B. on April 24, this felt like the perfect time to share.
Thank you, Sharon, for writing words that pushed me to respond. The kindness of the children's literature community never ceases to touch me. Still pinching myself that the author I discovered in college knows who I am!
The idea isn't to read it in this state (which is single spaced and microscopic) but to get an overall sense of where the story stands. With the entire manuscript before you, you can determine what's working and what needs work.
There are a limitless number of ways a shrunken manuscript can be used. Grab a few markers, create a key, and use it to determine:
changes in voice for stories told in multiple points of view
instances of conflict
the story's movement through dialogue, thought, and action
Darcy's activity nicely paralleled the work I'd just completed before her retreat: the final drafting of May B. As I'd never written a verse novel before (and had only read two before trying!), the idea of a quilt unfolding square by square -- or poem by poem -- was largely what kept me moving forward. I trusted that certain themes and ideas would resurface as I wrote, just as certain patterns emerge as a quilt takes shape.
I've just finished drafting another historical verse novel and have kept this quilt concept in mind. On Wednesday I'll show you how I've used it in revision.
Confession: I know nothing about quilting. It's the metaphor that counts.
My most recent verse novel manuscript is told in two voices. Without giving too much away, I'll say it's a story of friendship forged in the midst of hostile circumstances. For most of the story the friends, Alis and Kimi, aren't together.
After finishing my initial draft, I "quilted" the division of voices within the story. You've probably noticed the same thing I have: Alis's voice dominated this draft.
With the second draft, I added more opportunities for Kimi to speak, but it's still pretty heavily dominated by Alis.
With the third draft, Alis is still the voice heard most often, but Kimi's poems have increased, and the blending is better. Notice in the first two drafts I ended with a dual voice poem. I figured as it's a story of friendship, things had to end that way. But now I'm not so sure. I start the manuscript with Alis making her way in the world and end in a similar place. I feel like this is the best way to tell her story and Kimi's, too.
Of course, this is all subject to change. I've taken the story as far as I'm able alone. As my critique partners respond to this draft, I'll be curious what they have to say about this aspect of the story. And I plan to quilt the story in terms of sub-plots before it goes to my agent next month.
Are there any visual techniques you use during revision?
As I mentioned in the previous post, sod walls were typically two-feet thick. If you compare the exterior window pictures to this one, you'll see a generous ledge on both sides. Also notice the plastered walls. In MAY B. I make mention of this nicety through a conversation with Mrs. Oblinger, the new bride from the city, and May, the frontier girl.
from poem 29:
"I hate this place," she whispers.
Before I think better, I say,
"He's left a shade tree out front,
he's plastered the walls,
and he's putting in a proper floor."
"What'd you say?"
Does she even remember I'm here?
"Mr. Oblinger's a good man," I try again.
"He wants to make this home for you."
She stands over me now.
"You think plaster makes a difference in this place?
Look at this."
She holds out her mud-caked skirt.
"It's filthy here!
The ceiling leaks.
Sometimes snakes get through!"
The cool sod's where they like to nest.
"They help with mice," I offer.
Sod houses were one room with little to no privacy. Here you see a bed right up against the stove, a tree trunk meant to support the roof also used to hang clothing.
These benches are made from hewed logs and are a great example of the wood used for puncheon floors (the proper flooring May mentions above -- many lived with packed earth underfoot) : the smooth side of a log faced up, the curved side down.
One way families kept dirt from falling from the sod above was to cover the ceiling in muslin.
My new novel in verse, THE WILD BOOK, was inspired by stories my grandmother told me about her childhood. She grew up on a farm in Cuba during the turmoil that followed U.S. occupation of the island after the Spanish-American War. She also suffered the inner turmoil of dyslexia. Choosing verse rather than prose gave me a chance to distill that complex historical and personal situation down to its emotional essence. How did my grandmother feel? What were her choices?
Poetry forces me to be brief. All the facts and figures won’t fit on an un-crowded page of free verse, so I have to choose only details that mean the most to me. Historical research is painstaking and meticulous, but poetry is expansive and imaginative. My hope is that the two moods will blend, offering a glimpse into the life of a young person who found hope in times that must have seemed hopeless.
Margarita Engle is the Cuban American winner of the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino.
It only took one book for me to fall for the verse novel. OUT OF THE DUST, by Karen Hesse, opened my eyes to what a powerful story-telling tool the poetic form can be.
The verse format is a literary close-up; it strips away the fluff that so often clogs up traditional prose in order to get down deep to the guts of the story. It goes beyond the telling—or even showing—of a story, and invites the reader to draw closer until he or she can (almost) experience the story right along with the main character.
5 Comments on Falling for the Verse Novel, last added: 4/25/2012
For me, verse is all about atmosphere. I don’t know why other authors choose to write in verse, but I choose to do it because it helps me to create an atmosphere I can’t get with regular prose. It also allows me to get to the emotional truths of the story, and to accentuate them.
My strength is not beautiful, flowery prose. At times, I wish it were. I seem to do well trying to convey scenes, thoughts, emotions, etc. in a sparse, poetic way. I have always loved music, and in some ways, writing a novel-in-verse feels like writing a giant song to me. The rhythm and the flow and trying to say a lot in a few words – it’s challenging, absolutely, but my brain works well that way.
I didn’t choose verse as much as it chose me, and with each book I’ve written in verse, it added to the story rather than detracted from it. Not all stories are going to work in verse. In fact, I’d probably argue, most stories won’t work in verse. But when it does, it’s a beautiful thing, I think!
My 4th grade daughter, PickyKidPix, came home furious a few weeks ago. She said that she was the only person in her grade that got poetry for her MCAS open response standardized test. Worse, I had kept her home sick during the one day they practiced poetry open response essays at school.
I'm sure it went fine, but she will be forever scarred associating poetry as something designed to confound her for a multiple choice Common Core Standard test. I had felt the same way about poetry too until just a few years ago. Sharon Creech's Hate That Cat novel in verse had completely blown my mind. I had no idea that 1) novels in verse existed, 2) that novels in verse could tell a story and 3) that I would actually enjoy it.
I read Love That Dog next also by Sharon Creech (out of sequence, I know) to see if I'd feel the same way about another novel in verse. And, yes, the water was fine!
5 Comments on Poetry in Motion, last added: 4/28/2012
Things officially wrap up here tomorrow, with my participation in the Kidlit Progressive Poem, but for today I wanted to share my reading experiences, thank my guest post authors, and give out some prizes during our Month in Verse.
For the month, I planned on reading three verse novels: THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN (which I decided wasn't a verse novel but was a lovely book nonetheless), SONG OF THE SPARROW (which made it back to the library, to be read another year), and NEW FOUND LAND (which I'm close to finishing).
NEW FOUND LAND: LEWIS AND CLARK'S VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY is told in the multiple voices of the explorers' expedition and even includes Lewis's dog, Seaman. As I've read, I've marked figurative language I've especially enjoyed. Here's a taste:
The arrows passed through him as if
his body had been river mist.
Sandbars began to rise from the water like huge loaves of bread.
Remember the May B. Book Club Kit Giveaway? Here's a story from one of the runners-up. Sarah Baldwin teaches at the Batam Island International School in Batam, Indonesia. Her students (first through seventh grade) have just finished reading May B. I couldn't resist posting her lovely email and the pictures that accompanied it:
Our classroom journey through the world of May B has been an enlightening adventure!
Marking out the dimensions of a soddy
The children excelled at writing up and presenting reports on the flora and fauna native to Kansas. They really enjoyed marking out the inside of a soddy home and felt cramped just imagining the dirt walls, ceiling and seemingly endless snow outside.
Your vocabulary words were accessible and insightful, especially to those who have never seen the Midwest of the United States. Most of all, the students enjoyed the short video clips of you describing soddy homes and poetry. Thank you for preparing those for us!
Thank you for providing a wonderful Study Guide on which we could hang all our ideas and questions surrounding May B. As a teacher, I was gratified to read the students' responses to the the KWL Chart: Life on the Prairie. They definitely remembered the fact that buffalo chips weren't like Dorritos and teachers could be as young as 15 years old! I really enjoyed hearing students' insights into the discussion questions.
Have you ever felt drawn a story you were scared to write?
I almost always feel this way when approaching a new novel (with picture books I trick myself into thinking what I'm doing is simply play). MAY B., though, brought its own special challenges. I had no idea what my story would be, and I discovered early on that the only true way the book could work was to write in a style I knew nothing about. Add to this the complexity of a character who spends most of a story alone in a place I'd never been, and you can begin to feel the intimidation I did in starting this piece.
Despite all this, I had to write about a strong pioneer girl. I knew the story had to deal with solitude. This was enough for me to begin the murky process.
Here I am again with a new idea that terrifies me. Those of you who have followed a while know I've been planning to write a verse novel about a Gitano girl (Spanish Gypsy) for some time. I set aside my research last winter to work on other things. That work needed to be done, but honestly, I've been avoiding the hard work I know is ahead of me. Here's why:
I'll be writing about a culture that's not my own. Some writers think it is impossible to speak in the voice of another people. Some think it's wrong to even attempt it.
I must present the Gitano culture accurately and respectfully. This is a challenge in several ways:
My research must move past stereotypes; like all characters, mine need to be complex.
There is no one Gypsy culture. The Roma, as they are often called, live differently in every part of the world. There are cultural and linguistic similarities, but not always. While the Gitanos of Spain share flamenco, for example, those of
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Just a reminder that those of you who signed up for my verse novel challenge have one month to finish your novels.
What's the verse novel challenge? I'm glad you asked! Honestly, I started this challenge to become more well versed (sorry, couldn't help it!) in novels written as unrhymed poetry. My goal was to read a minimum of five novels-in-verse by the end of 2010. I've read seven novels so far, and plan on reading two more.
Not everyone who participated in the verse challenge remembered to stop by on Friday, but no matter. If you read your five and I knew about it, you were entered in the contest (yes, Valerie, I'm talking to you, and a few others ;) .
And the winner of a signed copy of my ARC, MAY B. is Amy Sonnichsen! Amy, please email me your mailing address so that I might send you a copy once the ARCs are printed.
Thank you to all who have participated. I wish I had a book for each of you. If you're interested, I'd love to send you some MAY B. bookmarks (eventually). If you email me your address at caroline starr AT yahoo, I'll send them out when they're available.
Please keep me updated on any verse novel recommendations you might have and thanks again for reading along with me!
Here are a couple of ways you can help those whose communities were devastated by storms last month:
Help Write Now is a writing community auction to benefit southern storm relief. Along with four other Project Mayhem members, I've donated a critique for a middle-grade novel. See more here. All 4 Alabama is an auction aimed at helping Alabama specifically, the state most severely hit by the storms. I'm offering a picture book and verse novel critique. Follow this link to learn more. I'm proud to be a part of the community of children's authors so willing to help those in need. Thanks to all of you who participate.
Tuesday Carolee Dean and I will be talking verse novels over at Alamosa Books in Albuquerque.* This is a part of SCBWI-NM's** monthly Schmooze*** but is open to any interested readers, writers, librarians, teachers, friends, Romans, or countrymen.
If you've ever wondered what verse novels are all about, if you're curious about why anyone would choose to read or write this way, or if you're looking for some good verse novel recommendations, stop by! You can even join us for a pre-Schmooze meal.*****
*Alamosa is a lovely children's bookstore off of Paseo Del Norte and Ventura. Things start up at 7:00pm.
**The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, New Mexico branch
For some people, verse novels are unappealing because of the way words are arranged on the page. Others find them too pretentious, too simplistic, too weird. And that's okay. Readers have the right to feel however they like about certain genres or styles. What I love, though, is when readers are willing to try something new.
I'm finding a number of those who have posted reviews of May B. on Goodreads start in a similar way:
I’ve never read a novel in verse before and wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it. I wondered if it would slow down my reading.
Having never read a novel-in-verse, I intended to check out the first few pages...
This is the first novel in verse I've read.
I had never read a novel in verse before...
I generally don't like verse novels...
This is the first novel-in-verse I've read.
8 Comments on Verse Novels Not Your Thing?, last added: 11/24/2011
by Caroline Starr Rose
Intermediate, Middle School Schwartz & Wade/Random 233 pp.
The verse novel form is particularly well suited to this spare survival story set on the homesteaded Kansas prairie. In late August, young May’s parents send her off to work for a newly married couple on their isolated farm fifteen miles away, promising she’ll be back by Christmas. But when the homesick Mrs. Oblinger runs away and her husband sets off to retrieve her and doesn’t return, May is stranded alone in their sod hut, snowed in, unable to get home, unable to send for help.
Dwindling supplies of food and fuel, evidence of wolves, and a blizzard are the external threats that make up the tense plot, but equally dangerous are the psychological challenges of claustrophobia and despair. Only when May chooses to live fully in the present can she gather her resources for a life-saving plan. A backstory involving May’s dyslexia parallels the themes of abandonment and potent effects of small, rare kindnesses. Author Rose uses a close-up lens and a fine sense of rhythm to draw us into her stark world, Little House on the Prairie without the coziness. “It’s the noise that wakes me / in the darkness close as a shroud. / Wind whips around the soddy; / I imagine I hear the walls groan.” sarah ellis
Three years ago, May B. won first place for a novel excerpt at the Jambalaya Writers' Conference. This year I'm headed back to Houma, Louisiana to present at the conference. It's a thrill to be included on the roster this year! If you happen to live around the New Orleans area, I'd love to meet you.
Here are my topics:
Verse Novels -- From Homer to Ellen Hopkins: Long a mainstay in classical literature, the verse novel has made a comeback in children’s literature in the last fifteen years. What’s the appeal? Learn about the authors and titles which have had an impact on the genre, why an author would choose to write this way, and if your story might best be told through verse.
DIY Marketing Plan: Authors nowadays are expected to play bigger and bigger roles in spreading the word about their books. What, exactly, does this look like? Learn to identify and reach your target audience in traditional and non-traditional ways, produce materials to compliment your book, and create your own marketing plan.
I'll share about the conference once I return -- and don't worry: I'll eat a bowl of gumbo for you.