“No River, No Bridge: Writing Poetry, Writing Nonfiction” Handout and Exercise

Ermakov, Dimitri (1846-1916).
Ermakov, Dimitri (1846-1916).

I taught a class titled “No River, No Bridge: Writing Poetry, Writing Nonfiction” at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School’s Writers’ Fest yesterday. We discussed hybridity of poetry and nonfiction, as well as the ways in which poetry can take on and explore “truth” using essayistic strategies without the requirement of “fact.” Several students came up afterward to show me their exercises, and one told me that she felt like it was one of the best things she’s written. The class ranged from high school students to adults.

In this course we will examine works of poetry and creative nonfiction in order to open up these genres to hybrid works. We will discuss features that are shared by the genres, how to bend the rules, and look at some examples before doing an exercise.

With over forty students in a one-hour class, we had these objectives:

  1. Examine definitions of genre and the elements therein.
  2. Think about the function and aims of each genre.
  3. Read excerpts of texts that bridge the gap between poetry and nonfiction.
  4. Write some assays—yes, some attempts—that use both poetry and essay strategies.

Examine definitions of genre and the elements therein. We looked at definitions of essays and lyric essays and Edward Hirsch’s definitions of line, lineation, lyric, prose poem, and stanza from A Poet’s Glossary. We looked at these definitions because they seek to define and, therefore, draw boundaries. We needed to know these definitions in order to explode these boundaries. In particular, we looked at Hirsch’s definition of line, in which he quotes Longenbach:

“Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines,” James Longenbach asserts in The Art of the Poetic Line (2008). “More than meter, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing.”

And compared it to the prose poem definition:

A composition printed as prose that names itself poetry. The prose poem takes advantage of its hybrid nature—it avails itself of the elements of prose (what Dryden called “the other harmony of prose”) while foregrounding the devices of poetry. . . . Baudelaire used prose poems to rebel against the straitjacket of classical French versification. He dreamed of creating “a poetic prose, musical without rhyme or rhythm, supple and jerky enough to adapt to the lyric movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to the somersaults of conscience.” Baudelaire’s prose poems—along with Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations (1886) and Malarmé’s Divagations (1897)—created a mixed musical form (part social, part transcendental) that has been widely and internationally practiced in the twentieth century. “There is no such thing as prose,” Malarmé insisted in 1891. “There is the alphabet, and then there are verses which are more or less closely knit, more or less diffused. So long as there is a straining toward style, there is versification.”

We thought about these paradoxes, discussed why lineation makes a poem a poem, as well as considered some alternative definitions. We then examined Hirsch’s definition of “lyric”—

The lyric poem immerses us in the original waters of consciousness, in the awareness, the aboriginal nature, of being itself. . . . The lyric, which offers us a supposed speaker, a person to whom we often assign the name of the author, shades off into the dramatic utterance

—in juxtaposition with a discussion of point of view in essay.   Think about the function and aims of each genre. When I think about the intersections and differences of poetry and nonfiction, it’s helpful for me to illustrate the two genres with metaphors.

  1. Poem as a river. With all of their musical elements, I think of poems as a river—something fluid, flowing, that rushes and eddies, deltas, and empties out to sea. Poems are one of our oldest forms of literature and therefore seem natural to our landscape of language.
  2. Essay as a bridge. The essay, an analytical form, builds upon its subject piece by piece, element by element, fact by fact, experience by experience. We might think about this strategy as similar to building pillars with blocks, hammering planks together, supporting and trussing.

We might use these metaphors to understand hybrid works—nonfiction prose poems, lyric essays—better. Sometimes a poem is a river we want to cross; we see and hear the rushing water, but we want to examine it from a sturdy vantage point where we stay safe and dry. Some music comes into the poem, but we rely on the exposition that essays provide. Adversely, we could be in the water, prone to the rapids, splashed in the face, paddling fiercely. Just trying to stay afloat in the overflow of language, of experience. There are times, however, where we might pass under the shadow of a bridge, have insights into reason, into conquering this flow, bridging one experience to another.   Read excerpts of texts that bridge the gap between poetry and nonfiction.

  1. “Say It, Say It Anyway You Can” by Vievee Francis (two versions—the prose poem version from Rattle and the lineated version that appeared in her collection Horse in the Dark). Let’s take a look at this poem, which started off as a prose poem and then became a lineated poem. Discuss the poet’s possible reasoning for lineating the poem. What are the effects of the two forms?
  2. An excerpt from Citizen by Claudia Rankine and an excerpt from Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Talk to me a little bit about what these prose forms borrow from poetry. Are they poetry? (How were they marketed? How were they identified?) Is it enough to say something is poetry? Nonfiction? Are these true hybrids? How would you categorize it? Does it need to be categorized?

Write some assays—yes, some attempts—that use both poetry and essay strategies.

“No River, No Bridge” Exercise

  1. Select an everyday object that’s in your house. Ex. a television, a pair of jeans, a can of kidney beans. (1 min.)
  2. Now describe the object using all of your senses, with only concrete details. Do not use any metaphors or other figurative language. (2 min.)
  3. Imagine how the object was made. Write a step-by-step description of its fabrication. (3 min.)
  4. Imagine the harvesting, mining, or creation of the raw materials that went into making this object. (i.e. the shearing of sheep for your wool sweater or the mining of silicone to make your iPhone). Describe. (2 min.)
  5. Now talk a little bit about how you came to own this object (and talk about not remembering how you got it, if that’s true.) Tell us the backstory. Or, what connotations does the object have? Do you have specific memories associated with it? (2 min.)
  6. Now describe the object using only metaphors. (“My pair of jeans is muddy water reflecting sky, a bird with clipped wings . . . ”) (2 min.)

Share and discuss: How has the object changed in each iteration (concrete description, origin story, deconstruction, entrance, emotional connection, metaphorical naming)? Which form (poetry or essay) better conveys these approaches? Why? How can we combine these strategies?

Spring 2015 Course Descriptions and Reading Lists

Bookplate of American painter and illustrator Edward Penfield (1866-1925)
Bookplate of American painter and illustrator Edward Penfield (1866-1925)

In the Spring 2015 semester, I will be teaching ENGL 215: Textual Analysis at Virginia Commonwealth University and CRWR 212: Introduction to Creative Writing at The College of William & Mary. Below I’ve included the course descriptions and required texts for each course followed by a brief explanation of my choices for the classes’ reading lists.

VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH UNIVERSITY
ENGL 215: TEXTUAL ANALYSIS

Course Description
“Brickwork: Urban Imagination”—From the sidewalk to the skyscraper, alleys to main thoroughfares, the urban landscape has not only provided the setting to many works of great literature, it has become a kind of a foil for many protagonists. In this course, we’ll read novels, nonfiction, and poetry that use the urban landscapes, the exterior world, that increasingly engage, complicate, and reveal charactes’ internal life. Starting with photorealistic portrayals of cities in a particular moment, like those in essays by Joan Didion, and moving on to fabular remakings of place, as found in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, students will learn the basics of close reading, analyzing the literary devices and strategies, comparing and contrasting works, and contextualizing their discussion toward a main question about how a city can make a person, how people make a city. In addition to the previously mentioned authors, students will read excerpts or texts by Kazim Ali, Teju Cole, Charles Dickens, Nick Flynn, James Joyce, Rebecca Solnit, Zadie Smith, Anne Winters, and more.

Required Texts

  • Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Ed. Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray. 3rd Edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. ISB: 978-0312461881.
  • Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. ISBN: 978-0156453806.
  • Gautier, Amina. At-Risk. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0820338880.
  • Levine, Philip. What Work Is. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. ISBN: 978-0679740582.
  • Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Selected Poems and Prose. Penguin, 2014. ISBN: 978-0143107439.
  • Winters, Anne. The Key to the City. University of Chicago Press, 1986. ISBN: 978-0226902272.

A course packet available online with excerpts taken from the following texts:

  • Ali, Kazim. Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities.
  • Biss, Eula. Notes from No Man’s Land.
  • Cole, Teju. Open City.
  • Crane, Hart. The Bridge.
  • Diaz, Junot. Drown
  • Dickens, Charles. Night Walks.
  • Didion, Joan. Slouching Toward Bethlehem.
  • Flynn, Nick. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
  • Gunn, Thom. The Man with the Night Sweats.
  • Hull, Lynda. Collected Poems.
  • Joyce, James. Dubliners.
  • Lowell, Robert. For the Union Dead.
  • Meitner, Erika. Copia.
  • Meitner, Erika. Ideal Cities.
  • Neruda, Pablo. The Heights of Machu Picchu (trans. Morín)
  • Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader.
  • Sandburg, Carl. Chicago Poems.
  • Shapiro, Alan. Night of the Republic.
  • Smith, Patricia. Blood Dazzler.
  • Smith, Zadie. White Teeth.
  • Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust: A History of Walking.
  • Teitman, Ryan. Litany for the City.

*The goal with my selection of these required texts and the course packet is to keep the students engaged and challenged while exposing them to a variety of canonical and contemporary writing in their acquisition of essential textual analysis skills.

Additionally, I want them to be exposed to poetry throughout the course, unlike my students who read only one poetic work this semester. I find that students who read a lot of poetry become much better readers of poems and, I’d even argue, all other texts; continued exposure is the key to their understanding. I came to this conclusion after reading the responses to Autobiography of Red, in which many of them thoroughly investigated sound and line breaks. I realized that I hadn’t trusted the 215 students enough to “get” poetry when I was making my syllabus because they hadn’t taken any college literature classes before; this time, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and give them equal parts poetry and prose.

The excerpts in the course packet will be short, and they will be used either on their own (like Didion), as a supplement for their books, and/or for in-class assignments. Many of the books on the excerpt list were originally a part of the working text lists. I decided, however, to cut down the required reading from this semester’s seven texts to five so that we could spend more time on in-depth exploration. In this way, we’ll have more focus on a few core texts and I won’t have to cut out many of the authors I want to teach. I might supplement Anne Winters with Alan Shapiro poems and an excerpt from Dickens’s Night WalksInvisible Cities with some of Ali’s Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities. Once I start making the course calendar, I’ll have a better idea about how I’ll juxtapose these texts.

I decided to add the Bedford Glossary because I felt like I often had to remind students of literary terms, strategies, and concepts this semester. They received these terms through lecture, discussion, and a glossary I created. A desk reference such as the Bedford, however, will provide them with many more possibilities to understand and locate literary devices and to explore the lenses through which to analyze texts. I haven’t decided yet whether I want to test them on a selection of these terms, but I think it might incentivize them to learn core terms.

WILLIAM & MARY
CRWR 212: INTRODUCTION TO CREATIVE WRITING

University Course Description
Workshop format emphasizes the basics of writing fiction and poetry. Class meets for one two-hour session per week. No previous writing experience is required.  Open to academic freshmen and academic sophomores with priority given to academic freshmen.

Required Texts

  • Biss, Eula. Notes from No Man’s Land. Graywolf Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-1555975180.
  • Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. (3rd Edition). Penguin Academics, 2010. ISBN: 978-0205750351.
  • Gautier, Amina. At-Risk. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0820338880.
  • Levine, Philip. What Work Is. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. ISBN: 978-0679740582.
  • Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Wave Books, 2009. ISBN: 978-1933517407.
  • Rankine, Claudia. Citizen. Graywolf Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-1555976903.

*I decided that I wanted my Creative Writing students to be exposed to the types of writing that we generally eschew in lower-level courses, especially hybrid works like prose poems, lyric essays, etc. So many creative writing students I’ve encountered have such set ideas for what poetry or prose should be that it’s hard for them to engage the genres in any new way. The idea here is that we will start with fiction (Gautier), move into the essays (Biss), transition into poetry (Levine), and then consider poetry/prose hybrids (Nelson and Rankine). In every other creative writing class I’ve taught, questions about prose poetry and, less frequently, lyric essays have arisen. They want to know what they are and how to write them. I want students to understand genre as one bridge you can walk rather than separate rocks you have to hop between to cross the river. This decision is founded on my belief that a writer of any genre can learn from strategies of other genres and that there are many intersections between the genres.

I will use the Burroway for the students to learn essential concepts (setting, tone, point of view, etcetera), and I’ll likely use the example texts therein for in-class assignments to jumpstart exercises and or discussions.

Archaeology Exercise

Woman putting a letter in a post box, United States of America.
Caption: “FOR YOU, MY DARLING. COPYRIGHT BY A.L. SIMPSON 1909.”

Class: Writing Out of the Ordinary
Genre: Poetry/Nonfiction
Readings: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
Time: 40 minutes

I place many objects in the table or assign them at random to students. All of the objects are old: postcards, advertisements, mugshots, taxidermy instructions, a dried beaver face, etc.

1. Select a piece of ephemera from the center of the table.
2. Describe the object. What does it look like? What is/was it used for? How old is it? (5 min.)
3. Who owned this article? Who encountered it? Speculate on their perception/reaction would have been to the object. Would the object have some special importance to them? Would they have ignored the object? Describe a situation in which the object was previously encountered. Is it similar or different to your initial reaction? (10 min.)
4. Have you ever encountered something like this before? Make parallels to your experience with similar objects. Ex. If it’s an advertisement, talk about an experience or reaction to another advertisement. (10 min.)
5. Is there a public and/or private issue that this object and your memory causes you to consider? Does it make you think about identity? The ephemeral nature of life? A shift in culture or fashion? Cruelty? Art? Talk us through your thought process. (10 min.)
6. After thinking about this object in the context of speculation, memory, and meditation, has the object changed in meaning for you? Do you appreciate it more or less? (5 min.)

***Bonus step: Now switch objects with the person on your right. Describe this object. How does this new object compare or contrast to your old object? Does it raise similar issues?

“Bluets” Exercise

“Dead City III (City on the Blue River III)” (1911) by Egon Schiele

Class: Writing Out of the Ordinary
Genre: Poetry/Nonfiction
Readings: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets
Time: 30 minutes

  • Identify one thing you have been obsessed with for quite some time.
  • Detail a direct encounter with that thing. Be as descriptive as possible.
  • Name the first person you can think of who is missing from your life.
  • Write down something you never told them. (A confession, an idea, a story, etcetera.)
  • Remind that person of something you did together. Tell the narrative.
  • Is there a connection between the thing and the person? Explain.
  • Write down the first thing and then write the next five words that come to your mind in an associative chain from one word to the next.
  • Now pick one of those things on the list and write about an encounter you had with that thing.
  • Repeat previous steps.