Thoughts about poetry

On my first day of my grad school residency, about two weeks ago, one of my colleagues flagged me down.

“Why,” he asked, “do you write novels?”

This is a good question, and something I hadn’t really thought about.

Our grad school program is divided into three sections, or genres: Fiction, Non-fiction and Poetry. I think that sometimes we tend to get hung up on these labels. At our cores, we are all writers, and many of us – even if we don’t officially study cross-genre within our program – do write in other genres. You have only to attend a student reading to see fiction writers reading essays and non-fiction people reading poetry. I have yet to see a poet read fiction, but it’s sure to happen. We are all creative writers, and it would be silly to expect us to stick to one form.

So when my friend asked why I was writing fiction, and the novel in particular, I had to take a minute. My response was this: I write novels because I enjoy reading them, and because that’s what I read, I believe that the novel is the highest form the written word can take.

After a week and a half, I’m not quite satisfied with that answer.

My first love was poetry. I remember writing a poem at the age of seven. My mother tells me I was writing poetry earlier. I bought books of poetry in the fourth grade. I played with rhyme and meter all through high school and college. I’m a card-carrying member of the I-wrote-moody-poetry-in-high-school club. I was also a poetry slam groupie in high school. I fell deeply and indecently in love with Taylor Mali. (I got over that.) I wrote a collection of angsty poems in college. My first creative publication, in the now-defunct Citizen Culture Magazine, was a poem. I framed it. It hangs above my desk. Then, somehow, poetry took a backseat to fiction.

I don’t know why. I wrote fiction and poetry at the same time through high school in college. Like a kid who starts out left-handed, learns to use his right hand, becomes ambidextrous as a teenager and then grows into a right-handed adult, I switched to fiction. No reason. It just happened.

Except now, after the last residency, I’m considering a return to poetry. I took two poetry seminars, and went to a poetry graduate reading and it strikes me that I’m missing out on something I enjoy. I have no idea what the vocabulary of poetry is – I couldn’t identify a sonnet, for example. And I’m intimidated by the distilled emotion presented in poetry. I think I will have a go at it anyhow. I’m not planning to forsake fiction. It is possible that the novel is, for me, the highest form the written word can take. But that doesn’t mean that I have to neglect poetry.