Discovering Your Genre: Prose, Poetry, or In Between (2022)

How does a writer who works in both poetry and prose, or on the cusp of both, decide which genre best expresses a particular subject? We, Ann de Forest and Amy Beth Sisson, are critique partners for poetry but we both write prose as well. In conversations about our experiences, we posed this question. Here, we explore some differences between the genres and offer experiments and exercises to help us – and other writers – decide.

From Prose to Poetry

Ann: I came to writing poetry late. In writing prose, I was often drawn to hybrid forms like lists and collage. A project of essays on churches in Rome eluded me. I felt forced to interpret my experience and draw conclusions. Reconceiving the essays as poems released that pressure. Compressing my experiences into poetic stanzas, I found, embodied perfectly the feeling of moving through a church’s interior spaces. Spiraling into the experience, I could invite readers to float along with me, free to have their own interpretations.

Amy and Ann: Together, we considered the energy that poetry brings to the material. A poem can be a compression, abridgement, or distillation. Lorine Niedecker, in her poem, “Poet’s work” uses the wonderful word “condensery.” Finding the poetic in prose, sometimes by a process of erasure, can transform the prosaic and instill unexpected power.

Poet Gregory Pardlo, whose poems compress autobiography, history, racial injustice, pop culture, and philosophy – rich themes often explored in essays – named one collection Digest, which rings just right. Digest carries lovely multiple meanings: a compilation of material, a simplification of information, as well as the biological processing of nourishment.

A poem moves by spiraling inward, even a poem that leaps back and forth, or flings out a range of images lands on a still point. A poem exists as a single entity that stops the reader in time, while prose compels the reader to move forward, to turn the page.

Kazim Ali, in writing the same material in both poetry and prose, illuminates the differences. In his 2017 poem Origin Story, he writes, “Someone always asks me ‘where are you from’/And I want to say a body is a body of matter flung.” In his 2021 nonfiction book Northern Light, he revisits this: “I’ve always had a hard time answering the question “Where are you from?” The easiest answer—the one I’ve fallen back on as a convenience, though I had always supposed it to be as true an answer as any—is that I am “from” nowhere.” His different linguistic choices are striking. In the poem, the music of the meter, of the word “body” repeated, the alliteration and near rhyme of “from” and “flung” incise meaning into the ear as much as the mind. His prose is more straightforward, more conversational, though no less artful: the paradox of being from “nowhere” packs a punch.

From Poetry to Prose

Amy Beth: I went through the reverse journey from poetry to prose when working on a project writing poems based on archival material from my town, Swarthmore, PA. I drafted a poem on a complex issue of segregated housing but couldn’t make it work. I allowed my draft to burst the bonds of a poem, free associated, and expanded the material into a lyric essay that ranges from companion planting in gardening to the history of the use of guinea pigs.

Amy and Ann: We delved into the expansive nature of prose, particularly the lyric essay. This form fuses poetic and narrative techniques. A lyric essay may be a braid (multiple ideas threaded together) a collage (a juxtaposition or layer of ideas), and it can be nonlinear (breaking a chronological narrative.) The lyric essay leaves room for the reader to co-create. It is a spiraling out in theme, time, and place. It doesn’t land on a single spot.

Poet Julie Carr spoke about why she chose prose for her upcoming nonfiction book, Mud, Blood, and Ghosts, which draws on an extensive family archive. “There never could be poems from this. Writing poems is about present time. To be a body in the present. To write about past and future is to write essay.” Then she added a retraction of sorts: “Whenever you make these distinctions they fall apart.” We could relate to that!

Exercises:

How to decide which form best suits the project you have in mind? Allow yourself to experiment with both genres. Start with something you’ve drafted in one form and convert it, at least temporarily, to another. You may end up with a poem, an essay or something in between (prose poem or flash)!

For turning an essay into a poem:

Think of the game Jenga. Your prose is like a stable tower of blocks. To make it a poem, start pulling out blocks. How much can you remove and keep the tower aloft?

Some tips:

  • Find the core image/idea
  • Find sonic, rhythmic, visual links
  • Compress/Condense
  • Remove transitions and other superfluity

For turning a poem into an essay:

Think of the folktale Stone Soup. Open the cupboard of your mind and start throwing ingredients into the pot. Experiment (some ingredients might surprise you). Keep adding until they cook together into a new nutritious stew.

Some tips:

  • Explore the long trail of your images and ideas.
  • Invite the reader along on your explorations
  • Expand time in both directions — past and future
  • Welcome the unexpected

Approach the question in the spirit of play and discovery. You can always veer back or off into a new direction. As poet and essayist Marianne Boruch said, “Both poetry and the essay come from the same impulse — to think about something and at the same time, see it closely, carefully, and enact it.”

____

Whether poetry or prose,AnndeForest’s work often centers on the resonance of place. Her short stories, essays, and poetry have appeared inCoal Hill Review,Unbroken, Noctua Review, Cleaver Magazine, Found Poetry Review, The Journal, Hotel Amerika, Timber Creek Review, Open City,andPIF,andin Hidden City Philadelphia, where she is a contributing writer.Ways of Walking, an anthology of essays she edited, will be published by New Door Books in May 2022.

Amy Beth Sissonis struggling to emerge, toad-like, from the mud in a small town outside of Philly. Her poetry has appeared inCleaver MagazineandThe Night Heron Barks. Her fiction has appeared inThe Best Short Stories of Philadelphia 2021,Enchanted ConversationandSweet Tree Review. This fall, she left her day job in software development and started an MFA in Poetry at Rutgers Camden. You can follow her work atamybethsisson.com

Tagged: condensery, Gregory Pardlo, Julie Carr, Kazim Ali, writing prompt

§ 4 Responses to Discovering Your Genre: Prose, Poetry, or In Between

  • March 15, 2022 at 7:25 am

    […] Discovering Your Genre: Prose, Poetry, or In Between […]

    Reply

  • Discovering Your Genre: Prose, Poetry, or In Between (4)Jewish Young Professional "JYP" says:

    March 15, 2022 at 8:31 am

    Love this. Great tips here!

    Reply

  • Discovering Your Genre: Prose, Poetry, or In Between (5)Barbara Krasner says:

    March 15, 2022 at 6:17 pm

    This post hits on an issue that’s challenged me for years. I sometimes approach a subject through both poetry and prose and see which one feels more “right.” Thanks for the discussion, the tips, and the exercises.

    Reply

  • Discovering Your Genre: Prose, Poetry, or In Between (6)Roz Morris @Roz_Morris says:

    March 16, 2022 at 3:56 am

    These explorations and questions are helpful and inspiring. I have a project whose form I need to decide. Or it might be two projects because I don’t yet know if they go together. Thanks for the discussion and creative games here.

    Reply

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