I’m sitting in a café (not THE café; a new one, down the block from me; but don’t worry, I haven’t turned traitor on my usual place entirely) nursing my caffeine withdrawal and listening to the most boring hetero couple conversation ever. Trying not to eavesdrop too much; the guy is showing off his chequered experiences with the marijuana culture of Northern California to impress his lady, and she is just digging every minute of it. With every year that goes by, I understand straight mating rituals less and less. I also don’t understand why “dude” has become common parlance. But it’s fascinating to be present for, I suppose.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of prose (as part of this book a week frenzy I’m trying to do for 2014) and thinking about the intersection of it with poetry. I’ve often said that in my dabblings between them, I’m glad that my poetry has bled more into my prose than vice versa. But there are things you can do with prose that you can’t do with poetry, or maybe that you just shouldn’t: certain kinds of narrative development lend themselves better to sentences that are fully grown. Poems are like arrangements of flowers and fruit and twigs tugged from the tree; prose is the whole plant, with all its roots and every leaf and the bark and extra woody bits. Still, when thinking about a topic for today’s prompt, I kept coming back to that.
So, here’s the pitch for resonance four: start by taking a work of fiction you’re reading, or just one that’s lying around, and open to a random page, or a favorite page. Get a nice meaty one, with several paragraphs on it if possible (you can use more than one page if you need). Sketch out some notes about the content. Then, if you’ve a mind to, run with the tree analogy: if the actions and dialogue on the page are the trunk and heartwood, what are the roots? Where did these characters and situations issue from? What kind of bark is there, meaning what is the tone and mood of the text? What shape might the canopy, the ultimate consequence of the actions on this page, take? Use this as a tool if you need it to develop your theory of this particular moment in the prose. Also, note a couple particularly artful phrases that might stand out to you in the text.
From there, trim down. Reduce the summary even further, as though you had ten seconds to pitch it to someone else. Get the key points across: if you had to assign an archetype to these characters, what would they be? The Wounded Mother, the Unsuspecting Father? How would you reduce the entirety of this segment to one sentence? Let the whole subtext and context of this brief snippet of text expand, and then chop it into firewood. Then begin thinking poetically. All I ask is that your poem move forward, and that it cover exactly the distance supported by your freewriting: don’t go overboard. Your prior knowledge of the rest of the book and your assumptions about where it’s going are welcome, but don’t include anything not in the scope of the text you’ve selected and its links forward, and back. Focus on the tone and mood again before worrying about the characters and the narrative.
A narrative poem should tumble down the page, and find a way to engage the reader. Keep it fresh and turning. You may wish to borrow some of the fruit, those artful phrases that you picked earlier, and populate your poem with it. In a way, this is a kind of ekphrasis, but spinning a poem off the top of a prose piece rather than a visual artwork. (I recommend citing or quoting the original in question if you borrow liberally.) Some tricks you may wish to try are putting yourself in the situation of the poem and making it personal, or exploring the situation presented in the page(s) of text from a different point of view. (Maybe a person sitting in the Impala behind the main characters having their critical moment? or the bird shot by the Clever Prodigy at the turning point of his growing up tale?) Then dress the poem up.
Other poems have done this with films as well, which I suppose could also be an acceptable medium to plant a seed in; check out Raymond Carver’s “The Juggler at Heaven’s Gate”. Let your imagination play a little bit, but don’t color too far outside the lines. Then, of course, you ought to come back and let us see what you’ve drafted, if you like.