Today, I have the honor of a guest blogger, who juggles both hats of poetry and prose exquisitely. How does she do it? The passionate J.S. Watts has been kind enough to give us a glimpse into her world. But first a little about her.
J.S.Watts lives and writes in the flatlands of East Anglia in the U.K. Her poetry, short fiction and book reviews appear in a diversity of publications in Britain, Canada, Australia and the States including: Big Pulp, Mslexia, Polluto and Silver Blade and have been broadcast on BBC and Independent Radio. She has published three books: a full poetry collection, Cats and Other Myths and a multi-award nominated poetry pamphlet, Songs of Steelyard Sue are published by Lapwing Publications. Her novel, A Darker Moon – a dark literary fantasy, is published in the US and the UK by Vagabondage Press. Further details at: http://www.jswatts.co.uk/ and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/J.S.Watts.page
Poetry v Prose?
As a writer of both poetry and fiction, I frequently find myself on the receiving end of questions such as, “Which do you prefer writing, poetry or prose?” and “Don’t you find it a problem switching between poetry and fiction?”. I thought, therefore, that I might use up a few words of actually quite unproblematic prose to explore the relationship between prose and poetry as I see it (and how others, apparently, imagine it).
There is clearly a conflict between poetry and prose in some people’s minds. To begin with, there are the titles given to writers of these two literary forms. If I describe myself as a poet, it immediately seems to preclude me being a writer of prose. If I describe myself as an author, people ask about my novel, but never seem to imagine I might publish poetry. When I describe myself simply as a writer, people usually assume it’s of fiction, so I often end up describing myself as a poet and author, or even as a poet and writer and yet it all seems unduly complicated. I’m a writer, plain and simple. It just so happens I write both poetry and prose.
Then there is the assumption that I must prefer one art form over the other: the “Which do you prefer writing?” question. Actually, no, I don’t. I enjoy reading poetry and fiction. I enjoy writing fiction and poetry. Some days I might be more in the mood for one than the other, but it’s a temporary thing. Sometimes I prefer reading a funny novel to reading a serious one, but it doesn’t stop me from picking up a more solemn tome the next time I want a read. Currently I’ve published two books of poetry and one novel, but I’m hoping my second novel will be published in the not too distant future. Then again, I’m hoping to bring out a third book of poetry, maybe next year, but there is always the third novel that I’m in the process of writing and so it goes on. The quantity may fluctuate, but my love of both forms doesn’t.
This still leaves the question of “Don’t you find it a problem switching between poetry and fiction?”. Sorry to disappoint, people, but no I don’t. As previously mentioned, some days I might be more in the mood for one than the other and this may preclude me from playing with one form for a brief while. On other days, however, I have written both poetry and prose (I like to think) reasonably successfully. Sometimes I write both fiction and non-fiction prose on the same day too. It’s all words: laying them out, combining and shaping them; playing with them and using them to communicate.
I will admit, though, that there are differences between poetry and prose. I let the subject matter I’m writing about determine the form it’s written in: it will inevitably tell me whether it wants to be a novel, short story or poem. Having said that, I can think of at least one concept that’s found its way into a poem, a short story and a piece of flash-fiction, but that’s unusual. Also, whilst most people assume mood pieces are for poetry and stories are, well, for stories and novels, I find there are intriguing grey areas. I frequently write flash fiction that’s as much prose poetry as it is short story and many of my poems tell stories. My second poetry book, “Songs of Steelyard Sue” is a poetry sequence which, amongst other things, tells the story of the eponymous Steelyard Sue.
And, for me, there are other grey areas and overlaps. My poetry is deemed to be literary, but there are frequently elements of fantasy and science fiction woven into it. Steelyard Sue is a robot eking out her existence on a future world turned scrap heap – very SF subject matter, but written as literary poetry. My fiction often falls into the genres of fantasy and science fiction, but my novel “A Darker Moon” is decidedly cross-genre: dark, literary fantasy with a psychological twist.
A famous poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, once wrote that prose is “words in their best order. Poetry, the best words in the best order” and writing poetry is certainly an intense process. The aim is to make every single word contribute to the whole: no spare, no slack. Writing poetry can often be a process or writing, editing, re-writing and condensing. Yet, talk to any novelist and they will tell you they spend their time writing, editing, re-writing and editing again. What they do less of, perhaps, is the condensing. Mostly they are out to tell a story and they will be as much concerned with pace and story arc as they are with words and style. In poetry I find my focus is on words, style, rhythm and structure. The story, if there is one, flows through that, rather than driving things forward on its own. Of course, prose writing also needs to cut out slack, for example eliminating the extraneous thes and thats that can leave prose feeling flat and uninspiring. When I edit my prose, I still pay attention to each and every word, as well as the style and rhythm of sentences and paragraphs, but I’m also mindful of how these words and groups of words move the story on.
If I’ve got to highlight the most striking difference between the two forms, I’ll use a sporting metaphor to do so. Writing long pieces of fiction such as a novel is like running a marathon (indeed, I’m sure the novelist Murakami has memorably described it as such) whilst poetry is often a short intense sprint. Both are forms of running, but the mind-set is different. For one you need stamina and an ability to push through and keep making the effort despite long term pain, whereas for the other you need speed and the ability to maximize your efforts in short intense bursts (to the point of pain if necessary).
When it comes to writing poetry and prose, I find it relatively easy to switch mind-sets necessary for each form, but given the grey areas highlighted above it’s possible it’s more of a flow and a graduated shift of emphasis, than a clear-cut switching between the two. Regardless, I’m just profoundly grateful I’m apparently able to run both types of race and derive a sense of satisfaction from doing so.
Out now from Vagabondage Press, A Darker Moon, a novel by J.S.Watts – ISBN 978-0615706528. Other books by J.S.Watts: Cats and Other Myths (poetry collection), Lapwing Publications 2011 – ISBN 9781907276644; Songs of Steelyard Sue (poetry pamphlet), Lapwing Publications 2012 – ISBN 9781909252028: NOMINATED for BOTH SFPA and Saboteur Awards Best Poetry Pamphlet 2013 Website: http://www.jswatts.co.uk/