Using Poetic Forms in Nonfiction–Heidi Czerwiec

imageI’m going to cheat a bit, and rather than pick a favorite essay or author to teach, I’m going to discuss a favorite technique to teach: using traditional poetic forms to structure flash nonfiction. I myself came to nonfiction after a long stint as a poet who studied, taught, and wrote in verse forms, and so was naturally drawn to hybrid forms. Lyric essays, prose poems, and flash all seemed like fun ways to move between genres. The more poetic examples borrow heavily from prose forms (scene, parable, joke, fairytale), but this borrowing doesn’t often happen in reverse. Although Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, in their textbook Tell It Slant, coined the term “hermit crab essay” for an essay that adopts the shell of another form – “to do” list, field guide, recipe, etc. – verse structures haven’t been embraced as fully. I do want to note that Miller has made some forays in this direction, both in a panel discussion on “The Poessaytics of Form” at NonfictioNOW in 2015 (reported on here), and in a piece I will discuss later. But as a craft technique, there has been only one other panel that specifically engages with this strategy (full disclosure: I was asked to be on this panel).

Using verse forms, with their ready-made scaffolding, can be a real boon for writers of flash prose. Because of their inherent patterning, verse forms can be used either to reveal patterns in the content, or to impose order on what seems like chaos. When I teach this technique, I like to distribute a handout that outlines a few verse forms and their formal elements and structures. I’ve been using the sonnet, haibun, sestina, and pantoum, but you can pick your own (here’s a useful list of verse forms with description). I assume many of the students aren’t overly familiar with prosody, so I keep the discussion of form light and not too in-depth – basically, what kinds of content these forms and their elements pair well with, what formal elements could help us organize and give structure to our flash prose (# of lines becomes # of sentences, stanzas may become paragraphs, refrains, rhetorical elements, possibly rhymes), and which elements are optional.

Next, we read some examples of flash prose written using a verse form as a scaffold. For the sonnet, I use an example from my prose sonnet cycle SWEET/CRUDE: A Bakken Boom Cycle, which uses the form to craft arguments about the issues surrounding fracking in western North Dakota – each piece is fourteen sentences long, with a volta (turn), and I do not rhyme the ends of sentences in this piece (though I have elsewhere). In her hybrid book-length text Dandarians, poet Lee Ann Roripaugh incorporates several haibun, short lyric prose pieces that periodically crystallize into a haiku-moment:

            …like a bird who doesn’t even wake while the Madagascan moth slides a plundering tongue under its eyelids, secretly drinking away all the bird’s tears.

 

This phlebotomized

and thief-parched heart has no tears

left over for you.

Mark Strand’s “Chekhov: A Sestina” repeats six words – him, anxious, character, away, love, right – using the sestina pattern, but at the ends of each sentence. The form allows Strand to portray the obsessive and anxious character of Chekhov and his protagonists: “Why him? He woke up and felt anxious. He was out of sorts, out of character. If only it would go away. Ivashin loved Nadya Vishnyevskaya and was afraid of his love. When the butler told him the old lady had just gone out, but that the young lady was at home, he fumbled in his fur coat and dresscoat pocket, found his card, and said: “Right.” But it was not right….” And Brenda Miller’s “Pantoum for 1979” uses the advance-and-retreat narrative pantoum form to reveal patterns of behavior, each four-line stanza adapted to a four-sentence paragraph, allowing herself variations in the repetitions:

I’m twenty years old, barely an adult, my belly flat—though inside that belly a baby is growing. Or not a baby: a something, a cluster of cells lodged in the fallopian           tubes. In a few weeks I’ll be in pain, like a penknife stabbing again and again. But for now I’m just a girl in a broke-down Toyota, moving her few belongings into a room in a big red house on a hill.

Not a baby, I’ll remind myself later, just a cluster of cells, lodged where it didn’t belong. I must have found this house from a tacked message on a bulletin board on campus…

After discussing the forms and examples, I have students either bring a piece of short nonfiction they’ve been working on, or freewrite from a choice of prompts. Then I ask them to consider what form might pair best with their content (argument=sonnet, distilled moment=haibun, obsessive=sestina, circular narrative=sestina or pantoum). Since picking the six sestina words can be tricky, sometimes I’ll provide lists of six words, with the invitation that they are welcome to cheat or substitute.

While nonfiction students often are skeptical or anxious about engaging with verse forms, this exercise results in some fantastic work. As I found when writing poetry in verse, keeping the left brain occupied with structural elements frees the right brain to make inventive and surprising connections that might not otherwise be made. I absolutely allow myself and students to cheat with the form – it’s supposed to be in service to the content, not governing it – but the verse structure provides additional ways to think about organizing content, while boosting its lyricism.

 

Works Cited:

Czerwiec, Heidi, “SWEET/CRUDE: A Bakken Boom Cycle.” Fluid States. Warrensburg, MO:   Pleiades Press, 2019.

Miller, Brenda, “Pantoum for 1979.” Port Townsend, WA: Ovenbird Books, 2016.

Roripaugh, Lee Ann, “Inquiline.” Dandarians. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2014.

Strand, Mark, “Chekhov: A Sestina.” The Continuous Life. New York: Knopf, 1990.


Poet and essayist Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the recently-released poetry collection Conjoining, and of the forthcoming lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as the winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and for Poetry City, and mentors with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com

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