Saturday 13 March 2021

Verse novels, a job change and finally a blog post!

Yep, I confess, it’s been ages since I wrote in this blog! In my defense, I have been busy with two big poetry-related projects since my last update. The first is that I changed jobs, moving from a public community mental health team to facilitating groups in a private mental health hospital and day program. As part of my new role, I have been preparing and leading creative writing groups for inpatients and outpatients, and it has been so enjoyable. It is so satisfying for me to be able to bring my occupational therapy skills and my writing skills together in this role, and to practice one of the core principles of my profession – using occupation (meaningful activity) for therapeutic purposes. I love bringing people together to write and share words in a way that helps them with their recovery journeys. It’s a privilege to listen to the diversity and the richness of writing when participants choose to read out what they’ve written in response to the same prompts. It’s also fun to share poems from some of my favourite poets and see how the group responds to them – we often have robust discussions (while being respectful of everyone’s opinions of course!) I find myself listening to writing podcasts, watching poetry videos and reading poetry and other creative writing with a double purpose now – for my own enjoyment but also to find material that would be good to share with the group.

The second piece of news is that in May last year I was awarded a Career Development Grant from the Australia Council, which is the arts funding and advisory body of the Australian Government. This meant I was able to work with a mentor and editor, the wonderful Gina Mercer, to transform my second poetry collection – which is all based on one theme – into a verse novel. It was so exciting to delve into the little-known genre of verse novels, read as many as I could, ponder the qualities that I liked best about my favourite ones, and expand my own skills by writing one. Gina is a fantastic mentor and was so helpful in coming up with ideas to help me when I was stuck. Once I finally settled on some key character and location details, the new poems came thick and fast. Gina was also very helpful with the editing phase, which mostly happened concurrently, helping me to pare back my words to make the work as sharp and concise as possible.

I will write more about this project in a future post, but for now, I thought I would share some notes about what I have learnt so far about verse novels. Okay so it turned into a bit of an essay, read on if you are interested …

Not many people even know they exist! So writing a verse novel is absolutely not the best way to become rich and famous … lucky that’s not my goal. Still, it would be nice if more people knew what verse novel were, and maybe had read a few good ones …

What’s the definition of a verse novel? I'd say it is story-telling through poetry.

How long have they been about? A long time! Wikipedia lists some of the older verse narratives which date back to Ancient Greece in the 8th Century BC, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Other classics often mentioned are Byron's Don Juan (1818–24), Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (1831) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1857).  I haven’t read many of the classics but I'd like to. I have read Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate (1986), which apparently was a surprise bestseller, and really enjoyed it. I thought it flowed along well, considering it was written completely in Petrarchan sonnets, and it covered a satisfying mix of themes and relationships dramas.

According to Wikipedia, “the Australian poet, C.J. Dennis, had great success in Australia during World War I with his verse novels, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915), and The Moods of Ginger Mick (1916).” I’ve just taken these out of the library and am looking forward to reading them.  Derek Walcott's award-winning Omeros (1990) was also mentioned in a lot of the interviews.

What are they about? Anything and everything! I went on much the same journey as Judy Johnson who wrote “When I first became interested in writing a verse novel, I binge-read every example I could get my hands on: contemporary, historical, Australian and culturally diverse. I suppose I was looking for a bright star, a guiding principle that I could lean on whilst writing my own. Nothing of the sort exists of course. What I have learnt, is that, like poetry itself, the world of verse novels is a broad and inclusive church. Long may it remain so.” (From Inside the Verse Novel: Writers on Writing edited by Linda Weste). I definitely came across some favourites though, and sought to learn from their techniques.

Dorothy Porter wrote some riveting crime thrillers in this genre, including probably her most famous, The monkey’s mask, featuring the cynical lesbian private investigator Jill Fitzpatrick, and my favourite of hers, El Dorado, also a crime thriller, this time about the hunt for a serial child killer, which includes a focus on the friendship between an investigative police officer and his long-time lesbian friend. (Two of her other verse novels, What a Piece of Work and Wild Surmise, won the Miles Franklin Literary Award and El Dorado was nominated for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2007.)

Bernadine Evaristo, best known for her Man Booker Prize-winning book Girl, Woman, Other, wrote about her family history in the verse novel Lara, which I loved. When talking about one of her other verse novels, The Emperor’s Babe, she describes herself as a “literary archaeologist”, in that when she first found out that there were Africans in Britain before the English arrived, she felt propelled to “get black British stories out there”, so she wrote about the life of a black African girl in AD 211 in London, who becomes a lover to the Emperor. I found this book to be so clever, original and captivating.  

Sally Morgan’s Sister Heart is a heart-wrenchingly beautiful book, told from the perspective of a young Aboriginal girl who is taken from the north of Australia and sent to an institution in the distant south. Morgan cuts the words down to the bare bones and her measured use of repetition and dialogue is brilliant. It is concise and quick to read but leaves a lasting impression. I think that is one of the strengths of the verse novel form – it is possible to tell a dark or tragic story without dragging people down too much or for too long, because the poetic form allows the story to be told in crisp snippets or vignettes, with the softening and enriching addition of imagery, metaphor, rhythm or aural devices and carefully curated words. Unlike most regular novels, many verse novels can be read in one sitting where it’s possible to enjoy the beginning, middle and the end all in one evening (like a movie). 

Judy Johnson’s Jack is another one of my favourite verse novels, telling the story of a captain’s “mesmerising descent into madness on board a Torres Strait pearling lugger in the 1930s.” (from Venetia Green’s Bookreads Review). Although it’s a grim, masculine-focused read, it was fascinating in terms of the characters, the setting, the history of shell diving and the skilful use of poetry to tell the story.

I also enjoyed Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds, which is not exactly a verse novel but a masterful series of poems about divorce, telling an autobiographical story.

And my last favourite mention is Sarah Crossan’s Toffee which tells the story of a teenage girl, Allison, who runs away from her abusive father and accidentally ends up with an old lady who has dementia and thinks Allison is her childhood friend called Toffee. I have ordered Crossan’s other verse novels and can’t wait to read them, including her first one for adults, Here is the Beehive, which was released last year (see The Guardian review).  

Are verse novels popular? A 2016 article by Claire Hennessey in The Irish Times titled “The rise of the YA novel in verse” mentioned that “in American bookstores, Ellen Hopkins regularly tops the New York Times bestseller list. Hopkins, like many writers of YA verse novels, uses the sparseness of the form to explore some very difficult subjects in sensitive ways.” She said that they often attract favourable attention from critics, giving the example that “Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir of her childhood as an African-American in the 1960s, racked up a variety of awards including the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, a Newbery Honor, and a Coretta Scott King Award.” 

Imogen Russell Williams argued in The Guardian (UK) in May 2019 that “Young Adult verse novels are currently in the ascendant, with three American poets appearing on the Carnegie shortlist: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, and Rebound by Kwame Alexander. On this side of the Atlantic, the driving force behind the verse novel’s resurgence is the Irish children’s laureate Sarah Crossan, whose 2011 book The Weight of Water won acclaim both from adult reviewers and from a wide-ranging young readership. Crossan went on to produce more highly successful verse novels: One, a story of conjoined twins, won the Carnegie in 2016, and Moonrise, an account of a boy’s farewell to a brother on death row, was shortlisted for the 2017 Costa children’s prize.” 

It seems that Hennessey was right in thinking that Irish and UK writers would soon catch on to the verse novel trend happening in the USA. In that 2016 article she argued that “The American readership seems to have realised earlier than we have that poetry can be a way of tackling the very difficult subjects without giving into the temptation to preach. When every single word counts, the tendency to state the moral of the story – and then state it again just in case the reader didn’t quite understand – becomes much more obvious to both author and editor, and they can pull back in time.

Writer Lisa Jacobson, in a 2014 interview for Writer’s Victoria, listed some of her favourite Australian verse novels and stated that “I sense the form is experiencing a revival, both here and abroad.” She said this is especially so for young adult readers, writing that “in this current climate, it’s the Young Adult (YA) verse novels that are flooding the bookshelves”, maybe because “the verse novel is a great way to capture younger audiences with increasingly short attention spans and get them reading!”

Thanks to Linda Weste for putting together a book called Inside the Verse Novel: Writers on Writing where she interviews twenty-two verse novelists from the UK, USA, Australia and Canada about the genre. It was so great, when setting off on this project, to be able to start by reading direct words from verse novelists, including two of my favourites – Bernardine Evaristo and Judy Johnson. Some of the snippets that I thought were especially interesting from this book were:

Bernardine Evaristo: “I think they [verse novels] work best when there’s a real sense of character, drama and storytelling. I think the boundaries are and should be porous. The verse novel is a form of reinvention that can embrace the best of both genres – fiction and poetry.” It was so interesting to read about how she went about writing her verse novels Lara and The Emperor’s BabeLara started as a prose novel and then she spent two years reworking it into a verse novel – and The Emperor’s Babe began life as a few poems about a black Roman girl growing up in London 1800 years ago and ended up as a book-length sequence of poems about her life – “I then found myself writing a high velocity narrative that moved along at some pace but it needed its quieter moments for balance and emotional depth. As a writer whose background is in poetry and verse drama, I crafted the novel as a poet, polishing each “poem” before moving on to the next. Of course it’s a verse novel, so the poems aren’t really discrete from each other, they are more like poetic passages”.

Alice Jolly wrote that both plot and language are important in verse novels and she prefers those that are gripping page-turners. “For me, the verse or poetry of the book was not about slowing the reader down, or asking him or her to pause to admire a particularly good sentence. Instead the verse or poetry was about pushing the reader on through the narrative. I wanted to ensure that it wasn’t only the story that was pulling the reader through the book but the language as well.” When talking about her poetic techniques, she wrote “My approach was to read the work aloud to myself again and again so that I could hear the rhythms and patterns of the words.”

Christine Evans also said that she “read it aloud to myself, walking around the room. I was listening for the language to sing.” She wrote that “Narrative is primary in Cloudless, but the soul of the book is in the language, so balancing those aspects took a lot of concentration. I wanted the imagery to carry the emotional subtext of the book.”

Sarah Corbett wrote that “I also had to think about the complex web of symbols, details, images I was setting up over quite a large frame that would allow the reader to make sense of my ‘puzzle’.” Judy Johnson said that “The use of first-person dramatic monologue was my biggest narrative decision. I also used a lot of space within lines, particularly indents, to mimic the pauses in human thought and speech, or to withhold something for a few beats for effect." Alice Jolly feels “that the distinction between poetry and prose is largely illusory. A skilful writer of prose uses most of the same techniques that a poet uses.”

Ros Barber wrote that “Story is central. The form must be dictated by the story. Poetry gives you the option of greater emotional musculature, should you be brave enough to use it”.

Alan Wearne wrote that “for any verse novel ‘passing muster’ a poet must have an interest-nearing-obsession with language, character, dialogue and narrative. All these needn’t be in perfect balance, but when a verse novel lacks them all it ceased to be a novel and probably verse.” He believes that “the verse novel is the domain of poets, not novelists” and that “the idea of a novelist who hasn’t written poetry before, announcing ‘I’m going to write a verse novel…’ is laughable.”

Many verse novelists who were interviewed talked about needing to get the balance between narrative (or plot, story) and lyricism (or poetic techniques) right, including Geoff Page who wrote “Overall, the main thing I’ve learned is the important lesson of how much metaphoric or linguistic density to employ. The balance has to be ‘just right’. If not, you have a disaster on your hands.” Judy Johnson said that “It becomes obvious [in the editing process] where there is too much narrative to the point that the lyricism is lost and vice versa”. David Mason wrote “Trust the story. Don’t get too poetic.”

Christine Evans wrote that she really enjoys verse novels as a reader. “I love white space on the page, and the necessary compression and suggestiveness that the form commands.” She wrote that “the heart of a novel beats through character(s) undergoing a transformative experience … we need to travel with them as life de-rails them, and they struggle to find a way back, forward or sideways”.

Is anyone going to publish, review and read a verse novel? Alice Jolly’s book Mary Ann State, Imbecile, was recognized by the judges of major prizes such as the Walter Scott and Folio Prize, but she wrote that initially “my publishers found it impossible to get this book reviewed at all” and she goes on to advise writers against novels that “involve any typographical disruption” ie are laid out on the page like a poem, “as many readers are sadly rather cautious in their choices”.

Ros Barber, whose verse novel The Marlowe Papers won several awards, believes that “for many adult readers, the form is really off-putting. I can’t tell you how many people tell me they haven’t read The Marlowe Papers because it is in verse. The idea of poetry (and such a big chunk of poetry) is intimidating to most readers…. even to me … I’m very quick to abandon them if they don’t grab me in the first twenty pages or so.” She went on to say that “Even if the storytelling is compelling, most people won’t even find that out, because they won’t even try to read it, being intimidated by the fact that it is in verse”.

I remember listening to a Chat 10 Looks 3 Podcast in November last year where Annabel Crabb talks about a verse novel she found fascinating by Sarah Crossan, Here is the Beehive, “about a woman who’s been having an affair with a [married] bloke for a number of years … and he suddenly dies and … the whole novel is her coming to terms with grieving somebody who nobody knew she had a relationship with. … The weird thing about the book is that it is written all in verse”. Leigh Sales then says “Oh, you know what? I was going to ask you can I have it, and then as soon as you’ve said that, it’s put me off”. “No no no, no, ah but that’s the thing, I thought oh no, AND you just do not notice. It’s not like rhyming verse. It is really really engaging. Surprisingly … You really do not notice it. Even on page one”. She convinced Sales to give it a try. Crabb emphasised “This book, like it is a novel … I like you thought alright ohh (disparaging tone), I’ll give this a go … and it’s absolutely gripping. The style actually lends itself to what this character is doing which is living in her own mind, remembering fragments …”   While Sales also spoke about Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask, saying “It’s a thriller and it’s really brilliantly done and I loved it”, both Crabb and Sales’ tendency to be put off by the concept of a novel being written in verse is widespread I think. I have noticed that, while talking passionately about verse novels with friends, colleagues and acquaintances, no-one has ever written down any recommendations or asked to borrow any! I often notice a kind of blank look come over their faces and only a polite level of interest shown. Getting people to pick up a verse novel and read the first few pages might be a challenge.

Christine Evans also wrote about verse novels being hard to sell and explained how she was offered a deal by an international agent if only she would rewrite her Cloudless manuscript from verse to prose. She decided to stick to her initial vision of the book because “the book lives in the form that it came to me, and that gives me joy”, even though “the likelihood is that very few people will ever read my book”. Alan Wearne thought verse novels “could be the way of the future” or “could be the ultimate literary mug’s game”!

All those experiences and perspectives could be very depressing to someone, like me, who has just written their first verse novel manuscript! But the thing is, when I read a really good verse novel, it is so intensely satisfying. Certain stories seem to lend themselves so well to the form. And it’s good to be different, isn’t it?!

If you want to check out verse novels, these two lists might help:

Ten verse novels recommended by Sarah Crossan

and in the Young Adult genre, 14 Books in Verse You Need to Read

Other verse novels I have read include:

·        Gap by Rebecca Jessen, which won her Best Emerging Author at the 2013             Queensland Literary Awards

·        The Lumberjack's Dove by Genna Rose Nethercott

·        Walking With Camels: The Story of Bertha Strehlow by Leni Shilton

·        Freehold: Verse Novel by Geoff Page

·        Coda for Shirley by Geoff Page

·        Blood and Old Belief: A Verse Novel by Paul Hetherington 

      Below are some of the books I have read or am looking forward to reading:

    (Author quotes not otherwise attributed are from Inside the Verse Novel: Writers on Writing edited by Linda Weste). 

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