Poetry for Fiction Writers: From Haiku to Pre-Islamic Arabic Verse

As noted in a prior post—Worry About Words—my greatest anxiety about creative writing is at the nitty-gritty word crafting level. I feel confident enough where non-fiction is concerned. But stringing together words that evoke time, place, action and emotion terrifies me. Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but you get the idea.

I’ve reviewed many editing resources: books, articles, videos, etc., so, I think I understand the principles of ruthless self-editing. If anything, I risk taking the word-crunching too far—cutting so close to the bone that there’s nothing left for the broth. Most beginning fiction writers over-write. I’ve been told that I tend to under-write. I’m content to lean towards minimalism, but I do want to leave the reader satisfied, not rushed through to a dry and exhausting end.

I recently stumbled upon a podcast about the value of poetry for fiction writers. The speaker happened to be an expert on Haiku—that minimalist Japanese genre that we all amused ourselves with in grade school. Intrigued, I ordered a couple of books—collections of the Haiku masters—and dove in. It required some refocusing of my brain but once I made my way, I found myself squealing with pleasure at these spare treasures.

How can you not love this stuff?

A bee
staggers out
of the peony.

Or,

Awake at night—
the sound of the water jar
cracking in the cold.

Or, one of my favorites:

Fleas, lice,
a horse peeing
near my pillow.

That last one made me LOL.

But seriously, the drilled-down immediacy of these tiny moments are exquisite and fun—like little STOP signs saying, Take notice! of everything.

Those three by Matsuo Bashō, 1644-1694 are just a sampling of the hundreds found in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, & Issa, edited by Robert Hass.

Pre-Islamic Arabic Poetry:

At what may be the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve also begun reading pre-Islamic Arabic poetry—gleaning imagery, vocabulary and hopefully absorbing a bit of rhythm and worldview along the way.

This is from Reynold Alleyne Nicholson’s 1922 translation of the poet Labid’s Mu’allakat, so it is twice removed from our modern ears but that makes it all the more alluring.

Then quits he the field, the rain-floods ebbing round him:
He goes like a race-horse covered with cloths, no faster,
And makes for a winding gully; and now he ambles,
And now he puts forth the utmost of speed, unsparing:
His fore-feet cleave the shrub-sown sands of Dahna
As players for stakes who rummage amidst a sand-heap
He crosses the plain, alone, in his morning glory,
As bright as the blade of sword that is newly polished.

That’s just a taste. There’s so much more. But I’m holding back the best because I’m may put some of it in my characters’ mouths.

Night Train to Bucharest – 1992 – Flash Memoir

FLASH MEMOIR

Photo on Foter.com

Photo on Foter.com

Squeezed onto a hard bunk, high up the compartment wall, she settled into the night journey. She would not see the countryside slip past the black window below. But she was alone, on a train, and headed to a far-off city that only three years earlier had been forbidden.

On Christmas Day, 1989, after crackers and pudding, she had gaped with others at the TV screen – BBC images of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, bullet-ridden.

Now she lay in the dark, the ceiling so close her breath circled back to her face; aware of the other women in the cabin – crinkling paper, digging about in baggage, whispering in an unknown tongue. The piercing whistle. The ka-chunk, ka-chink, ka-chunk, ka-chink. The shush. Shush. Shush. The steady rocking of the bunk – so began the long night.

She did not sleep but lay in adrenalin fueled alertness, absorbing every metal-on-metal screech, every curve in the track, the way her center of gravity shifted on the vinyl and pressed against the compartment wall.

Through the mesmerizing rhythm a new sound broke. Stomping, clapping, fiddling. Young men’s voices singing patriotic folk songs built to a crescendo as the train reached a station; the celebration fading into the distance as it moved further east.

Throughout the night the same pattern: mid-night celebrations, rising and falling, as new recruits set off to join the army in a changed world.

Flash Memoir – Beginning Thoughts

Photo on Foter.com

Since my main writing projects are historical novels, I’ve been longing to explore another form –  something at the opposite end of the spectrum. Work that I could finish short of decades!  And, needing no research. Wouldn’t that be grand?

Flash memoir is about as opposite as I can get. And gives me the chance to record personal experiences—no interlibrary loans!

So, I’m using my travel adventures to toy with words at a level I can’t yet apply to my fiction. (Those endeavors aren’t ready for close word-crafting).

I’m experimenting with tone, voice, rhythm, point of view, etc.

Starting with a series based on train rides – I’m just throwing them out there – wondering how they feel to anyone outside of my own head.

 

The post that follows will be my first effort. Further flash memoir posts will be linked to this one as explanation.

Worry About Words

Photo by Nick Kenrick. on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

I’m supposed to be editing my novel for story. (This is only the second draft.) But I can’t help tinkering with the words and it’s causing me a great deal of anxiety. It seems that I need another 30 years of practice before I can hope to have sentences that are either lyrical or, at least, expressive and the proper tone for the piece – words that flow with the same rhythm and feeling as their intended meaning. To improve, I’m trying to deconstruct the flowing words of others. They say you should copy passages you love – and thereby absorb skills via osmosis. I still need to do this. Maybe it will help. In the meantime I see patterns of sentence construction that I use over and over in my attempts at fiction.

This is a code need to crack. It’s one I understand logically but I can’t seem to break through with my own writing.

Scenic artists are often tasked to apply visual or physical textures randomly – so that they appeared natural, not manmade. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to keep from falling into a repeated pattern.

Property insurance adjusters can usually tell when wind or hail damage has been faked on a roof because the “damage” shows an evenly spaced pattern when looking at the entire field. Nature doesn’t do that. But humans fall into it no matter how hard we resist.

Back to words – this bent for repetition is embedded in my writing. I’m using the same syntax in nearly every sentence whether long or short. I have ProWritingAid software and the Sentence analysis shows I could do with more variation. So, this is my next step with words – copy words I love and do some structural analysis of my own.

I do believe fine writing can be learned. But I sometimes question why I would abandon 50 years of visual art experience in order to write. After all that painting, I could still do with another lifetime to conquer it.

How do I get up to speed with this new skill fast enough to create my stories before I die?