A Brief Symposium: Poets Writing Nonfiction


Three of the nonfiction pieces published in Copper Nickel 26 were written, respectively, by poets Don Bogen, Shamala Gallagher, and James Allen Hall. Our interns, Steven Vigil-Roach and Steph Rowden, asked them five questions about nonfiction and the pleasures and difficulties of writing in multiple genres:

1) You each have a background in poetry. How is writing nonfiction different? What do you find appealing about nonfiction?

Gallagher: I began to write nonfiction out of frustration with my poetry. My poems were stuck in the lyric mode, in the deep interior. I would spend an entire poem striking a single note. I was always trapped inside this one affect, a kind of achy longing. It was a mood I loved, but I started to feel that I loved it the way one loves their addiction—static, with diminishing returns. I began to feel caught inside my speaker’s self-absorption, which is to say, my own. Of course, not all poetry is like this. But mine was—until I started writing nonfiction. I wrote very little poetry for a couple years, and now I’m back to writing both—and I find that now my poetry is both freer and more outward-looking.

But as a lyric poet, I also think of sentences and paragraphs as lyric. I find that the lyric in prose is hardier, less precarious. It can handle more weight without dissolving. It can handle more self-critique and more observation of others.

Hall: I like what Shamala has to say about the hardiness and sturdiness of the sentence, unbroken. In poetry, you have to learn to place silence at its most resonant, or disruptive, or hinge-y moment. Though I like using the silence of fragments or sections in nonfiction, I also love the whole unbroken utterance as utterance.

“Change your form and you change your nature,” Louise Gluck writes. I like the multiple approaches or entry points of an essay. I also like thinking in the capacious and associative ways an essay can allow, and unfolding and teasing out those associations, rather than condensing them. I think the essay’s leap can be longer for that reason.

Bogen: A good deal of my work in poetry for the last decade or so has been on song-like pieces: relatively short-lined poems of a few stanzas each, with variations on meter and slant rhyme, a generalized voice (the lyric “I”), and a focus on emotions with a handful of details to flesh out the complexities. I enjoy this kind of writing and still have a number of drafts I’m working on. But as I worked on these and other poems, I was also accumulating lots of lines and tons of specifics that didn’t fit the song-like mode: memories, description, speculation, attempts more to make sense of experience than to make it sing. The lyric essays I’ve written generally arise out of that material. Though the actual processes for the two modes are not all that different, the results are quite distinct, and it’s liberating to be able to work in both modes at this point.

As for what is appealing about nonfiction, I agree with James and will second (or, I guess, “third”) Shamala’s observation about the hardier quality of prose. Both of my essays began as poetry—“Waldeck, 1970” actually endured for a while as an awkward alternation of prose paragraphs and stanzas in free verse—but the lines seemed to sag somehow. They lacked both music and energy. I began to re-work them into prose sentences out of a feeling that the original lines were too flabby to keep the details interesting and too imagistic to allow for insights to arise as I was writing. Prose sentences offered more variety in length and construction, more intricate kinds of music, and more room to discover things. But the extra room of an essay created a new demand: While I could rely primarily on suggestion and ambiguity in a poem—that element of silence that James mentions—especially at the end, prose seemed to call for more explicit statements, even at the risk of abstract language. That may be the biggest challenge for me in writing lyric essays.

2) For Gallagher and Hall: Each of your pieces explores concepts of identity. How are issues of identity represented differently in nonfiction compared to poetry?

Gallagher: Wanting to write about the complexity of identity was another reason I turned to nonfiction. I’m mixed-race, South Indian and Irish American, but white-passing; and I’m queer, but straight-passing; and I grew up in Silicon Valley, with a lot of financial privilege, and after graduating from Stanford I worked in social services with people who were homeless due to lack of wealth. I wanted to—and still want to—make something out of all these positionings, but I didn’t know what I wanted to make. I found that my poetry couldn’t bear the situation: mine would collapse under all the necessary scrutiny and uncertainty. I just needed so much space for contradiction and desire, solidarity and self-reproach, confusion and anecdote. I needed the work to be allowed to turn upon itself and shift directions at a moment’s notice. I believe that poetry can do this too, and I’m not sure I can say how it’s different. I’m reading Airea D. Matthews’ Simulacra now, for example, and it is rich with all sorts of quick-shifting complexities. Switching to nonfiction unsettled my lyric, and as a poet I’m in a tentative, new, raw place, re-learning what the work can do.

Hall: I think the lyric is necessarily a queer form, since it exists atemporally, is involved with description and sonic texture rather than chronology and verb. The lyric encodes a kind of libidinal pleasure. The lyric tries to convey an emotionally intense experience with language. Narrative, on the other hand, makes coherent that which hasn’t gained coherence yet, and it does so in time, place, and action (those unities that might be the cornerstone of normative storytelling, if not also art-making). And yet, I love narrative—especially when the narratives convey stories of folks that aren’t likely to appear on pages, in reader’s minds.

What I find problematic about the poem as a form is its emotional hierarchies—there are only so many centers a poem can have, unless it stretches out over a book-length form (like Claudia Rankine does in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, for instance). In my nonfiction, I am trying to use lyric tools (metaphor, music, image) to make pattern in narrative, so that the ways the story makes sense is not through chronology as much as it is through voice. I also think that narrative forms sustain asides, tangents, under-stories (footnotes, say), and other re-centering formal gestures more readily than do poems. The multivocal is easier to accommodate in nonfiction, I find.

3) For Bogen and Gallagher: Sometimes in the Copper Nickel office we describe (in a quick, shorthanded sort of way) pieces of literary nonfiction as existing on a spectrum from “personal narrative” to “impersonal/associative/exploratory.” How do you see your pieces fitting into the larger scope/genre of nonfiction?

Bogen: I’m not sure where I’d fit on this spectrum. Both of my essays engage personal memories—relatively recent ones in “Inheritance” and a memory from almost fifty years ago in “Waldeck, 1970”—and both include narrative elements. But I think of them as exploratory in the particular way they move beyond memories to consider themes of time, loss, art, and the complexities of memory itself. Both seem strongly associative to me as they come to make statements based on specific images. This probably reflects how they were written: Each began with lots of details and an urge to figure them out rather than an interest in narrating past events.

Gallagher: Alas, I see my piece as thoroughly drenched in the personal. Or, actually, I take back the “alas”: I love the personal, with its intimacy and embarrassment. It’s an important feminist project of mine to insist upon the personal and confessional as rich intellectual modes. For me, “associative” and “exploratory” aren’t opposed to the personal, though. I think that often a “personal essay” has a stock format, a convention of narrative realism that sometimes works against intimacy. When my personal writing breaks that form, I think of it as moving closer to the personal.

4) For Bogen and Hall: Both of your pieces in issue 26 are primarily narrative. As poets, what do you find difficult, if anything, about moving into narrative?

Bogen: I’ve always been a bit mistrustful of narrative in lyric poems; I like it more in things like Paradise Lost. Depending on how you define it, a certain kind of narrative may be inevitable as a structuring principle—almost every poem has a beginning, middle, and end—but I’ve tried to avoid relying on it in my own poems. I’m concerned about narrative becoming too dominant in my lyric essays as well. While events—sailing for the first time, watching Triumph of the Will—can add context and energy to an essay, I don’t want narration to drive the structure as a whole. Writing nonfiction, I have to rely on “facts,” many of which come from my life, but I’m not primarily interested in telling my own story. I need to discover things that go beyond that as I write. These discoveries become the themes of the essay and govern its final structure.

I should also admit that I find narration incredibly difficult and much prefer to rely on description, evocation, juxtaposition, association, and a lot of other elements from lyric poetry as a way of moving an essay along. I take pleasure in the etymology of the phrase expository writing, with its emphasis less on narrating than on displaying, and I take comfort in the etymology of the term essay, which reminds me that this kind of writing is always just an attempt to get at something.

Hall: Like Don, I’m not primarily interested in telling my own story, either—except as it might be a way to enter into a larger story, or a way to analyze certain ways power shapes identity. In other words, “I” is an example of one product of power relationships, all of which are various strands of narrative contexts which conspire to make that “I.” Don does a great job of differentiating between a lyric “I” (observant, watchful, analytical—the “discoveries” that “become the themes of the essay and govern its final structure”—that is just so smart!) and a narrative “I” (which can create coherence and vantage-point and action around which a story functions).

But I love stories, probably because they attempt to make sense out of inchoate experience; they shape and subordinate and give action over into archetype. I especially love stories that are funny—since humor can subvert normative expectations.

When a story fascinates me—like the narrative of the time I delivered a dildo—it often takes me a long time to discovery the shape, the why. I delivered two dildos in the late 90s to a man in Fort Lauderdale; I didn’t write an essay about it until 2017—maybe 20 years? later. I’d tried writing about it, but it eluded me. Because I thought the event itself was enough; but plot itself is never enough—except as a way to reveal fascinations.

5) What advice would you give to writers just starting out in nonfiction or those interested in crossing genres?

Bogen: The idea of crossing genres fascinates me. It’s exciting to encounter the possibilities and challenges of a new kind of work. Re-approaching themes and material in different modes can be immensely rewarding. But, despite their various conventions and traditions, the boundaries between nonfiction and poetry seem fairly fluid to me. In both modes, writing is writing. For me the main point is to write with an eye toward craft and ongoing discovery, whether that be in lines and stanzas or sentences and paragraphs.

Gallagher: For me, the move into nonfiction was an act of freeing myself from the constraints of a form I knew better. I never learned any rules for writing nonfiction, nor do I think that it has rules. Or maybe it does have them, but if so, don’t tell me: I want to remain ignorant. I wrote nonfiction because I had desires and troubles that I wasn’t able to explore in poetry, and nonfiction has allowed me, more than any other form, to write down everything impossible and irreconcilable I want to say and call that a work of literature. I have no advice to a nonfiction writer starting out. I will just say this: welcome! I can’t wait to see what you make.

Hall: In Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved tells Sethe: “Tell me your diamonds.” Those earrings fascinated the ghost-baby-returned-to-flesh. Everyone, it turns out, has diamonds like those. Tell me yours.

Also, I’d say read. I can recommend terrific recent books like Shaelyn Smith’s The Leftovers, Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary, Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Julie Marie Wade’s Catechism: A Love Story, Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies, and Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, among many, many others.