Somehow, after 16 years of writing poetry, I seem to have
accidentally started a novel. If you aren't in the writing world, you may
not understand why I shudder at the very thought. "What's the difference?"
I can hear you say. "Words are words, and a novel might sell better anyway!"
Words are words, and the lamest novel will
probably outsell a book of poems. But this skirts the main point, which is
that the words of a poem are generally fewer, and those of a novel more numerous.
To someone like me, whose average poem is 18 lines long, the idea of writing
200 pages seems like Mt. Everest. And it isn't just length! There's plot,
subplot, character, story arc, conflict, climax it's a whole new ball
game. Writing a poem is like plucking a ripe pear from a tree and biting into
it. Writing a novel is like planting the orchard.
Many novelists began as poets, and some (like Barbara Kingsolver and John Updike) turn to poetry between novels. This doesn't make me feel any better. Just because something's been done, doesn't mean that I should do it. At no time soon will I be climbing Mt. Everest, for instance, or even para-sailing over Lake Tahoe.
The universe seems to be nudging me toward this novel in its usual wily fashion it likes to point us in directions we never would have agreed to go if asked. It started with three poems about the same young pioneer couple. I should have seen trouble coming. I never write about history. But one of my favorite aspects of writing is how we surprise ourselves, and I like to stay open to what unplanned things can happen when my pen hits the page. So I was asleep to danger and went blithely on. After the first three poems, a few more appeared then several years passed, a poem here, a poem there, and suddenly I had 45 of them. I was horrified. They weren't random, either, they told a story. I groaned. The story had only just started, but it's hard to think of throwing out 45 poems that's half a poetry book. I was in a fix. In order to use the poems, I'd have to finish the story. And even if it stayed in poetic form, people were going to read it as a novel.
Most poets are not in a high tax bracket. Not to be too mercenary about it, but if I turned this novel-in-poems into an actual novel, I might be able to pay for health insurance, not a minor consideration around here. There could even be some money left over for firewood.
The only trouble is, I have no idea how to write a novel. What I've done so far is to fix a continuity problem: my pioneers had a milk cow in poem 3, which, by poem 15, had turned into a herd of goats. I kept the goats. But now what do I do? I guess I'd better find some novelist to ask.
Among certain poets this would be considered slumming, but I'm not proud.