Associate Professor of English, Susan Tekulve, was the guest writer for Converse’s low-residency MFA blog. Tekulve is the author of multiple books, including Second Shift: Essays, and In The Garden of Stone, which is the winner of the South Carolina Novel Prize and an Independent Publishers Prize.
In the blog post, Tekulve discusses how the process of writing poetry has changed the way she thinks about composing her fiction and essays.
Converse’s MFA in Creative Writing is a two-year, co-educational low residency program for serious, independent writers seeking advanced instruction in poetry, fiction, young adult fiction, and creative nonfiction. Converse’s unique MFA program also offers a second genre option, which allows students to minor in a second genre for a semester alongside their major writing genre during their studies.
Finding the DNA of My Stories in Poetry
By Susan Tekulve
Over the last few years, I began to realize that the material for my stories—fictional and nonfictional—had stopped fitting into the traditional narrative structure, one that demands linearity, and cause and effect. This could have happened because I’d reached a liminal point in my life, both personally and creatively, but I let that worry me a whole lot. I never gave up writing, though I spent a lot of time trying to impose linear structures upon characters who simply did not want to abide the conceptions that traditional narrative demands. The result, of course, was that I wrote a lot of long, rambling stories and essays that never really went anywhere, and often fizzled on the page long before they resolved themselves.
Then, early last spring, I started writing poetry—after a 30-year hiatus from writing in verse–and my material began to pour forth rather quickly onto the page. I began each poem with an image or event, and then I allowed the poem to fill with other images in an organic way. I let the poems leap from image to image until I discovered—always by surprise—what revelations those images were leading me to. Once I started working in this way, I was able to write about subjects that I’d been wrestling unsuccessfully with for years. I began working with material I hadn’t ever considered writing about at all. I concluded that my stories had been in search of a new vessel, and that new vessel was poetry because a poem de-emphasizes the straight narrative line, and relies upon images, language, and syntax to create forward motion, unity, and revelation.
I thought maybe I was going through a “poetry phase,” that I would work through my new material as poems for a month or so, and then I’d return to writing fiction or essays. But as summer arrived, my stories just kept coming to me as poems. I honestly never thought of myself as a poet, but as one who was conducting an experiment in writing poetry. As I continued my experiment, I set out a few simple ground rules for myself: I would read one book of poetry a day, or the collected works of a single poet every week. I would begin each of my own poems with a triggering image, (instead of a preconceived notion of what I thought I was writing about), and I would plumb those images until they revealed the poem’s meaning to me.
Summer became fall, and I surrendered to writing poetry, mostly because I felt energized by the process. I awoke every morning, eager to go the work and discover where any given poem would take me. I’d end the day’s writing session with jotting down another image that I wanted to explore in another poem. I was living in a kind of semitrance, which is where most writers want to live. And when I wasn’t writing, I read poets whose work I knew, or didn’t know, but now I was reading them as though they were all my teachers. The lyricism of poetry allowed me to embrace that liminal space I had been stuck in for so long. Once I let go of the linear, I no longer worried.
In an interview, the poet Ellen Bryant Voigt defines the lyric as “born, perhaps, from recognition of impermanence, rather the opposite of chiseling a poem into stone—and unlike the chisel, it allows faster, multiple shifts of tone, redirections, mid-course corrections.” What this means is that the lyric counters the structures of the sequential and linear often associated with the narrative. By taking on the lyric mode, I was able to juxtapose images, leap through metaphors, and use other lyric patterns to focus on a structural arrangement that de-emphasizes narrative sequence. By highlighting the lyric present, I found the moment of heightened emotional response and understanding that the poem explored. All of these skills are transferrable to prose writing.