Web Editor’s Note: Please join me in welcoming Brenda Joyce Patterson, poet, writer, librarian,and the newest columnist for DIY MFA! In her column, Writing Small, she’ll be talking about the world of short fiction and poetry!
Raise your hand if you read poetry. How about short stories?
I so wish I could be a fly on the wall to see if anyone raised a hand. Some of you probably never think of poetry or short stories except as those dreaded things you had to read in high school.
Let’s face it, we writers dream about writing the Great American Novel. Or, if we’re willing to admit it out loud, dashing off the next blockbuster-novel-turned-into-blockbuster-movie. We’re focused on the big stuff–a novel–with little thought to its shorter, smaller counterparts. We write to be read. We want to be known for our elegant phrasing or visceral plots. Secretly we want to be famous and as a writer, fame (being known) only comes if you write a novel. Right?
Not necessarily. I’ll let you in on a secret. Writing a novel isn’t the only way to make a reputation as a writer. Poetry and other short writing forms help us broaden our writing skills. They can also get you noticed.
Short Forms Make Reputations, Too
I’m a librarian as well as a voracious and catholic reader. I’m a writer who loves short writing forms: poetry, short stories, essays and articles. I’m also the newest genre columnist at DIY MFA and those short forms are the reason.
Here’s how that happened. Music made me want to write poetry. The Way of the World by Earth, Wind and Fire, to be exact. My first poem, which leaned a bit too heavily on that album, was included in a countywide student poetry anthology. Despite the urging of my junior high English teacher, I didn’t write another poem. Why? I couldn’t choose another topic on which to write.
In high school I encountered a poem, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan,that set my whole body ringing. Everything about the poem — dream-tinged atmosphere, rhythm, and visceral images — fascinated me. I especially latched onto the lines: “A damsel with a dulcimer / In a vision once I saw: / It was an Abyssinian maid / And on her dulcimer she played, / Singing of Mount Abora.”
Throughout school, the only black women I encountered in poetry were Phillis Wheatley and Coleridge’s Abyssinian maid. Wheatley’s poetry was too formal and removed for my taste. Neither struck a chord of belonging in me. Without a place to begin writing, poetry danced out of my reach.
I graduated from high school; started college and got a library job. It was five years later that poetry truly claimed me. There, in the library on the cover of a just-returned book of poetry, I saw my face — a black woman’s face — reflected back to me. Nikki Giovanni’s face gazing out from her book, Black Feeling, Black Talk, shifted my view of what poetry is about and who creates it. Her poems were straight-forward and unapologetic in a voice familiar to me. That was what I wanted to do; give substance to feelings not usually voiced. Finally, I had a guide; writing poems was within my reach. I collected more of Giovanni’s books and those of other black women poets like Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks.
I joined a local poetry group and wrote poetry regularly. Writing led to performing poetry at cafes, libraries, universities and library conferences. Confidence in my developing writing skills as well as my growing reputation as a poet garnered other opportunities. I was invited to write book reviews, copy for art exhibit-party brochures, articles on literature, newspaper columns, and poetry. Two other friends, poets KC Jarrett, the late Margery Cunningham and I formed a poetry troupe, Women of Words.
As counterpoint and accompaniment, I read widely and fell deeper in love with writers of my beloved poetry and short stories. Discovery of one author organically led to another; their names a litany of writing excellence. Nikky Finney. Sharon Olds. Sandra Cisneros. Andre Dubus. Raymond Carver. Lucille Clifton.
I dreamed of travel and new experiences to fuel my writing. I needed to see people like me doing the things I hoped to do. I stumbled upon creative nonfiction author, Eddy L. Harris, while searching for travel narratives by people of color. His book, Native Stranger, spoke on belonging, nationality, race and art; about finding your place. Harris’ contemplative and elegant writing stuck bedrock in me. Eager to find more narratives like his, I sent an ad to Transitions Abroad, an alternative travel magazine, hoping to connect with travelers of color.
Through its editor, I met travel journalist Elaine Lee. Through email, we discussed poetry, writing, travel and its challenges for women of color. Eventually we celebrated the acceptance of her proposal for Go Girl!: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure, a book of travel essays by women of color.
Our talks led to an invitation for me to submit an essay. For years, I tried to find my way into writing. I yearned to find stories about and by writers who looked like me. Astoundingly, my search led to my essay, The Kindness of Strangers, being published alongside works by Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Writing short forms gave me the experience (and courage) to apply for a spot on DIY MFA’s writing team.
But What About Me?
By now you’re thinking that sounds good for you, Brenda, but what about me? How do I use poetry and other short forms for my writing?
First, read poetry and short stories. If you don’t know where to start, pick up any copy of The Best American Short Stories or The Best American Poetry. I suggest starting with The Best American Short Stories 2012, particularly Roxane Gay’s short story, North Country. Her story — lucid and frank — drew me in; I saw pieces of myself in the writing.
Read the anthology with a small notebook and your favorite writing instrument by your side. You’ll want to read with an eye for well-constructed turns of phrase, passages with visceral descriptions and so. Make notes of what catches your interest. You’ll need to use the following Steven Pinker quote as your guide: “Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose.”
If you haven’t a clue of what Pinker is talking about, the blog Great Writers Steal, run by Kenneth Nichols, examines writing across genres to discover what about each piece is worth “stealing” for your own writing. Great Writers Steal points out specifics about technique, tone and other things the author successfully conveyed. There’s a good analysis on Gay’s writing in North County: https://www.greatwriterssteal.com/2013/03/23/what-can-we-steal-from-roxane-gays-north-country/
In upcoming columns, I’ll share poems and short stories, literature’s mild-mannered superheroes, as blueprints to help hone your writing skills. Together, with a detour or two, we’ll learn to weave their subtle lessons in voice, characterization and place into creating our own poems, short stories, and novels. We’ll explore techniques to reading widely — spontaneously and planned — that will work towards your writing goals.
Join me as I delve into DIY MFA’s new column, Writing Small.
Brenda Joyce Patterson is a poet, writer, librarian, and lover of short writing forms. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in Vayavya, Gravel Magazine, and Melancholy Hyperbole. Along with works by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Alice Walker, her travel essay “The Kindness of Strangers” appeared in Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure.