Against Genre

The concept of genre—a defined category of writing, like poetry or novels or plays—isn’t currently fashionable. Many people find such categories too restrictive or fussy. Much of the energy of contemporary literature is in crossing and mixing various genres in single pieces of writing. Yet when it comes to poetry, it can help to think about genre in a more isolated way, at least temporarily, because the question of genre is really a question of purpose: Why did the writer choose a certain type of writing, and how does that choice affect how we should read the work before us?

Matthew Zapruder, Why Poetry

I offer this quote from Matthew Zapruder’s book because the concept of genre, for me, is very different, and I wanted to write about the idea of genre from another perspective. My intent in this post isn’t to drag Matthew for his perspective, though I will respectfully disagree with some basic assumptions in his essay (and also note the quote above is just a quick aside and not at all a major point he makes in the essay).

First, I don’t believe genre is a concern for the writer. Genre is a concern of the publisher and the bookseller, and this is because genres are sales categories. Genre indications tell booksellers where to shelve certain books in their store, at the recommendation of the publisher, who has assigned it a genre in order to ensure the book is able to find its most likely readers.

Genre is taught to writers, for sure. These categories have become part and parcel of the writing program, so much so that many programs don’t allow students to take classes outside their genre of admission. I find this troubling. While I agree that deep knowledge of a mode of writing is valuable, exclusive study isn’t necessarily as valuable. But I say this, in part, because my own writing practice was deeply shaped by and informed by film form and film theory, two areas I never would have learned in a poetry workshop but whose ideals—sequence, suture, juxtaposition, narrative, composition and mise-en-scene, persistence of vision—all remain present in my poetic practice. So, yeah, I have a horse in this race.

Zapruder suggests in his essay that “stories and novels create characters and situations and tell stories; journalism communicates information; essays engage in that hard-to-categorize effort to explore, however loosely, a certain idea; editorials and sermons tell us what we should and should not do, and believe; and so on.”

But I would argue a poem, too, can do all these things. That an essay can have characters and situations. That novels can communicate information. That short stories can explore an idea, however loosely. I think very clearly of the Juliana Spahr essay “Spiderwasp, Or Literary Criticism,” a foundational text for me, or any of her books (Fuck You—Aloha—I Love You and thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs in particular).

So if this is the case—if my assumptions about what genres can do is valid, that is—then the categories Zapruder puts forward here become less enforceable.

In 2017, I had a reckoning with my relationship to genre. I had been writing novels, short stories, essays, screenplays, and hybrid pieces that cribbed from all genres for many years, but I noticed I always knew what form a piece of writing would take when I began writing it. I always knew when something would have a line break, or when it was a narrative that would unfold over many pages. I also knew when I would need to stitch together many approaches to discover the story in the interstitial moments it created.

I started to wonder if all writing was poetry, and any further categorization was just describing a mode of poetry.

Poetry is, after all, the oldest or one of the oldest modes of literary expression. Does it not make sense in some way that the novel is offspring of the poem?

I think all of this can stand if we’re thinking about genre from the standpoint of artistic production. Writers, be free to write how you write. Let it be your own.

The complicating factor is, as always, the marketplace.

Few writers have made careers while consistently eschewing genre’s restricting embrace. Mark Z. Danielewski is a writer particularly adept at it, as has Carole Maso, whose own book of writing about writing is called Break Every Rule, an artistic philosophy I endorse. When it comes time for us to move our writing from the desktop to desktop publishing, well, then things do get a bit more sticky and, I agree, they look a lot more like what Zapruder put forward.

This is because book buyers want to have a reasonable understanding of what they’re buying. They want it to meet their expectations. This means a mystery novel should have a mystery at its center, that a horror novel should be terrifying, that literary fiction will likely explore the internal lives of its characters. And that a poem…should have line breaks?

Except prose poems.

And poems with long end-stopped lines, I guess.

And poems in which the poet has decided not to use line breaks.

It’s much easier for me to think of poetry as “not other genres” than of a thing itself, and partly this is because for me, the magic of poetry is its permissiveness. Its inclusion. Its ability to morph and change and invite experimentation and innovation. (Other genres can do this too! I’m not saying they can’t.)

When I approach poetry as a place to invent, I find myself taking much more interesting risks, experiencing more foundational failures, and discovering what literature is capable of.

But poetry that doesn’t play by genre-based rules may struggle to find a readership, which poetry already struggles to do (for a lot of reasons that will probably be its own blog post later). So, no, I’m not doing Poetry (as a field) any favors with my ideological stance. I’m sorry, Poetry. I’m not doing it to hurt you.

Poetry contains multitudes. It should not be tamed.

 

The New Year

First, this post owes a big debt of gratitude to Kelli Russell Agodon. A few months ago, Kelli tweeted about “the old days” when poets blogged widely and regularly. I, too, missed that spirit of community, and in the tweets that followed from others, a movement took back its shape, and many, many poets committed to returning to blogging in 2018.

So, here I am. Here we are.

My first post in this blog was published on August 31, 2004. I was going into the last semester of my MFA program. I was thinking about poetry community and where I might find it. I was thinking about my writing, and I was thinking about LGBTQ voices in poetry. I was reading widely, voraciously, and I wanted to talk about those books. I was constantly inspired.

Through blogging, I found….everything.

Now, with six chapbooks, a full length collection, and a forthcoming second collection, my writing career is a lot different, but my writing life is the same. I still crave community, to talk with poets and share ideas and discuss books. But having rested in my efforts to challenge myself the last few years (for a variety of personal reasons both publicly known and publicly unknown), I started to fall short. Reading less. Seeking community less. Hiding in my house. Working on poems–sometimes.

There’s something about this format I don’t get on social media, and I miss that thing. I can’t wait to read people’s deep dives into the books they’ve just read and the creative questions they’re asking themselves. I hope this blog ends up inspiring people the way blogs have been such an important resource for me.

Here is my 2018 Literary To Do List. I’m trying to get back into the habit of setting good habits.

  • read 1 book per week
  • write 1 book review per month
  • write at least 1 blog post per week
  • submit to 2 publishers per month
  • attend 1 literary event per month

Maybe it’s too small. Maybe it’s too ambitious.

But here we go.

Get LOST

LOST returns tonight! I got season 4 for Christmas this year and already caught myself up on the past season, since it was such a short (but intense!) one.

I like the turn the show has taken in terms of how the narrative is unfolding. I think the writers had to do something like that to keep it interesting for the audience short of, you know, Claire’s baby suddenly being five years old and telling smarmy jokes.

Honestly, I think LOST is unique because the creators and executive producers have had a pretty clear plan for the first five or six seasons of the show, and they’ve diligently worked toward those goals. The way the episodes have chipped away at the mystery—while creating new ones—really demonstrates that kind of planning.

Granted, I think unexpected trouble like Michelle Rodriguez’s DUI have thrown wrenches into the overall plan. I read an interview in which one of the cast members noted that as soon as someone was arrested for a traffic violation, their character was killed off. Only Josh Holloway, who’d gotten a speeding ticket, has so far tangoed with highway patrol and kept his job.

I’ll probably sneak back over to American Idol after they finish up the Hollywood round. Until then, it’s just too much of an investment for me to handle.

Plus, I need to be reading books. I went to get the next four Gossip Girl novels from Borders last night. The only one they didn’t have in stock? The next one I need to read.

Lame.

I’m back and better than ever.

There’s nothing quite like a holiday, complete with eleven hours of travel (door to door) to get you feeling rejuvenated and ready for work again. Especially when you start that first day back with a parking ticket and some really disconcerting news at the office.

But I’ve shaved today, a semiannual ritual of sorts, and look twelve years old. I’m wearing a new houndstooth blazer I got on sale. I’m drinking a cup of that strong Writer’s Center coffee. And I’m ready, world, for what’s next.

I spent a good chunk of the break revising the full-length version of the Living Things manuscript. I hadn’t looked at it in ages and was, for a while, thinking about chucking it. (I chuck a lot of work.) I cut some poems, rewrote a few others, and am still tinkering with the title piece, which has been really difficult to nail down.

I think it’s getting there.

I also started rewriting a fiction piece I’ve been working on for a while called Musical Theatre in Hell.

And I read all of the second Gossip Girl novel, You Know You Love Me.

You could say I’m a little obsessed.

I’m Retiring from Poetry (Again)

Tuesday night I was bored. I was so bored I could no longer justify ignoring my unrevised poems any longer. I sat down and read through my Dorothy Gale poems, my Dorothy Eady poems, and my one Joseph Smith poem (yes, that Joseph Smith).

As soon as I wrote my post about not writing, I wrote another Joseph Smith poem, a longer one. I’m writing poems about people who experienced two compelling forms of reality. He seems to fit. Or we seem to fit as many of us now live in his version of reality.

I do not like many of these poems, which is discouraging.

In happy news, it makes me like my forthcoming book manuscript so much more. I have oscillated between liking it and hating it fo several months.

And the tentative publication date: September 2009.

When In Doubt, Kill.

For the past year and a half I’ve been working on a novel. It started out as a short story and then I thought it was going to be a series of stories and then it turned into something else. I haven’t completed a draft yet (thanks to 2007 “Year of Hell,” then moving, new job, etc), partly because I got stuck. One of the characters gets immobilized sometimes, but I figured out what to do. All along, I was planning on getting her together with the other characters in the last third of the book, but I know now that’s not going to happen because when it all comes together…she’s going to be dead already!

It was sad to make the decision, but she really has few redeeming qualities anyway. And plus, I already eighty-sixed the only likable character in the book anyway.

This has been your “Poet Writing Prose Update” for October.