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On an “alleged ‘story’,” that “wreaks of poetry”

A mini-discussion about poetry and fiction transpired at Annalemma.

Afton Carraway asserts that a story, “Illusions [N2],” featured in the latest edition of Annalemma, is, because its “[l]iterary devices, rythms [sic], cadence,” and its lack of plot, really a poem; and that “all it is missing is lines and stanzas and, in fact, all you have to do is reformat the page slightly and you’ve got lines and stanzas…LINES AND STANZAS, I tell you!”

Editor Chris Heavener responds:

The more I get involved with writing and the writing community, with other writers and other publications, both print and online, the more I become exposed to writers who are doing some exciting experimentation with language and form, straddling that line between poetry and fiction. J.A. Tyler is one of those writers. I feel “Illusions [n2]” is an dark piece that flat out rejects the traditional format of narrative voice and conventional storytelling. And that’s one of the styles that I’m into as a writer and an editor these days.

Carraway persists with what I would consider to be a narrow view of poetry, and, frankly, displays ignorance of the many forms poetry takes:

Poetry, being mostly void of complete sentences, is chock-full of individual words put together in a collage to create the sense of a larger image.  In poetry, one uses as little words as possible in order to get across a greater picture.  Whether a poem tells a story or not, they need no plot, they need no format – its just image after image after image with no explanation, no justification – only ideas and pictures…

There are countless poems that contain complete sentences so it is erroneous to assert that poems are characterized by “incomplete” sentences. While collage is certainly a device used in poetry, it’s by no means a defining characteristic. Lines and stanzas are just another device and certainly not the only way that a poem may be structured. I think it’s also a gross simplification to characterize poetry as simply a pile-up of “image after image after image with no explanation, no justification – only ideas and pictures…”

So, this brings me to ask: How do you distinguish poetry from fiction?

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

9 thoughts on “On an “alleged ‘story’,” that “wreaks of poetry”

  1. Hey John, thanks for the repost!

    I’d agree with you that Afton’s idea’s of what a poem is, or should be, seems constrictive and antiquated.

    It’s up to the writer to distinguish if a piece is poetry or fiction. Readers can argue all day long about whether or not a piece is fiction or poetry but at the end of the day, the writer’s intent is the bottom line. If you write a story like J.A.’s and submit it to a journal that doesn’t accept poetry then it’s going to be looked at through the lense of fiction, and that’s the lense you intend it to be seen through.

    Unless the piece gets picked up in a poetry journal, then accepted as the war cry poem of a political movement, then reposited in the national poetry archive, in which case the people have spoken for you and your story is now a poem.

    1. Does that mean I have to decide? I don’t want to.

      Sometimes I submit the same poetic / prose piece as a micro fiction one place and as a poem to another…

    1. Agreed, but then why do people (editors, readers, writers) continue to have such visceral reactions to ‘stories’ that they think should have been labeled as ‘poems’ & vice versa?

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