Why Verse Novels Can Be About Anything, by Stasia Ward Kehoe (Guest Post)
Being verse novelist can make one feel defensive. The form is subject to a lot of questions, such as:
WHAT is a verse novel?
HOW can you tell a story in poems?
WHY don’t you just write “normally”?
Imagine someone wanting Eminem to define “rap.” Demanding of Joss Whedon, “How come you don’t write stage plays instead of screenplays” or of dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, “How can you express narrative through movement without words”? What might the late Andy Warhol have said to somehow who asked why he didn’t just paint “realistically”?
This challenge to the verse novel form is not limited to readers. I’ve met amazing editors who admonished:
“Be CAREFUL that you don’t cross the line from verse to split-line prose.”
“When a novel is in verse, it is CRITICAL that the content demand the poetic form.”
The questions and warnings may point to a challenge to the verse novel that is not, perhaps, reflected in other literary, visual and performing arts genres. The correlation between content and form seems to be held to a more stringent standard for verse novels. I am not certain why this is the case. Perhaps it is the relative rarity of novels in verse, or perhaps it is because verse novels exist in a strange sort of literary limbo between traditional poetry and mainstream prose novel forms.
Regardless of the why, I used to quake at the remarks I mentioned above, scurry back to my computer and try to figure out how to make dialogue in a verse novel NOT split-line prose. In my first novel, Audition, I was so conscientious about the verse form mimicking the choreographic pedagogy of a ballet class that the last word of the novel is “reverance” which, in its ballet-class French, describes the final movement of the class: a curtsey of thanks to the teacher.
I’m over it. I’m done making excuses for poetry. After reading many verse novels, traditional novels, and novels that walk all kinds of structural lines (think Siena & Mark Siegel’s To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel or Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief), I’ve decided on a new paradigm for the relationship requirement between form and content:
THE FORM OF A NOVEL SHOULD BE THE ONE IN WHICH THE AUTHOR WRITES AS HIS/HER TRUEST SELF, FEELS MOST CONNECTED TO THE TEXT, AND CREATES WORK OF HIGHEST, MOST UNIQUE QUALITY.
It also seems to me that it is the art of a work’s creator to use his or her talents to MAKE the style and content of the piece work together. And, ultimately, the form a piece takes doesn’t have to fit in a narrow box, such as poetry without “split-line” dialogue or prose novels without snippets of poems, graphic designs, or other creative elements embedded within them. In practice, this also means verse novels, like any other creative work, can be about anything. And readers who appreciate all genres of story can find something to love in verse form. Some suggestions…
LOVE & LEFTOVERS by Sarah Tregay
AFTER THE KISS by Terra Elan McVoy
FORGET ME NOT by Carolee Dean
I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME by Lisa Schroeder
BECAUSE I AM FURNITURE by Thalia Chaltas
SOLD by Patricia McCormick
Anything by Ellen Hopkins
BRONX MASQUERADE by Nikki Grimes
UNDER THE MESQUITE by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
THE LANGUAGE INSIDE by Holly Thompson
WICKED GIRLS: A NOVEL OF THE SALEM WITCH TRIALS (Stephanie Hemphill)
THE SURRENDER TREE: POEMS OF CUBA’S STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM (Margarita Engle)
SALT: A STORY OF FRIENDSHIP IN A TIME OF WAR (Helen Frost)
Stasia Ward Kehoe grew up performing on stages from New Hampshire to Washington, DC. She holds a BA in English from GeorgetownUniversity and an MA in Performance Studies from New York University. She now lives in western Washington State with her husband and four sons. Stasia's novels include Audition and The Sound of Letting Go.