Saturday, November 22, 2008

Alice Fulton, and poets writing fiction

How many poets can you think of who can write fiction? I don't mean DO write fiction--there are plenty of those. CAN. As in, are actually good at narrative. Ed's a very good fiction-writing poet, actually (and Ed, I read your new story like two weeks ago and still haven't written you about it, but it's good); Denis Johnson was a good poet before he went whole hog for fiction and drama. But most poet fiction is not very good, as fiction. It is often excellent on the sentence level, and sometimes the paragraph level. But most poets don't seem to know how to keep their mind a few pages ahead. They're in the moment, at the expense of the past and the future.

Poet Alice Fulton is a colleague of mine, and she just published her first collection of stories, The Nightingales of Troy. I can't tell you how surprised and delighted I was to discover how good it is. We talked about the book the other day in an interview for the Writers At Cornell Blog. The stories are linked, following four generations of a family in Troy, New York; the prose is intricate and baroquely comic, packed with all manner of period detail. (Were you aware that there was once such a thing as Bayer Heroin Powder?) In a way, this book reads like poet fiction; the power in Fulton's prose is in its self-contained richness. But the stories are real stories, and together they form a larger story that is not quite a novel. Recommended.

(Also, for a sobering look at present-day Troy, check out this piece on Brenda Ann Kenneally's "Upstate Girls" photoessay, with slideshow. And speaking of poets--congratulations to Mark Doty for winning the National Book Award for poetry--couldn't have happened to a better guy.)


Pale Ramón said...

Margaret Atwood is the first who comes to mind.

Pete said...

Stuart Dybek is a very good dual threat. He might even consider adopting the old Kordell Stewart nickname "Slash", though that obviously has a whole different meaning in the fiction world, and probably not one that Dybek would prefer.

jrlennon said...

Right on both counts! Though I would call Atwood a novelist who sometimes writes poetry.

Aos said...

I was going to mention, and I suppose now I have, one of my favourite short story writers, Dylan Thomas but your characterization of poets' novels does match his approach of being in the moment (same with Under Milk Wood).

Patrick Lane, a successful Canadian poet has just released a novel, Red Dog Red Dog. which I am going to read, and which by the sounds of it, might be one of the exceptions.

rmellis said...

Atwood started as a poet, JR, not that that matters. She's a bit more prominent as a novelist now.

Jon said...

Thomas Hardy was a master of both. DH Lawrence wrote a few good poems. Robert Penn Warren also comes to mind. Robert Morgan does both well. The problem most poets have is they don't think in terms of story, they think in rythmic images and symbols, just as novelists, when they try to write poetry, are plodding and linear. I find I draw on the opposite in my work. The novelist in me wants to bring character and story into the poetry and the poet in me wants to attend to each syllable of the prose. Another weird thing is that when I'm working on a novel, which is often for years at a time, my poetry is of no interest to me, i hardly understand it. Between novels, when I will work in a rush on poems, suddenly the novels seem like the work of another hand. I don't know where the hell either of them come from.

jrlennon said...

How could I forget Bob Morgan! At this moment, I believe, we are separated only by four inches of wallboard and insulation.

R, didn't realize Atwood was a poet first...

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