Welcome to ‘It’s an experiment!’ Each month I’ll be introducing you to different forms, styles, and methods of playing around with hybrid work. I’ll introduce the concept, give you some insight into its use, show you lots of examples and provide some practical tips and tricks for making it work.
Over the course of the following two columns we are going to look at the differences between poetry and stories, and how we can borrow from each of those basic forms to create something new. This month: narrative poetry.
What is the difference between a poem and a story?
Let’s look at the absolute basics – you will immediately be able to find exceptions to most of these, but when considering hybrid forms it is useful to first find the ‘rules’ that you want to break.
As mentioned you will no doubt be able to name many pieces that are exceptions to the above criteria, but that’s good! Creativity comes from playing around with structures and subverting expectations, and the more examples of that you can find, the better.
So now we know the basic criteria for a poem and a story. Take a look at your own writing: do you follow these rules? When you sit down to write something, do you think, ‘This is going to be a poem!’, or do you just see what happens? If you have decided to write a poem, how do you approach the content differently to how you would approach writing a story? What makes your poetry, poetry?
What is a narrative poem?
There’s an argument that a narrative poem is just another form of poetry and not a hybrid. Here’s the thing: hybrid work doesn’t always need to be something shocking and new; people have been messing around with artforms since the dawn of time. It is in our nature to be curious and experimental, so our narrative poetry exercises this month join in with a long and distinguished history. In fact, narrative poetry used to be more popular than other types of poetry! Think about The Canterbury Tales, for example. A collection of 24 narrative poems written between 1388 and 1400, they were so popular and widely read (and listened to) that their influence is still felt today. Interest in narrative poetry dropped off in the 18th century as lyrical poetry became fashionable but it never went away – Edgar Allen Poe wrote, The Raven, one of his most famous poems (and a narrative poem) in 1845. These classic narrative poems/epics were written using rhyme and metre, but for our more modern version we’re first going to try free verse.
So, if you have never written a narrative poem before, where should you start?
Start with the story: plotting vs. pantsing
The story writers among you may have come across ‘plotting vs. pantsing’ before. Basically, ‘plotting’ is to begin with a skeletal outline of the plot and fill in details later, and ‘pantsing’ is to start writing with no idea what is going to happen! ‘Fly by the seat of your pants,’ and make things up as you go. There are pros and cons to both of these when writing a story, so you need to go with what works for you. For this exercise, I am going to show you one way to write a narrative poem that requires you to write a very short story first.
Once you have practiced a few times you can veer as far away from these instructions as you like (in fact I highly encourage that) but for now, give this a try: you need to come up with the basic plot of a story. Whether you write it out first in bullet-points (plotting) or you just sit and bash out a 150 word story without knowing how it will end (pantsing), you still need to end up with a short story (known as ‘flash fiction’). Keep it very simple – you do not need metaphors, or heavy descriptions, or to focus on emotions at this stage. Just write out the facts of what happens in your story. What do the characters do? Aim for around 200 words – if it gets any longer, start cutting out unnecessary lines. Here’s my example:
A man proposes to a woman while sitting on a country wall. They have been together for some time, though he is mean and sometimes violent. They live in a small country village and she stayed with him because it was expected, and women were supposed to do what was expected. While proposing he talks about all the reasons they should be together, but she realises it would be the same as ownership. She doesn’t want to be owned. She turns him down, throws the ring into the bushes and he gets angry at her so she runs away. She runs into the forest to become one with nature and remove herself from village life. Years later she sits on the same wall again and she notices that the ring she threw away is entangled in the growth of new trees. She has no regrets. (145)
I wouldn’t be happy with this if it were a piece of flash: it would need more explanation, more description, more additions to ‘show, not tell’, etc. However as an outline for a narrative poem it will do just fine.
Decide on your point of view
Just as with flash, next you need to decide who is telling this story. In my example I have a few choices. I could use the man who is proposing and turn this into a dark and angry piece. I could choose an animal or even plant in the forest, welcoming the woman into their home. I could choose an omniscient narrator who knows all and is not directly involved.
I decided to go with the woman and write in the first person, ‘I’. Not everyone enjoys first person, but for my taste I quite like it for short, punchy pieces. Look at your short story outline and decide which point of view you’d like to try – remember you can always come back later and try a different one.
Choosing your hybrid criteria
You might not know at the start how you want this piece to go, but looking back at the table of criteria might help. I like to pick out some criteria from each form I’m trying to combine and keep those in mind as I go to make sure I get a combination of the two rather than end up back with ‘a poem’ or ‘a story’. I’m going to highlight the criteria I chose for my example:
Keep your list as a visible checklist while writing, and once you are done with your first draft, check through it again to make sure you included everything you wanted to include.
I’m going to show you how the lines of my piece, ‘Belonging to moss’ (first published by From the Farther Trees, September 2021 and also in my book ‘Pull Yourself Together’, Alien Buddha Press) compares to the skeletal outline story I showed you previously:
I hope that comparison was helpful. If you would like to read the complete version of ‘Belonging to moss,’ (not only to read the ending, but also to see how I structured it into hybridized stanzas) you can read it here: From the Farther Trees 2021 ‘Trees’ Issue.
Arden Hunter is an ND aroace agender writer, artist, and performer and the EIC of Cutbow Quarterly. They have words, audio, and art hosted and with Full House Literary Magazine, Fifth Wheel Press, and Kissing Dynamite among other places, plus published books of experimental hybrid work and poetry. Find them on Twitter @hunterarden, Instagram @thegardenofarden and at ardenhunter.com.