I’m Not a Poet, But I Played One in a Novel
Jennifer R. Hubbard
Kelly asked me to write about poetry, and especially what it was like to have a poetry-writing character in my first novel. I’ve written poetry for years, but mostly as an emotional outlet rather than as a serious attempt to make art that anyone else would want to read. While I’ve worked to bring my prose to a professional level, poetry is a creative stretch, particularly helpful in its focus on rhythm, strong imagery, and word choice. I try to bring those elements into my prose writing.
In The Secret Year, I had a character, Julia, who wrote both prose and poetry. We get to read some of her writing, viewing it always through the filter of her untimely death. When I had to show her poetry, I asked myself how I could do this, not being a strong poet myself. I didn’t want her work to be a joke, to be laughably bad.
On the other hand, it didn’t have to be expert either; Julia wasn’t a poetic prodigy. And her words—both prose and poetry—often had a self-consciousness, a bravado, a trying-on of attitudes, an attempt to portray her life as more dramatic than it actually was. I asked myself what her poetry did have to be. And I realized that the part of it that was relevant to the story would reflect her passionate attachment to the main character, Colt, as well as her fears about the strength of that passion. I also realized that I didn’t need entire poems to appear in the book, just a couple of lines that worked in the story.
So I wrote a “Julia poem,” in character. Then I pulled from it the most intense, cringingly intimate lines, because they reflected the depth of what Colt had lost and also the depth of his secrecy. The point was to show the exposed nerves of loss, and to emphasize how vulnerable Colt had been in his intimacy with Julia. She put into words the most raw needy part of him, what Colt would feel but never say himself.
Again, many thanks to Jenn for writing this!