Let’s Talk Poetry: Novelist Sarah Willis

October 20, 2013

Neil Carpathios

Contributing Columnist

I can almost see you, the reader, scratching your head as you scan the heading of this week’s column. I can almost hear your inner thoughts: “I thought this column was supposed to be about poetry and poets, not fiction writers and certainly not novelists.” OK. Allow me to explain.

This coming week, best-selling novelist Sarah Willis will be visiting Portsmouth and giving a free reading from her award-winning novels. This will take place on Thursday, Oct. 24, at 7 p.m. on the Shawnee State University campus in the ATC building, room 201. Books will be available for purchase and signing and free refreshments will be served. “So, what does this have to do with poetry?” I can hear you still wondering. OK. Let’s give this a try…

Poetry and prose are really first cousins in the realm of creative writing. Both give us a gift of words to entertain and enlighten. However, there are certainly differences.

Poetry, the mischievous one, likes to leave mysterious little packages on the doorstep of the brain, ring the doorbell, and then peek from behind bushes as we open the package and try to make sense of it on our own. Prose, the slightly more pragmatic one, stands waiting for us to answer the door, then hands us the package and helps us to open it, explains its contents, etc.

Both poetry and prose like to run. Poetry is the sprinter, explosive on the page. Prose is the distance runner, well-modulated and paced.

Poetry has wings and false teeth and a heart divided by lungs. Prose wears reliable shoes and packs itself a healthy snack of plums for a journey.

Poetry is a passionate kiss in a dark room. Prose is a handshake, a friendly hug in the sunlight.

Prose invents and poetry discloses.

Prose sometimes hints at the holy, and poetry is jellied religion.

Prose wants to be understood. Poetry likes walking in the shadows, not quite fully showing its face.

If a poem can be reduced to a prose sentence or summarized, there can’t be much to the poem. Each sentence written in prose feels as if there could be at least three or four ways of saying it syntactically different, and possibly better than the one chosen. But in poetry the words hopefully find themselves lining up in the best and most necessary order.

The two cousins, poetry and prose, love each other, deep down—but on the surface they sometimes are jealous of the other’s abilities. Poetry sometimes longs for prose’s narrative breadth and best-seller potential (I can vouch for that one). Prose sometimes pines for poetry’s lofty position of magic and brilliant compression (If you dribble past five defenders and dunk like Lebron James, it isn’t called sheer prose).

But now and then, the two cousins put away their differences and meet on the page. Poetry and prose happily unite, hugging each other, joining forces. Which is where the best fiction happens. Which is where Sarah Willis comes in. Take a look at the opening of her novel, Some Things That Stay:

“We move each year in spring, like birds migrating, except we don’t go back to a familiar place. We never go back. We pack up who we are and the few things that cling to us, and drive away. We are good at packing. Good at leaving behind.”

The young narrator of this novel conveys so much in a short space here and establishes the mood and tone of the story to come. Willis uses metaphorical language and simile: “like birds migrating.” She uses repetition, rhythm, and even rhyme: “We move…We never go back…We pack…We are good at…Good at…” The novel tells the story of this young girl’s family that constantly moves from town to town and the rootless effects the constant motion has on her coming of age. Prose and poetry combine to create powerful fiction.

Sarah Willis has written four acclaimed novels. Some Things That Stay, her first, has been made into a movie. Her visit and reading is an event that should stir excitement here in our fair city. No doubt, she will be sharing more examples from her work of literature’s two cousins, poetry and prose, meshing beautifully in unison. I hope you will attend.

Address poem submissions and correspondence to: ncarpathios@shawnee.edu or Neil Carpathios, Shawnee State University, Dept. of English & Humanities, 940 Second Street, Portsmouth, OH 45662. (740-351-3478).