The Long Haul

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...

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I haven’t been posting my writing here or on the various community sites with which I have been associated very often lately. This is partly because of other responsibilities and activities, but a more important reason behind it is a shift in my creative work:

I’ve given up on short forms.

If whatever inner or outer forces are designated by the Muse chose to give me a short piece as a gift, I wouldn’t reject it. This isn’t a philosophical objection to the short lyric poem or to flash fiction but, rather, a recognition that my subjects need more space.

I could list plenty of surface reasons why my life might give rise to the need for longer works: I’ve lived on three continents, climbed a few sacred mountains and seen the sunrise from their peaks, etc. But the truth is that it goes deeper. Some months ago, a story written by a friend served as a catalyst to an artistic crisis: I realized that I was no longer writing the kind of work I wanted to write when I first began.

I just wanted to make pretty poems when I began. I began in second grade, but that’s not really the point. Beauty, and the desire to perpetuate it, brought me into writing, but then I saw too much human ugliness to continue writing as if the world were all rhyming sunsets and lollipops. My first book was, ultimately, about the struggle to cope with horror and how that struggle turns into an obsession with ugliness.

It didn’t take too long for me to realize that to get back to beauty, I had to go through the horror, to hold both together, to weave them at their most extreme. As David Foster Wallace said, “Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” I like to think that the same thing can be true of poetry.

The real challenge is how to do it. I tried to do it within short pieces and maybe had some moderate success, but I couldn’t bring in enough of what I know about moving through and surviving the terrible into shorter works. I tried doing it on the level of the collection, and I do think the manuscripts I’ve put together in this manner are valuable, but in the gaps between individual pieces, something of the overall sweep is lost. I’m not doing justice to everything I know.

And the truth is that I’ve been pressed against the limits of the short form for a long time. Even back when I was working on my MFA, the most common criticism of my poetry was that it was too dense. I started using white space as much as I do  in part to counteract that tendency.

Struggling against a restriction can be fertile of course, but part of being an artist is knowing when to let go. And it’s time for me to let go of the limits of the short form. Long poems and novels are my new worlds.

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