A walk in the woods of poetry and prose and pleasantly lost in thickets of words.
The current (subscription only) newsletter from AGNI—Boston University’s well-regarded literary magazine—includes an interview with prize-winning poet and nonfiction writer Rosalie Moffett about “Ravel-Edged Storytelling.”
A Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University, Moffett says she mostly considers herself a poet, but believes that the two genres—poetry and nonfiction—“share a border, and sometimes I look up to find I’ve crossed it.” A work that started out to be one thing takes an unexpected and serendipitous turn to become the other. In reading this month’s submissions to the writer’s workshop I attend, I encountered one 1200-word short story excerpt that seemed to want to become a poem and might have become one, by just changing the line lengths.
Moffett says she writes prose and poetry for the same reason: to answer questions and, most of the time, poems “end up being the best arena for my mind to answer them.” This suggests a mind that ranges freely through a forest of possible answers, where the ambiguity of words can be pulled into service of meaning and intent. Strung together in a particular way, they can be the perfect example of the whole being more than the sum of the parts. That phenomenon is is one function of subtext.
AGNI online offers Moffett’s essay Sidney, whose story she says absolutely required “the ravel-edged” kind of telling offered by prose. Prose also provided a more valid recreation of how she originally heard—or overheard—the family stories, and the stories about Sidney himself, with all their half-bits of information, inferences, and unanswered questions like loose threads in a bag of knitting ravaged by moths or kittens. Prose “puts our stories together in a way they never had the chance to be before people died, got bitter, or went off their rockers.” I urge you to link to it and start reading; you won’t be able to stop!
And Telling Stories
In the essay about Sidney, she talks about how as a child younger than six visiting her grandparents, she got up late in the evening feigning hunger, so she could camp out in the kitchen eating a bowl of cereal and overhearing the adults’ conversation in the next room: “I remember the music of the stories more than their substance. I sensed their pull and power. I wanted, suddenly, nothing more than to have stories to tell, and to sit at that table and tell them.” “Sidney” shows she absolutely got her wish.
I think I resonated with her responses in the interview largely because of the process in the last two weeks, of writing my blog posts, The Rouge Shadow and Coming to Amerika, based on a longer essay about my father’s immigrant parents. So different from Moffett, who can draw on a deep well of family detail—conversations, rooms she’s spent time in—I know next-to-nothing about my father’s parents. Yet, even from the few stray threads I have, many stories could be woven. To write these essays, I pieced together the backdrop for a plausible narrative from minute clues. Moffett says writing an essay “feels like the hunt for an answer.” And sometimes the answer is that there is none.
The Art of Subtext, by Charles Baxter– The most eloquent and approachable group of essays on subtext that I’ve found. For only $3.88 used to $10.28 new, you can awaken to new possibilities. Reading it was like seeing, after not seeing.