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Creative Nonfiction & Poetry

For some time now I've been wanting to write a piece about creative nonfiction and where this genre of writing meets poetry. The past two weeks I have been teaching sessions on cnf and 'truth' and my students have been reading personal essays and a poetry sequence based on a real incident. When considering our themes and discussing how to approach the techniques of cnf, I've asked them to think about how they could look directly (or directly slant) at personal truth in their own lives.

As a poet, I've often bumped into discussions of creative nonfiction in an uncomfortable way--not that I am uncomfortable with these, rather that I've accidentally found myself in conversations with other writers or readers who have been adamant about poetry's fiction-only status. An example of this came a number of years ago when I sent a group of poems as-per-the-submission-guidelines to a magazine who had a call out for 'pieces of creative nonfiction'. Within a week of submission I had an email from the editor. She had returned my poems to me with a note to say that 'because poetry can't be a type of creative nonfiction' she felt that my pieces didn't meet the submission brief. What followed was a lively conversation with the editor where I stated my view that poetry (and indeed the poetry of most of the poets I love) is the perfect genre in which to work creative nonfictionally. In the end we agreed to disagree and that was that. How funny it feels to revisit this conversation, especially in light of the way that I teach cnf to students, in the way that I discuss poetry with colleagues, and in how many friends of mine discuss poetry collections they've encountered. 

When it comes to thinking about the poems in my recent collection Stay Bones, I can only label the writing there as creative nonfiction. The drive behind many of the poems, but in particular the central sequence in the book, was to tell a story-in-poetic-form; the story itself a 'creative' rendering of truth about my childhood and early relationships. Do these poems present only one version of a subjective truth? Yes. Do they incorporate as much 'felt sense' as verifiable-fact about people and places in my life? Yes. Do I sometimes change dates and names for dramatic effect or to help shape character and point of view? Yes. Are the poems the most honest rendering of facts that I have about these instances? Yes. I could go on with this list but I won't. 

When reading creative nonfiction, whether it be personal essays or travel writing, what I relish is the slight blurring of fact with fiction, the sense that the writing is 'based on a true story' (quite a difference from a claim of historical truth) and that what I am reading has been finely-crafted with the reader in mind. I love the feeling of wanting to know more, of having the writer's truth presented to me but not always being sure when and where it may be intentionally blurred. If this literary form can be relished in short prose such as the pieces found in the absolutely wonderful mag Brevity, or archived so helpfully in the University of Sussex's Life Writing Projects, then why not name it when it is found in poetic form too?

For an additional set of discussions on this topic, see guest writer Chiara Fumanti's post on the Surrey New Writers Festival blog page. She discusses biographical fiction and her own process. As a prose writer, much of her process mirrors my own in terms of the decisions and questions that I encounter when thinking about truth and visibility of characters / people on the pages of my poems. 

I'd love to hear from others about the choices that they make when deciding how to write truthfully about their lives and experiences. Do you choose to write poetry or prose (or a hybrid); why?  And does the form of writing impact how you approach your subject matter; how so?

Photo by Chilli Charlie on Unsplash

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