• Burhana Islam

All Things Verse

With the recent launch of Kwame Alexander’s new imprint Versify and the growing attention to spoken word poetry over the past decade, it seems like the verse novel is on the rise. Since falling in love with Thanhha Lai’s ‘Inside Out and Back Again’, Marilyn Hilton’s ‘Full Cicada Moon’ and all things Jacqueline Woodson, I’ve been scouring the World Wide Web for tips and tricks to help me on my own writing journey. However, it’s been a bit of a struggle because it looks like there’s little out there in comparison to other styles of storytelling. In light of this, over the last few months, I’ve put together some little nuggets that I’ve gathered from various websites, interviews, books, my own experience of studying poetry and a pretty sweet event I went to yesterday with Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan, authors of ‘We Come Apart’- a contemporary Romeo and Juliet love story set against the backdrop of Brexit (all in verse, of course).

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the form, think spoken word poetry on the written page. Basically, it’s a style that tells a story through free verse and it’s easier to see than it is to explain:

From Jacqueline Woodson's 'Brown Girl Dreaming'

Anyway these are things I’ve gathered so far:

  • Write in first person and play with emotion: verse protagonists tend to be introspective in nature. There seems to be an emphasis on what is happening behind the scenes in the mindset of the character alongside how they choose to present themselves to others.

  • Play with presentation: sometimes white space says a lot more than words themselves. I really like using blank space to withhold information, slow things down or draw attention to something in particular- of course, this is all in moderation; you don’t want to end up with a word a page, do you? Plus, using it sparingly packs a bigger punch when it’s needed most.

  • Be vivid in your description when showing as opposed to telling: this one’s from the back of Thanhha Lai’s ‘Inside Out and Back Again’. Instead of saying she’s ‘sad he cut down her biggest papaya’, try ‘Black seeds spill/ like clusters of eyes,/ wet and crying.’

  • Have fun with poetic techniques: use half-rhymes and don’t overdo full-rhymes; be alliterative and personify; consider your metaphors and extend them if needs be; play with words too.

  • A technique I’m fond of is the language of recording. For example, I like the idea of ‘repeating something over/ and over/ and over again’ before ‘pausing’ and actually leave a bit of white space between to show the pause too. If I mention 'a rewind', I’ll pick up the pace to reflect the speed, which leads me neatly on to my next tip:

  • Play with pace when playing with language and structure: full rhymes with no punctuation, one after another, can pick up speed quite quickly to build tension or show how trapped somebody is feeling- it’s easy to get stuck inside a rhyme, right? Blank space, indentations and one line words can slow things right down. What your first school teacher taught you also helps: short sentences/ lines build tension and long sentences/ lines slow it down.

  • Punctuate: I was actually really pleased at the event yesterday when Brian Conaghan teased Sarah Crossan about spending 20 minutes on whether there should be a comma at the end of a line or not. It was a passing comment, very lighthearted and jovial, but my inner warrior was basically saying ‘You go, Glen Coco!’ Your punctuation game says a lot. If you choose to end something with a full stop, there’s a definitive ending and separation between ideas, characters or settings. Question marks carry with them an element of doubt, opportunity or just the idea that this, whatever it is, isn’t finished yet. I pray to God that the explanation mark isn’t over-used. Nobody wants to see that stuff sprinkled everywhere. Be careful with your use of it. When you see an exclamation mark, it’s supposed to indicate shock, surprise, enthusiasm and the likes so use it sparingly. I also hate ellipsis. I think it’s just lazy, but that may be down to the fact that my students attempt to end every piece with a dot dot dot. Again, these are just ideas and preferences from my limited experience. They're not set in stone.

  • Always sound your work out: rehearse and read aloud. It’s all about the rhythm and the beat and that which rolls off the tongue. It shouldn’t be stilted or jarring unless it’s intentional to reflect the narrative at that moment in time.

  • It really surprised me yesterday that both Crossan and Conaghan referred to each chapter as a poem. I’d never considered that before, but I think there’s wisdom behind it. Each poem should not only be a vital part of the tapestry of your writing, but it ought to be able to stand alone. They should vary in length and metre. Using the same metre throughout gets pretty dull pretty quickly.

  • Trust your readers too: in verse, more than anything, you’re not really spoon-feeding those reading. You’re expecting them to keep up and read between the lines. Don’t just tell them something’s wrong, use your poem to show it.

  • One of the things Sarah and I agreed on is that dialogue is hard. She gave me her tips though: write everything you think that needs to be said down and as you revise, start stripping away all that’s already been shown elsewhere. Sometimes you’re left with just a few words, but it works better that way. Playing with presentation can help too. Think of which sides of the page you’re playing with. When it comes to speech, I tend to sandwich it in between the descriptions of the speaker’s actions. In some ways, I guess you could say that those moments are actually a part of the conversations too.

  • Listen to poetry before you write. Don’t just read it. Think of the images that strike a chord with you and why. I teach Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Valentine’ every year and, in the poem, she describes an onion like a ‘moon wrapped in brown paper’. I really do love that image. I've adapted it in my own work as well. When my protagonist helps someone cook, he describes the chopped onions as a broken moon amongst the tiny fireworks of the oil. I just think it’s a sweet moment amongst the chaos.

  • Don’t just listen to poetry either, read widely too. Your style tends to be crafted by the writers you admire most. It’s almost a testament to the beauty of their work.

I’ve also decided to make this a space for some of the moments I took away yesterday just because they were so interesting:

  • Writing takes a hell of a long time to acquire as a skill. Very few people can claim to be naturally talented writers. Between both Crossan and Conaghan (who, to my surprise, were teachers beforehand too) there was a 25 year gap of practising. That’s literally my life span. It’s a given that perseverance in itself is key.

  • Cultural appropriation: I’d never even considered this. Sarah said that her latest novel ‘Moonrise’ was statistically more likely to be told from a black male’s perspective in real life- ultimately, the story’s not only about letting go of someone you love, but it’s also a critique of the American justice system. Interestingly, she said that she would never write from that perspective. Her character had to be white. I think it was something along the lines of not doing it justice. I actually had a lot of respect for that.

  • On a similar note, Brian made a comment that when writing from somebody’s perspective outside of that which they’re completely familiar with, writers are not necessarily representing a group of people. They’re rather channelling them. I thought that was a really nice way to put it.

  • Write for the reader you know and not the market: it’s better to keep the integrity of the piece and you’ll find your audience (as long as you’re not completely strange).

  • Finally, when it all gets too much and you hit a brick wall, remember why you started in the first place. I like this one. I'm still rolling with the excitement of everything, but I've got a feeling I'll need to hold onto this little one for when the time comes.

I think that’s everything for now. I am, however, still searching for some more answers. If anyone has any for the following, do let me know:

  • To what extent can I reuse phrases or images across different novels? I have another idea in mind. It’s a completely different story to ‘Sticks and Stones’. Can I use phrases that I’ve used in the first novel if they’re consistent with the new character’s voice or is it a grey area because the works may be considered as too similar?

  • To what extent can you use other people’s imagery? ‘Sticks and Stones’ was partly inspired by Kate Daniels’ ‘War Photograph’. It’s an amazing poem and I make the intention to teach it every year- look it up. One line that struck a chord was ‘puddled the earth with skin and blood’. I have alluded to that line in my piece, but since her work literally affected me, I kind of wanted to pay tribute to it. I don’t know. How do people feel about that?

  • I hate working with dialogue. Sarah’s ideas are good. If anyone has anymore, feel free to pass them my way.


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