Writers-in-Dialogue: Discussing Narrative Poetry with Ray Hsu and Fiona Tinwei Lam11 min read

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FIONA:  I think that’s a wonderful way to understand Anthropy! Although narrative poetry may not have been in fashion in academic circles for the last decade, neo-narrative or neo-realist poetry may be making a comeback.  Some have dismissed narrative poetry (too linear, emotional, straightforward, simplistic, confined) in favour of the postmodern kind (ironic, free associative, skeptical, improvised, and detached); the brain over the heart. But as you and I agree, surely we can have both, and surely the two can be, and are, integrated.  Narrative is a powerful tool of communication which writers can use, or not. Even disrupted and fractured, narrative can be employed in a way that actually strengthens the aim of the piece (even if the aim or message of the piece is that there is no aim or message, as illustrated in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled). Non-narrative, non-linear poetry can pack immense emotional power, for example, surrealist poetry.

What I think you and I both endeavour to do in our own ways is to break down the barriers that can make poetry intimidating, off-putting, or even boring to potential readers and writers.  Playing with form works, as does clarity, precise language, humour, and reference to ordinary and everyday human experience.

RAY:  Which academic circles are you thinking of? There are many, and narrative has had a strong following for years amongst scholars. The field of narratology has had a significant presence amongst literary studies folks, especially in the journal Narrative and in the annual meeting for the Society for the Study of Narrative Literature. Or in tackling postmodernism are you talking about so-called meta-narratives (Christianity? Marxism?) being out of fashion? In any case, when you say non-linear poetry, are you talking about poetry that disrupts and fractures narrative?

FIONA: I’m not tackling postmodernism itself—just saying that the postmodern approach to poetry has often been at odds with the narrative approach. There’s room for both to peacefully coexist.  What I think you and I both endeavour to do in our own ways is to break down the barriers that can make poetry intimidating, off-putting, or even boring to potential readers and writers.  Playing with form works, as does clarity, precise language, humour, and reference to ordinary and everyday human experience.

Irrespective of trends and theoretical stances, what I strive to do in my writing—whether poetry or prose, narrative or not—is to sift through events and experiences to try to reach some shard of emotional truth or insight about human connection or disconnection. I think, Ray, your work does so too, and in fact we may have a similar process of deconstruction and reconstruction.  We just choose different pools of events and experiences to draw from, and employ different strategies of arrangement and organization. It’s all good.

RAY: I like your characterization of “sifting” through events and experiences for the truths that bind us, which suggests prospecting or archaeological field work: a gold rush on one hand and labour for knowledge on the other. Sifting is also appealing for me as a way to describe bringing a poem to a writing group: Which lines glitter? Which phrases fall away?

FIONA: Precisely. It’s a life’s work—a continual process of seeking and discovering.

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