I can't remember whether I talked about this in the podcast, but here goes anyway. I found the transition from poetry to short stories much, much easier (and by that I mean more intuitive) than from short stories to novels. I'm still not exactly sure why that is. There are the obvious answers, I guess, about concision and use of images. But I think the influence goes deeper than that--and isn't readily explicable.
The thing is, my poetry, and the way that I look at poetic's role in the world, has radically changed since I got my MFA almost 10 years ago. Which is definitely for the best; I wouldn't to be writing the same material over and over. The type of surrealism and absurdism that I was coming to terms with in my MFA years--which I do think really influenced my early short story writing efforts--involved word-play, for sure, but had more to do with working inside the confines of the mainstream lyric, even if it was a push against the lyric form (oftentimes, with the formal constraints of the sonnet and sestina). I was trying to write material that embodied how I felt, and to really grapple with how language could become a code for how I felt. Which were good lessons. I quickly found that speculative and fabulist fiction could also use language as a code--to do more than drive forward a narrative. Narratives took a long time for me to feel comfortable with! The imagism of a striking metaphor, at times, became a kind of substitute for narrative in my earlier stories.
But something else was changing too, and I was beginning to realize how little I knew about poetry, even after devouring it for two years straight. There were all of these other traditions and counter-traditions that I In a way, the experience was similar to burning out on Dragonlance novels in my adolescence--I kept seeing the same tropes retread over and over again, and I wanted more. There are, of course, poets that I really still admire and read avidly from 10 years ago, and have seen with new eyes as I've grown older--Keats, Frank O'Hara, Larry Levis, and (perhaps most specially) Lorine Niedecker--but once I realized that there were other arguments about what poetry could do, what it could embody in the world, it was like the floodgates opening. This is in, what, 2000 or 2001, in earnest. So my poetry reading was going to go into a kind of haphazard, ahistorical overdrive--older poets like Charles Olson and Louis Zukofsky, and more contemporary writers like Lisa Jarnot, Jennifer Moxley, Kevin Davies. The real catalyst came about when poets began blogging in late 2002 in large quantities, and it was exciting to see books come out of writers whose voices I'd come to trust, even if I didn't agree with them all the time.
Anyway, I don't know how much this time-pinpointing is helpful or interesting. But this was also the time when I really feel like I started to start "getting it," where I felt a little more comfortable in my writing skin and less willing to try different modes of storytelling simply for the sake of it--rather, I was beginning to understand a little more how to let the voice come to me rather than the endless pursuit of a voice. Okay, I'm still not sure what that means exactly, but I hope that's a useful thumbnail image. I also began to feel more comfortable in moving away from genre "set pieces", even if the stories had certain elements of genre at play. Which is a roundabout way of saying, I think, that the poetry reading and writing that I was doing post-MFA was beginning to have an effect on my fiction--but not in sense of a specific technique, but rather a mindset--or let's even call it a position--that I wanted to take with my writing. That I wanted to push myself into real engagement with the world, and how I was situated within it. Sometimes, but not always, that led to a more political type writing; it also, for sure, helped open up the aversion to philosophy that I'd harbored for some time, and began to read philosophers speculatively, in ways that could open up new ways for me of looking at both writing poems or stories. These are obviously tenative baby steps, and when I mention being "comfortable" earlier, I should make it clear that this involved being comfortable with being uncomfortable.
And so it comes back to emotion, and in a weird way I feel a bit like I've come full circle since when I was 15 and writing poems and stories as a tonic to alleviate my misery. The emotional responses that I write about are part of the world, and part of my engagement with it. This isn't a move toward easy therapeutic confessionalism, but rather to be unafraid to use my self as material, halfway between the public ambulatory life and the private sphere of my own thoughts. To see my imperfections and faults as, perhaps, codes themselves that can at one point be reinterpreted on the page as hope.
This sea change doesn't recognize the difference between poetry and fiction. It's more of a matter of emphasis. One isn't inherently more "useful" than the other to keep pushing forward with these things. And now as I'm pretty much relearning everything again to write a novel or two, the scale is vast enough that the prose can be a repository of both the poetic and the narrative. The novel is definitely an open question.