Process Talk: Cordelia Jensen on Writing and Teaching the Verse Novel

VCFA graduate Cordelia Jensen is offering two workshops through the Highlights Foundation, one that’s up and running already, on Exploring the Limitations and Liberations of Novels in Verse and Novels in Vignette and the other on Creating an Image System That Works for Your Verse Novel.

I try to take a class every couple of years, maybe just to prove that my aging brain can still handle new ideas. And I happen to be struggling with a new novel that, despite my best efforts to turn it into prose, seems insistent on showing up in the form of mostly free verse mixed in with a range of poetic forms. So I signed up, and asked Cordelia if she’d talk to me ahead of the class.

[UK] What led you to the verse novel as a form?

[CJ] What led me to the verse novel was the instruction of our mutual friend, Coe Booth. Coe was my first advisor at VCFA. I had arrived my first semester with a Middle Grade camp story I was very excited about…and then…well…Coe was, um, let’s just say far less excited about my camp story than I was! I got frustrated and sent her a series of “family poems” I had worked on for years, ever since my father died of AIDS in 1994. I sent her 5 of these.

She said, “Oh my gosh Cordelia! This is what you need to be writing. Have you ever heard of a YA verse novel?” I had not. She changed the course of my career—and my life—because she introduced me to this form. I then worked on my first published verse novel—Skyscraping—for the rest of my time at VCFA. It was bought by Penguin less than a year after I graduated from the program. I fell head over heels in love with the form and I then went on to publish two more—The Way the Light Bends, also published by Philomel/Penguin—and a hybrid prose/verse novel I co-authored with fellow VCFA grad Laurie Morrison, entitled Every Shiny Thing (Amulet/Abrams.)

[UK] What led you to teach the form?

[CJ] I have taught creative writing in a variety of settings—at a bookstore with kids and teens, with undergrads at Bryn Mawr College, with high schoolers at Germantown Friends School, with adults at The Writing Barn and now Highlights—in each of the setting I either incorporate verse novels in one lesson of the semester or focus an entire class on verse novels. I teach the form not just because I love to write it though; I teach it because it is experimental and complex and asks readers (and writers) to rethink how stories can be told.

[UK] For myself, I don’t always know how a form will limit a story or free it up until I’ve dug into it for a while, turned the compost heap a few times, so to speak. What’s your approach to teaching writers to open their minds to the nature of the verse novel?

[CJ] I think verse novels challenge the author with very specific limitations—such as, how do I create three-dimensional secondary characters with much less access to dialogue? How do I show action when so much of verse is internal? How do I create a cohesive plot from a series of strung together snapshots of moments? Many authors have come up with creative solutions to the limitations of this hybrid form. There are also a lot of liberations found in the form—like using white space to create story tension or font play to emphasize certain emotions or words which can help develop character. There are parts of writing in verse that can be really freeing and fun and experimental. Most people who take a verse novel class are already excited about the form and ready to play!

[UK] I’m fascinated by your framework of image systems. In fact, as you know, I signed up for your class, hoping to use its energy to help me think through a work in progress that shall remain lovingly unnamed for now. What can you tell me about images and their power in driving a verse novel? 

[CJ] I’m so honored you’re taking my class! I don’t want to give too much class content away, but I will say that I do think that because poetry spotlights imagery, if you change the way the character reflects or interacts with the same kind of image through the course of the story, you can reveal character growth in a more dramatic way I think than regular novels can. This, I believe, is what helps to make successful verse novels feel so emotional. My favorite example of this is the image of the papaya in Thanhaa Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again. There are also specific factors to consider when you choose an image system for your main character, including age, worldview, and psychosocial development.

[UK] The verse novel is an ancient form (think Homer and Beowulf) and it’s still evolving! What advice would you give to writers wanting to try it out, see where it might take them?

[CJ] I love this quote from Brenna Friesner, author of The Verse Novel in Young Adult Literature, as I think it encourages students to explore the possibilities located in the form:

“Within these definitions of ‘novel’ and ‘verse,’ there is flexibility. The form doesn’t change book to book, but each author’s interpretation of the form creates a wide range of word and page counts. Authors are often playful in using a combination of poetry forms and devices interchangeably with free verse… In a sense, it is up to each author to forge a path with their verse novel…Verse novel authors, who are at the forefront of their own evolving genre, are really the ones who best understand what their work represents and where it’s going.” 

[UK] Thanks, Cordelia! I look forward to your October class so I can find new ways to see the story I seem to have on my hands!