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!

Margarita Engle on Thoughts Trapped and Free

Margarita Engle’s podcast as US Children’s Poet Laureate addresses the privilege of reading, books as a forbidden commodity, and the limitations on the lives of women relative to her verse novel, The Lightning Dreamer.  Engle’s historical narrative is a fictionalized biography of the 19th century Cuban abolitionist poet Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, known simply as Tula. Multiple voices tell the story of the poet’s life as a teenaged abolitionist.

One image that remained with me was that of little brother Manuel, trained to be “a brave smuggler of words,” bringing the forbidden treasures of books to his sister. Borrowed schoolbooks, hidden beneath embroidery hoops, become the fodder of literacy. Words “glitter/ and glow/ in starlight.” Invented worlds are the stuff of comfort. A forced marriage looms in Tula’s future, yet “Thirteen is the age for dreams.”

lightningdreamer.jpgThere is broken glass here as well, a society in turmoil and a girl who stands witness to the plight of the enslaved and begins to take action in her own way. Engle’s books are child-sized yet each one is vast in scope. The Lightning Dreamer suggests that the failures of societies might well arise from a failure to imagine the world of the alienated, the oppressed, the other.In the end, empathy is the force of empowerment in this book–the ability, as Tula puts it, to “trade my thoughts/ for theirs.”

It doesn’t come naturally, empathy. Our deepest instincts push back against empathy when we feel threatened. They push us to fight against those who are different from ourselves, however we define that difference. We’d do well to think about this right now, in this moment, in our world today.

HavanaBut at another level, things get murkier. Because who gets to tell the stories of the other? Who should? Are there even definitive answers to those questions? Here’s Margarita Engle turning to these complex matters. She says:

Many non-‘own voice’ authors do thorough research, but Cuba is an easy country to misinterpret. Rural Cuba, in particular, is often misunderstood by tourists who speed past impoverished villages and farms in air-conditioned buses, listening to official stories told by government guides.

And then again, where do the limits of empathy lie? Is there such a thing as the objective truth about a place or people? No answers, only questions. The more we can talk about them, the better.

Diversity Within Diversity: Guest Post by Margarita Engle

 

 

Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of numerous highly acclaimed verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner.  Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others.  Her other books have received multiple Pura Belpré, Américas, and Jane Addams Awards and Honors, as well as a Claudia Lewis Poetry Award, and International Reading Association Award.  Her most recent picture book, Drum Dream Girl, received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.

 

lion-islandI invited Margarita to write about her newest historical verse novel. Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words is the story of a little-known figure in Cuban history. It’s set against an astonishing intersection of cultures and resonates with notes of courage and resilience, yearning and hope. Here is what she wrote:

Many North Americans assume that all Latinos are similar, and that all Latin American countries share the same cultural background.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Even the Spanish language is not uniform, with indigenous and West African words varying from region to region, and in certain countries, a mixture of Chinese words as well.  Chinese?  Yes, specifically Cantonese.  As the result of a mid-nineteenth century treaty between the empires of Spain and China, hundreds of thousands of indentured laborers were shipped to Peru and Cuba.  On the island of my ancestors, they were treated like slaves, and housed with slaves, feeding the plantation owners’ insatiable craving for imported laborers to plant, harvest, and process sugarcane.  Within a few decades, so many Chinese men had married Congolese and Yoruba women that an entirely new culture took shape, creating a unique linguistic, spiritual, and musical blend.

antonio-chuffatfullsizerender-3Lion Island is not only an introduction to the Chinese-African blend within Cuban culture, but also a tribute to Antonio Chuffat, a messenger boy who became a translator and diplomat.  His extremely rare memoir documented the nonviolent freedom struggle of indentured Cantonese laborers.  Their petitions to the Emperor of China might be history’s largest mass use of written freedom pleas, and perhaps one of the most creative as well, because many of the petitions were written in verse.  Interwoven with the arrival in Cuba of five thousand Chinese Californians who fled anti-Asian riots in Los Angeles and San Francisco during the late 1860s and early 1870s, I hope my historical verse novel will inspire young readers to explore writing as an approach to seeking justice.