NPM 2017: 5 Questions for the Verse Novelist, Featuring Jeannine Atkins

Happy National Poetry Month, everyone!

Today, I’m kicking off my NPM 2017 series on verse novelists with my friend, poet and author Jeannine Atkins. In addition to answering five questions about their work, I’ve asked each author to share a photograph of a poem from her book, so we can get a peek at how the poems look on the page.

Jeannine, tell us about your most recent verse novel.

I’ve long been intrigued by the women artists working quietly but fiercely in the mid-1800s. Edmonia Lewis’s grand marble sculptures were famous during her time, but she essentially vanished until feminist and African American art historians brought the work back to light in the 1970s. I read all I could find about Edmonia Lewis, but she wasn’t much of a talker or writer, so most of what’s known came secondhand or from material written for marketing her work. The gaps frustrate biographers, but make her a good subject for poetry. I had some facts and chronology, but I was missing a personal voice, which I imagined for STONE MIRRORS: THE SCULPTURE AND SILENCE OF EDMONIA LEWIS.

Have you ever written a full or partial draft of one of your verse novels in prose (or vice versa), only to decide to switch? How did you go about making that change? What were some of your clues that you needed to rethink the form?

I wrote STONE MIRRORS first as prose, sent it around, had it rejected, and put it away for years. But the story stuck with me, and when I took the manuscript out again it felt a bit weighty – as If made of stone, while I was interested in what can be found in what’s chipped away. Her story rings with themes of memory and disappearing, which the white spaces of verse help suggest. The white space also frames and softens some of the violence in her history. Much of Edmonia’s life was spent choosing subjects for sculpture. Rather than just cite the names of her work, verse let me explore metaphors for her choices and come closer to her artistic sensibility.

I love the way that historical verse novels communicate a time and place without feeling weighed down by background information. Why do you think verse pairs so well with historical narratives?

I agree – there is something about the lightness of verse that may invite more than a fact-filled tome. When I research using bulky histories, biographies, or memoirs– which I do treasure – I’m on the lookout for common nouns, references to everyday things like a green butterfly net, a bowl of blueberries, a checked tablecloth, or speckled notebook. More than epic arcs, small things help the past come alive for me and they’re what I use to shape my verse.

Does your story spin on one central event and how it impacts the characters in the book? If so, how did you incorporate poetic elements such as metaphor and symbolism to show the echoes of that event through the novel?  Would you share an example of this from your book?

Breaking stone is a metaphor throughout for the power to change what seems impossible to change: as a woman of African-Haitian and Ojibwe descent, Edmonia faced discrimination and attacks. Sculpture is an art of taking away, so reflects on the silences both demanded of Edmonia and silences she chose. In the following poem I show ways that her work as a housekeeper reflects the theme of visibility.

“The Art of Disappearance” from STONE MIRRORS.

 

From “The Art of Disappearance”

Edmonia fetches clothes to be mended
from brick houses with little land between.
She carries baskets past ladies who are tight-belted,
buckled, buttoned, their necks straight below hats
burdened with flowers cut from cloth
and feather taken from birds they can’t name.
Boys toss balls. Girls run behind sticks and hoops.
Boston’s curving streets aren’t courtrooms.
Here Edmonia doesn’t have to shove past staring,
but her story still follows her like a fox…

Most of the middle grade and YA verse novels I have read are contemporary or historical. I’d love to see a fantasy or science fiction novel-in-verse for kids. Do you think the form is flexible enough to stretch into other genres of fiction? Why or why not?

So interesting — we’ve talked about this omission in the class I teach about verse novels in the MFA program at Simmons. Some verse novels rely on imagery from myths and fairy tales, since images from those can suggest whole stories in just a few words. But many fantasies rely on world building and its bulk, while verse is all about compression. Fantasies are often about escaping reality into another world and may have fast-paced plots at the expense of careful wording and common images that may move into metaphors. But really there’s no reason why the forms can’t be combined. I’m with you, Laura. Before long, I bet we’ll be reading some fabulous verse fantasies!

Let’s hope so. Thanks for being part of this series, Jeannine.

Jeannine Atkins’s historical verse includes Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis, Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science (both Atheneum), and Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, Marie Curie and Their Daughters (Holt). She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, cat, and dog. Her website is www.Jeannineatkins.com.

My series of interviews with verse novelists continues later this week with Caroline Starr Rose. Here is the full schedule of posts:

4/3 Jeannine Atkins, STONE MIRRORS: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis

4/6 Caroline Starr Rose, BLUE BIRDS

4/10 Leza Lowitz, UP FROM THE SEA

4/13 Shari Green, MACY McMILLAN AND THE RAINBOW GODDESS

4/17 Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu, SOMEWHERE AMONG

4/20 Ellie Terry, FORGET ME NOT

4/24 Margarita Engle, MORNING STAR HORSE

4/25 Tamera Will Wissinger, GONE CAMPING

4/27 Debut novelist Amanda Rawson-Hill

You can find a list of National Poetry Month blog projects at Jama’s Alphabet Soup.