2015, Archives, May 2015, The MFA Years

A Poet in Prose Land

This semester, I took Forms in Fiction with Garnett Kilberg-Cohen. You may be thinking to yourself, There goes poet Gillian, prose-ing around like she’s frolicking through a meadow! Way to experiment!

My Forms in Fiction class this semester was all about studying the textures in the genre of fiction, and so we looked at hybrid work with So Long See You Tomorrow (autobiographical and simultaneously fictionalized), postcard fiction/flash fiction, fabulist works, a bit of horror, and A Shutter of Snow, which was a book that somehow seemed to encompass all of those. We looked at graphic short stories. We created our own creative pieces in these different species of fiction, and we workshopped them. We wrote critical pieces about the works that we’d read.

And though I would liken my fiction class to frolicking through a meadow any day, I will say that there were certain learning curves, especially at the beginning of the class. I kept single-spacing my work (no one liked this), and I kept referring to the narrator as “the speaker” (I still kind of stand by this decision). Despite this, I did my best to fit in with all those fiction kids (they were all extremely friendly, and somewhat less reserved than many of my beloved poet colleagues).

English Department at Columbia College Chicago
English Department at Columbia College Chicago

Garnett Kilberg-Cohen was a pretty cool professor, and she told me she’d been at Columbia College Chicago for many moons now (so many moons that she started her job there before I was born). She and Columbia College Chicago hosted Jo Ann Beard for a reading; for the reading, Jo Ann shared a sparkling hybrid piece about a woman finding an intruder in her home. Because of Garnett, I got to hang out with Jo Ann (the three of us bought M&Ms at a 7-11 together, randomly), ask her about her non-fiction ways and her teaching at Sarah Lawrence and how you can write a “novel” that has the bones of true life in it.

This truth-as-fiction thing was something that I’d attempted to do when sitting down to write flash fiction. I was at a library at Northwestern with my friend, doing homework, when I told him I was out of ideas and I didn’t know how fiction students sat around and thought of things. I told myself, in a burst of genius, I’ll just write a prose poem! And then I thought…but where’s the fiction in that?

I said that to my friend. “I can’t think of anything! How do fiction people think of things??” (This was towards the beginning of the semester, when I studied these “fiction people” as if I were writing an ethnography.)

He tried to look at my computer screen, but I self-consciously tried to cover it with my hand. “Maybe the ‘fiction’ is when you call it fiction!” he said, and I thought about this advice. It certainly did seem applicable to postcard fiction, so I sat down to write about one of my favorite Lil Wayne lyrics that’s hanging on my wall (“How do you feel? B***, I feel undefeated”).

So I went to class the next day, armed with my postcard fiction/prose poem attempt, and it went well. Those fiction students are quite affable.

But I was excited about this ability to learn things outside of my specialized field of poetry, especially since I could apply some of the lessons I’d learned with prose into making my poetry stronger. I learned about narrative arcs, and this notion of true events vs. true feelings vs. absolute truths. And I learned more about roping everything together with words, which was sort of a mental exercise, especially as I’d been living and breathing poetry in my day-to-day life.

I kept asking myself, how do people use all these words? But by the end of the class, I grew more comfortable with throwing words around like confetti. And you know what? It felt kind of refreshing.

Image: Sherrie Thai

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