The High Stakes of Poetry and Crime Fiction: MysteryPeople Q&A with Erica Wright and Melissa Ginsburg

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Poetry and crime fiction? As a reader, they don’t seem to have much in common. And yet plenty of crime writers also happen to write, read, and recommend poetry. For National Poetry Month, that is, April, we reached out via email to a few of our favorite crime writers/poets for a fresh take on why the same mind might appreciate two such different genres.

In part two of this series, we sent along some questions to two crime writers also known for their poetry – Melissa Ginsburg and Erica Wright. The two also happen to be friends, brought together by their shared affinity for poetry and pulp. Originally from Houston, Melissa Ginsburg now teaches at the University of Mississippi and, like many of our favorite crime writers, lives in Oxford, Mississippi. She’s published a book of poetry, Dear Weather Ghostand a steamy noir set in Houston titled Sunset City. 

Erica Wright has a long list of publications and credentials – she’s the poetry editor at Guernica literary magazine, as well as one of their senior editors, and she’s written a whole host of poetry books, as well as two crime novels. Her latest work of poetry is All The Bayou Stories End With Drownedand she’s currently two books in to a private eye series set in New York City, featuring a wry, kick-ass heroine – the most recent is titled The Granite Moth.

Before I could figure out what to ask, I first brushed up on the overlap between crime writers and poets in this excellent piece by Janet Hutchings, the editor of Ellory Queen Mystery Magazine (EQMM). She mentions a strong connection between crime fiction and poetry going back to early crime writers such as Frederic Dannay, one of the founders of EQMM, as well as Dorothy Sayers, and also mentions a number of prominent poets interested in writing tales of suspense, including Dylan Thomas and Ogden Nash. I wondered what fascinates a poet about mysteries, or a mystery writer about poetry – the highbrow stature of poetry and the lowbrow status of mysteries seem diametrically opposed, at least to many readers.

 “…Poets and crime writers are working with the same raw materials—with confusion and uncertainty—but their approaches are different,” Erica Wright explains. “Poets are trying to live with chaos, and crime writers are trying to fix it.”

Erica Wright links the two via their shared preoccupation with order and chaos. “…Poets and crime writers are working with the same raw materials—with confusion and uncertainty—but their approaches are different,” she explains. “Poets are trying to live with chaos, and crime writers are trying to fix it.” Wright adds that the two genres are also united by intensity – “Both genres invite high stakes…That’s one of the things that first attracted me to mysteries. If you start with a murder, with the volume turned to 10, where do you go from there?”

Melissa Ginsburg agrees, but takes a different approach as to why. “Both mystery stories and poetry deal with intense emotional states, and they both function by withholding certain information. Crime stories do this to create suspense, to generate curiosity in the reader. My favorite crime writing withholds answers to obvious questions—who did the crime, how, and why?—and in the process of parsing out that information or searching for it, ends up depicting a world and characters that are as compelling as those answers might be. I think poetry can work in a similar way. By subverting or eschewing obvious answers, the poem creates an experience that is emotional, intellectual, and visceral all at once.” Mysteries have always been tied to their ability to surprise (in my own mind, anyway) but the more I thought about Melissa’s words, the more I realized that many a poem comes with a twist end, shifting the perspective of the reader in much the same way as a crime novel might. 

Confusion, chaos, uncertainty – all are hallmarks of the condition of modernity, and of the modern form. I got academic with my next observation –  it seems to me that poetry and detective stories were some of the earliest 20th century forms to fall under the spell of modernism, stripping back 19th century excess in favor of a minimalist ideal containing within it modern themes.

Erika expands on my theory with the gracious added details of someone who teaches this stuff: “Poets created or embraced a range of artistic movements, including Imagism and Surrealism. And later in the twentieth century, they were quick to write about political topics, most notably the Vietnam War. Crime fiction can’t really help but be political to a certain extent. I tell my students that the universal lies in the specific to help them avoid abstractions, and I do my best to apply that same advice myself. I don’t want to get on a soapbox when telling a (hopefully) entertaining story, but it would be equally short-sighted to pretend violence isn’t linked to social issues.”

“I’m drawn to concision in writing. I’m interested in fragments and startling juxtapositions. Noir takes as a starting point the idea that the world is broken, probably irreparably, which is certainly a tenet of Modernism.” – Melissa Ginsburg

Melissa adds, “my own poems and fiction are influenced by Modernist aesthetics. I’m drawn to concision in writing. I’m interested in fragments and startling juxtapositions. Noir takes as a starting point the idea that the world is broken, probably irreparably, which is certainly a tenet of Modernism.”

As a not-very-prolific poetry reader, I felt ill-prepared (although quite enthused) for the task at hand. The main similarity I’d noticed between the two was in my own reaction to the same themes in different forms. Fractured, chaotic, brutal, broken…those terms oft-applied to modernity’s malaise turn into compliments when describing poetry and crime fiction. Most of the poetry I’ve read falls under the category of “poetry of witness,” which is another way of saying poetry that’s as depressing as s**t, and those of you who follow the blog know that my taste in crime fiction could be described as Hobbseian.

I’m convinced that fiction is the best way to obliquely approach trauma – to understand an emotional truth, and incorporate it into previously existing knowledge to layer empathy into fact for a startling combination of beauty and brutality. I asked Ginsburg and Wright (both of whom are known for the sensuous beauty and dark themes of their poetry) what it was about  the spare prose of a detective novel or the stark imagery of a poem that serves so well to describe the indescribable.

Erica Wright highlights the power of a story to create empathy. For years, she opened her Composition classes by teaching a 1978 poem by Carolyn Forche, “The Colonel,” in which “she writes about a military officer in El Salvador showing off his bag full of human ears. He drops them on the dinner table, and Forché describes them as looking like dried peach halves…no student ever missed my question about what looked like dried peach halves.” Facts may fade, but our experience of the suffering of others gleaned from books remains. She continues, “Imagery has this power over us in way that statistics don’t. Similarly, a mystery about, say, a man serving time for a crime he didn’t commit—I’m reading Julia Dahl’s excellent Conviction right now—stays with us. We might forget the number of people who’ve been wrongly behind bars, but a well-told story sticks.”

“Both mystery stories and poetry deal with intense emotional states, and they both function by withholding certain information. Crime stories do this to create suspense, to generate curiosity in the reader. My favorite crime writing withholds answers to obvious questions—who did the crime, how, and why?—and in the process of parsing out that information or searching for it, ends up depicting a world and characters that are as compelling as those answers might be.” – Melissa Ginsburg

Crime fiction and poetry may draw similar reactions or share themes, but when it comes to crafting the two forms, according to Erica Wright, “I rarely write poetry and fiction on the same day or even the same week. The muscles are too different. When writing a poem, there’s a lot of getting up to pace or make tea as I debate “dust” versus “ash.” With prose, I make myself write for a set period of time, trusting that anything awful can be fixed later.”

I asked Melissa and Erica which comes first, the idea or the form. While Erica may not write poetry and prose on the same day, she says “Typically, both a new poem and a new chapter will start with an image for me. Or a line gets stuck in my head, and I worry it around for awhile until it becomes something I can use. I don’t work with an outline until about halfway through a novel when I want to clarify the timeline.” With poetry, Melissa starts with “a piece of language that gets stuck in my head. If it has sufficient strangeness or a compelling rhythm, I’ll build on it. The ideas and the form are secondary to the poetic line. Sometimes I will have an idea first, but if I can’t hear a line, then I’ll abandon the idea; there’s nothing there for me. When I write formal poetry and it works, it’s because the form—a sonnet or pantoum or whatever– has forced me to think differently, in lines that feel alive rather than describe or depict something outside themselves.”

Her response brought to mind the similarly restrictive form of the detective novel, murder mystery, thriller, or any other subgenre of crime fiction. My favorite category of crime fiction are those works that acknowledge the form and then get as creative as possible within that restrictive form. In poetry and crime fiction, just like with cover songs, constraint can inspire creativity – it takes extra skill to craft something familiar that also surprises.

For her crime fiction, Ginsburg finds inspiration outside of form – “With a crime novel, it begins with characters and relationships.” With her debut mystery, Sunset City, Melissa says she “was originally interested in the dynamics between Charlotte and her ex-best friend, but the book started to take shape in my mind when I began to think about Charlotte and Sally, her friend’s mother. I liked that they were drawn together reluctantly, that the things they needed from each other did not match up evenly. There seemed a lot of drama and heartbreak in that situation and I thought I could build a plot and a world around it. The novel I’m working on now also centers around mothers and daughters and relationships that are both loyal and difficult.”

Whether beginning with form or relationships, crime fiction and poetry both lend themselves to exploring the action with the static, the danger under the surface, the tension ripping our connections apart, the endless need that brings us together, and the general instability that characterizes anything that appears solid, down to the whirling electrons that are our building blocks of chaos.

But enough about modernity. Let’s talk about tradition. While Erica’s crime fiction (so far) is set firmly in New York City, when it comes to poetry, she says, “I draw pretty heavily on the Southern Gothic tradition. Gregory Pardlo first recommended that I read Flannery O’Connor, and that suggestion changed my approach to writing. Her stories felt like permission to consider small-town subjects. While I don’t dwell exclusively in that realm, I’m pulled to the strangeness of rural life in the United States, the violence that lives alongside poverty. The supernatural feels more possible when you get beyond a city’s constant hum of electricity. We lost power a lot growing up, and I remember reading by candlelight, wondering if the scratching at a window was animal, tree, or other. There’s a lot of natural beauty, as well, of course. It’s not all ghosts, guns, and opossums.”

Melissa also has a touch of the Southern Gothic in her poetry. She’ll “write short lyrics about what I see around me, what I see out my studio window or on walks. My poems are full of rural Mississippi images because that’s where I live…I use images to talk about emotional states or create landscapes” but she doesn’t use poetry to “depict big cultural ideas.” Her books are more thematic – “the setting is broader, more a depiction of culture and values as well as images.”

Erica’s mention of natural beauty, and Melissa’s no-nonsense approach to the beauty of her environment, leave me feeling a bit abashed at my simplistic focus on the violence of fiction. If my questions seem a bit leading, and therefore a bit limiting, it’s because I don’t like to read happy stories, and because an acknowledgement of suffering unites the two forms in my own mind. For those who write both crime fiction and poetry, the two forms may complement each other rather than directly mirroring each other, and a rural setting has as much potential for joy as suffering. Saying that, I would definitely read an anthology titled “Ghosts, Guns, and Opossums.” As a city girl originally from the soul-sucking suburbs (looking at you, Round Rock!), I’ve enjoyed nature when comfortably caged, but only embrace the wild via cultural products. I tend to read tales of alienation, long highways, and closed-off neighbors, rarely venturing into the small town settings so many crime writers have made their own.

“While I don’t dwell exclusively in that realm, I’m pulled to the strangeness of rural life in the United States, the violence that lives alongside poverty. The supernatural feels more possible when you get beyond a city’s constant hum of electricity. We lost power a lot growing up, and I remember reading by candlelight, wondering if the scratching at a window was animal, tree, or other.” – Erica Wright

I finished up my interview asking a question for those readers like me, shy of poetry and looking for those works which might please a crime writer. Melissa recommends “Alice Notley’s book-length poetry projects The Descent of Alette and Culture of One. They  have a quality of obsessiveness and intensity, and they read like novels. Cynthia Cruz’s poems are dark and full of dread and may appeal to noir fans.”

Erica has quite a few recommendations. “Sometimes I dream about a job where I meet with a poetry skeptic for an hour, then make recommendations. There are so many wonderful contemporary poets. And mystery aficionados are already such prolific readers—it’s a short leap to them being as enamored as I am of folks like Sarah Messer, W. S. Merwin, Ada Limón. My former classmate Camille Rankine’s debut collection, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, is great. I just read and definitely recommend Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion. I’m looking forward to Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s new collection coming out this fall.”

For poetry readers looking for the gateway drug to crime fiction, Wright recommends “Sara Gran…[as] a good starter drug. Marisha Pessl’s two novels are incredible. Oh, and there are also other poets who write mysteries like Chris Abani and Melissa Ginsburg.” Its nice that she mentions Melissa, because I started reading Wright’s work based on Ginsburg’s recommendation. She ends her answer with her own question, to which I hope this article will be a small part of the response: “How do we make all the poets and mystery writers become friends?” 

 You can find works by Melissa Ginsburg on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

You can find works by Erica Wright on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s