Columns > Published on April 10th, 2020

Why Genre Writers Should Read Poetry

Original header images via Sofia Garza & Andrea Piacquadio

Before Rian Johnson became a symbol of the last decade’s nerd cultural proxy war, he made a great neo-noir-YA film called Brick. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a loner who still knows all the highs school cliques and uses them to help find his lost girlfriend. I relate to the character in how I interact and intersect with all the macro and micro literary scenes. I’m cool with them but I never feel a part of them. 

I write poetry, I write horror, my YA novel once had representation (gonna do an agent search probably next year), and I won a humor award for my non-fiction debut. This, by the way, is not a good strategy for Literary Success ™. The best way to achieve that is to find one thing you’re good at and repeat it, but whatever—I like to write what I want to write and I love to read what I want to read. Though it won’t guarantee Literary Success ™, reading a lot and diversely can definitely help you become a better writer.   

In addition to genre-hopping with my own writing, the genres of the books I edit for CLASH Books are quite diverse. When I read for pleasure, I read all over the place as well. I love reading. I have preferences when the mood strikes, but my go-to is usually poetry. I’ve been writing poetry less these days, but last decade I put out three different poetry collections. I needed a break from writing it, but I love the artform and always love to read quality poetry.

I like how a whole collection coalesces into a memorable work I can reflect on.

I think I enjoy poetry so much because a collection can encompass all kinds of genres. I connect to it emotionally, visually, and lyrically. I enjoy following the lines and rhythms, the layers and meanings of each poem. I like how a whole collection coalesces into a memorable work I can reflect on.

Sadly, many readers do not feel this way, with the exception of diehard poetry fans on Instagram. A lot of writers don’t care much for poetry, either. While literary fiction writers at least pretend to like poetry, I’ve seen genre writers from all scenes exhibit total apathy toward poetry (though the horror community has a pretty good niche for poetry). I notice people don’t hate poetry, they just don’t care much that it exists.

I’m not naive enough to say that I’m going to get genre writers to buy a bunch of poetry books, but I would like to see them open their minds up to reading poetry. I know writers (I am one of them) that will read craft books, but reading poetry is a whole different animal. Poetry is the deadlift and leg day of the well-rounded reading routine. 

I want to see genre writers read more poetry because I see too many submissions from them lacking rhythm and music. Writing, poetry—really any good art—can put you under a kind of trance. When prose lacks magic, personality, and music, it is easily forgotten, even if the story and or characters are strong.

I play music too, and learned that some musicians just have a natural rhythm. Some people have to practice more. Reading poetry is like practicing to a metronome. Your rhythm and timing will improve overtime with exposure. Poetry reminds us that you also read with your ear. And with your body. You feel the breaks like a song. 

Poetry is built on atmosphere and what I like to call "vibe" in my editorial notes. Genre fiction that has atmosphere or a "cool vibe" feels more alive. The voice conjures up texture and color. It puts you in a trance and takes you away. Reading poetry reminds us that words are more than math, rules, and causality. It’s a reminder that a written word is also a type of spell or magic.

The poetry I really enjoy, that stays with me, is the kind that connects with me emotionally. Songs (poetry with music) are all about that connection. Bad, good, energetic, or angry, it’s the emotions that come through and make the song memorable. Poetry teaches you as a writer how to add emotion to your scenes. The prose is there to make you feel something. What we call "poetic writing," or just writing that flows, is writing that makes you feel present and alive.

The biggest benefit of reading someone else’s poetry is that it helps you connect more deeply with yourself. Poetry is often talked about in spiritual terms, and while I’m not going to get all new age or culty, I do believe reading poetry is a nice sort of secular meditation. Poetry forces you to reflect on who you are and what you believe. A writer who knows themselves tends to know their characters better still. 

Sharing poetry with non-poets is an arduous uphill battle, but I want genre writers to at least see reading poetry in a utilitarian way. Even reading a little poetry on a regular basis will make you a better writer. Who knows, you might even grow to like it. It’s an art form that writers of all genres should give a chance. Right now, everyone's life could use some more poetry.

About the author

Christoph Paul is the Managing Editor and owner of CLASH Books, who have published over 60 books and have been covered by NPR, Poets & Writers, Rolling Stone, Believer Magazine, Oprah Magazine, The Observer, Fangoria, and Publisher's Weekly. The press has had books translated into Spanish, French, and Italian. He has been editing books in almost every genre for over a decade. As an author, he won a humor award and had viral cult success under a pen name. He is the lead singer and bass player of the rock band The Dionysus Effect, who have received positive reviews in Loudwire, EARMILK, and Red Rock Magazine. He sometimes writes songs about the books he publishes because even artists are inspired by their day jobs. Follow him on Twitter @christophpaul_ @clashbooks @dionysuseffect.

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