The contemporary verse novel for children and young adults, a hybrid genre that combines poetry and narrative, emerged concurrently in Australia and the United States in the late 1990s, and has continued to proliferate. In this interview, Elizabeth Claire Alberts discusses the young adult verse novel with three award-winning writers—Helen Frost, Steven Herrick and Ronald Koertge. The initial questions investigate how these authors position themselves, and their texts, within the verse novel genre—a classification that has been problematic because of its terminological implications. The subsequent questions consider the thinking and writing processes involved in creating a young adult verse novel, and if—and how—these processes differ from the creation of prose narratives or other types of poetry. Several questions explore the collaboration between poetry and narrative, and how these authors deal with the dualistic demands of the verse novel form. The creative processes involved in writing young adult verse novels have not been thoroughly discussed in contemporary theory, and the responses from Frost, Herrick and Koertge offer an enlightening perspective of writing in this form.
Keywords: verse novel—young adult novel—poetry—narrative—hybridity—creative writing
Helen Frost is the author of seven novels-in-poems: Keesha’s house (2003); Spinning through the universe (2004); The braid (2006); Diamond willow (2008); Crossing stones (2009); Hidden (2011); and Salt (forthcoming 2013). She has been awarded a Printz Honor for Keesha’s house, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Children’s Poetry Award for Diamond willow, and the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award for her body of work. In 2009-2010 she received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Poetry. She lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her website is: www.helenfrost.net
Steven Herrick is the author of several verse novels for children and young adults, including Love, ghosts & nose hair (1996); A place like this (1998); The spangled drongo (1999); The simple gift (2000); Do-wrong Ron (2003); By the river (2004); Cold skin (2007); and Pookie Aleera is not my boyfriend (2012). He has also written various poetry collections and prose novels for children and young adults. Herrick was the recipient of the NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 2000 and 2005. He lives in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales.
Ronald Koertge is the author of four young adult verse novels: The brimstone journals (2001); Shakespeare bats cleanup (2006); Shakespeare makes the playoffs (2010); and Lies, knives, and girls in red dresses (2012). He has also written several poetry collections and young adult novels in prose. A two-time winner of the PEN Literary Award for Children’s Literature, Ron lives in South Pasadena, California.
The ‘verse novel’ is an ambiguous term for an ambiguous genre. The word ‘verse’ seems to imply that the genre should contain a lesser form of poetry, yet the authors in this interview have indicated that they have not written ‘verse’, but have created ‘poetry’. However, ‘poetry’ is then intermixed with ‘narrative’ to create the hybrid form of the verse novel. Jeri Kroll (2010) calls the verse novel ‘interstitial’, arguing that it forces the writer to question the collaboration between poetry and narrative. If this is so, how conscious is that collaboration, in the writer’s mind? And how do verse novelists deal with the dualistic demands of writing both poetry and narrative?
This interview investigates these questions by engaging with three award-winning young adult verse novelists—Helen Frost, Steven Herrick and Ronald Koertge. Herrick wrote the first young adult verse novel to be published in Australia, Love, ghosts & nose hair (1996), and has subsequently published many more works in this genre. Frost and Koertge have published numerous verse novels in the United States, including Frost’s Keesha’s house (2003) and Koertge’s The brimstone journals (2001).
The work of these three writers exhibits the core characteristics of the young adult verse novel genre, including first-person narration and the use of short poems (one to three pages long) to form the narrative structure. The main similarity between these authors is that each has published verse novels that employ multiple narrators. In Frost’s case, every verse novel she has published utilises multiple narrators; the others have also published verse novels with single first-person narrators. In terms of poetic form, however, each author has made a different choice. Herrick’s verse novels are characterised by free verse, while Frost uses sonnets, sestinas, and other form poems. Koertge uses a mix of free verse and poetic forms like haikus and pantoums. Two of Koertge’s verse novels, Shakespeare bats cleanup (2006) and Shakespeare makes the playoffs (2010), involve metapoetic references to the making of the poetry within the narrative discourse.
These authors have previously been interviewed regarding their verse novels (see Kroll 2001; Shahan 2009; Vardell 2010), and this interview aims to extend these discussions by investigating the unique nature of the verse novel writing process, and the collaboration between poetry and narrative in this process. The initial questions of this interview investigate how these verse novelists position themselves, and their texts, in the verse novel genre. The succeeding questions consider the thinking and writing processes involved in creating a young adult verse novel, and if—and how—these processes differ from the creation of prose narratives or other types of poetry. Several questions explore the collaboration between poetry and narrative, and how these authors deal with the dualistic demands of the verse novel form.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts: Would you identify your publications as ‘verse novels’?
Helen Frost: I prefer the term ‘novels-in-poems’ because ‘verse’ is so often a word that non-poets use when referring to poetry. I think of it as a somewhat oldfashioned term; these days ‘novel-in-verse’ is almost the only use of the word ‘verse’ to refer to poetry other than perhaps something like ‘greeting card verse’.
Steven Herrick: Yes. I wrote them intending to use the verse novel format.
Ronald Koertge: The brimstone journals is journal-like, with short, punchy entries by a handful of different high school kids. There’s a narrative arc and any critic or editor could call the entries prose poems and get away with it. Each entry gets a page of its own, and few traditional novels do that. In Shakespeare Bats Cleanup and its sequel, Shakespeare makes the playoffs, my narrator writes in free verse (skinny poems running down the page, usually). In the first book he experiments on his own with various forms (haiku, sonnet, etc.) and in the sequel he and a smarty-pants girl challenge each other to use all the forms. Both books are novels in the sense that things happen in the real world and there’s a character who grows and changes. In the novel I’m currently writing, Casa del dios, there are no traditional forms, only free verse. The book is compact, resonant and intense, not words usually associated with prose.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts: What attracted you to write in the verse novel genre?
Helen Frost: My training as a writer was primarily in poetry. For a few transitional years, I wrote poetry for adults and prose for children. My poetry often had a narrative element, and the stories I was writing for children had elements of poetry. At some point, the two things I was doing came together, and I wrote Keesha’s house using traditional poetic forms and contemporary voices. This allowed me a certain freedom, different from what I had found in writing either individual poems or prose stories. I had the large scope of a novel and the precision that poetry demands and enables.
Steven Herrick: The first few poems of my first verse novel, Love, ghosts, & nose hair, were written years before the novel was published. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was heading with these poems, so I filed them away. A few years later, I reread them and realised I had the start of a verse novel and a believable character, Jack, the 16-year-old narrator. I quickly learned that writing in the verse novel format allowed me to use multiple first-person narrators. A few reasons. One: I was a little bored with just writing single unrelated poems. Two: While visiting schools and performing my work, I would talk to the students afterwards. Inevitably a student, usually a boy, would express an interest in reading my books, but ask a question along the lines of ‘do you have any stories, not just poems?’ I realised if I needed to reach this audience I’d have to tell stories. The verse novel seemed the logical extension to my writing. Three: I’ve always seen myself as a professional writer. I wanted to tell stories. And I didn’t feel that my background as a poet should hinder my storytelling abilities, so I simply tried to marry the two.
Ronald Koertge: I’ve been a poet for more than 50 years. Writing novels-in-verse was a natural for me. As they became a more popular form I thought, ‘Oh, I should try that.’
Elizabeth Claire Alberts: Do you consider what you’ve written to be poetry?
Helen Frost: Yes. The glib answer would be a paraphrase of something I once heard as a definition of art: ‘Art is what artists do’. To tease that out a bit: If I claim to be a poet, and I do make that claim (not lightly), then when I am writing, and using the tools of my craft, what I write is poetry. A circular answer, perhaps, to a difficult question.
Steven Herrick: Are you asking whether I consider my verse-novels to be poetry? The simple answer is I don’t really care how people view them, as long as they read my books. Having said that, I can accept that some of the ‘poems’ in my verse-novels are more ‘poetic’ than others. And some ‘poems’ are more ‘verse’ than ‘poetry’. But, again, I’m not sure if I care about these definitions too much. If a piece of writing conveys what the writer wants it to, then it works, no matter what it’s labelled. I sometimes feel these definitions are created by fellow writers/critics who want to pigeonhole or belittle a genre. You know, the old ‘that’s not real poetry’ cliché. This argument is used every decade or so, usually against the ‘performance poets’ who strive to make poetry popular and try to reach a wider audience. Jealous ‘real poets’ level this charge against these interlopers. As though anyone has a mortgage on what is or isn’t poetry.
Ronald Koertge: Oh sure, it’s poetry, partly because it sure isn’t prose. I’m careful with word choices, line breaks and sound. More careful than when I’m writing prose.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts: How would you describe your thinking and writing process when writing poetry (not including poetry that’s written for a verse novel)? Is it different from the poetry that’s written for a verse novel?
Helen Frost: When I teach poetry, I sometimes ask my students to ‘think soft’. Compared to ‘thinking hard’ in a situation where you are trying to find a right answer, poetry demands a different kind of attention, a mind open to surprises, following flashes of light. This does not suggest a lack of rigour; the mind is both relaxed and strong in its movement. Something like swimming in a river, sometimes with the current, sometimes twisting around to swim against it, occasionally caught in a whirlpool or possibly even going over a waterfall and then–one has to trust–regaining control.
Steven Herrick: I’m not sure if my thought/writing processes are too different between poetry and verse-novels. In both, I’m trying to convey character, emotion, location, meaning. Perhaps when writing a verse novel I’m more concerned about making sure the character remains consistent throughout a suite of poems. Perhaps I’m also much more aware of consistency of location. But one of my favourite types of poem is the simple narrative one, where I just tell a self-contained story in one poem—I love the way a poem can be such a self-contained piece, that lasts a few lines, or a few pages or, in performance, a minute or two, but conveys so much to the reader/audience. And while not all poems in a verse novel stand alone (due to the reader not knowing the ‘backstory’), many do. And to hold attention, any piece of writing needs to engage the reader/listener. That’s my prime motivation—to tell stories that captivate.
Ronald Koertge: I tend to have two things to think about when I’m writing a novel-in-verse: is the story moving along at a nice clip, and is what I’m writing actually poetry and not chopped-up prose? It’s easy to be lazy writing novel-in-verse; I see it all the time with my MFA students.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts: How does your thinking and writing process differ when writing prose narratives?
Helen Frost: When I try writing a prose novel, at first it feels easier, more direct, to focus on what is happening, what the characters are saying, the shape of the story. But I’ve never managed to get beyond 50 or 60 pages of a prose narrative before arriving at a place where I need poetry to move the novel forward. I suspect this is because I’ve never been taught by a master fiction writer, as I was taught by great poets. I know from reading beautiful prose novels that it’s possible to achieve the same emotional texture and depth that I find in poetry, and maybe I’ll want to and be able to do that someday, but so far I have not.
Steven Herrick: I’ve written three prose novels. In each, I’m much more aware of dialogue. In fact, the main reason I switched to prose recently was the desire to become a better writer of dialogue. In verse novels, each of my characters tend to ‘tell the story’ through ‘interior monologues’. That is, each character is having a conversation with themselves, rather than speaking aloud. It is simple stream-of-consciousness writing. In prose, my characters can chat, sometimes about seemingly insignificant things, yet it all adds to character development and drives the narrative. My use of dialogue in verse novels is much sparser, much more ‘meaningful’. Having said all that, my latest prose novel, Black painted fingernails, is heavily influenced by my verse novel experience in that the story is told through two perspectives—the first-person narrator, James; and the third-person narration, which concentrates on the other main character, Sophie. Verse novels have taught me that telling a story from multiple perspectives better suits the way I see the world. It’s never singular black-and-white.
Ronald Koertge: Somehow it feels like a longer haul. An accomplished page of prose isn’t as rewarding as its complement, a good page of a novel-in-verse. There’s something satisfying about closing my notebook on a poem versus closing it on a narrative. For the former, every day feels like a new start. Not so much for the latter. But for prose narratives, I do the Hemingway trick of ending basically mid-sentence, so starting the next morning is like picking up the thread in the labyrinth after taking a little nap.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts: How would you describe your thinking and writing process when writing a verse novel?
Helen Frost: Most of my novels-in-poems employ some kind of formal structure. There is sometimes a stage between prose drafting and the final (formal) stage of my novels, and in that intermediate stage, I’m aware of cadences, line breaks, the music of the language, and how images work together, but I’m not working quite so hard to structure the novel as a whole in a pleasing way. By the time I know the structure, I usually know the general direction the story is taking. The structure or rules I set for myself help me discover details I might not otherwise come upon.
Steven Herrick: I write chronologically. I focus heavily on character development and location. I like to drive the narrative along rather slowly. Perhaps the only real difference is, as mentioned above, that I’m more willing to allow dialogue to ‘tell the story’ in a prose novel.
Ronald Koertge: I think briefer-on-the-page when I’m writing straight-up poetry, and that washes over onto the novel-in-verse. As previously stated, I have more to think about when I’m writing a novel-in-verse. Although there’s pace in every poem, for example, it isn’t like the pace of narrative. So there’s pace inside of pace.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts: When writing a verse novel, do you find yourself privileging one genre over the other (poetry over narrative, or narrative over poetry)?
Helen Frost: I don’t think so, or if so, it’s a movement in and out of each, at a subconscious level, depending on what the work requires at any given moment.
Steven Herrick: Can I answer this obliquely by suggesting I privilege character development over both?
Ronald Koertge: I don’t think I favour one genre over another. They seem like amiable things, willing to work with and alongside one another. Or to wait their turn. I have seen what privilege leads to: ‘Wonderful poems but a sluggish narrative with flat characters’, or, ‘A riveting plot tricked out with unfortunate poems’. In the former, the poor author loved poetry more; in the latter, the narrative.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts: How do you negotiate writing both poetry and narrative?
Helen Frost: Language has its own DNA—the history of each word and the grammatical structures we use in writing and conversation have come to us through many generations of speakers, from distant time and faraway places. I have learned to trust language to do the heavy lifting in both poetry and narrative. Working with the two elements together (poetry and narrative), I find that each aspect supports and strengthens the other, and I am very much aware that this is no accident; nothing about my writing is a gimmick or a word game, though I do sometimes enjoy being playful with language.
Steven Herrick: I absolutely loved writing many of my verse novels because I thought (and still think) that the verse novel format offers such a precise and economic form of storytelling. Interestingly, two of my favourite verse novels are totally different in the way they approach the genre. Cold skin uses nine narrators to tell the story, while By the river uses only one narrator.
Ronald Koertge: Ah, the writing process. Well, I write pretty much 350 days of the year, so negotiating both poetry and prose comes easily. As far as success in the process goes, I’m grateful to get up, walk a few quick miles with my wife and go to work in my studio. I often write very badly, but so what? Putting in the time every day is my process. I’ll do better tomorrow.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts: Were there ever any instances where you felt you had to move the narrative forward but couldn’t make a poem work? If so, how did you get through these sections?
Helen Frost: Not really. I’m patient and I work hard. I usually write each poem two or three times. I may write something one day, and feel quite pleased with it at the end of the day, and then when I read it the next day, realise it takes the story in a direction I don’t want it to go, or perhaps the language feels limp or lazy, just telling the story without much magic happening. If it can be revised, I’ll do that, but often I start over on that poem and work until I get it right. If I were to go forward, building on a weak poem, it would be hard to revise later, because the poems that follow would depend on that one, and wouldn’t work as well. I do revise after writing all the way through the story, and sometimes even add poems for the sake of narrative clarity, but I try to make sure each poem is working both as story and as a poem before moving on with the narrative.
Steven Herrick: I’m afraid I rarely stress over these writing issues. If it’s not working, I leave it for a while and come back to it later. Inevitably, I solve the problem. Which means I don’t have a very precise recall of instances where I’ve had this problem. Although, now I remember, Black painted fingernails existed for a few years as a verse-novel, just prowling around in my computer. Eventually, I realised it wasn’t working, so I changed it to prose.
Ronald Koertge: When a poem or poems lock up the story, I choose the story. More often than not, I’d leave a hole in the narrative and just come back to it. Usually something deeper in the story picks away at the lock, anyhow, and pretty soon the thing opens.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts: Did you plan your story structure before writing?
Helen Frost: Not before writing, but as I’m writing. A formal structure often comes to me around the same time as the structure of the narrative begins to appear; then as they both become more clear, they enhance each other and become more specifically defined.
Steven Herrick: No, definitely not. I start a story with a bare outline of one or two characters and a location where I’d like the action to take place in. Then I just let the story unfold by focusing on character development, more than plot. After 40 pages of this, I generally have an idea where I’d like to head. But I stress, I rarely know where I’ll finally end up until I’m at least halfway through the manuscript. In only one book, Cold skin, did I have a vague idea of an ‘ending’ scene.
Ronald Koertge: I tend not to plan. I’m one of those writers who wants to be surprised. I do think a little about the next day’s needs because a lot happens in my brain at night. I imagine I waste a fair amount of time not planning, but I don’t care. So there.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts: Is there anything else you would like to share about your writing and thinking process when writing a verse novel?
Helen Frost: I recently saw a video of a surfer riding a very long wave—five minutes or so—and I thought that was an image of how it feels to work on a novel-in-poems when it is going well. We can say when the surfer is fully in the water (poetry), and when he or she is completely on land (prose narrative), but the true exhilaration comes when you can’t quite say which element you are in—there’s an energy unique to the place that is neither land nor water, and is, simultaneously, both.
Steven Herrick: I’ve always found verse novels relatively easy to write. When they become a chore, I’ll probably stop. With my latest verse novel for children, Pookie Aleera is not my boyfriend, I realise how the format allows me to tell a story from many perspectives, which perhaps best suits a view of the world. That is, there’s always more than one side to every story.
Ronald Koertge: It’s interesting to me that when I’m writing a novel-in-verse I can’t write poems. I don’t usually get ideas for poems, anyway, if I’m in the middle of a verse-novel. And if I do, the best thing is to jot the idea down but not try even a rough draft. Maybe poems like to have me all to themselves? Probably there’s a poem in there—jealous poems lurking outside the house where a novel-in-verse lives.
These interviews reveal that writing a verse novel involves a specific process that differs from writing a stand-alone poem or a prose narrative. Not only does the writer need to think about individual poems, he or she also needs to consider the overarching narrative structure. At the same time, these verse novelists have suggested that writing a verse novel shares much with the writing of poetry. In both processes, the writer is thinking about things like language, density, and character. This may indicate a fundamental likeness between the verse novel and the poem, despite the fact that the verse novel involves a more complex narrative structure.
Yet the process of writing a verse novel remains ambiguous. How similar is this process to writing a poem? What is distinctive about writing a verse novel? Many of the questions that enquired into this distinction were answered obliquely. Frost used a metaphor to describe verse novel writing, likening it to surfing. It is also interesting to note that while each poet has acknowledged thinking about the collaboration of poetry and narrative, they have also suggested that this collaboration is intuitive. This indicates that writing a verse novel involves cognition, and also involves emotive and affective thought.
This connection would be worth exploring in future research. Although the verse novel will continue to be steeped in ambiguity based on its fusion of poetry and narrative, a more extensive exploration of affect and emotion in the role of writing the verse novel may bring further elucidation to this hybrid form.
Frost, H 2003 Keesha’s house, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Herrick, S 1996 Love, ghosts, & nose hair, St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press
Herrick, S 2004 By the river, Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin
Herrick, S 2007 Cold skin, Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin
Herrick, S 2011 Black painted fingernails, Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin
Herrick, S 2012 Pookie Aleera is not my boyfriend, St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press
Koertge, R 2001 The brimstone journals, Cambridge: Candlewick Press
Koertge, R 2006 Shakespeare bats cleanup, Cambridge: Candlewick Press
Koertge, R 2010 Shakespeare makes the playoffs, Cambridge: Candlewick Press
Kroll, J 2001 ‘A simple poetic gift: an interview with Steven Herrick’, Viewpoint: on books for young adults 9.1: 24-25
Kroll, J 2010 ‘Strange bedfellows or compatible partners: the problem of genre in the twenty-first century verse novel’, in Strange bedfellows or perfect partners papers: the refereed proceedings of the 15th conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs, at http://aawp.org.au/files/Kroll_0.pdf (accessed 3 March 2013)
Shahan, S 2009 ‘A fresh approach to YA novels’, The writer 122.2: 34-35, 55
Vardell, SM 2010 ‘Talking with Helen Frost’, Book Links (March): 20