Sherry Shahan, author of Death Mountain and Frozen Stiff, joins us with a blog post about what inspired her to write in verse for her latest novel, Purple Daze. Of her research methods, Sherry says, “…I’ve ridden on horseback into Africa’s Maasailand, hiked through a leech-infested rain forest in Australia, shivered inside a dogsled for the first part of the famed 1,049 mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, rode-the-foam on a long-board in Hawaii, and spun around dance floors in Havana, Cuba.” Not only does this make for an interesting person, but also for a very interesting and inspiring novel.
Is the number of YA verse novels in the last decade merely a fad? A type of bandwagon prompted by the critical recognition and success of True Believer (National Book Award and Printz Honor) by Virginia Euwer Wolff, First Part Last (Printz and Coretta Scott King Awards) by Angela Johnson, and New York Times bestseller Crank by Ellen Hopkins?
Or, can the YA novel in verse do something traditional prose novels can’t? Is it, in fact, aptly suited to scrutinizing the turbulent, but often-secret inner lives of teenagers? Perhaps the novel in verse has gained popularity among YA readers because it’s the perfect stage to showcase the inner drama and passionate histrionics of adolescence.
I would argue that the verse novel has the power to bring readers closer to the consciousness of a book’s characters. Sometimes even closer than novels written in traditional narrative prose. Does that mean all YA stories are best told in verse? Not necessarily. Why then did I choose this form for Purple Daze?
While cleaning out a closet in my office I found a shoebox filled with letters from the 1960s. There were countless letters written by a friend who was a Marine in Vietnam. I spent the rest of the day rereading his experiences in that living hell. I knew I had to do something with his story; after all, I’d kept his letters nearly 50 years.
I started messing around with different writing styles; I wrote character sketches about friends in high school, even teachers and neighbors. Once I began scribbling, I slipped in and out of flashbacks. Memories assaulted me 24/7.
I wanted to be inside the heads of each character — in order to explore their innermost thoughts and feelings — not merely describe them from the outside looking in. I could have achieved this by using an omniscient viewpoint. However, bouncing in and out of so many heads could be confusing.
It made sense to use letters as a form of communication for the two characters in the military. For the other four characters, I chose notes, journal entries, free verse and traditional poetry. I wanted to highlight the landscape of the mind over physical setting and description, but also have the tone be realistic and conversational. Examples:
Love is like sticking
your car keys in a pocket with
your sunglasses and thinking
your glasses won’t get scratched.
* I’m lipstick
A short squat
* Free Verse: Ms. Hawes’s class
Most single-page poems have more white space than text. White space plays an important role in poetic communication. It can reflect the power of a thought or idea in a way that margin-to-margin text cannot.
Fewer words on the page allow for even more white space:
Pages of the new testament fill my pillow,
gospels on a recon in search of a soul.
The more negative space, the more an object stands out. Isn’t the same true of other art forms? Dance, for instance. The subtle movement between choreographed steps is where a ballerina creates her art. A dancer’s breath is her white space. These two lines say more about Phil’s state of mind than if I’d written a full page of traditional prose.
In A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver makes the point that while free verse doesn’t have an external pattern or formal metric design, the writer still must consider language that is appropriate and effective. Of utmost importance is the character’s attitudes, beliefs, and sensitivities.
Ellen Hopkins, author of Crank, agrees. Verse novels must use “startling imagery and elevated language, such as metaphor, alliteration, assonance, which appeal — often subconsciously — aesthetically to the reader.” She goes on to say that “writing poetry” allows her to “climb more deeply inside a character’s head.”
Since Purple Daze is set in a real time and place, I included historical events in 1965: “Bloody Sunday,” Watts Riots, assassination of Malcolm X, etc. That same year the Pentagon requested bids from chemical companies for Napalm. Dow Chemical got the contract. Before then, they were best known as the maker of Saran Wrap. These entries are juxtaposed against pop culture and musical references — rock ‘n’ roll and the story behind Arlo Guthrie’s famed song, “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Research included reading newspaper accounts about those tumultuous times. Talking to Vietnam vets gave me details I hadn’t found in secondary material. One guy told me about using Kotex for bandages and helmet pads. I knew that had to go in the book.
We started packing maxi pads
in our helmets to plug sucking
war flicks don’t know shit about dying.
No one staggers in slow motion crying,
They drop like puppets with
their strings cut.
Dead as fucking door knobs.
I never prayed before I came here.
The history of the novel is marked by an almost continual development of variations on old narrative forms. It can be argued that regularity of any form becomes monotonous when the structure is predictable. I believe this nontraditional story form — the novel in poems — is an honest reflection of adolescence and of a time when young people break away from authority and social convention. Free verse is itself a type of breaking away, since the form breaks free from metrical poetry. Likewise, verse novels depart from traditional narrative prose.
Verse novels aren’t the only way to mirror the pulse of adolescent life. But condensed metaphoric language on a single page can reflect each character’s dramatic, tightly-packed world. Poems bring readers to the heart of feelings. And that’s where teens live.