The Power of Poetry: Carol McAfee Talks to Martine Leavitt About How Poetry Can Improve Our Prose

By Carol McAfee

I am delighted today to speak with author Martine Leavitt whose books always make me cry in the way a sunset can make you cry, for the sheer beauty of it.

Martine, please tell us about you as a writer. Your aesthetic. What do you care most about that you want to share with the world?  Or as memoirist Vivian Gornick asks, “What have you come here to say?”

Every one of my books is an attempt to peel back a corner of the universe and see what’s going on under there.

What time of day do you generally write?

I write every day at 5 am, for two hours. Nobody else is awake at 5 am, nobody phones you or texts you at 5 am. It feels obscene to do dishes or laundry at 5 am. Your husband doesn’t love you at 5 am. It’s just you and a candle and the quiet. Some days I get to come back to my writing later in the day, but often not.

I had seven babies, and early mornings were the only time that I was assured of a little bit of uninterrupted time. They’ve all grown up now, of course, which was nice of them, but the habit is ingrained.

Now I have twenty grandchildren and a job I love and patient friends, and I find that often those early morning hours are still the only time I’ll get to write on a given day.

I propose this idea to my students, who have lovingly dubbed it the Martine Routine, and just as lovingly don’t follow it.

Where is your workspace located?

I just sit on the living room sofa.

Martine’s writing spot.

What’s on or near your desk? Do you have artifacts, mementos, quotations, photographs that inspire you?

On the family desk I keep a pretty journal. When I begin a new project, I make notes in the pretty journal – just writing down thoughts, character sketches, descriptions of setting, random bits of dialogue, plot ideas… The prettier the journal, the better the writing. This is a proven fact.

One of Martine’s pretty journals.

Do you have any rituals?

I roll out of bed. I pray. I write.

What is your definition of a poem? What makes something more like a poem and less like a poem?

Oh boy. Great minds have tried to pin down a definition of poetry for hundreds of years – I wouldn’t presume to have anything original to say on the topic.

But I found Terry Eagleton’s definition most amusing: “A poem is a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end. This dreary-sounding definition, unpoetic to a fault, may well turn out to be the best we can do.” 

Tom Stoppard said poems are: “the simultaneous compression of language and expansion of meaning.” What does he mean by this? Does this resonate with you? Please use a poem for example from your own work and discuss this compression/expansion dynamic.

I hope this is what I do. I tried to do it in this poem. This is Angel in the rain in the dark. How do you describe the rain when it’s not just water, it’s also light? How do you say, in a way that doesn’t offend the ear, that Angel is scared because she’s just about to do something dangerous, but she’s also happy because she’s going to save Melli? How do you explain without explaining that Angel was once a shoplifter of shoes, but she’s returned all the stolen shoes and all she has left is these flip-flops, but something is happening to them, and to her? And yes, she is finding beauty in the rain, but everything in Angel’s life, even the rain, comes with danger. That’s the compression part.

How do you say all that, and still make room for the reader to create her own meaning? That’s the expansion part. This is how I said it:

…and the rain fell like tinsel,

each drip a ray in the dusk,

each splashed into the puddles like moons,

made slow-motion flowers of light

that rain from the sea,

still with salt in it,

still smelling of shark,

my boughten flip-flops spangled with droplets

like sequins

In the books you’ve chosen to write in verse, in the poems you’ve written, why did you choose poetry?

Line breaks helped me discover and create Angel’s voice. They reflected the fractured psyche of my Angel. She did not think in a straight line, in the straightforward manner of prose. She was erratic and mercurial and in withdrawal. I wanted traditional punctuation to be noticeably absent, and the line breaks to serve as big punctuation. Angel needed big punctuation. And lots of white space.

I wanted the lack of quote marks to indicate airlessness, voicelessness, a rejection of convention, and I wanted the lack of capitals to reflect a questioning of what is proper in a proper noun.

None of this would have worked quite as well, I believe, in prose. I liked also that the poetic elements provided some distance between my young reader and a disturbing topic, without requiring me to hedge on the truth.

Why do poems speak so intimately to our souls?

Because poems are the closest we can come to magic spells? The pure Adamic language? My neuroscientist son would probably be able to give you a scientific answer to this question, and tell you just how poetry lights up certain brain structures. But I like to think we simply can’t know the answer, and that’s the coolest part about it.

What poetic techniques do you use most in your writing?

Please pick two of these and discuss: repetition, metaphor, compression, meter, rhyme, musicality, etc.  If you say—repetition—for example, can you give us examples from your own work and say a little about the power of repetition?

Here’s a poem from My Book of Life by Angel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) when Angel sees an angel. (I got to use the word angel three times in that sentence – I mean!)

I thought she would be

all floaty and filmy,

all fragile ghost-bones that break,

all dandelion-seed hair and weightless –

but no.

She was stone, fixed, forever…

Her words dripped into my ear –

each drop weighed a star.

She said, Angel,

when God reads your book of life,

boy, are some people ever gonna get it.

Okay, so there’s lots of alliteration going on, and the assonance of “ghost-bones.” But what I really admire in my favorite poets, and what I try to emulate in my own work and in this poem, is allowing metaphor to rise up as if on thermals, and then bam, drop back down to the tenor, to the mundane.

There’s something thrilling about being on the outer edges of language and thought one moment, and, in the next, finding yourself in the dirt.

How, specifically, do you think poetic techniques can improve our prose?

I’m reading a story, and a moment of potential emotional significance comes, and the character’s eyes widen and their heart starts pounding and their stomach twists and…  and I feel nothing.

Please no more pounding hearts.

Give me a nice little objective correlative, or any number of figures of language. Surprise me. Startle me!

How does this unique character experience her emotion uniquely? How can it be expressed in a fresh and original way?

Once upon a time, I suppose, a clenched stomach was metaphorical. But if it was, it has now been wrung out of all meaning and beauty. It’s worn out, grey-haired and half dead. All dead. If, as Cynthia Ozik says, metaphor is the opposable thumb of the mind, give me something to grasp and to hold.

Please tell us about your favorite poems.

Everyone will say this, and I feel no need to be different: how do you choose a favorite poem? My all-time favorite poet is Gwendolyn Brooks because every single poem she wrote was genius and heart-wrenching. She wasn’t interested in deconstructing meaning. She was interested in making it, and conveying it. She wanted me to cry, and I did. I do.

I love classic poetry, and e. e. cummings and Sylvia Plath. I love Mary Oliver, of course – who doesn’t love Mary Oliver? I think the young poets are so brave and brilliant – Amanda Gorman, hello. Recently I was delighted by “For Katy” by Rodney Jones, “Hoarders: Tara” by Kate Durbin, “Prompts (for high school teachers who write poetry)” by Dante Di Stefano, “Name that Tune” by Jennifer L. Knox, and “Brown Love” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.

All of these came to me through “Poem-a-Day,” which I depend on to make me happy. Thank you, Poem-a-Day, for being part of my life.

Which poem/ poetic passage of yours is a favorite? 

Since this is an article on poetry in prose, perhaps I’ll share a passage from my novel Calvin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) where I was reaching toward the poetic to explain this moment of change for Calvin.

The lake was in my brain. I put that vast lake into my brain, and I could zoom out and see it as a blue splotch on the big ball of the world, or I could zoom in and see each snowflake as a 10158th possibility. I was standing on the lake and tucking the corners of it into my skull, but the lake didn’t know me. It didn’t feel me. It couldn’t understand me, zoom in or out on me. I might be tipping into a cold lake in a minute, but I could imagine a tiger and a dinosaur based on bones, and monsters under the bed, and I could imagine flying. That’s what a sick brain could do – it could know it was sick, it could know it might die. That was the Calvin brain, the human brain. Only the human brain could know about a hot tiger on a cold lake.

Cynsational Notes

Martine Leavitt writes novels for young adults. Most recently Calvin won the Governor General’s Award of Canada. My Book of Life by Angel was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and winner of the Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book of the Year. Keturah and Lord Death (Boyds Mill Press, 2012) was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her next book, Buffalo Flats, will be out in spring 2023 from Groundwood Books. She teaches creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a short-residency MFA program. She lives in High River, Alberta.

Carol McAfee writes about resilient kids and teens from broken homes. A graduate of Vermont School of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adults, Carol recently finished her middle grade in novel verse, My Name is Max, about a boy, a girl, and a robot lost in the Maine wilderness. She is currently at work on a young adult called Tobacco Creek, where, during a Civil War reenactment, sixteen-year-old Zoey falls in love with a time-traveling Union soldier.