Poetry: Pure Fiction, or Nonfiction in Its Purest Form?

StrangeFruit

CNFC workshop at Loft 112 in Calgary on Sunday, April 19, 2015
Photos & blog by Dale Lee Kwong

Can poetry constitute creative nonfiction?

The question is one I had never considered. When I did, I discovered I’ve unconsciously never given my poetry the same respect as my essays. For me, nonfiction held more interest than fiction and I categorized poetry as less valid. After attending a workshop featuring South African author and editor, Helen Moffett, I now feel excitement and liberation in using poetry as a tool with purpose in nonfiction.

Tackling the question with great gusto, Helen cited examples of South African poems over the past 60 years that have effected change, documented healing and served as tools of revolution. A self-described ‘recovering academic’, Helen confessed she didn’t write a poem until she was 42. A South African activist, she says “the movement of black protest poetry is (like) a glacier that feeds the way I write.”

Black urban male journalists who used writing as a form of activism were stopped by strict ‘banning orders’ that included house arrest, daily police check-ins, criminal charges for quoting those writers, and worse. In this culture, poetry emerged in South Africa as radical, in your face, subversion. While media was subject to government control, creative writers asked tongue-in-cheek, ‘What harm can poetry do?’

As Helen points out, “Poetry is a form of truth telling. It is not necessarily nonfiction.” South African censors were not able to do anything about information dispersed in the form of poetry, or truth telling disguised in the black tradition of spoken word. The poems were angry, deep, profound, powerful replies of what was happening in the political community. Poetry was telling uncomfortable truths, and no topic was taboo. From apartheid to feminist issues, the platform widened and writers now have the luxury to pay more attention to aesthetics.

Helen then shared from her poetry collection, Strange Fruit. It has been described as ranging from “comedic to bawdy to angry and melancholic”. Subject matter includes erections, baby showers, and challenges of infertility. Her reading was raw and bloody but beautiful and brilliant, a rare occasion in a workshop. How poignant her comment that, “Sometimes, the truth is so hard to tell, only a poem will do.”

Helen Moffat (left).
Helen Moffett (left).

Yes, poetry can be pure fiction but it can also be creative nonfiction. Though labels may be useful to me as an artist making sense of my own work, the knowledge doesn’t necessarily change what I write. If anything, I am challenged and liberated in knowing nothing is off-limits. I can more fully embrace the ability poetry has to provoke, incite, educate, expose, or heal, while addressing difficult real stories and subjects.

Thank you to CNFC for sponsoring a profound afternoon of words & wisdom.

Dale Lee Kwong is a Calgary poet, playwright, essayist and performer. Her work may be found in The Calgary Project, A Family By Any Other Name, Somebody’s Child and Modern Morsels. She appreciates the supportive nature of the CNFC membership.

News from the World of CNF

 

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As we gear up to our annual CNFC Conference (this time in Victoria), only a couple of weeks away, the world of CNF is fluttering with activity. So, here’s our news:

carte blanche has announced our CNF contest shortlist! You can find the shortlist here.

Second, our members continue to write and update their blogs:

Dennis Malone writes in “What I Learned from Cancer”:

Nurses are like sound men at rock concerts: there they are to ensure that all goes smoothly, there they are to ensure that the “stars” get their message out, there they are making the performers look good. But you never see them and despite being indispensable they go largely unnoticed. It is not until the feedback begins or the vocals are not loud enough or the guitar solo makes your ears bleed that you look back into the shadows and ask “What is that guy doing back there?” Continue reading…

Yours truly (Julija Sukys) offers a quick view of her experience at the recent AWP Conference that was held in Minneapolis:

It’s three days of nonstop talking, listening, browsing of books, and (for some) overindulging in drink and food. I’m still at a stage in my career and thinking where I can’t pass up the chance to learn more about my field or to hear the writers whose work I love read and speak in person, so, for three days, I rushed from panel to panel from morning until early evening. (Thank goodness for the bag of snacks I carried!) The nonfiction selections at AWP tend to be particularly good, so I really immersed myself in my beloved genre. Continue reading…

Happy reading! Happy writing! Happy spring!

Keep sending us your dispatches.

See you in beautiful Victoria.

Members Blog: What’s So Scary about Words Like “Religion,” “Spirituality” and “Mysticism”?

Rumi

Reflections on Writing my Memoir, Into the Mystic: My Years with Olga (Inanna Publications, 2014)

 Susan McCaslin

The word “religion” can sometimes generate hostility or fear. People mistrustful of religion notice how many of the major religions have been and continue to be tied to empire-building, rigid belief systems, gender inequalities, corporate capitalism, wars, and the exploitation of the “have nots.”

The word “spirituality” seems a gentler, more inclusive term, less indicative of rigid belief systems. Yet it too remains problematic for many. I place myself among those who sometimes indicate they are “spiritual but not religious.” The etymology of the word “religion” is “to tie again.” For many it has meant being bound to the creeds and moral teachings of the institutions, but for some, like Dante, it meant being tied through love to the larger movements of “the sun and the other stars.”

There are valid reasons why people may be averse even to gentler words like “spirituality” and “mysticism.” For one, they can be vague. They have meant so many things to so many people as to have become almost meaningless. Such words can also offer refuge for that which seems irrational, “flakey,” or “woo woo.”

Clearly some forms of what passes for mysticism have been a refuge for egotism, elitism, cultishness, imbalance, dogmatism, and even madness. Because my mother suffered from schizophrenia, I was initially skeptical of visions and anything smacking of the paranormal. Mom had heard frightening voices that made her act in self-destructive ways, and I didn’t want to hear them or get caught up in them.

Then, in 1969 at the age of twenty-two, I met Olga Park, an elderly woman from Port Moody, British Columbia, who became my spiritual mentor for sixteen years. Olga had had extraordinary visions since early childhood, but kept them to herself until later in life. She was firmly grounded in everyday reality, and had matured through these unitive experiences, becoming more integrated, loving, and wise. So I came to trust her, and the balance of reason, emotion, soul, and spirit she embodied. Her presence somehow woke me up, gave me access to my own deeper self.

Yet I found myself up against questions of language when writing about my relationship with Olga and her legacy in my life. While writing Into the Mystic, I felt compelled to provide some provisional definitions of terms. It is significant that the word “mystic” comes out of the mystery religions of ancient Greece, meaning both “an initiate,” and “to close the eyes or lips,” as when one enters deeply into the very ground of being.

Through Olga I learned a mystic isn’t a quietist, one who retreats to a purely subjective reality, but one who temporarily withdraws from the outer world (of materialism, getting and spending etc.) in order to become grounded in a non-dual reality. Often such people return to the world to serve, carrying that deep presence of silence within them.

The mystical, contemplative streams in many religions have more commonalities than differences. They can be portals to respectful engagement among the various faiths. What interests me are principles not of competition, but of cooperation, how we are interrelated within the larger ecological systems, to Gaia the planet. Since my teens I have been fascinated with global spiritualties because of their capacity to awaken our potential to evolve.

I can agree with agnostics (un-knowers who keep open to possibilities beyond linear reason) and a-theists (those who cannot embrace a traditional anthropomorphized God). However we name (or are unable to name) the mysterious powers and presences alive within us and within all things is less consequential than our individual and collective experience of them. And here the term mysticism is helpful, for it is generally acknowledged as the stream that addresses direct experiential knowing.

When asked now about my spiritual orientation, I often find myself saying, “I’m an inter-spiritual person, a seeker, a flawed work-in-progress who, as a poet fascinated with language, also recognizes its limits. With Rumi I would add:

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu,

Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion

 

or cultural system….

 

I belong to the beloved, having seen the two

worlds as one…

(Rumi, “Only Breath,” trans. Coleman Barks)

 

A longer version of this piece was first published on Inanna Publication’s website: http://www.inanna.ca/

Susan McCaslin has been writing since the age of twelve when she discovered the magic of great books and the power of poetic language. In graduate school at Simon Fraser in 1969, poetry found her again and became her life’s deep vocation. McCaslin’s “luminous companions” include William Blake and the Romantic poets, Rainer Maria Rilke, Vernon Watkins, and Denise Levertov. She am drawn to the mystical traditions of many cultures and religions and experience poetry as a musicality arising from silence.

[Photo: Nathan Hughes Hamilton]