This is no. 87 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
The process of writing prose can intimidate even the most seasoned poets. But we should view our training in poetry as an advantage rather than a drawback. Lately, with all that’s happening in the world, I’ve actually found it easier to write prose than poetry. Early on in the pandemic, I managed to write a zuihitsu (a Japanese form of hybrid poem-essay, invented by Sei Shōnagon in the eleventh century), and revised it over the summer with the keen eyes of the editors at Harper’s. The experience affirmed that blending poetry and prose can be supremely satisfying, even if, by its nature, prose requires more content, and can thus be more time-intensive. Using the zuihitsu form provided just the open space I needed—and working with professional editors helped steer the work toward clarity.
By contrast, in my doctoral study, I found I struggled most with critical essays that forced me into predetermined structures. For poets, I think allowing a certain kind of fluidity or invention into existing rhetorical practices—while preserving important aspects like accurate research and citation—makes room for poetic sensibility and enriches criticality with stylistic appeal. Prose, and perhaps essays in particular, can have the same kind of intimacy in tone and voice that poetry does, creating an emotional connection with readers.
In fact, poets can embrace the expansiveness of prose—the sheer volume of words—as an opportunity to create more points of connection through poetic language than in the distilled, compact space of a poem. Prose can be both sprawling and specific: two seemingly contrasting characteristics that demonstrate how we can hold two truths in mind at once. That contrast and simultaneity is also a driving force in poetry. I suspect that’s partly why hybrid works like the zuihitsu hold so much appeal to both writers and readers. They blend the best parts of each genre: poetic language and dramatic dialogue, gorgeous images and a compelling narrative, rhythmic sound and the familiar beat of prose.
While it can be difficult to maintain that lyricism in longer prose pieces, committing to drawing out lyrical patterns enriches prose compositions, particularly fiction. Fiction tends to have life and death stakes and a driving narrative, and the intentional use of poetic devices can help accentuate those high stakes. We can make use of lyric sentences, narrative control, surprising images and rich image-based action, and repetition and sound patterns.
No poetic tool is off-limits in prose. And as your piece takes shape, you can always identify which experiments work, and any elements that don’t work, with a good editor. Poets and prose writers alike benefit from a generous, sharp reader who can recognize threads hidden from you, the maker, or that you’re perhaps hiding from; areas where readers might connect more; and what can fall away. There’s a letting-go process in prose that feels a bit heavier than poetry, to me, perhaps because of the sheer volume of words. But it’s nonetheless a necessity, and almost always makes the piece better. An excellent editor will identify what has potential for expansion, and encourage you to lean into that. Of course, not everyone has access to professional editorial assistance, and for many years that was true for me. But you can build your own community in which editing and writing becomes a shared activity, where you read and learn together from both poetry and prose. After I finished my MFA in 2006, I joined a writing group for three years. I credit that experience with teaching me the persistence I needed to keep writing books—in whatever genre I decide to explore.
Khadijah Queen is the author of six books, including Anodyne (Tin House, 2020) and I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (YesYes Books, 2017). Her writing has also appeared in American Poetry Review, BuzzFeed, Fence, Poetry, and Tin House, among other publications. Holding a PhD in English from the University of Denver and an MFA from Antioch University, she teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and for Regis University’s Mile High MFA program.Thumbnail: Barn Images