“either tell the story four ways
or not at all” – “Victorian Quartet,” Adèle Barclay
When I was a kid my father told me a bedtime story about a fish whose tail went swish. As the story came to an end, I felt plagued with inexplicable dread. I was certain once the story ended the characters would vanish from existence. The fish whose tail went swish would die and I would be thrust out of safety and reverie of the story. I’d return to my own story in a bed where I’d lie awake all night. My father told the story again and then lost his shit. I don’t remember what happened next.
I felt elation upon discovering the film The NeverEnding Story — finally! — and disappointment when I found out the story did, inevitably, end.
As a child, my love for story was wrapped up in escape. I wanted to burrow into alternate realms to avoid my own hazardous reality. I felt betrayed by those imaginary worlds when they concluded.
As I grew older, stories felt less sturdy and became harder to tell. My brain whirled too quickly and words gummed up in my tight throat. There were too many entry points and infinite endings. A hero could also be a villain. I could tell the story a different way each day of the week.
Once upon a time there were many times and the hero was a daughter was a spy was an angel was a spoiled pig who was unsure what really happened.
I write lyric poetry because it steps outside of time and dwells in irresolution. The lyric allows the poet to explore ideas, feelings and language in the service of expression rather than linear progression. On the other hand, narrative calls upon language to recount events in a fairly accessible manner. Narrative requires a beginning, middle and an end, whereas lyric knows those divisions are arbitrary and that there are bigger fish to fry.
Lyric and narrative can play together in a poem, though. Time and timelessness may coexist, simultaneously bolstering the poem with their distinct qualities. We can parade through a series of events and then linger over the debris left behind. I can walk down a street in my neighbourhood and pause to recall that a river runs underneath it.
Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet wobbles somewhere between exotifying pulp and high modernism. Durrell’s prose is lush and often characterized as lyrical. These books are credited with inspiring Michael Ondaatje’s poetic writing. I have a soft spot for Durrell’s novels because each installment in the series refutes the plot of the novel that came before it. If someone tells me that they don’t like Justine, the first novel in the quartet, I tell them Fantastic! You’ll love the ones that come after.
Essentially I want a story that’s willing to light itself on fire and let the smoke tell its own version of what happened.
Two years ago I was working my second collection of poetry, Renaissance Normcore. During this time I took an online poetry workshop with Hoa Nguyen. During a session, Nguyen asked us to recall specific pop culture references, habits, and events from our childhoods for a writing prompt. What songs were on the radio when we were 10? What TV shows? What were the popular clothing styles? What did our families eat for dinner? What role did writing play in our home?
Suddenly I could hear Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” booming over the loudspeakers of a stuffy indoor pool while I practiced CPR on a dummy. The Halloween episode of Buffy Season 2 at a friend’s house. Greasy peanut-oil aroma of Wendy’s fries. A black-and-white striped bikini my father picked out for me. Wood panelling of my small town’s local pub. Weighing a salad at a hospital cafeteria. My sister’s Le Château black lace. My father’s relationship to shame, rage and alcohol. His narcissistic ownership of our bodies that corrupted every mundane moment.
I spent the afternoon spiralling alone in my living room, triggered by a simple exercise asking me to recall seemingly innocuous sensory details from my upbringing.
I wrote a series of poems making use of these anecdotes and felt like I had cracked open and found a new-fangled mode of writing — one that deployed rawness as innovation. When I showed the poems to Nguyen, she let me know I was writing narrative. Narrative can feel really avant-garde when you’re an experimental poet.
Telling stories with scenic details excavated from actual experiences was novel to me. Normally I conjured fantastical metaphors to articulate my daily devastations. Relaying actual events and describing concrete details felt far more strange to me than the surreal lyric I had been practicing.
Conveying my experiences that were steeped in violence and abuse was also massively triggering. No wonder I had sought out lyric poetry. With lyric poetry, I could release myself from time and the actual sequence of events and focus on pure expression in all its joy and terror. Language in the service of what had happened shut me down. Language in the service of expression opened me up.
My life made more sense as a surreal lyric than a plainspoken story.
All of this to say: I need poems because they feel like the only form that can hold my experiences. I want to believe there is space for my stories. Some of us have stories that feel taboo, that loop, end terribly, go offline, refute what came before, eviscerate the teller and audience, behave under threat, patiently unravel once your attention is directed elsewhere. Poetry was willing to expand for me. We need to pry open narrative and give our myriad voices space to breathe, stutter, and start again.