Sherry Shahan lives in a laid-back beach town in California where she grows carrot tops in ice cube trays for pesto. Her work has appeared in Impspired, Oxford University Press, Confrontation, F(r)action, Progenitor and forthcoming from Fiddlehead and Hippocampus. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and taught a creative writing course for UCLA Extension for 10 years.
How Unearthing a Shoebox of Letters Inspired a Novel in Verse
While cleaning out my office I unearthed a shoebox filled with letters from a teenage friend who had served in Vietnam during the tumultuous 1960s. I spent hours pouring through his truthful and heart-wrenching accounts of the twenty-year war. I knew I had to do something with his letters; I’d kept them more than fifty years.
Since letters inspired Purple Daze: A Far Out Trip, 1965 (Authors Guild Back-in-Print Edition, 2020), it made sense to incorporate journal entries, notes, and letters into the narrative. I then began writing sketches about other high school friends and our crazier exploits.
Experimenting with a nontraditional story form had its challenges. Each of the six viewpoint characters required his or her own story arc, while they struggled with highly charged emotional issues: war, riots, adolescent sex, family alcoholism, etc.
Yet their individual tales had to be interlaced into the whole. Demanding, yes. But the approach seemed the best way to give readers access into the characters’ private mindsets.
I became hyper-aware of ‘white space’ and its role in shaping emotional context. In certain instances, white space can reflect the power of a thought or idea in a way that solid text cannot.
Since the story is character driven, the landscape of the mind is more important than physical setting. Although much of the story takes place in high school I rarely describe the campus. In verse, there is less need for physical description because what the character thinks and feels is more important than what they look like.
This piece is only four lines:
Love is like sticking
your car keys in a pocket with
your sunglasses and thinking
your glasses won’t get scratched.
My motel sign:
Both of these prose poems take readers to a new level of understanding of the characters and how they view their place in the world. I’ve often heard white space compared to the negative space in a painting—space that makes an object in a picture more prominent. The more negative space, the more the object stands out.
In A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver points out that while free verse lacks an external pattern of formal metric design, the writer still must consider appropriate and effective language.
Ellen Hopkins, author of bestselling verse novel Crank believes verse novels should use: “startling imagery and elevated language, such as metaphor, alliteration, assonance, which appeal—often subconsciously—aesthetically to the reader.” Writing poetry, she adds, allows her to “climb more deeply inside a character’s head.”
In later drafts, I added descriptive entries about historical events in 1965, such as the United States’ authorization of Napalm, the assassination of Malcolm X, and the FBI’s all-out crusade to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These pieces are juxtaposed against musical references: rock concerts and the story behind Arlo Guthrie’s talking blues song “Alice’s Restaurant.”
1964. Alice and Ray Brock purchase a gothic revival building in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The small, pine church is transformed into a refuge, where young people escape establishment pressures and the hell of Vietnam.
Agitated neighbors shout at the long-haired, nonconformists living in this beatnik commune.
Thanksgiving 1965. Arlo Guthrie, son of folk singer Woody Guthrie, and a friend haul garbage from Brock’s home to the city dump. Discovering it closed for Thanksgiving, they toss the trash down the hill.
The pair is arrested, appearing before a blind judge, who’s unable to see the 8 x 10 glossy photos in evidence. They pleas guilty, pay a $25 fine, and clean up the mess.
“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” evolves into a sardonic 18-minue talk-song that records the events. Later, lyrics critical of the war are woven in.
At times I wonder if the popularity of novels in verse is a trend? Or is it possible that they can do something traditional prose novels can’t? Is the form, in fact, suited to the turbulent, but often secret inner lives of multiple characters at once.
When should a writer consider this structure?
- Stories that are better told from more one than one character’s point of view. Mel Glenn’s verse novel Who Killed Mr. Chippendale? has more than fifty viewpoint characters. Even if Glenn had used an omniscient viewpoint – in other words, bouncing in an out of every character’s head — it could confuse the reader. Note: Not all novels in verse have more than one viewpoint character.
- Stories that are predominantly character driven, as opposed to action-driven. Verse novels tend to deal with highly charged emotional issues, such as incest (Furniture by Thalia Chaltas), mental illness (Stop Pretending What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy by Sonya Sones), teen pregnancy (First Part Last by Angela Johnson).
- Stories with poetry as a subplot or theme. In Locomotion, Jacqueline Woodson’s main character is exploring poetic forms to help him deal with the untimely death of his parents. In Ron Koertge’s Shakspeare Bats Clean Up the main character is a bedridden, bored kid who reads his dad’s poetry books. He then begins writing poems to express his frustrations.
- Stories that are best told in short, energetic bursts – instead of traditional margin-to-margin prose. For example, scenes that capture a single moment whether it be an emotion or an idea.
- Exercise: Take a paragraph from any work of fiction. Rewrite it in free verse. Concentrate on metaphor, assonance, imagery, and cadence. Shouldn’t all good writing contain these elements? Sure. But I find it easier to focus on ‘voice sounds’ and ‘patterns of expression’ when my writing looks like poetry.
Night of the Pyro Flame-Thrower
The summer of 1957 Daddy invited Margaret and Bill and their milquetoast son, Michael, to our new house for the first time. Dusk, and Mom had the late shift at Thrifty Drug store. The grownups sat at our kitchen table; cigarette burns in the Formica top, drinking Schlitz from a can, the beer that made Milwaukee famous. Somehow Daddy had managed to score a case of it.
A window overlooked our side yard, a concrete slab corralled by a cinder block wall. The radio blared, making Pat Boone’s “Ain’t That a Shame” sound like he was singing to us, blaming us for tears falling like rain.
I knew enough to usher Michael and my brother Steve off to my bedroom. While they played with TinkerToys, concentrating, poking slotted sticks in spools, I fed Betsy Wetsy from a bottle until she peed. This, during my baby doll phase, when I briefly thought of being a Mommy.
The boys ran out of sticks and seized my collection of colored pencils. Michael squinted in a way kids do when pretending to be tougher than they are, hollering Monsters! Invaders from Mars! and lunging at my brother with royal blue.
The attack probably wasn’t that painful, but my brother howled, then collapsed in my lap. “Shut up you big baby!” I hated being in charge of them, but knew keeping them quiet was a matter of . . . well, survival. I didn’t have to be in the kitchen to know what was going on. How long would the beer-drinkers happily neglect their children?
I diverted the boys from The War of the TinkerToys by building a fort—draping
my bedspread from a chair to my dresser, staking one corner with my rain boots and the other with the toy cash register my grandparents had given me on my eighth birthday.
I couldn’t wait to lure them inside and tell the story of the deranged madman with a sharp hook instead of a hand, who prowled on dark, moonless nights. I’d heard the story from my friend Alice, who told juicy stories about our soon-to-be third grade teacher.
But back to the madman. I cherished the scene where the fleshy hook dangled from the car’s passenger-side door. This part needed a flashlight to play up my scariest face, the one where I pointed the light up my nose. Someone had to sneak into the kitchen where the flashlight was kept. Michael could do it. No one noticed him.
Because I knew things I could talk him into it, but his mom showed up first, fleshy in a cotton summer dress, holding a paper plate of fried bologna sandwiches. Wonder bread soaked all the butter from the skillet. I’d eat the middle of my sandwiches first, then making rings from the crust.
Margaret smiled a lopsided smile, a quart of milk wedged in her armpit. Dixie cups in her apple bosom. That’s what Daddy called it, apple bosom, another tilted truth. “Wanna have a picnic?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said, tossing a crust ring at the boys. Instead of crying they opened their mouths like baby birds.
And here he comes, Daddy chugging from an amber glass, sucking the life out of a Winston, insisting we have a sleepover in the grown-up bed. “A special treat since we have company.”
I have blurry memories of the bedroom set my grandparents bought for our first ever house: blondish wood with matching dresser and nightstand. The lamp had an orange base like a woven basketball.
After finishing our sandwiches, my brother got a thick cloth diaper with yellow bear pins. He crawled into my parents’ double bed, falling into a sleep deep enough to erase his near death experience by colored pencil.
Michael took one side, hugging a pillow. Meanwhile, Betsy Wetsy and I seized the side closest to the closet. I was shirtless, in my favorite romper, and socks with eyelet lace plucked from the sale bin at JC Penny.
I don’t believe that Margaret and Bill, even Daddy knew events would unfold the way they did. His friends mostly tried to keep him in line but it rarely worked. He staggered in, obviously drunker so the party wasn’t likely to be over anytime soon. He tucked me in, only me, with foul booze breath. “Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
I wished for a window in the ceiling and stars and escape.
He padded the length of the bed, leaving the door open when he left. The doorway framed the kitchen table and the window beyond. I watched him circle Margaret, taunting her at the table.
The world tilted, going from drinking glass to looking glass. “Come on, Margaret. Let’s fuck! Right here on the kitchen table!”
I didn’t understand the words, but knew they were bad and tried to make my mind blank. It wasn’t just the slurred words—it was knowing he was that pathetic. I pitied him.
Margaret begged to be left alone, “Stop it, Frank. You’re drunk.”
Instead of rescuing his wife, Bill took his place in some bizarre pack-animal order.
He had a role but it certainly wasn’t as pack leader. “Maggie, what’s the big deal? Just a little nooky.”
I chewed my lip, suffering with her, because Bill cared more about being Daddy’s buddy than protecting his wife. I looked off into a dim corner, trying to keep quiet and concentrating on catching my breath. Michael pretended to be asleep.
“Fuck me!” Daddy’s tone, unchecked, insane.
You’d have to be deaf not to hear it.
Margaret shook her head, her hair a hot, wet mess. “Shut up!”
At that moment I thought, She could take him if she wants to.
This kept up for another painful hour, and I wanted to wake my brother and get the heck out of there, when Daddy appeared at the door, moving into the bedroom in a way that clashed with the strange masklike look on his face.
In my eight-year-old understanding of the world I believed he was going to whisk my brother off to his crib so everyone could go home to his or her own beds. But, no, he wasn’t about to give up on a good time. The next thing I knew, he slid open the closet door and grabbed an armful of Mom’s clothes. Hangers struck the floor. Michael whimpered. I nudged him with my knee. “Shhhh.”
Daddy clutched skirts, blouses, wool sweaters, stumbling from the bedroom through the kitchen, slamming out the door to the patio. He called to Margaret and Bill. “Come on out!” They stuck to their chairs.
I didn’t realize what was happening until I crawled to the end of the bed. From there I had a pretty good view through the kitchen window seeing flames growing from cotton, linen, wool, and rayon. Would the wire hangers melt? Such a waste; all those marshmallows Daddy bought for a special treat.
The fire smoked in oily clouds, smelling like gasoline and singed hair. It burned itself out slowly, but I couldn’t get away. I closed my eyes, clinging to Betsy Wetsy, drowning in a slow leaky way.
Dear God, I prayed, because this was back when I still tried to make deals with him. Let him burn in the fire.
I scrambled back under the covers, peeking out when Daddy came in, steaming sweat, hands reaching from nowhere, pulling drawers from the dresser, gathering bras, panties, garter belts, nylons with black seams. I only saw some of it, but heard it all, shaking as much in shame for not jumping on him and pounding him with my tiny fists, as I was afraid of him realizing I was there.
The shame of not doing anything still burns, all these years later, in the reliving. Less than an hour to destroy my mom’s things, all in front of Margaret and Bill, who, even as shitfaced as I knew they were, had to have thoughts similar to mine. The asshole needed to be locked up.
I couldn’t believe I was thinking that, but I was, and it made it worse that he was exhilarated, on an arson’s high. I lay as still as I could, sobbing, scanning the room for something comforting.
Where was Mom? Why hadn’t she come home to save us? Later, I wondered if she stood at the cash register all day, just to have contact with people who appreciated her when she took a moment to help them choose cough medicine for a sick kid.
Anxiety attacks hit me in my teen years, and I smelled it all over again, an acrid burning reaching up from a phantom haze. Sometimes the darkest secrets can only be told to a stranger, which is where therapy came in.
As an adult talking about it with my therapist, long before I’d checked myself into a hospital for a month of mental rehab, because I wanted a chance to choose the type of life I’d eventually have, and even longer before writing about it as fiction, like who was I kidding?
My therapist asked what happened when Mom came home from work and discovered her clothes had been burned.
“I don’t know.”
I asked Mom the next time I saw her; by then she was on her third husband. Apparently, she’d spent the five days after the fire at a girlfriend’s house. “You left us with him?” I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. “Alone with him?”
Her face deflated; she was genuinely startled by my reaction.
“Why didn’t you didn’t take us with you?”
She tried to soothe me, saying she didn’t think Daddy would do anything to hurt my brother or me. Besides, Mrs. Franks was there to check on things.
“Your nanny. Don’t you remember her?”
Only a flash of a plump older woman. “German?”
“Yes, a thick accent.”
I believed her, believed her body language.
Since those five days are lost to psychological amnesia I don’t know if she ever came home or if anyone really checked on us. No one talked about it, not ever.
I still wonder what else might have been lost that night? Because, now I know that it didn’t end there. Years later, long after Mom had passed her fertile years, she told me about her third pregnancy, consummated not long after the fire when Daddy boarded the sober train. He could stay on it for a day or a month. The longer the promise, the worse the disappointment when he tumbled off.
I felt for my mom, knowing how weary and hopeless she must’ve been, taking a sick day from work, and renting a room at a cheesy motel. She locked herself in the cold tile bathroom, squatting over the toilet, unassisted except for a wire coat hanger.
She was somber in the retelling, not sad or regretful, but sparing gruesome details. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t want to know. I understood, then as now. She had to save her last child.