Lisa Ann Sandell is the author of The Weight of the Sky and Song of the Sparrow, two lyrical verse novels, as well as the resonant coming of age story A Map of the Known World. Song of the Sparrow is one of my most favorite verse novels and one of the books that inspired me to dedicate April on my blog to National Poetry Month each year.
Lisa is here today to talk about her own discovery of verse novels including Love That Dog by Sharon Creech.
When I was in college, I found myself drawn to the poetry of religion and love and the day-to-day of the medieval and Renaissance English canon. If I had to pinpoint exactly what it was about John Donne and Thomas Mallory, Christopher Marlowe and Geoffrey Chaucer that spoke to me, I would say it was the use of language to subvert the norms of the poets’ respective days, and the way they used language so effectively to tell stories that communicated so much feeling and passion and so much wisdom about what it means to be human. And that their words traveled across the ages and still resonated? Well, all the more impressive and meaningful. The sexiness of Donne’s The Flea – yet how chaste by today’s standards! – was shocking to this eighteen-year-old, whose knowledge of sixteenth century life was minimal at best. But it opened my eyes to the fact that people who lived and wrote and thought and loved four centuries earlier weren’t really any different from people of the twentieth or twenty-first century.
Then, a few years later, when a dear friend and poet in his own right recommended I read Anne Carson’s work, I found it beautiful and challenging. It didn’t speak to me quite so well as Donne and Marlowe had. Still I deeply appreciated the ambition of The Autobiography of Red – a whole novel in verse! And then I came to Sharon Creech and Love That Dog and Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, both of which are intended for a much younger reader than I was at the time. But wow, did I love those books. Particularly Love That Dog. Both books are truly stunning and emotionally gripping. But something about the simplicity of Love That Dog, the starkness of so few words on the page and the power of the emotional punch they pack – the words just leaped out of the book and wrapped themselves around my heart. In Love That Dog, Ms. Creech depicts a young boy’s coming to terms with his emotions, with loss, as well with as his feelings about poetry so elegantly, so poignantly…I was deeply moved, frequently to tears. And I was amazed at how using language so economically could be so incredibly powerful.
Which led me to think about how I wanted to write a story that I had been living with for a few years. My first novel, The Weight of the Sky, was loosely based on my own experiences during a summer spent volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel. I had written some bits and pieces — sketches, really — but they were in verse, and I couldn’t imagine linking them together to form a cohesive and coherent story, much less a whole book. But after reading Love That Dog and Out of the Dust, I was inspired to try. The way I knew best to capture the colors and smells and all the sensations that I had felt and wanted to explore through a novel came out in poems. So, once I let go of my fears and inhibitions, I managed to craft a story, which I think hangs together, using the economy of language that verse affords. And then when I sat down to write my second novel, Song of the Sparrow, which is an adaptation of a corner of Arthurian legend, I felt much more comfortable following in the footsteps of my first efforts. And I also liked that some of the earliest tales of Arthur were epic poems; the notion of writing into a tradition or trope was, while perhaps arrogant on some level, truly exciting.
These days, I am busy raising two small children and working full-time, but even now, when I’m harried and exhausted, I look to poetry to ground me, to remind me of all that is real and important in life. I can’t wait to read Love That Dog with my kids.
Thank you again to Lisa for this thoughtful post.
If you’d like to learn more about Lisa and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://lisaannsandell.com
You can also find my reviews of A Map of the Known World and Song of the Sparrow here on the blog.