Weaving Poetry into the Narrative and a Character’s Voice

An excerpt from Paul Dimond’s in-depth interview with Jorie from Jorie Loves a Story: Conversations with the Bookish, June 8, 2017.

Q: How did you conceptualize the novel to involve the work of a poet? Did you find breaks in the sequences of the narrative where a poem could be inserted or used to highlight a particular evocation of emotion or was it an organic process which evolved through drafting the story? How important was it to you, a poet's poems were used to represent Belle's voice?

A: Fortunately, I already knew a woman poet who could compose in what I hoped would become Belle’s voice. A lifelong resident of Ann Arbor who also summered up north, Marty Buhr Grimes has been writing and teaching poetry for more than fifty years. A friend since junior high, I had previously contacted Marty to help me think through a woman poet character in an earlier (and still unfinished) novel, Widower’s Song.  Although that was a much different character in age (starting in her mid-40s), time (2004–6), setting (Manhattan, D.C., Madison, and New England), and perspective (not the narrator or lead character), Marty’s insights there gave me confidence she could help me imagine and write Belle.  Marty also brought to our work another long-time friend to serve as a reader to test our early drafts of Belle’s first-person narrative and poems. Both helped me rewrite the prose to make Belle a more authentic woman and compelling voice throughout her life in the novel, 1913–1953.

The process of my writing Belle’s narrative and Marty composing Belle’s poems turned out to be dynamic. Early on, I shared a draft chapter with a scene and a possible idea for a poem that might fit, advance or deepen the story. Marty sent back a draft poem, as often as not either with a different take on the scene or a deeper insight into the character. I then revised or rewrote the narrative and scene to fit the better poem. On other occasions, Marty sent a draft poem, asked questions about the point of view or scene, and shared her concerns about her draft. Sometimes, I suggested a very minor tweak so her poem better fit the narrative, while other times I rewrote the scene to help inspire Marty to write a new poem.

As we interacted, wrote and composed together, Belle the character began to take over. I began to write as Belle and Marty to compose as Belle. In our writing and composing, we became as if one author-poet, Belle.  That’s why the prose and poetry in this novel complement one another so well and Belle’s voice rings in her prose and poetry. That’s also why we decided to make Marty’s villanelle Belle’s anthem and the title poem of Ruthie’s posthumous publication of Belle’s complete poems:

My yearning for Leelanau is like a disease—
the sun through my window bids me awake:
a chorus of robins sings from the trees

to return to Her bosom, where She offers ease
from the thorns and the thistly losses that ache—
my yearning for Leelanau is like a disease—

the shoreline’s now free from its ice-sculpted frieze,
and frothy white waves roll, tumble, and shake.
Five or six finches peek out through the leaves—

I dream of the pond near our bubbling creek,
the nest of a wood duck and her handsome drake—
my yearning for Leelanau is like a disease—

a riot of flowers—the hum of the bees,
the honeyed fragrance of spring in their wake,
a redheaded woodpecker taps on a tree:

Soon Brown-Eyed Susans will sway in the breeze.
The squawk of the seagulls, the bluest of seas—
My yearning for Leelanau is like a disease—
A chorus of robins sings from the trees!