On Being a Hybrid Writer by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
Up until 2003 when I started my dissertation, I never expected to write anything besides poetry. But developing a 200+ page document helped open up my writing process to include longer texts. These days, ideas come to me as poems, creative nonfiction, articles and novels. Writing a poem has always been how I have thought through ideas. Poems would come frequently, but usually one at a time. For me, writing poetry has always been a way to enter a subject and think through the emotional residue that surrounds it, a way to immerse myself associatively in the images and rhythms a particular thought or idea opens up to me.
But, after I completed my dissertation something in me had shifted. The researcher that had been lying dormant inside me came to life and I discovered that I was inspired to take on larger subjects: topics that inspired me to write series of poems. I began researching local history and writing poems about the forgotten voices and events that had been brushed under the rug of history. As I discovered more and more stories, these projects became bigger and bigger. I just didn’t feel like I had completed the project even once I written 30 – 40 poems. This is when I began to write lyric essays and eventually even fiction. It was a liberating moment in my writing life the day I became a hybrid writer. Prose, which was once the genre I wrote essays and articles for school or work in, became a place where I could remain my poetic self. Prose became a place where I could linger longer in the exploration of a topic. Writing prose requires more research, more adherence to sentence structure and grammar, but it can still remain lyric and imagistically and emotionally driven. It provides a longer period of time to dwell and try to understand the stories, ideas or even characters you’ve found.
An example of a project that began as a poem, then became a series of poems, a lyric essay and finally a novel was my project on an oil boom town in Oil City, PA. Last winter my family and I moved to Western Pennsylvania for a job I took teaching at Clarion University in Oil City. The town was filled with dilapidated Victorian houses and our school’s library had an interesting special collections on the oil history of the area. Turns out, Oil City and its environs was where oil was first found in the United States. During the 1860s a huge oil boom took place in this area. As I was desperately trying to find inspiration in this new place I stumbled upon a book in the library’s special collection all about a local boom town named Pit Hole. I mean really, who wouldn’t be intrigued by a name like that? So, as I taught that semester, I read my way through the special collections and wrote poems about the characters I encountered who had once lived in Pithole. I wrote lyric essays about visiting the historic site where the town once was and I wrote poem after poem about the place.
As it turns out, my family and I decided to return to California just six months later, but though I’d written over 40 poems and two lyric essay about it, I couldn’t shake Pithole and its history. The characters I’d found out about: a girl who was imprisoned in sexual slavery who escaped by slipping a letter through the cracks in the whorehouse where she was being held (the letter was found, and sent to her mother in New York who rescued her shortly thereafter) and a laundry woman who ran her well dry helping to put out a fire at a nearby hotel only to find that the next morning her well had filled back up with oil instead of water. How could I let these characters go after just writing a short poem about each of them? Well, I couldn’t. And when National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) rolled around, I rolled up my sleeves and wrote my first novel. The project, which had one been a single poem had become so much more.
Nowadays, whenever I come across a subject I always write a poem first, but my experiences have taught me to keep my options open because, as I’ve experienced, you never know what form your work will expand into.