The Verse Novel by Linda Weste
“I think verse novelists are so clever in the way they say so much, with so few words.” Pip Harry in The Verse Novel
The Verse Novel by Linda Weste is an important text. It is an accessible and interesting academic book of interviews with Australian and New Zealand verse novelists (Australian Scholarly Publishing).
I was glad to read the interviews with many verse novelists whose work I already know, among them Steven Herrick, Lorraine Marwood, Catherine Bateson and Alan Wearne and I was introduced to others, including Gregory O’Brien, Mark Pirie and Christine Evans. I already knew some of the other authors’ works as poets – Lisa Jacobson, Jennifer Compton, Jordie Albiston and Geoff Page – and so was very interested to discover that they also write verse novels.
Linda Weste’s interview questions (deliberately standardised for every interviewee) are thoughtfully constructed and the interviews span a wide mix of children’s, YA and works for adults.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Linda.
What in your background has led you compiling this book of interviews with verse novelists?
I was drawn to Children’s and YA literature while completing Teaching and Education courses, having been an avid reader since childhood. I enjoy teaching literature, especially poetry, and for most of the past decade I’ve taught poetry and poetics in higher education.
I began attending poetry readings and publishing poetry around the same time as poet Dorothy Porter published Akhenaten (1992). I was influenced by hearing her verse novels read aloud; she’d trained as an actor, so her delivery matched the works’ immediacy and dramatic impact.
Later this interest gained a formal dimension when, for my PhD, I chose to research verse novels. At that time there were few resources, scholarly or otherwise, on the subject. The reception to verse novels back in 2009 was usually – oh I thought you said ‘first novel’ … what’s a verse novel?
My research approach was to treat verse novels as historically variable, and examine them in contexts over time – with particular focus on the relation between their poetic and narrative elements. I analysed nearly one hundred verse novels – from different literary periods, across the categories and around the globe. I also completed a verse novel in the adult-category.
During 2013-2016, I wrote articles and reviews of verse novels, and conducted a few informal interviews with verse novelists. Then, after completing a five-year-stint editing for TEXT Journal, and still wanting to improve the reception and understanding of verse novels, in 2018 I decided I would edit three books of interviews with verse novelists, specifically focused on verse novel poetics. In each edited book, the interviews document verse novelists’ understandings of the genre, and the Introduction engages the reader with aspects of verse novel research.
The Verse Novel: Australia & New Zealand is my second edited book of interviews.
Do you see The Verse Novel as purely an academic text or a book with wider interest and appeal? Please explain.
On the one hand, it is an academic work – a body of comparative interview ‘data’ arising from specially-formulated research questions, conducted through standardised methods. The book contains an introduction, footnotes and a bibliography – and these are scholarly elements.
As the first book about verse novelists in this region, The Verse Novel: Australia & New Zealand will find a place in public libraries, as well as higher education and university libraries. It is particularly relevant for literary studies and creative writing courses, for librarians, teachers and students, and likely invaluable for would-be verse novelists. The attention it gives to writing strategies will appeal to other writers, and not just poets.
In terms of wider appeal, the book will be of interest to the creative and literary industries, and the publishing and marketing sectors – where notions about the genre are held by publishers, literary agents, reviewers, booksellers, and literary award judges and commentators. The book is a marker of how reception of the genre is changing, as verse novels gain greater recognition and prominence in global literature.
How would you briefly encapsulate the form or attributes of a verse novel in words?
A verse novel presents an extended story in poetry …
but the more verse novels you encounter, the more interesting you realise they are … because each verse novel comprises a unique interplay of poetic- and narrative- elements.
The narrative elements make the story recognisable ‘as a story’ and include a storyworld, a temporal sequence of events, and characters who are mediated from particular perspectives and through acts of utterance or articulation.
The poetic elements vary in type and extent across (and within) children’s-, young adult-, and adult- categories of verse novels, but commonly include segmentation (poem-, stanza-, line- and word- level), rhythmic & auditory patterning, visual patterning, rhyme, as well as figurative language such as metaphor and simile.
Apart from geographical location, how did you decide which verse novelists to include and which to leave out?
Initially the books were planned as single-category, global volumes: the first would feature verse novels for adults; the second, verse novels for children; and the third, for young adults.
As the pandemic worsened, writers in the UK and USA found themselves in increasingly difficult circumstances. By contrast, this part of the world was largely protected, and interview responses came readily … so I just switched up … and decided to do a cross-category regional collection.
I had one research-based caveat – because I research the “interplay” of poetic- and narrative- elements – I didn’t include works of prosimetra or works of versiprosa, as these works alternate poetry and prose (in varying extent and duration) – alternate rather than integrate poetry and narrative.
And in order to enable discussion about verse novel reception, the verse novelists chosen for interview needed to have commercially published works.
On principle, in support of writers, I only interview verse novelists whose work I’ve read and (with few exceptions), purchased.
Who else would you have liked to include, or will interview in a future book?
The third book of interviews in this series (forthcoming) will feature an international selection of verse novelists whose works are published for the children’s- and young adult- categories, and which include diverse perspectives and characters.
Why have you highlighted the work of Steven Herrick?
Steven Herrick has published twelve verse novels for children and young adults so I felt inclined to place his interview first … but the collection recognises each of these thirty-five writers as having made a unique contribution to the increasing corpus of verse novels – not only in this region, but worldwide. Many of the interviewees are highly esteemed and multiply awarded writers, but this is the first book to afford them recognition, collectively and individually, as writers of verse novels.
What was it like to interview yourself as a verse novelist?
To begin this series of edited books I had to first devise a suite of standardised questions able to elicit focused responses about the ‘interplay’ of poetic- and narrative- elements. The questions had to be applicable to a range of verse novels across the publishing categories.
A preliminary interview with Lisa Jacobson for the young adult category led to some minor question changes. The revised interview proved suitable for an international children’s-category verse novelist. I then tested the questions by undertaking the interview myself, as a published verse novelist for adults. It was appropriate to experience what was being asked of the participants. It was helpful too, to reflect further on poetic- and narrative- interplay in my own verse novel.
What is the difference between verse novels for adults and those for younger readers?
The differences are not definitive, especially where verse novels in the young adult- and crossover- categories are concerned. Any commercially-published verse novel for younger readers is marketed with an age-range in mind – after consideration of themes and the difficulty of the text.
The extent or length of verse novels varies across and within the categories.
Certain poetic techniques are more typically found in verse novels written for adults; for instance, a verse novel that uses an ‘inherited’ rhyme-scheme in combination with poetic meter.
Which of your questions elicited responses that you particularly enjoyed reading or were surprised by? Please give an example of one of these.
I appreciated the writers’ frank responses about their verse novels and the genre; the responses were satisfying to read, and instructive for research.
I was initially surprised – then delighted – to receive poetic responses to the questions, from Michelle A. Taylor and Melissa Bruce.
I admire all these writers for their verse novel achievements, and for how they manage the challenges of the genre. Such varied ideas and influences have drawn these writers to verse novels, and I marvel at the uniqueness of their works.
Please tell us about your other book about verse novels.
Inside the Verse Novel: Writers on Writing (ASP, 2020) contains interviews with twenty-two writers from the UK, USA, Australia and Canada who have published adult-category verse novels. The writers include Bernardine Evaristo OBE FRSL FRSA, joint winner of the Booker Prize in 2019, Fred D’Aguiar, Ros Barber, Adam Foulds FRSL, George Elliott Clarke OC ONS, Nessa O’Mahony, Philip Schultz, Brad Leithauser, and Sarah Corbett.
You would be familiar with the verse novel resource at the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature? What do you believe is its most valuable role?
I believe it will contribute to improving the reception of verse novels written for young adults and younger readers. It is the verse novel ‘go-to’ site for teachers, students and librarians, researchers and academic scholars, for the creative and literary industries, and for publishing and marketing sector personnel including booksellers and publishers.
I believe other nations will look to the verse novel resource as a model for showcasing their own writers publishing works in this genre.
Thank you for your responses, Linda, and particularly for your work in bringing verse novels to wider attention, as well as for academic study.
My interview with Kathryn Apel for the Verse Novel Project (National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature)
Lorraine Marwood at PaperbarkWords