A Change in Perspective: Embracing Omniscience in Fiction Writing

Rodney Jones/Photo © Jacqueline Bishop

Editor's Note:

Rodney Jones, author of Village Prodigies, writes about letting go of the pre-written parameters of poetry writing. Here, he writes about the potential difficulties in the transition from writing poetry to writing fiction, and changing point of view.

When a poet starts to write something like fiction, it is a long climb. Giving up first-person autobiographical point of view is the first step and a hard one.

Coyote never howled nor dog barked in third person. But already I disagree with myself. My own dog, given provocation, forms a deep third-person growl, impersonating a much larger dog, sometimes lowering his voice almost to wolf. And, at his most submissive, he lapses into puppyhood with a votive yowl.

At such times, we are helpless to convince him to employ his god-given, first-person voice. At times, indeed, he does not seem to wish to speak to us as much as to be overheard, like a drunk teenager describing a new car in the next booth at Pizza Hut.

Nevertheless, I assume that he is chiefly first person, with some variations, just as I assume that the dominant human discourse is a narrative that includes among its dialogues such moments of conversation as Principia Mathematica.

But it may be more useful to think of the poet not as a persona, but as a person in a booth; perhaps as a person with an affectation; a person pacing around a desk who pretends to be someone else – and surely a few poets actually gallop as they compose. Neither should the other people in poems be mistaken for themselves. They, too, are people in booths or underwater. When they come out of their booths and see the poet who they assume wrote the offending poem, they should try to avoid saying things like, “Son, why in the hell did you write that poem about your mother?” or “Mom, did you have to tell everyone about my scrotum?” or “That is the last time I ever show you my collection of shrunken heads.”

As for the elements of setting, farm implements, rutabagas, and the like, we should never mistake these things for natural phenomenon. A pine tree can be recast as a juniper in an eye blink. An umbrella stand can morph into a spittoon. A dead possum on a road can become a senator. A beach can transubstantiate from Honduras to Mozambique. If it is in a poem, it is, of course, not a real beach, but a beach in a booth.

In the sixties and seventies, most of which took place in the eighties in America, many had the idea that in other countries, the speakers, things, and people in poems were not in a booth. In such places, poetry books sometimes sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but one could not help noticing that the poets, once removed from booths, might be horse-whipped or sent to prison.

Such political movements as feminism did much to remove poets and poems from booths. Poems might make a difference, people began to say. One did not typically believe it, though at a funeral or in the aisle of Kroger, one might be accosted by someone who said, “Why did you write that poem about me?” when the subject of the poem was not there in the aisle but a person in a booth. In fictionalizing poetry, the poet is trying to escape the booth.

The first step is being here. Those persons, places, and things in front of you are real. Now imagine them over time. Get over yourself.

Embrace omniscience. Being right is for others, and they are wrong.