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Where the Lines Blur: an Interview with Elwin Cotman on Writing Fiction Through Reading Poetry

by Writing Workshops Staff

6 months ago

Where the Lines Blur: an Interview with Elwin Cotman on Writing Fiction Through Reading Poetry

by Writing Workshops Staff

6 months ago

Elwin Cotman, author of Weird Black Girls and The Age of Ignorance, both forthcoming from Scribner, is teaching a new 6-week generative Zoom class that focuses on writing fiction through reading poetry.

Elwin takes a practical approach to help writers enhance their sentence-level writing through the study of modern poetry. The goal? To break free from writing patterns and inspire creativity through a deep dive into language.

Throughout the course, students will explore contemporary poetry, dissecting the nuances of style, from imagery and metaphor to syntax and rhythm. By reading two poems a week and crafting creative prompts based on these styles, participants will not only generate 5-6 potential new stories but also gain a solid grasp of poetic techniques and how to apply them to their prose. Along the way, Elwin and fellow students will provide in-class feedback, guiding writers on their literary journeys. If you're looking to rejuvenate your writing process and discover the power of language, this class is your ticket to a fresh perspective and a toolkit of linguistic diversity.

WW: Can you share with us what inspired you to create a class focused on the intersection of reading poetry and writing fiction? What was the 'aha' moment that led you to this innovative approach?

EC: I always want to teach classes about things that obsess me. Reading poetry has been integral to my practice for years; only this year did I start thinking up a pedagogy around it. Teaching “Writing the Sublime” was helpful because so many of my texts were essays about the sublime, and certain assignments focused on forms other than prose, which gave me ideas for incorporating different forms in the context of a prose class.

The human experience hasn’t changed much in a hundred thousand years. What changes are the ways we tell that experience. I think of hiphop and ballroom, both cultures that arose over the last sixty years, and how those two cultures have completely changed our lexicon. When t comes to my own writing, I’m always thinking about what work the language is doing, and reading poetry, both old and new, to recharge those batteries.

What is unique about poetry is that so much of it is available, and the gatekeeping isn’t as strong as in fiction; these days many writers from marginalized communities are getting the opportunity to publish. With this variety in perspectives comes stylistic variety. There’s truly innovate work being done. That’s why I feel it’s important to teach living writers—the innovation in language is happening as we speak.

WW: As a successful author, how has reading poetry influenced your own fiction writing? Are there any particular poets or poetic styles that have significantly shaped your work in Weird Black Girls or The Age of Ignorance?

EC: A lot of the poets who’ve influenced me are the contemporary ones who I’ll be teaching in class. I’ve always been drawn to writers who use language in shocking, disruptive ways—Cormac McCarthy, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Shakespeare, Mary Gaitskill, Liz Hand. I’m a fantasy writer, and the fantasists I admired growing up used language to create a sense of mysticism. Just two examples are Tolkien, who wrote poetry as worldbuilding, and Robert E. Howard, who brought his ancient civilizations to life with ornate descriptions.

After college I got involved in the slam community. My whole life I’d been told poetry was this very froo-froo art form where you’re not supposed to say what you mean, but slam was very much the opposite, very in-your-face, while at the same time very much about craft, with the slam itself functioning as a kind of workshop. Experiencing slam spurred me towards a more honest fiction style that prioritized telling my story over self-defeating ideas of universality. Slam was also where I realized how malleable poetry can be—a slam poem is more like a dramatic monologue with poetic elements. From that point, I started thinking very intentionally about the language in my fiction.

In writing Weird Black Girls, which is short stories, I focused on structure more than language, but on revisions, when I could pick apart every sentence, the lyricism came to the surface. The Age of Ignorance its a love story that I’m still in the process of editing. It’s about young people feeling intense emotions for the first time and I’m definitely reading poetry to recharge. I’ll read Terrance Hayes for his adjectives, or Laura Kasishke for her metaphors. If I hit writers block, I’ll write the next chapter as a poem, a bare bones description of events, and the ideas start to flow once I have something on paper.

WW: Can you walk us through a typical class session in your 'Writing Fiction Through Reading Poetry' course? How do you blend the analysis of poetry with the practical aspects of fiction writing?

EC: In the first class we go over certain poetic terms. We also look at prose writers who use language in interesting ways before we veer into reading poetry exclusively. From that point, every class has a theme. One thing I emphasize are the “engines” that drive a work. All poems are driven by language, but individual poets have their elements they focus on, like metaphor, simile, assonance, consonance, etc.

Every class, students share what they wrote for homework, and the class offers feedback on where the writer might take the piece—the point is to leave the class with 5-6 story beginnings. From there, we discuss the readings from the previous week and how the writer employs language. Then we discuss how these elements could be applied to fiction, looking from a holistic perspective that extends beyond sentence craft. For instance, a specific poetic style could have strengths for a particular genre.

I do a brief lecture on the topic of the day and then we do an exercise. These exercises are to get students thinking about the topic ahead of the homework, where they will do a more in-depth exercise.

WW: Can you give an example of how a student might transform their approach to fiction writing through the lessons learned in this course?

EC: I want students to think of language as a driving force in their prose. And think intentionally about the use of language; different stories might have different linguistic needs.

Additionally, I would hope students embrace the honesty that’s inherent in poetry. Many poets use the medium as a means to speak directly to their experience, and to speak on issues that concern, excite, or anger them. There’s an unfiltered vibe to poetry that I’ve always connected with. I would hope this class leads students to embrace that honesty within their prose.

In taking my class, a student can see where the lines blur, as well. For instance, Laura Kasischke’s poetry has this very grounded, narrative, muscular feel. She’s a successful novelist; I feel poetry is her space to tell stories she might not want to expand to a full-length piece. She’s a great writer to look at, as far as combining language and narrative. I want my students to leave the class with ideas for how the two can intersect.

WW: You emphasize the importance of language in narrative. How do you believe a deep engagement with poetry can alter a fiction writer's approach to language and storytelling?

EC: Through reading poetry, a writer can become more open to breaking form. You can write an entire novel in a poetic style. You can find new ways to structure sentences. Or you can go an entirely experimental direction that explores the boundaries of prose. For example, in this class we read both Angela Carter and Clarice Lispector, writers who used language to create experimental pieces. There are no rules for what a poem looks like, and that very freedom can be applied to prose as well.

Reading poetry can also teach concision. Poetry privileges the “good line.” In a writing workshop, if someone tells you that you have a good sentence, it’s nice to hear but sort of brushed off. In poetry, a single good line can make the whole piece come together—Shakespeare wrote “To be or not to be” and now it’s permanently stuck in the human consciousness. Poetry can teach you to make every sentence count. From a business perspective, publishers prefer things short—they have to pay for the paper in a book, so brevity is helpful for emerging writers. Poets are always looking for the best words to get their point across rather than the most words. Learning concision is good practice for fiction as well.

WW: Your course includes creative prompts based on the styles of poets like CA Conrad and Claudia Rankine. Could you share an example of such a prompt and how it might spur innovative thinking in fiction writing?

EC: Prompt (20 minutes): Writing from an autobiographical perspective, Laura Kasischke uses imagery as a driving engine in her work. Reread her poem “Cigarettes.”

  1. Think of a birthday party. Either it was for you, you threw it for someone, or you attended it. Build the scene through images. As you write the images, begin to describe what is happening. Who is there? What are the dynamics between these people? Create the scene, with images at the forefront.
  1. A key part of fictionalizing is taking different pathways from real life. Have someone make a different choice than the one they made in reality and see where it takes you. Remember to focus on the images.

In fiction writing, elements like plot and character are key, but fiction is also about setting the scene. This exercise is to experiment with imagery, using Kasischke’s poem as a guide.

WW: How do you structure feedback and collaboration in a Zoom class setting, especially considering the subjective nature of both poetry and fiction? What methods do you use to ensure constructive and insightful exchanges among students?

EC: In my workshops, I encourage students to look for energy. It’s not a matter of what you understand, or what you like, but what stands out to you. Where does it feel like the writer is doing something interesting, either with story or language? Critique the piece, not the writer. Keep an open mind, both when are reading a piece, and when you are receiving critique.

The rules are different for a generative workshop, but still about locating energy and, having done so, suggesting where the writer might take the narrative. Discuss what intrigues you about the story so far and, of course, what about the language can the writer build on. A fun part of generative work is exploring the “what if” space. Ultimately, generative classes are about writing for the joy of it, so I focus feedback around encouragement.

WW: Your course emphasizes the evolution of language in narrative. How do you think the digital age and the rapidly changing linguistic landscape influence the way fiction is written and consumed? And how does poetry play a role in this evolution?”

EC: That’s hard to answer because I feel a lot of that work is being done as we speak. Poets and prose writers have been writing metafiction—fiction that calls attention to the piece as a fictional work—for a long time. Poets have been incorporating digital language into their work since all these 1s and 0s were established. The digital age has removed some of the stigma around certain mediums—ebooks are popular, audiobooks are more accepted these days. I think you could put out an entire collection purely in audio form and end an audience. However, in the end, the book remains. The language changes but people still want that physical creation in their hands.

Again, as the language evolves, poets are the ones engaging with it. In class we’ll be looking at Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, who incorporates chatbot conversations into their poems. Poetry is the space to take those risks because, in poetry, the language really can be the entire point. And those changes in language that incorporate digital language osmose into prose. I’m told one day we’re all going to be replaced with robots, but so far it seems the robots are just being taught to be plagiarists. Frankly, I’m more interested in what the machines have to say about their lives than whether or not they can copy Wordsworth. At this point, the digital is another language providing us with new words, like hiphop gave us dope and ballroom gave us fierce. An engagement with poetry is a way to start thinking about that language. And the question remains: how do you do it well? How do you purpose language to explore the human heart, the eternal question of literature.

WW: Finally, what advice would you give to writers who are hesitant to delve into poetry, possibly due to a lack of familiarity or a perceived gap between poetry and prose? How can they start integrating poetic elements into their fiction writing?

EC: One piece at a time. One sentence at a time. If you read a poem and get an idea for even a single sentence, that is a success. One thing I emphasize is that poetry is useful for all styles. Most poems are short, so if you’re a minimalist, poetry is great at teaching concision. If you’re a maximalist, poetry will get you thinking about more elaborate diction and syntax.

I don’t believe in poetry as riddles to be solved. In my class, we don’t read trying to decipher meaning. I side with the Romantics: the point of poetry is create emotion in the reader. So what grabs you? What about this poem feels true or powerful? Reading poetry for fiction isn’t about learning to write “like a poet.” I think Stevie Wonder is a great poet and he was writing pop songs—not looking for the fanciest words but the right words. What I would hope this class accomplishes is inspiring people to think seriously about language as a tool.

Poetry has always been the literature of the marginalized, even during the colonial era. No matter what privilege they were born into, guys like Bryon, Wilde, Baudelaire, Poe . . . they all felt like outcasts because they suffered depression, or were queer, or freethinkers in some kind of way. I would advise writers to think of poetry as something very rooted in the real world, something that poets use to tell their stories, just in a different form than prose stories. We’re fortunate to live in a time when such a diversity of poetic is available. That’s not to say everything is sunshine and rainbows. It is on us as readers to engage critically and thoughtfully with any poem we read. Fiction is a realm to speak your truth without fear from censor, and the more poetry you read, the more truth you read, the more that need to speak truth works into your fiction. It’s an exhilarating experience.

You can learn more about Elwin's upcoming Writing Fiction Through Reading Poetry: 6-Week Generative Zoom Class and enroll if you're interested. We would be honored to write with you this year! So, what are you waiting for?  

Instructor Elwin Cotman is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of three collections of speculative short stories, The Jack Daniels Sessions EP, Hard Times Blues, and Dance on Saturday. He has done concept work for videogames from Square Enix. He is also author of the poetry collection The Wizard's Homecoming (2023, Nomadic Press), as well as the upcoming collection Weird Black Girls (2024, Scribner), and the novel The Age of Ignorance (Scribner, 2025). Cotman earned his BA from the University of Pittsburgh and his MFA from Mills College.

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