A Northwest Based Literary Journal

Where Stories Come From: Failed Poems, by Stefen Styrsky

TLR is introducing a new series of guest blog posts. In this space, every first Tuesday of the month, you’ll see posts from our contributors and other guest stars. This week, Stefan Strysky tells us about his contribution to the forthcoming TLR. –KD


I’m a short-story writer by temperament and inclination. By temperament I mean what grabs my imagination is usually the stuff of short stories—a line of dialogue, a chance meeting, a curious detail—small moments after which things are completely different. By inclination I mean what seems my natural writing range: I lack the stamina (and perhaps bravery) to take on the project of a longer work.

Because I work in the short story mode, I mostly read short stories. I want to see how other writers do it. How they present character, scene, dialogue, and plot. This isn’t to say I don’t read novels. I love novels. I’m envious of and intimidated by their immersive quality. But if there’s one genre I’ve typically neglected, it’s poetry. Except for the requisite course or two in college, poetry and I never had much of a relationship. Back then, poetry struck me as strange or obtuse, and I also worried that maybe I just wasn’t smart enough for it.

Recently, I was lucky enough to be required to read poetry again as part of a writing course. What I thought was deliberate obfuscation on the part of many poets, or my lack of intelligence, was neither. It was me. My younger brain just wasn’t ready to read poems. I can’t tell you why. This time I found a literature filled with powerful emotions, compelling subjects, and vivid imagery.

That last one was crucial. Fiction writers are urged to use concrete images to draw the reader into a work. Give a reader something they can feel, taste or hear and you’ve got them for the duration we’re told. Poetry, because of its condensed nature, must do that from the start. Poetry showed me how images could be all a writer needs to depict theme, emotion and character.

If you haven’t, read a few lines of Auden: “In a lonely field the rain/lashes an abandoned train,” or Weldon Kees: “Early November, the dead leaves/Raked in piles, the wicker swing/Creaking,” or Rita Dove: “He used to sleep like a glass of water/held up in the hand of a very young girl.” You’ll see what I mean.

Under the heady influence of such greats, such imagery, I then tried to write poems. My verse wasn’t very good. But the attempt taught me something. I learned that poetry and its distilled images could really help my fiction.

My story “Men in White” in the inaugural issue of Tahoma Literary Review was conceived as a poem. As a poem the piece was doomed. It lacked a poem’s rhythm and music. I took the images and used them as the foundation for setting, dialogue and character. Suddenly, I had a story! I’m not claiming the work is genius. I count myself very fortunate to be in the journal. I only want to say we should read outside our chosen genres. We never know what might inspire our next work.

–Stefen Styrsky


Stefen Styrsky’s “Men in White” will appear in our first issue, August 31st.

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Categorised in: Fiction, Poetry, TLR News

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