by James Claffey
Growing up in an Irish home, poetry was always in the air. An aunt recited, “Maisie, Maisie, give me your answer do,” and my mother crooned, “Up the airy mountain, / Down the rushy glen…” and at school it was Padraig Colum’s “The Drover,” and, “To Meath of the pastures, / From wet hills by the sea, / Through Leitrim and Longford, / Go my cattle and me…” Even now, decades later, working on my own books and stories; the musical language of home and childhood and poetry infiltrates everything I write.
My wife is a poet, a painter, a writer, and one of the most creative souls I’ve ever met. From her I discovered the secret to writing—an unerring ability to write with not a care at all for the thoughts of editors, or other gatekeepers. Her poetry astonished me when I first met her: “Upon searching for a body, she will find herself.” She showed me that words can be fractured things, awkwardly spliced and stitched together. Not that my own exposure to Hopkins’ sprung rhythm didn’t alert me to some fierce capsizing of language, words like hoven chunks of glacier floating in some frozen sea. Still, her bookshelves made mine look extraordinarily pedestrian.
Not any more. My shelves contain Ben Lerner, Andrei Codrescu, Marthe Reed, Kathy Wagner, Ariane Reines, Martha Rosler, Kate Eichorn, and Kenneth Goldsmith, amongst others. Now, I read madness on pages of gritty creative writing as the hummingbirds zip about the bush outside my office window. All these words from obscure and known names have allowed me to dispense with standard writing form in my flash fiction. Mostly, I write surreal pieces that are more prose poem than traditional narrative. I weave pieces of eight and found flicker feathers into words, tapestries of trapped moments from dog walks on nearby hills, or by the coastline with the Channel Islands in the mist.
How this poetic influence improves my flash fiction is unclear. I’m guessing the way poets chisel away the unnecessary words, always searching for the most precise and perfect turn of phrase, is influential when it comes to writing short fiction. I go over and over any new writing searching for repetitiveness, for over-use of certain phrases, for redundancies in the writing. Having read so much poetry, I am aware of the importance of shape and form to a piece of writing. Many of the flash fiction pieces I write fit into a certain form; some being one long sentence, unpunctuated, and others being prose bookended in a particular way by a turn of phrase, or a particular image. Reading poetry and seeing how some poets use the white space provides inspiration to me when I sit down to a new project and have a desire to create something fresh on the page. Even how the physical shape of the piece looks is influenced by my consumption of poetry. Though, when I’m asked to describe my writing, I steer clear of saying it’s poetry.
Of course, “You’re a poet,” my wife frequently says to me. I balk, though not so much anymore. In a way, my being Irish stops me from claiming my truth. Growing up in Dublin—around the corner, literally, from James Joyce’s birthplace, and up the road from George Russell’s house, where WB Yeats used to visit on occasion—it takes some temerity to claim I’m a writer. We are all storytellers, and some of us write those stories down, and even fewer of us get to publish those stories, and fewer still enter the lexicon as the aforementioned poets have, so I have a hard time putting labels on my writing, and on my writing self. And every time I look up from my writing desk I am confronted by a wonderful hand-made concertina-like poem by Ambar Past in Chiapas, MX. I find deep inspiration in the beauty of her poem, Dedicatorias, and seeing it, pushes me on to write deeper and deeper from the heart, to find the poetry in everyday life and insert it into my flash fiction.
So, when I sit down to write, the words and the rhythm and the musicality are important to me. I want to know there’s some sort of a “poetic” flow to what I write, even in my most traditional fiction. I find direction in the old, remembered words of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter…” My desire is that my writing contains some form of the unheard, an aspect that the reader can’t put a finger on, but that is there, an undercurrent of sorts, and that current is the one that harkens back to the poetry of childhood and my mother’s voice delivering poem after poem from memory.
I carried on that tradition with my daughter, Maisie, when she was in the womb. Each night I’d quote William Allingham’s The Fairies, to her, and even today, nearing her third birthday, I can recite the poem and her little voice joins in with the words she heard before her birth. Strange thing is, I’ve never recited the poem to her post-birth. And that’s probably why poetry is so important to me as a writer, in that it informs and colors every aspect of my life, whether it’s as a father, a teacher, or a writer.
Writer James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. He is fiction editor at Literary Orphans, and the author of the short fiction collection, Blood a Cold Blue. His work is forthcoming in the W.W. Norton Anthology, Flash Fiction International.