Berkeley Connect English students explore poetry and prose with professors Melanie Chandra and Robert Hass

writing across genres

Students from Berkeley Connect English gathered recently in the informal comfort of the English Department Lounge to discuss the intersection of poetry and prose with Professors Melanie Chandra and Robert Hass, who are team-teaching the ever-popular Modes of Writing course together this semester. Melanie Chandra recently published her debut novel Playing, which explores sex, death, pain, and atonement. Robert Hass is a poet, essayist, and environmentalist who previously served as the Poet Laureate of the United States and won a Pulitzer Prize for his collection Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005.

“When I came to UC Berkeley nine years ago, there were only small workshops for creative writing,” Professor Chandra said. Wanting to make creative writing more accessible for students, she began teaching Modes of Writing. This semester, for the first time, Professor Hass will be joining her. Professor Chandra will teach a class of fifty about prose for half a semester while Professor Hass teaches a separate class of fifty about poetry. Halfway throughout the semester, the two classes will switch, thus allowing students to learn both poetry and prose from experts in their respective fields. “I feel uncomfortable calling myself an expert,” Professor Hass admitted. “One thing about being a writer is that you never know what you’re doing.”

When asked about the relationship between poetry and prose, Professor Chandra noted that studying poetry has helped her in writing fiction. “I’ve always emphasized interesting characters and interesting plots,” she said. “What was lacking was great attention to language.” It was reading poetry that helped her realize how to hone this skill. Professor Chandra read an passage from her new novel to depict exactly what she meant, capturing a simple memory of her protagonist in beautiful details and imagery.

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While Professor Chandra had always been drawn to fiction, Professor Hass said he knew early on it was poetry that he wanted to pursue. In particular, poets from the Berkeley Renaissance of the 1950s inspired him greatly during his early years. “It was new and interesting poetry,” Professor Hass noted. “I realized that you could do anything in poetry. There are limitations in prose.”

The professors then opened the discussion up to the entire group, welcoming questions. When one student asked about mixing genres, both professors agreed it was absolutely possible to move back and forth between poetry and prose. “The master of mixed genres is Shakespeare,” they pointed out, “and he is at the very core of English literature.”

Asked about how to get started, Professor Hass encouraged students to write paragraphs. He recalled a moment he captured in a paragraph. While at a museum, he saw a couple who were passing their baby back and forth to take turns eating melon. “I just fell in love with the moment,” he said. He wrote it out in prose and tried then to change it into a poem. He realized finally that the prose version was already exactly what he wanted. Both professors shared that despite their primary interests, they each found surprising things in other genres. It was narrative lyric poems that helped Professor Chandra with writing fiction, while Professor Hass discovered a love for writing expository paragraphs after decades of writing poetry–proving that writing across genres is possible and very important.

 

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant