when is a verse-novel not a verse-novel?

by Sarah Corbett

question: when is a verse-novel not a verse-novel?

answer: another question: what is a verse-novel??

answer? well …. that’s a good question …

And She Was will finally appear in April 2015, and yes, I’m going  say, I keep saying, that it is a verse-novel. Then, when I’m met with a look of uncertainty/confusion (often further compounded when I say that I am currently writing a novel …), I have to follow this with, ‘well, it’s sort of a verse-novel, I mean it’s not going to conform to what you might think a verse-novel is.’ (I’m assuming here that some or most readers will have something in their minds along the lines of Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask or Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune). I might follow this withIf it was just a novel, it would be an experimental novel.’ Does this help? Perhaps not. Perhaps it only raises more questions, such as,

What is an experimental novel?


What is a novel, these days?

or even

Why bother experimenting at all when it’s all been done already?

I set out – quite a few years ago now, about 2006 – to write something that would bring together my skills as a poet and my inclinations towards narrative.

Ok, try again,

I’d been having these conversations with best friend and collaborator, the filmmaker Gabrielle Russell, about how you tell stories that place the emphasis – or some of it – on the imagination of the reader/viewer. How far could you play with linearity and maintain the unity of story for the reader? How could you engage the collective unconscious, asking it to do some of this work for you (how far was story telling doing this anyway, and how could we take this further?). Ok, we were watching a lot of David Lynch films and reading Haruki Murakami … both of which influence And She Was.

Ok, try again,

I’d been having these dreams, ever since I returned from Yaddo in the summer of 2005. They were the kind of narrative, little helper dreams that tell writers a story. I kept dreaming them, and they kept giving me the next bit of the story. Only little bits of these dreams have ended up in the book, but they gave me the impetus, the internal pressure, and a great deal of the setting and atmosphere. I dreamed of Iain and Esther meeting on the train, of Esther’s transformation in the middle of the night and how she returns to kill Iain, of the dancers and the cult, and of Felix and Flick in the underground club (the name of the club, The Bunker, the location that holds the two halves of this story together, was nicked from a punk nightclub in a re-used nuclear bunker in central Prague, circa 1993, ‘The Bunkr’, where I had many a memorable night in the early 90’s).

Another thing kept coming back to me, and I was sure this was connected to the work piecing itself together out of my unconscious a decade later (not a bad way to describe And She Was …). Sometime around 1995/6 I had a conversation with my Dad. It was one of those conversations that sum up the whole time you’ve had together so far, and answered, as far as he was ever going to, some of the central questions of our relationship. It was a conversation that spanned the five days I spent with him after two years living abroad, and I’m not going to relate the details here except for one: the image that set the whole work going (and perhaps that all of this is in the light of my mother leaving us, never to return, when I was four years old).

When he was in his twenties my Dad had a series of unexplained blackouts. He once found himself waking in the early hours of the morning on the back streets of a city that he couldn’t for the life of him identity. He had lost his memory, and it wasn’t until the next day – a whole other day and night spent wandering – that he recovered it. All I could see, all I kept coming back to, was this image of a man waking on the backstreets of an unknown city, with no memory of who he was. This became the opening image of ‘The Runner’, the first book of And She Was, and it goes like this:


On a side street in the gap before dawn

a man lies in a puddle of overcoat

left like a prop from the night’s show,

a man thrown from another world.


Static on air like a coming storm.

Lights of the city faltering out.

The first bars of Beethoven’s Fifth

play from folds of cloth and the man


pulls to all fours like a horse falling upwards on film,

stares at the machine on his wrist

ticking under its tinny symphony,

taps it to silence,


turns hands like a pair of new gloves

and rubs a roundel of ski on a finger

that is a band of satin. Thinks,

what has been taken?


that blind touch to the face:

cheekbones, cheeks, stubble, chin.

Waits for the dream to reveal itself, waits

and cobbled press knees, heart


pushes at throat, neck aches with holding still.

This is no dream that I can think, hurt, feel.

All is dark shapes on dark shapes.

He is one of them.