Each chapter of my novel begins with a poem, a Jack Kerouac-style haiku, or what he sometimes referred to as a “pop.” A quick image, presented in three lines but without conforming to traditional syllable limitations, or, as Kerouac says, “… since the language structure is different I don’t think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again…bursting to pop. Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.”
I love these chapter openings, which fell almost magically into place on the night I finished my first draft and have been evolving ever since, right up to the moment I believed I’d have to delete them all because the permissions process was complex, and I worried it would cost too much to keep them. I think of each chapter by its haiku title – the useless, useless chapter, the dog swallowed my dharma chapter, the girls’ footprints chapter. I love the extra layer of meaning Kerouac’s poems give to my story.
There’s a short scene in the novel, near the beginning (though in early drafts it was both longer and farther from the beginning—funny how things change in revisions), where Anna and Kat talk about having a Kerouac-style haiku contest. At this point in the novel, Anna’s not ready to try a poem and sticks to her lists instead, but when I was traveling with my own forever-friend on my own life-changing road trip, we often entertained each other with our little “pops”—some of which I wrote down in my ever-present notebooks. Many of them even made their way into the book, even if not in their poem-form, like the pop I jotted in my journal about a tattoo artist that became a part of the description of Shaggy, the tattoo artist who gives Anna and Kat their matching lotus blossoms:
his arms are a
sketchpad showing the
evolution of his art
or this pop scribbled into the early pages of my notebook where I was working out Anna’s story, exploring her character and her feelings about the loss of her mother:
sorrow tastes of nickel—
a bitter coin on the
back of her tongue
I like the pops when they simply describe a moment we observe, like a small worried pop I wrote in a shaky hand while watching my love climb up an isolated mountain and disappear. I sat there on a rock on the edge of an alpine lake, too afraid of heights to climb any farther, envisioning him falling off the other side of the mountain while I was oblivious to his plight and about fourteen miles of wilderness between me and civilization, wondering how long I would sit there gazing up and waiting for him to reappear before I did something. Whatever that something would be.
clouds slip over the peak,
and David is a small blue speck
I can no longer see.
That summer, D. and I came up with easily a thousand pops; our conversations were thick with haiku. Even so, the parts of my book where Anna started writing more poetry were the most difficult parts to write and didn’t really take shape until I had taken the book through many revisions.
I knew I wanted Anna to experiment with writing her own Kerouac-style pops, but I couldn’t seem to get over one mental hurdle. See, having a character who writes poetry means I am writing poetry, too. I write poetry all the time, but for whatever reason, it’s much more difficult for me to show people my poems; I’m less confident about their ability to withstand the scrutiny of strangers than I am with my prose.
Poems feel vulnerable to me—easier to skip, to skim, to roll my eyes and dismiss them as terrible, especially when they’re my own. A sort of amusing side note is that my current work-in-progress revolves around a girl who is going to fail her English class because she can’t write a “Song of Myself” poem, so once again I’ve got some poetry going on. My agent once made the suggestion of writing a novel in verse, and I think I hyperventilated a little, but after reading Kristin Clark’s post here about her process with FREAKBOY, maybe I’ll give it a try, if the story arrives that requires it. For KISS THE MORNING STAR, it was a challenge to write a character who was slowly becoming more confident with her ability to think poetically, and eventually to be able to share her words with someone, and it was terrific to have the fun form of the Kerouac pops to help her through that journey.
Elissa Janine Hoole has a longstanding love of road trips and beat writers, but it was a summer-long ramble out West that inspired this debut novel, when she and her husband set off across the country with a backpack full of Kerouac books. Now settled in her home in northern Minnesota, Elissa teaches middle school English and writes until midnight, sipping cold coffee and ignoring the laundry.
She still suffers from acute wanderlust from time to time, but road trips now involve a mini-van and a chorus of “Are we there yet?” from two small dharma bums-in-training.