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On being a writer: From poet to novelist

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By Monday, Feb 4, 2019 Arts & Entertainment

Editor’s Note: Sonia Pilcer, a regular contributor to the Edge, will be presenting“From Poet to Novelist” on Thursday, February 7, 2-3 p.m. at Berkshire Community College in the Susan B. Anthony Lounge.

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I began as a poet. My first impulse was to capture the essence of my subject through a minimum of words — with the maximum of ambiguity and mystery. An internal musical rhythm.  I loved word play the way most people love foreplay, in fact, a good metaphor or simile could bed me faster than an expensive meal.

I saw my poetry as hieroglyphic. Images as signals. Notes sent in crystals brought forth from deep, private recesses. In the beginning, it was a way to write about my family’s history during and after the Holocaust.


Like burnt crust

in a frying pan

you stuck to the edges.


You had to be

scraped out


by tender


I put together a poetry manuscript of about sixty pages and entered the Yale Younger Poets contest, which I, of course, did not win. But I published a few poems in the Centennial Review and a few other literary journals. I was a poet, not a poetess, as I was called sometimes. So I wrote a poem.


Her poetry’s not dipped in pink

Dappled purple, menstrual

Though her hips are ample.


Near-sighted she’s not

Nor her hair nested in a knot

Like a strangled peacock.


She wears rouge and means it

Gadding about in glass slippers

Rubber-soled not to slip


Wantonly, wanting to spill

In a great white belly-flop

With the grace of a seal.


To live, she steals poems

One ear pressed to hear the click

As her fingers turn the wheel.

Imagine my shock, my horror when my revered mentor, who had been a literary agent before she became a therapist, said to me: “You’re a good writer.” I glowed with pleasure. “Why not write a novel?” “Huh?” “You can make a living as a novelist. You’ll never be able to do that as a poet.”

I was horrified. I might have called her a philistine. Or worse. But she planted a seed. A good idea that I resisted at first. I was terrified. Besides I had tried to write short stories and failed miserably. After poetry’s compressed, telegraphic form, I couldn’t let all the nouns and verbs just hang out in sentences.

Fiction seemed such a strange animal.  Someone suggested I write a throwaway novel. Twelve pages a day. Write anything. I wrote about half of a novel I called RAZOR — about a woman who tries to get a cliterodectomy so she wouldn’t want sex anymore. I abandoned it with relief.

An image came to me: a group of adolescent girls with very teased hair, black Cleopatra eye makeup, white lipstick, sitting on a parked Dodge, passing a single menthol cigarette. I began writing in 1976. I published my first novel TEEN ANGEL in 1978. It was a good idea that I followed, which gave me a profession, at which I could actually make money.

My second novel was about first love, based on my first boyfriend/lunatic Jack K. He was the one who relieved me of my virginity. Throughout its composition, I always thought of its title as NUMERO UNO. The novel was full of first times. My editor at Viking Press didn’t agree. Besides it being a Spanish expression, it was also the name of a pizza franchise. She suggested I think of a new title. Once again I resisted. For weeks, I struggled. Then I remembered a poem I had written, which became the title. 

Maiden Rites

Whipping black hair until it rose

In puffs of amorous dragonflies

Every night one hundred lashes.


Prayers at the mirrored altar

For a blessing of breasts

Hourglass shell for a twig.


Kisses spun by the bottle, shared

With a pillow warm for tears: to know

The dark passages when violins swelled.

It seems my poetry was the laboratory. I’ve published six novels. The ideas began in poems.

I found a T-shirt in which you filled the blanks.


Mine read:


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