Creative nonfiction as poetry: Thanks for the vinegar.


Tina Dubinsky

Before I completed my Masters, I had no interest in writing creative nonfiction. The nonfiction subgenre looked complicated and far too journalistic for my writing talents.

It came as a surprise then to learn that some of my creative writing had already experimented with this form.

Take me to the poem

Creative nonfiction is more than literary journalism

Creative nonfiction which is sometimes called narrative nonfiction or literary nonfiction encompasses more than journalism stories.

Creative Nonfiction is often used in journalist and found in newspapers and magazines.

While its application does give newsworthy stories a raw, narrative emotional power, creative nonfiction dips into a spectrum of other genres including:

  • Memoir,
  • Essays,
  • Real-life short stories,
  • Travel writing,
  • Biographies,
  • Cinema, and
  • Poetry.

And it is in this last expression, poetry, where I see my earlier intersection.

What is creative nonfiction?

Lee Gutkind, lauded as the “godfather behind creative nonfiction” wrote an excellent New York Times bestseller called, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. This book is now my bible. In it, Lee describes the goal of creative nonfiction to:

make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. But the stories are true.

Lee Gutkind in You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Since embracing this format as an entertaining way of crafting real stories, I’ve discovered that many more real stories want to burst from the closet of my grey matter.

Poetry as creative nonfiction

One such story remembers a time in my youth when I would run into the ocean without any second thoughts. My box jellyfish encounter revealed itself in poetic form during an experiment in my writing journal two years ago.

Aside from recalling a moment in my life when my mortality was in question, this poem also reflects on change and regret.

To preserve my friend’s privacy, her name was altered slightly. I don’t think there is anything in this poem that will cause her to want to hit me over the head.

Interestingly, when I approached her about publishing the poem and what name to use, she mentioned another friend who carried me up onto the beach that day.

I am embarrassed to say that I have no recollection of his kindness and help. However, this box jellyfish poem is as much for him as it is for ‘Justine’ and those who fussed over my well-being and brought the vinegar.

Thanks for the vinegar

A poem about a box jellyfish encounter

Caravan holiday off Armstrong beach.
The ground was damp as we
opened the caravan door
the evening storm had vanished
just like the week before.
The day was ours to conquer, and like
every day at the beach
a dip in the sea was expected
even when too far to reach.
With sunscreen on our bodies, and
our togs snug about our hips
we headed down to the ocean
with no care for rips.
As our fate would have it
the tide was full and calm
it washed gently over the shell grit
tuning our ears to nature's psalm.
I was a summer mermaid
swimming in the sea
holidays were fun times
there was no stopping me.
My favourite place was Seaforth
it was quaint but never boorish
I’d swim about my father’s line
when he went out to fish.
My Dad fishing off the rocks.
The last time it was Armstrong
where a friend invited me
to come and enjoy the sunshine
and sea with her family.
We ran into the ocean with
the salty spray around our knees
we’d brought along a floating bed
to sit on when we pleased.
We splashed about like children
cooling each other down
we screamed and laughed as we
mucked about like a pair of clowns.
The water grew around me
until I was waist deep
when something sharp, electrifying
stung me on my feet.
My hand darted into the water
to swipe the annoyance away
I wasn’t going to let the sea lice
ruin this glorious day.
My leg was not so lucky for
it was in the way
as searing pain fired up my limb
and hand that had to stray.
My friend kept coming toward me
with laughter on her face
the water splashed around her hips
as she began a chase.
‘Justine get out of the water,’
I said, in a serious voice.
Did she think I was joking or
that she had a choice?
Running through the water.
‘Justine,’ I said. ‘Go get help.’
The words trembled on my tongue.
As an afterthought, I added
‘I’ve been stung’.
Justine turned and fled from the water
screaming, as she ran up the beach
alerting other beach goers
with her stentorian screech.
Multiple bottles of brown vinegar
poured onto my leg.
A group of strangers gathered 'round
as I began to beg,
'Can someone call my Dad?'
I hadn’t seen him in a week.
The pain was quite excruciating but
I did not want to freak.
Sarina Hospital where I was taken after being stung by a box jellyfish at Armstrong beach..
Sarina Hospital
© The State of Queensland 2017
A blanket went around my shoulders
as I was led to a strangers car
and buckled up inside it
for the nearest hospital was far.
The driver had been drinking
but the only one with wheels
so I took her offer to get me there,
there were no other automobiles.
Angry zigzag welts rose
upwards on my limbs.
Had a knife wielding surgeon
carved railway tracks on my shin?
‘You could die,’ said the driver
as I began to sing
soothing my bewildered psyche
with a lullaby and hymn.
We made it to Sarina's hospital
where I was placed in emergency care
doctors treated me with heat packs
while I just laid there.
I never got to say thank you
to all those people on the beach
who without any hesitation
applied vinegar and did not preach.
Box Jellyfish the inspiration of my creative nonfiction poem.
I should have known better
then to go into the sea that day
for the storm had washed the stingers
from the creek into the bay.
I did not die, not literally
nor was I scarred for life,
I was the first that summer
to feel the box jellyfish strife.
Perhaps if I’d worn panty-hose
to protect my legs and arms,
I might still enjoy the feel of sand
And sea, those summer charms.
Now, I fear the ocean waters
and rarely do I swim.
The summer mermaid that I once was
has gone, and that is grim.

Credits on this page

Picture of Sarina Hospital © The State of Queensland 2017 CC BY 4.0 Image has been modified: resized, cropped and colorized.

Comments, thoughts?