(I don't know whether it's respectful or disrespectful for my first "review" to be on The Heaven of Animals. I have no idea what I'm doing--this is entirely an experiment and new endeavor--and I'm sure there are plenty out there who can do this collection far better justice than I. Be that as it may, I'll attempt to at least convey why I've chosen to discuss this collection first, and perhaps also convey how it has impacted me as a reader, a writer, a student and a person.)
So the reason I'm discussing this book first? I know Dr. Poissant, and have had the distinct pleasure and honor of studying with him during my creative writing undergrad.
The first time I met him was during my first semester back at UCF as a creative writing undergrad (I had already completed my psychology BS and decided to return to the campus to pursue my passion: writing). His novella, Lizard Man, was an assigned reading for the Creative Writing for English Majors course I'd enrolled in, and I was excited to learn this was a piece written by a faculty member. Here was someone who was published that I could maybe sorta actually talk to! He was a guest speaker, where, as a class, we were able to "ask the author" about his work--a rare opportunity, I've since learned. At the time, I knew little of creative writing, but I recognized a strength in his work that my own lacked: the ability to make the reader empathize with character who, initially, is easily despised. I've never been able to get into the head of a character whose beliefs completely contradict my own, and it's a severely limiting factor in my work. But Dr. Poissant does this effortlessly. With my background in psychology, I was truly impressed that I was able to question my own convictions simply from a piece of fiction. I'm not the first person to make such an observation about Dr. Poissant's work, nor will I be the last. However, it was this particular aspect of his craft that caught my attention, and I resolved that I would take every class with Dr. Poissant that I could.
I was lucky enough--and I use this term specifically, because his classes are coveted among UCF English students--to have Dr. Poissant as my instructor for both Fiction Workshop and Advanced Fiction Workshop. This gave me an entire academic year under his guidance and scrutiny. I wouldn't have grown half as much as a writer had it not been for his influence.
Needless to say, I was excited when I learned he'd been picked up for publication by Simon & Schuster, and pre-ordered my copy of The Heaven of Animals the moment my bank account allowed me. The collection itself was, especially as a student of his, astounding. It's one thing to have a professor lecture about the nuances of craft, of tone, of word economy and development of language on a sentence level. It's quite another to see that professor put it into practice. Another weakness of mine: I can spot the craft weaknesses in the works of others while in workshop, but I can't spot those same weaknesses in my own pieces. I'm well aware of how important it is for a writer to have "readers"--and I know one of Dr. Poissant's--and I never questioned his authority on craft when he critiqued my work. There's still something to be said about seeing it in print, about having the empirical evidence that, yes, Dr. Poissant knows what he's doing. Yes, Dr. Poissant knows what he's talking about. Yes, you should pay attention when Dr. Poissant makes a suggestion.
The Heaven of Animals was the first book in several years that I specifically set aside time to read among the chaos and stress of assigned readings, homework and lectures. I don't regret a single late night I spent.
His work is organic, emotional and poignant. It's brutal in its honesty about the human condition. As I read the collection, I could finally see what he meant when he discussed craft elements, when he talked about empathy, when he discussed pacing. Several times, I simply had to set the book down and ruminate on what I'd read because--damn. Several times, I was brought to tears.
This. This is what I want my readers to experience through my work--exactly what I'd experienced when I read Dr. Poissant's. He defines, examines and explores what it means to be human, what it means to love, and what it means to hurt in a way that neither my psychology major nor my philosophy minor could adequately accomplish. Perhaps this is why I was drawn to creative writing as a craft. Perhaps I'd always known a story could do this to a person. And when I read The Heaven of Animals, I experienced it first-hand.