by Johannes Goransson on Jun.25, 2013
I was thinking… in my past two posts, I have referred to but not really discussed the “Prose Poem.” Does anybody talk about this form/term anymore? Is this important to anybody?
It seems like there was a lot of talk about it in the 90s and early 00s. I remember reading the journal “The Prose Poem” (edited by Peter Johnson) back in the 90s because it was engaged with a certain surrealist sensibility which I obviously also was interested in. And it provided a kind of “hybrid” space that was neither the official quietist aesthetic of MFA programs or the official/Language aesthetic of PhD study. The big influences in this journal were James Tate, Russell Edson and Charles Simic. But it would also publish, say Maxine Chernoff, who’s kind of an odd poet that doesn’t really fit in with schools and lineages.
I think it was probably very influential – and by “it” I might mean this notion of the prose poem or the official journal itself – creating not only a space where prose and poetry could interact but also a space where translation was valued. Afterall, this prose poem was largely derived from Max Jacob and other foreign writers. It seems to have generated a whole host of writers from my generation (Zach Schomburg, Mathias Svalina and others).
I occasionally read this journal back in the day but I felt put off by a certain goofiness that struck me as moderating. Edson was a big influence, but many influenced by Edson lost something really important about Edson: the utter lack of interiority, the saturating violence, the merciless absurdity. In many prose poem writers it seemed Edson’s move was coupled with an indie-rock emotional register (goofy, wistful, whimsical).
My own interest/emotional register doesn’t really fit in with that zone; and also the formal movement within the poems seemed too set. For example, I was interested/inspired by Basquiat – and I wanted to bring that mania, that horror vacui to the poems. That’s in part what drew me to the prose poem (and does still I guess on some level) – it allowed me to see the page as a near-canvas, which might consist of a discarded door or box.
It’s interesting (if only to myself) that my distinction here is what other genres/media the prose poems “bring into” poetry – indie rock vs painting.
But as far as writing goes, I first started writing poetry in large part from reading Rimbaud’s prose poems and Lautremont’s Maldoror, Burroughs and the Beats, and Genet’s baroque theatricality, and that kind of convulsiveness has always stuck with me. By the time I came across the Prose Poem journal I was also reading Aase Berg’s guinea pigs and Ann Jaderlund’s necropastorals:
The big valley is a vast mother-of-pearl mirror. There walks the large dead swan in her dead shroud. And there walks the mother-of-pearl children. Or the fragile foundling clumps. That grow out of the virgin mother’s throat. They led the swan into a forest and placed beautiful white stones of mother-of-pearl on her back. Go now and eat that which you have taken from the swans. Then one ran up and cut a branch from the tree and grabbed a burning branch and stuck it into her throat. And scrubbed her both up top and down below. Until the swan’s flesh fell off in beautiful heavy clumps. For some time the swan lay in the bushes and slept. And black merchants came riding on black mother-of-pearl horses. Then they took the swan and carried her away.
(from Jaderlund’s Soon Into the Summer I Will Walk Out, published in Typo 7)
Jaderlund’s suite is actually a kind of montage of biblical tales written down in the 15th century, a kind of proto-prose-poetry based on Swedish translations of foreign materials (Christianity being of course a foreign text itself).
Fast forward a little bit: In 2006, Peter Connors published the anthology PP/FF. The abbreviations are for Prose Poem and Flash Fiction. Peter didn’t want to come up with a term like “hybrid” to actually bring them into unison, but wanted to allow them to be unsynthesized, and I liked that. Because this anthology includes not so much “prose poetry” but poetry in prose, and poetic prose etc.
Peter writes this in his intro:
In 2006, it is fair to say that prose poetry is a vital Amreican genre: there are prose poetry journals, anthologies, university courses, and attendant experts. Perhaps classifying it as a stale genre is too harsh, however, in compiling this anthology it became obvious that many writers have felt shunned from traditional communities of poetry and prose – including prose poetry – for consciously resisting genre expectations. To wit, prose poetry should not contain too much narrative or it becomes fiction; flash fiction should follow a narrative arc or it risks fragmentation to the point of becomign prose poetry; flash fiction should stay within specific, albeit arbitrary word counts; prose poetry must not utilize line break; surrealism and humor is acceptable, but topicality is not…
Here Connor’s point is similar to my own – that a genre that was born out of dissatisfaction with genre expectations had generated its own conventions.
Before that anthology, Peter edited Double Room with Mark Tursi, which published some section of my book Dear Ra back in 2003 (I wrote the book in 2000-2001 while going crazy). In this book I used the epistolary form – which I got from letters of serial killers and crazy consumers – with a kind of surrealism and also Ted Berrigan (b/c I loved his manic energy).
It struck me that in my past two entries I dealt with “prose poetry” – but these are great examples of prose poetry that is not so much part of this convention as poems that form a space where various media and genre convulse without definitely being synthesized into Prose Poetry. For example, Joyelle’s Salamandrine is categorized as “Fiction”, but her virtuosic sentences are charged with the kind of texture one might expect from the most saturated poetry. In James’s Fassbinder Diaries, the “prose poem” seems like it is constantly being harassed not just by film but the narrative urge/push of novels. This seems true of a lot of things I’ve been reading recently: Aylin Bloch Boynukisa’s My mouth is full of teeth and time, Under Siege: Four African Cities (Documenta 11;Plathform4), Sara Shamloo’s Gloria, Emma Lundmark’s Hans Fru Judith, Uche Nduka’s Ijele, or Moldovian comic book artist Neurotrip’s work:
But at the same time, what makes Negroni’s Mouth of Hell and di Giorgio’s History of Violets so amazing is in part a kind of “return” to the prose poem at its purest form – Baudelaire, Rimbaud etc.
So to sum things up: I wonder if “prose poetry” has any value anymore – As a form? As a context? As an idea? As a lineage?
As usual I’m suddenly drawn to it because it seems dead, anachronistic – and the opposite of the notion of “American Hybrid” that is so powerful these days.