Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels (Johnson 2000: 3)
How is the prose poem poetic? Does it have something to do with imagery, or a concentration on the effects of language? Or, is the prose poem not ‘real’ poetry at all because it eschews traditional poetic forms, undermining what Charles Simic (2010) calls the ‘the struggle to fit words inside a line or a stanza’ (n.pag.)? Might one flip the argument around and ask how the prose poem is prose? Does it share fiction’s requirements of character or narrative? Mightn’t we equally call it ‘micro fiction’ or ‘flash fiction’ or ‘hint fiction’? If not, where does the difference lie, if indeed there is one?
Arguments about generic demarcations are misleading in their content and betraying in their form. There can be no transcendental or essential answer to the question ‘what is poetry?’ or ‘what is prose?’ Often these arguments boil down to what the genre in question is not (not ‘real’ poetry; no character development; not as concerned with language use; no line breaks etc.) And just as often these answers are arrived at not as some boundary of definition, but as a marker of a socially informed and applied ‘taste’. In other words, generic boundaries and struggles might be indicative rather than definitive—symptomatic of something that requires identity, demarcation, distinction and fragmentation, and an understanding of those elements’ blurring and uncertainty.
The accompanying move is to argue for prose poetry’s trans-generic fluidity: its capacity to stand between or across genre boundaries. Peter Johnson suggests: ‘if there is such a creature as the prose poem … its existence depends partly on its ability to plunder the territories of many other like genres’ (Johnson 2000: 5). In a recent paper, project members Paul Hetherington and Cassandra Atherton suggest the form is:
Janus-faced, looking forwards and backwards, understanding transitions, providing passages and doorways. Space opens before and behind … [i]t understands both prose and poetry and it comfortably inhabits the space between them (2015: 14).
It is this acceptance of the problem of genre (the acceptance that, in regard to prose poetry, the question will always be there), which has cleared the ground for prose poets, as practitioners, to work. And this has in turn allowed a perceived freedom from the poets ‘habitual way of seeing the world’ (Simic 2010: n. pag.). American prose poet, Russell Edson suggests, manifesto-like:
We want to write free of debt or obligation to literary form or idea; free even from ourselves, free from our own expectations … There is more truth in the act of writing than in what is written.... (1997: 38)
In Edson’s formulation, prose poetry embraces its negative definition as a subversive form. Michael Delville suggests prose poetry’s ‘critical struggle with dominant aesthetic and cultural conventions preserve[s] [the prose poem’s] potential for innovation’ (1998: 250).
Innovative; subversive; unpredictable; freeing; at the very least, a form ‘in-between’—straddling generic domains—these are the attractions of working in prose poetry. This is why I would like to suggest that it makes it the ideal [non? un?] form upon which varying writing practices might come together—a meeting place.
For me, it is a kind of writing determined to prove that there’s poetry beyond verse and its rules. (Simic 2010: n.pag.)
We might adjust Charles Simic’s quote above, to suggest that prose poetry is the kind of writing determined to prove that there is prose beyond narrative and its rules. Or even, to prove that there is poetry in prose, or that prose can be poetic. I take this perspective because I come at what we have called prose poetry from the ‘other side’—as someone who would consider themselves, if forced, a prose writer. As such, I am slightly bemused by the prioritisation and privileging of poetics in discussions of prose poetry, but not surprised. Poets are great colonisers: seeing poetry in all things, comparing poetry to all things.
In early 2015, I was asked to join what has become known as the Prose Poetry Project. As of this writing, the project has 21 contributing writers from universities across Australia and the UK. But in early 2015 it was three poets from the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI) based at the University of Canberra who had, for a couple of months, been experimenting in writing and swapping prose poetry via email. I vociferously warned them that I didn’t write poetry, but was told this didn’t matter. They were right, it didn’t.
The first thing that struck me about their work was not the absence of lineation or the deferral of metre or some such, but rather that they were writing paragraphs. This is something I was able to understand as a basic unit of writing. So I began contributing to the project by extracting and adjusting paragraphs from half-finished stories: paragraphs that I felt stood alone when taken from their context; that might have some turn of phrase, or sentence structure, or descriptive imagery that was suggestive of something larger than itself.
This is one of the first things I learnt about the poets in the group: that short prose writing techniques like the suggestion, but not the revelation, of larger narrative structures; the deferral of narrative closure; or light but suggestive characterisation didn’t appear to be a traditional part of their poetic practice, and the opportunity (through prose poetry) to engage with these techniques as a kind of poetry seemed to agree with them.
More importantly, I was learning as well. Pretty soon, spurred on by the growth and excitement surrounding the project, I was moving away from excising paragraphs from pre-existing work and into writing prose poems for themselves. This was, for me, a risk. However, like the poets being freed of stanzas and enjambment, I was finding the brevity of the form enticing, and the control. It wasn’t so much that the prose poem represented a ‘fragment’ of something larger, but that it could be beautifully self-contained and worked on in fine detail if required, without disturbing a larger fabric. If the poets were leaning out from their concentrations on poetics, I was leaning in to concentrate on language and imagery and rhythm in ways that I’d only intermittently, or perhaps not as intensely, or only unconsciously, done as a prose writer. I have, I hope, learned more care for my work.
This wasn’t happening in isolation. One of the great benefits of the project has been its collaborative aspect. Because, in a sense, we are meeting on the common ground of the prose poem, it is easier to see what others are doing: to identify their strengths; to note their distinct voices, the ways they approach topics, what it is they approach, how they work ideas through, who and what they respond to, even their artistic obsessions (I’m sure mine are laid equally bare). Being able to learn different things from different writers has been a revelation and a privilege.
And it is this sense of collaboration that I wanted to highlight in this selection of work from the project. At its outset the project was given a definite end date: March 2016. I have restricted the timeline of prose poems here from the project’s inception in November 2014 to June 2015—over 400 prose poems in all—to choose 18. It is of course a very personal choice with the only parameter being that I had to include all the poets who had submitted work during that time. Additionally, I decided to put the work into pairs under a theme of my choosing. Call it an editorial quirk, or method of selection, but I was interested in showing the ways that I sensed the prose poems speaking to each other: maybe having a conversation; or speaking to the same thing in unison; or separated by a period of time, riffing on the same theme, the same word even, yet still finding coincidence in my perception of their harmony.
In doing so, I hope to give some hint of a more particular conception of prose poetry as a ‘meeting place’, one that has allowed a diverse group of writers the experience of working and learning together as a form of experimentation and innovation, and for my own practice, rejuvenation.
We were in Berlin, at the Libeskind, when the corridors faded out, when the walls closed in. You walked me into the murders of history, you stole everything I owned. In Johannesburg, on the pavement outside the cinema, a man slumped against a shop, bleeding. My father held him as he died. I have hidden my copy of the Goya print inside my atlas; it contains events I still can't discuss. Auden warned us, but who listened? In Manchester, at the Libeskind, all the lights went out and the room turned red, and over the intercom a man spoke in German. It was last century when Nietzsche collapsed, when Althusser ran crazy through the streets. The authorities erected concrete bollards there. Keeping the philosophers at bay. The architects have gone into hiding, the artists are in hiding, the poets still slink through the laneways, chasing ambulances, seeing what no one should ever see.
One year and nine months and he has not stopped moving —places you were together and ones intended. In his pocket, zip-lock bags of you, small rubble, gritty dust, uncompromising as in life. You have been snatched by the wind at Machu Pichu, furtively dumped at Gracelands, have accreted the fields of Civil War dead and fallen noiseless and twisting from the cliffs at Royal. Today you anoint Karl Marx’s grave at Highgate (also the bust of Bruce Reynolds, mastermind of the Great Train Robbery, but not the cool, shadowed plinth of George Eliot). The historian in you would be tickled, I think. Resting on a bench crocheted with lichen, by the plain stone of Sidney Nolan, he says, you should really talk about this stuff. We didn’t. Next week he takes you to Auschwitz.
The weight of a certain memory from a time ago; his nails pressed into her palm and a voice not quite her own saying softly it's enough. Later, cockling would remind her of their hands clasped together in this way; the anticipation of a small hunt on the day their dogs walked the bar with them out to the deep seams in soft wet sand, placing their feet as carefully as horses, and how the search sometimes unexpectedly hurt her hands. To the side of her one of her sisters gone mad with the plenty of her patch, and then her patient brother's plea: basta, amore, enough! In the bucket the shells sat closed tight inside their own pearlescent mysteries. Later, in the pan, they would open like one hand releasing another, a softness divulged from a shelf of hardness. She had lifted her head from his shoulder and curled inside that movement lay his unloosed grip, as if this originary contact might contain the fossil of all future embraces. And despite the knowledge she had foraged from somewhere in deep, the dog's and her brother's warnings to walk carefully and not take too much, she knew from that point on nothing would ever be enough.
Touch evokes a room where now forgotten words were hung like clothes. Where we lay in semi-dark as metaphor re-entered neglected speech. Where, barely seen, we were puzzlingly known—or unknown, but persuaded of ourselves. Whatever belonged there did not belong; we borrowed facsimiles of other emotions in order to know our feelings better. We belonged to scent, taste, hearing, touch. Opacity was a warm tide; skin-flush; an escapade. We stood away from ourselves and, leaving, knew what only skin knows.
Breakfast civility. Bone china cups, saucers, plates, and a silver toast rack—its ribcage of yellowing tusks like tapered candles that have softened, drooped, curled right over. Then hardened. You listen to a scraping of knives. You listen harder—lean in to take a closer look, lean too close and civility breaks with a wild boar scream—a scream that pulses from another time, another place. You're blameless in the thick of pulsing screams. A bone-handled knife presses into the palm of your blameless, pulsing, scraping hand.
The knives in the cupboard drawer haunted her dreams. She imagined them lying together, like a family that could slice itself up: hard edged, sharp witted, good at cutting up love into bite sized chunks, good at cutting skin or soft fruit. The knife with the serrated edge reminded her of her mother and she could not quite pin-point why. Something to do with gutting and bread, loaves and fishes. The ability to produce a meal out of nothing. Small miracles, night after night served up on china plates printed with chintz. She would sharpen the knives tomorrow after work. Keep them clean and in working order. All that gleaming Sheffield steel in the dark drawer lined with green felt.
the social work intern is surprised that the youths must squat to greet visitors to the centre. the shock puts him in a sombre mood.
the social work intern has an immediate sense of the loss of dignity among the youths when he sees them squatting at toilets in full view of the staff.
the social work intern arranges a game of crab soccer. he wants to slow the youths' dynamics so he can observe them more closely. he's here to learn. everyone’s on their hands and knees.
Mostly, you’ll have to learn as you go. But here is information that might help you through the first days:
Luck can fall from the sky. But don’t presume that it’s all good luck.
The most popular song on the jukebox is something histrionic by Mister Roy Orbison.
‘Shanti’ is a word from an old Eastern scripture. Keep it available in your mind so it can serve your emotion.
The client will presume that there is nothing here — NOTHING — that is banned from importuning. This is regardless of whether or not the thing has a name. I mean, some other name, different from ‘thing’.
There are nights when the rain hits the roof with a rhythm that’s Cuban.
If ordered to use the knife, go at the task just like it’s regular chicken.
As he walked past the busy bar, thoughts of elusive merriment lingered, but the murmured tones of Roy Orbison singing, 'Only the Lonely,' an ageing poet in search of beauty left an icy shard. He had no appetite for food, love, wine, the companionship of Falstaffian friends; after Basho his words lay like coffee grinds at the bottom of a paper cup, random stepping stones in a mess of brown sludge leaving no clues as to which way the narrative was heading.
The narrative is walking through Europe towards Greece. It recently acquired a donkey, which gives the protagonist something to talk to. It began on the Comino, the sociable solitary and the feet, one, one and one, the sense of wandering. Heading east, the protagonist returns to New Zealand and Australia, but not before meeting a monk who wears Levis and tends the hooves of animals with an omniscient first person; a Welsh dance teacher who makes origami, speaking to the listener with their own speech mannerisms; an Indian cook who dices vegetables with the honesty of a teenager. The narrative is almost home now.
Jackson Pollock in his spitting phase. Cheek-fulls of vibrant powder, churned by tongue then hoicked onto canvas, wall, passer-by. The alcohol only for sluicing the bitterness of art from his mouth. It had nothing to do with drinking. It was merely remedial.
Countess Gruber had led a rackety life and when the butcher refused her credit she would sell a painting and feast on fillet steaks for weeks. Her soirées were rarely disappointing. She was a magnet for painters who never painted and poets who never wrote. This, naturally, gave them plenty to discuss. There was always a little cocaine at the Gruber parties and she had an excellent cook whom she hadn’t paid for years. There were rumours the gardener occasionally slipped into her bed.
Last night I pressed my body to the cold tiles on the bathroom floor. Face down. Recumbent. Prone. To making mistakes. My torso left a hot patch beneath the vanity basin. When you came to find me I had misted up the mirror with my heat. I shifted sideways to find fresh tiles while you wrote Tennessee Williams on the steamy glass. You stepped into my hot spot. Toes curling into the warmth. ‘Listen,’you said, ‘can you hear it?’ Somewhere in my imagination a streetcar still grinds its way down Desire Street. Even though we both know it has been retired. Retrenched. Put to sleep. And now you will have to rely on the bus to take you to your Elysian Field. I turned my head to the left and stared at the sock line circumnavigating your ankle. You shaved in the double ‘e’ of Tennessee and called me your Belle Reve. Tristes tropiques. I blanched and peeled myself off the floor. Sticky sweat clinging to the white tiles. You looked for a moment at my flushed belly before taking the bottle of eye drops and tipping back your head, cap in mouth. Gagged. Censored. Silenced. Post-Katrina in the Crescent City and I’m still waiting for more levees to burst. Me with my Hurricane box watching Treme on HBO. You drinking Hurricanes at Old Absinthe House in the Vieux Carré. Toulouse street. Toulouse-Lautrec. La blanchisseuse. ‘Don’t worry,’ you told me once, ‘it’s only a paper moon.’ But we both know it is only you who is sailing over the cardboard sea. I’m just papier-mâché. You chew me up and spit me out. Pulp. Palpitations. So I paste myself onto you. Moulding myself into your curves. But you don’t wait for the glue to dry and so we rot from the inside out.
Lady Macduff, so beautiful, so young, is delaying proceedings; it's her first day, she's worried about her hair. There are whispers...Another ten minutes. Someone puts a red cross on the far, green wall. Thick wires spill from the camera like arteries. Finally, she reappears, her hair the same perfection it was before. I want to tell her how little it matters, but my presence means nothing. It's as if I'm not there. I'm not there.
The doors open and close, so many people on the move! My therapist handily deals out a deck of images and then scoops them away: 'What did you see?' I open my eyes and see colour, I close them and see black. Tell me a story? No. He spreads the images out again, palms and fingers splayed to shatter the shapes. I see the curve of shoulder, someone's lovely haunch, an open mouth. The doors open, then close; the black behind my eyes is fading; sometimes a door is just a door.
She woke crying desolately to find the door open, windows wide and her dream sitting in a chair staring at her. Why do you do this, he asked her, as his black tongue licked his black pudding lips. She thought it a good but obvious question but not one she could answer under pressure of the breaking dawn and the bull roaring in a nearby field. I’m not supposed to have men in my room, she hissed and this was enough to make him run, like all cowards who don’t really want the answer. This much she knew.
Maps from the fifteenth century are mostly blank page and bluntly rugged lines of coast that halt; gaps oblige the sea of kraken and hyrda gushing onto charted land. Cartographers drew the line closed, forgetting to drain the ground of monsters. At night, the blind squid under my bed slimes a cracked tentacle down the hall, stealing cat biscuits and messing up the Lego. I ask it to sleep beside me, something real to cuddle. Our pillow talk is imagining the ways we could bind limbs, slip inside, choke breath and stop ears. I set out two bowls of biscuits and stroke its musculature in reach.
We play a game where each must sleep until we dream the sea. You shall be the fisher, I your amanuensis. You have travelled to Iceland, oiling the harpoons. My job is to mark the maps and burn them in the furnace. You say ‘It requires the skill of the scuba!’ I carve it into the mast. Our catch is slim, but our backs are bronze plate and peeling. I collect the scales to make paper. The journal of our voyage now reaches to eight volumes. I sew the nets, mark the Transit of Venus, the line of longitude. You sweat in the hammock, febrile, muttering ‘Wranglers must venture far beyond, and later return in order to stand a chance.’
Edson, R 1997 ‘Portrait of the writer as a fat man’, in S Friebert, D Walker, & D Young (eds) A Field guide to contemporary poetry & poetics, Oberlin OH: Oberlin College Press, 35–43
Hetherington, P and Atherton, C 2015 ‘“unconscionable mystification”?: rooms, spaces and the prose poem’ New Writing 12: 3, 1–17
Johnson, P 2000 ‘Introduction’, in The best of the Prose poem: an international journal, Buffalo NY; Providence RI: White Pine Press , Providence College, 10–18, at http://digitalcommons.providence.edu/prosepoem/the_best_of_the_prose_poem/ (accessed 16 July 2015)
Simic, C 2010 ‘Prose poetry’ Poetry International Rotterdam, at http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/collection/article_item/int_article/17677/Prose-poetry (accessed 16 July 2015)