The Prose Poetry Project was created by the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI) in November 2014, with the aim of collaboratively exploring the form and composition of prose poetry. The ongoing project aims to produce both creative and research outcomes stemming from the resurgence of interest in the prose poem. It was initiated as a simple email exchange of prose poems between three founding members, with additional poets invited to join over the following months. There were no stipulations except that everyone was expected to write at least three prose poems within the year. At no stage was a definition of prose poetry imposed, or even suggested, despite the fact that some members of the group had never written prose poetry before. Through the process of making and sharing, however, various models emerged.
The project was first showcased and discussed at an event within the Poetry on the Move festival in Canberra, 7 September 2015. At that stage, ten months from its inception, the project had accumulated over 600 poems. It ranged across four universities, two countries and eighteen poets (three of whom had yet to contribute). Six of those poets spoke at the event about the influence of the project on their personal practice, encouraged to do so in whatever manner they considered appropriate. Their various reflections, here collated, include: the challenges and delights of working within a form where all rules are suspended; the (questionable) distinction between the prose poem and flash fiction; the relationship with haibun; the nature of endings and a poem’s limits; and the way in which prose poems may elude some readers’ resistance to poetry in its more recognisable guise. In all these considerations, there is recognition of the benefits of working within a group, and of collaborative, creative play.
Cassandra Atherton, Deakin University
Writing prose poetry prior to becoming a member of the Prose Poetry Project was a lonely business. While the genre has an illustrious history steeped in French symbolist tradition, the enterprise and lineage of prose poetry post-Gaspard de le Nuit and La Spleen de Paris is sketchy, at best. There are early examples from around the world (Kafka, Rilke, Borges, Neruda, Stein) but no dedicated contemporary prose poets. Indeed, it is hard to think of a writer in English who can exclusively be identified as a prose poet. For example, while contemporary American poets James Wright, Russell Edson and Charles Simic are identified as having written some very influential prose poetry, they are more famous for writing in other forms.
While Australian prose poets may appear equally difficult to identify, Tom Shapcott’s illuminating ‘Letter to the Editor’ in Text Journal on the prose poem ‘attract[ing] Australian poets’ (n.p), demonstrates a small but strong tradition that is often overlooked. Indeed, Shapcott provides a pithy list of ‘book length collections’ of prose poetry from 1976 to 1996, including books by Andrew Taylor, Bruce Beaver, Gary Catalano, Rodney Hall, Laurie Duggan, Philip Hammiel, Rudi Krausmann, Gerald Lee, Alison Croggon and two of his own books. However, like the American examples, above, these poets do not exclusively work within the prose poetry form. While it can be argued that prose poets are poets in the same way that sonneteers are poets, for me there is an important difference. In short, prose poetry references prose (poetry’s apparent opposite) in a way that other forms of poetry do not, for example, sonnets, haiku, elegy, ghazals. Most recently, joanne burns has written some important prose poetry, evident from the Spineless Wonders competition—The joanne burns Award for prose poetry/microfiction—in recognition of her work in this area. However, burns’ work consists of ‘a combination of poetry, prose poems and prose sequences’ (Roberts, n.p). Similarly, Michael Byrne edited The Indigo Book of Australian Prose Poems in 2012, collecting what he believed were prose poems from the 1960s onwards from Australian poets. While this anthology demonstrates how many Australian poets have dabbled in prose poetry, Byrne was criticised for including ‘misplaced paragraphs’ and ‘prose’ rather than prose poetry (Wright, n.p). In this way, the definition of prose poetry for many poets and critics continues to be static and problematic.
I was a prose poet before I became a part of the Prose Poetry Project, but I felt the pressure of working in an oxymoronic genre, or as Baudelaire suggests, in a genre born of ‘opposed discursive modes’ (Baudelaire qtd in Lloyd, n.p). I didn’t fit into the usual poetry soirees and readings locally, I was regarded suspiciously by poets and prose writers, alike. Perhaps this was some hangover from the idea that ‘the creation of a new genre clearly questions the limits or limitations of poetry’ (Baudelaire qtd in Lloyd, 72). Indeed, despite the inception of journals such as The Prose Poem: An International Journal in the 1980s, calls for poetry to be published in anthologies and journals rarely extended to prose poetry. When I first started submitting my prose poetry to journals around the turn of the millennium, I had to submit in the category entitled ‘Other’ and appeal to the reader’s indulgence, something Baudelaire also foregrounds in his discussion of prose poetry (Baudelaire qtd in Lloyd, 71). I likened my creative practice to writing pillow books—most famously Sei Shonagon’s Heian period masterpiece—to try and avoid the limited and relatively western understanding of prose poetry. Pillow books similarly avoid categorisation and are often defined as ‘genre-bending miscellany of short, largely unrelated pieces’ (Mckinney, n.p).
The Prose Poetry Project does not emphasise the dualities inherent in prose poetry, instead it brings together a community of writers to collaboratively push the boundaries of prose poetry and reanimate its static definition through creative practice. While not all writers in this forum are exclusively prose poets, the project is exclusively about prose poetry. Every day my inbox is alive with prose poems from members of the Prose Poetry Project all over the globe. Ultimately, chains of prose poetry are forged within this artistic online community and we are invited to respond to the themes that emerge—to add another link. The project nudges me out of my comfort zone and rewards my experimentation in the genre. Indeed, the prose poems that have been composed as part of this project are so varied that they substantiate Jeffrey Skinner’s view that, ‘The prose poem can be a comic operetta, or it can be a theatre for grief’ (38). I’ve read some incredibly witty and some achingly sad prose poems in this forum and I’ve attempted to write prose poems in both registers. Indeed, I’ve written more prose poems in the time I have been involved in this project than in any other year, alone. This is because reading and writing prose poetry becomes part of every day life, not something that requires a separate time and space. In this way, my prose poetry explores more of the quotidian than it did before; it prioritises the flotsam and jetsam of existence. In many ways this mirrors the form of the prose poem, which Gary Young argues has a ‘democratic itinerary, its horizontal rather than vertical trajectory, engenders a resistance to hierarchy and to inflation’ (113). The Prose Poetry Project is portable. Thanks to Outlook Express and my iPhone, I no longer work in a prose poetry void. I can take the Prose Poetry Project everywhere, so I’m not a lonely prose poet anymore.
Shane Strange, University of Canberra
My engagement with prose poetry came after some resistance. Not, it must be said, because I have an opinion on the ‘poetic-ness’ of prose poetry (i.e. is it poetry at all, or merely pretentious prose?) but because I don’t consider myself a ‘poet’. And, again, that is not to say that I have contempt for poets or poetry, on the contrary, I hold poetry in great esteem—too great to accept the likes of me. My past attempts at poetry have all been dismal failures, to the point where I thought of the act of writing poetry—like drawing, or painting, or composing songs—as an art form beyond me.
I am a prose writer, and have been happiest working in that form. Being asked to join the Prose Poetry Project, among such distinguished practicing poets, was daunting. I protested that I ‘wasn’t a poet’, but was told this didn’t matter. And they were right, it didn’t. What is called ‘prose poetry’ for me turned out to be the most basic of prose forms—the paragraph. This might seem sacrilegious to poets who have come from worlds of stanzas and line breaks, and intense thought on the right word, the right image, the right use of language and form, who are confronted with writing mere sentences whose line breaks are arbitrarily based on the layout of the paragraph (a cessation of control!) But implicit in any such objection is an assumption that prose writers don’t also pay particular attention to issues of language choice, imagery and form.
One could argue that poetry doesn’t rely on narrative, or that prose doesn’t have the capacity for description of feeling or moment that poetry has. It seems to me both of these arguments can be undermined by a look at the current dynamics of both poetry and prose. I’m thinking particularly here of the fuzzy boundary between those very short forms of prose fiction like ‘micro-fiction’ or ‘flash fiction’, and prose poetry. What really distinguishes these forms seems to me to be the writer’s self-identification of the genre they are operating in , and perhaps a desire by poets to colonise all things, to make them poetry of one kind or another (hence, prose poetry).
Having said that (perhaps unkindly), I can affirm I have derived a great deal of writerly satisfaction and understanding from participating in this project. Only some of it has been related to form. I have sharpened my appreciation of language and imagery in its minutiae, and with it a better understanding of the poet’s craft: their desire, for example, to introduce a break at a certain word as a means of controlling or emphasising the reading of a line. A lot of satisfaction, however, has arisen from the collaborative and informal nature of the project itself. I have seen how others in the group (poets no less) go about their business. How some work isn’t successful or polished, or that some in the group ponder their submissions a great deal, while others are happy to throw work into the mix for others to consider. As such, a lively energy has evolved around the project where ideas are exchanged, forms and voices are tried on for size, where themes are rocketed back and forth, transformed each time by the a writer’s nuances, their particularities, their way of seeing the world.
From this perspective of practice, the practice of writing, the generic complications alluded to above fall away. Prose poetry (should we call it prose/poetry?) seems to me a place where both prose writers and poets can feel equally comfortable, in a practice that gestures at both of their fields, frees them from the strictures of those fields and allows them to borrow and learn freely from the other.
On writing prose poetry
Jen Webb, University of Canberra
‘Fragments are the only forms I trust.’ (Donald Barthelme, ‘See the moon’, 1971)
A poem set at ninety degrees.[i]
A poem that reads like a story.
A story that reads like a poem.
Gestures toward something almost said; fingers that pluck at me.
Lineated poetry costs too much. I shuffle the line breaks here and there, fret about the length of stanzas, move metaphors in and out; I select and reject descriptors, panic, hit delete. How to know for sure which line hits its note, and which slides off key. Where to place the line break. How to find the breath. The page stretches out, blank, and I am blank too.
Sentence: any set of words that contains a subject and a predicate.
Patrolled by syntax and grammar. Check the syntagmatic chain; check the paradigmatic chain; [ii] put all the parts in order.
Unless you are writing poetry, or experimental prose, or prose poetry. Then all the rules are suspended. Anything goes.
Eschew verbs. Renounce agreement. Find the sound in the sentence. Press ‘send’.
It’s a traction engine. When images fail; when sonics irritate; when metaphor flops: that’s when story steps up. Story is not bound by generic structures; it is deeper than deep linguistic structures; it is bigger than the sentence. And it is made up of énoncés:[iii] which is to say, the what-is-said, the narrated event. Any utterance, any what-is-said, requires the act of uttering; which is itself the engine of story; and story in turn is the engine of human exchange. All our utterances, all the grunts and phrases and statements we make, stand in for some strange logic by which we live. Prose poems handle this perfectly because they do not need conventions; they do not obey the rules.
The prose poem game is play. We operate according to the conventions of play: no one can lose, no one can win. You write. I steal. I write. You steal. This is collaboration: working together (a co-labour). Together, we construct a poetry machine, a story machine, sentences and fragments and images and ideas.
No time for corrections, no time for second thoughts, write it out, press ‘send’.
Jen Crawford, University of Canberra
I’ve often been troubled by the question of how to end a poem. I suspect that the desire to turn can at times be a turning away from a poem’s embedded energies before they’ve fully emerged or been recognised. There are gestures that reliably offer the relief of a sense of ending—the pause to accumulate energy for the final blossoming of an image, the last squeeze of surprise—but what’s reliability in a poem? Sometimes the turn ends a discomfort of content, form or process, or truncates engagement with the unfamiliar. Sometimes relief simply signals a return to known moves.
Working in and amongst prose poetry, as part of this project, has me thinking again about endings. In a lineated poem, the breaking of the line for the space of the page can offer an encounter with ‘surrounding silence’, as Mallarme noted, or with the dense trace of the printer’s block (see Caren Florance, 7). White space can slow the poem down or speed it up, as Mallarme knew, yet in conventional verse shapes it can be hard to avoid an additive effect: a column of figures leads one inexorably to the sum, the product. But in reading the prose poem, one slides across the page, rather than tripping down it. The approach to the final words has a different feel, a different momentum, fast and slow. We lose the tallying moment of the linebreak—one less prop to lean on as the curtains close.
‘You just go on your nerve,’ said Frank O’Hara, discarding guff. So what’s the nerve-map of the prose-poem? Ron Silliman describes poetic form moving ‘into the interiors of prose’ (395). Rosmarie Waldrop writes about needing to ‘move the vacancy and the mismatch [between sentence and line] from the margin inward,’ where she must ‘cultivate the cuts, discontinuities, ruptures, cracks, fissures, holes, hitches, snags, leaps, shifts of reference, and emptiness inside the semantic dimension. Inside the sentence’ (262).
The turn is dispersed, recirculated through the poem’s body. The engagement with the outside, with the non-poem loses its insistent visibility. The line’s breathtaking encounter with its negative becomes instead a fleeting incident of chance, or at least, of what one does not attempt to control, the margin’s skin humming almost imperceptibly across its full span at once. Inside we are in the terrain of the felt senses—proprioception, thermoception, mechanoreception—with their polyrhythms and unlit precisions. No more 4/4, no more pedestals.
This shape could suggest a formal solipsism (all interior, all the time) but form and content still reach out, riding the tracks of the ‘big’ prose forms—fiction, the essay, reportage—taking on their scope and momentum, taking in the density of contemporary experience—then letting it go.
In a recent essay for Poetry New Zealand, Janet Newman proposes abandonment as the axis along which a prose poem may be defined: ‘prose poetry achieves the effects of poetry by abandoning aspects of prose. … The fewer abandonments, the more a work will be like prose; the more abandonments, the more it will resemble poetry.’ But the axis could be flipped—and abandonment is release as well as departure. Margin release. In this we see how open a body really is. That skin surface is utterly yielding; let go and letting go.
Owen Bullock, University of Canberra
Before becoming involved in the Prose Poetry Project my writing of prose poems, apart from an occasional effort, was restricted to haibun. However, this is, arguably, an important form of prose poetry. It intersperses terse prose with haiku. The minimum requirement is one paragraph of prose (which might be as little as a single sentence) and one haiku. There is no maximum and Basho, who originated the form as a series of travel sketches, wrote book-length haibun. The prose in haibun is also subject to diverse stylistic variants, differing in the density of poetic language or rhythm, some authors even including lineated sections. Whilst lineation seems to me a defining feature of poetry and its aesthetic, what constitutes a line (or its absence) might, in practise, be troubled in prose poetry just as well as in poetry. The important technique of enjambment might be said to be absent from prose poetry, but perhaps it simply takes a more radical form with a sense of the conflating of ideas between phrases that is both unexpected and profitable.
Another guide for me lies in the very poetic prose of certain novelists. One day in a library, I read about half a book by a famous poet. Frustrated at the lack of aesthetic satisfaction in the work, I picked up a Janet Frame novel and felt that I encountered more ‘poetry’ in half a page of her ‘prose’. Samuel Beckett’s novels, especially The Unnameable, have the same effect on me. So distinctions are arbitrary and always, I think, something to wrestle with.
Even in performance the grey areas endure. An audience member at our prose poetry panel during the Poetry on the Move festival made the comment that as soon as a prose poem was read aloud it became lineated by the poet’s choice of pauses, which also re-invigorates the classic question of the interplay between language and speech, langue and parole. One realises, too, that the line breaks in lineated poems are sometimes lost when poets read their work aloud with a lack of emphasis on the line.
I like to work in what I call ‘response mode’ so that most of my contributions to the Prose Poetry Project take the form of reactions to poems by colleagues. The trigger might be a concept, but more often it’s been a phrase which delighted me and, occasionally, a single word. I’ve also looked outside our project and been inspired by poets such as David Brooks, Ania Walwicz and Alan Loney. I’m exploring what a prose poem might be, resisting the temptation to settle on any particular form. I’ve used long lines which can be turned over arbitrarily and others which stop short of the right hand margin, so that whether or not all the lines are lineated is undecidable. I’m trying to see what can be gleaned from forms of prose as well as hybridising forms and styles of prose poems, now and then offering a haibun to highlight questions of form.
Paul Munden, University of Canberra
I have a particular interest in how poems can elude people’s resistance to poetry, getting under the radar, so to speak, and the prose poem—visually at least a small block of prose—seems to represent a useful strategy in this respect. A simple block of prose is less daunting to the reader. And yet, as a writer who spends a lot of time deliberating over line breaks, I find that the prose poem presents a challenge. Stopping myself breaking lines, and relying on the effects of that, is difficult, and I have found writing at speed to be part of the solution.
Linda Black, writing in Magma, comments: the prose poem encourages thoughts to be continuous, to twist and turn, hold themselves up short, or open out into a broader perspective, sometimes travelling at great speed.’ (Black 2012: 2)
It is interesting that ‘to twist and turn’ should be considered a prose poem feature, poetry’s more established turns, in the form of line breaks, having been eschewed. Of course, a block of prose does have line breaks, breaks that depend on the context in which the poem appears—the size of the page and the choice (or accident) of font. One might see one’s poem reproduced in someone else’s email, or in an anthology, and the line breaks are almost inevitably different, so one is constantly seeing new poems within the original. Perhaps that is what Black’s comment infers—that a particular fluidity of turns, possibly even different on repeat viewings, is evident in the prose poem.
At the same time, seemingly counter not only to this notion of flux but also the prose poem’s frequently cited identity as fragment, prose poems are characterised by their containment; a prose poem typically fits on a single page. Adrian Wanner states that the prose poem ‘is presented in a frame that invites the reader to regard the text as a poem’ (2003: 11). This would seem to undermine the notion of the poem in disguise, poetic form being replaced by the frame, poetry therefore still announcing itself as such. Cassandra Atherton’s comments about the iPhone (above) are interesting in this respect; the length of a prose poem often corresponds to the amount of text that fits on the iPhone screen. The iPhone doesn’t preserve line breaks; it frames.
When designer Caren Florance typeset a series of prose poem chapbooks, Pegs, Jars, Keys, Gaps, Nets (2015) the frame was accentuated: peg poems hang from the top of the page, jars sit on the bottom, keys form a horizontal bar towards the central margin. With gaps and nets, however, space is accentuated as much as the block of prose: in Nets the concept of the framed block of prose is completely and brilliantly undermined, with the text of each poem strung along in one continuous line across successive pages.
It would seem then that some of the prose poem’s so-called attributes are contradictory: fragment and containment; twists and turns within unlineated form. And if poetic framing is emphasised, that is once again perhaps to make life difficult for the reader, to establish the prose poem as something requiring a specialist knowledge in those who encounter it. In the Keys poems, however, the framing is intended to equip the reader with a pre-verbal grasp of entering the individual poem’s world. A key is not an unintelligible formal construct; it is a way of getting in. It is the same with Jars: let’s see what we can find inside...
The poets: Cassandra Atherton, Owen Bullock, Anne Caldwell, Monica Carroll, Oliver Comins, Jen Crawford, Lucy Dougan, Carrie Etter, Ross Gibson, Paul Hetherington, Penelope Layland, Nigel McLoughlin, Andrew Melrose, Paul Munden, Julian Stannard, Shane Strange, Jordan Williams, Jen Webb.
[i] From a conversation with prose poet Paul Hetherington.
[ii] ‘Language has two axes, the syntagmatic or “horizontal” axis and the paradigmatic or “vertical” axis.’ (Anthony Easthope, 1983, Poetry as Discourse, London and New York: Routledge; p.36.) Meaning is crafted along the syntagmatic chain; the paradigmatic chain provides associative possibilities we can slot in to the syntagmatic chain to create, or change, that meaning. It’s all quite mechanical, really.
[iii] Writes literary scientist A J Greimas 1971 ‘Narrative Grammar: Units and Levels’, MLN 86.6 (December): 793–806. An énoncé is the thing that is uttered; an enunciation is the act of uttering. We need both to make a sentence; to make a story.
Black, Linda 2012 ‘Begin with a Hook’, Magma 54
Lloyd, Rosemary (ed.) 2005 The Cambridge Companion to Baudelaire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Florance, Caren 2015 ‘Retinal persistence: Performing the text.’ Writing the Ghost Train: Rewriting, Remaking, Rediscovering Papers – The Refereed Proceedings of the 20th Conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs, 2015, Melbourne Australia
Mallarme, Stephane 1995 Preface to ‘A Throw of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance’ trans. Mary Ann Caws, in Jerome Rothenberg & Pierre Joris (eds) Poems for the Millennium V1, Berkeley: University of California Press
Mckinney, Meredith 2016 ‘Meredith Mckinney on Sei Shonagon’s Masterpiece’, Kyoto Journal 67, 2007. http://www.kyotojournal.org/the-journal/in-translation/on-translating-a-classic/ (accessed Feb 4,)
Newman, Janet 2015 ‘Prose Poetry: A Series of Abandonments.’ Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2. November
Roberts, Mark 2013 ‘Spineless Wonder announces The joanne burns Award’, Rochford Street Review, 1 June 1, http://rochfordstreetreview.com/tag/writing/ (accessed Feb 4, 2016)
Shapcott, Thomas 2002 ‘Letter to the Editor’ in TEXT: The Journal of the Australian Association of Writing Programs, 6 (2), http://www.textjournal.com.au/oct02/letters.htm (accessed Feb 9, 2016)
Skinner, Jeffrey 2010 ‘The Ocean Outside the Door: A Few Transformations Brought to You By the Prose Poem Laboratory’ in Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek (eds) The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice, Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press
Waldrop, Rosmarie 2005 ‘Why Do I Write Prose Poems When My True Love Is Verse’. Dissonance (if you are interested), Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press
Wanner, Adrian 2003 Russian Minimalism: From the Prose Poem to the Anti-Story, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press
Wright, Ed 2012 Review of Michael Byrne (ed.) The Indigo Book of Australian Prose Poems, in Mascara Literary Review (online) http://mascarareview.com/ed-wright-reviews-the-indigo-book-of-australian-prose-poems-ed-michael-byrne/
Young, Gary 2010 ‘The Unbroken Line’ in Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek (eds)The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice, Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press