Saturday, February 5, 2022

in defence of prose poems: émilie kneifel and rob mclennan in conversation

 folio : short takes on the prose poem




émilie kneifel: dear rob,

we are gathered here today to talk about prose poems. i have been waiting about, culling the thoughts that catch in my thought net, lifting them out of the water. i've been waiting for a good day, but my body is tired. i am chronically ill; i don't know if you knew that. that is where i want to start.

or no. here. last month, i began to learn how to break a line; not properly, but (or the hope was) intuitively. i broke and cracked, became fond of the ribs. but i also understood this (for now).

prosepos, for me, are working, trying, to slice closer to the brain rhythm, body rhythm. broken poems are touched, ofc, but more architectural. little sculptures. the end goal isn't exclusively visceral. which isn't bad! ofc not. there is maybe even more opportunity there. still, it feels more like a way to scaffold out. (i think? i think?). and because of my body, because of where i am trying to edit toward, prosepo often is it for me. i'm sprinting through the dunes and this is how i get there. frantic. the cloud is collapsing and i only have so much time. tell me about time?

rob mclennan: I didn’t know about your chronic illness. I am sorry to hear that.

And what is time, currently? We’ve been on lock down for one hundred-plus days. Perhaps one hundred and thirty, at this point. I stopped counting some time ago.

My entry into the prose poem emerged from a different direction: more than a decade ago I was increasingly concerned that I had become too reliant on the line-break. I didn’t want my use of the line-break to begin to repeat, and turn my continued work into self-repetition self-parody. So, I thought: how might my poems shift once I no longer have that go-to? What if I have no line breaks? I spent a few years in quiet study, absorbing how different poets utilized the prose poem as well as the lyric sentence. Once I have a handle on this, I told myself, I’ll push myself to attempt a manuscript of prose poems.

Through my reading, I noticed multiple poets doing work that excited me, and others, not so much. What appeals to me is the musicality of the line: a poet such as the late American poet Russell Edson (1935-2014), for example, is said to be the Father of the American Prose Poem, but for the life of me, I can’t see why. There’s no music in it. The poets I’ve seen doing really interesting work in the prose poem/poetic sentence over the years would include Lisa Robertson, Daphne Marlatt, Noah Eli Gordon, Nicole Markotić, Robert Kroetsch, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Mary Ruefle, Fred Wah, Sarah Burgoyne, Rosmarie Waldrop, Sarah Manguso, Sarah Mangold, Claudia Rankine, Meredith Quartermain, Sina Queyras, Andrea Rexilius, Phil Hall, Barry McKinnon, Cole Swensen, Eric Baus, Richard Froude and C.D. Wright, etcetera. In 2010, I was gifted a hand-me-down copy of the anthology Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France (Providence RI: Burning Deck, 2000), a collection edited and translated by Norma Cole that changed the way I saw the prose poem and lyric sentence. It really felt as a jumping-off point for what I ended up doing.

There was a long stretch that my poetry, and even my short fiction, felt really propelled by the examples in that anthology—I really latched on to the work of Emmanuel Hocquard, picking up a number of his subsequent books in translation—as well as by the work of American poets Amelia Martens and Sawako Nakayasu. All I had to do was pick up work by any of those authors, and I would be immediately thinking in those direction.

You open our correspondence with the suggestion that prose poems require defending, “in defence of prose poems.” My question is: from whom are we defending prose poems?

ék: oh no! the drama begins. well, in may, you sent me a blog post about the Touch the Donkey’s 25th issue, some of it responding to my work in the issue specifically. but the blogger begins, “A lot of poems these days as [sic] lineless blocks and those with lines that break for no reason, as if their authors take their cues from pictures, which is fine, we’re a visual culture.” i emailed you saying, “would love to chat with you about this more, whenever,” because i am very resistant to the implication that anything i’ve ever made was done without intention. everything i do is wrung as tightly as possible – i have no choice; my mind insists. and the prosepo form specifically has, and continues to feel, intuitively correct. in other words, it is, in fact, deeply intentional. it is my very best horse.

i made the subject line “in defence of prose poems” to poke at the ultimately irrelevant inciting comment for this conversation, and, of course, my own ego. a defence of the prose poem is a ridiculous task, the prose poem is a ridiculous thing to want to care for, and yet i do. i do want to try developing a working vocabulary for this form’s intuition, for what is not at all random but which is maybe always shifting under/just ahead of articulation. but i also want to keep the spirit of how ridiculous. how pompous a jest, this task. huzzah, etc. i care about this beast, and i understand that i am a fool.  

i asked you about time because, as i wrote to you in a paper letter, an idea i have for why-prose-poems more generally, for not-just-me, is time. i’m thinking about the circumstances under which art is even possible. how lack of time, money, room, lack of body, brain, have meant that so many people have not gotten this very chance. to do such a frivolous thing as stage a defence of a form. 

i wonder. if maybe, at its base, the prose po is a practical form. it can be jotted. it allows. a sentence lets you push through it like dough. i asked you about time because i thought, before knowing, that maybe part of your shift into prose poems was the fact of your wonderful domestic life, where maybe there is less time/space/etc to tinker with breaking – and i don’t at all mean to imply that this is a loss, but a kind of hectic abundance.

rm: Well, intention is a curious thing, isn’t it? Simply because one has such doesn’t mean everyone will know or even know how to look for such. It all falls to context and attention, certainly, and seeing enough of a particular writer’s work and living within it long enough to start catching the cues. It is the biggest challenge of working on reviews: what is this particular writer attempting to do? What sits on the page might appear easy enough to discern, but the whats and the whys and the wherefores often take some time. Why is that line-break there? What is that comma doing?

And the defense of any art could be argued as ridiculous; but isn’t that precisely the point? Arguments of form are worthy engagements, and the bulk of essays by poets for hundreds of years could easily fall into this exact designation. I’ve long considered writing to exist in the realm of study: I read and sketch out notes and edit, carve, scrape and daydream, all in the service of attempting to better understand how writing is constructed. The by-product of such study is, of course, the writing that we in fact compose, as well as a slightly deeper comprehension—inch by impossible inch—of the world in which we live (while attempting to expand the scope of that view, also). This might all seem simple-minded, and other days I consider writing itself as a means-to-an-end of comprehending the world, but it all wraps up in the same range of “deep study.” Some have argued the importane of art is exactly because it lacks practical importance (the difference between “art” and “craft” being “function”), but I would argue that comprehending language and communication, and engaging the skills to comprehend and engage with the larger world essential, ongoing tasks as worthy of study as any science.

I recall similar conversations threading through Canadian literature some twenty years ago, arguing for the importance of the sonnet. They were interesting, engaging conversations, despite my lack of interest in the sonnet form; I think at the point those conversations were happening, I was deeply engaged in the English language ghazal, a form considered the “anti-sonnet,” taking my influences and cues from such poets as John Thompson, Phyllis Webb, Andy Weaver, Cole Swensen, Patrick Lane and Matthew Holmes.

For years now, the first chaotic thoughts on any potential manuscript I’m attempting to write are around “shape” – what kind of poem-shape do I wish to engage? Prose poems? The sentence? Small blocks of text? The utaniki? The fragment? Form is a factor in how I first think about composition, from a single poem, a series of poems and/or a manuscript. And I’m fascinated with the prose form, in part, because I see so few examples that I really like, with many that attempt it without doing much interesting. And still, as you suggest, the prose form isn’t exactly in favour, at least not in Canada. And I don’t quite know why.

You mention the prose poem being a practical form, and I’m not sure I agree with that. I don’t see it as any more or less practical than any other form. It reminds me of handing out random “poem” pamplets to acquaintances in pubs when I was younger, and the responses I received to the poems, finally realizing that if a non-poetry reader sees a poem and gets angry or frustrated, it is because they know how to read, and therefore, the poet must be at fault for their lack of immediate comprehension. The same doesn’t apply to visual art, I don’t think: there are art history classes, for example, that speak to the history of articulation and narrative through paintings, shifting into elements of alternate narratives and disjucture through other visual forms. Does anyone who has never seen a film simply watch one, not “get it,” and presume that the filmmaker is the one at fault? Writing doesn’t seem to be allowed that. The general public seems to prefer the filmic straightforward narrative of novels and non-fiction. Short stories are considered, and poetry is tolerated, although seen as something magical, somehow, and even impossible. One might think the most practical of forms is ‘flash fiction,’ a sibling form to the prose poem, but that isn’t considered, I don’t think, much more than the prose poem. Why must we justify what it is that we love?

ek: hm, hm, hm, hm. that's a little song. i sometimes get so frustrated with the epistolary, how i can’t make little noises as the other person speaks, or ever hope to comment on everything they’ve written. that was always the difficulty i had with journaling as a kid, too. i want to cover everything. where to begin.

i feel resistant to this idea of intention; there’s a difference between missing the “actual” intention and the reviewer’s assertion that none existed (but never mind that event in specificity!). in my own so-called criticism, i’ve never really felt like i was trying to glean the author’s intentions, but rather to try to say “this is how it feels to know this work.” in the same way that i can know you as a friend but simply can’t know you as a brother, i think it’s fine that i can’t know the work the way the author does. but i still really believe in reading it knowing they *do* know their work, deeply. these words are looking at me going, “you know?” and so i will try.

maybe that ^ is just a projection of my own way of writing. i have been thinking lately a lot about secrets. it has been many months since i answered your last email, and i think my prose poem has become less frantic. i’m more interested in pigment. how to write something that is visible, tangibly so, but also completely mine, completely projectable-upon.

how are you fitting secrets into your shapes?

rm: Well, conversations around “intent” feel very much in line with faux-academics: “What did the author INTEND when they wrote this?” Anyone who asks this question is missing the point. Who cares what the author intended? What is the work doing, or saying? What does the work play with? What is the author working with or from or against and how well are they doing it? Might as well just ask what clothes I’m wearing while I work if you’re to ask about intent. But that’s just my take.

The conversation around “intent” suggests literary writing is a kind of secret code or handshake that needs to be deciephered, that only the “in crowd” will get. I think it’s a way of not only misunderstanding, but preventing more from attempting to engage with writing. This is the line of thinking that prevails when so many say things like “I don’t get poetry.”

My own reviews attempt to focus on “This is what I think this work is doing, or trying. And this is how well I think it is achieving that.” etcetera. There’s no point reviewing an apple as failing for not being an orange, for example. So much reviewing seems to focus on missing the entire point like that. I’ve seen far too many reviews over the years admonishing books of poetry for not doing what the reviewer thinks poetry should be doing, which is often the opposite of what the author of that particular work is actually striving for. How does one speak of writing?

I’ve never found I have the patience for journaling, either. I’ve started and abandoned multiple over the years, before simply not bothering. Those elements of life that I consider important enough to record fall into the writing, and the writing itself is a fine container for all of that. I would think writing a fine container for secrets as well, although I’m currently writing a number of mine out rather straight as creative non-fiction, so I can better understand and process them. Since early 2019, I’ve been engaged with numerous secrets I can’t fully reveal, including revelatoions about birth mother, birth father and numerous half-siblings, that have changed my perspective, and have been writing it out across these past two turbulent years. Another thread through the same project is the stretch of fifteen months of my father’s ALS before he died on May 1st of this year, and Christine’s ongoing health issues from across 2019 (including her stroke and meningitis, involving multiple hospital stays). Secrets need to emerge, however they do. And writing is a good place to hold them. It all depends on how you place them there, I suppose.

ek: what clothes are you wearing while you work?

rm: The same clothes I would wear during any other part of my awake-ness.

ek: sorry if that was out of line -- i guess i was just thinking about what you were saying about form, shapes, cloaking. what the poems are wearing, as it were. what does a prose poem wear?

rm: I’m very much someone who thinks less about what I wear, so I can focus my attention on other things. But I suppose the question should be sent your way, since you are already on the subject: what does a prose poem wear?

ek: in the same way that someone could look at a prose poem and say "she's just a slob," when the poem's retort might be, "i'm focusing my attention on other things."

so maybe that was the wrong question. let's get back to focus, maybe? what are the prose poems' "other things"?

rm: It is a curious question, and one I’m uncertain how to answer. For my purposes, the prose poem is constructed out of the building-blocks of sentences and phrases, allowing the narrative rush of momentum further and forward across fragments, pauses, halts and an acknowledgment of bumpy rhythms and collisions of words and meanings. Even my imprecisions require their own precisions: the right word in the right place. But not everyone approaches the prose poem in the same way, nor is everyone’s goals the same. How would you, then, respond to your own query?

ek: i think the prose poem is very particular about their living space. twisty glass bottles and thick paper boxes. i think they want very much to be a good listener-- not just to friends, but to wind too. but maybe wind is their friend.

which is to say i think the prose poem is actually extremely aesthetically minded, but maybe not in a way that is obvious. ornament of a body part rather than literal decoration. i keep coming back to the word practical, which you earlier didn't particularly connect to, but i think maybe practical means something else to me (which maybe has nothing to do with "meaning." maybe it's just the sound of the word). i just think there is such a thing as practical beauty. raw onion, caramelized. that's what the prose poem is to me. i think maybe it lets me forget i am even speaking in this kind language (this kind= human?).

i like what you say about imprecise precisions. i am a wringer (tighter&tighter edits), so i really like dropping all of that and forcing the thing to be as it was when it formed. will you tell me more about that? the right word/mistake?

rm: I am thinking about the listening, the beautiful mistakes, the collaboration between conscious and unconscious, which in itself feels akin to a point where the artist and the art itself meet. This is not simply a thing I craft or create, but something that emerges from the mass of ramblings, which often move in directions seemingly on their own.

I know a poet, a dear friend in Montreal, who wrote for years in the “carved diamond” (as she called it) form of the lyric, which occasionally ran the risk of her squeezing/writing the life out of her poems. Once she had a couple of books under her belt, her poems became a bit looser, a bit freer, and were better for it. One example that I heard during a poetry workshop I took during high school was the couplet that Ezra Pound ended up with, boiling down what had once been thirty lines. Leonard Cohen did same, composing eighty stanzas to get down to five or six.

I understood what the workshop facilitator was attempting to communicate: no extraneous words or movement, but there is an argument, also, that it can be taken too far. Why not just boil down Pound’s infamous couplet down to “station”? Or “the”? For whatever was gained by excising those twenty-eight lines, what had the poem left behind? Perhaps he was just wordy and blathering, and the important part of the poem existed in that final couplet. It’s entirely possible.

Your response gives me the sense that the prose poem, how you work it and carve it, might be your perfect form. Your perfect thinking form. And you’re lucky to have realized it so early on. And the foundation of fine-tuning your workings of the form can easily be a lifelong exploration. Have you read Etel Adnan? Have I asked this before? I might have.

I’m fine with a particular element of imprecision. I’m not required to fully articulate every moment and movement of what it is I’m working on, but I do have to trust it. I have to allow for what the poem requires, and allow the space for the reader to be able to enter into the piece. Control is a fallacy, after all. You can drive yourself mad working that angle. One can only direct.

Writing is good. Tightening is good. I can spend days or weeks or even months scratching out words, reworking sentences, moving the tiniest bits around. And the only way to know when to stop comes with experience. But you already know that.

ek: “a poet, a dear friend in montreal,” strange, sounds an awful lot like me... but anyway! i like the idea of a carved diamond (though i have to admit that my tightening feels more like boiling jam (a hope for distillation rather than removal?)). i have spent so much time thinking about how much of my diamonds ought to be cut. my work sometimes bleed into "essays," so i often feel rickety about knowing what a thing ought to be. i do try to ask, but as any good parent knows, i'm bound to mess up at least sometimes.

can we go back to secrets? i can't stop writing poems that stand like a lockbox, closer and closer to blunt objects. so in the room but so mine. but i'd like to know more about your own straightforward processing, if you're up for it.

or whatever! tell me what you've been learning from this week.

rm: Ha! Sounds like you, perhaps, but not you.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been working poems as co-prompts with Denver poet Julie Carr. I admire the ways in which she works sentences, rhythm and narrative. She wrote a poem, and sent it to me, suggesting I respond with a poem that includes some of her lines/words. I wrote a poem and sent it along, from which she composed a further poem that utilized some of my lines/phrases. Only this morning I received her fourth poem, and composed my same.

It is a curious project. Not a collaboration, per se, but a co-prompt. We’re each composing extended threads that, well, co-mingle, I suppose. I’m eager to see how far this might continue and where it might go.

What pare of my processing do you wish to know? I’m curious about your locked boxes. Can you expand on that?

ek: that sounds wonderful, about julie. slow smelting.

hm, let’s see. i think, if we're to talk about writing-as-processing, i'm the ballerina turning in the box while it's closed. or maybe it's just: i don't know how to handle literal audience. the fact that i have no control over who sees a thing or what they will do with it. i suppose i wonder how you work with that knowledge. and i don't mean so much another artist's interpretation so much as a family member's, or a friend's. this isn't a very whimsical worry, but also i find it's becoming more and more salient. how do you deal with that?

rm: Well, it is what it is, honestly. If you believe in the work, they either get it or they don’t. I’ve had the benefit, in certain ways, of family who don’t respond to any of it, which seems far easier than the possibility of their comments. I learned many years ago that as long as they support what you do, even abstractly, it doesn’t matter if they ever actually engage with the work. Not everyone is interested.

When I first started attempting open sets back in the early 1990s, part of what assisted my own hesitations about presenting work was in realizing that no matter how badly you think it might go, everyone is going to be polite enough. No one is ever going to come at you. If they think the work is terrible, the worst they’ll do is politely clap and possibly ignore you. So then: why not take that space to take risk and be incredible? Even if it doesn’t work, it allows another array of tools with which to attempt the next piece, and the piece after that.

ek: that all makes sense. i guess i meant it more in the sense of writing about the people in your life, if or how they react to that fact. with regards to risk-taking, i don't think i feel too much fear of failure. i don't really believe it exists, which is maybe another tangent.

rm: Fair enough. I think a certain amount of it depends on the individual. My ex-wife said I had no business including her in a poem, but she sits on the extreme end of that idea, I’m sure. I would think most folk would be okay with such. Depending on what you are talking about, I suppose. What is the piece attempting to explore or portray? I think if one is working through certain difficulties within the boundaries of writing, it can become rather uncomfortable for some folk included in those pieces, but in the long run, it is all about attempting to come to a place of better comprehension, right? That can only be good. Or does that sound naïve?

ek: no, it’s nice to hear your thoughts on this. i just wish everyone could know how much i love them, even if i’m working through something in writing! it’s so separate. which is why the locked boxes have been nice. the turning can happen without any misconstruing, because they’re thick thick and mostly image-based. okay, new thing i’d like to ask you about: where are you going looking lately? what keeps you curious?

rm: Hah. There’s so much still to do, and see, and learn! Given how active I am as a reviewer, books land in my mailbox daily, if you can imagine it. And still, the list of books I need to separately order for the sake of my own reading and writing interest constantly grows. There are literally dozens of writers I attempt to keep track of, eager to see what they might do next. What have they done next?

Really, so much of my writing exists simultaneously as journey and destination; that exploration of writing and language and thought. One step, and then another step. There are so many things my writing hasn’t yet accomplished that I can see, there, just over the horizon. I only need to reach it.




émilie kneifel, reviews editor at the puritan, friend of a friend, in bed with their palms up. @emiliekneifel

rob mclennan’s latest is the prose poem collection, the book of smaller (University of Calgary Press, 2022). You may order a copy whenever you wish.

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