Monday, March 28, 2022

folio : twenty-eight short takes on the prose poem:




Mixed Signals : A Discussion Between Jonathan Ball and ryan fitzpatrick : Derek Beaulieu : Sarah Burgoyne : Michael e. Casteels : Sharmila Cohen : Conyer Clayton : S. Brook Corfman : Carrie Etter : Kate Feld : Howie Good : MC Hyland : Eve Joseph : emilie kniefel : Adam Lawrence : Nice Furniture, Idiot: Some Wandering Thoughts on the Prose Poem : Sara Lefsyk : Sylvia Legris : Amelia Martens : rob mclennan : in defence of prose poems : émilie kneifel and rob mclennan in conversation : Sawako Nakayasu : Evan Nicholls : Benjamin Niespodziany : Sandra Ridley : Ian Seed : Marcus Slease : Edward Smallfield : Lydia Unsworth : Lindsey Webb : lovingly edited and compiled by rob mclennan,


rob mclennan : short takes on the prose poem

  folio : short takes on the prose poem





I spent my twenties and into my thirties engaged in poems that relied on the visual and breath pause and stagger of the line-break, as my compositional unit evolved from and through the single poem to the chapbook to the full-length manuscript. My poems gathered into suites and sequences, one piece building directly upon another. I engaged with the form of the serial/long poem, centred at first on more Canadian traditions, extending my reading and research backwards through TISH to Black Mountain, and the San Francisco Renaissance. Form is a moving target, after all, and eventually, moving through my thirties and into my forties, I became interested in the prose poem sentence and how it flows; just as much through breath as through water.

My attentions around my sense of the prose poem originally gathered around the work of poets such as Robert Kroetsch and Nicole Markotić, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, Sylvia Legris and Lisa Roberson, Margaret Christakos and George Bowering. I studied Andrew Suknaski’s “loping, coyote lines” and rode them off the ends of John Newlove’s horizon. I fell deep into every other Anne Carson collection. I listened to the rhythms of Robert Creeley, and his single threads built out of staggered, staccato fragments. I waded through William Carlos Williams, but found clearer reception via Jack Spicer. I revelled in Richard Brautigan’s trout streams. Utilizing a loose framework of form, my own sense of the lyric weaves together threads of domestic, literature, politics, social media, family interactions and simply whatever elements might strike my attention into something that blends into a particular kind of straight line; my poems explore a lyric kind of poem-essay, a “beautiful thinking” propelled by the examples of poets such as Phil Hall, Erín Moure and Barry McKinnon. It is through the form of the poem that I work to figure out how this (gesticulates wildly) all works.

Around the spring or early summer of 2010, Toronto poets Stephen Cain and Sharon Harris gifted me a copy of Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France (Burning Deck, 2000), an anthology edited and translated by American poet Norma Cole. This was a book that would, in fact, become not only a particular revelation, but one that fueled an enormous shift. Suspecting that my work had begun to lean too hard on the line break, the rhythm and breath of those visual staggers, I considered the prose poem: what might happen if I were to work a full manuscript without a single line break? Through this, my attentions drifted towards American poets such as Rosmarie Waldrop and Anna Gurton-Wachter, Cole Swensen and Pattie McCarthy, Julie Carr and Lorine Niedecker, Amelia Martens and Sawako Nakayasu, the latter two who, through the examples of their published work, directly prompted the original composition of what became the poetry collection the book of smaller (University of Calgary Press, 2022). Waldrop has since emerged as one of my most important poets, and I’ve always at least two or three of her titles in arm’s reach of my desk.

I’ve somehow managed to exclusively work within the frame of the sentence, if not necessarily through the exclusive prose block, since. The follow-up to the book of smaller (a collection composed across the length and breadth of 2017) was “Book of Magazine Verse,” a manuscript which led, immediately and directly, into “the book of sentences,” a collection I put the final touches upon around Christmas, before it might leave the bounds of our house. Concurrent to “Book of Magazine Verse,” thanks to a prompt via Anna Gurton-Wachter’s work, I spent six week composing the chapbook-length prose sequence snow day (above/ground press, 2018), a poem that became the anchor of an eventual full-length manuscript of the same name. As Michael Ondaatje paraphrased Jack Spicer: The poems can no better live on their own as can we.

More recently, I’ve been reading and rereading Etel Adnan, Valzhyna Mort and Caroline Knox. I’ve discovered the work of Johannes Göransson and Benjamin Niespodziany. While the poems below emerge from the manuscript “the book of sentences,” I’ve been, since January, feeling out poems in a manuscript so-far titled “Autobiography,” furthering a thread from that original prose poem turn. Or is that a tether?






Cataracts are not grammatically correct. We took the surgeon’s rewrites
into Stittsville, up the valley. Pembroke, shores. My vistas

mosaics of the dead and half-remembered.

To say: I could not see. A blur, of too much light; the light was brown. 

Rosmarie Waldrop: The flesh of a bird.

Surgeon, cool gel coats my eye. The order of sleep and the occasion
of the bright light. Creates a hole in space.

The facts of walking, talking. Should have brought a book.

This is an oversimplification. Preoccupations, bargain. What I could
not find in the dark.

With two hands: mature cataracts, filtered perceptions

amplified. Heart rate challenged every sentence written.
The nurse, a headscarf tartan, Clan MacLeod. How did you know?

The blood will bring forth flowers, stately in-fills. It carried

the motion. My surgeon’s edits, a break in linearity. Temperament.

cookie, juice. Further cookies for the road.
My usual fumbling way. The circulation system

of a streetscape I can see. Highway 17

does not believe in eloquence. Little chapters. A roadside Noah’s Ark.

We kept on driving. There were other bearings that required us.





Neither a short talk nor a short walk. Once upon a time.

This poem might take one hundred years.

The plain language of the earth. Our youngest monologues
the long grass, anticipating mowers. In lockdown, the world

is through this window.

A period, begins. This point of exclamation. 

I said, come out. To help determine rhythm. A jogger, passes.

To the subject of the phrase. Did Heisenberg compliment each morning
with a dab of milk or cream, or neither? Tea or coffee? This blend

of molecules and dust. I take my coffee, black.

Outside, slippers hold grammatical function. Gain a perfect edge.
With minimal cars, a sweeter music. The syntactic ambiguity of

the madman in the yard.

I let the line breaks, break. A hesitation, fragments. 

Morning meditations on poetics. Our panorama of apple blossoms,
cherry-coloured. Soon they’ll stain the windshield.

No wonder I can’t sleep.





Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his collection of prose poems, the book of smaller (University of Calgary Press, 2022), is available this spring. An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, periodicities: a journal of poetry and poetics and Touch the Donkey. He is editor of my (small press) writing day, and an editor/managing editor of many gendered mothers. In spring 2020, he won ‘best pandemic beard’ from Coach House Books via Twitter, of which he is extremely proud (and mentions constantly). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at


Sandra Ridley : short takes on the prose poem

  folio : short takes on the prose poem







What if we took the line breaks away from a poem, one full of all of its usual tricks, and condensed the text into a paragraph, would it be a prose poem? This poetic ‘form’ perplexes me. And more and more, I see definitions and boundaries as flux. Where do we set the margin on flux?

Does a definition come down to where a line needs to begin and end?

I don’t set out to write a prose poem.

The words will gather themselves if I gather myself together.

It’s true. I do think a text will shape itself. No need to sweet-talk or strong-arm a poem into a particular structure. It’s better to listen and let each poem become itself, from its first breath to last.

Spirit, espirit, spiritus.

Form is shaped by breathing. A blank space is a place to breathe. It’s part of a form. Or maybe form is created by breathlessness, or by held breath, or by breath taken away. Even marks of punctuation are hitches and catches for air.

A form is a feeling. For me, there is no reprieve with a line that wraps around. The textual density is suffocating. I feel anxious. There is no breathing until the break—







Sandra Ridley is the author of four books of poetry: Fallout, Post-Apothecary, The Counting House, and Silvija. This sequence here, “The Beasts of Simple Chace”, has been excerpted from a new manuscript, Vixen, forthcoming with Book*hug Press.



Sharmila Cohen : short takes on the prose poem

 folio : short takes on the prose poem








I see prose poetry as a liminal space between a visceral, intuitive density of meaning and a clear, accessible, straightforward structure. There are so many reasons why someone might choose such a form. For example, to tell a story with a unique idiolect that isn’t necessarily bound by plot. To depict a certain type of process with a familiar form, but foreign function. To place complex thoughts in an approachable forum. The poems included here come from a project that centers on a genderless unreliable narrator tasked with writing the universe into existence. I wanted a continuous structure to shore up the expansiveness of the content and help contain it. In this context, the consistency of form allowed the content more room to spread out, to get stranger, to take more leaps, while simultaneously feeling grounded and conversational. I wanted the speaker to feel very human and approachable, while also being otherworldly and almost godlike. For me, the prose poem enables opposing entities to come together.






The Narrator Invents Two Left Feet

Sometimes you just have to flesh it out. Diagram the movements on the page and hope they’ll turn into something. I charted out the paths of the great explorers, but someone in the future mistook the scale and thought they were dance steps. Now I have a society of movement. I guess it’s an effective replica, if not my original intention. It embodies the history of a smaller page. The new world was a very wrong waltz. And the people could settle there a while as long as their dance cards were full.




The Narrator Wanes Philosophical

I am selecting random words to describe myself. As an apogee moon, I am at the furthest point, simultaneously asserting myself and fading away in the distance. Like that old cliché of traveling the world to find yourself but getting lost instead. No, that’s wrong. Either way, you always end up where you began. Today I want a quick fix, an easy sense of accomplishment, so I’m just going to add a few more stars to the nightscape. Maybe a new constellation as an inside joke with the universe.

I’ve been working on my vocabulary. The problem is, if you learn too many languages at once, it’s way harder to keep track of all the words. More so if you made them all up. I don’t need a sophisticated lexicon to write pictures on the sky, but I appreciate the constant implication of metaphor.





Sharmila Cohen is an award-winning writer and translator. Her work has been featured in publications such as BOMB, Harpers, LitHub and Epiphany. In 2021, her English translation of The High-Rise Diver (Die Hochhausspringerin) by Julia von Lucadou was published by World Editions. She also co-founded Telephone Books, an interdisciplinary press dedicated to experimental translation. Originally from New York, Cohen moved to Berlin in 2011 as a Fulbright Scholar to complete a creative literary project.

Howie Good : short takes on the prose poem

 folio : short takes on the prose poem






A Small Note on Prose Poetry

I was in my late teens when I first started writing prose poetry. By then, I had read, though not necessarily understood, Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil. These books at least enlightened me to the fact that there existed writing with the stolid appearance of prose but the fluid logic of poetry. I certainly hadn’t encountered it in any of my high school or college English classes. 

As the range of my personal reading widened, I found further encouragement to pursue prose poetry by my discovery of contemporary poets who worked in the form. They included Robert Bly, Charles Simic, Russell Edson, Elizabeth Willis, Zbigniew Herbert, and James Tate. Reading their prose poems, I felt like I was receiving permission from respected elders to write however I wished.

And yet despite the prestige of these poets, prose poetry is still treated in many literary venues as a poor excuse for poetry. This makes it more, not less, attractive to someone with my dislike of hierarchies. Prose poetry occupies a liminal space between prose and poetry, which means it is unbound by prescriptive definitions of either. Consequently, every prose poem is an experiment, a kind of dare, a challenge to see new things or see old things in new ways.

Underlying the prose poem is a fundamental tension between its structure and its content. Structually, the poem resembles any other paragraph of prose, creating the impression that it will behave as prose typically does – move step by logical step from point A to point B and beyond. The content, meanwhile, resists such rigidity. Rather than use common transitional phrases to mark the way for readers, the prose poem proceeds by associative logic. Linear organization yields to disorienting juxtapositions, the kind that belongs in dreams.

It is my belief that by bending the traditional boundary between prose and poetry, the prose poem opens up space for new perceptions and meanings to enter. This is no small matter, not when the modern mass media are relentless in their efforts to colonize consciousness, constantly clamoring for our attention so as to pump us full of their patented idiocy and bullshit.

All poetry worthy of the name exists in opposition to the churn of mass culture – the rampant hucksterism, the fashionable  enthusiasms, the unthinking patriotism. But prose poetry, with its refusal to adjust to even literary convention, seems to me particularly well suited to stand against reactionary rules of all kinds. The prose poem exists to challenge and provoke and to offer a defiant middle finger to the established order.




Thoughts and Prayers

Small furry animals have crawled out of their holes for a look. Such sights! Smashed-in skulls and severed feet and angels covered in blood. Like a nasty drunk, God has been exceptionally belligerent of late. A cadaverous woman in blue scrubs who says her name is April asks, “On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the lowest, how severe is your pain?” Strangers on social media offer thoughts and prayers. Even then, the leaves on trees instantly wither as a burning airship passes overhead. My wife refuses a ride. We cling together just like the words in a poem.



The Sadness Will Last Forever

I was scarecrow thin and often cold and trembly. When I went out in my black beret and belted black raincoat, I might easily have been mistaken for an amateur spy. I would watch with mounting anxiety as the woods filled up with snow or the horizon burned from one end to the other. For years, my condition remained undiagnosed. But just because it now has a name doesn’t mean there is a proven treatment. A physician in rural Massachusetts has failed once again in his attempt to photograph the soul leaving the body at the moment of death.






Howie Good is the author of numerous poetry collections, including most recently of Gunmetal Sky (Thirty West Publishing) and Famous Long Ago (Laughing Ronin Press). His collection, Failed Haiku, co-winner of the 2021 Grey Book Press Chapbook Contest, is scheduled for publication in summer 2022.


Sylvia Legris : short takes on the prose poem

 folio : short takes on the prose poem






Call of the Wild? A Few Thoughts on Prose Poems

I’ve heard and read a couple of interviews with Rosmarie Waldrop in which she has spoken of prose poems as distressing the sentence (versus the stress of regular meter that might be employed in a lineated poem). “Distressed” as akin to anxiety, the uncertainty she ascribes to the open form of the prose poem, not knowing where it’s going to take her.

The allure of the prose poem lies in the bewilderment of the form itself. Many of my prose poems have fully justified margins that impose a box-like border around the text. Visually, these poems appear controlled, the text contained, trapped if you will, and stable within the confines of the unbudgeable margins.

When I say the form bewilders, I mean bewilder in the etymological sense of being led into the wilds. The appeal of the prose poem is that it can simultaneously be a structure of both constraint and disruption. The constraint of four walls inside which is housed the sometimes volatile energy of the text.

The challenge for me is how to give the text definition, how to shape it sonically, how to let the lines stretch their legs in this confined space. Without line breaks doing some of the work to create tension, anticipation, or rhythm, I try to “work” the line itself, controlling pacing, movement, and modulation with a rigorous deployment of punctuation, and by choosing language that is as historically and musically “loaded” as possible. I imagine the line as being like a tug-of-war rope with which you can control the tension by how much or how little slack you give it; fastidious attention to phraseology and punctuation finetunes the tempo and music of the line. My one cheat, my concession to lineation, is that I will, as with “A Skull Sectioned,” sometimes break lines between stanzas…in the open wild of the prose poem, you also have to trust your instincts.



Studies of an Ox’s Heart, c.1511–13
(after Leonardo daVinci)


The long incision. The incipient voyage from aortic arch to thoracic inlet. Small-particled is the corpuscled city. (Bustling opuscula.) A city of animal electricity. A lowing cycling mass. Calm the cowed heart. Still the browbeating heart. Cool the controversial hearthstone. Let the blade intervene where the divine intersects bovinity.


Pour wax into the gate of an ox’s heart. Close the small doors of the heart via a template of hardened wax, a temple of vital gases, water with grass seed suspension, glass blown through a cast of calcined gypsum, plaster of Santo Spirito. Spiritous dissection, blood-sooty vapors, the dense dance of the Renaissance counts down a Galenic pulse. Musculo vivicare. Transit the venous. Bypass the arterial. Underscore the two-part cantus firmus in heat and motion.


(The fixed heart burns slow, spurns fervor.)





A Skull Sectioned, c.1489
(after Leonardo da Vinci)

Each frail luminous globe takes flight...


Saw off the barbaric ice, the medieval glacial morbidity. 

Nip the postmortem mid-whiff ’midst cold slab, metal, the drifting snow of discover and unearth. Midwinter the cut-time.

Da capo, da capo. From the head a deceptive cadence. Trip the tempo’d trepanum, the singing bone saw, the ink drawn fantastic 

through ductus nasolacrimalis, through the paranasal sinuses, through a well-chosen cross-section of foramen mentale.

Then cut across the canalis mandibulae in the moments it takes to murmur a Miserere. Have mercy 

on the little city. The merciful cadaver. The bony cittadella.





“A Skull Sectioned, c. 1489'” by Sylvia Legris, from THE HIDEOUS HIDDEN, copyright ©2016 by Sylvia Legris. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.


'”Studies of an Ox’s Heart, c. 1511–13'” by Sylvia Legris, from THE HIDEOUS HIDDEN, copyright ©2016 by Sylvia Legris. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.




Sylvia Legris’ latest poetry collection is Garden Physic, recently published by New Directions; Granta Books will publish a UK edition of this collection in April 2022. Her previous works include The Hideous Hidden, Pneumatic Antiphonal, and Nerve Squall.


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