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
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?
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
This poem might take one hundred years.
The plain language of the earth. Our youngest monologues
the long grass, anticipating mowers. In lockdown,
is through this window.
A period, begins. This point of exclamation.
I said, come out. To help determine rhythm. A jogger,
To the subject of the phrase. Did Heisenberg compliment
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
With minimal cars, a sweeter music. The syntactic ambiguity
the madman in the yard.
I let the line breaks, break. A hesitation,
Morning meditations on poetics. Our panorama of apple
cherry-coloured. Soon they’ll stain the windshield.
No wonder I can’t sleep.
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 robmclennan.blogspot.com