A fan's notes
A Chicago press publishes a new guide to a neglected form.
If you were to try to pinpoint the moment a writer turned to prose poetry, you’d probably go for something rather simple like, “Got bored with formal poetry,” or “Started writing a short story and then just sort of stopped.”
You wouldn’t, in all likelihood, think of something like the story Andrew Michael Roberts tells in his essay, “Enchiladas for the Stolen Boys,” part of the surprising and engaging Field Guide to Prose Poetry (Rose Metal Press, $16.95). Roberts recounts his brother’s birthday dinner, at which the Portland-based poet tries to dodge the inevitable drunken outburst from the birthday boy by regaling him with anecdotes from his childhood. His brother asks Roberts if he remembers the time they “were stolen by that neighbor guy in a mask who stripped [them] naked, stuffed [them] into big suitcases, and tickled [them] with feathers.” Roberts doesn’t, but a couple of days later, he wakes up and writes the beautiful and harrowing prose poem “This Shunt in the Eye of the World,” which begins “And then there was the time the neighbor man in his gas mask stuffed us each in a suitcase and tickled our testicles with a peacock’s blind eye. God, his handsome hello. He wanted us buried.”
Like Roberts’s, the prose poem eschews line breaks for sentences, often appears as a lone paragraph and often borrows narrative from fiction and language tricks from poetry. Though obviously capable of great depth and power, because of its hybrid nature, the prose poem has never found true respect in the literary world and is often seen as a writer’s dalliance. Rose Metal Press co-founder Kathleen Rooney notes that in his introduction to Julia Story’s recent collection of prose poetry, poet Dan Chiasson tries to reclassify them, noting they lack “the unbelievably drained tones and attitudes of that anemic genre.”
“That was a pretty big shot across the bow,” Rooney says. “And it was completely bizarre. Here you had someone writing an introduction to a book of prose poetry and refusing to admit that’s what they were.”
Rooney says she was approached two years ago by editors Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek about putting together a book of essays on the prose poem. The press had just accepted a similar idea for another neglected form, the book that became last year’s The Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction.
What’s unique about the book, and what makes it interesting beyond an audience typically interested in poetry, are the 34 essays (each of which is followed by two prose poems by the author). Rather than asking the authors to write critically about the form, McDowell and Rzicznek asked each to explain what brought them to prose poetry.
“Dan and Gary were sort of attuned to the bias we spoke of,” Rooney says. “They didn’t want the essays to be very pedantic or didactic; they didn’t want to ask people to be lawyers.”
Some of the essays do dip into the critical, and just about every author in here namechecks the modern masters of the form: James Tate, Russell Edson and Charles Simic. Choosing to publish personal essays makes the book feel more alive than most any critical consideration. Pieces like Roberts’s give it something lacking in so many books about poetry: personality.
“Prose poetry is surprising; a lot of people don’t set out to be great prose poets,” she says. “There’s a freedom to the prose poem. It can be funny and sad, funny and serious. The hybridity of form leads to a hybridity of tone.”
Rose Metal celebrates the release of the Field Guide on Wednesday 28 at The Book Cellar.