Thursday, July 15, 2010

In Which I Briefly Consider Becoming a Prose Poet

For those of you who write prose poetry, there's a great sounding contest deadline (July 31) you're about to miss--no entry fee! Go here and scroll down to this part of the White Pines Press website for more details.

I never write prose poems, but I found myself intrigued by the idea of transforming my poems into prose poems by taking all the line breaks out. I even took one of my poems and removed the line breaks, just to see what it looked like.

Let me put in a disclaimer here. I wouldn't have spent two seconds thinking about this if there had been an entry fee.

I spent some time thinking about my poems, thinking about which ones might transform well into poems, and trying to make sure they would go together. I fully planned to create a manuscript by Monday.

I thought it might be an interesting experiment, much the way that creating a formalist manuscript was when I did that a few years ago when Steel Toe Books wanted to see formalist manuscripts. I thought that I might experiment a bit more with line breaks.

In fact, I make my poetry students do something similar to the process that I was considering; I wrote about that in this post from February of 2009.

So, I was all set for this short burst of activity. But then, I woke up yesterday morning with a sense of despair about it. I thought, what if my manuscript gets accepted and these poems are forced to spend their lives in prose poem form? Worse, what if I become really successful (whatever that means) as a prose poet and have to continue to write that way? I'll wait just a moment for your laughing to subside.

I love the prose poem form. It's not about that. But for me, I don't want to give up the power that the construction of the line gives me. So, I decided not to waste my precious time by transforming my work into prose poems.

Something about that noodling on Tuesday must have inspired me. Later yesterday morning, I looked at my "Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site" manuscript and even though I said I wasn't going to do this until November, I spent some time deciding which poems were weak, and which poems might work better in the manuscript.

It was a nice way to spend part of my birthday: looking at poems, strengthening my manuscript. Earlier in the day, I wrote a poem too, inspired by the comment my spouse made on Tuesday. My spouse said he had never seen me eat a plum, so he didn't know if I liked them or not. I thought about 22 years of marriage (5 years of friendship and dating before that), foods eaten and not eaten: since 1983, could I really have never eaten a plum inside of his line of vision? I thought of the William Carlos Williams poem about those plums in the refrigerator that were so sweet and cold. I wrote the kind of workaday poem that doesn't take my breath away, doesn't inspire me to gasp and say "Wow! I wrote that??!!," but instead the kind of low-key poem that captures an aspect of dailiness.

That last sentence makes me glad I'm not trying to make a living by writing literary theory or critical analysis of literature. I have that idea on the brain because today is the birthday of Jacques Derrida. Ah, the interesting turns of critical theory that occurred in the last part of the twentieth century, partly due to his writings. English departments became a more interesting place because of him. Of course, some will say that he helped bring down our noble profession, making the English major more muddled.

As for me, I'm casting blame on the corporations. Some time during my time in undergraduate school and graduate school (the 1980's, in short), we shifted our vision and began to insist on the undergraduate school as some sort of job training session. Blhh. Give me deconstruction any day. It's better than turning all our English departments into centers where we teach people how to write business letters and memos.

Sure, we can do that. We've always been a service discipline, to some extent. But we should also be a place where people wrestle with whether or not to break their poems into lines or to decide on a prose poem form, where people decide whether or not a sonnet form best accomplishes what they're trying to do or whether or not they'd better write a full-blown essay.

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