WHY I WRITE PROSE POEMS
It started by accident. While I was finishing my MFA, I had a demanding full-time job, not a teaching assistantship, that left me little time or energy to write. So, out of desperation, I got up at 6 a.m. and wrote three pages as fast as I could. This usually took half an hour. Then I closed my notebook, showered, ate breakfast, and went to my job. After several days, IÕd go through the notebook and highlight anything that still interested me: images, word combinations, sentences, bits of narrative. These IÕd copy onto a clean page, writing from margin to margin. Sometimes while I was copying, I added new material. I donÕt know why I didnÕt use line breaks. Maybe because I took fragments from a page that had margins. The question of line breaks never occurred to me; maybe I suppressed it because I didnÕt think I had time to consider it. But there was something satisfying about producing a solid block of text, and above all, I was happy writing.
I had heard of prose poems before I started writing this way, but I wasnÕt setting out to write them. I was trying to find my way to some language or subject matter that I feared my internal editor would shut down if I paused to think about what I was writing.
Because I was enrolled in a poetry workshop, I handed in my prose poems. I am naturally shy, so just being in a workshop was a stretch. And a prose poem pretty much announced itself as different as soon as you looked at it. This is what some classmates said when they saw my prose poems:
I donÕt know what to say because I donÕt know how to talk about prose poems.
This poems looks like a coffin.
Just what is a prose poem?
This would be even more powerful in verse.
People usually got stuck on how a prose poem looked. Maybe I would have, too, if I hadnÕt been writing them. But still, I felt a little annoyed. Of course, the discussion would eventually move beyond this. And my professor would often write on my prose poems, I like this. Plenty of people had helpful and interesting things to say about my prose poems. But those initial comments got under my skin. IÕve never particularly felt like an underdog or set out to write something experimental or subversive for its own sake. I had figured out a way to keep writing when I feared I would stop. So I kept at it. One of my theories at the time was that if you do something long enough, you are bound to get better.
Luckily, my instructors helped by telling me who to read: Russell Edson (who I had read once as an undergraduate), Killarney Clary, Charles Simic, Gary Young. These are still some of my favorite writers. And of course, reading helped clear the way, showed me examples, and helped me figure things out. IÕve had two breakthrough moments in writing prose poems, which will probably sound very insignificant. But here they are. Reading Killarney ClaryÕs work helped me figure out that I could break a prose poem into paragraphs to pace it, sort of like how stanzas pace a poem in verse. Without reading Clary, I donÕt know how long it would have taken me to realize this. The second breakthrough moment happened only a few years ago, when my prose poems got shorter and more narrative, and my instructor Sharon Bryan suggested I use wider margins. Now IÕm writing much smaller paragraphs. Simply changing the margins transformed my shorter prose poems in a magical way.
Even though I eventually quit my demanding job, stopped my three-pages-a-day routine, and finished my MFA, I kept on writing prose poems. ThereÕs something about the form that I just love. For starters, I love that the prose poem invites the reader in. Readers are surrounded by prose every day: newspapers, recipes, instruction manuals, The Polar Express. These are all made of paragraphs, which generally donÕt intimidate. But just looking at a poem can make a reader wary. So the prose poem looks unassuming. Kind of regular. A reader could pick up one of my prose poems and not realize she should be on guard. By the time she realizes it isnÕt an interview with Princess Fergie in The LadiesÕ Home Journal, I hope sheÕs hooked. Or at least interested enough to keep on reading.
I like to play with sounds and repetition and toy with sentence structures, and tell a story through a string of images. For a while, I liked to tell a story and leave parts out. Could I do this in a poem in verse? Probably. But whatÕs interesting and fun about doing this in a prose poem is that the form—the paragraph—implies I am going to tell a story, deliver information, and then I donÕt tell the whole thing. I liked creating a disjointed feeling and using the prose poemÕs form to amplify that feeling of disconnection.
What I love most about the prose poem is what the sentence can do when it stands on its own as a unit of rhythm. I probably sounded geeky when I used to tell my students that I love playing with sentences. But I do. I like putting long complex sentences next to short ones. I like using fragments and exclamations and questions and one-word sentences. I like to use repetition of words, phrases, and sentence structures to create music in my prose poems. This I couldnÕt do in the same way in verse because line breaks would interrupt the music of the prose rhythms.
And finally, I love itÕs small, unassuming size. My prose poems tend to be about two hundred words or less and I love reading prose poems about that size. I love the little magazine paragraph, which published untitled paragraphs, I love the magazine Quick Fiction, I love the smaller size of SimicÕs book The World Does Not End. Right now, I still donÕt have time or energy to write. IÕm home with my one-year-old and four-year-old all day, every day, which turns out to be a much more demanding job than the one I had when I was working on my MFA. Now I work twelve-hour days most of the time, and most weekends, too. So itÕs even harder to find time to read or write, but a small paragraph? That I can certainly write.