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Wonders of the Field

OL: Rather than focus on defining or further delineating the genre, in Field Guide to the Prose Poem you’ve gathered together a whole variety of different takes, divergences, and asides. Considering how inclusive both your original vision and the finished book turned out to be, I wonder if there were any surprises about what didn’t appear, what concerns weren’t raised, or poems or progenitors surprisingly left out. I, for one, certainly expected to see Russel Edson’s name everywhere (though maybe not quite so much as I did) but I was surprised to find that nobody mentioned Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell — as exemplary a prose-poem hybrid as there ever was.

Dan: One surprise for me was the absence of some of the more crucial French prose poets. Baudelaire is in there, and we cover Bertrand in our introduction, but Rimbaud never gets serious attention, and the same goes for Max Jacob. I guess you can never cover it all but that was part of our point: this book is a door opening on a larger discussion of the form. If a reader out there doesn’t find an essay about their favorite poet or poem, then we urge them to write it, fill that gap, publish it somewhere.

Gary: Our goal, from the very beginning, was to encourage our contributors to take those asides, divergences, and different takes of which you speak. We envisioned the book as a kaleidoscopic overview of the current thinking behind the prose poem, but we also wanted our poets to be as personal as they could regarding their connection to the form. In this regard, I think a lot of our concerns were eventually covered by at least one poet in the book. The argument that I was surprised we didn’t see a lot of–and I think we were actually quite okay with its absence–was the prose poem vs short-short fiction. I know the importance of the genre distinction, but what we really wanted to see discussed in the book were issues of craft, influence, theory, definition, etc and not an argument, per se, of the prose poem’s validity as a genre or form.

Funny that you mention Edson’s many appearances. We actually ended up asking contributors to cut back their Edson references where it wasn’t absolutely necessary. So many people chose him as an influence, though it’s easy to see why. The man’s a force. I was a bit surprised that we didn’t see many references to Ashbery’s Three Poems or any of Bly’s collections of prose poems. And I was also really shocked that there weren’t a ton of nods to the French: Baudelaire, Jacob, Ponge, Rimbaud, etc. Of course, Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell…I seem to remember someone mentioning it, but the book went through so many edits that there’s a chance it got cut out. Still, one would think it’d appear more often. Overall, I found the range of prose poetry practitioners to be widely varied and inclusive of many of the most important names, and that’s why we included a “Further Reading” section in the back of the book: to help guide new readers to the form toward many of the names included in the anthology.

OL: A look through the contributors’ bios shows over half of them teaching at Midwestern universities. Coincidence? Or do you think there’s something going on in the Midwest with the American prosepoem these days. I’m thinking specifically about how Midwestern culture: less self-consciously pretentious than the buttoned-up East; friendlier, cornier; less utopian than the transcendental West Cost; more … well, as Gerry Lafemina has it, quirky? Or a poem infused with, (Lafemina quoting David Young) “the essential craziness and exuberant inventiveness that we take tot be the especially representative flavor of the genre”?

Dan: Interesting–you’re right but I hadn’t thought about it before. On one hand this Midwestern predominance comes from Gary and I asking many of our teachers and friends to write for the book; we’re from the Midwest and we’ve studied in the Midwest. It was William Matthews, I think, who once accused Midwesterners of a “desperate friendliness” (Matthews being a Midwesterner himself) and I do get a sense of this in the prose poem. What’s more inconspicuous than a Midwesterner (especially in the Midwest)? Maybe we and the prose poem compensate with this quirkiness you mention. I think it’s John Bradley (one of our contributors) who once mused that he began writing prose poems when he moved to flat, corn-rich lands of Northwestern Ohio, prose poems themselves resembling corn fields.

Gary: Since Dan and I both went to school in the Midwest (Ohio, Illinois, Michigan), most of our initial contributors were Midwesterners: Joe Bonomo, Amy Newman, David Shumate, John Bradley, Nancy Eimers, Bill Olsen, Gerry LaFemina, etc. I do, however, adore your metaphoric reach toward an answer to the predicament. I’ve never lived anywhere other than the Midwest, but I’ve visited the rest of the country, and I must say that the Midwestern attitude, the laid-back unpretentiousness that you mention can certainly be found in some of my favorite Midwestern poets (James Wright, for example) and I can also see that very same attitude present in many prose poems. The prose poem is certainly quirky; LaFemina has that, among many other things, right. I do think, though, that there are certainly many West Coast and East Coast varieties of the prose poem, too. I think of the West Coast prose poem when I think of Gary Young and Maxine Chernoff: unafraid of sentiment, unafraid of the sun, unafraid of the lapping waves, their havoc on the heart. I think of the East Coast prose poem when I think of Rosmarie Waldrop: ekphrasis, the heartbeat of the city, the gauche of high art, its language and culture.

OL: Certainly, you cover most of America. Had you at any stage considered soliciting work from English, Canadian, or Australian writers? And do you have a sense of whether prosepoem writing is also growing and expanding in the other-than-American world?

Dan: We thought about soliciting writers from outside the States, but ultimately decided not to. We had a huge wish list of contributors and had to stop somewhere. I personally have no sense of the prose poem outside of the American scene but because the American prose poem is descended from a global tradition (the French, the Chinese, etc) I think it’s fair to assume that it is thriving somehow in many if not all languages and cultures. I’d love to see a book about this subject: the emergence of the prose poem on a global scale.

Gary: We couldn’t even include half of the prose poets we wanted to from America; there’s just so many great practitioners of the form these days. Sentence: A Journal or Prose Poetics has done some really great special features in recent issues on international prose poetry (American Indian, Italian, Asian, Great Britain, etc), and they’ve covered a lot of ground in talking about the spread of the prose poem across literary territories.

I’ve also noticed, in literary journals and the such, a huge influx of young, contemporary American poets translating. I’ve run across a few great prose poems from such countries as Romania and Portugal, so undoubtedly as our generation continues to translate, we’ll see more of those non-English prose poems making their appearance. At least, I hope we do. Considering that the form originated in places as disparate as China and France, it seems only natural that the prose poem be an international phenomenon.

OL: Do you guys have plans for any future work to promote the genre — aside, of course, from a book tour?

Dan: Beyond writing my own prose poems and continuing to read and support the genre, I don’t have immediate plans outside of this project to promote the genre. I really hope our book functions as a door opening for our readers, the beginning of a discussion that will hopefully roll over into classrooms, readings, and publications from other poets. We’ve tried to stay away from being definitive and comprehensive and we’ve tried not to make this a personal crusade or any such thing that might form camps of prose poet vs. non-prose poet, etc. We think, though, that as long as poets continue to produce marvelous and remarkable work in this form, it will promote itself and continue to grow. We hope our books is a small part of that momentum.

OL:What would this book have been called if it hadn’t been called Field Guide to the Prose Poem?

Gary: The book would have been titled Wonders of the Field. That was the title we used when sending the manuscript around to editors. When Rose Metal Press bit on the project, they already had Tara Masih’s The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction under contract and were hoping to create a brand, so they asked if they could do so with our anthology. Of course we were happy to oblige, especially seeing as how important both of the books could potentially be. It worked out, but I for one really do still love our original manuscript title.

OL: Do you guys know the word Layamot? It’s a Haitian word, apparently, one Edwidge Danticat defines it as a small box containing a secret of some kind — a marble, a lizard, a poem. Apparently, the word can also mean a short rendezvous with one’s lover, or a false political promise. See where I’m going?

Gary: I’m not familiar with that word at all, but it’s gorgeous. Very Joseph Cornell-ish. The prose poem is all of those things–a lizard, a poem, a marble, a love affair with low stamina, and a false political promise (that’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one, by the way). In the introduction to the anthology, Dan and I write that a prose poem is “a small box where weird shit happens.” Initially, when we were drafting the introduction, we put that phrase in as a place-holder, and then when we turned in a draft to our editors at Rose Metal we forgot to remove it. When their comments came back, there were huge exclamation points and checkmarks aimed toward the phrase–they loved it! It was a funny moment, one of some sort of truthful acknowledgement of just how difficult it is to define the prose poem. So I see no reason why Danticat’s definition of Layamot can’t double as a definition of the prose poem.

Dan: Often the prose poem looks rather unassuming on the page, but once you begin to read, it gets very interesting. Kind of the opposite of a political speech. Sounds and looks great at first, but we’re quick to realize that it’s bullshit.

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Gary L. McDowell is the author of American Amen (Dream Horse Press, 2010), winner of the 2009 Orphic Prize for Poetry. He’s also the author of the chapbook They Speak of Fruit (Cooper Dillon Books, 2009) and co-editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry (Rose Metal Press, 2010). His poems and essays have appeared in New England Review, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, and numerous others. He can be found online at www.garylmcdowell.com.

F. Daniel Rzicznek’s books of poetry include Divination Machine (Free Verse
Editions/Parlor Press 2009) and Neck of the World (Utah State University Press 2007). Recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for 2010, he is coeditor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice, published by Rose Metal Press in 2010. He lives and teaches in Bowling Green, OH.