PP/FF, which sounds like shorthand for some obscure and
unsavoury club-scene, stands for Prose Poetry / Flash Fiction. Prose poetry has
existed since the 17th century or something, and has been steadily gaining
popularity both in the UK and the USA as a published and taught form. I'm not
sure about the continent. I guess they've never been as hung-up on strict
definitions as we are.
Conversely, flash fiction (or the short-short) has been popular since its
inception (around 1992). Firstly, its creation was the result of numerous
competitions and anthologies - and everyone loves prizes. Secondly, it's easy
to teach as the stories are extremely short, thus perfect for classroom
discussion, plus it avoids all the messy, boring issues of codification,
semiotics and debatable formal history that plague prose poetry. It's just a
short story, only shorter.
In the early 00's, civil war was declared after a flash fiction writer
published a prose poem in APR.
The prose poem had an alarmingly clear narrative arc. This was deemed an
unmistakable act of aggression by prose poets who felt that an example should
be made. They retaliated - and many felt this was out of proportion - by
setting up a journal dedicated to prose poetry to the exception of flash fiction. A mock peace-treaty was drafted by
David Lehman in 2003 (disguised as an introduction to Great American Prose
Poems) in which he argued that flash
fiction is just a pejorative name for prose poetry anyway, so what's all the
fuss about? (However, experimental fiction writers couldn't help but notice
that Great American Prose Poems
didn't contain a single piece that could be accurately described as flash
fiction). While delegates from both parties signed, neither has retired their
weapons. I'm sure you've all been following the power-struggle with the
tenacity of a front-line journalist.
This anthology makes a profound case for de-classification - but it does so
by cobbling the two forms together as PP/FF, 'balanced on a makeshift teeter-totter that never
lands.' And that bothers me - because if anything it emphasises the wishy-washy divide between prose poetry and
flash fiction while claiming to disregard it. Simultaneously, it gives the
editor green-card to publish whatever he pleases, provided it's under, say,
10 pages and uses dashes instead of speech marks, etc. I'm not sure that this
contributes to the debate so much as [deep sigh] redrafts the territory from scratch again - just
like everything that's ever been written about prose poetry. So, although I
think this is a great collection of writing, I'm going to rant about that for
Peter Conners's introduction to PP/FF is refreshingly anti-marketing. He boldly states, 'I have no interest
in creating new confinements. Rather, I would argue that strict adherence to
given definitions of form and genre (prefabricated marketing boxes), are
debilitating to a writer's creativity and do a disservice to readers. Genre
is easier to sell, to teach, to quantify and review, but what does it have to
do with creating new art?'
A truly noble sentiment. Why not, in fact, just publish the anthology as 101
Kick-Ass Poems or Poets I Think
You Should Read? Oh, yeah, because
'genre is easier to sell.' Conners, you old trickster! Of course, his point
is an aesthetic one; he argues that prose poetry is at risk of stagnating -
that a series of rules and strictures have been drafted up to squeeze the
life out of it. It's difficult to gage the severity (and accuracy) of this
threat as Conners doesn't specify who's doing the rule-making. Other creative
writing programs at other universities, presumably. I expect they'll be
bringing out their own anthologies pretty soon.
A friend asked me why prose poetry is considered a 'genre' when no other form
of poetry is considered a 'genre' and when not even the novel is considered a 'genre', it's a form. The short story is a form. A genre is like science-fiction and Westerns and stuff like that, right? Poetry isn't a genre, is it? So where the hell does prose
poetry get off calling itself a
genre? Isn't that like calling painting-with-your-feet a genre when actually it's just a particularly silly form
of painting which is itself a form, not a genre? Painting sad-faced clowns - that's
a genre. What is it with prose
poets? Why do they think they're so damn important?
I shrugged. 'What about flash-fiction?' I asked her. 'That's a genre, isn't
'Flash-fiction!' she spat. 'What the hell is flash-fiction? That's the
stupidest name for a literary movement I've ever heard!'
And then she left the room.
When you stake out a territory, you have to start by saying that everyone
else is wrong: that the territory they have already staked out is a pretty
crummy sort of territory: that it ignores unignorable talents X, Y and
Z (with whom you went to
college), that it passes over entire races and cultures without noticing that
they write poetry too, and that the editors are, one way or another,
misguided poltroons. They have overcomplicated or oversimplified the field,
they have put their beacons too close together and/or used the wrong kind of
fencing. On the whole, they are lousy academics and probably, if their
editing methods are anything to go by, lousy human beings, too.
This obscurist backbiting - often louder and more energetic than the work
itself - is why nobody gives a fuck about poetry.
Other than poets, natch. Anyway, there are two ways of proving to the
interested reader that your contemporaries are wrong. 1. You take their
points one by one and knock them down; you find fault in specific instances,
maybe focusing on a small, stupid part of their argument and beating them to
death with it. You out-do them as a scholar, as a culturally-sensitive
egalitarian, as a parent, probably - but you do this through specific
examples of their wrong-headedness. You quote from their text and follow it
with a withering put down. For the likes of me, this beats computer games and
wind-surfing a fun way to spend an afternoon.
2. You dismiss their whole approach and everyone else's with it, maybe even
suggesting that the very act of staking out territory is unhelpful and
irrelevant; that the war-music of introductions that must precede anthologies
is just so much empty rhetoric and show-boating. You achieve this through
empty rhetoric and show-boating. All is vanity.
Although the latter method appears the more Philistine, it is, in truth,
subtler than the first - for you state that your opponent's argument, indeed
their whole approach, is so wrong it's not even worth engaging with - and all
the while, you are sneakily staking out your own territory which, (whoops!)
may suddenly become the dominant ethos. Once you've established that you are:
Anti-academic (although you do teach a bit on a few writing programs, but that doesn't count,
You've got yourself looking like a pretty marketable messiah. You're going to
save rock and roll- I mean politics- I mean poetry. Of course, what you're
really trying to save is marketing itself. Maybe it won't
sound mawkish and insincere when you do it. Maybe you'll even avoid
references to Greek mythology in your editorial and steer clear of painting
out people who can't decide whether to write poetry or prose as some kind of
Anyway, in a poetic terrain scarred and pock-marked with boundaries upon
fences upon envelopes, all being pushed and stretched and dug-over by so many
exciting young and old poets, this approach is becoming increasingly popular:
Everything you thought you knew about prose poetry is wrong - and these
writers are going to tell you why! In really loud voices!
So when I say Peter Conners's introduction to PP/FF is refreshingly anti-marketing,
you know I'm saying it with a confused expression on my face.
In a way, though, that's sort of his point. Look past the fist-gnawingly
awful references to prose poet / flash-fiction writers as 'followers of
Orpheus' and you find an editor just putting out a collection of work that he
thinks is good. And most of it is
good. In fact, a lot of it's really good.
But the landscape painted out in the introduction isn't altogether accurate.
Yes, the prose poem is growing in popularity; yes, it has its own journals
and modules on creative writing courses, but there is no turf war. There are
just perfectly affable academics and students pootling around with a poetic
form, just as they might pootle around with a sestina or a pantoum. The only
thing that makes it a turf war is when writers say it's a turf war in their editorials (in which they
invariably disparage this turf war and call it a crying shame).
The fact is, Conners could have published this anthology as American Prose
Poems (or maybe Better American
Prose Poems) and nobody would have
batted an eyelid. Nobody would have said, 'Hey, wait a second, some of these
so-called prose poems are actually flash-fiction! I want my money back!'
What about Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell? And Auden's The Orators? And Rimbaud's A Season in Hell? They were all pretty long and arguably quite
narrative oriented. Some of Baudelaire's Spleens were, what, ten, twelve pages long? And they were
more like erudite opinion columns in a Sunday broadsheet than poems. Prose
poetry has always been an eclectic, baffling thing - and nobody is trying to
pretend otherwise. Anyone I know who's taught prose poetry as a form has
taken an admirably broad approach; if anything, they've focused above all on
the form's broadness of content and style.
So an anti-agenda is still an agenda. Just remember that when Peter Conners
accidentally becomes president of the International Prose Poetry Symposium
and Dinner Club, okay? And when he
renames it the PP/FF Symposium and Dinner Club, I'll be there to say I told you so.
Actually I believe Conners should
be aiming high. He's got great taste - this is far better than the other
prose poetry anthologies I've read recently. If anything he should be aiming higher. What kind of title is PP/FF? And who's going to be interested in something
that wears its genre/form politics so emblazoned on its sleeve, even while
protesting their irrelevance to creating new art?
People like me, that's who. Opinionated PhD students and people who go to creative
writing conferences. The kind of person who can't write an introduction to a
review in less than 2,000 words. And there's a bigger, better audience than
us who will probably be put off and miss out on some great writers - writers
who deserve the attention.
To atone for my rant (and for the fact that anthologies never get reviewed in
any kind of detail) I'm going to go through every single prose poem in PP/FF, write a mini review of it and give it a grade on
the American high-school system (so that's A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+, C,
C-, D+, D, D- and, if anything really
stinks, F. Although I prefer D- because it's the grade Peppermint Patty was always
getting in Peanuts.) Conners's
introduction, which is well-researched and sly, gets a B. He drops a grade
for being rhetorically sneaky and for mentioning Orpheus.
Fedora by Stuart Dybek
Beautiful noirish Western casting the reader as lone assassin. Lots of
sunlight and harmonicas. Plot compressed through stock images - nonetheless
visually and aurally lovely and a great ending. To quote would spoil it.
Sister Francetta and the Pig Baby
by Kenneth Bernard
The 'Nun Story' should be a sub-genre of American literature. This is a
particularly good one - a memoir beginning with Sister Francetta's cautionary
tales, half remembered. 'The pig baby is still with me. It was different from
her other stories. For example, it had no moral, it was just there: there had
once been a baby with a pig head.' Numbered list of permutations is quite
McSweeney's (as in the website / journal - quirky faux-naif American irony -
my favourite kind). Enjoyable and well written - and I didn't find myself
wishing I was reading something else. That's rare with poetry.
Apolegit by Joyelle
Joyelle McSweeney is one of the many names here gathered I'd come across
before. She writes surreal stream-of-consciousness stuff like this: 'A dog
with extra heads lolled uselessly at the Donut Hole. Give that dog a lemon
and he'll fish for a week.' Which I think is nice. At times her tone seems
accidental and automatic, but it's actually finely crafted. More metonymic
than metaphorical - the images surround the meaning and sort of ambush it. 'I
hate how your words run mealywormed out of your lips around your cigarette
like rats from a burning ship: smoking and bitching.' Her linguistic
ingenuity and brilliant visual chaos puts me in mind of David Gascoyne and
the French Surrealists he translated - she also shares a kind of
mock-biblical tone, but adds a modern, American sensibility. Great.
We Make Mud by Peter Markus
The Fable - very much a recognised form of prose poetry, and one which
muddies the waters between prose poems and short-fiction.
This is a perfectly serviceable example - 1st person narrator
(with a backward-sounding voice) delivers the account of some brothers making
a woman out of mud. It's a little too long and the repetitive voice gets
pretty tired: 'Sons, our father says this to us. I'm making mud, he says. I'm
making mud, he tells us, and I'm making, with this mud, I'm making, out of
mud, a house for us to call our own. A mud house, our father calls it.' Like
a Russell Edson cast-off.
The Source of Authority by Diane
Good use of cubist fragmentation - monologue of someone ill / confused. 'It
feels so unsexual to complain, but when the weather is bad I go walking.' The
phrases are superbly unexpected and askew. Subtle personification of the
lake. However, the last line ('I am trying to be independent. Is that
wrong?') is completely unnecessary and should be cut.
Das Lied Einer Mutter by
Another sub-genre: 'Paragraph in the Life of...' - characterised by low-level
absurdism. 'Mozart hears the wind in a bottle of cheap burgundy at four in
the morning.' Nice peacocks.
Drive by Jessica Treat
Second-person narrative about a woman picking up a hitch-hiker after nearly
running him over. He has a British accent. (I'm afraid the exoticism is lost
on me). You '...start to believe it must have been fated, your bumping into
this stranger from out of nowhere...' Good stuff about 'magical thinking' -
but tone of coy implication gets a bit Sex in the City.
Hinges by Sean Thomas
Sub-genre 3: Poems About How Great Music Is. In this case, Blues music is great.
It makes sauces spicier, it blows doors open. 'Angel the whore licking
strawberry jam off a spoon, blue alimony payments, blue electric bills and
fancy pants.' So far, so Beat Generation. Tad anachronistic, perhaps, but
nicely done. I'm yet to read a PAHGMI that's actually as good as just
listening to music.
Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz or: 'Get the Hood Back On' by Kent Johnson
Horrifying - like the photographs that inspired it. Seven voices of American
soldiers speaking to their victims in Abu-Ghraib. The kind of thing that
completely ruins your day by forcing you (in a matronly sort of way) to
consider the evil and hypocrisy at the heart of the human race. The
monologues start out casual, full of pop-psychology and bonhomie: 'What's up,
Ramal, I'm an American boy [...] I want to be upfront with you because I
believe that honesty is the best policy.' [sickening description of
torture as already depicted in infamous photographs follows.]
I'm in two minds about this poem - I go from thinking it's a pretty good
performance of outrage to thinking a school pupil could (and probably has)
written it as an English project. I don't know. Maybe we have more dissident
English teachers in Britain and American adults really need this kind of
The final paragraph is in the same style, but seems to be trying for a kind
of self-referential joke. 'Hi there, Madid, I'm an American poet, twentyish,
early to mid-thirtyish, fortyish to seventyish...' The poet talks about how
many things he's had published before saying he's going to beat Madid to
death with one of his books. I'm not entirely sure what Johnson's point is
here. If he's angry with poets for not engaging more with current affairs,
he's not making a very good case for doing so here. Did any of you need a
poet to tell you to be appalled about Abu-Ghraib? Me neither.
If he's angry with himself, fair enough.
The Neighbour's Dog by Jamey
Dunham has a rubbish poem in Great American Prose Poems about a family of possums. I use it whenever I
need an example of Bad Surrealism. This, on the other hand, is lovely. 'A
child is a dog if you look hard enough. A dog with a matchbook of fireflies,
playing in a field.' Lyrical and visually pleasing. 'In the air above your
forehead, your breath twists like a doll on a shoe-string.' I shan't be
judging people by one poem again. Apart from in this review, obviously.
Leaving Places by Anthony
The most narrative thing so far - lovely scale of images and incidental
details. Pleasantly absurd dialogue. A light-hearted meditation on leaving
and returning (the details that become important) that manages to be profound
- 'But you only notice these things if you are paying close attention, the
kind of attention you give to a place just before you leave.' - as well as
funny. Masterful use of tone.
Moonflower by Kathleen
Ponderous recollections with even more ponderous self-questioning italics in brackets. Feh! Possible typing error:
'The smell grew worse every day. (Did it? Or do I only think it did?) My brother and my husband hated it, but I thought
the vine couldn't predict my mother's death.' You thought it couldn't predict? A perfectly ordinary, smelly vine, then.
Story Barkers: A Report from the Field by Brian Evenson
This is an Iowa Writers Program send-up. A 'barker' is some kind of
industrial sanding machine - here used to remove style as opposed to rough edges - geddit? Evenson has
taken an industry report and replaced key words - a good process for prose poetry
that often yields amusing results. 'Developed primarily for use with longer,
looser stories, a large machine which removes style by pounding it off is
being used by one operator in the Iowa workshops.'
Seems like someone has a grudge to settle. Let's check the 'About the Author'
pages. Oh. He's director of the Literary Arts Program at Brown.
As the British creative writing market grows, we'd better prepare ourselves
for a slew of this kind of thing, maybe with some pre-emptive strikes. First
target? University of East Anglia.
Four pages is far too long for one gag. Funny but a bit depressing.
Big 32 by Ander Monson
Ten pages long. Thirty-two temperatures and the memories and feelings they
evoke. Northern Michigan - where the narrator's wife works as a
road-defroster. '-11: tears freeze complete; nosehairs froze twenty degrees
ago; so crying will get you nowhere like her dad's dead dad used to say.' A
pleasure to gradually piece together the narrative. Quite notebook-like, at
times, maybe could have been edited down a bit. However, this is a great
example of prose poetry's range - the journal entry / process / list-poem
coming together in one genuinely engaging and interesting work.
The Laughing Alphabet by Noah
Lovely title and sense of the absurd: 'This is what I recall about snow
inside a very small tiger...' But the poem becomes increasingly pedestrian
(it turns out the very small tiger is a pattern being woven into a tapestry)
and more abstract '...amplitude with which one unmaking a very small tiger
replaces the paradox of an exact replica with its opposite...'
Which I think is pulling in both wrong directions at the same time. Become
crazier and more concrete.
The Least Sneaky of Things by Gary
The teacher has 'stumpy, yellow, mortal chalks' - and I know that's sort of
bad and excessive on purpose, but it bores me. Circling, maddening language
that seems to pastiche the act of writing itself: 'Only two further things
need saying to clamp down even more on it - how the man would have otherwise
gone on feeling sure of what was just too much to ask.' Makes me impatient -
I'm sick of deliberately ugly, ambiguous sentences. All they do is point out
how difficult it is to ever really say what you mean with language. And so
many poets seem content to repeat this for their entire careers. (While
simultaneously writing passionate, eloquent defences of their aesthetic in, quelle
surprise, Standard Written
English, so I guess language must be good for something).
Everyone knows how hard it is
to say what you mean. I thought poets were supposed to find ways of saying
it in spite of that. The lines are
too close together.
Shadowlawn by Mark Tursi
Tursi is the Dean Young of prose poetry, complete with references to Donald
Duck. Some really great lines here: 'we're stuck to the future like a thud'
and 'Space is big. There's no way to fill it without morals.'
Second paragraph gets a little tired - too much abstract wandering and
personal memory between the good bits. 'Our foreknowledge set the past in
motion, and we grabbed our things, threw them into one rucksack...' Sounds
like a teenage Goth talking about going camping.
But then improves no end: 'Here at Shadowland the question is always: O
what awful thing are they doing now?'
Prairie Shapes, A Flash Novel
by Darryl Scroggins
Fifteen pages and twenty chapters, but could still pass for a prose poem if
you ask me - it's disjointed enough. Fable / fairy tale. Traditional quest
narratives sort of bleed into one another. 'Before sunrise the man packed a
lunch of bread and hard cheese, and drew water for his canteen. He left a
note for the sleeping woman that said he would return soon with something she
He gets lost. Impenetrable adventures ensue. Nicely done.
Triptych for Frances Bacon by Morgan
This kind of Art Poetry doesn't so much respond to the work in question as
try to borrow from its aura. Usually it somehow detracts from the painting
rather than adding anything to your appreciation of it, in the same way
explaining a joke kills the joke.
'If shape is a finished thing, what is this? A black background, a few white
verticals, a few horizontals lending depth to darkness.'
And then, 'Interrogator? Lover? Pontiff? Something insubstantial. Isolated.'
This would be less boring if the poet had chosen a less famous artist and the
poetry was inspired by their work instead of vaguely describing it like a
museum-guide after too much coffee.
Excerpt from Quinn's Passage by Kazim Ali
Man browsing in bookstore makes eye-contact with other man. Lots of memories
and future projections in fragments spaced out on the page. I really need to
find another word for 'fragments'. A bit pretentious: 'He is beautiful.' Six carriage-returns later: 'I am alone.' Poets can't even pick up dates in bookshops! Ha ha ha!
The Mother by Lydia Davis
Dreadful. If you wrote this as a parody of bad prose poetry, you'd be accused
of gross gender prejudice - and quite rightly:
'The girl wrote a story. 'But how much better it would be if you wrote a
novel,' said her mother. The girl built a doll's house. 'But how much better
if it were a real house,' her mother said. The girl made a small pillow for
her father. 'But wouldn't a quilt be more practical?' said her mother...'
Hey Davis, your mother's on the phone - she says, 'Wouldn't it be so much
better if you were less self-absorbed and more talented?'
The Black Cat by Joanna
Like a 1920's suspense story directed by Kenneth Anger. There's an American
and possibly his wife and a Hungarian aristocrat and an Occultist. Eight
chapters over five pages. It begins:
'In unseasonable torrents, the car overturns on the road at the foot of a
long curling driveway, the chauffeur's head crushed against the glass. The
passengers are unscathed. Thank God, says the American. Of course, now your
honeymoon is ruined, says the Hungarian aristocrat.
I have no idea what's going on and I still can't find a good synonym for
'fragmentary' - but the atmosphere is brilliant, as is the dialogue. Another
demonstration of the range of the prose poem.
The Ladder by Elizabeth
Eight or so lines in the middle of each page. A man and a woman are climbing
a ladder. 'Between each rung, the world is a different colour. Like a lens
suspended. These frivolous rungs and their stains.' I enjoyed that up to
'frivolous'. In what way is a rung frivolous? In that it isn't.
The kind of Poetry Voice that sounds like fingers down a blackboard to me:
'Rather than anything else, she rose up to qualify what spilled from
overhead.' Gah! People obviously like this sort of weighty, portentous,
meaningless stuff - it gets published and awarded frequently - but I'm yet to
find a convincing argument for what it's trying to do. Make us see the world
in a more affected light?
What is a Hexachord by G. C.
Worse than above: 'Have I tailored the sea-gale to any prior fallacy, have I
discerned: the germ.' I don't know. I don't want to know. And what's wrong
with question marks?
Terrible repetition: 'There is not so much, not so much as I had thought, not
much though it is enough, I thought, though I think, though I say, though I
will never say it cannot be enough...' ad nauseum.
It's like trying to untangle a pair of headphones you find at the bottom of a
desk drawer. Broken headphones.
Look at me with a straight face and tell me you think it's good writing and not just the outpourings of a note-book-filler
with a Samuel Beckett fixation. Go on! Tell me!
When set alongside a genuine talent like Joyelle McSweeney, this is morbidly
Page 42 by Martha Ronk
Four page story about someone who never gets past the same page (p. 42) of
their novel. 'And nothing has yet happened really to the main character,
nothing has moved him forward, and he hasn't yet figured anything out...'
Quite funny and well written, but too long and a bit derivative of Calvino's If
on a Winter's Night a Traveller.
Where Passion Becomes Sound by George
'Touch is redefined each time dolphins make love.' Prose poetry of the short,
whimsical variety - and all the better for it.
Oh Never to Have Been by Raymond
The main character of this eight page homage to Samuel Beckett (addressed
with a matey 'Sam' throughout) is called Moinous. 'Me We', I guess. Me We has
lots of conclusions to share with us: 'The third conclusion declares that
Moinous conducts his life as a heroic self-construction.'
Lots of lists and permutations which, like the title, are more pale imitation
of Beckett than inspired by him or extending his aesthetic and ethos.
Gosh, contemporary writers and their lack of ambition! The elevation of past
talents until their biographies outsell their actual work! As if the last
great thing had been written so all we can do is repeat the celebrities of
the past! As if the most profound thing we can hope to say in our work is,
'I've read Samuel Beckett!'
This is like Wes Anderson remaking Psycho frame-by-frame. Just put some flowers on his grave
and make your own movies, won't you?
Clown by Harold Jaffe
Really nasty story (and it's totally a story - it isn't prose poetry or flash
fiction and sticks out of the anthology like a hacked-off limb) about John
Wayne Gacy from the POV of a man who befriends him before his execution. The
narrator, (a knowingly arrogant and inarticulate voice), serially befriends
serial killers before they are executed and then says something unpleasant to
them before they die as a kind of revenge or something.
And it comes from Jaffe's book called 15 Serial Killers. He's obviously a good writer, but, aside from a
passing morbid thrill (A weekend-colour-supplement kind of morbid thrill), I
don't know what to make of the work. Is the narrator as wicked and psychotic
as the serial killers he torments? Do we care?
Maybe this is a generational thing, but I saw Silence of the Lambs when I was a kid and was pretty much over the
whole public-fascination-with-psychotic-murderers before adolescence. Don't
they have museums and theme-parks about serial-killers now? Is 15 Serial
Killers going to be on sale in the
I'm so bored of serial-killers I could weep. Excellent dialogue and voice,
A+ for the writing
C- for the idea
Fairytale by Garry LaFemina
Lots of incongruous fun to be had with this stately old sub-genre - the
updated fairytale. Here with an added twist of self-awareness. 'She was not
your usual witch. She was a very contemporary witch; she didn't ride a broom,
she drove a vacuum
cleaner. She'd gone to therapy.' When it comes to American humorists,
particularly of this kind, I've read funnier stuff on Dave Eggers's McSweeney's
Internet Concern and The Onion. But it always takes poetry a while to catch up
with the reader's sense of humour, so I'll forgive it.
Marco Gets Fingered by Peter
The start of the poem seems to concern Marco inserting a toilet cubicle
door-handle up his bottom.
Some good stuff about Marco ruining tubes of lipstick as a child, 'twisting
until the shapely conical edge smashed flat.'; and some top-notch paranoia:
'All the world was swearing at Marco. Two people swore at Marco. Others were
perhaps thinking of swearing at Marco. Which is sometimes, but not usually, as
bad as swearing at Marco.' Makes the reader feel as uncomfortable as Marco
I have limited patience for work that tries to shock me ('Droplets?... Bloody
ringlets?'), but this is more interesting than that.
Araby by Joyelle McSweeney
Great stuff again (although I prefer 'Apolegit') - some beautiful
synechdochal colour stuff. And it's from the POV of a chaise lounge.
Gorgeous, rapid sentences full of pleasing, surprising phrases. 'What god
would try so poorly to disguise hisself?'; 'The latest journeymen are
pornographers of scale.'
I love experimental poetry provided the bag of things it throws in my face
are thought-provoking or funny or, in just some little way, coherent to their
McSweeney's technique works because she is always clear on what she's
disrupting: language and meaning rather than sentence structure. When a
hackneyed or 'poetic' phrase is turned on its head, as in 'The degrading
solace of the sea.', she leaves it at that - rather than writing it backwards
or chucking in a few extra adjectives. The reader is free to marvel at the
writer's playfulness and subversion of meaning. Whether that meaning is
civic, rhetorical or even poetic. And that's a fine thing for poetry to do,
no? I get the sense that this is what most avant-garde poets have been trying to do for decades - but
they get distracted by their own theories. Or they're just not very good. One
of the two.
Capturing the Shadow Puppets by
Possibly my favourite piece in the anthology. 'It started to rain, which was
our cue to catch wild gods.' Funny and evocative. Clear narrative (and I
suspect it would fall under the FF part of the anthology title), but it has
the feel of a prose poem - of the fictional journal-entry kind. Nightmarish (as
in dream-like) without being at all self-indulgent. Derek White is a name to
Self-Portrait with Apologia by Brian
Baroque sensibility reminiscent of early Ashbery: 'The most festive of operas
has a dark coloring, similar to the men in black at a garden party. The hats
are so cheerful, the audience may be misled.' Turns into a kind of love song.
Reference to King Lear actually justified.
Falling Moon, Rising Stars by Christina
Experimental short fiction in which the chapters have titles like The
Underpants Tree and The Orange
Mummy. The story concerns Alice,
an eighty-year-old pregnant woman and Alban, a teenager who idolises her. The
narrative thrust of the story: Alban climbing a tree outside her window and falling,
along with Alice, out of said tree. We're definitely in magic realist
territory, then - a side-effect of which is that I don't care about the
characters, coupled with the uncomfortable sense that I'm supposed to find
them charming and whimsical.
I think they both die. 'Alban, now hollowed and still, sleeps eternally
against the gurgling earth. His offspring busily suckle at the roots of the
mighty trees...' Magic realism on peyote.
The Amityville Horror by Arielle
This has the structure of a Madlib - a passage of prose with all the
adjectives or nouns removed so that the reader can fill them in with
hilarious consequences. Greenberg has, instead, removed conjunctions and
pronouns. As some of the sentences are incomplete and oddly structured in the
first place, this is can be quite annoying. On third or fourth read-through,
it starts to work, though.
'One night _____ walked until night was gone, a neighborhood of very new
houses. Was this the same silver street? _____ didn't fear _____ soprano, or
the abnormal smear of _____ lynched sex, but _____ father drove _____ home in
a scotch glass and this was alien. _____ sat in _____ stomach.'
It begins, 'Hey, Eloquence.'
Funny, alarming, and original.
The Work of Art as Seen from Barnard's Star by Dimitri Anastasopoulos
On the chart of pre-approved Poetry Voices, this piece falls somewhere
between Kooky Spiritualist ('The universe is the not-me. The struggle against
the universe.') and Instruction Manual ('This is why men drink from streams
but not from oceans. This is why the earth quakes when the sky breaks open a
storm.') with a dash of Zen Nihilist ('Even the cruellest death is no more
significant than cutting off a head of cabbage.').
Hunt Mountain by Alison
Brilliant opening sentence: 'When the night my stepbrother put his wrists
through the window became the summer we had to hide all the sharp objects in
the house...' This is very much an autobiographical prose-voice. It uses none
of the techniques of poetry and the only thing that makes it admissible for
this anthology is that it is under two pages long. Any longer and it would
have to be classified as a short story, no two ways about it.
And yet, were it included in a collection of poetry, I would have no problem
accepting it as a prose interlude and, therefore, a kind of prose poem. I'm
not sure what Townsend would call it: her author biog states that she is
interested, among other things, in creative non-fiction.
Story gets a bit lost in flora and fauna, but nonetheless beautifully
You Just Keep Going (Tong'Len #1)
by Ethan Paquin
Like a blues lyric. 'you just keep going and so does night, slow wheels and
soda can fizz... you just keep going buoys, you just keep on because the
ships all need you.' This has the ring of authenticity to it.
This is the Beginning of Time
by Sherrie Flick
Some great concrete images that place the reader right by Flick's side. 'I
raise my finger. The bartender looks away.'; 'Like the cord in the subway
car. I finger the dirty cord, watch it stretched taut - vibrating,
The prose poem becomes a meditation on fictional memory - the power of
writing to evoke events and senses the reader and writer have never
experienced, perhaps. 'I have memories, sensual memories, about things that
have never existed. That thin layer of white chocolate on top of the cherry
cheesecake...' But it turns out that all of these memories are about pies of
one sort or another. Makes me hungry.
Testimony by Kim Addonizio
Brilliant. Essentially a breathless monologue from an AA meeting. 'Okay
sometimes I do drink alone why not, who the fuck are you to judge you're not
getting me to hold hands with a bunch of losers pumped up on coffee and
cigarettes in this crummy New Jersey church basement and recite the Lord's
What could be didactic, confessional or (worst of all) mocking satire, is
handled masterfully. Genuine characterisation and voice, funny and sad,
desperate and intelligent. This is from her 1999 collection In the Box
Called Pleasure - a copy of which
I am ordering as we speak.
Reproduction Synthesis by Mark
This starts with an epigram by Baudelaire. Never use an epigram that makes
your own writing pale in comparison. Shakespeare knew that. Especially when
your own writing is a tribute to the author of the epigram. 'Reproduction
Synthesis' contains mirrors and self-introspection and all the other
Baudelaire mainstays, but leaves out his truculent wit in favour of a generic
self-questioning Poetry Voice.
'It is not stockings after all, but a slight scar. No, it is not really a
scar, but the memory of one that happened long ago, perhaps during
But it's still visible enough to be confused with stockings? Um... That'll be
a scar, then.
As a flaneur tribute, this is so-so. As an original piece of writing? Yawn.
Kitchen on Fire by Ted
One of those Oulipo automatic-writing exercises where you're given four words
that have to be included in every paragraph - in this case: 'the fire / the
guitar / the cowboy hat'. Great first paragraph: 'I was making an omelette in
the kitchen. I was using the guitar to break the eggs...' But the idea
eventually collapses under the weight of cutesy Beckett-esque permutations
and lists. I've been trying to knock this kind of thing on the head in my own
writing, hence the minus.
Topographical Models, 1:1 by Benjamin
So a scale of 1:1 means the same size for the model/map as the territory
itself; 'a full-scale reproduction of everything.' This is a neat gag, but
one already explored by Jorge Luis Borges and a Czech sculptor called
Langweil whose 'paper model of Prague' was 'detailed down to the very cracks
in bricks...' - both of whom the poet quotes here. So more borrowed
profundity. Name-checking a genius is never a good idea.
'In our much grander design...' says Paloff in the next paragraph - and
proceeds to delineate nothing quite as grand as having had the idea in the
first place might have been.
A Pair of Hose Trimmed with Button Eyes, a Lipstick Mouth, Manipulated by
so Many Fingers by Christina
Another messed-up magic-realist corporeal horror story. A man stands there
while a doctor pulls things out of his wife. The doctor's eventual diagnosis
is great: ''The thermostat,' he said, 'is set way too high. The men need
shovels. The women hats. The stockyards are out of curry. There are squirrels
in every turbine ... Your currency is worthless. Army tanks patrol the
beach...'' And so on.
Five Postcards from an Athens-Bound Plane by Nickole Brown
People (people who aren't poets) don't actually send postcards from
aeroplanes - they tend to wait until they reach their destination and have
something nice to say about it.
Airport description followed by pedestrian observations about flying: 'I pray
when the wheels go up, sister. Because nothing but air sustains us then.'; 'a
sink you have to fill to get water from.'; 'this trip is too scheduled for
me, one wake-up call after the next.'; 'people are not pretty on planes.'
Pity us poor poets, for whom even getting up in the morning is a note-worthy
Reading this is like talking to a neurotic stranger on a plane, i.e. tedious.
The Box by Eula Biss
Parallel between black box recordings from plane crashes and piecing together
her parent's relationship. Rich with the observations of a depressive mother:
'I'm amazed that more people don't commit suicide. They just keep on living.
It's so hard and they just keep doing it.' Lots of eloquent complaining about
having children and people not recognising your literary talents - the kind
of things most people have to deal with, really, but made to sound like
extraordinary suffering. Masterfully done, but rather joyless.
The Glass Girl by Aimee
'Over the years, men drank and drank until there were only two sips left
inside.' There's a meticulousness to that sentence I really like. Mysterious,
lyrical yet specific. Fine writing.
But by Kim Addonizio
Another booze-fuelled prose poem - this one about a disastrous marriage. What
I love about Addonizio's work is the sense of well-written character. It's a depressingly rare quality in poetry; most
poets opt for boring introspection and self-reflection - hence lots of poems
about being a poet. Addonizio shows what can be achieved if you just open
your eyes and look at the fucking world around you and maybe reflect on that
instead. This alone would set her
a mile above most poets, but she's also a brilliant, observant writer. What's
more, she's writing about stuff as insular and self-obsessed as alcoholism
and hedonism and still manages
to make it swing. Genius.
Revery and Recall by Elizabeth
Short prose poem, a little abstracted in the middle, but a great opening line:
'The dream stood aside and told me it would be called 'the dispirited small
ditch,' and taught me to stand aside as well.' Okay, I don't mind
self-reflection when it's handled as well as that.
Elevation by Nina Shope
Letters to someone called M. from a woman with the initial N. Probably Shope.
The smugness of a memoirist: 'I try to leave as little trace of myself as
possible - Lysoling the computer keyboard after I have used it, walking so
lightly that I do not leave footprints or a single smudge of dirt behind me.
I know there is something urgent in this. I do not want to create a trail -
anything that could be followed.'
Hmm. Why, in that case, are you writing and publishing poems? The tone
throughout this long, epistolary piece is similarly self-important.
'Do you think it was strange that even though we were both Jewish, we would
walk into churches and rub ourselves with dirt that was supposed to heal
believers? [...] I remember sitting underneath the Santuario's famous
staircase [...] We said this place would heal us both. Even when we knew it
I don't think it was strange - I think it was unbearably pretentious.
Pilgrim by Ed Taylor
For such a risky, leftfield collection (complete with School of Quietude
bashing) PP/FF contains a fair
whack of hero-worship. Taylor writes without capital letters and name-checks
e. e. cummings. Far worse than using an epigram by a really, really famous
writer is name-checking a really, really famous writer within the body of
your poem. Predictably enough, the poem is a bit like e. e. cummings. But not
Imagine going to see a small theatre company in Bristol; instead of following
their script, the actors just repeat the names of more famous actors over and
You wouldn't accept it from a theatre company, so why accept it from a poet?
Date Unknown (Who is Talking / Who is Remembering) (from The Book of
John) by Eleni Sikelianos
Blimey, that's a lot of titles. This reads like an all-night speed-induced
notebook rampage, full of gems like 'Truth lies in the mind' and 'The moral
is the story, and the story is a life'. Like Oasis lyrics once Noel Gallagher
got really pretentious. Some
good landscapes, some nice stuff about aliens, but let's not let a new form
excuse that which blighted the novel forty years ago.
The Invention of Where by Thom
Another sub-genre: the list of questions. The first one is brilliant: 'How do
you keep the four guys who hate you away from the five who are undecided?'
After that it gets a bit quirky and derivative. I'd let 'stand-up tragedy'
go, but come on - it's from a
really well-known Maxine Chernoff prose poem. Either Ward lifted it or hasn't
read Chernoff, in which case, what is he doing writing prose poetry?
Uncle by Gary Lutz
Some poets are genuinely worthy of teaching composition. Lutz is one such
poet - he writes with brilliant, detailed clarity: 'Mornings, she would
struggle to the kitchen faucet and put a finger to the underside of the
spout. There was usually enough water still hanging from it for the finger to
come away with a big, rudimentary drop. This she would use to loosen the
crumbles of sleep from the corners of her eyes. Breakfast was just soda she
stirred bubbleless with a paper straw.'
Apples the Eat Boy by Brian
The title is from a Descriptivist essay by Stephen Pinker I happened to be
reading recently. It's a beautifully mangled phrase - and a total throw-away
in the essay, so full-marks to Clements for refurbishing it.
A parable compressing a mythical life-story into two paragraphs. Clements
makes the form his own here, avoiding Edsonian quirkiness. Religious
overtones ('He said, eat your bread. It is the white of my apple.') echo
Oscar Wilde's prose poetry. This is how absurdism should be done - with
restraint and control.
Where his Mother Paints by Chris
Memoir prose-poem with lots of concrete detail, but somehow misses the mark.
The poem charts the history of the poet's childhood room - the changes it
undergoes when he leaves and comes back. This is good material, but the
details aren't especially interesting or remarkable: 'the room smelled of
socks, school lunches hidden and rotting in the closet [...] The walls had
been painted: green.' Not bad, but not that good either.
The Lightbulb by Martha Ronk
This is a story about a woman having an affair with a man who's wife [the
man's] her husband cheated on her [the woman] with. I can't be bothered to
Some great stuff about memory; the locations seem more evocative to the
narrator than the events that took place there. 'lost in a kind of washed
melancholy which depends, I am certain, not on the play of memory [...] but
simply on the light from the lightbulb itself.'
Narrative slowly unfolds via such meditations. Raises interesting questions
about what is permissible and possible in narrative prose poetry that isn't
in the traditional short story. A certain incantatory repetition and focus on
one memory/idea. Still wouldn't look out of place in a short-story
Poems from Real by Stephen
That this poem is reproduced in an old-fashioned type-writer font emphasises
the fast-typing beat-generation thing. There is a certain teenage austerity
and over-explanation (standing in for insight) to the sentences: 'The blond
woman thinking woman who wakes up in the middle of the night thinking of the
man is probably contemplating exchange of bodily fluids.' Rubbish.
Tomato London by Geoffrey
I'm ambivalent. Not least because of Gatza's bio in which he takes a pop at
the 'insidious school of quietude' - which is shorthand for 'Notice me, Ron
Silliman!' and really quite tiresome. Is there any place for this kind of
factional whinging in a non-partisan anthology wherein the full gamut of
poetic styles thrives untroubled by divisive squabbling?
Nope. If you're a published poet with several readers and you teach on ANY
creative writing course (even Naropa School of Disembodied Poetics), you are
part of the problem you seem to think exists. Only, aside from your insidious
jealousy, there is no problem.
It's just that the School of Quietude are slightly more commercially
successful - which is what you seem to want for yourself. Stop being such
Okay, onto the poem. If pigeons were avant-garde American poets, this is the kind of thing they'd
write. Occasional problem with tone: 'All took notice of us, how could they
not?' sounds awfully precious compared to 'Gave me a shackle and I was out of
my mind for weeks.' Maybe deliberate, but the anachronism is grating.
Some good parodies of received wisdom: 'Life is a series of choices, and if I
had purpose in my hikes, all of life would, or could be, food.'
And let's be honest, apart from pointing out how slippery language is, this
is what avant-garde poetry is for
- a sort of low-level satire of public opinion and habit. I've certainly
never seen it trying to do anything else.
On the other hand, this is a marvellous feat of the imagination. A kind of
psychosexual-pigeon-drama. And it's funny.
Hometown by Stuart Dybek
Pretty standard stuff compared to 'Tomato London'. Man walks around hometown
with girlfriend, contemplating the nature of hometowns. '...reminds him of
playing outfield for the hometown team by the floodlights of tractors and
combines and an enormous, rising moon.'
Dybek is published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, so let's assume he'd be
seen as School of Quietude. Also, his aesthetic and technique are quite
conservative - if not the very thing Gatza is sending up in 'Tomato London'.
The difference between the SoQ and the avant-garde is often negligible, but here it is stark. A
mischievous and amusing editorial decision? Maybe.
Bohemian Rhapsody by Daniel
This is from God Save my Queen,
Nester's prose poetry tribute to the band. It's very funny. Another one for
the to-buy list.
Mr. Agreeable by Kirk Nesset
Sometimes the only difference between a narrative prose poem (this is too
long to be flash fiction) and a short story proper is the tone. The narrative
prose poem must have a strong, consistent conceit - and preferably be in
second-person perspective. Here the protagonist ('you') is obsessively
agreeable. Mordant and witty observations. 'Your agreeability, alas, makes you
the ideal listener.'
His wife leaves him, his daughter is committed, he gets mugged.
The Porous Umbrella by Christopher
Twee. '...follow the herd with their intact parasols, while I create the
illusion that I'm dry. But I say join me in my surreptitious drench...'
No thank you - your Victorian clown voice scares me.
The Order I Remember Our Roadside Reunion In by Jeff Parker
Parker is an excellent writer, notwithstanding the flagrancy he ends a
sentence in a preposition with. This poem narrates a disastrous trip to his
ex-girlfriend and ex-best-friend's wedding in which the poet abandons his car
and runs through the rain, only to fall and be punctured by a stick. His
ex-girlfriend finds him.
'Is that you?' she said
'I have a stick through my scrotum,' I said.
Soft Touch by Arielle
Through traditional qualities of good writing such as interesting detail and
strong characterisation, this is another winner. Greenberg documents a
'slight shift' in perception with powerful clarity. The narrator's husband
starts experiencing her as two people. ''Is the other Cathy like me?' I asked
him. 'Oh, no,' he said. 'You're a lot easier to talk to.' And I felt a little
bad for Cathy then.'
Same Game by Anthony
Guy waits at bus-stop, has interesting conversation with small girl.
'Finally, she said, 'You look sad. Where are you going?''
As Witty-and-Incongruous-Conversations-with-Children poems go, this is
well-orchestrated, but unremarkable.
Paris: A Brief Descriptive Catalogue (from The Paris Stories) by Laird
Laird Hunt? That's what Faber&Faber's talent scouts go on, isn't it? Arf!
This is very much like one of Robert Lax's Tagbuchs - a journal / notebook of interesting
observations, snippets of dialogue and quotations. It's good as an example of
the breadth of prose poetry. Orpheus and Flaubert. Blah blah blah. Drops a
grade for name-dropping - I've totally had it with name-dropping. The only
poem in the history of poetry that's allowed to name-drop is 'You, Andrew
The narrator is very tired and spends most of his time asleep - which is
Christine by Tony Leuzzi
This prose poem gets a special award for being the shortest in the anthology
Deliberately insubstantial - like the 'men's hands' that 'brushed lightly
against her skirt...' To quote more would be in breach of copyright
Visit to her Husband by Lydia
Much better poem from Lydia Davis. Evocative focus on insignificant detail
that afflicts anyone in an extreme emotional situation. 'As they are getting
ready to go out, she begins to tell him the story of how she met her lover.
While she is talking he discovers that he has lost one of his expensive
gloves and he is immediately upset and distracted...'
Lavishness doesn't quite hit the mark: 'Later he tells her happily how he has
bought his girlfriend shoes for eighty dollars because he loves her so much.'
Eighty dollars? Where were they from - Shoe Value? My brand-x loafers cost more than that.
Still, I guess Davis isn't so bad after all.
Nine November by Sally Keith
First sentence - 'Not I.' - gave
me a coughing fit. But it gets less Becketty from there. Seems to be a riff
on the old 'If a tree falls in the forest and nobody's around to see it...'
'Light in the alley. Because I looked.'
Coincidence that we'd call the title date 9/11? Not sure.
The Listener by Aimee Parkinson
Dogs. Lyrical. Pastoral.
'Crouching low as she swung, she
amused her sister inside feeding the dogs bread from her mouth. They leapt up
to her lips delicately as in a kiss.'
Notes for the Novice Ventriloquist by
Brilliant. I take back what I said
about humorous poetry never being as funny as McSweeney's Internet
Tendency. LaFemina is a comic
Say hello, Dummy
Victim by Pedro Ponce
Victim in a horror film has self-awareness. Police cars wait outside the
house for her to die. The poetic equivalent of the Scream franchise.
The Postmodern Artist by Raymond
You have got to be kidding!
Begins: 'One day he decided to paint on the walls of his studio everything
that was inside the room.' Concludes: '...[he] began to sketch a picture of
himself sitting at the desk sketching himself.'
Reminds me of a joke:
Q: What's deader than postmodernism?
A: Self-referential jokes about postmodernism.
Q: This isn't a very funny joke, is it?
Shotgun Wedding in the Ribcage of the Bourgeoisie by Johannes Grannson
Okay, that's a fucking awful
title, but the poem is stunning. From the hysterical sublime to the
beautifully observed detail: 'Their long and slender fingers would be better
suited to playing the piano than picking splinters out of little girls'
Grannson is a poet following his own agenda and aesthetic - and its a good
one. A kind of propulsive, cathartic chaos, taking in what can and can't be
said, treading the line of social acceptability - and forcing us to ask
ourselves why that is. Effective self-referentialism at times reminiscent of
the English prose poet Paul Sutton; 'I erased the final paragraph because I
don't want to be fired.'
Garker's Aestheticals by Brian
'It were a word. It name were God.' Prisoner with a fractured voice. Smells
bad. Writes on the wall with his own excrement. The voice is really good,
actually. Sort of Ridley Walker-esque.
'Bleakly comic' - The Times.
This is how somebody who has been influenced by Samuel Beckett writes. Notice how he doesn't mention Beckett in the poem or rip-off Beckett's ideas
For all my prior suspicion, Conners's anthology actually is refreshingly non-partisan - only not along the
same lines as it's set up to be. Rather than bridging the imagined schism
between prose poetry and flash fiction, PP/FF is a kind of earthly paradise where the Language
Poet lies down with the self-absorbed memoirist, the bourgeois Fabulist picks
fleas off the back of the avant-garde Maoist and everyone wears lovely party clothes - or a nice new boiler
There are names here you'd never come across from reading the hardback
almanacs of the American establishment - Kim Addonizio, Johannes Gorannson,
Arielle Greenberg and Derek White to name a few - and they are among the most
interesting writers in U.S. letters at the moment.
Despite its lousy title and accidentally off-putting academic stance, PP/FF should replace the copy of Great American Prose
Poems on every bookshelf and
library and potential literature course in transatlantic academia. It looks
sort of print-on-demand, so the pages will go all wavy and the cover will
peel within a month, but that won't change the quality of the writing
© Luke Kennard 2006
PS (August 2006)
"In a gentlemanly riposte, Mr. Conners points out that the
anthology is not print-on-demand at all and thus will not warp in
the manner I suggest. Indeed, I have had my copy for almost two
months, have travelled with it and read it in numerous locations
and it is still in beautiful condition. I retract my statement and
apologise for its innacuracy and jerk-yness. As ever, my flippancy
and subjectivity are to be amended at reader's discretion."