To some, prose poetry may seem foreign and hard to pin down. The form walks the murky waters between reading surrealist poetry. To make matters more confusing, there is no consensus on exactly what defines the form. But Brian Clements’ new collection helps to clarify matters. A Book of Common Rituals relates readers to day-to-day activities they are sure to understand: working, eating, and sleeping among those. I still find myself flipping through its pages, hoping to absorb some of its magic.
Brian Clements seems to be something of an enigma, albeit a prolific one. He’s published nine poetry collections, founded Firewheel Editions press and the prose poetry journal Sentence, and coordinates the low-residency MFA program at Western Connecticut State University. Clements’ poems seem to document our everyday routine in the morning, afternoon, and evening. I corresponded with Clements through email, what he calls a “digital space.” In an essay written for American Poetry Review, he explains that “there is no studio” with the invention of the Internet, and how his writing—including the answering of these questions—can be done from various locations. From these different locales, we discussed prose poetry, appropriation, and how to join the literary community.
I’ve often felt like an outsider to prose poetry, maybe because of how differently it can appear on the page from writer to writer. To me, ‘prose’ makes me think of long chunky pieces of text, and I have a hard time translating that into a poetic idea.
I do not think of prose poetry as a “form.” There are no “rules” for the prose poem as there are for sonnets, villanelles, etc. I think of prose poetry as simply a subgenre of poetry, just as free verse and verse are subgenres of poetry. As Michael Benedikt put it, the prose poem can use every device available to free verse except the line break. That’s really the only thing absent in prose poetry that you’ll find in free verse. Where free verse uses the tension between line and sentence, the prose poem must rely upon the sentence itself as the unit of progression and find other sources of tension.
I always find it fascinating that despite the fact that “prose poetry” and “free verse” have been around for pretty much exactly the same amount of time (more than 150 years), most people are shocked to find out that there is such a thing as “prose poetry.” “How is that possible?” they demand—“Poetry cannot be prose!” Yet they are perfectly willing to accept that “verse” can be “free.” Why? I am convinced it is because much early free verse was adaptable to ways of teaching poetry as literature using New Critical methodologies, while prose poetry, on the surface, seemed not to be adaptable in that way. Prose poetry, for a long time, also was the province of rebellious troublemakers like Rimbaud and the Surrealists and Gertrude Stein, whereas free verse pretty quickly made it into the mainstream on the heels of Eliot, Williams, Marianne Moore, and Stevens.
In colloquial usage, “verse” has come to be synonymous with “poetry.” Technically, of course, verse refers to language that features regularly measurable patterns, whether of syllables, of beats, or both. But, also colloquially, when folks refer to something—say an athletic move or the design of an automobile—as “poetic,” they mean nothing having to do with regularity or measurability; they usually mean something like “graceful” or “beautiful.” Not all poems, of course, are graceful, beautiful, or in verse.
So, then, there are no real measures for what makes a poem a poem?
This talk all begs the question that there is something common to all poetry, that there is a definition of poetry that satisfies all examples. I tend to think that there probably is no such definition and that “poetry” is a culturally contextual discourse. There are indicators in prose poems that invite readers to think of the texts as poems—foregrounding of sound and music of the language, parataxis and associative logic, figuration, strategies of closure, for some non-ubiquitous examples—as well as the contexts in which prose poems are experienced—literary journals, poetry readings, volumes of poems, poetry classes, anthologies, etc.—that offer the claim “this thing is a poem.” Readers are welcome to accept or reject that invitation or claim as they see fit, but to argue that these things cannot possibly be poems is to deny that genre is fluid and changing. One might as well argue that lyric poetry is only that which is performed to the accompaniment of a lyre.
So my advice, then, is to think liberally about genre, not to worry so much about whether a text is or isn’t a poem, and write in the way that seems best for the goals you want to accomplish with the effect you want to create. Of course, one can’t possibly know what effects are available without experimentation.
In A Book of Common Rituals, you write commands, such as the “Ritual for Beginning” which tells the reader to “Pull the drapes or close the blinds. Shut off the light.” I can see myself following the rituals for drinking coffee or doing my office work. Are the rituals in the book meant to apply to the reader? Do your rituals apply to one specific type of person?
My hope is that while reading or listening to the poems, the reader/listener will imagine herself performing the ritual, or, at least, will imagine someone else performing the ritual.
The rituals are divided on the page: on the left, the poem, and on the right, either text or an image that, in some way, corresponds. Sometimes these are abstract, “Tree Ritual I,I” for example, faces a Johnny Appleseed-themed crossword puzzle. Are these pairings meant to tell two different kinds of daily rituals?
I wanted to play with the possibility in the book that the effects of poems don’t have to end at the last line. This phenomenon actually can be seen in many books in the use of repeated lines or refrains in multiple poems or other kinds of reflections or conversation among the poems. I like some poems that have neat closure, but I think I am more interested in poems that open up or blossom or diverge or dissipate or redirect. So I saw the accompanying texts and images as ways to do those things, with the hope that the texts and images would help to make the poems something a little more, with tendrils that move out beyond the imaginative world of the poems in into the political, physical, religious, commercial world outside the text. So the accompanying texts and images can be both amplifications of and commentary on the poems.
In an interview with Cheryl Pallant, you described yourself as “all for interesting ways of using appropriation; all of our language … is borrowed from elsewhere.” Is this where the idea of borrowing recipes or news clips on business transactions came from for A Book of Common Rituals? Do you begin with appropriation and then write about it, or are you more interested in writing something and then pairing it with another piece for contrast?
Our identities are composed of collections of experience (“I contain multitudes.”). We are constantly collecting memories, words, phrases, sensations, embarrassments, failures, images, desires, calculations, and so on. We don’t “create” any of this material—our brains collect, synthesize, re-arrange. I think the same way about writing—all writers are collectors and re-arrangers. I wanted to play with those facts in this collection and wanted to feel free to wander beyond the borders of what would be considered “poetry” or even “prose poetry,” so that the poems were just among the many things being collected and presented. In some cases, the ritual poems came first and I selected accompanying material later, and in other cases the material inspired the poems.
In the 2009 anthology An Introduction to the Prose Poem, you wrote “prose poets tend to look for wide varieties of cultural discourse as models for their poems.” I can see all of the different cultural influences in A Book of Common Rituals through the very distinct cultural activities that become rituals, from the ways we eat to the ways we dance. Can you discuss this discourse and its importance a little further?
The poet and critic Jonathan Holden wrote a book, back in the 80s, I think, that had an argument I didn’t buy entirely, but I liked part of it. If I remember it correctly, he argued that postmodernity in American poetry was founded on the borrowing of cultural forms—the confession, the grocery list, the editorial, the letter, the newspaper article, the joke, etc. I’m not sure I buy that it’s a hallmark of postmodernism or even that what Holden calls postmodernism is what I call postmodernism, but there is no doubt that this borrowing of cultural forms that Holden saw was active in American poetry. I simply used that paradigm as a way of organizing An Introduction to the Prose Poem because it was a useful way to get at a number of tendencies in prose poetry that were illustrative to students interested in exploring prose poetry and trying their own hands at writing prose poems. You mentioned in one of your first questions that you had a hard time working your way into the idea of prose poetry, and I think a lot of students have that problem because it’s a proposition that is simply contrary to their (mis)educations about poetry. So one of the functions of the anthology is to help students overcome that obstacle by providing some easily relatable types of prose poems—many of which happen to be borrowed cultural forms: the anecdote, aphorism, fable, rant, essay, letters, postcards, and scripts, for example.
So does this idea come through in A Book of Common Rituals?
I’m playing on the idea of ritual in general as the cultural form borrowed, and religious ritual in particular. All religions have rituals, and the purpose of ritual is to mark or create some kind of transformation—from childhood to adulthood, from individual to part of a married couple, from unordained to ordained, etc. I wanted to explore the ways that poems can be personally transformative, so I both take that as the subject of many of the poems and try to find ways in the poems to enact small moments of transformation.
An Introduction to the Prose Poem has been described by N2 Poetry as helping to demystify the genre by explaining “what makes a prose poem a poem rather than simply short prose.” This is a common misconception, at the very least for me. What compels you to celebrate prose poetry as opposed to other forms?
Well, as I mentioned before, there was a time when I was writing prose poems, as a kind of obsession, I suppose. Around that time, an important journal called The Prose Poem: an International Journal (which was run by Peter Johnson and named after the very influential and important anthology edited by Michael Benedikt, The Prose Poem: an International Anthology) ceased publication. It was an opportune time to start a new journal on the heels of The Prose Poem, so that’s when I launched Sentence. After several years of editing Sentence, writing about prose poems, and teaching the prose poem in writing courses, it occurred to me that there wasn’t an anthology on the market that was designed as a classroom tool for students interested in the prose poem; so that’s how An Introduction to the Prose Poem was conceived. It’s intended to be a model of possibilities in the subgenre, as opposed to a canon-making project.
Many prose poems that I have read are inspired by the surreal. One of the most well-known that comes to mind is Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” which is less about supermarkets and more about an imagined conversation with Walt Whitman. Does the surreal come easily to prose poetry because the form lends itself to it, or is it completely up to the writer? How do you balance the surreal and the everyday in your poetry?
The surreal/Surrealist tendency in prose poetry probably is a matter of tradition. Poets such as Max Jacob, Henri Michaux, Robert Desnos, and Antonin Artaud were adapters of the prose poem to the absurdist tradition, following in the path of Rimbaud. Ginsberg’s poem brings a little bit of Surrealist silliness to his celebratory, Whitmanic voice. It’s a fun poem, as are many surrealist poems and many prose poems. Fun seems to be an important part of the prose poetry tradition, though certainly not all prose poems grow on the “fun” branch.
I don’t think the prose poem is any more open to the surreal or absurdism than any other form of writing, though. One thing the prose poem can do is put all of the language in the poem on an even level so that there are no hierarchies of attention (line breaks, spacing, beginnings of lines), and the poet can slip in little surprises unexpectedly.
As a current MFA student, I still feel as though I must break into the literary community, and with differing opinions on the usefulness of MFAs, this can sometimes seem like a hindrance. How does an MFA student connect with the writing community as a whole?
One of the things that I discovered in Dallas, where I helped to found a nonprofit literary center called The Writer’s Garret, as editor and publisher of Sentence and Firewheel Editions, and as Coordinator of the MFA program here at Western Connecticut State, is that it is probably more efficient to build a community among writers and readers than it is to try to break into a pre-existing community. Of course, the publishing world is a pre-existing community, and that’s the community that many of us want to enter most.
However, building other, smaller communities—starting literary journals, starting a small press, starting a reading series out in the community, starting a writer’s group, offering literary programming to the public, submitting work to literary journals and presses, attending conferences and book festivals, reading widely among multiple literary journals so that you know what is being done now—is a good way to become what it is in vogue now to call a “literary citizen.” Rarely does anyone everyone make it into the “published” club without first building that citizenship.
—interview by Alyssa Cohorn