Narrotics: New Narrative and the Prose Poem
I am interested in a dialogue about "new" narrative, which is perhaps not so much new, as newly theorized. Many prose writers do not consider themselves fiction writers, yet at the same time are not really part of on-going poetics discussions which, for the most part, do not focus on narrative. Although I also write prose fiction, I consider my prose poetry and other alternative, interdisciplinary, and innovative sentences to be a neoteric prose that both challenges and expands language boundaries.
For me, the prose poem is a poetic strategy embedded within the structure of narrative, and a feminist response to patriarchal language and forms. By embracing both prose syntax and poetic disruptions, the prose poem defies conventional linear grammar and refuses to satisfy my desires for either poetry or story. My desire is for so much more than causal, linear, rational and persuasive normative sentences. In my novel and in my poetry, I try to live between the promise of narrative and the fulfillment of the habit of fiction.
By expropriating two distinct genres while presenting a form of writing that is seen to consist of both, prose poetry presents itself as hybrid writing; a hybrid that I explore as crossing between the desire to exceed formal considerations, and the narrational insistence surrounding such considerations. In my prose poems, I try to embrace the problematic of poetry that "looks" like ordinary prose narrative, yet invites disjunctive readings which may extend beyond traditional poetic forms and conventional conceptions of narrative. My pieces "fail" as poetryyet continually celebrate the erotic contradiction such failure narrates.
The prose poem, for me, offers itself as a "genre" that permits and encourages me to move freely from sentence to line-break to full-stop to repetition. Without entirely settling on its own definition, the prose poem rattles my airtight nerves, upsets my crabapple go karts, insistently and lasciviously rubs my discourse the wrong wayinventing, always reinventing itself. Its very possibility denies its own existence. For me, the prose poem remains liminal: not merely transgressive, but indeterminite, caught in the phoenix act of disappearing, reappearing as its own possibility.
My interest in this form begins at the level of the sentence. What makes a sentence a line of poetry rather than an excerpt from an essay or novel? The answer, for me, is the surrounding words and sentences, the position of those words on the page, the complicated ache of the forced return at the end of each "line." Ear and eye games, the playing of interruption and proceed. Not stop-and-go, but go-and-go-farther. As soon as I take a step towards the horizon, the horizon reconfiguresitself and me.
What interests me about the sentence as poetic form is that poets who are least interested in representational language are most often the ones who turn to a grammatical structure which invests heavily in sentential logic. The use and abuse of the sentence, then, seems to be the focus of the poem. And because one sentence follows the nextwhich offers a visual hypotasis but a semiotic parataxisthe poem insists on a reading that is far more linear (for lack of a better word), than is a line-break poem with disparate images stacked one above the other. The one poetic device designated as prose or not poetry, the sentence, becomes the choice unit of composition for poets who intrigue me, shock me, paratactically get under my skin.
Within each sentential piece can emerge a plasticity resistant to notions of purity in either prose or poetry. Gertrude Stein chose the sentence as her basic unit of composition. Her sentences release readers from the semantic baggage traditionally loaded into narrative prose as they re-define, distort, conflate, skew, and otherwise render the sentence pliable and visceral:
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle
and nothing strange in a single hurt color and an
arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and
not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The
difference is spreading. (Tender Buttons 9)
Such prose rumbles inside the belly of poetry, or perhaps poetry shifts awkwardly within the abdomen of prose. Readers, seduced by sentence structure, discover themselves trespassing an erotics of prose, transgressing away from familiar and known fiction offerings.
Writers engaging in what Stephen Fredman calls "poet’s prose," struggle to create new ideas from inside the conventions that constitute the either/or structure of the prose poem. This structure is the chance for prose writers to both follow narrative and to deviate away from story. For example, Robert Kroetsch, in his poem "The Sad Phoenician," pursues an elusive and/but dialogue that generates a bifurcated and pending narrative:
and the Phoenicians gave us the whole works
but what does that matter to a world that ignores
them, the Greeks got all the credit of
course, because they stole the alphabet
and the girl from Swift Current, she more or less
but the kitchen sink, claiming all my books, my
my records, my prints; she moved in with that
photographer from Saskatoon, the one who
takes those sterling pictures of the wind
and I should sue
but she follows large flocks of birds, I hear,
calling my name
but why she developed a thing for adverbs, that's
too rich for my blood, I want to tell you
Readers wander through an and/but tug-of-war that is also a narrative wandering, from the Phoenicians and Greeks to Saskatchewan, to the very grammar of the telling. It is this telling that gets so many new prose writers into troubleisn’t plot the very basis of novels? How can one tell a story and avoid fiction? And why do we want to?
Feminist writers must resist and reinvent patriarchal language to make it our own. We cross a border every time we pick up a pen or turn on the computer or hum into a tape deck. The border is a visible line on the page that the prose poem physically outlines. For many women, this is not simply a gendered border, but one that has been criss-crossed by social lines such as race or class. Harryette Mullen, in her prose poetry book, S*PeRM**K*T, investigates the connective links between the social and the linguistic:
Eat junk, don't shoot. Fast food leaves hunger off the hook. Employees must wash
hands. Bleach your needles, cook the works. Stick it to the frying pan, hyped again.
Another teflon prez. Caught in the fire around midnight, quick and dirty biz. Smoked
in the self-cleaning oven.
Mullen's disconnected sentences can be read to produce meanings that address subjects ranging from drugs to poverty in contemporary USA. But the structure of the "narrative" does not create fictional characters and circumstances to battle these issues; rather, Mullen's words entice at the same time as they startle reading practices. Word association and colloquial speech patterns reinvent the chance to re-enter the text from another crack. This text does not close the book on the story, it continues to remind that reading is a socially-coded act, and that a reader's subjectivity is constructed through how she enters language.
Language enters me, and my sentences struggle against what I know to be "just" a sentence. I hesitate in doorways and on fences, I plan my route along edges and cracks in the sidewalk, I pencil in margins made up of words only words, and then I cross over into blank space. Not because it is "new" or "white" or "virginal" or any other dominant appropriative term, but because the blank space is where the prose poem offers a visible margin, a territory (known or not) that hangs onto the edges of writing, clings to the edges of edges. I get edgy when I try to read or write a prose poem, anxious, excitable, downright perplexed. I hang about on the inside of this perplexing form because it keeps me on my language toes: unsure and insecure, tip-toeing across whatever lines a poem insists upon.
I "plot" at sentences and subterfuge, dream of a poetry that withstands ragged-right fashions, yet continues to address narrative within disjunctive non-lineated prose. I look to the prose poem as mutation by definition unstable, punctuated by eternally reproducing desires.
I want to carry words to where they’re already going, but not necessarily to where I think they're carrying me. I strive to enact an and/but narrative erotic that is neither fiction nor poetry, that invites readers to see beyond seeing and write beyond reading. I veer away from the end of that prose line, from the punct signifying the closing ceremony, the final page next to the cover, the certain and the certified. I question the metaphorical imperative that insists toes are what we tip on, and grasp instead the reassurance of instability, embrace the inability to embrace a stable subjectivity, and echo cheerfully what Kathleen Fraser describes as "fragments of a wholeness only guessed at" (Each Next). My prose poems want/desire/lust after such guessing contortions.
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