You mentioned when you originally submitted your poems to Blackbird
that you had been experimenting lately with the form of the prose poem.
Any notion of what led you to explore that form?
Beckian Fritz Goldberg: A few years ago I decided to teach a course in the prose poem both as a way of exploring the increasing interest in it on the part of students and its increasing visibility in journals. I had only questions about it and no answersso it was an adventure of sorts, reading Baudelaire, Ponge, Calvino, Edson and trying to figure out what made a prose poem tick. I had only made one or two attempts at writing oneand came up against the problem of "how do I know if it is a successful prose poem?" I had worked long enough in free verse to have come to some sort of aesthetic about the poem and what I demanded from a poem. I didn't have that when it came to the prose poem. Yet, it seemed to me there was a space there, a point of possibility, and I was intrigued.
GD: While I was educated to a certain suspicion of the form of the prose poem (by esteemed teachers who enjoyed saying that a prose poem was neither), I also think of the many times I have enjoyed reading poems in that formoften enjoying them as a refreshment, a literal change of pace. Did you bring any preconceptions or expectations to the form? Do you have any resistance to it?
BFG: I think I did have initial resistance to it for the very reasons I just saidI didn't know what expectations to have and that makes one very insecure as a reader as well as a writer. There is a healthy resistance as well. I love Russell Edson's prose poems but it is a mistake to try to write prose poems like his. It results in a lot of prose poems out there that think if they include an absurdist element or a little dark humor that it's sufficient. The other necessary resistance is prose poems that are merely indulgent prose description or anecdote. So, it's a very scary thing this prose poem and trying to make it your own.
GD: I can readily recall my experience reading the prose poems of Baudelaire in Paris Spleen and Rimbaud in Illuminations, and James Wright's late work in This Journey, or the prose poemsif that's what they arein Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, or more recently Charles Simic's The World Doesn't End, or parts of Michael Burkard's My Secret Boat, which combines poems, prose, and prose poems. The writing in that list is deeply involving. Still, I've had a difficult time articulating what I find most important or most likeable in the prose poems I enjoy. What do you enjoywhat makes a successful prose poem for you? What makes one go bad? Any favorite poet practitioners? Do you have a tradition of prose poems out of which you think you might be working, or against which you are working?
BFG: I'm not sure I could define what makes a prose poem succeed any more than I could a free verse poem or sonnet. But what I found the most helpful for me was listening to the prose poem. For one thing it moves faster than the poem and in bigger "bytes" if I may use that word. Another thing that is important is language itself. Expository prose, even narrative prose is not necessarily immediately adaptable to the form. Part of it may be my sense of how the language builds "units of meaning." Though I wouldn't go entirely along with, say, Ron Silliman's essay on "The New Sentence," I think that the prose poem, like the poem, needs charged language, more turns perhaps than straight prose. But all these things get very muddy. I think you simply have to plunge in and hope you'll know when it happens.
For myself, I want to explore the lyric capacity of the prose poem. I love, for instance, Jean Follain's prose poems. I am also a big Michael Burkard fan. Another writer whose work is important to my idea of the prose poem is Yasunari Kawabata, his Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. These may be short-shorts as they call them in fiction or prose poemswhatever we call them there's a quality there that I'm very drawn to.
I also think just as fiction involves a different way of "thinking" than a poem, the prose poem, too is not a "blend" of both, some sort of "compromise" but an independent creature. Each involves a different way of thinking about time and space. The first effect that reading the prose poem had on my work was on my idea of the line, and my poems became much more "liberated" about the line, what length, where it ends, how it enjambs and just how important is a "line" after all? It's a "what if" sort of thing. What if I do end the line here or there, and what relation does it have to the sentence, and what if I just let it go on until it hits a margin or has to go to the bathroom or get a cup of coffee?
GD: Since you've been working in the form, do you think you've decided you would like to do a book-length collection of prose poems? Have you found yourself writing poems in this mode that are thematically connected, or which involve a "meta-narrative" bridging several poems?
BFG: I am actually writing a book of prose poems, Egypt from Space. I think it's inevitable that there will be a relationship among the individual prose poems but my last manuscript of poems The Book of Accident does involve some sort of meta-narrative, so I want to do something else with this book. Thematically I'm interested as always in time. And also in the prose poems I have now, there is also a recurrent geographic motif, as well as some xenotransplantationand several pigs.
GD: Moving to a broader consideration of your work, I'd like to ask you about the space you reserve for mystery and discovery for readers of your poems. Perhaps I've been involved with workshops too long, but lately I've found myself irritated by that familiar workshop complaint, "In this poem I need to know more about " and then fill in the blank: this mother, this robbery, this love affair. I'm tempted to ask the complainant: "Why?" While I do believe that clarity is never a vice, I also wonder if there isn't a need to respect the reader's intelligence and powers of observation, allowing them room to draw connections or make surmises. How do you go about making space for mystery in a poem? When do you know what's enough, or too much?
BFG: That's the big question, how does one know? I think we find ourselves asking for more information in workshops because when one is beginning to write, or still developing one's own sense of aesthetics as a student or "apprentice" very often the mistake is leaving out too much of the experience and including too much of the conclusions "about" the experience. But perhaps it also has to do with the question I find myself asking over and over, "what's at stake here?" And maybe we do encourage a certain "kind" of poetry at first. I'm a great believer in narrative and that every poet should learn how to write a narrative whether they go on to be so-called "narrative" poets or not. Learning what you can leave out is no good as a first step. And the first part of learning to write is realizing your audience a) doesn't care about your feelings b) is not clairvoyant. But that's a stage of the process. After a while, you have to learn to trust yourself, to risk more. One of the important discoveries for me, along those lines, was Jean Valentine's workit gave me "permission" to go places that I thought I couldn't because a reader might not follow me or might think I was simply too weird. I realized that if I like certain things as a reader, find them exciting and necessary for what the poem has to bring to me, then I have to trust that my readers are out there. And if they're not, well, I'm screwed I guess. But this also has to do with a broader vision of the poem, not just craft. Poetry is necessarily trying to articulate things that are not "A" or "B" or "C" but between and above, below, and in the wings. There is not language for this. But there is poetry for this.
GD: In your provocatively titled book Never Be the Horse, the title poemmemorable to everyone who's read itrings some remarkable changes on that phrase "never be the horse," which would seem at first a protest against being a beast of burden, or against being itself, and then that impression alters when it turns out it's the horse itself who is thinking, "Never be the horse God talks to." But it all changes back again to something resembling the initial impression (though altered) as one ponders exactly who plays the role of God in the poem. Similar developments emerge in "He Said Discipline Is the Highest Form of Love," where initial suspicions and questions about the implications of that statement go through several changes in the unfolding of the poem. These intriguing twists and turns and doubling-backs suggest something about the writing process in which you engage. Many readers, and developing writers, might wonder, do you know the basic plot of a poem before you begin, or have a notion where it may be headed, or do you discover your poem's turns as you are writing? How much do you allow yourself to know or imagine before you begin?
BFG: When I start a poem or a prose poem I don't have a clue where it's going to end up. I start with something, a line or phrase that I "hear" and it has a certain authority. I may have a central image or sense of what sort of body and weight the poem must have. I knew I was writing about a horse on a boat. Why and where the boat was going and what the horse would dono clue. When the horse spoke, I was as surprised as anyone. But then, that's the fun. When you are immersed in the experience of the poem you are thinking as the poem, not as you yourself. In the prose poem "He Said Discipline . . . ," I wanted to capture a certain sense of my adolescence. The title is an actual statement that my violin teacher made to me when I was thirteen or so and, of course, I thought it a terribly unromantic statement. It isn't a sentiment someone that young is ready to hear. There's something so dark and poignant ands yet almost shameful about that period of life and all the wanting that goes on beneath the surface. And then re-hearing that statement as an adult you hear it much differently. Essentially I suppose that "turning" and "doubling back" is part of my process. I don't know where I'm going but I do have a sense of when I get there. I suppose if I could articulate it pre-poem then I wouldn't engage in writing the poem at all.
GD: One facet of your poem "Past Immaculate" investigates what happens when we attempt to describe the sacred mysteries of the body and are confronted with the inadequacies of language (perhaps not entirely unlike the inadequacies of paint, or film, or stone) to do the job. To make that attempt, your poem suggests, language has to soar. Have you any thoughts on the nature of language as a medium for art? How do you deal with the suggestion that poetry's true subject is language itself?
BFG: I think it's dangerous to think of language as the subject of poetry. Really how many people out there give a shit about language as a subject. Who gets up and goes to the office or the assembly line or the street corner thinking about language? Only writers. Everyone else is too busy having a life. Poems have to aim higher than this. Yes, the fact that we have language makes it possible for us to express the nearly inexpressible to one another, even the dead like Keats or Rilke to the living and the living now to someone years from now. And that's precious. But the subjectthe subject is the eternal questionswho are we? why are we here? why do we die? is there a purpose? how do we find meaning in loss? how do we cope with the transience of pleasure? is there any certainty, comfort, permanence, safety, understanding of evil, true possession of bliss? And the infinite textures and inflections and forms of these questions.
But as a medium, as poetry, language has to take us somewhere off the page, somewhere inward perhaps, or outward. For me, finding new possibilities in the language, new breath, finding the exact words to evoke an ineffable sensation, dealing in design and weight and palpable music and words as big as musclesit's as epicurean as it is meaningful. Language is exciting to me because it's infinite so it must be in this sense like mathematics to someone in physics. And language itself is something mysterious, miraculousbut I wouldn't go as far as language for its own sake. I think "Past Immaculate" arose out of my interest in the relationship of language to the profane and to the sacred, the doubleness that lurks always in our language about the body, so I wanted to invent a new tense, past immaculate. And maybe that's generally my ambition in the book I'm writing now, to write in a new tense, maybe the Beckian Imperfect.