Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Here Comes a Twister & Thoughts about Prose Poetry

She grew up in the land of twisters, seeking shelter in middle bathrooms. She baptized herself in the rivers of glass sparkling through the broken house. Wall clouds turned and blackened, the sky decayed, fell down from itself. Monsters ate trees in the night but by morning, birds always returned, the feeders full of color and song, while all around hailstones melted. Only small questions remained, then; the big ones were all torn up with the trees and trails, apologies she used to believe she owed. A familiar man in coveralls claims he can repair the roof faster, cheaper, better than the other guys who don’t understand these things (sign here please). Her fists clench, knuckles ache like love; she relaxes only when he leaves. She whispers secrets to her daughter: about the days of electricity and engines, about the thrill of kneeling wild-eyed before the weather radio’s robot voice, about prayers for thunder and wind, about how she learned to control storms and how everything that happens flashes in a dark and roaring instant.

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This an old one, posted here a few years back and later published at CSHS, but it was originally published as a poem—the kind with line breaks—and not as a prose poem or a flash or whatever the heck these rectangular things are. I’ve found the past few years that I want to write more and more prose poetry and then wondering about the distinction between prose poetry and flash fiction.

They (as in the all-knowing They) say flash has narrative and prose poetry relies on imagery and ideas. What then of narrative prose poems, which is how a lot of mine feel to me? Further complicating matters is the fact that many of my poems are drafted in a sort of rambling stream-of-consciousness paragraph form which I then start fiddling with by inserting line breaks. What happens then when I take away those line breaks and go back to prose as in the above poem and in several of the poems in What Stranger Miracles, which was published by White Knuckle Press in 2016 as a free online chap.

I suppose the flow chart would go like this:

stream-of-consciousness draft paragraph without much punctuation – > add punctuation, line breaks, cut stuff -> fiddle w/language, tinker, play -> refine, add and delete lines -> multiple side trips through limbo, some lasting months or even years -> complete poem -> remove line breaks and go back to paragraph form

That all seems very convoluted, but something interesting happens in that step between finished poem-with-line-breaks and prose poem that I don’t think I could have gotten to if I had just kept it in paragraph form from the beginning. I think differently about what I’m writing when those line breaks appear.

Maybe then this is more about a reader’s perception than a writer’s intention. I keep thinking about how musicians remix their own work often releasing it in multiple forms. Any given song might have the studio version, the acoustic version, the club mix, and the live version. Each of these requires changes to the original arrangement while the words (usually) remain the same. The listener is able in many cases to choose and purchase the preferred version.

I realize I’m sneaking back into my thoughts about sanctity-of-text that I was writing about recently, but why not something similar with poetry? Why not release prose versions of our work? Even if in abbreviated format like an EP of a few acoustic tracks from various albums. Prose poetry versions might even go over better in e-book format since they’re easier to code and read on an e-reader.

After reading The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories by Osama Allomar, a collection described as short stories but often straddling that thin line between flash and prose poetry, I can’t help but wonder if this is this all just marketing stuff. Would prose poetry sell better than poetry if we just called it flash or something more generic like short prose? What about poems remixed into prose form? What are those if they were narrative to begin with? And, back to digital questions, would they sell better as ebooks than poetry seems to?

This comes up because I’ve been going back and prose-ifying some of my old poems. I find some of them work better this way. (I wish there was a WordPress plugin that would do this for me.) As I do this, I’m starting to see the outlines of a manuscript that I hadn’t recognized before. There are a number of these poems-becoming-prose-poems that seem to fit together and for me anyway seem to be more interesting in prose.

I’ll close for now with my author’s statement from the beginning of What Stranger Miracles. Here’s “Adseg”:

Just as they separate ax murderers from regular ones, holding them out for special derision and lengthier sentences, we segregate prose poems from regular poems. They get their own labels and cells, a metal toilet, gang signs, and four hashmarks—one for each consecutive sentence—carved into the crumbling walls on some prison island surrounded by and so far from the sea. The prose poem wakes with the others but hesitates when they roll the doors. It knows it shouldn’t enter the yard with the other poems, those sad misdemeanors that just got busted that one time they tried something big.

Has anyone else tried fiddling with their work like this? Did you like the results? What do you think about releasing multiple versions of your work?

9 Comments

  1. I haven’t tried playing with any of my poems like this, but appreciate the idea, and will do so. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences on it.

  2. I love the fictional prose poem that is this piece!

  3. This is a very interesting read, James. Especially this question: “Would prose poetry sell better than poetry if we just called it flash or something more generic like short prose?” While I never like to think about poetry (or any writing) in terms of its marketability, I do wonder if people find prose poems/flash/short prose more accessible and less intimidating. I have also been writing more prose poems lately, and have monkeyed with switching free verse to prose style, and vice versa. The reasons why they work better one way or another are often elusive to me, but it’s interesting to think about. I personally love reading prose poetry, and flash, and other short, imagery-filled pieces that perhaps defy labeling. “Here Comes a Twister” is excellent.

    • Thanks, Kim. I don’t really have any definite ideas about this either, but it’s an interesting way to experiment. I have often wondered about the intimidation factor. Poetry really does intimidate people, it seems. That’s one of the things I strive for as a teacher is to try to demystify it. But I do know that what you call a thing directly affects how people will approach it.

  4. I like this, but like it best as a poem in couplets – I think the short sentences aren’t quite my taste in a prose poem.

    I certainly do play around with things I thought were finished, and quite often end up changing the form, including from lineated poem to prose poem and vice versa.

    Recently rewrote a 100-word flash fiction from a long time ago – pre-poetry for me, really – as an sonnet, and I can certainly envisage doing that other way around. Both forms are compressed and contained.

    Presenting something in multiple forms is an interesting idea. In principle I’m keen on all kinds of experimentation, extension, hybridization… but not sure I can imagine ever doing multiple forms myself, as what I tend to experience is returning to a poem until it finds the form I’m most content with – and that may change, but there’s only one…

    Very thought provoking – thanks.

    • Thanks, Jean. I can’t help but wonder if I like the change in large part because it makes a forgotten 8-year-old poem seem fresh to me. Maybe I’m fixing what ain’t broke. Sequencing these in a manuscript, though, seems more manageable in prose for some reason, but I could also see myself going back to lineated (thanks for the word) or some combination of the two if I ever get to the point where it feels finished.

  5. Yes, I often recast line-breaked poems as prose and vice versa. With the current manuscript, I’ve gone a step further and turned prose poems into haibun. Releasing in multiple formats is something we’ve both done, if you think about audio and video interpretations. I find if a poem begins as a videopoem, I really don’t mind what form the text is put into.

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