Reading in an Undiscovered Library: Pulse – Prose Poems as Collaboration

Posted on June 23, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Lucy Alexander
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

The woman has borrowed arms and legs.
She walks on a tightrope in front of the
watching crowd. They stand back as in-
structed, and do not attempt to become a
bigger part of what is happening…

It is difficult to find an adequate definition of prose poetry. If we say that prose poems are ‘literary works which exhibit poetic quality using emotional effects and heightened imagery but are written in prose instead of verse…’[1] we come close to what is happening in this volume. But, the line breaks do seem consequential. In the above quotation, the very specific slicing of in-/structed, calls into question the idea of prose gently working its way across the line of sight and breaking only at the margins, while the poetic line is broken in a considered way. Was it editorial choice? Or is the wider margin here suggesting that the text forms the column structure that is expected from a poem?

Pulse – Prose Poems breaks many conventions. Immediately upon handling, the volume requires the reader to become resourceful in their reading. There are no author acknowledgements for each of the individual pieces. No page numbers. The narrow columns of words crouch low on the page as if ready to spring from the corners. The volume itself defies expectation, much as the writing in it does.

The cover image of textured curtains in the sunlight is by Colin Knowles. The title is the only text that appears on it. Not until the title page are we introduced to the editors (Shane Strange and Monica Carroll), or the concept of the ‘Prose Poetry Project’:

The Prose Poetry Project was created by the International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI) in November 2014, with the aim of collaboratively exploring the form and composition of prose poetry. The ongoing project aims to produce both creative and research outcomes stemming from the resurgence of interest in the prose poem.[2]

Pulse is the second anthology collected through the collaborative work of the Prose Poetry Project, a collection of some twenty poets – academics and PhD candidates and writers – brought together from the UK and Australia (with a taste of NZ and the US via the Netherlands and Tanzania). Pulse interrogates the way prose poetry is created, consumed and categorised. The text also questions the way we readers we imbibe our prose and poetry. The volume invites the reader to sample fragments of work – somewhat like a wine tasting. Rather than guzzling a glass we are challenged contemplate the depth and character of each page (the pieces are rarely longer than this, often shorter) and to focus and concentrate on the flavour and mystery.

Each of the poetic fragments is stripped of its context and its authorship. It insists on being read from its own translucent vial. In their introduction, the editors explain that they:

wanted to show that the collaborative vigour of the (Prose Poetry) Project didn’t arise from any individual or select group of voices, but from the broad mixture of contributions … to emphasise that these works might be read less as poetry and more as a series of fragments (from) some undiscovered library.

As the second volume from the Prose Poetry Project (and maybe the selection process is explained in their first volume) this assertion from the editors raises questions of inclusion and segregation; surely the Prose Poetry Project is a select group of voices, as any anthology must be by its very nature? Here, rather than a call for contributions, the published volume collects pieces from the ongoing collaborative project. The contributors are all working in the field of cultural and creative research and perhaps, while highly qualified to play with convention, do not necessarily represent a broadest mixture of contributors?

Contributors are, however, geographically varied. Fourteen of them are working in Australia and six in the UK. The subject matter of their work extends from discussion of the form itself, (the patient concluded that, like many addictions, poetry was a way of learning to die.) through the blues (thelonius monk brings his finger down/ and hooks a skin stretch moment out to the/ boundaries…) to butterflies (The difference between butterfly and spud/ is that butterfly is to cut almost entirely in/ half and spread the halves apart…); from duck’s conversations (‘Because’, Says Mother/Duck ‘I equate significant milestones in/ your life with the inevitable narrowing of/ opportunities in mine…’) to genocide, war, (During the Gombe War, chimpanzee killed chimpanzee: is that massacre?) and to the natural world’s events, small and large (Bright drops of blood on the pale green underside of the leaves he saw were ladybirds…). The poems take their lead from one another and build new, startling images from what went before. The Pulse of the title is the continuum of the gentle play between the contributors who riff and almost seem to improvise over one another’s analogies, themes and phrasing.

In the first of the two sequences in the volume the themes of music, water and farming play through the works. The pig is a recurring theme, as are famous men: Seamus Heaney, John Wayne and Bob Marley swim to the surface and dive out of sight again; the pig appears and reappears throughout this section, to trot along with his brothers, be farmed and consumed as bacon. While the individual pieces don’t call and answer one another, they do overlap and pick up words, concepts and phrases that are echoed and reverberated. In the second sequence the pieces often start with a bright colour — focusing the beginning of each work in a visual field. Occasionally there are blank pages in the book as if to suggest that a new ream of riffing, a new runnel of thought, is to be explored.

If the collection is there to represent the ‘vigour’ of the interactions of the authors within what must be a continuing series of artistic relationships, more information on the editorial choices, or on the way in which the pieces were informed in relation to one another, would create an interesting context for the curious reader. The editors say: ‘We wanted to concentrate on the way these pieces wove threads through each other into longer fabrics: resonating images, themes, narratives, motifs, ideas and connections’. Perhaps — when the works are stripped of their context — this is a lot to ask of a reader who is just glimpsing a page from the ‘undiscovered library’. However, it could also stimulate new ways of reading, allowing the reader to explore how the individual pieces are mixed together, and how they relate to one another in terms of their creation.

But it is also possible that in our conventional reading we are too interested in context, in wanting to know who the poet is and why they are writing what they are writing. When seen through this lens Pulse – Prose Poems is successful in that it creates space, both metaphoric and literal, for the prose poems to just be what they are — and to make no apology for that. As the introduction states: ‘these works might be read less as poetry and more as a series of fragments’.

Once the reader becomes comfortable with the Prose Poem form and the spare and often gritty nature of these works, the writing does leap off the page to ‘surprise and delight’, as the cover blurb describes. The pieces themselves are highly quotable and beautifully crafted. Lines that gleam out through the windows of the library asking to be remembered:

We found old starlight lying at an angle on the cellar’s clay floor…

I am content that every star should find its own declension…

He told me to wallow in the present like a hot bath…

Some pieces work as small parcels of definitions, asking the reader to pause and revel in the language (‘A miller’s thumb’). Others are memories, imaginings, what could almost be called micro-fictions — a complete story told in some tens of words.

There is this though: Pulse – Prose Poems offers a substantial problem for the reviewer. How to discuss individual works with no titles, no author and in the absence of page numbers? At the back of the book there is an index of first words that link the works with their author. So, while bucking certain rules, this text also offers something for those of us who want to know who wrote what – but requires us to do the work. It’s also hard for a reviewer to guide you to particular pieces or memorable lines without number and title conventions.

While it’s interesting for a collaborative project to be so collaborative that the individual is lost within the project itself, is this what the published volume of finalised work should reflect? At the end of the volume, just before the biographies of the contributors, there is a note that two of the poems included here have been published elsewhere – presumably with the author’s name firmly attached. This raises interesting questions about the nature of publication and how contributors might be paid and acknowledged for their work. As Paul Munden seems to bitingly remark in the closing poem of the collection: ‘The author would/ like to recall one of his recent prose/ poems. Sadly, he cannot identify which’.

It is clear that through their decisions to omit conventional markers from book form the editors did not want Pulse – Prose Poems to be read in the same way you would a poetry collection or a book of short stories. It is also clear that the authors are masters of their art — the journey with them through the library of their collective thoughts is certainly one worth taking.

 

[1] Literary Devices. Accessed 10th May 2017

[2] Axon Journal, ‘The Prose Poetry Project’. Accessed 10th May 2017

Pulse – Prose Poems
The Prose Poetry Project

Edited by Shane Strange and Monica Carroll
Recent Work Press, 2012
50pp (approx.)

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Lucy Alexander is a Canberra based poet and writer of fiction. She specialises in making piles of words and then sorting them out based on what they mean. Recently she’s been fashioning poems with the 365+1 project, marking up her fictions with edits and formulating a secret project that revolves around dogs. She’s often inspired to write about her family who are all expert time-thieves. She does much of her writing when everyone’s asleep.

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