Matthew Thorburn, Poet - Author of Dear Almost
Renée Ashley grew up in California and lives in New Jersey. She is the author of five volumes of poetry: Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea (Subito Press Book Prize), Basic Heart (X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, Texas Review Press), The Revisionist’s Dream, The Various Reasons of Light (both Avocet Press), and Salt (Brittingham Prize in Poetry, University of Wisconsin Press), as well as two chapbooks, The Verbs of Desiring (new american press award) and The Museum of Lost Wings (Sunken Garden Poetry Prize, Hill-Stead Museum). She has also published a novel, Someplace Like This (Permanent Press). A portion of her poem "First Book of the Moon" is included in a permanent installation by the artist Larry Kirkland in Penn Station Terminal in Manhattan. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, as well as a Pushcart Prize. She is on the core faculty of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s low-residency graduate programs, the MFA in Creative Writing and the MA in Creative Writing and Literature for Educators.
Why prose poems? Do you find that prose poems offer unique opportunities that poems in lines don’t—and vice versa? How do you decide a poem will be a prose poem, rather than in lines? Were the poems in Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea always prose poems?
Prose poems seem such a challenge to me, partially because the form isn’t codified, so if a writer says it’s a prose poem then it’s a prose poem—but if it that poem doesn’t jump up and do something striking and do it well, then it’s just a dollop of, at best, competent prose. I knew there had to be a dynamic that could make it into something I couldn’t construct in another way. And I love the rigor and effect of extreme compression, which I think is one of the keys to making something leap off the page. I wanted the sense of pressure that only justified right and left margins could give—the feeling of being trapped inside a sealed vessel, always at the moment of about-to-explode, no way out—the way we are, so often, in our heads. Or the way I am, anyway. I think of the prose poem as a sort of pressure cooker. That’s what I wanted: no energy leaks and the content volatile, forcing itself against the physical limits of its containment walls. The pressure, to my mind, should be bi-directional: verbal pressure inside pushing out against the rigid, vertical dividing line between text and white space and the visual, structural pressure, the rigid margin of external, white space, pressing back.
I seem to know from the onset—or at least believe I do—what impulse is propelling an act of writing. I can hear it in the pacing or see it in the embrace of focus. In Because… I went very consciously after the prose poem form. It took me years to find what I felt was the right mix. Every poem I wrote, for so long, was so obviously lineated that I began to think I was never going to be able to write a decent prose poem. Only when I utterly gave up and felt resigned to just prose and poetry, did I somehow find a way in. My aesthetic was formed as I tried things out—I kept what worked for me and discarded what didn’t. I wrote a lot of essays during that period-of-can’t-make-the-prose-poem-happen, a form that seems to me the polar opposite of the prose poem—it’s so elastic. I’m pretty horrified to admit that a few of the poems that appear in block form in the book were not conceived as prose poems—and this is something I’ve never done before, change a piece into something it wasn’t intended to be. I reworked and pruned them, I think, into better poems in the prose poem shape. (With one exception which is kind of a personal joke.) There were only two or three of these, thank heavens. The after-the-fact shaping is not nearly as satisfying as having the work ignite in the shape it will take in the end. I did it for more cohesiveness on a book-scale rather than on the poem-scale. But I wouldn’t do it again; it’s unnatural and much too convenient a compromise. I’m not certain verbal art from such an impulse is really that plastic. I’m such a hidebound old thing.
I find your use of capitalization combined with limited punctuation (that is, no periods) really interesting. For me, this gives your prose poems a very lyrical feel: meaning is sometimes blurred or doubled as thoughts overlap or bump up against each other, and everything moves very quickly. The poems convey the feeling of a mind in motion, moving swiftly from thought to thought. How did you come to this approach—and what is the appeal of it for you?
Thank you, Matthew! I’m so happy it reads that way. Yes. No terminal punctuation but question marks and exclamation points. It was about the pressure again. Each phrase or clause needed to run into the next without a full stop; I didn’t want the reader to have a pressureless gap through which to escape; I had to keep up the momentum and the horizontal tensile strength. I used capitalization for the orchestration of sentences or fragments and also to take advantage of some ambiguities that I felt added in a positive way to the pressure-pot. I wanted speed and profluence to compound the pressure that was forcing movement, building momentum, and the sense of being trapped in a thread of thought with no exit. The appeal? The possibility of transferring the sensation of head-as-inescapably-sealed-vessel to paper. That was the ideal I worked towards; I didn’t achieve it exactly, of course, but it’s what I was aiming for. And also, in the book, there’s more white space between the lines than there was in the manuscript: the poems manifested there as much denser and impenetrable. I can understand, though, why the publisher and designer wanted more space between the lines of text. It was difficult to read them in their more compact form; I admit it.
How does a poem start for you? In particular, how did “[contemplation within the framework of the dream]” or “[oh yes tomorrow expect the ordinary]” start? And what was your writing and revising process like with these poems?
I inevitably begin with a title or first line, an image with a rhythm. I let that beginning generate (sound and association) what follows so that, if I succeed, the dynamic of the poem evolves almost naturally, however strange the poem itself may turn out. All art is artifice, I know, but I’m after a seamless quality that exists in nature. A hybrid, if you will. I rarely, if ever, know where a poem is going to end up, in fact I almost never do, but the poem creates itself from top to bottom, the first line or sentence feeding the second, the second the third, etc. Every once in a while, near the end of a poem. I’ll have to change the order of some lines—or sentences in the case of the prose poem—but more often not. I can’t move forward until what I have feels right—approximate doesn’t do it for me—otherwise I’ll generate something that won’t align well in the end. It’s not an efficient way to work, I know. But it’s the only way I have.
Both poems you mention were prose poems from inception, but “[oh yes…]” is a kinder, gentler poem than “[Contemplation…].” That’s the penultimate poem in the book. At that point, I’m trying to ease up on the reader and begin to release him back into the world, not raise his blood pressure.
These poems feel like a sequence to me, almost like the chapters of a very succinct novel. It’s a subtle feeling, but it seems like certain themes or ideas or images (or animals) surface and resurface throughout the book. Did you envision writing a sequence or a collection of prose poems from the beginning, or did they gradually build up momentum, or…?
It’s funny. Others have said this to me—about a buried narrative— but I never saw it when I was putting the book together, and I haven’t had a chance to just sit down and read it through to see if I can find it. But as for returning themes and images, those I’m aware of. In John Brigg’s book, The Fire in the Crucible, he talks about a writer’s themata, the themes that a writer returns to in her work again and again, and heaven knows I’ve got mine in spades. And that, in fact, may be one of the sources of the sealed-vessel feeling that I so often experience, the I-can’t-get-away-from-me feeling. Those recurring themes are so obvious, in fact, that, years ago, someone I didn’t know at all, came up to me after a reading and said in this really withering tone, “You don’t think much of love, do you?” and instead of thinking, Oh, wow! He’s actually read my work, I laughed. I had to admit it: Nope. No, I really don’t. I hadn’t articulated that to myself before that night. It was like this nova of recognition that burst out of my mouth in the form of a laugh. He was horrified, of course, and probably never read another thing I wrote—but it was such a surprise! But coming back to sequence, I do order poems in a book according to a vague tension-model of Freytag’s triangle, easing in, building intensity, then backing off, and that may be a contributory factor in the sensation of sequence.
With the exception of my first book, Salt, in which I was learning what a poem was, I’ve written my books as books rather than eclectic compilations. I’ll have, maybe, five poems toward a new manuscript when I’ll recognize what hobby horse I’m riding into the ground this particular time and I’ll construct the book on that arc. In my second book, The Various Reasons of Light, I was learning how to ground the abstract; that was definitely my conscious project. In my third, The Revisionist’s Dream, I went back to my Comparative Literature roots. The fourth one, Basic Heart, that’s my “nervous breakdown book” though, luckily, I didn’t have one—but it was written during a patch that was about as rough as it’s gotten. And Because I Am the Shore… was definitely meant to be a book of prose poems. I’m far too much a seeker-of-similarities-and-patterns to work randomly; I see a pattern, I begin to recognize some obsession-of-the-next-four-or-five-years, and work with it rather than letting it work against me.
What’s next for you, writing-wise? Are you writing more prose poems?
I am! It takes me, on the average, four or five years to write a book. And I’m about half-way through another book of prose poems. I’m also pulling my essays and reviews pulled together into a single book-length manuscript—wish me luck on that one! That’s sure to be a best seller! They’re almost all hybrids: essay/reviews, personal essays/craft essays, interviews. It’ll be ready to send that out by the end of June, I think. I don’t know yet, though, what I’ll do after this next collection of prose poems is completed. I don’t usually recognize the new impetus/obsession until the current project is at least past the half-way mark. Evidently, that’s how I get things finished, one thing nudging the nearly-completed other thing off the road. I may jot down some notes, etc, but I don’t allow myself to focus on anything new until the previous project is bagged up and ready to leave home. It can get frustrating. I work on only one poem at a time. I can, though, work on a poem and an essay at the same time—they’re such vastly different animals that there’s no danger of my crossbreeding them and creating two identical monsters.
And lastly, what are you reading these days?
I read a lot of essays. I recently finished The Empathy Exams, which was really interesting and beautifully written though I did feel the heavy hand of theme on the book-scale. The individual essays on their own were fabulous. And that same author’s, Leslie Jamison’s, novel, The Gin Closet, which was superb as well. David Grand’s Mount Terminus is an odd, beautiful, and brilliant novel; I finished that not too long ago. Oh! The first volume of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard kept me mesmerized but I haven’t put my finger on why yet; I’ve got the second huge volume in my pile. Maybe I’ll find out there. Fascinating. Oh! And Lloyd Jones. He’s the most wonderful writer! He’s a New Zealander, but born in Wales, I believe. He’s famous for his novel Mr. Pip which a friend in New Zealand gave me a long time ago and which was surprising and just marvelous. I just finished his biografi and couldn’t put it down! It’s part travel, part creative nonfiction, in which he talks about a trip to and the history of Albania—not something I’d consciously seek out! But I read it in two days and I’m a slow—glacial, really— reader. Could. Not. Put. It. Down. I’ve just started his memoir, A History of Silence. I’ve only read about five pages and I’m smitten. Clean, musical, divine prose. I’ve got two more of his novels in my pile. And I’ve just read Ellen Akins’ new novel-in-manuscript; she writes the most intricate, amazing characters and her sentences are gorgeous, to die for. She’s a remarkable writer and this new book is going to really get a lot of attention, I think. It’s brilliantly strange and familiar. I believed every word. I also listen to a lot of nonfiction in the car (I’m often in the car for long stretches of time). And, of course, I read a ton of poetry. I’ve got poetry books in piles everywhere as well as scattered around the house (just like I do pairs of reading glasses). I like to dip into them. Who’s on my tables now? Let’s see: Alex Lemon, Mary Ruefle, Kathleen Jesme, Rusty Morrison, Cole Swensen, Dennis Nurkse, Martha Collins, Frank Bidart, Saskia Hamilton… I know there are at least half a dozen more lying open around here… I also want to reread Helen Vendler’s books of criticism. She’s astounding: such a lover of poetry and so smart. And Stephen Burt, who slays me. I want to reread Ellen Bryant Voigt’s book on syntax. There’s so much I want to read! I admit it. I’m a book addict. And life’s too darn short!
Two Poems from Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea:
CONTEMPLATION WITHIN THE FRAMEWORK OF THE DREAM
Consider the custom of likeness or unlikeness fit as the moon to a sky: let one point light up let it be relative to that The speed of that Let something quite real cry out The dead making themselves known their bodies ill-fit and mostly self-inflicted They change the story A pattern of escalation Of furthering and backing off Embellishment! There is no space big enough for me to speak into about this Any little human thing might act as balm What’s your confession?
[oh yes tomorrow expect the ordinary]
The dogs sing beautifully over everything beautiful or not—white sleet or white sun—and you have never yet begun with nothing Tell your friends to wait This will take some time Imagine a burned house—steamy sill dampened ash Shingle lintel coal An emptiness spread like soot Can you even begin to comprehend nothing? Posit a negative in a positive mind the idea of no idea expanding? The dark smell of gone of you can’t get this back Consider the stark break between yes and so often—between no and not yet some time Think hypothetical absolute Oh druggery! Oh get me through this Every day dog song and dander jig your approach—such joy! Privilege and you so heart-poor A poverty of fire You yourself consumed But not so simple Never as clear as that Nothing so sweetly entire