Tuesday 25 January 2022

Mixed genre poetry books

It's not so unusual for prose writers to write poetry too. They used to publish them in separate books. The situation's less clear nowadays. For example, consider "Certain Windows" by Dan Burt (Lintott Press, 2011). It's 64 pages long, with poems from PN Review and the TLS. There's a 35-page prose autobiography of his early years. How did such a situation arise?

Many decades ago, there were places in the US/UK that published snippets of prose - I think Readers Digest had little pieces for example. But these outlets dried up so the authors of these short texts, if they wanted them published, had to send them to poetry magazines. Of course, prose-poetry existed, but that term was reserved for surreal, discontinuous works. So what they did was add line-breaks. Also popular was the idea of making all the stanzas the same size of rectangle, as if there was a metrical/rhyming pattern. Read Paul Durcan's poems to see how it's done.

Then Flash emerged, providing a natural home for short narratives again. Various other short prose formats became popular too. Authors of short pieces no longer needed to add gratuitous line-breaks. Some authors have taken advantage of this. Carolyn Forché has re-published her famous "The Colonel" poem as prose. Don Paterson publishes books of aphorisms

I think it's time that editors questioned line-breaks that do little, just as they challenge words and lines that don't pull their weight. Some editors do, but line-breaks have so many putative purposes (many so subtle that I can't see them) that editors tend to leave the layout alone.

Just to add to the fun, there's a trend to use "/" instead of a line-break. Some people use multiple spaces between words. In addition more people than ever are writing poetry with an aim to be published, so it's no surprise that people are spreading into less traditional areas of poetry, straying into hybrid zones.

The conflation of short prose with poetry has led to more books having a mix of poetry and prose. E.g. -

  • Helen Tookey's "City of Departures" (Carcanet, 2021) begins with poems, but ends with pages that are unashamedly prose.
  • "Citizen" by Claudia Rankine won poetry prizes but much of it wasn't trying to be poetry, it seems to me.
  • "Small Hours" by Lachlan Mackinnon (Faber, 2010) ends with a long section of text which I'd call prose. Some reviewers said so too.

Nowadays poetry readers seem capable of not caring about line-breaks. When they start reading a poem I think they decide whether it's the sort of piece where line-breaks matter and read the piece accordingly. Neither do they care much if there's obvious prose in a poetry book. I suspect it's been going on covertly for a while. I read a U.A. Fanthorpe book recently. It looked like a mixture of poetry and prose. Her famous "Not my Best Side" is like the prose I try to write. I doubt if the Trades Description Act can be applied. That said, I think Poetry judges could be braver.

If you can't beat them, join them. I have prose and poetry versions of some pieces. I’ve short-lined and long-lined versions of poems. I've even (shame on me) taken a paragraph from a story of mine, added some line-breaks, and had it published in a poetry mag.

Friday 14 January 2022

2 poetry podcasts

Both these podcasts tackle a poem or 2 per episode, but in different ways.

Frank Skinner is a well-known UK comedian with hidden depths. He does a good solo job with a range of poems old and new, some of them rather challenging. His target audience includes people who don't usually read modern poetry - he's aware of which aspects they may disapprove of. He's enthusiastic, not pretentious, and doesn't hesitate to reveal aspects of his personal life if it helps illuminate the piece. In his most recent episode he talks about 2 poems from Caroline Bird's "The Air Year", making me realise I'd missed some points - e.g in the title poem "the mime scene" alludes to "the crime scene".

In "Poem Talk" an avant-garde poem is discussed by 3 or 4 American academics who help each other try to understand the piece. A recording by the poet is played. They often come to no firm conclusions. I learn much from their comments, which at times seem very generous. They're fairly honest about their puzzlement though they never go as far as blaming the poet.

Monday 3 January 2022


You've seen the plot before. The local police have been told not to apprehend a criminal but keep him under surveillance because Interpol want to catch the whole network. But an ambitious, impetuous young cop who's unaware of the big picture arrests the criminal because he thinks the criminal's getting away.

Apprehending a poem can have the same plot. Committing yourself to the first interpretation ensures that you get the bird in the hand, but you might miss out on many more that two other possibilities in the bush.

So follow at a distance. Wait for it to make contact with more significant agents. Try to picture the whole network. The first idea you have may be the easiest to find because it's the most superficial. Don't think that the title says it all. Don't think that the rhymes are what it's all about. Remember that even low-level operatives are cunning enough to lead you down blind alleys.