Friday, May 10, 2013

Letter to Norma Cole (some notes on the prose poem)

July 17, 2012
Ottawa, Canada

It’s been two years since I stayed in the nearly-former apartment of Toronto writers Stephen Cain and Sharon Harris, after helping them move into their new house. They had a box of books they were sending to Goodwill, and I picked out a couple of items, including the anthology you edited and translated, Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France (Providence RI: Burning Deck, 2000), along with some other titles I probably shouldn’t mention. They had too many books. I’ve been meaning to thank you, and thank them as well.

The anthology contains works by sixteen writers, which the introduction describes as a series of “Texts, interviews, critical pieces, journal entries, letters, worknotes and at least one simple list make visible and audible an openwork of embodied voices in conversation, in the deliberate breaking open of intentionalities, isolating single elements at one extremity, multiple folds, complex rhythmic architectonics in the process of being constructed and deconstructed at the other.” You translated from the French works by Joë Bousquet, Emmanuel Hocquard, Claude Royet-Journoud, Anne-Marie Albiach, Raquel and others. It would be hard for anyone to not get caught up in the lyric prose line being presented. The lyric flows like water, here; why do so many lines of prose by English-language writers fail to float so smoothly in comparison?

The activity of writing is more than activity, as you wrote in your introduction, “Writing is action, the phenomenological self entering language, already a specific set of conditions within conditions.” I would enter the language, during daily writing sessions at The Good Neighbour Café on Annette Street, just by the Junction. The cadence and the lyric of the French abstract in some of the pieces immediately struck me, especially the work of Emmanuel Hocquard, which slowly began to impact the short short stories I’d been working on, and later, the prose poems I was only beginning to compose. Here is one of those stories:

I am writing a novel called ‘James Joyce in Montreal,’ to accompany the drawing you left. Ten chapters each featuring an entirely different character, but all sharing the same, ordinary name. There are no coincidences. In Labyrinths, Borges repeated, what we seek, is often nearby.

I admired Hocquard’s series of compact, straightforward lines that accumulated to become something slightly less concrete, and yet, far more than their sum. There was something to the connections made between and amid the disconnect that was astounding.

By that point, I’d been at least half a decade reading examples of the American prose poem, something far more prevalent than its Canadian counterpart, from writers such as Sheila E. Murphy, Lea Graham, Noah Eli Gordon, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Kathleen Fraser and Rosmarie Waldrop. My own poems had been years experimenting with rhythm, sound and line breaks. I was in the midst of the “Miss Canada” manuscript, a book that stretched the length and breadth of 2010, composing poems that held and broke breath. I knew that once I had finished that collection, I wanted to move in another direction; I wanted to see what might happen if and when I stopped relying on line breaks and spacing. I wondered, what surprises might the prose poem hold? Once you learn how to do something, the painter Diane Woodward told me, move on.

Before this, I’d been intrigued by the use of the poetic line, and the sentence, through the work of Americans and Canadians alike, such as Cole Swensen, Lisa Robertson, Lisa Jarnot, Erin Mouré, David Donnell, Nicole Markotić and Robert Kroetsch. There is so much untapped potential in the sentence. How does one even start to approach the possibilities? I had long filed the prose poem away in the back of my head, waiting for other writing and editorial projects to come to maturity; to be able to bring my full attention to the form. I don’t need to completely understand a form to begin, but at least some kind of initial comprehension is required. Often, I know, the best way to understand is to simply begin. Specifically, I was struck by the way Hocquard’s prose-pieces blended elements of poetry, fiction and the short essay, opening up the form to a kind of “catch-all,” able to hold just about any idea, concept or subject matter.


When Crusoe landed on his island after the shipwreck, he was not yet Robinson. He would be Robinson from the moment that, finding neither pen nor pencil in the jetsam, he liberated a cutter and some books. from these found objects would be born the method that names him.

            Robinson speaks alone (V. Solitude), in words he learned while he was still Crusoe, words he arranges as memories, that is, as objects of memory-language. Robinson on his island acts like Crusoe before the shipwreck but makes the same thing resonate differently.

            The island is elegiable. Cut off from the world, with the fated means that are his, Robinson will reproduce Crusoe’s world. He is a copier. And every copier, even the little classroom copier ripping off his desk partner, is an islander. Oliver Cadiot’s Future, ancient, fugitive is, just like Perec’s I remember, a splendid elegy. (Emmanuel Hocquard, trans. Norma Cole)

The French writing I’d predominantly been aware of previously had been Canadian, including the work of Nicole Brossard and AnneHébert, but remarkably little else in regards to poetry. Despite a series of translations through Coach House Press from the 1970s onward that focused on fiction, the divide between French and English Canada remains. Perhaps for this reason, it was the prose out of Quebec that resonated most, the novels of Dany Laferrière and Daniel Paquin informing my writing far more than any Quebecois poets. It’s an interesting difference, to be influenced by the French writers of Canada versus the French writers from France. As you know, it’s an entirely different vocabulary. To understand the difference of influence might mean comprehending the mechanics of the language, and the divergence from European to Quebecois French. Something about the limits of translation or the delicacy of translating these differences. I have no idea; haven’t even begun.

Today I am not writing, I am seeing to the house of writing, and you are there, in the garden light. (Edith Dahan, from “Giudecca,” trans. Norma Cole)

In these works translated from French, there is such a lovely abstraction of subject and meaning the prose allows. It wraps around ideas as opposed to the physical. In contrast, I’ve been quite baffled reading Russell Edson, having heard he is considered the father of the American prose poem, and how much writers such as Deb Olin Unferth and Sarah Manguso (a writer I greatly admire) are influenced by his work. His poems read like short stories, known by Geist magazine and others as “postcard fiction.” Lydia Davis reads more lyric than these. Where is the poetry in Russell Edson? Whereas Unferth and Manguso have far surpassed him in quality and vigour, turning the influence of his prose poems into spectacular prose. I don’t understand the appeal. I suspect in some parts of the United States, this might be akin to a heretical statement.

This collection of yours has informed pieces of mine in various poetry manuscripts, an influence running through the length and breadth of my poetry since. Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France taught me how to begin. Does that make sense? Perhaps it came at the right time. Perhaps I give the collection itself too much credit. I have been learning, learning and re-learning the sentence. There is a fragment of an interview I keep repeating, conducted by Kai Fierle-Hedrick in The Chicago Review (51:4/52:1, spring 2006), as Lisa Robertson responds: “I’m really a gentleman collector of sentences. I display them in cabinets.”

The Sentence

The sentence always translated from an other language, the sentence unfounded, the sentence of liquid shadows beyond which we do not look, writing it, (Dominique Fourcade, trans. Norma Cole)

In your collection, the distinctions between genres don’t seem to even exist. My explorations in short prose and the prose poem overlap so heavily, and yet, a line divides the two. Some have suggested my short stories might do better if I called them poems, but they aren’t poems; they’re stories. Despite their brevity, they each tell a deliberate narrative in a linear fashion. In the poems, I’m interested more in what I’ve long been exploring through the form – movement, sound and abstract, lyric exploration, composed more as an accumulation or collage. The logics needn’t be apparent and the narrative is non-existent. It might not be how I distinguish the forms generally, but its how I do for my own writing. There is no story, but instead, a series of sweeping gestures, such as this piece from the sequence “Escarpment pages,” a prose poem sequence from “If suppose we are a fragment.” The twelve poem sequence opens with a quote from Kathleen Fraser, “Dear other, I address you in sentences.”

The invention of writing

Ingrained, this resistance to struggle. Mathematical points. I repeat the arousal song of her borders, even as I step back. Sometimes I get turned around. Snow squalls, threatening daybreak. Had you ever wondered. Had she. We were marking up hours. Filament of the speed that the brain changes colour. We have not arrived. We are here. An experience of spiders. Saw you last from those uppermost branches. Or was that her. Words trickle down into feeling. New paper we press with first language, our hands.

I sound obsessed with boundaries, and perhaps I am, but as a series of guidelines as opposed to strict rules. I want to know where to blend one into the other. The works in Crosscut Universe, on the other hand, define no line at all. Have you read any of the work of Vancouver writer Michael Turner? His work manages the chimera between what isn’t entirely a poem, and isn’t entirely a story, but something else, entirely. I am seeking to open a series of possibilities. Or perhaps, I wasn’t listening in the right way until now. I’ve been interested, too, in discovering more of your own writing, the influences that some of these texts may have had, along the lines of influence I’ve seen from the Galacian in Erin Mouré’s poetry, or the French in the poetry of Cole Swensen and Rosmarie Waldrop. Perhaps I should start translating. Is it essential to know a second language to begin?


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