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The O:JA&L Masters Series

Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

Interview: Featured Writer Brian Clements

Click on the title below to explore or download the complete feature as a chapbook release from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press.

Subversive and Seductive Prose Poetry

Brian Clements is an American poet who is the author or editor of fifteen collections of poetry, including the anthology  An Introduction to the Prose Poem, volumes of poetry from Quale Press, Texas Review Press, and Meritage Press, and of some unique and compelling projects online.

Brian Clements. Photo by Rachel Rock / BU News Service

Casto for O:JA&L: I’m glad we get to explore your ideas about that subversive and renegade genre, prose poetry. Prose poetry doesn’t lend itself to definitions that most can agree on since it’s so often busy blurring boundaries, breaking rules, and confounding mainstream expectations. It is a type of writing that’s becoming more and more appreciated. Do you think it will continue to rise in popularity?

Clements: Popularity goes in cycles and waves, of course, and prose poetry has been on an upward trend for some time now. It’s hard to find a journal that publishes poetry any more that isn’t publishing at least a few prose poems, and the exceptions are mostly journals that focus elsewhere by design (haiku, verse, particular forms, etc.). Even the New Yorker is publishing prose poems these days.

I suppose narratives about genre go in cycles and waves as well. The subversion narrative comes partially from Marguerite Murphy’s book and partially from the popularity of prose poems among the Surrealists. But I’d propose that the difficulty of defining the prose poem comes not from its rebelliousness but from the very nature of genre itself. There are rebellious novels, and formally subversive works of flash fiction, and renegade works of drama… Quick—what’s the definition of the “novel”? Of a “play”? Of “poetry,” if you don’t assume it’s the same as “verse”? These things are by nature hard to define.

I think one reason why the subversion narrative sticks to prose poetry so well is because our educational systems have clung to the idea that verse and poetry are synonymous, which comes from the hegemony of the New Critical way of analyzing and discussing poetry. That way of thinking about poetry has lost primacy, I think, in creative writing classrooms and probably in comparative programs like Comp Lit and American Studies, but not in traditional English Departments, which is where our K-12 English teachers are educated (in the U.S.). Prose poems don’t fit neatly into that pedagogical schema; they don’t give 9th-grade teachers anything easy to test students about like meter, rhyme schemes, stanzaic structure. As Michael Benedikt said in the intro to his great anthology, prose poems can use all the devices that other poems use with the exception of the line break. We’ve taught young people for decades to believe that the mechanics they see in verse are the point; of course, that’s never actually been true (even if by “mechanics” you mean what Williams meant when he talked about poems as machines made of words—the machine has to produce something, an experience). If you assume that verse is poetry’s natural state, then you can only see prose poems as subversive.


Casto for O:JA&L: You have been involved with prose poetry for a long time. You co-edited with Jamey Dunham, An Introduction to Prose Poetry, an excellent anthology that features prose poems from some highly respected writers. You also include brief essays explaining various types of prose poetry. Further, you founded and served as editor at Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics for eight issues. How did you become so involved in prose poetry?

Clements: There was a period of six or eight years or so when I literally wrote nothing but prose poems, exploring the genre, trying to see what was possible. During that time, I launched Sentence when I learned that Peter Johnson’s great journal The Prose Poem: An International Journal, was ceasing publication. Peter’s journal lasted about 10 years, which, coincidentally was the lifespan of Sentence. I wanted Sentence to fill the hole that The Prose Poem was leaving, and I launched the journal with Peter’s blessing and his participation on the board of Contributing Editors. About the same time, Peter Conners and Mark Tursi launched Double Room. I wanted, in Sentence, to focus on the lyrical, experimental, and essayistic corners of the genre; Peter and Mark published a wide variety of work, but part of their editorial vision was to cover that gray area where it’s difficult to distinguish some prose poetry from some flash fiction (the two beds in the Double Room), and that came to the fore in their anthology PP/FF.

I edited 8 issues of Sentence and then handed the editorial reins over to Brian Johnson, who edited two more issues before I shut the journal down. And there were several reasons for that, but one of them was exactly because I felt that prose poetry was present enough in journals everywhere that it was no longer necessary to have a journal dedicated to saying, essentially, “hey, don’t forget all this amazing work that’s being done in prose poetry!”

An Introduction to the Prose Poem grew out of a recognition that more people wanted to include prose poems in classrooms, and the anthology was constructed with exactly that purpose in mind. It was not intended to be a canon-building (or -representing) book, not meant to present the entire history of the prose poem, nor to “define” the prose poem. It just provides some examples of some types of prose poems (not all the types, as Simic implied about the book in an essay or interview somewhere), with some examples that students and folks interested in exploring the prose poem could use as models.


Casto for O:JA&L: One of the many things I appreciate about your essay, “Some Generic Notes on Short Prose,” is where, in your end notes, you say that “the music of the language isn’t really a useful distinction between prose poetry and fiction.” Musical claims have always failed to connect with my sense of a lot of prose poetry. For instance, some of the Baudelaire prose poems I read are far from musical. Andreas Huyssen, in Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film, agrees with Todorov that Baudelaire didn’t invent the prose poem (as many claim) and says Baudelaire likely called his “urban miniatures” prose poems in order to distinguish his work from the urban sketch and thus “provocatively poeticized the idea of the tableau.”

I particularly liked your distinction between prose poetry and short-short stories. Do you continue to believe distinction can be made between prose poetry and flash fiction? Do you have further ideas on the possible differences?

Clements: I’m glad you bring Todorov into the discussion here; he is really the source of my idea that all genre is hard to define. Genres are not encircled by floodwalls; they seep into each other in the liminal areas. Nikki Santilli has proven that use of the term “prose poem” predates Baudelaire’s work, going back into the 1830s in England, if I remember correctly. And there are many pre-modern examples of texts that work like prose poems—Native American, Chinese, central- and eastern-European short folk tales. It’s hard to say where one thing ends and the other begins, except for the fact that at some point someone says “this is a prose poem,” or a “proeme” or a “petite poème en prose.” Why confuse things by using a name like “prose poem”? Well, one reason might be that one wants to stake the claim that the common conceptions about what constitutes poetry are too narrow, that one wants to extend an invitation to an audience to consider a prose-y text as “poetry,” which really is what we all do every time we publish a text of any kind—extend an invitation. And I guess using a term that might be perceived as an oxymoron is in itself a bit subversive.

A side note: Murphy also has a very interesting article called “What Titles Tell Us: The Prose Poem in the Little Magazines of Early Modernism” that reminds us that a lot of prose poems of that era were published with other paratextual tags such as “sketches” or “etchings” or “improvisations” or other names that brought associations from other arts into the reader’s thinking about these prosey little things before them. And actually I don’t think she mentions the fact that the first anthology of prose poems, if I’m not mistaken, was called Pastels in Prose. So there’s always been some instability around the question of what prose poems should be called—and the inclination was not always to associate with the musicality of the genre, but sometimes with visual arts.

In the essay, I make a distinction between “flash fiction” and the “short short story,” which is related to the conventions of the short story tradition. Those conventions make it possible to distinguish between prose poems and “short short stories,” but not necessarily between prose poems and flash fiction. I think it’s probably impossible to come up with an abstract set of rules, a rubric, that says “these and only these things are prose poems” (or “flash fiction,” or “novels,” or…). I agree with David Lehman that there are texts that sit on that gray area and could be considered either or both prose poem/flash fiction. Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel” is a great example—or some of Edson’s work; they’ve been anthologized both in flash fiction anthologies and in prose poetry anthologies. The same could be said of some of the work that appears in places like Brevity or Diagram. One of the great benefits of fluid genres is that conventions and analogical structures can be combined within them; that’s how new genres emerge (to steal another idea from Todorov). A prose poem can also be a joke, and a list, and chant, and a paean—all of those things at once—so then you arrive at “A Supermarket in California.”


Casto for O:JA&L. No doubt one of the most horrific events you and your wife have lived through was what took place on December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where your wife was a teacher. It’s still so hard to believe that on that day twenty children between six and seven years old were shot and killed, along with six adult staff members. How has that unfathomable event influenced your writing?

Clements: That horrific day and its aftermath irretrievably altered not only my writing style, but my entire writing practice, and my conception of my responsibilities as a citizen of the world. It disrupted what I thought was the connection between my public and private lives. It also was one of the factors in my ceasing publication of Sentence and Firewheel Editions (which continues in the hands of an org called Writers at Large). For some months after, I didn’t even think about writing anything—I was concerned with getting my family through a crippling trauma (which was nothing compared to what all those 26 families went through). My wife was teaching there at the time, and both of my children had attended that school recently. When I did reach a point where I could think about coming back into writing poems, I was unable. I went through about a year and a half of real psychological paralysis when it came to writing. I channeled that energy into gun violence prevention activism and co-editing with Dean Rader and Alexandra Teague an anthology called Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence (Beacon Press), which combines poems about gun violence with prose responses from people who’ve been directly impacted, such as Samaria Rice (Tamir’s mother), Rep. Lucy McBath (mother of Jordan Davis), Pat Maisch (an Arizona woman who helped subdue Gabby Giffords’ assailant), and many others. I went on a tour of about 30 events around the country hosting readings and public discussions about gun violence in those communities.

I eventually broke out of my writing block by basically starting over, essentially retraining my brain by forgetting what I thought I knew about writing poems and breaking down to the ground floor of what in that moment the language circulating through my brain needed to do. And that resulted in some poems that are very different from what I had been writing prior to 12/14/12. It’s only been in the last few months, actually, that I have felt that I have been able to get back around to trying some of the things I was working on 10 years ago. Writing poems for me used to be an exploration; since 2012, it’s been more like a calling to write a particular kind of poem for particular purposes. And I’d say that political life in the U.S. beyond just local experience of gun violence has influenced that as well. There are times for exploration and there are times when lives need to be saved. That may sound a bit pretentious, but I think there are many poets writing today who are in fact contributing to lifesaving.


Casto for O:JA&L: I read Jeffrey Davis’ interview with you at Tracking Wonder that every time you read Anne Carson’s book, Glass, Irony and God, it changes. You said great books are brain-changing. I am an Anne Carson admirer and the same thing happens every time I read Eros the Bittersweet. She is a remarkable, brain-changing writer. Who are some of your other favorite prose poetry writers? Do you have some favorite individual pieces?

Clements: Well, yes, there are many ways our brains and minds can be changed—trauma, pleasure, reading (which has been proven to change the brain), practice, love, community. Our brains are wired to pay special attention to the new. An amazing writer like Anne Carson or Terrance Hayes or Victoria Chang may not necessarily always be saying something new, but they’re almost always doing something new, which is what I was trying to get at earlier when I mentioned exploration. And it’s only through exploration that we extend the boundaries of genre. I’ve always loved Denise Duhamel’s work, and I was honored to have published her Mille et un sentiments. Denise is one of our greatest collaborative writers, as well; collaboration always sets out into uncharted territory, because you never know what you’re going to get from your writing partner(s). I admire her for her ability to connect with so many different collaborators consistently, which must say something about her empathetic ability. In collaborative writing, you’re allowing “your” voice to slide into oblivion and nestle into a newly invented voice that belongs to no one. How amazing! To go back to a couple of genre-bending books, I think Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely are absolutely essential books that every American should read. I have been teaching Sean Thomas Dougherty’s The Second O of Sorrow frequently in the last few years, and it has some heart-rending, beautiful prose poems.


Casto for O:JA&L: Oh, yes, I agree every citizen in America would do well to read Claudia Rankine’s two works. I enjoyed and learned much from both. And I intend to pick up Sean Thomas Dougherty’s The Second O of Sorrow on my next Amazon raid. I understand you teach courses in flash fiction, prose poetry, and haibun. Do you teach these genres individually, a course for each one? Or a course that teaches all three together? Which of the three do your students respond to most?

Clements: Yes, all of those and more in multiple courses. I teach a course called Writing Prose Poetry and Flash Fiction, and we start off with the Flash Fiction, because it’s easier to start there without preconceptions and worries about what “poetry” is, and by the time we’re a couple of weeks into the prose poem half of the semester a lot of the poetry anxiety (it’s real) has just kind of fizzled out and many students come to realize that poetry is more open and more exploratory and more inventive than they thought was allowed. If I have one student each semester who writes something they say isn’t exactly prose poetry or flash fiction but is something else they don’t have a name for, then I consider the semester to have been a success.


Casto for O:JA&L: We began this interview touching on Marguerite Murphy’s idea of prose poetry as subversive. Now we can end with James Tate’s thoughts on prose poetry as a means of seduction.   He speaks of “the deceptively simple packaging of the paragraph” and points out that “People generally do not run for cover when they are confronted with a paragraph or two. The paragraph says to them I won’t take much of your time, and, if you don’t mind my saying so, I’m not known to be arcane, obtuse, precious, or high-falutin’. Come on in.”

Clements: I suppose what Tate says there applies to a certain kind of prose poem—poems like his “Goodtime Jesus,” one of my all-time favorites—that are a shortish paragraph or two long. But I don’t think he’d say the same about Ashbery’s Three Poems, nor perhaps not about John Yau’s long sequence “Corpse and Mirror” (another of my favorites). Mille et un sentiments is 1001 numbered sentences/fragments long—it’s not short, and it’s certainly not obtuse, arcane, precious, or high-falutin’; it’s an absolute blast. So I see Tate’s point in regard to some prose poems, but I’d also say there’s so much variety in prose poetry that it’s, again, difficult if not impossible to come up with any kind of totalizing statement about it.


Casto for O:JA&L: You’ve mentioned some important prose poetry collections and before we end the interview, I’d like for you to name some of your favorite short, individual prose poems. Would you name those that seduced you, made you laugh, or that made you think long after the piece was put away?

Clements: Oh, I can go on indefinitely listing favorite prose poems. I probably would never have self-consciously written a single prose poem if it weren’t for Dimestore Alchemy by Charles Simic. Actually, some of the poems from that book appeared first in the literary journal Epoch under the title Cornell Notebooks (Cornell is the main subject of the book), where I saw them in 1992 or so. Talk about a brain-changing reading experience… Those surrealist-essay-prose-poems stunned me into thinking about writing in ways that never had occurred to me. The poems of Blaise Cendrars also were important to me early on—see Ron Padgett’s translations. He wrote these sprawling (quasi-) documentary travelogue poems, not really prose poems but frequently using the sentence as the line unit, and I learned a lot from Cendrars about how sentences work in poems. And Brenda Coultas’s Handmade Museum seemed to me entirely unique and groundbreaking in its illuminating collections of the mundane. It only occurs to me in this moment that all three of these books involve some kind of collecting… A few other individual poems that I return to again and again: Bill Matthews’ “Attention, Everyone;” Fanny Howe’s “Doubt;” Tom Andrews’ absolutely hilarious “Cinema Verité” poems; “Surrounding My Birth in Veracruz” by Ana Delgadillo (one of the first poems I selected for Sentence); and for some really short ones: I love Bob Heman’s ongoing sequence of very short “Information” poems, which have appeared over the course of many years in many journals and in Bob’s own handmade chapbooks and pamphlets. I could go on for hours!


Casto for O:JA&L: Well, this has been fascinating. It’s a topic worthy of hours. I’m so glad we got to talk about the subject so many are curious about. Thank you, Brian, for spending some time with us. I wish you well for your future work and I intend to follow along.


About the interviewer:
Pamelyn Casto
twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

Image: Brian Clements, poet and co-editor of “Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence,” speaks at the Boston Book Festival, October 13, 2018, in Boston, MA. Photo by Rachel Rock / BU News Service.

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