with Michael Hettich
An Interview with Peter Johnson
MICHAEL: First, to get us started, please talk a bit about your background: Childhood, education, significant experiences. When and how did you come to your engagement with writing and specifically with the prose poem? Was there a particular moment you recall when you felt, this is what I want to do?
PETER: I grew up in a working-class Irish Catholic neighborhood in Buffalo, NY not far from the steel plants, where my grandfather, my father, and, at different times, my brother and I worked. My father worked two jobs, one as a mailman, another as a steelworker, so that he could send us to a prestigious Jesuit high school, which was a mix of working-class and rich kids. I was what they called a Greek Honors student. I took seven real courses, including French, Latin, and Greek. It was impossible not to be immersed in poetry and fiction. Add to that my Roman Catholic background and, there you go. I loved translating Ovid and The Odyssey, and, as a child, I had always enjoyed Bible stories and myths of any kind, which is why I did my Masters in medieval literature, eventually writing an introduction to and translation of the Psychomachia by Prudentius. It’s about the battle between the virtues and vices but it’s written in Vergilian Latin. The perfect mixture of the pagan and the Christian, which honed my lifelong fascination with mixing elements of high and low culture in my work.
MICHAEL: So how did I come to the prose poem?
PETER: First of all, I realized that I was a terrible verse poet and couldn’t have cared less about line breaks. Secondly, I had been translating comic character sketches by the ancient writer Theophrastus, along with reading Kafka and Novalis, so I tried writing short blocks of prose, and when I sent them to journals, one nasty rejected them, nastily saying I was a Russell Edson wannabe. Having never heard of Edson, I looked him up, and that led me Michael Benedikt’s The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, and I was off on a curious and exciting adventure.
MICHAEL: Did you have any particular mentors during your apprenticeship in poetry?
PETER: Besides all the poets I was reading in graduate school, my literary mentors, specifically in prose poetry, were the people I was reading in Benedikt, especially the surrealists. Even though Charles Simic was at the University of New Hampshire when I was there, he wasn’t writing prose poetry at the time, and I was in the literature program, so I never had a creative writing class, though I did have Charlie for a literary criticism course. We became friends later, and it meant a lot to me that he wrote an introduction to my first book of poems. He was a huge influence on me in the way he mixes elements of high and low culture to create comedy, and how he, in his work and life, has a low tolerance for literary and political nonsense, while at the same time being very humble and generous.
But I think an equal influence on me was pop culture. Mad magazine and the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show”—things like that, which appealed to my black humor instincts.
MICHAEL: Can you describe your writing “practice”? Do you write every day? How has your practice of poetry evolved over the years?
PETER: I write every day now, mostly in the morning, because I’m retired. But for most of my life I wrote whenever I had an opening. Why? Kids, teaching, kids, editing a journal, and kids. My poetry changed in one big way after my first book. Like most poets, my early work is derivative, stylistically. I was mimicking writers I was reading, though I always had my own voice. But then something astonishing happened. I broke my back in a sledding accident on Christmas Eve in Buffalo, and, zonked on pain pills, I wrote a poem called “The Millennium” where I just gave myself up to improvisation, juxtaposing images and trusting in my imagination. After that, I realized that was how I thought, so at last I had found a “method” that wasn’t forced. Of course, I would later revise a poem thirty or forty times, so I got the best of both worlds. If my work ever resembles the poetry of others, that’s only because we share certain preoccupations, which is why I hesitate to talk of poetry in terms of influences. For example, I think of Nicanor Parra as an influence, but I didn’t come upon his work until fifteen years ago, and he’s not even a prose poet. But how he spoke about antipoetry was exactly how I felt.
MICHAEL: For years you edited the crucially influential journal, The Prose Poem: An International Journal. What did this experience teach you? -- about American poetry in our time, about the preconceptions and habits of mind characteristic of contemporary American poets, and/or about the prose poem?
PETER: I learned that were many fine people and writers out there, and that a prose poem wasn’t good or bad because it was it was a prose poem; it was good or bad because it was good or bad poem. I also discovered that there were many different approaches to the genre, and I tried to be open to them all.
On the downside, I found out that sometimes poets could be very self-absorbed, and I had my first encounter with Po-Biz. I always wondered why so much mediocre poetry got published and praised, why some poets were canonized without really deserving it. I had never taken a creative writing course, or been in an MFA program, so it was interesting, and sometimes annoying, for me to witness all the schmoozing, especially at the AWP convention. I had to go there every year to display my journal, so I’d see a few friends, attend a few panels, but mostly stay in my room watching old “Twilight Zone” episodes. I was fortunate, though, because my first book wasn’t published until I was forty-seven, so, by that time, I didn’t care very much what anyone thought of me. Hopefully, many of my choices as a poet and editor had little to do with my “career,” a word that to me shouldn’t be spoken in the same breath with the word “poetry.” I know that sounds pompous, but what the hell.
One thing I would add is that all the issues of The Prose Poem: An International Journal are free of charge at https://digitalcommons.providence.edu/prosepoem/about.html
MICHAEL: One of the critiques one still hears about the prose poem is that it lacks sufficient poetic “form”—that is, the poet’s choices are not guided by line break, metrics, or other formal constraints. Thus, according to these critiques, the prose poem is not a “poem” at all! I’m curious to hear your response, and I’m also curious to know whether you think syntax might take the role of line break or metrics in the prose poem.
PETER: I agree with Greg Boyd on the subject: “When one considers that the opposite of prose is verse, not necessarily poetry, the apparent contradiction [inherent in the term prose poetry] becomes less problematic than it seems at first glance. While verse can be defined as composition with regard for meter and sound, incorporating breaks between lines, poetry is, in its most elemental description, simply elegant expression through language.”
In short, the prose poem isn’t a poem. It’s a prose poem, and it’s really impossible to categorize it. You can say that a prose poem should resemble the lyric poem or a fable, and then you come across prose poems by someone like Nin Andrews, whose work often has both elements. To me, all that’s important is the conversation. Having said that, I prefer prose poems that have surprising language and leaps—leaps that often replace the line breaks of verse poetry and that, thematically and stylistically, take the reader in new directions.
MICHAEL: In an interview with you in your forthcoming book, you mention that the prose poem sometimes appears to be an easy form for poets who don’t want to work hard. Is it always necessary for poets—good poets—to “work hard”?
PETER: Yes, I’d say that 75% of the prose poems I received as an editor were overwritten and often resembled hastily composed journal entries. It was as if the poet sat down and said, “I’m a poet and a real cool guy. Consequently, my observations are so significant that all I have to do is to write them down without any close attention to detail and editing, and, fortunately, the prose poem let’s me do that.” And yes, I do think it’s always necessary for poets to work hard. Otherwise, why bother? There’s no money in poetry, and even if you hit it big one year, you’ll be forgotten the next, so why not try to do a good job. What I love about being a poet is that I’ll never be satisfied with what I write. I can always improve, and when I do feel satisfied, which is rare, all I have to do is to read Shakespeare to remind me of what a dummy I am.
MICHAEL: The prose poem is an apparently “easy” form for the very reasons we just discussed—i.e. that it eschews the “discipline” of line break and metrics in favor of sentence and image. And anyone can write a sentence! But we also know—certainly from the example of free verse itself--that what’s easiest to do passably is most difficult to do well. Can you comment, particularly with reference to revision and (whatever we mean by) discipline.
PETER: Very simply, language is the enemy of the prose poem. Edson used to say that the problem with poetry is that there is “too much language chasing too little of an idea.” The prose poem, because of its freedom, encourages this kind of self-indulgence, and I hate it when I read one of my poems years later and realize how a few edits here and there would have made it better.
MICHAEL: One of the great strengths and attractions of the prose poem is its embrace of humor—humor on all sorts of levels and of all kinds. What is it about the prose poem that has allowed for and elicited this response? Is it something in the form itself, or is it a function of those poets who have been attracted to the form?
PETER: That’s a hard question that I tackled in an essay forthcoming in my new book, called, not surprisingly, “The Prose Poem and the Comic,” so I’ll repeat some of what I said there.
Kierkegaard wrote that the “comical is present in every stage of life, for wherever there is life there is contradiction.” Although even the biggest sourpuss might agree with this statement, anyone who has ever taught a course on comedy knows that it’s very difficult to decide just what is comic. Kierkegaard’s emphasis on contradiction is certainly important. What can be more contradictory than a poem in prose, with its oxymoronic name and paradoxical nature? Charles Simic notes the postmodern slapstick element in its composition when he writes: “Writing a prose poem is a bit like trying to catch a fly in a dark room. The fly probably isn’t even there, the fly is inside your head, still you keep tripping over and bumping into things in hot pursuit.” One reason for the recent prose-poem renaissance is that the postmodern is the norm, almost a cliché. We’re not surprised to see a bald, fully tattooed young woman with three nose rings walking down the street, reading the sermons of Cotton Mather, wearing a Versace blouse, cutoff jeans, and a pair of wingtips. That’s the spirit of the prose poem . . . . Perhaps the freedom of prose poetry, then, invites humor, a question that will probably never be adequately answered. Which is, most likely, a good thing.
MICHAEL: In his blurb for your Pretty Happy! the eminent poet and prose poet David Ignatow wrote, “Pretty Happy is an explosive mixture of contradictory standpoints said with speed and urgency that surely emanates from an apparently desperate sense of being…” This comment rings true to me, not only of the poems in Pretty Happy! but of your poems in general. Can you unpack what you think Ignatow means here? I’m particularly interested in their “explosive mixture of contradictory standpoints”?
PETER: think David was referring to the constant juxtapositions and leaps in my poems, which create tension and humor and even emotional complexity. It’s not something I purposely strive for; it’s the way I think. The hard part is to somehow make all these juxtapositions cohere, so that ideas and images aren’t random. That’s why revision is so important to me. That’s the time where I revisit the poem, honing what I have; in a sense reinventing the poem.
MICHAEL: A very different kind of humor, gentle and joyous and what I want to call spiritually playful is evident in the work of Gary Young, whom I consider one of the finest poets alive today, a poet whose work—eye and ear--truly makes the world larger and more various. I know you know him personally, and I’m sure you know his work better than I do. To your mind, what is it that most distinguishes his work?
PETER: Gary’s humor is welcoming; he’s an optimist. His poems are very short, autobiographical, and lyrical, and he’s a genius at what he does. There is a calmness in his work in spite of the pain, and yet there is always hope found mostly in nature and his love of his family. He’s an original and a truly wonderful human being.
In his introduction to Pretty Happy!, Charles Simic says, “The excitement of prose poetry is that it transgresses the rules to let the reader catch a glimpse of what called the true life of the imagination.” That’s an amazing and inspirational claim. My question has to do with that transgresses the rules passage, since we might interpret Simic’s statement as advocating an “anything goes” approach—which we know is hardly the case. How does the permission the prose poem gives us allow this glimpse of true imaginative life?
I think that Charlie is referring to the need to trust in the imagination and chance. As he says, "Others pray to God. I pray to chance to show me the way out of this prison I call myself.” This is a generalization, but I think you could argue that prose poem form frees the imagination to roam more unfettered than verse. You don’t have to consider those pesky line breaks.
MICHAEL: Whom do you consider the most “important” poets writing today? Who are you reading? Are there any trends in contemporary poetry/literature that particularly interest you right now? Who if anyone is opening up and extending the form right now?
PETER: I hesitate to single out specific people, because I don’t want to feel like a shit later for leaving poets out. I don’t think there has been much formal experimentation recently. I’m more interested in discovering new ways of seeing, new voices that don’t resemble old voices. You asked me in an email how I decided on the poets for the mini chapbook section in Hole in the Head. Each poet, I think, sees the world differently and has control of language, whether they are writing fables or autobiographical poems. To be honest, I know so many wonderful prose poets that I could have easily edit 30 of these mini chapbook collections. I’ve been thinking of doing an anthology of them with my publisher.
Whom am I reading? It’s always haphazard. I read more verse poetry than prose poetry, and lately I’ve been re-reading older poets. Last week I checked out books by John Berryman, Philip Levine, and Adrienne Rich. I‘m always trying to mess with my expectations, to read people whose sensibilities are very different.
MICHAEL: Talk a little about your forthcoming book, Truth, Falsehood, and a Wee Bit of Honesty: A Short Primer on the Prose Poem w/ Selected Letters from Russell Edson. It’s a book of many parts—essays and interviews with you and by you, and a selection of letters. Somehow all these various parts cohere. It’s a fascinating achievement. Can you talk about your process here, and what you’re hoping to achieve?
PETER: The book went through a lot of revision. I didn’t want to publish a traditional collection, with just essays and book reviews. I wanted to create the shifts and surprises I try to have in my prose poems. Consequently, I jettisoned the book reviews and went with some short essays. Then I included my interviews with Bly and Edson, which are as brilliant as they are different, and I followed them with three interviews with me. Finally, I added about 40 annotated letters from Edson (I have over 300), which in themselves are short primers for the prose poem. And then, just for fun, I included a prose-poem translation, along with a commentary, on Catullus’s famous Lesbia poem. I actually plan on doing a book of them because if Catullus were alive now, of course he would be a prose poet. To discover why, you’ll have to buy the collection of essays and read my translation. The book is being published by Marc Vincenz, who edits Madhat Press. I’ve been lucky yet again to have been rescued from anonymity by Marc and his press. He has become a real champion of the prose poem at a time when it’s needed, and he’s published my most recent book Old Man Howling at the Moon and an anthology of commentaries on the prose poem that I edited called A Cast-Iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly: Commentaries from 80 Contemporary American Poets on Their Prose Poetry (https://www.amazon.com/Cast-Iron-Aeroplane-That-Can-Actually/dp/1941196926 ).
Michael Hettich has published ten books and a dozen chapbooks of poetry, most recently TO START AN ORCHARD, which was published in September, 2019. His work has appeared in such journals as TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, Orion, Prairie Schooner and Terrain.com. He lives with his family in Black Mountain, NC. His website is michaelhettich.com.