Peter Johnson

Big Mr. Prose Poem

In 1992 Russell Edson was surprised as I was by the enthusiastic response to the inaugural issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, which I edited for nine years. In fact, I had titled it Volume 1 as a private joke. I had no intention of editing a Volume 2. But what followed was an avalanche of letters from poets who had been toiling for years in the genre, with trashcans full of nasty rejection slips. 

Shortly after the publication of Volume 1, Russell and I began a correspondence that lasted until he died in 2014, though the bulk of the 350 letters I received from him were between 1992 and 2008. The sample annotated letters here are from a longer selection of forty that appear in my book of essays, Truths, Falsehoods, and a Wee Bit of Honesty: A Short Primer on the Prose Poem, With Selected Letters from Russell Edson (MadHat Press, 2020). These letters occurred during the early days of the prose poem renaissance when Russell was reentering the poetry world with The Tunnel: Selected Poems, and when I was trying to get my first book published. I’ve tried to choose letters that highlight his ideas on the writing process and creative impulse. All of what he says is usually brilliant and could be said of poetry in general. 

I miss Russell. I miss his intelligence and wacky wit. He made me think and laugh, often at the same time. Many of his letters read like long prose poems. He thought like a Russell Edson prose poem, probably just as his father, the cartoonist Gus Edson, conceptualized life in the form of cartoon frames. He was an original, and without him the prose poem probably never would have taken hold in America.


Note: The January 6, 1995 letter was reprinted in “The Best American Poetry” blog.



October 14, 1994

Dear Peter,


Just a note. No need to answer.

A literary influence is really a kind of permission that allows us to open something in ourselves. It’s there but we’re not in touch with it yet. Then one sees a painting, or reads something, or even hears a work of music, and suddenly possibilities begin to be suggested.

Poetry doesn’t have to be la-de-da. Nor does it have to be practiced as an oh-so-serious-business, with a self-consciousness that destroys any possibility of the other voice that I seek.

Then there have been those who for some reason have wanted to control the “poetry business.” Meddler types like Pound and his aesthetic descendants. Instead of just being satisfied to get their own work written, they become the high priests of what they define as poetry. As far as I’m concerned, poetry is no more sacred than fiction. They are two sides of the same coin.

Besides two novellas and a book of small plays I’ve never written anything but prose paragraphs. This, before I ever heard of that strange term, prose poem. This is how I became “Little Mr. Prose Poem.”

As of this writing my book* has yet to appear. You changed the date from June to August for the ad in the Journal**. And now it’s mid-October and still no book.

You keep striking so close***. Sooner or later something has to happen. One’s first book is kind of a giddy experience, to be sure. But disillusionment comes early. After my first I could still barely get into a magazine. Ten years would pass, and then suddenly I had two publishers in the same year. If one does what one does long enough something will happen. How can it not? This is why I think, far more than talent, the passionate will to write is the important thing. Talent really runs in the streets. We’re all talented, but few of us think it important enough to pursue. As for me, I’ll just sit on my new ms****. I haven’t the heart for contests, nor heart for sending stuff out uninvited.

I continue to be amazed at the success of the Journal. I really thought your enthusiasm would collapse after the first issue. That perhaps the prose poem was too narrow a genre to keep a magazine going. But the Journal has more unity and purpose than most literary magazines. You’ve proven that the prose poem deserves its own magazine.

Since staring this note Stuart***** sent me some finished covers of my book. Looks pretty good. Perhaps too good.

Best,


Russell



*The Tunnel: Selected Poems of Russel Edson, from Oberlin College Press, 1994

**The Prose Poem: An International Journal

***I was trying to get my first book published, which was eventually called Pretty Happy! and was published by White Pine Press in 1997.

****The Tormented Mirror, eventually published by the U. of Pittsburgh Press in 2001

*****Stuart Friebert, editor of Oberlin College Press.


November 10, 1994


Dear Peter,


Sorry I missed your call. But Frances* related what you said. And I thank you for your good words. I had rather given up on the book**. And then it suddenly appeared.

It is true, we work in a very narrow area. And as you say, who the hell reads what we write, anyway? It’s very easy to be discouraged. One sort of goes along as in a dream, and then suddenly looking up from one’s work one is startled to see how much time has elapsed.

I don’t know how to improve a prose poem in the physical way a “line” poem can be made better. This is why I write fast in a hit or miss fashion, without plan or direction. A good much of the pleasure of writing is being surprised. If something comes out whole and realized it’s an unplanned surprise. The thing is not to expect too much. To treat each piece as a sketch toward something one will never accomplish. The main idea is to have the freedom to fail, as well as sometimes finding something, though unfinished, wonderful that formed outside of the self-conscious idea of literature.

I can’t see any way to improve a book, only the making of editorial picks from stacks of work, most of which will never be offered for publication. The strategy is quantity over quality.

No you are not just a mid-wife. You’re the editor of a hot magazine, and you have a ms. ready for publication. You’re where the action is. Western culture is run aground, ergo, the prose poem. I know it’s frustrating. But the main thing is to have the work. The rest follows. I can sit on my ms. forever, but you need a first book. Incidentally, I haven’t published a book since 1985. Oh, forgot, I did publish a small, uneventful novel in 1992. But after my first book, ten years would elapse. Then two books in the same year from Wesleyan and Harper & Row. And so it goes. But that was years ago before the prose poem had much legitimacy. It’s still marginal writing, and perhaps that’s why it has so much energy.

I hope to send a good batch of work for you to consider vis-à-vis the next Journal


Best,


Russell


*Russell's wife.

**The Tunnel


January 6, 1995


Dear Peter,

Night, and cold as a witch’s you know what. You wrote back in mid-November. Meanwhile Christmas and New Year. And so it goes, until it doesn’t.

You were talking in your letter about the dangers of narcissism, as you put it, “self-discovery mumbo-jumbo.” And that you saw in “An Historical Breakfast”* an answer to this malady. Yes, satire, but not purposeful satire. I write to amuse myself, not to change others. Socially angry poems, anti-war poems; poems that are meant to do things violate the creative spirit. The only thing required of the poem is to be. I’m just suggesting that poets ought to have the decency to stay out of their poems. The best poem has an impersonal quality which allows the reader room to dream into the poem.

I hadn’t realized, save for mentioning it in your letter, that I haven’t published a new book in nine years. So I won’t ask you if you’ve had any luck placing your book. It’s too tantalizing. The worst part of publishing a book is getting releases from all the magazines where the work first appeared. Legally it’s not necessary, but publishers demand it as part of the process of securing the author’s copyright. It’s a mess. Sometimes things get so fussy one might almost consider suicide. On the other hand one decides to go on living just out of petty curiosity. One has choices. One is not entirely helpless. I suppose there is an instinct in all of us to live long enough to take our last breath. Breathing is, after all, like smoking, addictive. Yes, I admit to being addicted to the atmosphere. So due to the above-mentioned bothers I am in no special hurry to get into the process of another book. Not to mention my pieces are scattered over many a computer disk. Harvesting a book from the various disks is a work in itself. Then there’s the task of proofing what comes from the typesetter. All, all too much for one man. Incidentally, on page 109 of TT there’s a typo, or instead of nor, as it was in the original text. I thought of ending it all when I discovered this. But decided a few typos might make a book more authentic. One must lie to oneself to keep going. But the lies must be clever so one does not catch oneself. An undiscovered lie is then a truth. Who knows the difference? Thus truth is anything we believe. And I believe this. It is all rather circular, a merry-go-round of sanity and its otherwise. But we mustn’t be too fancy, we know where that leads. Cling to the wooden horse and enjoy the ride. 

In the course of this writing I received from Ireland, no less, Poetry Ireland Review, “Special North American” issue. It includes a good much of better known poets of the U.S. and Canada, but in the whole thick magazine the only prose poems are mine. Perhaps the prose poem is not as popular as we thought. And perhaps the best reason to be writing them; the best reason for the Journal.

I will have materials to show you.

Best for 1995,


Russell


*Edson prose poem from The Tunnel



October 9, 1995

 

Dear Peter,

 

You make the point that the writer looking to publish his first book of prose poems is going to find most doors shut. After all these years the prose poem still remains marginal. But then you ask what if the genre became mainstream. I'm not sure it's the genre that's so much rejected as what the genre can carry, and very often does. I'm amazed that I've been able to publish as much I have. Some of it is pretty grotesque by mainstream standards. 

It is curious that David Ignatow is absent from the Oberlin anthology, as well as Lawrence Fixel. Incidentally, in the latest Journal David has a piece, “The Man Who Fell Apart in the Street As He Walked,” which is almost like a poem I wrote, “Oh My God, I'll Never Get Home.” Of course he does it better. But you can see we're all writing the one big prose poem. The prose poem is not so much a form as a way of mind. 

I reviewed three books of fables in Parnassus (Vol. 16, No. 1) under the title, “The Soul of Tales,” which gave me a perfect platform to talk about our favorite genre. You may find this of interest vis-a-vis thoughts on the prose poem. 

Meanwhile, the Language Poets have come out with "The New Prose Poem." So watch your step. 

  Best,


Little Mr. Prose Poem

February 26, 1996


Dear Peter,


Yes, you may use “The Encounter” for the Journal ad. You didn't have to ask. And of course I'll be sending new work for you to see. 

Sometime back Burning Deck did a chapbook of mine, and the Waldrops* send me books every so often. They're good folks and run a fine little press. But I'm not sure they'd go for the expense of a full book. And I wouldn't ask them, anyway. Am beginning to understand that perhaps I don't really want to do another book. Though the materials are here, but the bother attached to publishing a book . . . And yet, I almost feel a duty to my previous work to go on with the circus. I've watered the elephants for many a year. 

That batch of poems you sent, they lack that hesitation that spoils so many prose poems. When the writer explains too much, not trusting his reader, he's really saying to the reader that the poem is false, that the author doesn't even believe it. When I write belief is not a question. It's a matter of acceptance, that what's appearing on the page is as real as anything else that experience has catalogued. 

Every household should have a lawyer** under its roof to protect that same household from other lawyers. 

My wife broke her ankle last February plate, two pins and a small bone graft. The worst part is becoming mobile again. As awful as this was, and she's quite normal now, what happened to you could have been far worse.*** Winter is a dangerous place.

 

Be well,


Russell


*Rosemarie and Keith Waldrop, poets and editors of Burning Deck Press.

**My wife is a prosecutor.

***A cracked rib


April 15, 1995


Dear Peter, 


There ain't no rules for the prose poem. For me, when a poem gets too long (what's the measure?) it gets too prosy. Maybe Yau's* poem works. And if it doesn't, so what? The beauty of the prose poem is that it is open to every writer. A real democratic form. I'm so sick of the celebrity poet whose work has less content than their celebrity. 

In a certain way I find in my own work I'm fleeing from fiction, and at the same time fleeing from the definition of poetry. And at the same time wanting the narrative power of fiction and the power of dream-thinking as found in poetry. The purpose is of course poetry. But poetry that has no root in fiction is aesthetic mist. And fiction that owes nothing to poetry is not worth the reading. Ergo, for today, the prose poem. 

You're right to "be as hard on oneself as possible and avoid sentimentality and self-consciousness. . ." One way is to write a lot and to abandon most of it. It's an ongoing thing. Magazine or a book publication are merely interruptions in the flow. Writing for me is simply keeping in touch with something I don't know. Yet, there's an aesthetic to it. And again something I don't know.

  There are no big bucks in the kind of writing I do. 7% royalty per book doesn't add up to much. One can do a lot better with readings that are offered because of one's books. It's a terrible business. 

Has anything happened with Coffee House?** This is probably a silly question. Nothing happens. And then suddenly a lot of things happen. Like for instance the death of James Gill*** (2PLUS2). I really don't know why we're born. If we're designed to die, and we are, why not get right to it, and not be born? 


Oh, heck...

 

Russell


*Refers to a very long prose poem in my journal written by John Yau

**I had sent my manuscript to Coffee House Press.

***Legendary editor of 2PLUS2.


Peter Johnson’s prose poetry has been awarded an NEA and two Rhode Island Council on the Arts fellowships. His second book received the James Laughlin Award from The Academy of American Poets. New books are: Old Man Howling at the Moon (Madhat Press, 2018), A Cast-iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly: Commentaries from 80 Contemporary American Poets on Their Prose Poetry, editor (MadHat Press, 2019), and Truths, Falsehoods, and a Wee Bit of Honesty: A Short Primer on the Prose Poem, With Selected Letters from Russell Edson (MadHat Press, 2020). A book of short stories, Shot, will be published in January of 2021 (Madhat Press).

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