Genre Confusion: Help Wanted!

In many ways, I am not at all suited to be a fiction writer. I am not one of those lucky souls who is “taken over” by a character who demands to have a story written. I am not someone to whom plot comes naturally. My work is often idea- or circumstance-driven, which, I’ve (finally?) begun to realize, often makes it more suited to essays or poems. Or prose poems. Maybe.

Without getting far more bogged down in details about two new pieces I’ve been struggling with, I think that each one may ultimately find its true destiny as a prose poem. But I’m not sure. Yet.

Here’s where you come in. I’d be very grateful for comments and advice from my fellow practicing writers on these questions:

1) How do you “know” the form a given work of yours should take?

2) Please recommend some online (or offline) guides to prose poetry that you’ve found useful in mastering the form. What I’m really seeking with this question are thoughtful craft lessons and background materials.

3) Can you recommend (again, online or offline) favorite prose poems, for inspiration and/or education? Do feel free to “self-nominate”!

Thank you in advance!

16 thoughts on “Genre Confusion: Help Wanted!

  1. Lené Gary says:

    Hi Erika, I'm looking forward to reading the responses to your question. I love prose poetry, and like you, share an natural tendency towards writing essays or short, poetic forms of prose before fiction.

    As far as how I know what form the work should take, for me, I don't always know, but I often have a gut sense. And when I sit down to write, it feels complete within 150 or so words.

    Considering it more, I think the prose poems I write intend to communicate more emotion with less detail and are not often trying to work something out (as in a personal essay). I'm already near the finish line of an experience (emotionally and/or rationally) before I begin writing.

    My intention in shorter pieces is to capture the essence of an experience so that the experience expands through the power of suggestion (utilizing different poetic devices).

    I haven't formally studied prose poetry, but when I hear people talk about it, I often hear them debating between flash fiction and prose poetry–what makes the difference. That might be another window through which to study this form.

    My favorite anthology of prose poems is Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present, edited by David Lehman.

    I have published a few prose poems. Sometimes they are "received" by the reader as short short stories if they have a more narrative line, but they are usually under 100 words and quite poetic in nature.

    Thanks for posing your questions and encouraging me to reflect on my own process (as I am currently compiling a collection of 70+ of them). Good timing. 🙂 Looking forward to hearing what you think.

  2. Chloe' says:

    Hi, Erika!

    I think that I usually write rough drafts of poems that are more like prose poems or short essays and then they are edited down to more traditional poems. That is more about my process than your question.

    This is a tough subject. It is hard to distinguish between the genres. I wish we didn't have to. Usually, we are forced to distinguish and label our piece for the purpose of publishing it or submitting work for a class.

    I look forward to other people's responses. Thanks for posing the question.

  3. grrlpup says:

    My favorite prose poems, in books I stumbled upon, are by Diane Williams and Russell Edson. Both on the experimental side, but both explore relationships and all that is hidden inside them.

  4. Philip Graham says:

    Hi, Erika,

    The Book of Disquiet, by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, is considered by many to be in essence a book of prose poetry. The translation by Richard Zenith is excellent, and here's a nice nugget from the book:

    "I'm almost convinced that I'm never awake. I'm not sure if I'm not in fact dreaming when I live, and living when I dream, or if dreaming and living are for me intersected, intermingled things that together form my conscious self."

  5. Tara says:

    Hi Erika,

    I just wanted to second the Pessoa recommendation and add that my favorites are Baudelaire's (Paris Spleen). Also, has a good section that defines prose poetry, with examples:

  6. DeanneJ says:

    Hi Erica,

    I might not have the most helpful suggestions…I actually don't write poetry. However, thank you for your post. I've felt a similar "crisis of genre" so to speak.

    Since childhood, I was a staunch fiction writer; I never entertained writing anything else. Then in 2006, I took a personal essay class — a deluge of ideas and essays came out. That same year, I applied for 9 MFA programs in fiction and I didn't get into any of them.

    So it seems since then, nearly ALL of my ideas have been nonfiction. I've blogged, tweeted, and written essays from nuggets in my journal, as well as from new ideas. I actually think I might be ready to SUBMIT something soon!

    However, my poor fiction has floundered. I still have a novella hanging in the balance, as well as rewrites of several short stories. Sometimes I worry that I won't be able to take my fiction to the next level if I don't abandon this nonfiction streak. At the same time, I am grateful to produce anything at all(I had a long dormant period).

    When I get a new idea, I have two considerations. Firstly, am I grappling with an idea/issue? Or, do I want to illustrate something? If I want to figure out how I feel about a topic, then I definitely have a personal essay on my hands. If I want to explain how one might experience the world through their senses, then I need to start a short story.

    If I am not 100% sure which direction to go in, I have to ask myself, "Are you being honest about this enterprise? Is this really fiction that you're afraid to write?" I lost a lot of self-confidence in my fiction after the whole MFA thing, so I think embarking on a new genre was a coping/procrastination mechanism. An essay just seems so much easier to get down on paper!

    I was looking into creative writing classes at Columbia University and the New School. I came across "Lyric Essay" courses at both institutions. It seems as if this subgenre of nonfiction contains elements of poetic language and fiction techniques. So I think this might bear fruit for me. I've got a lot of research to do!

  7. Tara Mae says:

    Hey Erika-

    I'm getting my MFA in poetry, but I have a passion for nonfiction, so I definitely swing from poetry to essay/blogs (characters? plots? egads no.).

    If I can boil what I need to say into less than 100 words, it needs to be a poem. If I find myself encountering something that needs /so many more words/, it needs to be a essay (and/or one day, hopefully, a book). Frequently, I find myself breaking a topic, event, experience, etc. into several poems/blog entries/essays which link together sort of like cars on a train.

    Prose poems are a good form if your focus can be a snapshot of something (an idea, event, etc.), with a more fiction-approach to language than poetry usually demands. A good example of this is this Charles Simic prose poem. I see prose poems as incredibly short fiction pieces, rather than really poems, though the focus on language still is definitely there. Another good example.

    Prose poems create a very distinct pacing that can be important for a piece, especially a nonfiction one, as well. I work for the Pinch, a well-renowned literary journal operated out of the University of Memphis MFA program, and we had a piece published last year by Natalie Parker-Lawrence that I'll type up once I get home. For a nonfiction piece, I couldn't imagine a better form to create the pacing and tone she wanted.

    Hope that helps! There will be more to come later!

  8. Erika D. says:

    Such excellent responses! Thank you all so much. I am going to do some thinking, and some reading, and may be back with more comments/questions. Thank you again!

  9. Tara Mae says:

    Here's the nonfiction piece I talked about!

    Spain Train

    Eleven thirty-four: the train is supposed to arrive there at 11:34. The next train. The next train. The next train leaves for San Sebastian at 11:45. What platform? What’s the Spanish word for platform? Lofty thoughts. The train will get there. It is their job. The engineer’s job. 11:18. His job is to get the train there on time. It’s an industry, for god’s sake. Their jobs are dependent on accuracy and efficiency. On time. Get to the next city to the next platform. Next city. Lofty thoughts. 11:20. Look out the window. Look out. Look out. Cows grazing in the shallows of the bay. Their feet are wet. No, those are hooves. Or is it hoofs. Look it up. Look up. Hooves or hoofs, wet either way. Wet cow hooves. Smelly wet cow hooves. They see the train. They see that the train is late. Even smelly cows can see that the train is late. Mother always says, Lofty thoughts. Look up. Laundry. Laundry, hanging from apartment windows. They look like the flags of families, waving. Flags waving. Wave goodbye. Wave goodbye to all the people on the platform. Will the train to go faster. Will it. Make it happen. Lean your body forward. Make it so. Make it go. Look up. 11:27. Ruins in the middle of olive groves. Plant around them. Go around them. Don’t let things get in the way. Like time and trains and trains and time. Plant those trees. Olives and grapes. Mile after mile. Vineyards plus time equal wine. No time for grapes. No time for olives. Train time. 11:30. Graffiti. Graffiti. Graffiti. Sounds on the track. Sounds from the Spanish train. Gra–ffi–ti. Gra–ffi–ti. Look up. Spires of trees. Spires of spruce trees, waving. Wave to the train, you stupid Spanish cows. 11:32. The next train will wait. Where is Barcelona? Barcelona? Make your tongue come out of your mouth like out of a train tunnel. Bar—tha–lo—na. Bar—tha—lon—a. Bar the door. That’s a poem. Browning. Tennyson. Housman. Bar—the—fuckin–lona. 11:35. Late. Late. Already late. White rabbit. White rabbits are fast runners. Feed your head. Lof–ty lof–ty lof–ty. Feed your head. Rabbits are faster than this train. Look up. Villas and castles on top of hills. Suppose they were late? Late like this old Spanish train. Late? Or alone. Bar—the—alone. Alone. Signal fires from mountaintop to mountaintop. At least let some people know. Look up. Birds know how to migrate and make nests. What else do they know? What else do they know that we don’t know they know? 11:40. Five minutes. Five minutes. Don’t leave. Don’t leave me. Birds are faster than trains. What tracks? Bird tracks. Don’t leave. I’m getting there as fast as I can. Look up. The outskirts. Look back. Conquerors and ancestors. They came this way too. Only on really fast horses. No one is a conqueror by train. Even the ancestors of birds knew this. Look up. Tiled roofs. Tiled rooves. Rhymes with hooves. Hoofs. Faster than trains. The ancestors of conquerors, horses, and birds have come this way before. They arrived, but not this train. Not on time. Not on the platform, the platform in any language. 11:48. Brownish-red-three-legged dog in the train station. Dog of gypsies knows that the train has already gone. His owner tells him in French, if you don’t come, I will leave you. Don’t leave the dog. The dog knew the train would leave. He knows the owner would leave. Look up. 11:52. Si tu ne viens pas, je te laisserai ici seul. Je suis seule. Bar—tha—lone—a. Loner. Alone in Barcelona. Loco locomotora. No motive for loco. No locomotive. Loon. No one. No, O, no.

  10. Erika D. says:

    Thank you, Tara Mae!

  11. Carol says:

    No Boundaries, a prose poem anthology edited by Ray Gonzalez from Tupelo press is wonderful. It has 10 prose poems from 24 contemporary American poets.

  12. Erika D. says:

    Thanks so much for the suggestion, Carol. So far, I've ordered both the Pessoa and the Lehman advised above (and have dug up my old Baudelaire, too). I love having all of these recommendations to work with.

  13. Anonymous says:

    This happened to me. About five years ago I got it in my head that I had to write fiction but lacked the confidence to tackle literary fiction. Instead I focused on children's lit. Unfortunately I had the habit of letting bad things happen to my characters. A brother died. A dad got his head taken off by snipers in Iraq. A mother landed on death row. So NOT for children. People told me, "This isn't for children, it's about children.'' It was time for a genre switch. I started an MFA program this year and couldn't be more at home in the land of short stories.

  14. Tara Mae says:

    I'm teaching a class this week on poetic forms, and when I started researching how to describe a prose poem, I first went to my bookshelf (my undergrad was in poetry and the master's I'm getting now is in poetry).

    Have you picked up An Exaltation of Forms, edited by Finch and Varnes?

    It has a wonderful essay and several examples of prose poems that I think would be really helpful. If you ever want to poem that has a certain type of form ever, it's very good.

  15. Erika D. says:

    Tara Mae, thanks so much for the recommendation. I don't know that book, and I think I need it!

    I just finished the Lehman anthology this weekend, and thought it was excellent, so thank you, Lené, for that suggestion!

  16. Lené Gary says:

    Happy to hear you enjoyed it. 🙂

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