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Brian Clements Interview
Brian Clements is the author most recently of And How to End It (prose poems from Quale Press) and of Disappointed Psalms (poems from Meritage Press); he is co-editor of An Introduction to the Prose Poem (Firewheel Editions) with Jamey Dunham. He also edits Firewheel’s flagship publication, Sentence: a journal of prose poetics and will launch Kugelmass: a journal of literary humor in early 2011 under the editorship of David Holub. He coordinates the MFA in Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University.
Cheryl Pallant is a writer, dancer, and author of several poetry books, chapbooks, and a nonfiction book. Her most recent book is Morphs (Cracked Slab Books). Many of her poems have appeared in print and online journals such as Fence, HOW2, Tarpaulin Sky, Bird Dog, Confrontation and elsewhere. She has been Visiting Professor at University of Tulsa, University of Richmond, and Keimyung University (in S. Korea)
CP: I'm interested in how writers settle upon and work within the forms they do. What got you involved in prose poetry? What does prose poetry allow that poetry (or prose) does not? What are its limitations? Is it only about the margin?
BC: I didn't realize it until much later, but I first started writing prose poems in grad school, 20 years ago or so. I didn't realize that they were prose poems. I thought of them as poems without line breaks that start a new stanza with every sentence, similar to what Sally Ashton now calls "free-line" poems, or similar to what Marvin Bell did in his Dead Man poems. Those poems I was writing had a bit more dadaistic or post-LANGUAGE antagonism built into them than what you would see in Ashton's or Bell's poems, though, and that's probably one of the reasons why a couple of different professors discouraged me from writing them—they weren't accessible, weren't welcoming, weren't quiet or lyrical. Sadly, I listened to them, and it took me several years to realize that I was writing badly because I was writing what I thought other people wanted me to write.
When I finally got around to saying "screw that" I also happened to be hanging out with an adventurous group of poets in Dallas who were similarly interested in rejecting a lot of what was going on in the poetry we were seeing and the poetry we'd been writing. So we started doing a lot of collaborative work, cut up poems, other collecting mechanisms, some performances—we called it Synthetic poetry—and the work that I started doing at that point I consciously thought of as prose poems. Rejecting the line was a way of saying "screw that" to the poetry establishment, whatever that is.
CP: Can you provide an example of your Synthetic poems?
BC: A lot of the poems that I wrote in the “Synthetic” group ended up in And How to End It and in the forthcoming sequel to it, Jargon. The idea behind the synthetic stuff was essentially that one uses some kind of “collecting tool”—any kind of operation like cut-ups, random generation, n+7, etc.—and use the result as a starting point from which a poem is composed. In other words, take an objectively collected word bank and filter it through a subjective consciousness to produce a poem—nothing particularly radical or new, though it was new and useful to us in breaking free of mainstream modes. I think “Suspicion” from Jargon is probably a pretty good example. The word bank for this prose poem was collected by performing a Google search on the word “suspicion” and selecting random phrases or words from each of the first 100 sites listed, then composing the poem primarily of words and phrases from the bank (or at least a skeleton of a poem—I don’t recall the ratio of collected to added words here).
Maybe two men are there talking about their guns and trying to decide what to do next. They could try to hide the contraband or mail it at the village post office. They could be selling equipment used to build nuclear weapons or pornography. They could have gorgeous wives waiting for them in the cabin.
Their wives have been through the ringer, but the people in town blame them for their husbands’ hostility. Since her suspicious husband never appears at the door, one wife decides to take a different approach, to rename herself and do drugs. This is the lesson-drawing part, where the outgoing Minister of Personality and Local Color risks his pension for a few moments of carnal pleasure and thinks it was worth it.
The other wife is preparing for a return to public life. Because hermeneutics is both a science and an art, she places a handgun and a feather on the table.
There are no children. The daily pressures of being detectives have made the women barren of desire to reproduce their husbands. They’ve seen those who express opinions publicly go down hard, though they cannot document it.
Both men were model cops and perfect fathers to the local orphans, but fell into suspicion. They want to revive their careers, but they feel more wrong than right, as evidenced by the hands shoved into their dark jackets, fingering triggers.
This may be a bad time, but the wives are riding three hours by train to a community meeting. The subject is Suspicious Husbands, and the keynote speech is entitled “You Must Take Responsibility in the Company of Mean Souls.”
But I have to tell you... I’ve seen that program once via satellite from China. It speaks mostly of the violent history of Japan. It points out that black folks suffer twice as many serious complications from diabetes as white folks but attributes this fact to salt. Everyone concedes it is a failure. For example, it cites one nation, where husbands disguise themselves as corrupt officers of the police, as having the healthiest stock market and economic indicators among Latin American countries.
corporations seem to believe that the best way to increase profit is to cut down
to the bare minimum of involvement on the personal level, as do many countries
and many husbands. Imagine their chagrin at the end, when they learn they might
just as well have thumbed through A Guide for the Whole Atheist and found
the information they needed, on page 42. :
“The mountains have brought forth a mouth.”
Ironically, another influence on my writing prose poems came from the poetry establishment. Charles Wright, whose work I've always admired, had an essay in one of his U. of Michigan books where he writes about the "hydrosyllabic foot"—he argues that if you're going to write in lines, there must be a reason for the line to exist. The line must have a function. I had realized that I didn't really have a stable line in many of my poems, that I had fallen into the trap of thinking of lines as an excuse to have witty line endings, and that alone does not justify a line. Why have lines, then? Now I think of the line as a compositional unit, a visual unit, a musical unit—so I came out the other side, after six years of writing nothing but prose poems, with a much stronger sense of what the line can do.
I don't know what the prose poem's, or any poem's, limitations are other than formal limitations. I'm more interested in possibilities than in limitations, and I'm discovering every time I write a new prose/poem what the possibilities are.
CP: I’ve heard similar claims from other writers as well, that a teacher discouraged the student’s inclination. You turned the discouragement into a positive. Not using a line break can be liberating and learning to use it well provides a potency you might not have landed upon otherwise. Would you say your writing is stronger from having been in exile from your inherent writing style, that being aware of what didn’t fit, yet practicing it anyways, has made you more responsive to the writing that is yours?
BC: I think being alienated (self-alienated, when it comes down to it) from my own interests gave me a more fervent commitment, in the end, to genuine writing. And by "genuine" I mean writing that comes from real idiosyncrasy, real obsession, real interest. On the other hand, only a young writer can be swayed one way or another by an mentor's bias. I see many non-traditional students, for example, who may not have achieved a great level of confidence in their writing, but they know enough about themselves not to waste their time on what seems to be trivial. So my greatest lesson there has as much to do with my teaching as it has to do with writing—I try to avoid damaging students with my own biases.
CP: How would you characterize the energy you bring to editing Sentence and the energy you bring to your own writing?
BC: I would probably characterize the latter as variable and the former as waning! I have done seven issues of Sentence—the eighth is going into production. I'm getting ready to hand the reins of the journal over to another editor, though Sentence will still be a publication of Firewheel Editions (which I continue to edit). I think Sentence is well established enough that folks who might want to know its there already know it. After 8 LARGE issues, I think it might be good for the journal to take on a new vision for a while. Firewheel is launching a new journal—Kugelmass, a journal of humor—so I want to focus on that and on publishing more books.
My own writing is uncentered and exploratory, as usual. Working on this, working on that. I'm grateful to have had my last book, And How to End It, and the forthcoming book, Jargon, which is a sequel to And How to End It, published by Quale Press. Gian Lombardo's attention to the work that ended up being those two books helped me to make two books that are much better and more interesting than they were before I sent the work to him. And that's the kind of work that I'm interested in doing as an editor now—working collaboratively with poets and writers on unconventional projects.
CP: There’s a wry apocalyptic tone in much of And How to End It. Quite different from the word play in Use Cases that appeared in Mudlark. What do you mean by uncentered?
BC: I think by "uncentered" I meant that I reject the idea of writing from a central "voice" or program. I tend to write from small projects, or around a certain question or set of questions. Writing tends to be for me a kind of problem solving, exploratory in the way that a land-surveyor explores—mapping out a piece of land, finding its contours, its boundaries, getting to know it by knowing its possibilities. Use Cases combined my desire to find a way to use an abecedarian strategy or structure without making it painfully obvious to the reader with an interest in exploring the seven-line poem as a form, carried over from Ions, an earlier project involving seven-line poems, and with the tension between language as communication and language in its anti-communicatory tendencies and uses.
And How to End It plays with the latter of those items, but it is preoccupied with prose strategies and hybrid strategies. Most of those poems came out of about a six-year period where I wrote nothing but prose poems, trying to map out that continent. The interstitial poems in that book were written much later, as a consequence of my conversations with Gian about the shape of the manuscript. I wrote that skeleton of the book as a way of foregrounding the book's preoccupation with microphysics/cosmology/fractal patterns/chaos theory. It mostly all boils down to these questions and projects.
CP: How do you define language? How would you describe your relationship to words and the making of your work?
BC: I'm not sure I would think to define language, but I'm terribly interested in learning more about how language makes "us"—or what we think of as ourselves. I sometimes wish I had access to functional MRI equipment so that I could run lots of experiments to find out what's going on in people's brains when they read different kinds of texts. I'm particularly interested in short poems and that quick blossom or explosion that happens when you read something like Bob Heman's short poems or some of Creeley's really short ones. I'm convinced that whatever that is that's happening between language (whether read or heard) and cognition, or language and memory and cognition, it's closely connected to our sense of self. So, I've been interested both in the language that we "have"—that is, the language that makes up what we already are, that is engrained in our makeup—and the language that we "get"—or, the language that is coming to us from other sources and is constantly remaking what we are. I guess that's either buried in or comes to the surface in much of what I've written in the last few years—the constantly changing sense of self, identity, how that's all related to what we are and where we come from (that is, the origins of the universe).
CP: I appreciate your phrase “how language makes us.” We’re constantly inheriting the language from the culture around us. I’m thinking of collagists or flarfists. Barren Watten refers to the detritus of pop culture and the internet. But I think you’re referring to more than appropriation. How does the act of writing, the echo or pulse of its sounds, images, and meaning, course through and influence the individual poet’s body. Short of attaching any electrodes to your brain, have you observed any changes in yourself?
Oh, I'm all for interesting ways of using appropriation; as you say, all of our
language (except maybe the language we abandon as babies in favor of
communication) is borrowed from elsewhere. It's not ours, doesn't come from us,
doesn't really correspond to anything that is really "in" us, so why
should we pretend that what we say in a poem is somehow a revelation of
personality, a pouring forth of person-ness? One response to that question might
be that the gulf between what seems to be "in" us and what we can do
with language is the only thing that keeps us writing. I wouldn't entirely
disagree with that argument. Language may be a virus from outer space, but
viruses become a part of us and actually contribute to the evolution of species.
Our DNA is scattered with sequences from retroviruses, for example. So we are in
this endless feedback loop—we change language and language changes us, not
only because greater acquisition of language increases the sophistication of our
rhetorical abilities, but because reading actually changes the neural networks
in our brains. If a wider array of neural connections means more intelligence,
then I guess it's been proven that reading poetry makes you smarter! At the very
least, more reading opens up the possibility for more/new/different connections
(associations) and widens the possibilities for the individual brain. Reading
and writing poetry is, then, for me, a way of changing my mind. And that's what
excites me—when I read or write something that changes me.
CP: As you know, I'm a fan of the anthology you're recently put out, An Introduction to the Prose Poem. Do you see any significant developments in prose poetry over the last few decades? Any bold pronouncements as to its future?
BC: Prose poetry is as various and as unpinnable as poetry itself. The only real development I see—and I'm not sure it's a development, but definitely a change—is the degree to which prose poetry is accepted as poetry. The detractors are fewer and quieter these days, and you kind find prose poems in most literary journals, though not all. As to the future, I can only hope there's something coming that will surprise us.
copyright © Brian Clements & Cheryl Pallant