CWB: Your forthcoming chapbook, Ambivalence and Other Conundrums (Omnidawn, Feb. 2014), is a collection of prose poems. Your previous collection To Keep Love Blurry contained a longer section entitled "On His Bed and No Longer Among the Living" which was also prose. Could you discuss what a prose poem is and, perhaps, talk a little bit about its place in American poetry?
CMT: This happens to be a topic I have plenty of opinions about, and I have discussed it in other interviews as well. I've also written a book of what I call fables, which I hope other people call fables, more story than poem, but sharing some traits with both forms, called Cradle Book.
Basically, my understanding of a prose poem goes back to my understanding of the differences between poetry and prose: Richard Howard, who was an important mentor for me turned dear friend, has a formulation he likes to use to explain the differences: "verse reverses and prose proceeds." I take that to mean that when you get to the end of a poem it makes you reread it. The poem sends a lightning bolt back up through its own stalk and changes its own beginning.
Prose, on the other hand, wants you to read the next word, sentence, paragraph, description, scene, or bit of dialogue. It wants to get on with itself, to make progress toward an end that is far in the distance (though a great novel will have that kind of reversal at the end, too, that turning back, a piece of poetic mechanics).
So -and there are plenty of exceptions- I think a prose poem is prose that reverses, meaning it makes you reread it. To do that it uses poetic devices: sound, rhythm, maybe rhyme, but also uses prose sentences, ones that look ahead, ones that draw your eye onward, not so much downward. This definition gets a bit fluffy, I know, but it's the one I like and use. I hope my prose poems operate this way. As far as how prose poetry is fixed in the landscape of contemporary American poetry, I wonder if too many poets just think of a prose poem as a poem without lines, meaning they're not being attentive to their other tools: all those poetic things I mentioned, but also strong, sinuous sentences and even paragraphs.
CWB: I have found your poetry to be constantly engaging in a variety of forms and yet, at the same time, taking up the feasibility of language as an effective device for communication as a continual theme. I might argue that the use of form implies that a meaning can not only be derived, but contained in a poetic form (as if in an equation) and that by using language to fill that form you condone its use as the proper tool to effect communication through whatever form has been chosen. Your poetry often takes a stance of contradiction to this which is, in fact, quite pleasing. Could you speak to this.
CMT: I think a very basic human tragedy, a basic frustration, is the inability to really cross the border between inner and outer lives. Language is our best bet for making that crossing, but there is so much from inside that never gets out on the backs of words. So, I agree with you: poetry, and especially formal poetry, is basically meaningful, but the form is always trying to tell us the story of what can't be said in its own words. Every poem is about what isn't in it.
And, yes, a form carries a certain amount of agreed-upon meaning, a sense that a plan can be fulfilled, which is comforting. But, form also points up what form can't communicate. Even feeling the form, things are left out. Most things probably.
CWB: To Keep Love Blurry is, I think, largely driven by coming to terms with the death of your mother and its subtext is about settling into the themes of post adolescent life such as domesticity and work. It raises the question in me, was this collection about sloughing something off, about, to borrow from D. H. Lawrence, a man who has come through?
CMT: For me To Keep Love Blurry was about assuming the responsibilities of adulthood, which, for me, means becoming a parent. It's about the difference between, or the overlaps between being a son and being a father. So it's about giving up certain fantasies, and giving over, to my children, the right to those fantasies, as it were. So lots gets left behind. I think the poem is a good metaphor for growing up, in some ways, because it's all about what isn't kept when one tries to keep some things in words.
CWB: How does Ambivalence… represent a departure from To Keep Love Blurry? Given the radical difference in overall style between To Keep Love Blurry and Ambivalence what’s next for you in your poetry?
CMT: Ambivalence was really a generative exercise for me: Rusty Morrisson of Omnidawn asked me for a chapbook, and I hadn’t written very much since To Keep Love Blurry, so I tried to figure out if I could write something about all of these big concepts: fear, fame, drinking, ambivalence.
The poems in Ambivalence, with much revision, were the results of that exercise. I also have a new manuscript that I'm finishing, which is composed of poems that are sloppy where the poems of TKLB are more formal. It's a kind of a bitter book, but it also tries to figure out what it means to have had a second child, a daughter.
CWB: What are your long term influences and what are your short term influences? What artists, poets, musicians, biologists etc. do you look to for inspiration and how does that inspiration find you? What I mean is, when something inspires you do you draw direct influence or make direct reference or does that inspiration surface in your work in more surprising ways?
CMT: A lot of what I've written has been in direct conversation with writers who are important to me: Robert Lowell, Donald Justice, Bin Ramke, Robert Frost. There so many others though, especially new writers, of whom I read a great many. And then I love jazz. I have been listening lately to a lot of Classical music also: I love music as a metaphor for thinking; a lot more gets communicated through music than by words and you can't paraphrase it.
CWB: When you are composing new poetry, what do your habits look like? Do you work from a notebook with a pen? Use an iPad? How do you draft your poems? Do you share your drafts with a circle of poets or coworkers or family members? What is your advice to aspiring poets in regards to drafting their poetry?
CMT: Lately I've been using a weird process that involves my iPad and three different word processing apps. Whatever geekery keeps it fun. And I've come to be very fascinated with the potential of dictation, now that everyone with a smartphone can talk into a word processor. I do that a lot now, though I get mixed results with it. I tend to show everything first to my wife, the poet Brenda Shaughnessy, but lately, after years of just showing things to her, I felt the need to expand my early readers so I've shown the new poems to some other friends as well, which has been really fun.
PLEASE NOTE THAT Ambivalence and Other Conundrums IS NOT AVAILABLE UNTIL FEB. 2014
Craig Morgan Teicher is a poet, critic, and freelance
writer. His first book of poems, Brenda Is In The Room And Other Poems, was
chosen by Paul Hoover as winner of the 2007 Colorado Prize for Poetry and was
published by the Center for Literary Publishing. His collection of short
stories and fables, called Cradle
Book, was published in
spring 2010 by BOA Editions Ltd. To Keep Love Blurry was published
by BOA in September 2012.
He is Director of Digital Operations and Poetry Reviews Editor of Publishers Weekly, a poetry editor of The Literary Review, a contributing editor of Pleiades, and a Vice President of the National Book Critics Circle. He also teaches at The New School and New York University and lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and children.
Interviewer: Christopher J. Johnson