Gary Percesepe’s Comments
No one knows where to draw the genre boundaries around the prose poem. As I tend to work between forms and “under the music” (as Maxine Chernoff might put it), I try not to be drawn into discussions about what it is that I write, or how I came to write it, since if I knew at any given moment where this sentence was going I would have considerably less interest in my arrival.
Nevertheless, I have enormous respect for Ellen Parker and FRiGG, so when she asked me to say a word about these three pieces published under my name, I agreed to try. My $0.02.
But first, some history.
Baudelaire once wrote a letter on the prose poem to his editor, Arsène Houssaye, (a letter often included in the front matter of Paris Spleen) in which he tells us that the prose poem is essentially lyric and expressive of inner states, reflecting “the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience.” This is a pretty fair description of what is going on in “Conversation.” A man sits on a toilet at the Waldorf avoiding both his girlfriend and the title of the poem. Reveries and jibes of conscience are perhaps discernible. About this, enough said.
“New Year” employs the sliding logic of a surrealist montage; if there’s a story here it is elliptical, deliberately omitting cues and introducing oblique connections (asparagus and encyclopedias). It’s James Tate crossed with Frederick Barthelme (who had a hand in the final editing, paring away each inessential word) in a manic sprint to the finish line.
“Here” is something else entirely. I suppose it is properly classified under the category of “flash creative nonfiction” (or simply flash nonfiction), another of those descriptions which for me explains precisely nothing. To understand what I mean, ask yourself, “What is flash creative nonfiction?” It’s akin to asking, What is a prose poem? (See above.)
Some attempt to demarcate flash nonfiction by describing it as: “Writing about what’s true, writing about factual events while using fiction-writing techniques and a poet’s sensibility. Telling the truth with flair.” I do not find this helpful. The problem with this formulation is that it conflates truth with facticity and discounts the human tendency to employ facts selectively (some would say indiscriminately) in service of a metanarrative. In other words, what makes a fact a fact is the place it occupies in the narrative structure of a story, and the one who is telling the story. This is why a memoirist can write multiple memoirs: same life, different story. It is also why Native American storytellers often begin by saying, “Now, I don’t know if these things actually happened, but I know this story is true.” There is a truth in fiction and nonfiction that goes beyond a mere recitation of facts. As Emily Dickinson exhorts:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
* * *
Sometime in 1981 I began writing what seemed to be a memoir on postcards. I later transferred the writing to loose-leaf paper. I numbered each postcard-sized thought, added a title to each section and a few drawings, placed the pages in a white envelope and mailed it to a woman I knew. I did not know it at the time, but I had already begun my decades-long experiment with what has come to be called “flash nonfiction.”
By 2010 I was writing a memoir, about 250 pages in, but I was deeply unsatisfied. I struggled to understand the form and to accommodate myself to it. I read memoirs by writers I admired, and admired the writing, but I couldn’t seem to construct a container, to find a form adequate to the content. I felt boxed in by memory. Some years passed, and I began reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume work, My Struggle. It intrigued me that Knausgaard conceived of the work as a novel, and explicitly chose not to write a memoir, which he regarded as a “weak form.” I interviewed the writer Roxana Robinson about Knausgaard’s choice and what he meant by a “weak form,” and Roxana said, “I think he means that a memoir is held hostage to memory, and to the memories of other people, and a novel is entirely under the control of the writer.” Interview with Roxana Robinson.
That’s when it clicked for me. I had a novel on my hands, not a memoir. That’s when I remembered the postcard writing I had done in 1981. Would it be possible to write a novel that read like a memoir written on postcards?
Well, we’ll see.
* * *
As for the designation “flash” in flash nonfiction, well, I have already written about that, and you can read my thoughts on the topic here: ((The) Bride) Stripped (Bare) (By (Her) Bachelors)(,). The title refers to Marcel Duchamp’s famous painting. Again, I have Frederick Barthelme to thank. It’s his title.
* * *
“Here” was occasioned by a remark made at 6:30 in the morning by my wife as I was dropping her off at the train station in White Plains. It was a Wednesday. We were talking about her day, and Resea mentioned eye surgery and babies in the same sentence. I blanched. Unsure if I had heard her correctly and barely awake, I asked her to repeat what she had just said. The traffic light changed, and she had less than 30 seconds to describe Dr. Francis and her Wednesday surgery schedule. Aghast, I kissed Resea goodbye and thought of babies losing eyes, parents in waiting rooms. I did some research, trying to understand eye cancer, but it wasn’t facts I was after. I was trying to tell the truth, slant. It has the makings of a scene, the kind of thing that you might read in a novel. I wanted to understand what it feels like to live this life, in this body, at this moment in history. Here.
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