“There must be a name for the moment of change. When confusion, however beautiful, leaves us, and regular, longshore waves fold themselves at our feet.” (‘High Tide at the Spit’, Littoral, Shearsman Books, 2013, p.30)
Patricia Debney’s most recent book is Baby (Liquorice Fish Books, 2016), a collection revolving around loss and dysfunction. Other publications include Gestation (Shearsman Chapbooks, 2014) and a collection of prose poems written in a beach hut, Littoral (Shearsman Books, 2013). Her first collection, How to Be a Dragonfly (Smith Doorstop Books), won the 2004 Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition. A former Canterbury Laureate, she is Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Kent.
ML: You’ve published three full collections of poetry now, with a strong interest in and reputation for prose poetry. (In fact, How to Be a Dragonfly (Smith/Doorstop, 2005) was one of the first books of prose poetry I ever read, so it’s a particular pleasure to interview you for Page Chatter). What possibilities would you say prose poems offer a writer (or reader) that verse poems don’t?
PD: Thank you! Interesting question….
For writers, my experience is that prose poems present different possibilities depending on individual practices. After all, single prose poems within verse collections have been around for 150 years, and small ‘runs’ of prose poems have existed in isolated pockets since then too. Both of these occurrences though often feel as if they surprise the writer as much as the reader; they feel as if they are arriving more or less fully formed, cannot be interrogated, and ultimately cannot be critiqued or integrated in ways that verse poetry has for centuries. They are viewed I think as particularly mysterious, anomalous – and by early critics anyway – somewhat dissatisfying. Single prose poems in collections until recently seemed to exist by virtue of ‘not being anything else’ perhaps, or arrived at by a kind of ‘instinct’ or ‘intuition’, rather than by choice.
On the other hand, writers who find themselves setting out to write prose poems – a book of them, or a long sequence – inevitably explore the craft-based possibilities of the prose poem through their practice. These poets (and I’d count myself in this group) consciously work with the sentence rather than the line as unit; the result of this basic premise is the availability of all of the prose conventions: prose-based syntax and punctuation; the presence (or lack of) narrative and its conventions; and notions of voice as they relate to character. This means that writers are able to work with ALL ingredients of writing in their toolboxes (to borrow from Stephen King) – in other words, all of the conventions from both poetry and prose (yes even line-break, which related forms like haibun and also lots of experimental prose poetry use). Ultimately, the prose poem’s USP I think is in how it handles the tensions that arise between aspects of these forms, and how they work (or don’t work) together. It’s a rich, challenging canvas to work on, and one that differs hugely in practice from the reader’s experience.
One of the aspects of reading prose poems on the other hand which I have always found fascinating is that we are likely to enter pieces with – to a greater or lesser extent – false expectations. The prose appearance of prose poems set up ‘story’ and ‘character’ – and I’d say this is true even if we know we are reading prose poems. We are hard-wired to read for narrative and consequence, and much of the prose poem’s appeal lies in confounding these, subverting these, and creating new, unsettling landscapes which don’t ‘fit’ anywhere comfortably. Prose poems in general appear more accessible than verse poetry simply because they are usually in ‘block’ form, or in a kind of text we read as ‘straightforward’. This is entirely misleading of course – and relies on all sorts of misperceptions about the accessibility of both poetry and prose – but our reading selves do react like this I think. The fact is: prose poetry can ‘hook’ readers by seeming to be about consequence or have a story, but in the end it most often functions and has impacts which are closer to those traditionally associated with verse poetry. Readers move between all of these variables; the effects are often de-stabilising, but too, they do often lead to a particular openness regarding form and genre.
ML: You’ve also written a beautiful novel Losing You (Bluechrome, 2007), and your first main specialism, I believe, was in short stories. How did the shift of focus from short stories to prose poetry happen? And what place does fiction have in your writing life these days?
PD: Well, I’ve always written both poetry and prose. In fact – and I think this might be pretty unusual? – I even wrote prose poems during my undergraduate years. In fact – to get very specific – the very first sequence of anything I wrote was in prose poem form. I was 19. This early exploration of the prose poem is entirely due to my undergraduate college, Oberlin. The FIELD translation series – and FIELD Magazine – were published by Oberlin College Press, and many European poets writing sequences of prose poems published in it (Gunter Eich, Tomas Tranströmer, Miroslav Holub). My writing teachers’ practices also led them to the prose poem (David Young, David Walker, Stuart Friebert). So in that sense, I’ve never felt the need to make choices; I’ve moved comfortably between forms for years, and still do really.
So the truth is I have never stopped writing prose; indeed, I have produced thousands of words ‘on the side’. I never published my first novel, and I have an entire collection of (published and unpublished) stories ‘sitting in a drawer’. I have about 60,000 words of memoir I have not consolidated. Given all this, I now feel certain about two things: 1) for a variety of reasons, I do struggle to finish large projects; 2) I initially pursued the prose poem in my 30s because I had time for it and could finish drafting pieces in minutes. It captured too the element of ‘story’ I knew I needed to express, but could not (then) fulfill through long prose.
At the moment I am partway through re-writing my first novel, and I am trying to figure out what to do with the memoir work. I am easily distracted though from lengthy work – and meanwhile have finished a chapbook of erasures, contributed to two anthologies etc. I work extremely well when I can devote uninterrupted time to it, and work swiftly and happily for a while when I go away to Gladstone’s Library for instance. But I do struggle to work with intensity in my everyday life. Next year both children are likely to leave home, and since both children have chronic conditions, my attention has, up until recently, been (too?) easily drawn away from my writing. Gulp. So if I’m not sobbing on the floor this time next year, I think I’ll be writing!
ML: Your first two poetry collections involved linked sequences – groups of prose poems featuring insects, children and plants are included in How to Be a Dragonfly; the prose poems in Littoral (Shearsman Books, 2013) explore the landscape of the North Kent coast – and then for your third collection Baby (Liquorice Fish Books, 2016) you took the poetry sequence into territory that is almost story-like – an integrated set of poems about a female narrator and her mother, through which we learn about their relationship and the mother’s transition into old age and frailty. To what extent did you approach this material as you might a novel or story? To what extent did it differ from these? And what is it about the poem sequence that interests you so as a writer?
PD: I think that first, as I’ve hinted, I’ve always been interested in ‘stories’. Then, closely linked to ‘stories’ runs the idea of ‘what’s hidden’ or ‘unsaid’ or ‘not able to be said’. I do think that the tensions between these two elements – stories, and the unsaid — have always fundamentally informed my practice.
All of my poetry books – in huge contrast with my prose! – were written very, very quickly. I wrote half of Dragonfly in a month, in order to compete for publication; I wrote Littoral in six weeks, the length of time I had access to the beach hut; and I wrote Baby in two one-week sittings, on two residencies. This has never occurred to me before, but – thinking about it now – I can see that I did approach each of them like I would write a short story: that is, get it down on paper as fast as you can, in one sitting. Get in, get out. [ML: See Raymond Carver’s essay here: http://www.theshortstory.org.uk/writers/Essay-Carver-3.pdf] For each book, I did write every single day. I did not look back, I did not re-draft earlier work, and I tended to know what the next few poems might feel like or look like before I got to them, which is very typical of how I might approach writing a short story or a long prose piece. I keep scribbled notes opposite the page I am drafting (whether poetry or prose) – and I see now that these serve as memory – and shaping? – prompts for me for the next day; so although I’m writing contained pieces, I do pick up where I left off somehow. This type of practice may be closer to that of a prose writer? I don’t know. I do know that I tell my students to draft a short story as quickly as they can, and I also always point to Hemingway’s practice of finishing the writing day in the middle of a sentence, so you always know where you are when you come back.
As for narrative, well… I don’t do much of that at the best of times, even in my prose! I am completely unaware of any true narrative in my poetry books as I write them. I never think of ‘what happens’ so much as ‘what space am I going into next’. With Baby in particular, I deliberately veered away from connecting events, partly because I am also, deep down, wary of the human urge to ‘make sense of things’; this, in my experience, cannot begin to capture the depth of real and imagined experience in all its facets. As I finished this book however I did become aware that I’d travelled somewhere else, that the book had movement. This was also true of Littoral. This movement feels important to me, like a story indeed without scaffolding or consequence, closer to the movement over time of our internal landscapes maybe?
Also, I know that I’m essentially forward looking. Despite some quite desperate environments and situations I’ve been in and witnessed, I value our capacity to survive perhaps more than anything else; this always gives me hope. So I never want to sit still in my work. I have dozens of individual pieces which I very much doubt I will ever collect into a manuscript – and this I think is because they don’t make a whole which has movement (narrative? Such an interesting question!). So although I might like the pieces individually, I won’t consolidate them. Yes, I think that’s right.
ML: Baby mixes prose poetry with fragmented and spacious free verse – in the latter there’s a strong sense of movement over the white space of the page. Can you talk about how you ended up using this form for this particular book (after two collections that were almost exclusively prose poetry)?
PD: Like a lot of writers, I have to cultivate the sense to myself that I am actually NOT writing in order to feel ‘free’ to write. I remember Stuart Friebert saying once that we have to write ‘out of the corner of our eyes’, like we’re not writing at all, and I still do that.
Baby was a particular challenge. Its ‘methodology’ actually started with the chapbook Gestation (Shearsman Chapbooks, 2014) – a methodology which consisted of me pretending to myself that I wasn’t writing anything at all. I was absolutely terrified writing both Gestation and Baby, and I think that their eventual form reflects this: the words literally eked out, like they were forcing their ways to the surface. I could not say much at once, could not say much, could not say… etc. Gestation is enormously compressed, though again it does travel the page. But to me it feels ‘spat’ out almost, rising up through fear. Baby began in the same fear, but with despair added, and then soon, sympathy and empathy – both for myself the narrator, and also for the ‘you’, the mother. With this loosening came a looser style, more ranging over the page, but also: so much – so much – remained unsaid, and had to remain unsaid. So I became aware that the white space was working harder here than at any other time in my work. I was counting on that blankness to capture what I couldn’t say. Part of my resistance to ever writing this material was fear of never getting out of it; part of ‘getting out’ was making something which privileged sound, rhythm, shape – which brought, for want of another word, beauty. As the book progressed, I wanted some salvation, and I soon realised that this ‘saving grace’ might be through bearing witness, and making something of some value from it. It’s also worth pointing out that over time I have simply felt braver and more mature in my practice. With Baby I felt able to risk line breaks and fragments, make linguistic and sonic forays that I’d never trusted myself to do before. This I put down to the courage and knowledge that friends and colleagues Nancy Gaffield, Dorothy Lehane, and Simon Smith give me.
The prose poems in Baby are almost exclusively in or very close to the ‘you’ voice, and of course, the capturing of dreamlike or nonsensical speech is a classic prose poetry register. What’s a bit different about these prose poems I think is that they are consciously unresolved. They are, when it comes to it, a kind of truncated prose, extracted from a larger piece that doesn’t exist. Like I depend on white space elsewhere, I depend here too on the invisible or unspoken part of the larger story: I think of these pieces as a voice which occasionally coalesces and makes just enough sense to be alive. Which, painfully, is not that far from the book’s reality.
ML: What would you say were the formative influences (whether from childhood or adulthood) led you towards writing?
PD: I began keeping a journal when I was ten, and began to write poems and short stories when I was 11. The first one, if I remember correctly, comprised journal entries recorded by an imaginary 12 year old girl who went down with the Titanic.
It’s really not a big leap from there to get to what drove me to write: getting out, because the ship was going down. My writing always pulled me elsewhere, somewhere else, where life was different, or where I could be who I wanted to be etc. It was my refuge and my escape.
I was a voracious reader from around four through to my middle teens – like most writers, I think. I read absolutely constantly, and in poetry and prose I found observations and depths of feelings which captured the way I felt about the world, and the ways I wanted to be. They represented what was possible somehow; they made something where nothing had existed before.
My earliest reading obsession was with Helen Keller, the amazing deaf and blind person who, with the help of her remarkable teacher and companion Annie, found her way to communication. Gosh, again: you don’t have to leap far to see how badly I wanted to reach ‘somewhere else’ and communicate. There were aspects of my life about which it was necessary that I remain deaf and dumb; only now do I see the sort of hope that Helen Keller offered me then.
In reality, my English teachers were hugely formative in my writing life. From Mrs Prentice who crouched down next to me, aged 12, and told me ‘never stop writing’, to Mrs Amos, who fed me Mill on the Floss and talked for hours about language and the big wide world full of life out there waiting for me – they acknowledged again and again that they understood me in some fundamental ways. I believed them, and it was clear early on that I was always going to write, whether I ‘did anything’ with it or not. I was surprised and heartened to find at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels that I received such good feedback for my work too, but ‘critical success’ (or some equivalent) has never been – deep down – most important to me. Which in hindsight may be unwise, but oh well!
I’ve been thinking more and more about the writer I might have been had certain things not happened in my life. I might not have been a writer at all indeed. Or I might have had the ability to see a higher proportion of my writing through. It’s not necessary for me to ‘escape’ anything anymore – and at the ripe old age of 53, I’m beginning now to appreciate the lack of urgency and near-panic about my work. I’m beginning to think about what I make quite differently, and take more risks. I don’t need to ‘write my way out’ anymore, I don’t need to ‘get somewhere else’, so I am slowly discovering more organic ways of thinking about and making work. It feels clouded and a bit scary at the moment – but I suspect it’s also closer to my authentic self. We’ll see I guess! Old habits are hard to break.
ML: You’ve written novels, short stories, prose poetry – what is your relationship to flash fiction? Have you ever written anything that you would consider flash fiction, and / or are you tempted to explore this form?
PD: Years ago I published a flash fiction piece in a Tales of the Decongested anthology. Interestingly, this same piece ended up in my first collection of prose poetry! Hmmm. I do continue to believe that the ‘lines between’ flash fiction, prose poetry, and short memoir are pretty wobbly. Something which is securely narrative is clearly flash fiction; and I would think of it as having a beginning, middle and end. Something which moves between images I’d think of being prose poetry – but the truth is, even the most ‘poetic’ of prose poems have the scaffolding and prose signifiers of story-telling. These days I tend to believe that short prose exists on a continuum, with the most poetic prose poetry at one end, and reportage narrative at the other. It’s very possible to write pieces all along this continuum, but personally I find I tend toward the poetic. Even the most narrative of my prose poems (in Baby, say), depend on an incompleteness which makes them closer to the poetic. I have always thought of prose poems as ‘glimpses’ or ‘facets’ of a larger, multi-layered story (life?) of some sort…. I fear being reductive almost more than anything else, and I can sometimes find flash fiction a little ‘smug’ feeling for that reason: it sometimes feels too complete. And I resist that certainty in everything I do.
ML: How to Be a Dragonfly was one of the books that helped establish prose poetry in the UK in recent years, having won the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, a prize traditionally awarded to lineated poetry. How has prose poetry in the UK been changing since – is it a different landscape now than it was when you first started writing and publishing prose poems?
PD: Yes I think the prose poetry landscape has changed a lot in the last decade or so. I remember that Jane Monson’s review of Dragonfly referred to it as the first ‘mainstream’ collection of prose poetry in the UK. At the time I was not very involved in the UK poetry world, so had no idea what she meant! Eventually though I realized that prose poetry in the UK has for a long time been practiced in the avant-garde or innovative arena of poetry; indeed, it still very much is. This completely chimes with prose poetry’s essentially subversive nature of course, and its roots in the flâneur and Baudelaire – but it means too that it simply didn’t reach a wide audience. So I think the real shifts have happened in terms of audiences reached and full collections published. The truth is that the prose poem has existed in a very healthy state out of the ‘mainstream’ – but general poetry readers didn’t know much about it!
The results of full prose poetry collections being published (by Luke Kennard, Michael Rosen, Carrie Etter, as well as me) are that more prose poetry is being read, more widely. This of course encourages more publication. This also results in more prose poetry being taught, more prose poetry being considered for prizes, and as a result of all THIS: hybrid and boundary forms in general I think are met with more acceptance and curiosity, across all spheres of UK poetry and writing. A case in point here is Claudia Rankine’s magnificent Citizen: prize-winning, one of the most talked about and read books of ‘poetry’ in years – yet it defies description. I teach it on my prose poetry module at Kent, and almost all of my students have read it before coming to the class: that’s reach for you! In general, there is much less frank mystification around the prose poem – audiences and readers accept it for what it is, and more and more poets write it I think with less hesitation.
The area which remains extremely thin on the ground in the UK is critical work around British prose poetry and the prose poetry scene. This too is about to undergo a transformation; in 2018, Palgrave McMillan will publish British Prose Poetry: The Poems Without Lines, an anthology of critical writings by practitioners and critics alike, edited by Jane Monson. British prose poetry is at last putting down more formalized roots; long may it flourish.