Friday, March 28, 2008

What Have You Been Working On?

I used to love when people asked me that question. It would give me an opportunity to outline the plot of my latest novel or tell them about the film script I just finished. I might have tried to explain the concept of my interactive paintings or describe some strange sculpture I was planning to make out of bent saplings. 

As one gets older one becomes less self-absorbed. I still get up in the morning happy to have another day to experience and share with others, but I'm less inclined to think that my artistic creations have much if any importance. My work will not change the world, nor is it likely to last as long as the solid houses others once built out of logs or stone. 

For the past year I've been working on a handful of diverse projects all at once. I'm in no particular hurry to finish any of them. When I get a chance, I'll post a few bits and pieces.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Prose Poem

What exactly is a prose poem? 

I've been writing prose poems and thinking critically about the form for close to three decades now. In 1982 I published my first collection of poems, which included half a dozen odd looking miniature stories with justified margins. Over the next decade I published three collections of prose poems: The Masked Ball, Puppet Theatre, and Carnival Aptitude. Early on, I'd been reading Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and the French Surrealists and I found the open form exciting and full of potential. I also liked the idea of laying a trap for readers wary of poetry. If it looked like prose, maybe I could get them laughing before they realized they'd been had. 

In 1985 I wrote a M.A. thesis on the prose poem that included a long essay entitled "The Contemporary American Prose Poem: An Application of Paradox," which was later published in a collection of my critical writings.  In that essay I surveyed the origins of the form and tried to arrive at some kind of definition. Others have tried both before and since, some in essays and others in book length monographs. I'm not sure anyone has completely succeeded.

A couple years ago I co-edited a little anthology of prose poems called The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder. The short introduction I wrote for that volume invites the reader to enter into the spirit of the prose poem rather than attempt a rigid definition of the form. 

Here's part of what I wrote:

Though I've never been able to locate a can of striped paint or a stick with one end, over the past twenty years I have been asked to write about the prose poem on several occasions. Despite my best efforts to identify an underlying set of universal characteristics, or even to arrive at some more general kind of understanding of this shape-shifting literary form, I suspect my musings on the subject have never yielded a comprehensive definition nor much insight into the mysteries of the genre. Perhaps my dissatisfaction with my own efforts stems from the simple fact that prose poems follow few rules while at the same time insisting on many exceptions. And so with each successive attempt I've made to organize my thoughts on the subject, my efforts have relied less on the techniques and approaches common to scholarship and literary criticism, and more on strategies and practices associated with creative writing. In the end, it seems the prose poem is its own best, and perhaps only, definition.

One might say that trying to characterize and contain the prose poem is a bit like being sent on a "sleeveless errand," an April-Fools goose-chase to acquire sweet vinegar, a bacon stretcher or a box of straight hooks. After enduring the knowing grins of all the literary shopkeepers, one invariably comes to the realization that the prose poem doesn't really exist, except, of course, in the imagination. It seems to me there's no finer place to exist—especially for a hybrid literary form sired by the desire to loosen restrictions imposed by genre. Other writers have noted many times before that prose poems frequently employ the logic of dreams. Perhaps that's another reason why we love them—because they're so free to give voice to the unconscious...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Tightrope Walker

One of my first woodcuts, this print was carved on a piece of plywood. 

Martial Arts

Most people have no idea that I trained in martial arts and was a full time professional martial arts teacher for a couple of years. I began my training at the rather advanced age of 38. My son had wanted to study Taekwondo and I thought it would be a good way for me to get back into shape as well. 

I remember watching my first black belt testing like it was a movie. In my mind there was simply no way an older, out of shape guy like me could ever jump over people and break boards with a flying sidekick. Five years later I was doing exactly what I'd said was impossible. 

The martial arts culture is a strange mixture of ritual and hype, philosophy and bullshit. Sometimes it takes years to sort it out. While Masters and schools are often cult-like, money-grubbing, and negative, the training itself can be incredibly empowering. 

Monday, March 3, 2008

Asylum Arts

In 1990 I founded an independent literary publishing venture called Asylum Arts Publishing. For fifteen years I acquired, edited, designed, published, and marketed books to the trade, with a special emphasis on translations of French Romantics, surrealism, and four difficult to market and thus extremely underrepresented categories of books: serious collections of poetry, prose poems, plays, and short stories by living American authors.  

According to the non-profit organization Poets House, which keeps statistics on American publishers of poetry books, Asylum Arts was among the top ten publishers of poetry in the country for three straight years. That a one-man operation produced a greater number of poetry titles than almost all of the commercial, university, and subsidized non-profit literary publishers in the nation speaks volumes about the sorry state of poetry in this country. So does the fact that there are more academic programs granting degrees in creative writing with an emphasis on poetry than there are readers who purchase the Pulizer Prize winning volume of poetry most years... 

I originally conceived Asylum Arts as a niche publishing operation. Ironically, the venture failed as a result of its unexpected success. Spurred on by consistent and enthusiastic reviews of the books in national media, Asylum Arts quickly grew to be a trade publisher with the same requirements as large operations: seasonal lists, national distribution, deep discounts, heavy returns, and a team of sales representatives taking a cut of the profits. Then my exclusive distributor stopped making monthly payments and six months later declared bankruptcy, stranding 80% of Asylum Arts' stock in Connecticut and swallowing whole the money from six months worth of sales. The press never recovered. Over the next six or seven years the press sputtered along, publishing small print runs an abbreviated list. In 2005 I sold Asylum Arts, which lives on as an imprint of another small literary publisher.