The Bookshelf: Jody Hetherington and the Art of the Prose Poem

Sep 1, 2017

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week on The Bookshelf from NHPR is author Joal (Jody) Hetherington. The prose poem is a rare literary hybrid—the music of poetry without the line breaks. In Hetherington’s new collection, the prose poem takes center stage. The book is called On the Edge of No Answer and the work inside digs deeply into little moments, exposing the nuance of emotions that are here and gone before we can think much about them.

Hetherington, is a cofounder of Pen Central, an organization that offers writing workshops in the Maine/New Hampshire Seacoast area. She lives in southern Maine. She’s spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello in her writing studio in Kittery Point. 

Jody Hetherington's Top Five Reading Recommendations

1.   Great American Prose Poems edited by David Lehman. "Who knew that Poe and Emerson wrote prose poetry? Well, they didn’t call it that—but pieces by them kick off this excellent anthology, which makes its way through a century of poets of all types playing with this idiosyncratic form. A thorough introduction sets the stage—then you can dabble and explore to your heart’s content. I’m still discovering poets here I’ve overlooked until now."

2.   Dime-Store Alchemy by Charles Simic. "This was one of my first real encounters with prose poetry—and, even more gratifying, it’s a crossover book, consisting of poems written in response to the shadow-box artwork of Joseph Cornell. Some are mood pieces or speculations that bloom from the images, while others shadow Cornell himself. This book jump-started my fascination with ekphrastic poetry (poems that respond to images or objects) and work that blurs or crosses genres."

3.   The Book of Fables by W. S. Merwin. "Where’s the dividing line between prose poetry and prose? Difficult to say—but to my mind, these pieces, whether a paragraph or a few pages long, could only have been written by a poet attuned to mood, language, and the essence of an experience rather than to plot. Sometimes Merwin’s narratives feel like torqued fairy tales or allegories, at others like surreal scenes worthy of Sartre."

4.   Citizen by Claudia Rankine. "Citizen is one-of-a-kind, essentially a book-length poem that draws together prose/poetry, images, history and more into a vital work of social commentary that could not be more timely. A powerful, painful, riveting examination of race, racism, and identity in America today—no wonder it won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award."

5.   The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry. "Part anthology, part how-to, this lively collection gathers several dozen brief personal essays by contemporary prose poets musing about aspects of their chosen form, along with a couple of examples from each poet. Nothing academic here—just lots of ideas, tidbits, and inspiration, in case you’re interested in trying your hand at a prose poem."

No writer’s studio would be complete without a huge wall of books. I’m looking at yours and you have a ton of poetry. You’ve got a ton of poetry. Is there any one author or maybe a couple of authors who are your biggest influences?

It’s so hard to answer. It always depends on what I’ve just been reading and what I love. One of the books I was thinking of before this interview was a book by Charles Simic called Dime Store Alchemy which was one of the first things I came across that has prose poetry in it. It was written in response to the artwork of Joseph Cornell.

There are so many poets that I love that it’s hard to say. I’m reading at the moment some Jack Gilbert, William Stafford, Anna Kamienska (not very well known here—she’s Polish). There are so many. It’s really hard to say.

Tell us about the art form of prose poem. How did you start writing prose poems?

I came to it in a rather roundabout way. Part of it was by reading Charles Simic’s book. Another was a class I was doing that was called sudden fiction in which I was writing in response to prompts and sharing our work with each other. And I discovered that I never got going fast enough and I always wrote the beginnings of things and I’d never finish them.

Once, when I was in one of those classes, I dithered for about half of the hour that we were supposed to be writing and then I suddenly got this idea and I wrote what wasn’t really a story. I wouldn’t have called it a prose poem at the time. It was almost like a vignette or a scenario and it had a lot of wordplay around the letter W. I finished it in about 25 minutes and I really fell in love with it. It’s a form that just really appeals to me.

One of the other things that led me to this was a notebook. I’m a total geek when it comes to notebooks, pens, tools, and a lot of my writing process for poetry certainly occurs by hand in notebooks. A friend gave me a small notebook. It’s about three-by-three inches. It’s known among my friends as “The Pink Book” because it happens to be pink. It has these little dotted lines. And I fell in love with this format. I have small writing, I love fine-tipped pens. And I started to do one of those a day. My only guideline was to fill a page—occasionally I’d fill more than one page—and to not take myself too seriously. It just opened up for me.

Credit Peter Biello / NHPR

How would you distinguish between a vignette and something that would rise to the level of “prose poem”?

I tend to compare prose poetry not to vignettes but to flash fiction, which is another rather trendy new form. The difference between them, I think, is that flash fiction really does have a little more to do with a narrative. There’s a little bit of a plot. There may even be a tiny bit of character development.

Prose poetry, to my mind, is more about a deep exploration. It does what poetry does. It is exploring how we are in the world. The essences of experiences.

I felt, while reading some of these, that you were taking very small moments and exploding them, trying to chart where the emotions come from and how they exist inside a human being. I don’t know if that’s way too abstract a way to describe it, but sometimes they felt like stories. Sometimes they had characters, people who came alive. And then there were moments like the title poem, what it’s like to feel the phone ring so many times and you almost get the sense that nobody’s going to pick up, and then it happens. Small moments like that.

You’re absolutely right. You really put your finger on something there. I would certainly describe myself as a miniaturist. And that’s what I’m interested in—the ways things unfold in the smallest ways and the way those smallest moments can reveal so much. They open out and open out. It’s some kind of puzzle where you think it’s small and then it just keeps getting bigger when you explore it. And that’s absolutely what I’m interested in exploring in my work.

Can you read us an example from your book of one that you really like?

How about the one you juts mentioned, “the little part of you that I know”?

I call and ask to speak to the little part of you that I know. Three, four rings, on the edge of no answer, but then you pick up. This is not the voice I was expecting, formal and almost rosy, and I know right away, but I ask anyway. No, you say, that little part of you that I know is not there. No, you do not know when it will be back. I’m afraid I’ll sound forlorn (that little part of you would understand), but there’s no way to end this conversation gracefully—we are friends, after all, even if this is all pretext over subtext. How are you (without you)? What’s the news (from the not-here)? Hanging up, I wonder—will you really bother to give my message to the little part of you that I know?

You can’t help but think of flash fiction a little bit, right?

It does have some of those hallmarks. It’s very condensed. It often does tell a story. There’s a story of a relationship and an emotion there. It’s not exactly that there’s a plot, although you have a phone call, you have an action. But again, I think the prose poetry is interested in excavating the emotion inside the moment.

You’ve done some teaching in the Portsmouth/Southern Maine area, yes?

A little bit. I’ve offered some classes. A couple of friends and I created a small organization and offered classes. Most of what I offered, in fact, was flash fiction. And it was mostly about generating work rather than criticizing or evaluating or revising. I’m always interested in helping people to find that spark.

How would you describe the relationship between your teaching of writing and the writing you do?

It makes me think more consciously about what I do. The classes I’ve offered are generative and the nice thing about that is that if I choose to I can join in and also respond to this prompt. It makes me think about what’s the most inspiring to me—the things that catch my attention. And they are varied—many and varied. When I was writing my prose poems in the little book I mentioned earlier, all I had to do was find a starting point. For me, sometimes, it’s a word or a phrase. Sometimes it’s something I overheard. Sometimes it’s an image I’m looking at. Sometimes it’s a comment a friend made to me.

I have a poem in the book that’s titled—it’s a quotation—“Do not liken yourself unto a rodent.” And I had said to a friend that I felt like I was in a rat race, doing a lot of things and not being very creative, and she said those exact words to me and it spurred a prose poem. Teaching does that for me as well. When I’m engaging with other people who are really eager to find a way to express themselves, find a way to let their voice out, then it makes me think about how I do that and how I help other people do that.

What’s the revision process like for you?

I do a lot of tweaking and fine-tuning in my head as I write. I’m very much about wordplay and the way words sound together. So a fair amount of that is going on in my head before I get things down on the page. But that absolutely does not mean that once it gets down on the page, it’s done.

When I was writing the prose poems in the book, I certainly have cross-outs, and there are places where there are whole lines crossed out and I had to go back and try something else. Once I get it down on the page, it’s really got a pretty good shape for the most part. I will do revisions after that, but it’s quite interesting. I’m in a poetry group with other very accomplished poets and one of the things I’m always aware of is the various different ways we approach our work. When I bring something in, I have it pretty well fine-tuned and I have a clear idea of what it is and what I want it to do.

There are other people in the group who come in with a poem and if people respond to it and say, “Well, I don’t understand this” or “Maybe a different word choice…” You know, I have one friend who says, “Oh, it’s gone, I’ve already gotten rid of that one. This is just a draft.” By that point, I’m pretty sure I’m onto something that’s close to a final draft?

What kind of advice do you give your students?

Usually it’s the advice I give myself when I write the prose poems: not taking it too seriously. That’s the advantage of doing something where you’re writing from a prompt. Someone gives you an idea and you turn yourself loose and try to turn off that judgmental part of you.

That judgmental part of you is important later, but when you’re creating—when you’re writing—you have to let go of that and the great thing about writing from prompts is that our brains want to make sense out of things. If someone gives me three words and says, “Make a poem out of it,” my brain tries to put those things together, and as long as I’m not second-guessing myself, some really interesting stuff can come out. And that’s what I try to make clear to the people who have taken my classes, is that there are some really wonderful things that can come out when you allow yourself the freedom.