Taking inspiration from Baudelaire's prose poem Le Chambre Double, published in Paris Spleen in 1869, Double Room, as the title suggests, is a new literary publication devoted to exploring prose poetry and flash fiction. "Who among us, in his ambitious days, hasn't dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose?" asked Baudelaire in a correspondence with Arsène Houssaye, opening-up, what we think is an intriguing and complex conversation between poetry and prose, fiction writers and poets. By launching Double Room, we hope to enter and enter others into this conversation. In addition, we are intrigued by the space that the prose poem/flash fiction (pp/ff) occupies in a literary, historical, cultural as well physical context. The doubling of prose poem/flash fiction and the etymological roots of "stanza" from the Latin for "room," as well as, the poetic unit, is yet another layer of intrigue that we hope adds more fodder to the debate over these genre tensions.
Certainly, there exists a kind of intensity, urgency and immediacy in pp/ff that is unique and inimitable in regard to other forms. This intensity, on one hand, has to do with subversion, or a challenge to conventional genre distinctions, and on the other, an attempt to embody the criteria of both. Therefore, the conflicting and somewhat paradoxical relationship simultaneously confounds our expectations while also fulfilling them. In other words, it would seem that prose poems and flash fictions are, by their very nature, polemical, dialogical, oxymoronic, and contradictory. This of course almost always implies a subversion, or some attempt to undermine and disrupt certain ideologies, traditions and assumptions within literature and language.
However, this "oxymoron argument," though useful and certainly compelling, is somewhat cliché and threadbare, and relies on rather conventional literary categories. In other words, the notion of "inherently subversive" and "oxymoronic" actually returns the pp/ff to the very constraints and restrictions it supposedly undermines; i.e. formal literary convention. Definitions for prose and poetry are not universally agreed upon, and therefore, it follows that a definition of prose poetry or flash fiction would prove equally as slippery. Although various conventions have been established in an attempt to distinguish one from the other, all of which inevitably, arise from the existing cultural milieu: i.e. social context, readership, publishing industry, criticism/reviews, anthologies, canonization, economics, gender, race, literary history, academic labeling, etc. Critic Steven Monte notes that "negative differentiation" plays a significant role in this development:
. . . genres are negatively defined in relation to neighboring genres rather than determined by a particular set of formal traits, so that at any given moment in our reading we identify only a handful of generic traits or contexts. Our sense of genre is therefore always "in progress," changing as we read onward and encounter new interpretive frameworks. (10)
In other words, the prose poem and flash fiction, necessarily, emerge in relation to existing poetries and fictions - as a response, subversion, celebration, rejection, or experiment, with or against - decadently or progressively - other genres (e.g. the novel, lyric poetry, the short story). Genre itself has a legacy, which is both diachronic (historical) and synchronic (ahistorical), in ways that find all forms defining themselves in relation to other forms in historical and cultural contexts. The pp/ff may be unique in that it defines itself against other genres, via negative differentiation and opposition.
Most scholars argue that the poème en prose originated with 19th century French Symbolists' attempt to reject the strict formal poetry of the time, and specifically with Aloysius Bertrand's publication of Gaspard de la Nuit (1842), and Baudelaire's Paris Spleen (published in 1869). However, others have written compelling arguments for the origin of the "Modern" prose poem developing concurrently in French and in English, beginning with writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein. Thus, the evolution is connected to an attempt to introduce "everyday speech" and colloquialisms into poetry, while also in some way rejecting ornamentation. Robert Bly <1> suggests that the prose poem is more "democratic" than other forms of verse (esp. traditional/formal poetry). He argues that verse written in traditional forms are all about control (i.e. tone, sound, measure), and in a way reinforce human being's supposed domination over chaos. Bly suggests that these demonstrate a mastery of subject matter by language that is more consistent with bourgeois values and associated with the aristocratic class; i.e. the mastery of the population by the aristocracy. The prose poem, in contrast, Bly argues, is the form that best expresses 20th century ideas of democracy in the sense that it is concerned with sensibility and intelligence, as opposed to order and power. In a sense, it de-priviledges and de-legitimizes certain conceptions of beauty that have been in place since Socrates and Plato. It undermines what people have for so many years deemed as beautiful. The prose poem calls into question ideas about what can be used in poem - in the spirit of Williams and Wordsworth before; i.e. using the language that ordinary people speak.
Prose poet Russell Edson ties the development of the prose poem in English to a uniquely Modern American 'free verse': "the prose poem comes to us (Americans) not so much from the idea of the poème en prose, but out of modern poetry itself . . . I don't think a line of European virtuosos is necessary to find the availability of the prose poem in America" (qtd. in Monte 134). Monte also explores how the form can arguably be traced to the 17th century with various "moments" in between; e.g. in 1699 Cervantes suggests that the epic can be written in verse or prose, and the Anthony, earl of Saftesbury's perjorative use of it in 1711 (first appearance in the OED). By 'Modern' then, we refer to the incarnation of the prose poem since the 1850's when the term actually finds convergence with its form and usage in English and French. It is at this time, from Baudelaire onward, that the prose poem is framed as a decadent, dialogical genre that is 'experimental.'
Although some scholars and editors have attempted to include a wide range of voices (e.g. Jonathan Monroe, in A Poverty of Objects, examines Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, and Helga Novak in relation to the prose poem, as well as various anthologies that do include an eclectic mix writers), critical and academic studies of the prose poem have generally remained an exploration of its development in France and America. Needless to say, this neglects a very rich evolving history of prose poetry and flash fiction elsewhere around the world - Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, and Julio Cortazar in Latin America or Italo Calvino in Italy, for instance.<2>
Also, widely neglected is the voice of women in the development and evolution of this genre. Gertrude Stein is often the only woman mentioned with any depth in critical academic studies, except for some recent efforts in the analysis of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry that also, by happenstance, includes prose poetry (e.g. writers like Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Rosmarie Waldrop). And even further, several Native American writers (e.g. Sherman Alexie) who continue to explore the margins of poetry and fiction in surprising and exciting ways, still do not receive the attention they deserve. We hope this journal not only attempts to "fill" these gaps, but also that it serves to challenge the often-erroneous, elitist assumptions that have created them; i.e. what Ron Silliman calls "the exteriorizing serialization of language."
The "flash-fiction," at least in terms of labeling, has a significantly more recent beginning. These stories emerged onto the literary scene in various journals that espouse a new type of narrative with "a depth and intensity of penetration into human life that was of luminous difference in kind from the novel or the larger story" (qtd. in Shapard 11). Contests in different literary journals as wells as various anthologies carrying names life "Sudden Fiction" seem as responsible for creating this genre as anything else. Certainly, the flash fiction is linked to other developments in fiction and genre, including the short story and the novel. Donald Barthelme suggests (somewhat ironically) that the novel is "dead" and is being replaced by "what existed before," and thereby complicates the entire historical process; i.e. to what extent are flash fictions extensions of early fables and fairy-tales, and to what extent are they a reaction to and against the novel and short story?
An historical exploration of genre does reveal a plethora of characteristics that is unique to each (prose poetry or flash fiction), but finding a specific definition will always remain elusive. Therefore, to explore this genre "on processes rather than classifications based on fixed traits" (Monte 30), and through a mode that examines how the writers themselves interrogate genre categories seems ultimately more productive and exciting. In other words, instead of attempting to establish normative or essentialist categories, one proceeds by exploring how the genre itself, and the writers within the genre question received histories and labels, and further, how the writers construct and disrupt different genre categories. The questions then, rather than what are the categories and restrictions, become: How does one read a prose poem differently than a flash fiction? Should they be read differently? And finally, in what ways do genre categories extend or restrict the boundaries of language? The exploration is one that looks closely at the work itself and the muddling and crossover, as well as negative differentiation that occurs; or, as Monte asserts: "the invisibility of the fence should not cause us to forget that the fence exists" (Monte 152). In other words, what artifice, what seduction, does the writer use to dislocate our expectations of genre?
The eclectic and diverse cross-section of writers offered in this first issue will prove that the possibilities in regard to this last question are numerous and varied. From the fabulist tales of Denise Duhamel and Christopher Kennedy to the logical disruptions of Rosmarie Waldrop and Sean Dougherty to the lyric sensibility in Holly Iglesias, the work presented here is as different as it is exciting. The authors' discussion of genre in our archive section is equally as interesting, and will undoubtedly stimulate various ways of thinking about these hybrid genres. We hope you enjoy this issue and all future issues.
<1> Holly Krummenacher Iglesias, in her response to the editors' questions regarding genre, which you can link to from the homepage, does a wonderful job of reminding us of some of Robert Bly's often erroneous and sexist assertions. Here, his suggestion that the prose poem is more 'democratic' seems useful and productive, whereas many of his other observations regarding poetics, poetry and the prose poem do not.
<2> Also lacking in critical discourse surrounding the prose poem is the OULIPO connection. In other words, what are the restrictions provided by the pp/ff and how do various writers discover freedom via these restrictions? The OULIPO school certainly offers a rich assortment of work and 'exercises' in this regard.
Monte, Steven. Invisible Fences: Prose Poetry as a Genre in French and American
Literature. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
Shapard, Robert and James Thomas. Sudden Fiction (Continued). New York:
W.W. Norton & Co., 1996.