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Response & Bio Matthew Cooperman

Question #11) The prose poetry/flash fiction distinction is nettlesome in the way that all definitional statements are partial. One could say it’s the presence of narrative (and so time). Or an impulse toward closure (and so space?). Or the tendency in prose poetry for linguistic surface to overwhelm causality and content. But each of these proposals has a counter example and a practionner eroding the declaration.

In my practice the distinction has something to do with origins. There’s a wee poet in the back of a classroom mooning over Becky Albers. No “happily ever after,” it was more in praise of eyes, thighs. And while in a more mature incarnation I’ve written stories, I never think of my writing as emerging from the tradition of storytelling. I just like things in their aleatory constellations better. Certainly there are investigative fictions to look to, but the nature of poetic inquiry is non-teleological. There’s no action it’s seeking conclusively, as plot, or character development or instruction. The poem goes because language goes: “In packets comes the voice. Often have I emptiness, it says. Emptiness is enough and as good as within.” (Rosmarie Waldrop, Blindsight)

That my poems more often than not have tended to cluster in sentences over the past few years has something to do with talk—with a discursive music that accommodates the saturated air of the contemporary. Spicer’s radio is chock full of chatter; the antennae picks up the ‘the’ noise as much as the Delphic song. I mean discursive in Olson’s sense: "The etymology of "discourse" has its surprises. It means to RUN TO AND FRO!" (“Footnote to Human Universe,” Collected Prose). Walking and talking are apt measures of our confusion. The propulsive engine of the prose poem obtains purchase on the lateral, the metonymic. There’s an accretive possibility of surprise that isn’t particularly interested in synthesis. One could say this reflects a skeptical age; the syntagmatic impulse of the New Sentence has with it a suspicion of metaphysics. But there’s something more basic in the attraction. The horizontal axis of the prose poem is a spatial term; sentences accommodate the build-up of worldly facts. The sheer proliferation of stuff requires a more global positioning system. Sentences feel that capacious confusion in their “onward” rush to the margin. I think Stein’s sentences certainly control and extend time, but in her longer works one tends to think of space.

And what’s to conclude anyway? That said world’s fucked up and language is de-based? That the noumenal ‘beyond’ of language, however possible in the past, is being cornered in a sale of goods? Art replicates the mechanical object even in its critique. We buy all that all the time. Check out eBay: sales of poems up 20%!

For me, the most exciting discoveries of prose poetry are syntactical. The lateral impulse of the sentence—its paratactical strategy of presentation over containment—puts pressure on function. Stein’s durations certainly make that case. More contemporarily, though, our ontological crises direct attention to space. Waldrop’s sentences clipping grammatical operation detail the failure of communication. We’re all not getting along. Yet one clause wants another. Parallel rooms (not stanzas), the bridge goes over at the level of unit. This is my attraction to the paragraph, which has been my measure of late. I think my poems have a recombinatory need, collectivity though not conclusion. Keys and pens and weather, stuff tends to reappear. And the build up of units moves, “to and fro,” sentence to paragraph to poem. I’ll wait for the alien invasion to reform my sense ofhierarchy.


Matthew Cooperman is the author of the collections A Sacrificial Zinc (Pleiades/LSU, 2001), which won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize, and Surge (Kent State, 1998). A new chapbook, Words About James, is forthcoming from Phylum Press. His poetry has appeared recently or is forthcoming in New American Writing, Verse, Chain, Denver Quarterly, VOLT, American Literary Review, Pool, Gulf Coast, LIT, ecopoetics and Quarterly West, among others. A Fine Arts Work Center Fellow, he was a founding editor of Quarter After Eight, an exploratory journal of prose writing. Cooperman has taught at Cornell College, Harvard University, and University of Colorado, Boulder. He currently teaches poetry in the MFA program at Colorado State University.