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Response & Bio Bill Tremblay

Dear Double Room:

My creative contribution to this issue of Double Room, "Skies," was the result of a writing exercise I generated for a workshop I was asked to give at the University of Wyoming last January [2004]. I was interested in experimenting in workshop exercises in the way that some poets or short-short fiction writers are interested in experimenting in form and technique, especially in the notion of combining tasks. You might say I was interested in "multi-tasking."

To that end I asked the students to answer the question, "How many ways can you praise the sky?" That question involved at least two tasks--to describe different kinds of sky, not just the mostly cloudy skies over Laramie that day that were apparent out the windows, but ones inside them, skies of memory, skies of imagination, filled with data-streams, e.g. but also to give some thought as to different genres of praise--apostrophes, perhaps, or dithyrambic paeans, or telegraphic congratulations! to the sky for a fine atmospheric performance.

So the students wrote for a while on that. This was a task that required an intellectual effort as well as a descriptive and emotional one. I asked them not to concern themselves with lines, rhyming, rhythmical effects, but just to write. And of course this involved an idea that obviously I share with a lot of other poets and writers who are a good deal more articulate than I about the prose poem, its many advantages, its special characteristics, e.g. the way it can get a kind of density through such means as repetition and variation of words and images as a function of writing momentum [which I believe writing prose poems encourages] rather than highly-wrought extended metaphor.

Then I asked them a related question, "How many ways can you come up with to know the sky?" Observation, weather reports on the radio, intuition, memories of how a grandmother taught them how to "read" mackerel skies--those were some of the "ways" they came up with.

I would add that as I was just beginning to teach a course on "Beat Generation Writing" I had been re-familiarizing myself with Jack Kerouac's principles of spontaneous prose, predicated by his "first thought, best thought" concept, and it occurred to me that prose poems are a very pragmatic road into generating what Kerouac called "sketching."

Then asked them to read their drafts carefully. I've been impressed with the central idea in a book entitled The Hidden Order of Art, by Anton Ehrenzweig, viz. that when new art works emerge into the world at first they look like a very threatening chaos. But Ehrenzweig argues that inside the seeming chaos is a more complex order which it may take a while to get comfortable with and excited about, unless one has a predisposition to enjoy chaos. So I was not asking the students for a "reconciliation" version in which they supplied continuity, e.g. Instead, I asked them to consider whether there might not be a hidden order in the still-smoking lava that had just arrived in their notebooks. Before they revised, if they revised, what could they learn from their drafts?

Statements by various writers such as Lisa Hargon-Smith in which she says she feels "uncomfortable with the distinction between a poem and a prose poem," and so on, are a natural response to "rules of genre" where there is something to "live up to" [of course it's going to feel like a straight-jacket] rather than looking for potential, for opportunities of further development, possibilities rather than limits. [I wonder: isn't it possible that unless one is careful one might end up trying to write the definitive article on the rules of the genre called prose-poems, thus turning liberation into just another cause for anxiety?]

We then had a reading out loud of the drafts. What happened was that the students used the "praise" drafts as the primary to which they added pieces from their "know" drafts. It was what I had done, i.e. I wrote right along with them as they wrote, a practice I find useful for a number of reasons, including putting a good feeling in the room, and maybe even getting a decent prose poem out of it for myself.

It was a good day of writing.


Bill Tremblay is an award-winning poet as well as novelist, teacher, editor, and reviewer whose work has appeared in eight full-length volumes of poetry including Crying in the Cheap Seats [University of Massachusetts PressDuhamel: Ideas of Order in Little Canada [BOA Editions Ltd.], Rainstorm Over the Alphabet [Lynx House Press], and most recently Shooting Script: Door of Fire [Eastern Washington University Press]. Mr. Tremblay is the recipient of the John F. Stern Distinguished Professor award for his thirty years teaching in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Colorado State University as well as fellowships from the NEA, the NEH, the Fulbright Commission, and Yaddo. Hundreds of his poems have been published in literary magazines in the United States and Canada, including the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Poetry, 2003.