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Respose & Bio Brian Clements

Question #4) Lynn Kilpatrick writes: “poetry and narrative are not opposed and that all writing is narrative in the sense that once I put two words next to each other a relationship begins to rise up between them.” Do you agree? That is, to what extent do you think all writing is always already narrative? In a somewhat similar impulse, Stephen Ratcliffe suggests the following in relation to Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals: “(it is) writing that transcribes actual things/actions/events in the world as they were, or seemed to be in that present moment of seeing/noting them. The writing in REAL tries to do something of this 'translation' of world into words.” To what extent is writing a narrative of the ‘real’? That is, how are poetry and prose narratives translations of the world? And, is Kilpatrick right in suggesting that poetry and narrative are not as dialectical as some writers seem to suggest?

Sally Ashton’s essay forthcoming in Sentence 2 takes a position subtly different from Kilpatrick’s:

A more accurate description might be that human thought continually seeks narrative, seeks to place disjunctive experience in a coherent frame. The mind encounters the world through neural impulse, received by the senses and tempered by intellect. Part of the human enterprise is to order these perceptions and thereby give shape and meaning to experience.

Though I might not go as far as “order” and “meaning,” this is useful to me; narrative is simply one of the strategies the brain uses to place its host on the map in a corner of the universe, inside a house built of older narratives. So I would say with Ashton that poetry isn’t necessarily always already narrative, but that poems (and stories and paintings) are a leaping off point for our innate narrative powers. Whether we’re reading, on one hand, epic poems rich in narrative or traditional short stories, or, on the other hand, poems as disjunctive as Bruce Andrews’s Tizzy Boost, we always superimpose a narrative of our own construction over the top of what we’re reading—not necessarily to make sense of the text, but to contextualize it. Or, to spin on Ratcliffe, we may translate the world into words, but we also translate the words into our world in a kind of feedback loop. The idea that language (our use of it and its use of us) is partially generative of the real is a much more interesting proposition from which to write than any attempt at representation could possibly be for me.

Writing is only interesting to me if it offers itself as part of a conversation. Too often, poems seem to have the right answer or not to be interested in what the reader might have to say back. This is certainly not a new idea. Whitman’s great catalogues are a kind of open-ended narrative that begs the reader to add to the list and thus to the American story. Open-endedness, whether of narrative or of semantics, seems to be one of the specializations of short prose work these days. Is the prose poem any more inherently equipped for these ends than projective verse, free verse, verse? Probably not. But it’s where I find myself most open to the widest conversation.


Brian Clements is the editor of the small press Firewheel Editions and its journal Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics ( He is the author of Essays Against Ruin (poems from Texas Review Press); Flesh and Wood (Mbira Press); and Burn Whatever Will Burn: A Book of Common Rituals.