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Response & Bio Eleni Sikelianos

Question #1) In issue #3 of Double Room, Ron Silliman suggests that it is erroneous to assume “that a signature feature of the prose poem is its brevity.” He calls this misguided assumption, Jacob’s fallacy, and he further argues that considering the differences between the prose poem and the flash fiction is “like trying to identify the border between, say, Korean & Portuguese, similar insofar as each is a language.” Do you agree with Silliman’s assessment? In contrast, Ava Chin suggests that she wrote flash fiction during a period when she was extremely overworked: “their jarring method and brevity, their element of surprise, lent themselves well to my shortened yet heightened attention span.” Chin seems to suggest that the brevity aided and enabled a new kind of invention for her. Do you think that prose poetry and flash fiction do have some kind of compression or brevity as a related characteristic? When you write in this form, the pp/ff, do you place any space or length restrictions on yourself?

I fall on the Silliman side of things, if there is a side here. I think of the many book-length prose poems, like Lautréamont’s Maldoror (one of my favorites) or those books touted as novels that might (somewhat famously) be read as long prose poems (Nightwood, say, or Mina Loy’s Insel, or Finnegan’s Wake). I first read Homer in prose translation, and though I first read Dante in Ciardi’s verse translation, I recently read Singleton’s prose translation of the Inferno. What did Gertrude Stein write?

I don’t think length can interestingly distinguish the two, and I don’t think that anything I can think of can interestingly distinguish the two.

We might point to some element of narrative, of beginning, middle and end, in, say, a one-page Grace Paley story. But what to do with Lydia Davis? Is it that she is still somehow working within the syntactical sentence? Yet so is Baudelaire. Baudelaire is more like a song? I like what Davis says about the distinction in her own work, and her idea to write the pieces and let a new form and space be created. (This threads to question 7: “A work without genre makes no sense – not simply because the term is derived from genus, the root for kind, but because to achieve such a state a work would have to cancel out or erase its own sense of form & integrity as it proceeded, constantly dissolving before the reader, & that of itself would constitute its genre” — Silliman.)

We are inevitably led into the larger sphere of the poetry vs. prose question, which seems to be asked ever and again, and ever and again we fail to compose definitive answers.

Mandelstam had the distinguishing mark as instruction (“instruction is the nerve of prose”), while part of the poem’s task was “exchanging signals with Mars.” Yet, to my mind, almost any poem contains an element of didacticism (if we can at least partially empty that word of its pejorative connotations), and there’s plenty of prose sending out signals to the spheres.

There is a measurement of time that’s different, perhaps, in prose and poetry, which might be extended to the prose poem / piece of flash fiction. Some poetry might be said to be an attempt to touch on language outside of time, but in musical tempo, whereas prose, as Gertrude Stein concluded, is about verbs — a measurement or tracing of action in time. I think it has something to do with the movement of bodies (human or celestial or inanimate), and the arc of that movement. The line break changes everything — it is a physical, mental, or spiritual breath / interruption of time, and, even if there is a clear “narrative,” the line break more clearly gives us a metonymical this + this + this + this, quite simply in the way it physically occupies space.

If poetry or the prose poem is the weather side of the French temps (in flux, volatile, shape-shifting, nebulous), is prose the traditional time (march of body, idea, event) side of the coin? Two faces on one object / word; and thus perhaps prose poem and flash fiction might together not be enough for a cup of coffee, unless it’s a silver dollar and you’re in Milwaukee.

These particular “prose poems” of mine included in Double Room, though they participate in naming (Gertrude Stein: poetry is nouns) and are part of a long poem, are flirting on the edge of documentation (and instruction), and boredom (knowing or sticking to the facts can be boring, even if sometimes important).

Question #2) The work of Eduardo Galeano, suggests Ray Gonzalez in Double Room #3, “challenges us to use language in fresh ways, as we write brief prose, and says the writer of prose poetry and flash fictions can be experimental while grasping the traditional concerns of our time. This means his short-short prose rises above any poetic school or dogma and shows what happens when a writer truly lets go of ego, stance, and the need to jockey for position within the genre.” Do you think that this notion of “letting go of ego” is a function of the prose poem? How does this stripping of the ego change the language of the poem? Is it a desirable effect? Ginger Knowlton writes that a poem “has agency and life,” and it tells you how it “wants to be read.” What role does the ego—the lyric “I”—play in your work, even if it means a total subversion of it? Can language ever really be free of the ego? Is the prose poem/flash fiction a form that lends itself to writing that is liberated from the ego?

I don’t think any form of writing lends itself more liberally to the liberated ego, except, perhaps, a language that operates entirely in cliches.

As Burroughs pointed out, language is viral, infected with and infecting all kinds of things; and perhaps most clearly those linguistic infections are history, culture, and self.

I remember Lyn Hejinian saying in one of her classes at New College in San Francisco that no matter how hard she had tried to get rid of the “I”, the self kept rushing back into language.

We can leave out the “I”, we can think that we’re escaping the self, but there is always the ego shaping the way the language falls on the page. It’s not something escapable, as far as I understand language and self, and I long for the conversation to gather around this question more subtly or holistically. Could we find more interesting ways to talk about it? Mostly, we have to muck around in unknowables, like, what IS the self? The limits of our epistemological capacities. What still rings true is that fabulous 19th century prose poet’s declaration that, whatever the self may be, “Je est un autre” aussi.


Eleni Sikelianos’s most recent books of poems are The Monster Lives of Boys & Girls (Green Integer, National Poetry Series, 2003) and Earliest Worlds (Coffee House Press, 2001). The California Poem (Coffee House), and The Book of Jon (Nonfiction; City Lights) will both be out in October, 2004. She has been conferred a number of awards for her poetry, nonfiction and translations, including a Seeger Fellowship at Princeton University, a Fulbright Writer’s Fellowship in Greece, a New York Foundation for the Arts Award, two Gertrude Stein Awards for Innovative American Writing, the New York Council for the Arts Award, and a NEA. At present, she lives and teaches in Colorado.