Cole Swensen

Response & Bio

Question 1. What is the difference between a prose poem and a flash fiction?

What interests me is not so much the prose poem or the flash fiction itself, but a vague (and perhaps ultimately meaningless) notion of genreless writing. To have a genre in mind while writing is to be led by, preconditioned by, rules, limits, constraints associated with that genre, whether or not we're aware them. For instance, a prose poem should be between three lines and three pages, and all its lines should stretch from the left to the right margin. This is fine, and I don't want to over-romanticize the "no constraints" bit, or romanticize it at all because I don't think it has any more value in itself than does any particular form - except that I do wonder about "writing that finds its own form"- is this possible, or is this just anthropomorphizing writing? I think it is. Still, a genre becomes a target, tying down the other end of the piece; the beginning is necessarily tied down to the writer; if the free end gets tied down too soon, options may be missed. Writing without genre would be writing without this target, without a receiving end, which in some way must add up to "without a reader." I think of Benjamin's opening comment in "The Task of the Translator": "No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener." Writing without genre may be an approach to this ideal.


Cole Swensen's latest books are Such Rich Hour (2001) and Oh (2000). Her work has been awarded the SF Poetry Center Book Award, the Iowa Poetry Prize, a National Poetry Series selection, and the New American Writing Award from Sun & Moon. She divides her time between Denver, Iowa City, and Washington DC.

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