Bio & Response

Ron Silliman

Ron Silliman has written and edited 24 books to date, including the anthology In the American Tree, which the National Poetry Foundation has republished with a new afterword. Since 1979, Silliman has been writing a poem entitled The Alphabet. Volumes published thus far from that project have included ABC, Demo to Ink, Jones, Lit, Manifest, N/O, Paradise, (R), Toner, What and Xing. Silliman is a 2003 Literary fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and was a 2002 Fellow of the Pennsylvania Arts Council as well as a Pew Fellow in the Arts in 1998. He lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two sons, and works as a market analyst in the computer industry.

Question #3: Regarding differentiation between flash fiction and prose poetry, Tony Leuzzi wrote, “If the writing contains a compressed plot, with character and motive, then I am inclined to think, ‘flash fiction.’ If the reading experience forces me into unexpected directions, where a loss of control is expected, then I am probably in the realm of a prose poem.” Peter Johnson also noted, “I agree with Todorov when he says that all genres come from previous genres, but that doesn’t mean Schlegel was wrong when he said, ‘Every poem is a genre in itself.’” What criteria do you use to distinguish between prose poems and flash fictions? Is Schlegel correct in his assessment? If so, is there any point in designating genre?

Unspoken within that question is one of the deeper & more misguided presumptions about the nature of the prose poem – what I think of as Jacob’s fallacy – that a signature feature of the prose poem is its brevity. Thus “flash fiction,” which by definition is characterized by its length, might be something that requires differentiation. But this is like trying to identify the border between, say, Korean & Portuguese, similar insofar as each is a language.

One way to read Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit, the first volume of what will evolve into the prose poem, is as a series of short pieces, but it also can plausibly be read as a book-length serial poem. Lautréamont’s work in the 1860s should have resolved once & for all the idea that length had nothing to do with the nature of the prose poem. Yet for some reason, the impact of Bly & Edson on the poetry of the 1960s was to generate an almost monolithic model of the prose poem cast largely from the mold of Max Jacob’s little prose confections. Even as a reading of the French prose poem, that approach erases the work of writers such as St.-John Perse, Victor Segalen, Edmond Jabès, Francis Ponge & Marcelin Pleynet.

If anything, “flash fiction” as a theoretical concept rescues soft surrealism from the trough of predictability into which it had devolved. Fiction has been perhaps the most challenged of all the writing genres over the past century, as much of its social rationale as the “logical” medium for creative narrative was drained, first by cinema & later by television.* Flash fiction transforms the issue of time in narrative – frankly a far more interesting dynamic than plot.

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. This is not the same as works that are merely muddy or confused.

Of greater concern is the degree to which genre in writing itself has served for nearly two centuries as a surrogate for the social divisions in our society. The appeal to convention at the heart of the School of Quietude represents a profoundly held worldview that extends to all facets of life. Thus soft surrealism permits disruptions at the level of plot & character, but never at the level of poet-reader relations, where the power relations of writing remain unchallenged. In sharp contrast, the post-avant world, which Bill Knott recently called the School of Noisiness, offers a far messier, more participatory, pluralistic vision of life as a process of constantly becoming.

*Which is why the best novelists over the past 50 years – Burroughs, Kerouac, Pynchon, Acker – have shown so little interest in narrative-as-plot.