Editors' Introduction Issue #3

Peter Conners & Mark Tursi

In an interview with Tom Beckett, Charles Bernstein states, “A task of poetry is to make audible (tangible but not necessarily graspable) those dimensions of the real that cannot be heard as much as to imagine new reals that have never before existed. Perhaps this amounts to the same thing” (184).1 This making of the real or bringing the real into audible being has been the fascination, and, often, the primary impetus for many contemporary writers. Of course, the exploration, via literature, of this connection between the ‘real’ and what is known or can be known is older than Plato, but a renewed interest in the way language or narrative participate in and precipitate these explorations is something that has breathed new life into an old philosophical conundrum.

Language that reinvigorates and reconsiders the tools we use to construct our world is vital and necessary. This is evident in the many writers we bring to you in issue #3. From Stephen Ratcliffe’s experiments with form and structure to Laurel Snyder’s disjointed and haunting narratives to Peter Richards’s fragmentary and imagistic intensity to Ron Silliman’s semantic and syntactic difficulties, these writers examine our ability, or more often our inability to point toward and name the ‘real.’ “Could it be that language is as much a part of the earth as of the world? And that this is what is censored? That the tools we use to construct our worlds belong to the earth and so continuously (re)inscribe our material and spiritual communion with it?” asks Bernstein in the same interview. This interest in the materiality of the poem, and the texture and surface of language that is somehow deeply rooted in our physical existence and experience drives much of the work in this issue. Where it doesn’t, the interest and intensity seems less connected to a largely Objectivist aesthetic, and more rooted in the possibilities and potentials inherent in narrative, but still interested in the gap between reality and our knowledge of it via language. Many of the writers in this issue re-order narrative in order to reinterpret the ways in which we define human experience (or challenge these definitions). Many of the writers attempt a bit of both. That is, they create narrative structures and then disrupt them, or, they keep a narrative structure, but disrupt the way in which this narrative ‘arrives’ via language.

Laurel Snyder and Peter Richards exemplify this mixing – i.e. an intense interest in language without a rejection of description or narrative. That is, they maintain an interest in “meaning-making” without the requisite collapse into plot or transparency. In Richards there exist elements of “visionary poets” like Robert Kelly, Robert Duncan, and Clayton Eshelman, as well as the (dis)ordered and ‘erosive’ logic of John Ashbery. What an amazing combination! In reading Snyder or Lynn Kilpatrick, one might consider the prose poems of Amy Gerstler and her narrative quality combined with the disjunction exhibited in Carla Harryman. The humor and irony of Ray Gonzalez and Jamey Dunham have echoes of James Tate and Russell Edson, as well as the narrative and logical play of Jorge Luis Borges. In other words, we have, once again, tried to include an immense variety of work that is radically different. You will see this, for example, when reading Karla Kelsey or Ginger Knowlton, and, then, clicking over to read Gary Young, Ava Chin, or Robert Uquhart.

Issue #3 of Double Room features two entirely new sections in addition to our usual array of fine prose poems/flash fictions, the featured visual artist, and our “Discussion of the Forms” section. The two new sections are a “Special Feature” and “Book Reviews.” The special feature for this issue is a new transcription of the earliest known manuscript notebook of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass including numerous corrections and previously unpublished passages. This will undoubtedly prove to be of tremendous interest to all readers of Double Room, including poets, fiction writers, historians and scholars, as well as literature enthusiasts. The way in which we were able to obtain such a rare glimpse at the notebook and publish the new transcription is an interesting story in and of itself. Matt Miller, who works at the Walt Whitman Archive, details this unique literary adventure in his introduction to the excerpt of the Talbot Notebook. The book review section features reviews of Elizabeth Willis’s Turneresque, Richard Greenfield’s A Carnage in the Lovetrees, Sean Thomas Dougherty’s Biography of Broken Things, and Daniel Nester’s God Save the Queen. Our featured artist is Nicole Peryafitte, whose work you will undoubtedly find engaging as well as disturbing.

In terms of our “Discussion of the Forms” section, it continues to provoke controversy and stimulate a multivalent discussion. Ron Silliman brings up a very interesting point regarding a common and largely erroneous connection between prose poetry and flash fiction. In response to one of our questions, he writes: “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.” His point is a valid one; some of the greatest prose poems written by American poets are lengthy works, e.g. Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation and Tender Buttons, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, John Ashbery’s Flow Chart and Three Poems are just some of the great works of prose poetry in the American literary canon. Furthermore, Silliman points out one of our greatest challenges as editors of Double Room: can we, as editors, justify publishing book length prose poems, but refuse to publish lengthy short stories? That is, to what extent are our own generic definitions limiting, or to what extent are they liberating? In our attempt to expand the notion of the prose poem and the short story, and by insisting upon the formal constraints of prose poetry and flash fiction—whatever those may be—we knowingly enter an important and crucial debate over form and genre, and one that we hope will put pressure on the possibilities offered by either form. Our format is also a challenge of sorts. That is, it is a challenge to writers to question, expand, discover, explode, and/or examine the "margins" of prose poetry and flash fiction.

Publishing an excerpt from Whitman’s Talbot Notebook exemplifies our attempt to understand the development of and possibilities inherent in the prose poem; i.e. by including a glimpse of the early work of Leaves of Grass and one of America’s first prose poets, we begin to see the formal and generic implications embedded in the history of American literature. This work forces us to realize that it is crucial to consider the work of Walt Whitman as prose poetry, and all of the ramifications that this entails. The typical scholarly debate about ‘form’ in Leaves of Grass centers around the extent to which the work is epic-lyric or lyric-epic, but rarely focuses on the choices Whitman made regarding prose or verse. We hope that by including this new transcription here, it will promote a discussion about Whitman’s influence as a prose poet and how he has helped shape contemporary notions of genre.

In A Poverty of Objects: The Prose Poem and the Politics of Genre, Jonathan Monroe argues that the prose poem presents “a kind of struggle within literature,”3 that parallels the kind of dialogical and antagonistic discourses that class and gender entail. The prose poem or flash fiction is a site where social and human struggles seem to coincide with the generic struggle as Monroe argues:

The prose poem is that place within literature where social antagonisms of gender and class achieve generic expression, where aesthetic conflicts between and among literary genres manifest themselves concisely and concretely as a displacement, projection, and symbolic reenactment of more broadly based social struggles.4

If Frederic Jameson is correct in suggesting that the ideological message of a text can be identified in and by its form, then, certainly, the pp/ff reveals a kind of intensity that tends to dramatize antagonism and struggle. Much of the work in Double Room demonstrates and manifests this. Genre lines, like lines of defense, are always permeable, and the actual line is often less interesting than those who attempt to breach it. What is it that these forms contain and demand? To what extent are they liberating or constraining? Therefore, it is with trepidation that we attempt to define or dismantle any generic distinctions, but it is with certainty that we continue to provoke and challenge our writers and readers to explore the possibilities that the prose poem or the flash fiction seem to require or inspire.

1. Bernstein, Charles. Censers of the Unknown – Margins, Dissent, and the Poetic Horizon. Poetics, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

2. Ibid., 184.

3. Monroe, Jonathan. A Poverty of Objects: The Prose Poem and the Politics of Genre. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987.

4. Ibid., 18.

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