Peter Johnson

Response & Bio

Question #2: Reflecting upon the idea of "genreless writing" or "writing that finds its own form," Cole Swensen has said that, "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 would 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.'" What writers past and present have proceeded furthest down the road of "genreless writing" and what, if any, constraints have they broken in doing so? What doors have they opened? Or just this: is genreless writing possible?

Concerning "genreless writing." I don't think there is such a thing, and I don't have as much trouble with the word genre as others do. Having written a dissertation on black humor, another literary hybrid, I assume that the boundaries between genres are unstable, and thus aren't restrictive for reader or writer, and thus make it impossible to classify texts into pure genres - the worst fear of poets arguing for genreless writing. Consequently, I have no dread of genre and do not feel straitjacketed when I sit down and say, "I think I'll write a prose poem." To suggest that you can write outside of genre is to suggest that you have never read anything before that moment you sit down to write, and that your reader hasn't either. Even if you've never written a prose poem and know nothing of its "literary" history, if you write a short piece of prose, you probably, consciously or unconsciously, have the fable or fairy tale, the folk take, the fragment, or whatever somewhere in your literary experience. People who argue for genreless writing are trying to privilege the poet. They are saying, "Look at me, I'm so brilliant, my work must be looked at in a totally different way," when in fact that different way presumes knowledge of previously existing genres, even completely unlike genres. When we look at a still life of a bowl of fruit, one way we know one round ball is an apple is because it doesn't look like a banana; in short, a genre can also be defined negatively by genres around it. When a reader reads a short piece of prose, she, too, brings to it all her experiences with other short pieces of prose. 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." This is where the poet's genius comes into play, working within a genre while also subverting it. That's part of the fun.


Peter Johnson's latest collection of prose poems, Miracles & Mortifications, received the 2001 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. He has a book of short stories, Shadowboxing, forthcoming from White Pine Press in the fall.

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