An interview with Andrew Zawacki by Brian Teare (page 7)
BT: I’ve long thought of you as one of the most elegant, interesting prose poets of my generation, one whose work, along with that of Karen Volkman’s Spar, yokes discursive complexity and dense lyric syntax via parataxis. So I was surprised by the lack of prose poems in the latest book. First of all, is it possible for you to describe the place the prose poem has tended to occupy in your poetic practice—what has it traditionally allowed you as a poet that verse has not? And second, could you speculate as to its absence from the period of time during which you were writing Petals of Zero Petals of One?
AZ: I think that, early on, in the rush to get so much down—the particulars of foreign settings that kept replicating themselves, the dissolution of a spiritual faith and the air crash of a long love affair, a newfound zeal for the onomatopoeias and etymologies of language, the modalities of light—the prose poem simply struck me as the most elastic format. In fact, I’m not sure how much I was even conscious of writing prose—I was tiling ideas and emotions and objects into the most flexible frame I could find, and prose, because it eschewed a whole bevy of decisions about line length, visual arrangement, velocities of pacing between vertical cascade and horizontal languor, and so on (even as it renounced the many possibilities that “verse” might have offered), allowed me to start cutting to a chase that, for better or worse, I feared would slip off unrecorded otherwise. The prose poem seemed to allow, even encourage, the play of so many brilliant tesserae, without leveling any corresponding pressure to assemble a fresco. It was my way of wrestling what Hocquard, in Une Grammaire de Tanger, calls the “irreducibility of fragments to reintegrate the original whole,” and he claims that such fragments, having shucked the support of a model, initiate a “redistribution of the world.” I’m talking again about “Mise en scène,” mainly, and my excitement at being able to think in a poem—essayistically if you will, but centrifugally, as well—without renouncing its status as a poem.
A naïveté went along with that, since poets have been hashing out arguments in their poetry for as long as poetry has been written, and I knew that; but the prose poem allowed a less fraught forum for articulating my obsessions than anything else. Once the series got off the ground, I became enthralled by the rhetorical and exegetical vistas it opened up, the compensatory thrills it promised and demands it leveled in the absence of end-rhyme, clear-cut stanzas and stanza breaks, the breath as measure of a line or the page as a field of topographical signs and space. Throughout all this, I did get interested in the prose poem as such, its history and development, its critical reception—or lack thereof (I was acutely aware of its impeccable pedigree in France and the utter lack of respect shown it in the UK)—, but it was truly the experience of being “in” my prose poems and loading, even overloading them with everything in my mental, emotional, and perceptive life that seemed to matter, that made working in “the form that isn’t one” so compelling. Even its status as an outlier or outcast, as a form perhaps defined as much by what it’s not as by what it is—a form without a proper definition of its “own,” without a “proper”—endeared it to me. By the time I relocated to Melbourne three years later and started working on what would become “Masquerade,” I had developed a familiarity with the prose poem that made it second nature, a natural repository for the work I wanted to do on the Australian outback.
I suppose it was that same relative comfort with the prose poem that has resulted in my avoidance of it more recently—not consciously, although I’m often conscious of not wanting to go where I’ve been before, but just sort of reflexively. I like to think we outgrow our own poems every day, the same way we outgrow the person we were the day before, that there is a restlessness and sometimes even a disgust that accompanies writing anything. I certainly haven’t gotten disgusted with the prose poem—in fact, the dream of my next book, now that “Videotape” has been completed, is a work entirely in unbroken prose—, but lately I’ve felt myself urged toward writing that’s far from the density that, for me anyway, the prose poem has always demanded.
It’s funny, I remember asking Charles Wright the same thing, back in 1997 or so: why don’t you write prose poems any more? He quoted Montale, I think, as saying that all poems begin in prose and long to return there (and admitted that he, Charles, didn’t feel like returning there). I’d be hard pressed to say where, if anywhere, poems come from, though prose does keep asserting itself in my practice. The prose poem must serve as a way station for me, some phase or passage that my work might always threaten to run through, as if writing were a movement of negativity and the prose poem one of the obstacles it uses and then either spits out or sublates. I’ll go back there, I guess, but only provided that such a return would be a means of moving ahead. I don’t want the prose poem to be a default mode, a fallback position, a pair of training wheels. I’m looking for other ways out.