Ben Berman

The Prose Poem as a Jew

Not that life was all that bad in France compared to the rest of Europe but we came to America with dreams of making it new.

And in some ways we did. The problem, though, was that to fit in you always felt this pressure to be something that you weren’t.

There were these anthologies back then where all the short stories liked to hang out and usually there would be these rules about no poems allowed. But we could pass, at first, because technically we were prose.

But sometimes you’d be telling some story and everyone would just be staring at you and you kind of knew what they were thinking – you might look like a paragraph but you act like a poem.

And whenever we’d try to make our way into some of the top literary journals, they’d pull us aside and say, look it’s nothing personal, some of my favorite passages are prose poems. But if we let one into our journal who knows what would try to get in next.

Once it became clear that we’d never be fully accepted, we tried to go back to being poems.

But the poetry world had moved on – it was all about the line now. They taste good to her/ they taste good/ to her, they taste/ good to her etc. etc.

Look, we’d say, we may not have line breaks but we are as broken as any of you.

But poems can be so pretentious – they might call you a hybrid to your face but they’re whispering half-breed behind your back.

So what else could we do but form our own anthologies? And that was kind of empowering at first. But even within our tiny insular community there seemed to be this split – the surrealists wanting to find new ways to wander the unconscious while the narratives were content to be lyrically compressed.

Soon, it felt like that old joke about the writer who gets stranded on a desert island and ends up building two different publishing houses on opposite sides. Why two? someone asks him when he’s finally rescued. This, here, is the press where I send my work, he responds, and over there is the one where I’d never submit!

And before we knew it, we couldn’t even define what a Prose Poem was. All we knew was that everywhere we went we felt like outsiders – we didn’t fit in with the paragraphs, we didn’t fit in with the poems, we didn’t even fit in with each other.

Eventually, that seemed like the only thing that defined us – that ever-insistent sense of both belonging and not belonging, of being between and beyond genres.

What else could we do but try to seek something holy in that – to find hope in liminality, put our faith in ambiguity, believe in the great power of contradictions.

 

 

 

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