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Category Archives: Prose Poems

New York Hotel by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

New York Hotel by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

Some difficulties with visual particularism haunt the phantasmagoric world of Lewis Carroll and a moment from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There anticipates the nightmare world of Kafka whilst also casting a glance back over the shoulder at the world of Todgers’s Guest House in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit:

“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold. “Things flow about so here!” she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a work-box, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at.” [1872, Chap. V]

“You couldn’t walk about in Todgers’s neighbourhood, as you could in any other neighbourhood. You groped your way for an hour through lanes and bye-ways, and court-yards and passages; and never once emerged upon anything that might be reasonably called a street. A kind of resigned distraction came over the stranger as he trod those devious mazes, and, giving himself up for lost, went in and out and round about, and quietly turned back again when he came to a dead wall…” [1844, Chap. IX]

It was in a comment on the back cover of Ian Seed’s 2011 collection Shifting Registers (Shearsman Books) that we are referred to the fragmented yet rich lyricism of the writing which “crosses borders between lost and rediscovered identity”: the poet’s “navigation of different realities” is expressed through his willingness to contemplate “new spaces through language.” This powerful focus upon shifting realities keeps the reader’s eye firmly on the pages of New York Hotel as we are confronted with what “felt familiar and yet like another world” (‘Baptism’). These short prose poems are haunting; they are compelling to read and John Ashbery’s comment upon Seed’s work is absolutely on the nail:

“The mystery and sadness of empty rooms, chance encounters in the street, trains travelling through a landscape of snow become magical in Ian Seed’s poems.”

I reviewed Ian Seed’s translation of Pierre Reverdy’s Le Voleur de Talan (The Thief of Talant) about one year ago and was struck then by the ability of both poets to render Orphic vision palpable. Both poets are struck by the sense that as they turn their heads to stare at the past “something flees much faster than us.” In that world of shifting realities (“Things flow about so here”) Reverdy sees how “Further off a forest merged with the city” and it was Philippe Jaccottet who recognised how Reverdy’s words focus upon “la fuite nes nuées, les lueurs des vitres” (the evaporation of dark clouds, glimmers of light through the shutters). Jaccottet’s words are absolutely right also for Ian Seed’s powerful understanding of how we live isolated lives haunted by the flickering images of a past that informs a present.
Perhaps it is because I spent so many years school-teaching that when I read something that holds my attention as firmly as does New York Hotel I am aware of looking around for what I want to read next, return to, advise my pupils to look at. One of the voices that came to mind as I read ‘Orphanage’ was that of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy:

“It was my responsibility to accompany the boy in a taxi to an orphanage on the other side of the city. When we arrived, I was surprised to see what a rundown area it was in. I wondered if we had come to the right place. Although I was worried about the expense, I told the driver to wait while I took the boy and went to find out.”

As readers we are held immediately by that opening word “responsibility” and its association with what we need to take charge of in relation to vulnerability. Rather like the Ancient Mariner Ian Seed has caught us with his version of “There was a ship…” and we cannot choose but hear what happens next. A rundown area, doubts about it being the correct destination, anxiety over cost, reliance upon the escape route. I shan’t tell you any more! Buy a copy of New York Hotel and read it for yourselves. In Auster’s City of Glass the shifting figure of Stillman, a man who imprisoned his son in an apartment with covered up windows for nine years, traces out the letters of TOWER OF BABEL on the “labyrinth of endless steps” that constitute New York watched by a private detective called Paul Auster who also uses the name of Quinn. In Ian Seed’s world of the phantasmagoric we are presented with a ‘Generation Gap’:

“My maternal grandfather turned up at my council flat with his father, who was a tiny bearded man in an ancient wheelchair. I hadn’t seen them for a long time. without saying hello, my great grandfather raised a fist in the air and began to berate me for being nearly sixty and still without a proper home or job. Even when my grandfather lifted him out of the chair, carried him to the toilet and put him down on the seat, he continued to scold me. The whole flat soon started to stink, but I said nothing through fear of offending them.”

When I return to the classroom for a term in September this year I shall present some of these wonderful fictions to my Year 10. After all it is now some fifty-five years since I first came to recognise the palpability of loss: before that there was the magic of the now.

Ian Brinton February 5th 2018.

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An Interview with Lucy Hamilton on Stalker by Ian Seed

An Interview with Lucy Hamilton on Stalker by Ian Seed

These questions come from a seminar with my creative writing students at the University of Chester. Stalker is a set text on third year course Life Writing that I teach there. Ian Seed

1.Why did you choose the form of the prose poem to write Stalker ? Why not longer prose or lineated poetry?

This is a question I often address when I give readings. Stalker didn’t begin as a collection of prose poems. It was twenty years before I could write about the events referred to in the title sequence. I wrote a short story called ‘Stalker’, which was published in a small magazine that also included my article on John Steinbeck. This was my first published work. Some years later I took the manucript of a novel to an Arvon fiction course. It was based on my two years living in Paris as a teenager. One of the tutors asked if I wrote poetry and a year later I signed up with Mimi Khalvati at the Poetry School in London. I was writing long rhymed poems about Vincent Van Gogh. Then one day, out of the blue, I wrote a long poem in unrhymed quatrains and took it along. It was about an experience in the States and unlike anything I’d written previously. I received positive feedback, no-one suggested revisions. Yet for some reason the poem didn’t feel right to me and I didn’t send it anywhere. Three years later I got it up on my screen and started playing with it. I did away with the first four quatrains and put them into a paragraph. Suddenly it felt right! The sensation was almost physical: as if I’d altered a sweater and now it fitted and felt comfortable. I changed the remaining quatrains and worked on it and gradually the pieces became ‘Algae Beds, Wyoming’. This form acted as a catalyst: all at once I was writing prose poems set in my teens and twenties, including my two years in Paris, which are referred to in Section 2: Storms & Stations. The prose poem offers enormous scope: it doesn’t have to be linear narrative, you can jump around, twist and turn, play, begin after the beginning and end before the end.

2.Did the ideas behind he book dictate the form of the prose poem, or did you decide on the form first?

I have no doubt that the poem ‘Algae Beds, Wyoming’ chose its form and that this form released all the other poems belonging to that period, which eventually became Stalker.

3.Who are your influences?

The most important writers for me are those concerned with the psychological and spiritual predicaments of men, women and children grappling with the everyday exigencies of their lives from the perspecitve of their own times and cultural backgrounds. Writers who may have influenced my own writing will invariably reveal a poetic sensibility in their work, irrespective of genre. Also those who use historical and mythical epics as a vehicle to portray aspects of the modern world. Aside from writers mentioned in Stalker, others who made a great impression on me include the Irish dramatist Seán O’Casey, Carson McCullers, Hermann Hesse, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, Nawal El Saadawi, Michael Ondaatje, James Baldwin, Edmund White. Also Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. South American writers with their magic realism entranced me. Also classical French writers such as Jean Giono and short story writers such Alphonse Daudet and Guy de Maupassant, whom I loved for their use of French dialect as well as their portrayal of working and peasant life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Short story writers such as Catherine Mansfield, E. Annie Proulx, and contemporary writers such as Lydia Davis, Lyn Hejinian, Anne Carson who blur bounderies between poetry and prose. The poetries of Derek Walcott, Yehuda Amichai, Rumi … too many to mention them all. But I should mention a critic who had an enormous influence on my perception of writing and on my sense of affirmation: the French Algerian writer, playright, poet, philosopher and literary critic, Hélène Cixous. I read her while I was still attempting fiction and can’t over-emphasise the excitement and encouragement I felt when reading her books for the first time, particularly: Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Coming to Writing and Other Essays, and Rootprints. Cixous is a feminist writer but she is not sexist in my view.
Reading and translating ancient and traditional texts from the French, which are themselves translations from the original Arabic, has influenced aspects of my new book. This second collection of prose poems attempts a greater textual layering than Stalker : a desire to reference history within the present. I have also been greatly influenced by visual art, as is apparent from the obsession with Vincent Van Gogh. I have a strong visual memory and my current work-in-progress (for three years) begins with my making a visual photomontage, which can take weeks or months. This visual work then acts as a stimulus for the poem that follows. The poems are all in unpunctuated couplets, so it’s a departure from prose poetry. Again, I believe the poems found their own form.

4.What for you, the author, are the most important themes of Stalker?

For me the most important themes are those that compelled me to write it. I think they can all be viewed as a form of stalking. Dreams, for example, have always been part of my life and, especially when I was young, could haunt and stay with me for weeks. Dreams are a rich resource for writing, but it was years before I could make use of them. Living alone is another theme. I had never ‘dealt’ with my experiences of living alone as a young woman, trying to make sense of the world, trying to find a meaningful way to live that was true to her own nature. How to be true to your conscience. How to love. Being a twin is another important theme for me. As one poem says, my first memory was of two. We are not identical, in fact we are very different in temperament and interests, but the the depth of intimacy between twins is unique and can certainly be felt as haunting, a form of stalking. Language itself, the origin of words, my mother’s native tongue are all food for creative writing. In her review of Stalker Sandeep Parmar says: ‘Words are stalked through the ages by their roots and, by using them, we are also dogged by what they signify… Ultimately these types of ‘stalking’ are what gives life its viscosity…’ (Sandeep Parmar, PN Review).

5.Why do you make use of so many literary references?

Reading is an important theme for me. These references are to books I was reading at the time I was actually living the events portayed in Stalker. To have omitted reference to what I was reading during those periods in my life would have been unthinkable: a denial of my inner life. Books helped me make sense of what I was living. Not by giving me a replica, but by showing me the inner lives of women and men during different periods in history and in other countries and cultures. Great literature gave me paradigms against which I could test out and measure my own beliefs and position. It inspired and encouraged me by showing me essential truths about human nature and behaviour.
The poem ‘Nigg Bay, Aberdeen’ relates directly to Tolstoy’s Resurrection, which was like a revelation to me when I read it while living in Aberdeen aged 18 and very unhappy. Tolstoy’s book helped me so much because it showed another human being grappling with his own conscience and remorse, as well as loneliness. The fact that his hero was a privileged prince living in the 19th century didn’t matter to me because Tolstoy revealed Nekhlúdov’s innermost feelings as a man, a human being. Nekhlúdov had betrayed a woman he had loved and she was now in prison. I was working in a Care home for young boys, some of whose fathers were in prison. The theme of conscience is also in the poem ‘What Men Did Not Read in Their Hearts’, which quotes the Catholic Catechism I had to learn as a young child, and again at the Catholic secondary school I was sent to. I didn’t like the Catholic belief in absolution, which seemed to suggest we aren’t accountable for our own actions.
Steinbeck was very important to me as a writer for similar reasons. I read him at a time I was grappling with love, life and work while living alone in Gravesend, Kent. Gravesend was an edgy place to live in the late 70s, when many rented bedsits didn’t even have a payphone in the building. The title sequence ‘Stalker’ refers to this time. A time when it was unusual for a woman to go to a café on her own, and virtually taboo to go alone to a pub, since that’s what prostitutes did. This didn’t stop me as I needed to be independent, but it was hard in a town without a student culture to make pubs and cafés feel women-friendly. I loved Steinbeck’s portrayal of misfits and people living on the edge. I was blown away by his Journal of a Novel. This is the diary he wrote every morning to warm up before continuing his day’s work on East of Eden. We see the famous author struggling with his own demons, women, drink, two broken marriages, children he loved.

6.There is a feeling of depersonalisation throughout the book. Is this one of the effects you wished to convey? If so, why?

No, I didn’t choose convey an effect of depersonalisation, though I know it is there. That is to say, it wasn’t an ‘intellectual’ decision. I think it springs from an involuntary and organic need to be objective in order to write about these experiences.

7.Your main character remains something of a mystery, which some readers will find frustrating. Why doesn’t she have a stronger presence?

Yes, I understand this reaction. Again it wasn’t a conscious decision to create a mysterious character. I think it relates to question 6 and is to do with an instinctive need to keep a distance from painful experiences in order to write about them at all. No doubt a better writer would have been able to overcome this. For me, even from this distance, I often found it extremely painful to relive the experiences as I wrote about them.
The issue of character presence also relates back to question 1. Stalker is prose poetry, not fiction. There is usually an element of mystery in poetry, of ‘showing it slant’. The novel I took along to that Arvon fiction course dealt with the two years I lived in Paris as a teenager. It is written in the 3rd person and I think the narrator has a fairly strong presence throughout. But I wrote it without any group support or feedback and it was unwieldy and poorly structured. Years later, I took it along to a small fiction workshop and was encouraged, but life intervened and finally I had to choose, and chose poetry. But I love the blurring of boundaries and cross-overs in different art forms. There are really exciting things happening including innovation and experimentation. I think it’s important to explore and keep open to possibilities, and then be true to what feels right for yourself.

Lucy Hamilton’s Stalker is published by Shearsman (2012) and was short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Her new collection is Of Heads & Hearts. For more information, go to http://www.shearsman.com/browse-poetry-books-by-author-Lucy-Hamilton

Ian Seed 2nd February 2018

a book with no name by Ken Edwards (Shearsman Books)

a book with no name by Ken Edwards (Shearsman Books)

I have been anticipating this book ever since reading some of the texts on Intercapillary Space and in PN Review 230. It does not disappoint. The book comes with the back cover proviso that ‘It is not a book of poems. / It is not a long poem. / It is not a novel. / Nor a volume of short stories. / It is not a work of philosophy. / It is not an object – like a stone. / Yet it drops into the well of nothingness /and is never heard of again.’ The book ‘fuses the optimism of Beckett and the hyperrealism of Stein’.

The texts clearly make a sound, as indicated in the note, through a series of speech acts presented as prose poems, defined as continuous prose without line breaks. They are distinct from say the ‘non-generic’ prose of Richard Makin in his trilogy of novels, which read like knotted prose poetry without conventional novelistic devices, and the internal conversations of R.D. Laing’s prose poems, Knots (1970), on the other. In contrast, the text titles guide the reader into small areas of focus where the movements of attention are incrementally tiny, and call back upon themselves, as small acts, through the slow nature of the development. These small movements accumulate incrementally, as in ‘The facts’:

I have the facts. I have those. I have those facts. I have all those facts. I have all the facts. I have those I have. I have examined those. I have examined those facts I have. All those facts I have examined.

The small statements, each with their own distinct place within the developmental structure, become acts of possession and assertion along the narrative arc. Focus is thus upon the nature of each small statement as they occur. The poet, Lee Harwood, frequently drew attention to small movements within landscapes, climate, moods, and in so doing, also drew attention to the acts of being mindful. This attentiveness to the workings of the mind also occurred in Laing’s dialogues. Here Edwards is working with monologues and there is much less interest in any external world of relationships.

The impact is similar to some serial music, cumulative and entrancing. The reader is drawn into the artifice and drama of speech acts. There is sometimes a sense of inevitability to the conclusion, a sort of rounded closure, as if the text were on a loop. Other endings are much less predictable.

‘Live at Birdland’ subverts any sense of predictability that a list poem may engender by taking a finite set of verbs connected with the activities of birds. The title puns on the New York jazz club of that name and in particular, the John Coltrane album, ‘Live at Birdland’. Here the text progressions are gradual, slightly altered and repeated through the duration and eventually extended as in Coltrane’s music. So that after the verbs have been laid out the progression comes in the form of adverbs and repletion of verbs. Thus the birds that previously call, perch, jump, feed, kill, mate and so on, later do so erratically, willfully, lazily, strongly, madly, lazily and so on. The verb repetitions are innate to the activities of birds and this produces a trance like effect as if one had been intensely watching the activities of birds or indeed closely listening to some Coltrane. The singular image clusters serve to mark the poetic element of the prose narrative on the journey from a definitive opening to its seeming negation through the use of ‘Never’ in the final six lines. The overall impact of the piece is utterly beguiling and one is left enthralled.

a book with no name has a beguiling and absorbing quality. A poem, such as, ‘Dialectics’ based upon permutations from ten words produces a distinct music and elaborates a thought sequence around the propositional pronoun ‘this is’ and its negation with ‘not’. The gradual accumulation of the various propositions and their negatives produces a range of thoughts connected to the various definitions and possible use of ‘dialectics’. The concluding line ‘This is not the way it was supposed to happen’ employing all ten words for the first time together leaves the reader suitably engaged with the text and the subsequent development of the sequence.

I thoroughly recommend a book with no name.

David Caddy 5th September 2016

Robert Vas Dias’ Arrivals & Departures (Shearsman Books, 2014)

Robert Vas Dias’ Arrivals & Departures (Shearsman Books, 2014)

From the same series as Patricia Debney’s Gestation and Anthony Rudolf’s Go into the Question, this chapbook of prose poems effectively uses the literary device of arrivals and departures for a pared down and celebratory poetry. It is at once joyful and thwart with potential danger, and sustains a wonderful balance between narrative voice and literary effects.

She arrived with the woodpigeons. That is to say, she arrived
and they left. Not that she had anything obviously to do with
it. Of course she did. She kept on arriving and then she left.
They appeared to be constantly fleeing the roost at her, at
his, at anyone’s approach, though clearly they had to have
returned in order to flee again. He never saw them return but
they always fled. She came to stay with him and then she
went. They – or more usually one of them – would explode out
of the treetops with a clatter of wings against foliage that
sounded like falling buckshot, and hurl themselves down to
the field below the house.

The sequence works on the binaries of things lost and found, presence and absence, meetings and disappearance. There is an abiding sense of mishap not far from joyfulness within relationships and social life. Vas Dias, though, elevates the binaries through the use of fresh language and unpredictable detours leavened with humour.

His darling sent him in the garden to deadhead the petunias
but he mistook the limp, budding flowerets for dying ones
and twisted them off. You’ve ruined my petunias, she
wailed. Don’t be upset, we’ve still got the weigela. It’s
not the same, she cried. We’ve still got the fuchsia. It’s
not the same, she sobbed. We still have the lobelia,
hibiscus, morning glory, wisteria, agapanthus,
trachelospermum jasminoides, honeysuckle, grape vine,
Japanese maple, pieris forest flame, hydrangea, camellia,
geranium, agave, anemone, hellebore. And you have me. Go
fuck yourself, she complained.

Vas Dias’ humour is essentially rooted in realism slowly unfolding into an absurdism, as in ‘The Cabinet of Husbands’:

You would have to say the cabinet was in need of restoration.
It was an antique – 175 years old – and was getting shabby,
but she was not one for restoring it. She was not one for
restoring anything, except perhaps husbands. He was her
fifth, older than her by fifteen years. All her husbands had
been older than her, they had a certain patina. She bought
antiques only when she was certain about their genuineness.
Her husbands had been genuine though they had not worn as
well as her antiques.

This is an uplifting sequence of prose poems probing the nature of symbiosis in various relationships here and what is required to be life giving there. It is necessary reading for anyone following contemporary developments in the prose poem.

David Caddy 12th November 2014

Ian Seed’s Makers of Empty Dreams

Ian Seed’s Makers of Empty Dreams

Ian Seed’s third collection, following Anonymous Intruder (2009) and Shifting Registers (2011), for Shearsman Books, is a playful sequence of prose poems full of desire and implication. It reads convincingly as a dream sequence and has a strong narrative pull around the life of a young Englishman studying Cesare Pavese in Milan. Divided into three parts the sequence sees the protagonist age, marry, travel and return to Italy. The movement is from desire to loss and estrangement, within the dream world, as well as from the outside to the protagonist’s inner world. The prose poems are impressionistic, fragmentary and immediate. They work as stories in that there is some change, albeit suggested, after an event or action. The narrative developments are invariably quirky and serve as twists or imply anxiety, menace or loss.

 

Accident

 

The baby fell from the balcony just as I was walking past. Luckily I was fast enough to catch it. The mother didn’t seem at all grateful. But I said nothing when I handed the baby back to her because I recognized her as the woman whom I met for sex on an almost daily basis in another part of town.

 

 

Unlike K in Kafka’s The Trial, Seed’s protagonist has the freedom to note his dreams and offer psychological insights into the private and personal spaces of his city life. The city prose poem, according to Nikki Santilla in her study, Such Rare Citings (Associated University Presses, 2002) has contracted its horizons and boundaries throughout the twentieth century from Baudelaire to Charles Tomlinson and Samuel Beckett steadily moving into the mind of the protagonist. Here the contraction continues in terms of the brevity of each poem. Thus:

 

Nightclub

 

I didn’t remember who she was, but when I began kissing her, I knew from the feel of her lips that she was someone I had once kissed years before.

 

However, Seed cleverly mixes the psychic material under review by repetition and the reappearance of characters. This makes for a playful and fascinating read. Thus the old man and his much younger wife in ‘Chances’ reappear in ‘Marriage’ and Nunzia, the girl from Naples, reappears in the poem, ‘Exchange’. In the poem, ‘Alba’, during a search for Cesare Pavese’ former home, the protagonist’s wife leaves him and a woman whispers in his ear that she knows of a room where they could make love, implying the protagonist is caught by the trappings of his earlier life.

 

This compelling and exciting collection of prose poems comes with an acknowledgement that they are fiction, and preface quotations from Martin Heidegger and Max Jacob.

 

 

David Caddy 19th April 2014

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