The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry:
Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice

Gary L. McDowell & F. Daniel Rzicznek, Eds.
Publisher: Rose Metal Press
2010, 192 pages, paperback; $17

THE PROSE POEM is hard to categorize because “it is not just poetry without line breaks;” rather, according to Gary McDowell and Daniel Rzicznek at Rose Metal Press, “prose poems are little boxes that contain big things. Or small things that mean big things. Or small things that mean small things.” Precisely because of the many “things” a prose poem can be, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry is a work that a writer at any stage should have in hand. McDowell and Rzicznek began this project while they were still in graduate school, aiming to make the prose poem—often thought of as the redheaded stepchild of poetry—an accessible and accepted form. The editors’ passion for the many shapes and voices the prose poem can take is a refreshing encouragement for readers, as well as for writers of all levels of experience. McDowell and Rzicznek offer a detailed history of the prose poem, along with stories of their own initial encounters with and subsequent love for the form. While this collection of thirty-four brief essays and sixty-six prose poems ranges from the sarcastic and light-hearted to the socially conscious and serious, it is clear that each featured author has taken the care to demonstrate his or her passion for the form and to extend to each reader an invitation into the world of prose poems.

In Brigitte Byrd’s essay, “I Cannot Escape the Prose Poem,” we are brought into Byrd’s personal struggle with working between verse and prose poetry; and it is this struggle that seems to define just about every writer’s plight: how to find a voice that fits. I know my own search for a fitting voice that expresses all the experiential and poetic material that has shaped what and who speaks when I put pen to page can be maddening at times. Thus Byrd’s self-described experiments with form, along with a description of her composition process via Rimbaud’s “reasoned derangement of the senses,” are the main reasons why I returned again and again to her essay and made multiple copies to give to fellow poets. Still, Byrd makes the struggle with voice and with the prose poem relatable and accessible for any reader. The common thread that links each of the essays throughout the book is that the prose poem is a “thing” that represents (and has represented for many generations) the “precise historical, societal, and political context” of the time in which we live. In a sense, then, the prose poem is a form that is continually expanding and transforming as a reaction to how each and every one of us cope with and make sense of what Byrd calls our “schizophrenic” daily lives, a sentiment revisited in Mark Wallace’s essay, “Split: Seam and Abyss in the Prose Poem.”

Wallace describes the prose poem as “a disorientation that orients us while reminding us of the need for disorientation.” What is most memorable in the essay is the appeal not to see categories as absolutes. Wallace says, “It’s when we see categories as absolutes that the idea of genre becomes damaging to engagement with writing.” A writer of prose poems, then, “either love[s] contradictions or can’t deny or escape them.”  In a world where there’s an array of intimidating and overwhelming absolutism, Wallace aims to open up readers to contradictions.

In her essay, “The Poem in the Gray Flannel Suit,” Amy Newman gives readers a brief account of how the prose poem has influenced her writing to be a way of sharing in the reader’s own writing experiences. Newman says that she’s “trying to locate a language art form that can unify the preconceived distinction between poetry and prose.” Again, part of this struggle is related to finding a voice that is fitting; and part of finding a voice that is fitting, as Byrd, Wallace, and Newman all suggest, is to remember that strict categorization can be stifling. In other words, a writer should dive into the world of prose poetry by embracing the fact that the prose poem, while not an easy task to take on, is a form which is accessible and offers unique possibilities in response to contemporary life.

Another selling point of The Field Guide is that it makes clear that a good prose poem is not an easy thing to write, nor is it an easy way out from verse. Taken as a whole, The Field Guide suggests that the prose poem can be a means of widening one’s view of the world, and of finding expression within contradictory limitations.  Now, thanks to editors McDowell and Rzicznek, readers and writers alike can begin exploring the big and small pleasures of the prose poem in a single instructional collection.

—Caitlin McCrory