A Writer’s Notebook: prose poem as personal essay

I have my students writing personal essays this week, but I’m a bit too busy right now to write an essay alongside them.

I can, however, toss a prose poem your way.

New Orleans, 1996

When I wandered the shoreline near Jackson Square the saxophonist called me, lured me to him like a rat to a piper, only I was the pied one and the musician a denizen of the river. I could see the notes in the air, that ribbon of clef waving like a flag. I thought the instrument a clarinet, no idea what a treble sax was but no idea a clarinet could sound like that.

After I’d dropped a silent five in his porkpie hat, I found myself on Decatur Street. Not brave enough to look uncool in the Café du Monde, I slipped into Jimmy Buffet’s chain bar, sat alone along a wall to eat shrimp salad and drink Texas beer. A glassless window opened into the dive bar next door, the semicircular frame a glimpse onto the small stage there. A man in a flowery camp shirt and a straw hat, his skin dark as black beans, hung his heavy head over the worn, warm face of his steel guitar and picked the strings with his teeth. When I applauded, no one turned. I got my check. I was always just this side of the wall.

I don’t know why, but for some reason, there is still some question as to what a prose poem is. Plenty of people understand the form, and if you think about it even a little bit, the definition should be self-evident. I think some people get hung up on division and classification — they want prose to be prose and poetry to be poetry — but these are probably the same people who think prose is boring and poetry should always rhyme.

How to actually write a prose poem, on the other hand, is a very good question indeed.

This is not a good example of one. In fact, I’m a notoriously awful poet, and I’m not the greatest essayist either. But for some reason, that’s precisely how I think about some prose poems: as tiny little personal essays that rely on heavy mood or scene or language but not so much on character or story. The content is essentially essay-like, but the style and the brevity is poetic.

This prose poem, however, emerged for the worst possible reason: I wanted to dabble in a personal essay alongside my students but didn’t have much time to dig deep for content, so I was stuck thinking only of short scenes. (The scenes here, by the way, are true scenes, from a road trip I took to New Orleans during college.) They should be meaningful scenes, I told myself, but still, I wasn’t going to spend much time developing a story. So, go for brevity and style, compress whatever meaning I was after into as tight a space as possible. Write an essay that feels like a poem.

Except compressing content into poetic prose takes at least as much time as developing ideas, and if I didn’t have time to develop ideas, I certainly wouldn’t have time for refining the language. Which is why this isn’t great.

But hey. It’s a Notebook entry. It’s supposed to be rough.

Want to learn more about prose poems? There’s a pretty good discussion of the form at Dragoncave. Ironically, it’s not a very concise discussion, but it is pretty cool, and it’ll get the ball rolling.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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