Q&A with Jane Monson
Author of British Prose Poetry
Welcome Jane! Let’s start by discussing your book, British Prose Poetry. Could you summarise the tumultuous journey prose poetry has taken over time. Why do you think the genre’s status has fluctuated so much?
I think one of the main reasons for its fluctuation, or unsettled history in British literature, is because even in name it brings together two genres – two sets of differing literary rules if you like – and merges them. But not in the way prose poetry is often confused with short prose, flash fiction, purple prose – with the prose poem, prose does not become poetic prose and neither does poetry become narrative poetry: the prose poem becomes something in its own right, on its own terms within its own boundaries. Throughout its history, different movements, poets, circles, readers, critics have not always embraced its hybrid nature, nor have they appreciated being unsure of how to read one. Presented with a piece of writing that looks like a short block of prose, but whose sentences are rich with imagery and rhythm and constructed in a way that’s dense, highly focussed, only hints at character and narrative, but doesn’t pursue them, can be disorientating. In the British literary establishment where historically there are very clear boundaries set out to define prose from poetry, so that they remain recognisable and appropriately used, the prose poem without its line breaks and traditional use of meter, stanza etc has been confusing or seen as subversive by traditionalists in most of our key literary movements. Its definition has of course been unsettled, revised and vague and this in itself has caused a kind of tumult in the reading and writing world, in publishing and educational contexts. How do you market it? Where does it go in bookshops? Do you teach it on a poetry or prose module?
I first put the book together because I couldn’t find a single volume or expanded exploration outside the odd essay that helped me understand why the prose poem was less accepted or understood in the UK than elsewhere. I’m still exploring, to be honest, and while the book acknowledges where the prose poem has been featuring fairly steadily in British literature for centuries, the essays very much pick out key moments from Romanticism through to contemporary poetry, where critically and creatively its hybrid nature has ruffled feathers among traditionalists, or been seized on by ‘subversive’ or more experimental writers, namely in Decadent Literature and Modernism. I see the prose poem itself as a very quietly powerful form, far from tumultuous, but the reactions around it because of the way it fits into neither of the mighty genres, has caused most of the noise. Today, as the book celebrates, the noise is going the other way, however, towards excitement rather than outright rejection, as it becomes increasingly written, read and discussed in both independent and mainstream circles, picked up by writers we know and writers fast emerging.
In your book, you examine poets who are not necessarily known for their prose poetry. Can you give some examples of these?
Most of the examples of these writers are from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and are known more for their prose than their poetry, like Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett and other key modernists like James Joyce. Although they moved the prose poem forward in terms of recognition and practice, by transgressing the boundaries between poetry and prose, they didn’t always do this consciously for the sake of the prose poem; it was more about the ways in which they were moving fluidly across the lines between poetry and prose that they then opened up many opportunities for the prose poem to thrive. They gave it a space to become what it was without even trying to consciously create prose poetry. But their work has now given us exceptional examples of the form, as we now have more critical and creative means to understand and recognise prose poetry as a form and genre in itself. My favourite pieces among the modernist examples are from Woolf’s ‘Monday or Tuesday’ as well as a fantastic collection of her stories and poetic essays in Street Haunting. These introduced me to prose poetry via short prose and the huge potential in combining aspects of the essay, stream of thought and the short story. The modernist movement in general was a significant influence on my research on the prose poem and it’s continuously exciting to observe how these writers helped it to develop through both their critical and creative writing. These writers taught me how invaluably and effectively creative and critical approaches are when used in tandem, not isolation.
Do you think there are creative similarities between prose and poetry?
I think poetry and prose work closely together in so many contexts that rely on combining narrative and key details within that narrative. I see their combined potential in journalism, the essay, short stories, monologues, plays and I’ve also found them working together in scientific contexts, on climate change for example, where the punch of the details that are wrought out from the narrative help engage us and motivate us towards change. It’s also admittedly hard to be objective about this as I think I’m now always seeing their similarities and potential. I think the affinities or combined creative possibilities between poetry and prose have sometimes been compromised in our education system in the UK, because the way we are told how to read a piece of prose and how to read a poem is still very much restricted to a separation of rules and key characteristics. I’d love to see this change or become more flexible from earlier on in our learning. Children naturally move fluidly between poetry and prose and see similarities between them, and then start separating them at school. I understand why of course, but I think the prose poem could be a useful bridging form that can open up the possibilities of what prose and poetry can have in common, rather than what distinctive roles they play within readily accepted boundaries and contexts. Once you start looking at how many details, images and rhythms are contained within sentences and paragraphs in prose contexts, you will ‘find’ poetry everywhere and establish new ways of reconfiguring the same narratives.
What place do you think poetry holds in society and how can it can be taken beyond the page?
I think we could learn a lot through more cross-fertilisation practices between approaches in Western and Eastern societies. Education again, would be a good place to start. For example, in Eastern education poetry still occupies a highly respected, natural and energetic place in society where it is far closer to discussion, learning, speech, memory and everyday life than in Western society. In British education and society it’s far behind where I think it could be. Although there are examples of this changing and we’re seeing poetry education realised more on our streets. For example, the fantastic Emergency poet, ‘the world’s first and only mobile poetic first aid service’ offering poetry on prescription. Described as ‘a mix of the serious, the therapeutic and the theatrical, the Emergency Poet offers consultations inside her ambulance and prescribes poems as cures.’ Poetry and healing as we know have a long and very healthy relationship in literature, but to have that manifest off the page and available is a step in exactly the right direction. It’s another example of where poetry can come to people more readily if people feel poetry doesn’t always come to them.
I hear a lot of negative responses to how poetry is taught in schools from students I teach in higher education, where they have experienced a lack of enthusiasm and passion to observe what poetry can do, how it can change the way you look at yourself, the world and society. When they see today how issues are being regularly responded to passionately and astutely by poets– Grenfell, Syria, terrorism, climate change, Me too, migration, to name a few key examples – it’s not only moving and refreshing for them, but useful. They weren’t taught poetry in terms of its power to move, clarify and inspire change in a chaotic world and they assume the mantra of ‘finding your voice’ meant find their own style, or genre rather than actually having a voice that can be used through poetry to aid their way in life itself. Poems are my favourite maps, that also provide a 3-dimensional space in which to move through absolute chaos, fear and injustice with hope and a re-viewed or revised kind of understanding. I often think of that line from Mary Oliver’s “The Uses of Sorrow” when I think of poetry on and off the page: ‘Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.’ Poets are among the world’s illuminators, their poems operating as relevantly today as they have in the past. We’d notice if we didn’t have poetry as part of our language and society, whether we read it or not.
We hear that you write your own poetry. We’d love to hear more about this!
Writing began for me as a way of surviving early on in life and needing a way of communicating that made sense of something I had no language for and no experience of. At University it then become more about moving away from poetry as survival to something I actually wanted to live for and keep exploring; start engaging with more consciously through literature and conversation. In terms of my use of subject matter now it often comes down to objects. I am fascinated by using objects as subjects of focus in my poems and in particular the relationship between object and speech, conversation and the way we use everyday things when we’re talking. For example, at a table, I don’t think it’s ever accidental the way we pick up, move or even dismantle an object when we’re speaking about something seemingly unrelated. An object will undergo all sorts of things in the hands of the speaker and it’s both the relationship between object and talk that I’m interested in and also the experience of narrative from that object’s point of view. The particular interest in writing prose poetry came out of a criticism while I was on the MA at UEA and I was told I should be on the prose course as my poetry read like prose. I didn’t switch, but began to explore where the lines between them began to fade, discovering writers likes Carson, Baudelaire, Ponge, etc. I then started taking out the line breaks in my poems to gauge where this comment may have come from and sure enough, the poems worked in sentences and as self-contained paragraphs. From there I wrote and wrote without line-breaks, simply following my line of thought while remaining focused on one image or object, rather than trying to isolate images and carve the poem into a shape. I love the contained feel of the form and that inside this box is a scene of infinite possibilities, layers etc, but it’s told in a way that doesn’t meander. My go to poet and writer is Nathalie Sarraute, particularly her collection Tropisms, again for the sharp and unusual way she unearths what is not seen and said within people and the situations they find themselves in daily. She twists out our hidden habits and reveals them without flinching.
'Journey towards Dinner' by Jane Monson
From The Shared Surface 2nd collection (Cinnamon Press, 2013).
A man on a train reads his novel as he would hold the features of his wife. The book is taken up in his hands, her face raised to his eyes, the lines reflected in his glasses, his palms slightly curved around her cheeks. Taking in her mouth, the leaves close to his skin, he is lost in the print of her speaking. She smells sweet and dry, of sun-aged paper and type: honey, hazelnut and leather. He smooths the pages flat along the spine; her skin under his fingers sounds like Autumn being moved around a far-flung road. His station is announced and the nightmare of grunting elbows, knees, jackets, briefcases, newspapers and phones clatters his head back into focus. He closes her face, gets up and is moved onto the platform by the crowd. The man goes home to where she might be or where the impression of her most definitely is. At dinner she’ll ask him why he’s late. I missed my stop, he’ll lie. When they settle more into sitting opposite each other, she’ll ask him for the truth and he’ll tell her in the only way he can when put on the spot: he was thinking about her as his paperback; forgetting his book as an object and being overcome by her in his hands. She won’t ask for the truth again.
About the author
Jane Monson is a Mentor at the University of Cambridge, UK. She was previously Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University, UK. She is the editor of This Line is not for Turning (2011), an anthology of contemporary British prose poetry. Her poetry collections include Speaking Without Tongues (2010) and The Shared Surface (2013).