Visiting Poets put the “Pro” back in Prose

WHAT: Nin Andrews and Peter JohnsonâÄôs poetry reading. Edelstein-Keller Visiting Writer Series WHEN: Tuesday Oct. 7 WHERE: Weisman Art Museum Poetry is a lot like FrankensteinâÄôs monster: misunderstood. The common conception of poetry is that it is unapproachable, abstract, academic and oftentimes stuffy. For most people, poetry garners respect but it is not often read for pleasure. Prose poetry, however, destroys all of those connotations. It transcends all genre boundaries and is immensely more accessible. Prose poetry can be comical, anecdotal, angry, ironic, sweet and dark. All poetry can cover a variety of emotions, but prose poetry reads like fiction. It sheds the stereotypes of academia like old skin. The University hosted two well-known prose poets, Nin Andrews and Peter Johnson, during the first week of October under the Edelstein-Keller Visiting Writer Series. Peter JohnsonâÄôs book âÄúMiracles & MortificationsâÄú won the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets in 2001. He teaches at Providence College in Rhode Island. Nin Andrews is the recipient of two Ohio Arts Council Grants and is the author of several books of poetry including âÄúThe Book of Orgasms,âÄù and her latest, âÄúSleeping With Houdini.âÄù A&E had the opportunity to speak with the two authors and get their ideas on prose poetry and the act of writing. Would you call yourself a poet first? A prose poet? Or do you think of yourself simply as a writer? PJ: I write prose poetry, short stories and short novels. What I write depends on how much time I have. I need big blocks of time for fiction. I can’t leave the narrative of a story or a narrator’s thoughts and then return to it days later. Whereas with poetry, I can write a first draft in one night, then keep going back to it and polishing it, maybe even reinventing it. I’m not a verse poet; I’m a prose poet. I have nothing against verse poetry. I just stink at it. NA: I consider myself an accidental poet. I didn’t mean for this to happen, but somehow almost every story or essay I wrote became a prose poem. And pretty soon, everyone was calling me a prose poet. But I’m not complaining. I like the way a prose poem can be like a story that is a poem, and vice versa. They’re little microcosms. So much is contained in a prose poem. And yes, sometimes I write lyric poetry as well. And sometimes I write an actual story or essay. Who are some of your favorite poets dead and alive? PJ: My favorite poet is Shakespeare. Next to him, we’re all a bunch of flunkies. I’ve also translated Catullus’ comic erotic poems and I like the metaphysical poets, like John Donne. In terms of contemporary poets, my favorite ones are Charles Simic, James Tate, Kim Addonizio and, of course, Ray Gonzalez. NA: Yannos Ritsos, Henri Michaux, Eduardo Galeano, Italo Calvino, Wislawa Szymborska and Fernando Pessoa. What do you think of the idea that poets must be the most magnificent liars alive? PJ: There’s something to that. Reality is not very important. The illusion of reality is what matters. NA: Well, I’m pretty sure they compete with politicians for that title. But in some ways their lies might have a similar logic. Both want to capture an audience, to bring people into their world, their way of seeing, thinking, feeling. I think that when poets lie, they lie magnificently. They lie convincingly. And I don’t care that they lie. I just want the truth of the poem. Not the truth of the poet. Of course, it’s the opposite with the politician. I wish they’d stop their lies. But who would elect them then? Charles Bukowski. What do you think of when that name comes to mind? NA: I think he was a brilliant poet. He’s probably the best and funniest unapologetic, angry, male-chauvinist, drunk poet I’ve ever read. PJ: Even though Bukowski wrote one good poem for every hundred bad ones, I like his good ones and often teach them. I think what saves his work is that he’s capable of poking fun at himself; heâÄôs not taking himself too seriously. ItâÄôs a necessary antidote to academic poetry. Do you think your poetry is influenced by other genres or things you read? Fiction? Film? Anything? NA: I am influenced by everything. I am influenced by the philosophy and theology books I studied in college. By journalism, by advertising, by self-help books, by political speeches. I am influenced by fiction, especially the magical realists like Garcia Marquez. I am also influenced by photography: the idea of foreground, middleground, background. I like to ask myself: âÄúwhere do you want your subject to be âÄî close, far, or very far away?âÄù I am influenced by the dialect and mannerisms of the people I am talking to. Whatever is around me influences me. PJ: Yes, I will steal anything I can from any genre.