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An Interview with Peter Johnson

Back to April. While spring was ebbing in India, I asked American prose poet Peter Johnson to contribute poems for the autumn issue of Arc. I also explored prose poetry in an interview with peter. Peter appeared to be a generous soul and answered patiently to my questions.

PS: Can you tell me about yourself? Your education, upbringing, and the steel plant where you worked.

PJ:I was raised in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in South Buffalo, NY where the steel plants were located. When I was nine, we moved to the suburbs, which wasn’t much different than South Buffalo. But who I am was really formed in South Buffalo. Everyone was working-class. All the moms stayed home, and the dads worked civil servant or factory jobs. My father worked two jobs. He was a mailman during the day, then would come for dinner before heading out to his second job at the steel plant. Don’t know how he did it, but the extra money allowed my brother and I to go to the best Catholic high school in the city where I played sports and studied Latin and classical Greek. I kept that up throughout college. So it’s rather surprising that I am writing prose poetry instead of sonnets. I did begin by writing verse poetry, but the truth is, it stunk. But I had always liked Kafka’s shorter works, and I translated Theophrastus’s comic character sketches, so my early short prose attempts were character sketches. I didn’t know what a prose poem was, but then I came across Edson’s work, which led me to Michael Benedikt’s anthology. Poets like Max Jacob and the Eastern European writers in it, like Gunter Eich and Gunter Kunnert, blew me away and made me see that the prose poem might provide a nice safe home for my black-humor-Irish take on the world. Also, that anthology proved that the prose poem was a very welcoming genre. So many different sensibilities in it.

PS: You have been very close to Russel Edson and Charles Simic. Did Russel’s absurdities and Simic’s dark humor also adhere to their personalities besides literary linchpins?

PJ: Charlie and I really aren’t that close in terms of spending time with each other. I took a course with him, and later, when I started my journal, he was supportive. He became a contributing editor and then kindly wrote an introduction for my first book. He’s an amazingly generous man, and, in terms of humor, I’ve always thought of him as a kindred soul. When I write he’s always present as an ideal reader whom I would like to please. Russell and I were very close. I have 350 letters from him, some sounding like prose poems. He’s incredibly funny, on and off the page. He was reclusive. I appear to be very social, but, in reality, we both always felt isolated from the literary world, and liked it that way.

PS: Is there any truth in this myth that conceptual poets tend to peak young, like Shelly, Keats, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, and T.S.Eliot? But experimental poets tend to peak late: Robert Frost, WByeats, Auden, Seamus Heaney. Eliot has written that “ we observe some maturing earlier than others, and we observe that those which mature early do not always develop very far.” you are also a late bloomer and got your book published at forty- seven. What do you think about it?

PJ: The only rule in writing is that there are no rules. I was probably a late bloomer because I just had too much going on in my life and was often as distracted as a newborn kitten. It’s no secret to me that before I met my wife, I had published a lot of poems and some stories, but since we’ve been together (30 years) I have published about 14 books. She was a settling influence, so the inside of my head didn’t seem like a pinball machine anymore. Some find the cliché “the woman behind the man” offensive, but in my case it holds true.

PS: In an interview I read, Russel Edson was apprehensive about the future of prose poetry. But we see nowadays prose poems are gaining wider acceptance, especially as they are now in the mainstream of avant-garde. How and why did his visionary eyes get obscured about its future, a writer of great caliber, he is called the father of prose poetry in America. You can better judge as you were near to him. Was the prose poem facing opposition those days or was there another reason?

PJ: When Russell was writing his early prose poetry, no one was doing much in the genre. He liked it that way, I think. He really enjoyed being an outsider. He was stunned when my journal, The Prose Poem: An International Journal (which has all been put online) became popular. In one sense, he was glad to see the genre authenticated in some way; in another sense, he was not impressed with the coming avalanche of poorly written prose poems. He used to say that the problem with poetry, and prose poetry in particular, was that it had “too much language chasing too little of an idea.” I agree with him. Even now everyone thinks writing a prose poem is easy. Just sit back and write any crap you feel like. After all, you’re a poet, so anything that comes to mind must be significant.

PS: You have told me that you felt freed up by the tyranny of line breaks and enjambments. Now after writing so many books and winning the James Laughlin Award by the Academy of American Poets, do you feel satisfied with creative endeavors, putting them up in postcard shape?

PJ: I tend to be self-deprecatory and am always disappointed in my writing. I think that’s a good thing. Once you think you got it all down perfectly, you’ll never write anything good because you’ll never challenge yourself. Having said that, I have to admit when putting together my “Collected and New” volume, which will be published by MadHat press in the January of 2023, I actually thought, “Peter, this is damn good stuff.” Rereading it all, I felt as if someone else had written it, someone much smarter than me, and that’s always a good sign. I thought, “I’d like to meet this Peter Johnson guy.”

PS: Michael Symmons Roberts says “a verse novel can only be written in conscious awareness of the novel as a form”. Prose with line breaks doesn’t count as verse novels. If we think in that way then prose without line breaks is not a prose poem novel. What do you think about the idea of a prose poem novel? Could it be successful in effacing the boundary between fiction and verse, or would it start a separate type of genre?

PJ: One of my novels, What Happened, was called a novel -in-prose poems, but I’m very skeptical of that concept. To me the best prose poems are short. But, in reality, it doesn’t matter what you call a work. All that matters is that it’s good. But I do think that too much narrative kills the “poetic” part of the prose poem.

PS: Now the situation has become a paradox. You have been here for about forty years, over the past half -century. Poetry’s specialist audience has steadily expanded, and its general readership has declined. Do you agree that the migration of the American Literary culture to the university has unwittingly contributed to its disappearance from public view? Isn't it right that contemporary writers are poetry professionals operating in the closed world of the university?

PJ: You really hit on the core problem with poetry today. All these MFA programs have created a kind of Mafia. If you don’t play along with it all and constantly socialize and suck up to people, the Mafia bosses will hire a hitman to take you out. On one hand, it’s great so many people want to write poetry, but no one is really reading much of it. I guarantee you that if you sent your latest book to ten good friends, most of them would read a few poems in it, and then put it on the shelf and go back to their own writing. To me the bigger problem is, How do you discover the best poems out there, especially when many editors are using their magazines and presses to advance their careers. Why not take a lousy poem from a poet laureate than a good one from Joe Blow the plumber? The poet laureate might help you get a grant; the best the plumber can do is to fix your sink, which, by the way, I could use now.

PS: Please tell me about your writing process. Does poetry come to you as a god’s gift or does it demand long labor and perseverance?

PJ: No, God is asleep at the wheel when I’m writing. He’s has a lot to deal with now with all the craziness that’s going on in the world. I have come to trust in my imagination and improvisation. I can begin with almost any image or phrase and just chase it wherever it goes until what Edson calls a “shape of thought” develops. Then, after a first draft, the fun starts when my imagination and intellect work in tandem. Actually, none of this is true, except for the improvisation part.

PS: Robert Bly’s “Looking for Dragon Smoke” essay explains the new direction in which American poetry was moving during the 60s and 70s. He gave a leaping theory between the conscious and subconscious mind. I read your poems, some of them seemed to shift between two worlds as Bly defined. What do you think about it?

PJ:I agree with you. I wish I could explain how that process happens, but I think it has something to do with giving up control of whatever might ruin the poem: a fixation on an image or narrative strategy for instance. But that’s not to say that anything goes

PS: Michael Benedikt suggests prose poetry “is a genre of poetry, self-consciously written in prose, and characterized by the intense use of virtually all the devices of poetry, which includes the intense use of devices of verse,” except for the line break. Robert Bly calls the “special properties” of the prose poem: its “attention to the unconscious, and to its particular logic”; “an accelerated use of colloquial and everyday speech patterns”; “a visionary thrust”; a reliance on humor and wit; and an “enlightened doubtfulness, or hopeful skepticism.” David Ignotow says lyric is an emotional response while prose poem is the intellectual response. He claimed prose poems offered him dramatic possibilities: to him, prose poems are like theater. your opinion? The simplest definition came from Charles Simic “ prose poem looks like prose on the paper and appears as the poem to ears. In this broad spectrum of definitions, where would you like to fix, agree with them or is it all trick? Try to define undefined

PJ: All of those work for me. I’m not big on definitions, but they give one something to talk about. I’m not fond of looking for “answers” to anything in poetry; to me, all that’s important is the conversation.

PS: You have been editor of The Prose Poetry: An International Journal for many years and have seen so many ups and downs as an editor. You say as an editor you found ninety- nine percent of submissions were overwritten, then what was your selection criteria, rest one percent or sometimes you compromised with your taste?

PJ: The best and most unsatisfactory answer I can give is that I have always trusted my intuition. When I began the journal, I had read more in the prose poem than most people, so I always felt I had developed a literary competency. Also, I think my training in classical literature made me more disciplined than other prose poets, who just felt that you could call any piece of short prose a prose poem.

PS: You have written the book What Happened, which is a glimpse into the life of a troubled teen. During writing fiction do you read a lot of fiction? Do you anticipate writing more fiction, or something completely different or it is back to prose poems?

PJ: Sometimes, I just need to tell a story. Most of my fiction, unlike my poetry, is realistic. I just had a new book published called Shot_A Novel-in Stories, which I think it’s the best thing I’ve done in fiction.

PS: This is the conventional belief that most of the great literature has emerged out of tragedy. While you have defined prose poem as an oxymoron, a genre of contradictions, which seeks comedy for evolution. Does it mean the prose poem is in low form, and if not then where would you like to keep it?

PJ: Very tough but great question, and a good one to end this interview on. “Tough” because I would never want to limit the possibilities of the prose poem. The most I would ask of poets is to please be hard on yourself. I never know if anything I write is good, but I do know that it’s as good as I can make it. I also know that every thought I have isn’t necessarily worthy of being shared. Life is too short, don’t waste your time or ours if you don’t have anything to say or the discipline to say it in the least possible words.

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