poet's novel

A conversation with Alice Notley on the poet's novel

Laynie Browne: In your recent book, Songs and Stories of the Ghouls, you write:

“Poetry tells me I’m dead; prose pretends I’m not” [1]. 

Can you elaborate on this statement?  To put it in context, this line is embedded in a section where there is a momentary switch from prose to poetry: “I’m afraid prose won’t go deep enough.”  A few lines later “And yet I go on in prose.”  You suggest limitations of prose but a choice to continue in prose.  Or maybe what is necessary is the movement between the two forms within the work?

Alice Notley: “The Book of Dead” contrasts two states, that of Dead and that of Day.  Day is what we have generally agreed life is; Dead is a world where boundaries are erased.  It resembles dreams and is where the ghouls live.Poetry is more like Dead than like Day, but prose is more useful for describing what goes on in Dead — how it works.  Prose is more useful for flat and general statement.  Poetry tends to abolish time and present experience as dense and compressed.  Prose is society’s enabler, it collaborates with it in its linearity.  A poem sends you back into itself repeatedly, a story leads you on.

Browne: I am especially fascinated with your statement “A poem sends you back into itself repeatedly, a story leads you on.” 

The poet's novel: an oxymoron

The poet's novel — What is it?

One of the first pleasures of exploring the poet’s novel is conversation with other writers on the subject. I’ve been collecting thoughts. With gratefulness to all who responded, I patch together in this commentary many borrowed insights. One thing I’ve noted is when asking if the poet’s novel exists, I am often answered with another question as to what I mean by the “poet’s novel.” Kevin Varonne wrote “do you mean a novel that poets like or feels poetic, or do you mean a novel-in-verse kind of thing?” My answer is yes, I am interested in exploring a full spectrum of what one could mean by the term.

Andrea Baker writes, “Cadence is on display. The narrative has an open endless.” I am fascinated with the brevity and compression of this response. Cadence is less rarely on display in prose. “Display” suggests a visual element, and cadence a musical concentration.

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