Poets Online Archive
Prose poems give some readers problems. What makes some short piece of prose a prose poem and not just prose? Where is the line that separates these poems from being really short stories?
Most poets who work in this form agree that a prose poem should exhibit the characteristics of poetry more strongly than prose. These poems may be thematically structured like a poem, have musicality (though not rhyme) and probably more extensively use imagery, metaphor and the tools in the poet's box. The lines in these poems break where the margin breaks. Stanzas, if they occur at all, resemble paragraphs.
Though this prompt was the prose poem form, we didn't want poets just running to their notebooks for a short story that was never finished and sending it off as a poem. So, we lifted the prompt directly from Kim's book (with Dorianne Laux), The Poet's Companion, which contains some great writing exercises and examples.
"Brainstorm a list of some mundane activities not usually thought of a erotic - washing the dishes or car, mowing the lawn, going to the dentist. Now make a list of nouns associated with that activity. Then make a list of verbs and adjectives that you associate with sex. Stir everything together, and make the mundane activities sound positively orgasmic."
The erotic must be tougher than you think, since most of what we received avoided that part of the prompt.
There's more information about this prompt and previous ones, and the opportunity to post your own comments on the Poets Online Blog.
Sitting inside a tent all day beside a stack of cardboard boxes filled with miniature versions of the Old and New Testaments, daydreaming about the blonde in cutoffs selling cotton candy and corndogs at the far end of the fairground—her legs so long and tapered—makes my balls ache. Our tent is part of a sideshow that snakes its way along the coast from Coney Island to Gibsonton. The yokels who stumble in through the front flap have come to take a gander at the midgets. They do not spot me, aloof in the shadows, until they are halfway round the rope line that defines the family fishbowl. Their attention is drawn to whatever’s happening inside the corded circle, which to my chagrin, is the familiar spectacle of my parents behaving as though no eyes are watching them. The latest bunch has arrived just in time to hear the kettle shrieking on the hotplate. My mother gets up from her chair, pours herself a cup of instant Maxwell House and returns to her knitting without so much as a glance in their direction. Shuffling along, they are treated to the sight of a small man asleep in an armchair built for someone much larger, morning paper spread across his legs like one of the bums in Central Park. If they had come an hour earlier, they would have seen my father seated at the table drinking a Schlitz, feet dangling ten inches above the floor, fingers fiddling with the dial of a transistor radio, waiting for my mother to finish building him a giant sandwich made of liverwurst, Bermuda onions, and Wonder Bread. Shake our little snow globe, and light will spill from beneath the fringed lampshade to form a halo above my father’s head, and the posies in the glass vase will drop a few petals on the white tablecloth. By the time the latest group of voyeurs begins to feel hemmed in and breathless, they notice me blocking the exit. I make it a point to lock eyes with all, even the most sheepish and recalcitrant, to stand directly in their path, holding out a tiny black-bound Old Testament in one hand and a white-clad New in the other—balanced in my palms like the Scales of Justice—and tell them to take their pick. Because I know they’re feeling slightly swindled and embarrassed by the ordinariness of life, I offer them a cheap miracle: holy writ shrunk to the size of a trinket no bigger than a rabbit’s foot. I will quote scripture if need be, pass a magnifying lens over the teensy weensy text to whet an incurious child’s desire, all the while impatiently riffling wafer-thin pages with my thumb—tricks I use to siphon every buck from a pool of shrinking revenue. Only then will I step aside, allowing each visitor to vanish into the glare of the midway. These specters are no more real to me than the soft fuzz that pries apart the legs of lissome corndog vendors and as insubstantial as Jezebel and Salome and Lot’s drunken daughters. Tonight, the mermaid half-submerged inside the Plexiglas tank in the tent next door, who is no mermaid, will swish her fused legs for me and remove the twin cockle shells covering breasts saltier than the imprecations of sailors and more sublime than the promises of God, knowing that a mermaid is what I have need of, what I’ve come searching for.
The alarm clock breaks through layers of memory and dream, each a film applied over the last, none quite transparent nor totally opaque – translucent as skin that shows the veins, the clutch and cables, follicles and flesh of an ordinary Monday. Was it dream or memory, that I waltzed in swirling skirts and sleeves under a black arch of organ-pipes, and leaded windows opening on a city from half a century ago. If I close my eyes again, will I be the image in the crystal mirror or the young girl spun giddy on its rim, wheel of fortune so dizzying, a sash becomes a red-rose falling petal by carmine petal? Surely the wheel is that clock with its gears ticking past the time for getting up, keeping count slow-motion of these first moments of the work-week. In all directions, houses open to the sky on which we float like memory.
A DARK AFFAIR
Smooth as silk, my fingertip strokes you, nearly trembling in anticipation. You are luscious, a tasty tidbit that teases my senses. Your scent taunting me as it wafts unseen to my nose. Once I take you into my mouth, your rigidity succumbs, filling me with pleasure, releasing joyous bursts of chemicals, which race unfettered through my blood. Euphoria. God, I love you, my secret desire, hidden weakness, greatest obsession. Chocolate.
WELCOME TO EL JEBEL POPULATION 320
nine miles out of aspen. inside the sardine can we called home, we shivered to the tunes of the james gang. it was nineteen seventy one, the last of the rice solidified on the stove. i remember thinking that it wouldn't be so bad if it were spring. we drank mormon tea and gazed at the purple sky for hours. building a campfire on the pizza pan, in the middle of the kitchen was not one of my better ideas. i cracked open the metal door, leaned out for some clean air. the snow melted on my tongue.
Most people never read the book. Or the other books, where she goes back to Oz. And stays. And brings the family along. Why not? Who would choose shades of gray over Technicolor? Of course, it would be tough being the only non-Munchkins around. Limited dating opportunities within your own group. I suppose all that color might get to you after awhile and Kansas could look like those rich black and white photographs from another time. Simpler. Uncomplicated. Not a tornado anywhere in the frame.
ONCE AGAIN I HAVE FORGOTTEN TO INSERT A RESCUE DISK
I call him because I can’t help it because I can’t do this by myself because he is the one who needs me as much as I need him. His name is Max, he says. “I want you to do exactly as I say,” he says. “You must discover the saltiest icon and choose it. You must use the Explorer. I want the things throbbing with small pulses of light to be clicked. I want you to press and hold. I want you to shift every volatile link to its most obsessive portal.” He lilts, Max does. I tell him that I have already done all these things, with others, with others whose voices are more mellifluous. “But you haven’t done them with me,” he says, and I see Agra, reflecting. I smell jasmine and the flurry of spice ground from small black seeds. I hear temple chimes shimmering from the limbs of a baobab. “I’m still here,” he says, beginning to delete memory. And now he is touching everything that needs to be touched, teaching me how to do this for myself, how to save myself, but now, now, how obsessively, how tenderly he moves me from glow to glow.
THE MORGUE AT DISNEYWORLD
It's not something they want you to think about as you walk around the Magic Kingdom. But let's face it, with 47 square miles (that's two Manhattans or one San Francisco) and all those cast members and visitors, you're going to have some death. As you lick your ice cream cone, kiss for a photo, sweat and pant your way around the park, someone is exiting more than just the park. I learned this lesson on my first ocean cruise vacation. Old guy dropped right on the dance floor. Eating too much food, drinking too much alcohol, dancing with a woman with a much younger heart. The crew put him on ice until we docked. It happens all the time, said our waiter. Back on shore, we watch the clean-up squad duck behind Mickey's house with the trash and disappear. The underground tunnels bring in and take away. You don't see the hospital. You don't see the morgue. The ride thrusts you up, slides you down. We all scream with pleasure. You stop by the cart with flowers and touch the face of someone you love. Below your feet they roll a body on a cart. It's cool below ground and the darkness takes some getting used to.