Jul/Aug 2014  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Craft of the Prose Poem: a Conversation with David Shumate

Interview by Paul Holler

David Shumate is a contemporary poet who writes his poems in prose. The tradition of the prose poem is thought to have begun in the mid-19th century with the works of Charles Baudelaire and other French poets, but a literary form composed of brief, lyrical prose pieces can be found in the Bible, The Greek Anthology, and other ancient texts. Like those works, Mr. Shumate's poems possess most of the attributes of verse, such as imagery, rhythm, and music, but do not use line breaks or a regular metrical structure.

Mr. Shumate's work has been featured frequently on National Public Radio's The Writer's Almanac and has been included in Garrison Keillor's anthology, Good Poems for Hard Times. Altogether, he has published three books of prose poems, High Water Mark (2004), The Floating Bridge (2008), and most recently, Kimonos in the Closet (2013). A native Midwesterner, he lives in central Indiana where he is the Poet-in-Residence at Marian University.

In a recent conversation, Mr. Shumate and I discussed his work, his methods, and most importantly, why he writes.

"I asked this same question to a creative writing class just last month, and a student responded by saying, 'You ask as if we have a choice,'" says Mr. Shumate. "I was drawn to her honest answer, meaning, of course, that the practice of writing has become so deeply imbedded in our sense of self, it has become instinctual.

"But I would add to that a bit. It seems to me that as I am writing, and as a poem is leading me deeper into its core, an interesting thing happens. All aspects of my being—intellect, ego, spirit, senses, memory, etc.—begin to function in synchrony. It is a quietly integrated feeling that gives rise to that unexpected turn in the poem. It is a seductive feeling. I write to return to that state again and again."

Clearly, the prose poems of David Shumate are connected to and, perhaps, defined by his state of mind when creating them. Does the prose poem as a form lend itself to this synchrony?

"I'm not sure that there is anything particularly unique about the prose poem in this regard," he explains. "It seems to me when a writer, an artist, a musician discovers, or perhaps stumbles upon, a technique or style that suits him well, and he travels down that path habitually, this kind of synchrony can develop. The expression resulting from that so often feels natural, honest, inevitable. In an early poem, 'What Hemingway Learned From Cézanne,' I characterize this sense of inevitability as being 'like a scripture you cannot erase.'"

The poem to which Mr. Shumate refers begins with these lines:

"You must build a sentence like a mountain. You must start someplace flat. Someplace where you can stand and see the land roll out for miles." (1)

This poem, with its bringing together of language, imagination and landscape, reminded me of the quote from Walt Whitman, "I am large, I contain multitudes." In Whitman's view, whatever the poet sees or experiences becomes a part of him or her, suggesting a breaking down of the border between the physical world and the imagination.

"For a poet, it is sometimes hard to separate the two," says Mr. Shumate. "When writing from a more integrated state, one feels larger, in the Whitman-like sense, and the phrases and images drawn from that well have a timelessness to them. You stumble upon them and wonder 'where did that come from?' Whatever the answer might be—external or internal—you are grateful for the gift.

"But we can look at it this way as well... When I write, I feel as if I am making a partnership with silence. I'll bring what I have to the equation—based on memory, observation, experience, and so on—but I count on silence to supply the larger share. If a poem depended on what I knew I was going to write when I sat down to write, the poem would probably collapse. I count on that settled state of being, and the silence it generates, to lead me into the glowing core of a poem."

A reader can easily perceive Mr. Shumate's "partnership with silence" in many of his more meditative poems. But the prose poem also has a long tradition of presenting ironic, even humorous images. Many of his poems reflect that tradition. In a poem entitled "Kafka," for instance, a man awakes one morning to find that he has morphed into Franz Kafka.

"Irony tends to insinuate itself into the big stew of American life," he explains. "Realities collide. Oddities emerge and cannot be ignored. I set out into a poem imagining I am Kafka let loose in this modern world just to see how that feels, and I end up with the image of a lover straightening his tie, giving him a renewed sense of purpose. Or in 'The Amateur Zen Master' a fellow tries out a new religion and soon the disillusionment sets in, as it tends to do so often. The quiet interplay between the tragic and the comic intrigues me, and in that mix, ironies ensue.

"But none of this is plotted out. I drift along where the poem takes me with only a vague sense of where it might end up. If I'm lucky, I exit the mundane and enter the territory of myth.

"The prose poem teeters precariously between prose and poetry because of its heavier reliance on narrative on the one hand and its use of all other lyrical elements, save the line break, on the other hand. It is a humble form. Somewhat stealth. You may find yourself entering the prose poem innocently, disarmed by its modesty, not anticipating its currents. But a good prose poem, in a few short, unassuming lines, will sweep you gently from the mundane into the mythical.

"I am drawn to this confluence of genres. But if the narrative I am working with insists on expanding beyond the confines of a prose poem, then I follow it into the short story it wants to become. I tend to resist letting a prose poem spin out much further than fourteen lines on the page, a kind of prose sonnet, though that is an artificial boundary I frequently violate."

Throughout our conversation, Mr. Shumate referred to myth as a place or a state of being. Given that mythology is culturally derived, an individual artist's work can be seen as a reflection of a his or her own culture's mythological tradition. But it is important to know how the artist has come to own that tradition.

"When I speak of myth, I am referring to those characters, those stories, those brief scenes in a poem that seem to rise up from the mundane, the everyday, and enter a timeless realm," Mr. Shumate explains. "The character in 'High Water Mark' (the poem, not the entire book) who considers the flood that once swept through the town and says 'next time I think I'll just let go and drift downstream and see where I end up' is entering into a broader sweep of history, transcending his time and place. He's a little bit Noah and a little bit Huck Finn, in my estimation, both residents of the world of myth. That poem, by the way, was conceived of while standing on the main street of Hannibal, Missouri, where some of my paternal relatives lived. Even the speakers of some of my poems—'Custer,' 'Mornings with Freud,' 'Chumming Around With Hemingway'—seem capable of drifting back and forth between here and the territory of myth, acting as a kind of Hermes, the messenger."

Like his characters, David Shumate plays different roles in his life that sometimes intersect. Like many poets, he is also a teacher. In general, the practice of writing and teaching are closely related. Teachers of English are required to be accomplished writers and to be familiar with the works of other writers. But the relationship between the creative role of the writer and the mentoring role of the teacher is unique to each individual.

"I've been a teacher of one kind or another all my life," says Mr. Shumate on the role of teaching in his in his work as a writer. "Headstart nursery school was my first teaching experience. Then English as a second language. Then writing. Now I teach a variety of writing, film, and literature courses. I take students on travel-related courses every other May to Greece, Italy, Turkey and other Mediterranean areas.

"Teaching affects my writing, but so does gardening and so does cooking, two other strong interests. Early on I impress upon my students that everything they encounter is important, even the smallest of gestures a person might make in passing, even the pink car parked in front of a bar. So teaching feeds into my sense of myself as a writer just like the last mushroom and cheese omelet I made does.

"The literature I work with in class varies widely depending on the class and level. In study abroad contexts I work with Homer a lot, and Bocaccio. In beginning classes I use of wide variety of poetry and drama and fiction. In a few weeks in a freshman class I'll be working with Kent Haruf's fiction and Jack Ridl's poetry. Students at this level are also Mesmerized by Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Transfixed."


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