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Response & Bio David Shumate

Response to a 1971 interview in which William Stafford comments on the prose poem.

In an interview conducted with Dave Smith in 1971 (now listed on “Modern American Poetry’s” website), William Stafford responded to a question regarding the distinction between traditional poetry and the prose poem by saying, “If it is put in prose form on the page without the line-breaks then you have given up some of the opportunities that there are for acrobatic swingings from line to line and emphasizing certain words or phrases. But you gain something in that the reader will feel that you are not trying to bamboozle him with white space. Of course, I like prose myself. Not just prose poems, but prose. So the prose poems don't worry me. You gain something and lose something.”

I am drawn to Stafford’s suggestion that the prose poem is an honest form which renounces using white space to “bamboozle” a reader and instead forces heavier reliance on other poetic conventions. I am also drawn to the relative homeliness of the prose poem. Its inelegance. A blob in the shape of the state of Kansas. A bulbous dirigible hovering there at the top of the page. Most of the assembled spectators would think it could never fly. But cut the tethers. And stand back. If it’s crafted well, it will hover out over the fields in defiance of all poetic gravity and leave the crowd in awe. But beware. It all pivots on the engineering. And the gases that lift it. The Hindenburg is in ashes.


David Shumate lives in Zionsville, Indiana. His prose poems have appeared widely in literary journals including North America Review, Mid-American Review, Mississippi Review, Maize, Southern Indiana Review and Prairie Schooner. His book of prose poems, High Water Mark, (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004) was awarded the 2003 Agnes Lynch Starrett prize for first books and received first place in the poetry category of the “Best Books of Indiana competition of 2005.” His work has also been featured on Garrison Keillor’s NPR program, The Writer’s Almanac, and in Good Poems for Hard Times.