As Russell Edson’s close friend and faithful correspondent during the last twenty five years of his life, Peter Johnson initiated and then sustained an affectionate conversation with his mentor and friend–“Little Mister Prose Poem.” Writing profoundly to each other from the periphery of the mainstream poetry world, or as both Johnson and Edson might say, from the peanut gallery of po biz, these poets discovered right where the best seats are for viewing the state of American poetry, as well as for writing their own poems. In this selection of letters by Russell Edson to Peter Johnson, Edson displays both his humorous and serious sensibility at once, demonstrating just how integral they are to each other and in so doing witnessing to Charles Simic’s trenchant claim that “all poets do magic tricks…with spontaneity and nonchalance, concealing art and giving the impression that one writes without effort and almost without thinking…as a remedy for every bane of affectation.”
“Little Mr. Prose Poem”
In 1992 Russell Edson was surprised as I was by the enthusiastic response to the inaugural issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, which I edited for nine years. In fact, I had titled it Volume 1 as a private joke. I had no intention of editing a Volume 2. But what followed was an avalanche of letters from poets who had been toiling for years in the genre, with trashcans full of nasty rejection slips. These poets were not only running out of journals to submit to, but they were also sick of defending the prose poem to editors who knew little about it.
Shortly after the publication of Volume 1, Russell and I began a correspondence that lasted until he died in 2014, though the bulk of the 350 letters I received from him were between 1992 and 2008. The sample annotated letters here are from a longer selection of forty that appear in my book of essays, Truths, Falsehoods, and a Wee Bit of Honesty: A Short Primer on the Prose Poem, with Selected Letters from Russell Edson (MadHat Press, 2020). These letters occurred during the early days of the prose poem renaissance when Russell was reentering the poetry world with The Tunnel: Selected Poems, and when I was trying to get my first book published. He often said that he spent most of his time in bed, staring at the ceiling, so it was hard to get him out of that supine position to organize a new manuscript.
I’ve tried to choose letters that highlight his ideas on the writing process and creative impulse. All of what he says is usually brilliant and could be said of poetry in general. You might ask, “Peter, where is your side of the correspondence?” Well, I didn’t begin to keep my letters until we had about 100 exchanges. Why? First of all, I didn’t think of our correspondence as being public knowledge or part of literary history. Secondly, I had a very different life than Russell. I didn’t lie in bed and stare at the ceiling. I taught three different classes per semester, I edited a journal, I was writing and publishing my own work, and I was raising children and coaching their sports. I didn’t have time to think about “literary history” until my friend Forrest Gander pulled me aside and said, “Dude, what are doing? Even if you don’t think what you have to say is important, your side of the correspondence provides context for Edson’s letters.”
In a sense, Russell and I were very different people. He called himself “Little Mr. Prose Poem,” and he called me “Big Mr. Prose Poem.” He was a recluse. Yes, he enjoyed giving readings, yet he approached the travel and necessary pleasantries of these readings with fear and loathing, that is, unless he was reading with James Tate or Charles Simic. In contrast, I seemed to be outgoing, a “people person.” But this was an illusion. I started my journal for two reasons: first, to make the prose poem legitimate; second, to be, in some small way, part of contemporary American poetry without having to leave the house.
I miss Russell. I miss his intelligence and wacky wit. He made me think and laugh, often at the same time. Many of his letters read like long prose poems. He thought like a Russell Edson prose poem, probably just as his father, the cartoonist Gus Edson, conceptualized life in the form of cartoon frames. He was an original, and without him the prose poem probably never would have taken hold in America.
Note: The February 8, 1995 letter was reprinted in “The Best American Poetry” blog
January 30, 1995
Reading through the prose poems you sent I can understand your impatience about placing a book. You have the materials. Also reading through my own things of the last weeks, everything in these readings makes good sense. At least for a while. And then suddenly I come awake and see how marginal, how really strange the prose poem is. Don’t you sometimes come to this? That we have a strange enthusiasm which may be quite more narrow than we realize. But, what’s more interesting than a prose poem in the current world of letters?
“Your piece “Like Father, Like Son” is close to the kind of thing I am wont to do. The merging and changing of identities, the reversals. The way it develops into its own conclusion. The pieces constitute a nice group. I was sort of kidding when I described the miseries of the book publishing process. It is fun to publish a book. But like anything else the thrill gets less and less. Fact is I printed my first little books. And it worked in the sense to leading to “bigger and better things.” A reckless use of energy. But it was fun because it didn’t have a set purpose. Handsetting type; the letterpress thing seemed as interesting as prose poems at the time. Luck is everything. Luck might be described as coincidence. Being at the right place at the right time. But perhaps it’s all been written, and we merely act it out.
As for improving a manuscript, in a sensible world one ought to be able to do that. But having no true objective standards (I wonder if anyone has?) I write around the problem. Write a load of things and pick at the time what seems the better things, and let the others go to hell. And yet, perhaps you’ve noticed this, certain pieces need time to be properly approached. Which is to say that the work remains strange to its writer. Either the writer matures in understanding, or the piece somehow ripens like a wine or cheese, and one suddenly understands. This is why I say one doesn’t want to be too familiar with what one writes. And this is what I like about the prose poem. I can read your things as if I wrote them. And I can read my own things as if I hadn’t written them. The prose poem isn’t all tied up in personality. After reading through your things I immediately sat down and wrote a bunch of other things. Endless invention. Perhaps in the future it’ll become a tradition that prose poems will not be identified by author. I could even see a book of prose poems containing the work of many writers, but presented as the work of a single author. Or not even that; that it would be understood that the prose poem was so impersonal a form that no writer needed to take credit for it. It would be rather like the harvesting of a plenitude. There may even come a time when people who write prose poems will cease writing them, but meet together and invent them on the spot vocally. But perhaps this is too much to hope for. Meanwhile we work in our private cells writing on disks and paper. But there will come a time when this will be considered rather quaint. People will say, that’s how it was done in the old days.
But for now for anybody interested in the prose poem the Journal is the center. It’s where we all meet. So I’m grateful for all the trouble you’ve gone to for TT. Your enthusiasm has been very encouraging. Apparently this is true for so many others who continue to support the Journal with their work.
February 8, 1995
It’s true, the prose poem wants “normal” speech. And no matter how nutty the poem the language should try to fall as naturally as common talk. The mistake of many beginning prose poem writers is that they don’t trust their own imaginations. If they don’t trust what they’re writing the reader won’t. Often they seem to say in so many ways, “I know this is strange stuff but . . .” The prose poem wants to deal with strange stuff, but to treat it in the same way and with the same belief as “normal” stuff.
I think what you like about “Pretty Happy!” is that nothing seems forced, everything falls naturally, with the baseball bat at the end as the hook. To get to this kind of writing, at least for me, is to write a great deal, and fast. Basically, to lose one’s self-consciousness, so that the writing is as natural as any other activity. Getting past oneself.
A lot of my so-called originality is owed to eccentricity and literary isolation. If I’ve done anything special, anybody could have if they would have. It’s right there. Everybody has a nutty head. Our job as the rational species is to override this nuttiness. But at a keyboard with nothing to lose, why not enjoy the impersonal parts of our brains? This is what’s so good about the prose poem, having a lower literary ambition than other forms it allows the writer the freedom to invent. The form doesn’t overwhelm and allows content to be everything.
Other magazines run ads, but they get paid for their trouble, speaking of TT.
Poetry is a social club. I ain’t too social; basically a hermit who writes letters. But I realize now that to move ahead in terms of publishing and other fun things one should become part of the club. Otherwise one waits patiently for the world to find one’s work. I guess the main thing is to stay “pretty happy,” while keeping a baseball bat handy.
March 28, 1995
I have been going through Somebody’s Fool. Am not finished. A lot of mail has piled up here, and I’m trying to put my head together for a big-bucks reading in Indianapolis, which I dread.
To begin with I’m not sure that Somebody’s Fool is the best title for the collection. It sounds a bit flip. In fact, the actual poem seems somewhat scattered. Perhaps too thought out. I cringe at the idea of someone walking on thumbtacks, even to “keep his mind off his mind,” which is an interesting thought.
Thing is, a prose poem needs to be more orderly, more compact than what goes as verse these days. Thus, the prose poem should only include working parts. One needs to have the courage to drop “good stuff” for the sake of the whole poem. This is a fault found in many prose poems. The writer refusing to let go of something that’s clever and interesting but doesn’t add to the psychological movement of the poem. Anything that doesn’t add is a distraction and robs the poem’s reality.
My ideal prose poem is a small, complete work, utterly logical within its own madness. Like for instance your poem “Hell,” among others. This poem doesn’t seem over-thought. It falls quite naturally. A certain staleness sets in when a prose poem is too slowly written. This is why I like to write fast and much, looking for an organic wholeness. Something that falls with a naturalness no matter how mad the material. Of course you’ll say “Hell” was very self-consciously thought out. But it doesn’t read like that. Everything in it seems just discovered.
Most people writing prose poems who would be considered at our end of the rainbow know that the prose poem must deal with the strange, that that’s its purpose. To deal with dream stuff in conscious language. But often, with this purpose in mind, the author doesn’t trust his vision enough, and does too much explaining and scene setting. Simic is a master of simplicity in his line and prose poems. With a few strokes the mood and scene are set. Again, it’s a matter of simplicity, of being able to think in a physical way. More gesture than word. So the prose poem wants to be properly staged. To make some kind of whacky physical sense. For instance, in “A Ritual as Old as Time Itself,” which is a very good poem, all goes well until the sand gives way under the husband’s feet. There’s no reason for that to happen, and it loses the reality the rest of the poem has. But the poem needs to break there, and for the husband and wife to change places, which gives the poem its mad design. Why can’t the husband simply run out of steam? He’s been running up and down the beach for a year. Now it’s her turn to fly the marriage kite. Another thing, I’m not thrilled by the title. I would prefer something like “The Marriage Kite,” or even “The Kites.” It’s more mysterious while being obvious. Let the reader make of the poem what he or she will.
Your Servant, Russell
November 13, 1996
The problem is that language is already an abstraction that tries to represent what we take to be reality. To further abstract it in some ism or theory is self-defeating. Imagination is the liberating force. The so-called Language poets remind me of a painter who, instead of painting, spends his time smelling his brushes and easel, thinking that a new age has opened. Any way of writing that needs that much theory about itself (do the so-called Language poets do anything else?) is up the wrong tree, or down the wrong hole.
I try to write beyond the abstraction of language to find something physical. And you might as well know, Breton turns me off with his manifestos. Writing is personal pleasure, and I’ll write anyway I damn well please.
A poem is a mental project and requires one’s best mental abilities. We work best when our intellects and imaginations are in harmony at the time of the writing. But I like to go real fast before I ruin what I’m writing by thinking about it. This is not automatic writing. It’s a looking for the shape of thought more than the particulars of the little narrative. But why do you have to be a surrealist? Breton didn’t invent your imagination. Heck, I consider what I do a homemade art; something made out of all kinds of stuff found around the house. When I entered the “literary” scene I felt very unsure. Everybody seemed steeped in theory, as if they had good reasons to be doing what they were doing. Now we see the so-called language poets in a kind of cartoon replay of the same scene. You use the example of the bully at the playground. It seems it’s not enough to write one’s own work, but one must try to tamper and control the work of others. Read Ron (Language poet) Silliman’s “The New Sentence.” He doesn’t scare me.
Charlie Simic sent me his new book Walking the Black Cat. It’s very Simic, and very good. Gee whiz, Stuart Friebert just published a book and now Simic, and you’ll be publishing one, and here I sit loaded with work.
The Capt. is always the speaker in his poems. I ain’t so I’m allowed to be funny. Humor gives the prose poem dimension. Incidentally, when you get to the Edson section of your course, don’t forget why spankings were invented. I think my work is best considered by students who’ve been properly spanked. Don’t forget, I’ve done a bit of teaching; holding each of my students suspect and spanking-worthy. Particularly the graduate students. I both spanked and handed out MFAs.
I remain your most humble servant,
March 30, 1997
You are definitely a surrealist. Of the poets I am aware of, no one is writing like you in these poems; the endless bubbling invention. The nearest poet I can think of is Jim Tate. I wonder what the Capt. would make of them? It’s a far cry from anything he could think to write. Or, for that matter, that I could think to write. You have so many startling inventions, almost every sentence. Reading through the poems I would think, why doesn’t he develop this one, it would be enough for me to make a whole piece. But then the next sentence is another startling invention; and on it goes. Each invention almost asking to be a poem in itself. And yet, there is a unity in the poems. Not just by theme, or city titles, but the thinking. Something I would like for my work. My books are not really books, but unattached pieces placed together. Every time I write it’s as if I have to learn how to write all over again. I’m not talking style. I’m talking disconnection.
Michel’s tome promises to be the bible of the American prose poem. I’m looking forward to his book.
The PP (I hope you don’t mind my calling the genre PP) is identified as avant-garde, and at the same time it looks easy. “Anything goes,” as it were. And anything does go as long as the writer makes it into something. I see your point, we’re all little prose poets together. I’ve never thought of myself as part of a group. When I started publishing I was amazed that anybody saw anything in the pieces. Self-doubt is a wasteful thing.
In my last letter I mentioned that someone of supposed influence had taken an interest in my lack of a publisher. I’m waiting to hear back. I don’t want to mess you up at White Pine Press. Some editors resent a writer trying to pack the press with friends. But thanks anyway for the offer. Now I sit here regretting the ms. I sent wasn’t titled, Under Great Light Flooded Clouds, or, The Art of the Fugue, or, The Secret Graveyeard, instead of The Haunted House. And why didn’t I try to arrange the ms. better than the way it came off the disks? I probably don’t want to publish. That’s the secret I ‘ve been keeping from myself. Self-doubt is a wasteful thing.
You say the new Journal is nearly complete. You’ve been busy. And thanks again for the web business, which will also give the address of the publisher. Oberlin has done no advertising, except in your Journal, which they got free. Still, Stuart tells me TT is selling well. The prose poem is in.
I don’t know if this will reach you before your trip. But if it does, my advice is to let the Capt. have his way with you vis-a-vis the bear-hugging business. There’s not much you can do about it, anyway. But no kissing! If we don’t have occasion to write before you leave, have a good trip. And remember, you’re Big Mr. Prose Poem. If anybody deserves the title, it’s you. One time I think Benedikt wanted the title, but he was either too large, or too small for the station.
April 13, 1997
I see you started to write Stamford on your envelope. Please be careful, this is a tricky business.
Sounds like Washington went well. You got your hug, but no kisses, which is proper on a first date. Also got a chance to observe a nasal blockade. Got a three-hour interview with the Capt. And heard my name invoked about 50 times, which must’ve been boring.
You say the session was well attended. I guess the Capt. helped, but there is also the genre. Interesting too that the Capt. wanted to be part of it, that he’s that serious about the genre.
As to your love poems, I’m not sure they would work well as a full-length book. At some point, where, I don’t know, the poems might start to blunt each other with their sparks. 24, as you suggest, would make a handsome chapbook. I would suggest you just keep writing the love poems until you feel you’ve run out creative steam. As I’ve said before the act of writing is probably everything.
I wouldn’t have had the courage to ask the Capt. about his famous tin ear. Speaking of tin, I’ve been told the Capt. usually wears earmuffs to hide the tin. This tin business has been around for a time, and I find it odd that he should be singled out. Isn’t a good much of American poetry tin-earred and tin-brained? I hope you didn’t bring up his nasal blockade as part of the interview. Or have I got it wrong, and you meant naval blockade?
Many thanks for your good words for that library display. Mark Twain was, and remains, quite right. My strategy is to stand before a mirror and laugh until I fall.
Having a hard job of settling in here. It feels like a motel that you stay in for a night, knowing that you’ll be away the next day for home. I’ll look at www. cais. net/ aesir/ fiction in September. My thanks.
June 16, 1997
I’m still here. That’s about all I can say.
Not sure you should tell people that you write poetry. Lots of people think of poetry as a sissy sport. Trying to explain what prose poems are is even worse. It comes off as the lazy man’s sissy do-nothing. It’s best to act as normal as possible. It helps if you think of yourself as a secret agent.
People go to readings because they want to. And a poetry audience is a particularly kind audience. I’m horribly shy, but when one has a script, and one has some faith in the work, it works. Sometimes it can even be exhilarating. Reading funny stuff is a help. When you ask yourself why they bothered to show up, as you say in your letter, just think that they probably had nothing better to do with their evening. Then there are the book signings and the receptions after the readings where people tell you how much they adore you. You’ll feel you’re not worth all the fuss, but it’ll almost feel good. You say of all this that you owe it to your publisher. But you also owe it to it to yourself. You’ll have fun. In our profession it’s either drought or flood.
Come to think of it, it’s sometimes a good strategy to limp as you approach the reading stand. This focuses the sympathy of the audience. And from then on you can do no wrong. But if this seems too awkward, a speech defect works, too. A lisp, or the inability to pronounce R’s. Probably the simplest sympathy getter is to put a cushion inside the back of one’s jacket and appear as the humpback of some cathedral. These are tricks of the trade. You’ll probably be inventing some of your own as you go along. But as I say, a poetry audience is usually with the reader. The best lighting arrangement is where the light is just you and the audience is hidden from you in the dark. They can see you, but you can’t see them. Then it’s easy to pretend they’re not there. Actually, I’ve found the bigger the audience the better, it’s more impersonal. Small audiences are too intimate, and afraid to laugh at what is so obviously funny. Audiences, unless they know your work, are prepared to sit grim faced through the reading. Poetry is very serious stuff.
So you have two books coming in September. I imagine the fiction book is more or less straight writing. Straight in the sense that it’s not prose poems. I should know something about my fate by mid-July. It doesn’t look good. Too many unimaginative editors loose in the world.
I don’t know why I thought the Bly interview was scheduled for next year. Looking forward, as I always do, to the new issue of the Journal.
The word tedious is the clue. When you stop having fun with the love poems you’ll know. But from where you are now it’s hard to know how far they’ll extend. It could well turn out to be a full book. Don’t limit yourself, just write. The web thing for the September is fine. After all, it is a gift.
On to the future!
June 30, 1997
Thank you for your trouble. Your intro. and selections are fine. Perhaps the web will sell a few TTS.
I noticed one of the titles you chose, “An Historical Breakfast,” the article A is used instead of the article An. I’m big on articles, my favorite words of our language. Unfortunately there are only three that I know of. Still searching.
I guessed right about your having two ways of writing. I think you mentioned having some background in journalism. I think it’s good to have two distinct ways of writing. They define each other. No matter what I write, be it a play or an essay, or even a prose poem, they all seem to be made of the same silly stuff.
True, if you read some poems of attending poets at your readings they’ll be flattered beyond critical judgment. Poetry is a social club. But you also have to have a strategy for the rest of the audience. Many times just giving a good reading without any gimmicks will win the day. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have a few sympathy-getting backups like a limp or the slight hint of a lisp. Even a few properly timed belches, indicating digestive problems, can bring an audience to a crescendo of approval. You’re looking to a busy schedule, teaching and doing the readings. But I rather guess you have the energy having been an athlete in your youth.
You say that I’m one of the few people everyone likes to read, even some of the LANGUAGE poets, and that you find it hard to believe I have trouble publishing. It’s the lack of courage to send things cold. Anyway, Stuart invited me to send what I sent. Perhaps they’ll do it. Perhaps not. I get fan letters all the time asking where they can find my books. Secondhand bookstores. The only thing in print is TT.
So you’ve decided not to have one literary thought during the month of August. Sometimes one gets back to writing after a period of abstinence full of curious things that need to be written. And when August ends it’ll be September and you’ll have two books coming out. Not bad.
Don’t know why, but thought the Bly interview would be running in the coming Vol. It sounds interesting. I’d like to know more about his tin ear. In my kind of writing the ear for common language is all you need. It’s an ear made of lead. Just thought, could a “webmaster” also be called a “spider”? And, come to think of it, a spider be called a webmaster?
Glad to hear from you,
July 18, 1997
“An Hysterical Lunch” is just right. Many thanks.
“Love Poems for the Millennium” is a solid work. The inventions work because the language is bold and confident. I know you do a good deal of rewriting, but the poems come off as if you had just thought of them. Perhaps the first poem might be called “Providence.” After all it is your home and it fits in with the naming of actual places in the collection. Doing an end poem with the same title as the opening poem is an interesting idea. You start from the beginning, visiting all the places given, returning to where you began. It’s a nice way to end the imaginary journey. Think on it, as well as extending the collection. As is, it’s solid. You shouldn’t have too hard a job placing it. I only wish my work had as much unity.
Small presses have no rule against publishing the same guy again. People worth publishing are not that common. You say you’ll need at least 4-5 years to write your next full book. By then anything can happen. White Pine is not the only small press. There’s even Oberlin College Press. I’ve been publishing in Field on and off for years. Some years back they asked to see work. The title poem of TT was rejected. When it appeared in another magazine, Stuart wrote saying how much he liked it, having forgotten that it had been sent to Oberlin.
Thank you for sending the Bly interview. The questions are good. And the whole presentation will find an interested audience. In fact a plum for the Journal. I don’t agree with most of his conclusions, or the ways he comes to them. His generalities with all the names and traditions he pulls out of his hat are fun. But it all seems so arbitrary. That business you quote, albeit the “tin ear,” that the most important male figures of 20th century American poetry will be Pound and Bly, is another thing that makes the interview fun to read. But I don’t believe that writing should have to surround itself with reasons and purposes and all the shop-talk that goes with it. What can be done and expressed in ordinary life shouldn’t need to find itself on the poet’s page.
For me the way to the imagination begins in utter foolishness. Of course this takes disciplining. The developing of a patience that permits one to sit for periods of time before a keyboard thinking of nothing but foolishness. This isn’t easy. Some would call this idleness. And so I, sitting as stated, until I feel entirely emptied of the ability to think, wait for the imagination to open. And if one is lucky, out comes material that amuses its author without social or didactic value. What do you think? Is this too dilettante?
So, with the two books in the offing, and the love poems, which I’m sure someone will grab, you’re doing pretty good. I’m still waiting to hear from Oberlin. The longer the wait the more doubtful it seems.
I can’t talk into a tape recorder, and that’s what people really want, something spontaneous. Not written responses. Many thanks for the enclosures.
Best to you,
 “Pretty Happy!” is one of my poems that ended up being the title of my first book.
 I ran ads for free in The Prose Poem: an International Journal, which will be called TPP in footnotes that follow this one. TT refers to Russell’s Selected Poem, The Tunnel.
 Original title of my first book before I settled on Pretty Happy!.
 We always went back and forth on this. Although I agreed that the prose poem should be simplicity itself and compact, from editing my journal, I also saw that adhering strictly to that dictum ruled out a lot of very good work. Also, many prose poems by masters of the genre, like Bly, Wright, and Waldrop, are not interested in the kind of whacky logic that characterizes an Edson poem. But note later on how Russell is humble enough to realize all this on his own.
 Russell called Robert Bly “The Capt.”
 Prose poems I was writing for Love Poems for the Millennium.
 Michel’s Delville’s The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre.
 Refers to a selection of his work I edited for Mike Neff at Web del Sol.
 Refers to a panel on the prose poem at the 1997 AWP in Washington, DC.
 Russell had just moved to a new home.
 Refers to poems that eventually were published in a chapbook by Quale Press, called Love Poems for the Millennium. This chapbook ended up at the opening sequence for my Miracles & Mortifications.
 In an interview with Robert Bly I mentioned that some critics have suggested he has a “tin ear.”
 I had asked to meet up and interview him, but he didn’t want to be taped. Eventually I put together questions and answered them with excerpts from his letters, and then we went back and forth adding and subtracting.