It was like two different people battling for control of the same body.
I had the pleasure of talking with Jeff Friedman about writing prose poems and lineated poems and how these forms represent two different ways of thinking about what poetry is.
NM: I really like the poems you’ve been so generous to share with us in this feature; thank you. For our readers not familiar with your work, the poems demonstrate your facility with both the lineated and prose poem.
I’m interested in how and when in the process you make the decision to use which. Can you talk about this?
JF: Thanks for the compliment, Nancy. Good question. I think my way of approaching the two forms has changed over time. The two forms represent two different ways of thinking about what poetry is. When I first began writing the prose pieces for Floating Tales, my poetic intention was somewhat similar for the two forms. My lineated poems were often lyrical narratives or poems structured through parallelism and repeating syntax, and the same could be said of the prose pieces. One day, I’d write a prose piece and the next day, I’d remember I was a poet who wrote lineated poems so I’d write a lineated poem. I went back and forth for a while. My decision-making process might have been arbitrary—I don’t know. I’d get a line or a phrase and try it out as a lineated poem and then rewrite it as a prose piece to see which worked better. One thing I noticed: The prose pieces tended to start with a dialogue between two people or some description of an action that had just occurred, so that became a guiding principle for me. If the first thing I heard was two people talking, I knew it was a prose piece. My lineated poems usually started with an image or a repeating phrase. That signaled a lineated poem. However, it became difficult for me to work back and forth between the two forms, because the prose pieces began to create a world that had little in common with the lineated poems. It was like two different people battling for control of the same body. To write Floating Tales, I had to give up writing lineated poems for several years. Now I’d like to write lineated poems again, but my pieces keep coming out as fables or mini tales in the shape of prose poems. So at this point in time, there is no real decision to be made.
NM: It’s interesting how each form became characteristically distinct from the other over time; I can see how they might have been written by two poets, although there are discernable strains of paternity that can’t be denied. I’m intrigued by your comment the prose pieces began to create a world that had little in common with the lineated poems. Can you talk about this world?
JF:I think of them as floating tales. In fact, that’s the title of my most recent book, which contains all prose pieces (published by Plume Editions/Madhat Press in 2017). The prose pieces seem to be about transformation, losing the gravity of the ordinary to find a new body, a different air in which to breathe. This is an idea that comes out of Italo Calvino’s wonderful essay, “Lightness.”
NM: You know “floating tales” perfectly describes these pieces…I can almost see them each as a self-contained, floating bubble, not unlike a thought bubble in a cartoon. The characters exist in a world with its own logic, physical laws; they are believable, and the tale is indisputable in the way dreams can’t be argued in terms of reality.
JF: In every piece something happens that wouldn’t have happened in every day life. Usually, the poem/tale is built around that event or that alteration of reality. You might call that a metaphoric reality. While the lineated poems usually come from an image or idea that is rooted in the world of experience, the prose pieces most often begin with an imagined situation. I know the poems are often surreal, but they’re definitely connected to a literal truth.
NM: I’m wondering if the prose poems don’t offer a space where the undifferentiated material of the poet’s imagination has free rein/range outside of the formal constraints of parallelism and repeating syntax, etc. of a poem. It’s like a playpen in a way, or…maybe a warehouse, of stored images, characters that haven’t been enlisted. In the poems there is an emphatic, declarative, almost defensive voice—I’m not going to argue with that speaker—with a clear intention. In the prose poems, the speaker is clearly not in control, is at the mercy of the character’s caprices; maybe the prose poem offers a respite for the poet as well, relieves him of a certain identity and offers the possibility of transformation, a means of losing the gravity of the ordinary to find a new body, a different air in which to breathe, to be creative, playful. The speakers in the prose poems and poems seem as utterly unrelated as the forms themselves.
JF: Yes, I do think the prose poems allow me to emerge with a new identity as a writer. I don’t feel the obligation to tell my own personal story, so in that there is a certain freedom. Not having to always dwell on the self as an exemplum for experience. The prose pieces are fabrications that find truth implicit in their own fabrication. In my pieces, the message is implicit rather than explicit as in older fables and tales. The prose poem has also allowed me the freedom to pursue the storyline without always feeling the necessity of finding a lyrical transformation.
NM: Can you give us examples of how your intentions depart from each other in the pieces featured?
JF: “They Fire at Us,” is a response to the horror of all the shootings that have occurred in the last ten years. But “What the Monkey Said” introduces memories that couldn’t possibly be real memories, and actually, the speaker in the piece questions whether the memories even belong to him.
NM: Yes! I was thinking of that mystery as well when reading “What the Monkey Said”— it seems these memories are from a collective unconscious beyond the speaker’s individual experience. What authors/artists, etc. have influenced the Jeff Friedman prose poems?
JF: Kafka has been a big influence on my work, how he creates this other world in pieces like “Metamorphosis,” “Imperial Message,” “Country Doctor.” “The Hunger Artist,” “First Sorrow,” “Little Fable,” etc. I really loved the moment in “Metamorphosis” in which Gregor’s mother is begging him to open the door, basically saying that she’ll love him no matter what, and then in his insect form, when he manages to open the door, she faints at the sight of him. That’s really sad, but also very funny. It’s the comic timing. Also, I really love Augusto Monterosso’s Black Sheep and Other Fables, Suniti Namjoshi’s Blue Donkey Fables, Ana Maria Shua’s Quick Fix, hundreds of tales from different cultures, Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mullah, James Wright’s prose poems, Calvino’s Baron in the Trees, Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End. I like the logic and the Humor of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. I’m naming the writers that lead me in the direction of writing prose poems, but there are so many I’ve come to really love along the way, writers such as Russell Edson, James Tate, Nin Andrews, Amy Gerstler, Harryette Mullen. Also, the prose poems in Dzvinia Orlowsky’s new book, Bad Harvest, are very strong. I think my favorite book of Anne Carson’s is her first one, Short Talks, a book of brief prose poems with wonderful turns of thought. And I have to include the origin stories in Eduardo Galleano’s Memory of Fire.
NM: Great list-many of my favorites as well! I was noticing how the parallelism and repeating syntax, particularly in these poems, and simple, declarative sentences of primarily monosyllabics create an urgency, a momentum that drives us pell-mell down the page. We can see a specific example of this in “They Fire at Us” and hear it in the your wonderfully engaging reading of the poem in the attached audio. I can’t help but hear faint echoes of Bukowski, and was reminded of Wislawa Szymborska’s “Could Have”. Were/are these poets of any particular importance to you?
JF: Symborska has been an important poet for me. I haven’t really read much Bukowski. Jerry Stern introduced me to a piece of Bukowski’s that I like quite a bit, “The Bluebird,” but other than that, I really don’t know his work very well. (I’m going to put him on my reading list.) Phil Levine’s poem “They Feed They Lion” was really important to me as a young poet and now also. Then The Tanakh, particularly Genesis, Exodus, and Lamentations; Ginsberg’s “Howl” and “America”; Etheridge Knight’s “Idea of Ancestry,” Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck,” Clifton’s biblical poems, and C.K.Williams’ “Spit”; Neruda’s “Walking Around” and Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”: “Zbigniew Herbert’s “Elegy of Fortinbras” and “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito.” I better stop here before the list becomes endless. I guess this grouping of poems articulates a kind of poetic intention, which you describe so well in the question. I was first greatly moved by the poems I’ve mentioned and then in turn, I wanted to write poems like these. Of course, you can never really write a poem like someone else. Even as you’re attempting to write that poem, it changes on you and becomes something else.
NM: What wonderful influences for a young poet! Your list had me re-reading poems all week. I can certainly hear all of these voices echoing in your own poems, which have established you in this fine and noble tradition of political activism via poetry. One last question: do you still feel there are “two different people battling for control of the same body” or has a truce been struck?
JF: Actually, I’ve recently written a comic prose piece about two people/spirit/identities inside one body, battling or arguing over ownership. When the two antagonists realize that there may be others living inside the same body, they stop their bickering for a moment and pay attention to the noises they are hearing. The truce is probably a momentary thing.
NM: Well, as long as this struggle produces such wonderful writing as featured here, we won’t hope for a long-standing truce.
What the Monkey Said
Memories come at night when I can’t sleep. A man sweats under his fedora, trying to remove it from his head. A young blond woman balances a circus of parrots on her body as she tiptoes over the sizzling pavement. A monkey padlocks the cage where he keeps his bananas. Outside, he leaps from shoulder to shoulder, stealing earrings and necklaces. Whose memories? I wonder. The parrots carry the woman into the sky, where she vanishes in a cloud, long strands of blond hair burning up in the rays. “Help,” the man shouts, “I hate fedoras,” and the fedora wrestles him to the ground. Now the monkey sits on my chest counting his loot. I’m afraid to open my eyes, though the monkey knows I’m awake. “It hurts to forget,” he says, “or remember.”
After the bear ate our dog, my daughter confronted her, waving her fist. “You can’t eat our dog and get away with it.” For a second, the bear considered what my daughter said and then ate my daughter. A strong athletic woman, my wife shook the bear fiercely by her shoulder. “Give me back my daughter and my dog,” she shouted. The bear winced and without a word of warning, ate my wife. “Why have you eaten my whole family?” I asked. “They threatened my cubs,” she answered. I scanned the driveway and the yard—no cubs hiding behind the bushes, in the pachysandra or up in the oak. “You don’t have any cubs,” I said. “I have a family in my belly,” she answered. On all fours, I edged closer to the bear until we were almost nose-to-nose. “It’s your family now,” I said and ate the bear. Then I lay down in my den unable to see my toes over my bear belly.
Drawings of Rosita
I draw a picture of a sleepy Rosita reclining on fluffy cushions and give it to her. “Try again,” she says and tears it to pieces. So I draw another picture of Rosita but this time,
she smiles as she sits in the living room reading a novel. “I’m not really a reader,” she says
and tears it up, so I draw a picture of Rosita leaning over an ironing board. When I show it to her, she laughs. “I’ve never even seen an ironing board except on TV.” And now there’s another drawing in pieces on the floor. Next, I draw a picture of Rosita as a doll with a bright smile and straight dark hair with bangs down to her eyebrows, and then a second picture of her with huge feathery wings surrounding her body. She surveys both drawings. “You’re getting better,” she says, “But I don’t like being a Barbie doll, and in the second one, my wings are way too bulky. I would never get off the ground.” She rips both drawings to shreds. Scraps of drawing paper are scattered all over the floor. I’m running out of paper, but I give it another try and draw a picture of Rosita walking in a shower of sunlight with a cherry birthmark on the side of her forehead, purple bubbles floating beneath her ears, and a tattoo of a fleur-de-lis on her right breast,. “You’ve got a real imagination,” she says and hands the drawing back to me. “Go find Rosita and give it to her.”
How to Walk on Water
It’s not difficult.
Just take a deep breath
and forget all those
who have sunk before you.
Forget Jesus, who was genetically
predisposed to moments of flight.
and his winged boots—
that’s a trick, an illusion.
Forget anything that might
cloud your mind
or your vision with doubt.
Let your arms lift
as if strings on a puppet.
Keep your eyes open
and focused on the rock
fringed with moss
on the other side.
Imagine your body
as light. Now shine
over the water
and let the waves splash
as the shadows fall
deeper under the surface.
When you get to the other side,
be sure to allow your body
to settle into itself,
to regain its mass.
Now bow your head
and act amazed
as if you’ve accomplished
a great feat.
Take another deep breath
and open your arms
to your minions.
Thousands of birds
clap their wings.
They Fire at Us
They fire at us
when we walk down Main Street.
The bullets rip into the bodies
of cars. Bones fly apart.
They fire at us
when we raise our arms
when we wave
our white flags. Crows
fall from the sky, clouds
of dark feathers hover above us.
Parking meters lose their heads.
The bullets find those
who run into alleys, those
who kneel and pray,
those who sing for peace.
The bullets mark the spot,
draw the boundaries.
They fire at us
when we tell the truth
or lie. They fire into the eyes
of shadows, into the dust
swirling around us,
into our cries for help.
The bullets tear
up our blankets, leave
holes where our dreams
no longer sleep.
Call it the void if you like,
but it’s not really void.
Gases float in it, pillars
of cloud. In the void,
and collide like dodge ‘em cars
or women who bonk heads
at the canasta tables.
The void contains a multitude
of voids, each one a universe
of nothing that is something.
There’s no emptiness
quite like a bottle
with only a few drops,
or the bed in which now
you lie alone unable to
forget your lover or
erase those days from your memory.
Empty all the air
from your bottle, but it still
won’t be empty.
Empty it, but your dreams will
still float and bob
like a bouquet of balloons.
Put your ear
up to a shell, it’s a cave
of nothing, but the sea
still calls to you
with its many voices.
If you can isolate the space
between atoms, which is
empty space, if it’s space at all,
you can put your finger
on the true void, but really
there’s nothing to touch,
though you still might find
a stray atom or even a filament
of hair from another galaxy.
Tell the truth only if you have to
because it’ll blacken your eye
or break your nose or knock out a tooth.
The truth’ll lead you to stumble
into a pit so deep you can’t climb out,
the sun bleeding on your face,
the moon feverish and cold. The truth’ll
draw lighting, and lightning will split the tree
and the trunk will crush a thousand shadows.
Tell the truth only if you are forced to utter
the somber words that will bring down your house
and cause your family to flee from you, and
your friends to come after you with clubs and knives,
and bridges will buckle under the weight of those words,
and roads will collapse. The truth is salt, ground
into your wound, fire burning the oils
of your hands—raised against each other.
It’s earth closing around you, air choking on air.
Better not to speak. Better to keep the truth
in your belly and let out only lies and foul air,
while bugs fly in your spit.
Jeff Friedman has published six poetry collections, five with Carnegie Mellon University Press, including Pretenders (2014), Working in Flour (2011) and Black Threads (2008). Friedman’s seventh book, Floating Tales—a collection of prose poems, fables and mini tales was published by Plume Editions/MadHat Press in 2017.
His poems, mini stories and translations have appeared in American Poetry Review, Poetry, New England Review, The Antioch Review, Poetry International, Hotel Amerika, Flash Fiction Funny, Plume, Agni Online, The New Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Poets, Smokelong Quarterly, and The New Republic and many other literary magazines. He has won numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship, and two individual artist grants from the New Hampshire State Arts Council. Dzvinia Orlowsky’s and his translation of Memorials by Polish Poet Mieczslaw Jastrun was published by Lavender Ink/Dialogos in August 2014. He also collaborated with Nati Zohar on a book of translations of Israeli poets: Two Gardens: Modern Hebrew Poems of the Bible, published by Singing Bone Press in 2016. Jeff Friedman lives in West Lebanon, New Hampshire with artist Colleen Randall and their dog Ruby.