Emma Shi: Xiaole! Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I absolutely admire your prose poems—they are so honest and tender, and they flow beautifully on the page. I especially love your poem mammalian, which won the National Schools Poetry Award in 2019. What draws you to prose poetry?
Xiaole Zhan: Thanks so much, Emma! That’s a tough question, actually—I’m not sure if I ever begin writing with an attitude of this is going to be a prose poem or this is going to be a ‘normal’ poem. So maybe it’s a bit of an accident that so much of my work can be classified as prose poetry. I’ve always been afraid of the first sentence, though, and I do think that this has something to do with it. To me, there’s something terrifyingly predestined about what people see as a ‘formal poem’. What I mean is, you spend weeks analysing a poem in high school English, counting syllables, seeing how one word is the shadow of another, how everything is irreplaceable and interlinked like some towering Rube Goldberg machine… you get the sense that everything needs to be there from the first sentence. Kind of like performing a memorised fugue as a soloist, actually, this type of music where every note fits into the larger picture in a specific way. You need to know already the destiny of each subject from its first sounding. And there’s something chilling about this: like being in a shadow slanting backward in time. It goes to show—I’m not all that good at memorising fugues!
With prose poems, though, a first sentence doesn’t feel like a first sentence, you know, like how people ease into speaking with “so, the other day…”, or “well, I was wondering…” And I think it’s because, and this is an entirely trivial reason, the words just look different. There’s something comfortable about a solid block of words. You could trim the prose poem on either side and it would still look like a prose poem—a hardy hedge of words. Or a pot plant that’s just great at staying alive. And I don’t mean this to say that it’s a less ‘heightened’ form of poetry. What I mean is, it’s a form that’s vitally interlinked with life as it unfolds. Because there are no visual breaks in breath or pacing, these elements come into being only as the poem is read aloud. The prose poem demands to unfold in present tense. And this ties into how it so naturally comes into being in present tense. You have something to say. You try it out. You don’t know how things will go, but you start talking anyway. One thought pulls another, and things go from there. For me, this feels like a more humane way of making poetry: we flounder, we don’t know how things will go with another person from the first ‘hello’, we overwater our orchids… why not capture this constant unfolding in poetry?
Like many of us during lockdown, I looked to literature to try and make sense of the uncertainty around me. I attempted Camus’s The Plague, his famous story about a sea-side Algerian town beset by a mysterious disease. There was Bleak House by Dickens, a social commentary on the ills of Victorian Britain where the streets of London are overwhelmed by “crust upon crust” of muddy excrement. But I couldn’t finish anything. Somehow I couldn’t inhabit the surfaces and atmospheres of these imaginary worlds.
Lockdown caught me in a moment of vulnerability: favouring Netflix, staying in my dressing gown, and with no demarcation between days. My mind was elsewhere, unsure about how long it would last. We were constrained by both real and imaginary parameters: one household, one region, one “bubble”, simultaneously resigned to, and in denial of, what was to come.
I couldn’t write either. I needed something grounded, something fixed. I needed something to connect me to the recognisable. It made me think about the importance of form. Of Dante feeling locked in the beautiful chains by the terza rima—a form of rhyming verse where each tercet (three-line stanza) has an interlocking rhyme scheme. The effect of its chain-rhyme, according to Poetry Foundation, “is both open-ended and conclusive, like moving through a series of interpenetrating rooms or going down a set of winding stairs: you are always travelling forward while looking back.” Lockdown was a feeling of stasis. We were somehow moving forward while also being fixed in time. It felt like a fractured present, a period where nothing and everything happens at once.
In such moments, form becomes an aesthetic container we rely upon to comprehend uncertainty. Formal constraints force us to think in different ways, while connecting us with all that has come before, bringing centuries-old settings and ways of thinking into conversation with the present. This is why poets should attempt all kinds of form and constraints. Experimenting with form forces us to consider the different possibilities of language, possibilities we didn’t even know existed.
But of course, Virginia Woolf totally lacked the fine poetic sensibilities of, say, T. S. Eliot, he said impressively. She was, I suppose, a fair prose stylist. It was 2018, a university town, a lecture on modernist poetry given by somebody Important. I was writing a thesis on Woolf and neck-deep in all the sexist secondary literature about her. But this was something different—something so bizarre I wrote it down. Professor F says Woolf = without fine poetic sensibilities. I knew he was wrong.
Hot debate has continued for centuries about where precisely the line lies between poetry and prose. Poetry is formal, in both senses, say many. The boundaries are fixed. A sonnet must be 14 lines, Shakespearean or Petrarchan. A haiku must be about nature. Under no circumstances can a prose-penning novelist be a poet at heart.
That being said, almost everybody, including poets themselves, struggles to define what distinguishes poetry from prose. Paul Valéry famously said that poetry is to prose what dancing is to walking. Robert Frost said poetry was what got left behind in translation. Perhaps the simplest way to define the difference is by the distinct way we give our attention to prose and poetry. We learn from a young age to read poems—which we first recognise by their physical shape on the page—with an attention to sound and diction we rarely apply to reading, say, a newspaper article. But later, we learn we can’t always identify poetry from its physical shape on the page: Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons” is just as much a poem as a Shakespeare sonnet. Often, elements of prose bleed into poetry, and vice versa—and I think that’s interesting. I’m not sure they need to be exclusively categorised, and I’m not sure that poetry should be read more attentively than prose as a rule.