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Sandbox: Thinking in Language – building a poetic structure in prose


Sandbox is a little corner of the web that is dedicated to Iowa City artists working to engage the public in an interactive environment. Find out more here.


Recently I’ve been working on the first essay in my project—about longing, the time of reading, the city of New Orleans, etc.—and thinking a lot about prose. As a poet, I’m attracted to the specific resources poetry provides, but at a certain point in conceiving this project, the content seemed to call for a different form. I knew I wanted to integrate more into the space of my writing; I wanted to write about the things I was reading, looking at, experiencing, all with an interest in slowing down the event of perception and responding to the sensations within this dilation of time.

In order to write about time, I needed a line of some duration. I needed the sentence.

I’m interested in the shape of sentences, the spaces between sentences, the formation of sentences into larger structures and the spaces between those, and how they function similarly to sites of charge, torque, and collision within a poetic structure, here without the use of a line break.

For this first essay, I decided to build up a poetic structure out of sentences. I would still pay attention to sound, make use of parataxis and repetition, but create a specific texture of reading extended across time. It would be in prose, but it would not be fiction. It wouldn’t be fiction, though it had a setting (New Orleans) and traced a loose narrative (someone moving away, missing someone, someone asking me to move here, the period right before moving here, moving here) and had characters (a speaking, thinking I; an L., an A.).

In her essay in the anthology Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative, writer Renee Gladman offers a description of the “I” towards which I’m trying to work in my prose piece. Instead of a strict narrative tied to plot, I’m trying to find a space “to allow for the wandering and sometimes stuttering ‘I’ that I associate with discovery. This ‘I,’ not necessarily autobiographical, is a manifestation of the act of thinking in language, of the difficulties that arise, the fractures that form.”

I’m interested in projects in prose that manifest this thinking in language in unique forms. Two texts that I return to over and over for their formal ingenuity and beauty, and which are models for me as I try to find my own form, are Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (Wave Books, 2009) and Pamela Lu’s Pamela: A Novel (Atelos, 1998). Nelson’s book on blue, in the form of a series of numbered prose blocks, serves as a potent model for integrating theory with the personal and autobiographical. Lu’s novella comments on the already fictional quality of any attempt at autobiography, encircling an “I” among other letters, narrating their thought and affect, with an awareness of the slipperiness of language and representation in retelling and recollection.

I hope to post some sections from my first essay soon, followed by a post on art writing—writing with works of art—which is the experiment I’m attempting in the other two essays of this project.

Maggie Nelson's Bluets
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets
Pamela Lu's
Pamela Lu’s Pamela: A Novel

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