David Shumate is the author of three collection of prose poetry published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Kimonos in the Closet (2013), The Floating Bridge(2008) and High Water Mark (2004), winner of the 2003 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. His poetry has appeared widely in literary journals and has been anthologized in Good Poems for Hard Times, The Best American Poetry, and The Writer’s Almanac as well as in numerous other anthologies and university texts. David is poet-in-residence emeritus at Marian University and a lecturer in Butler University’s MFA program. He lives in Zionsville, Indiana.
Geosi Gyasi: What is a prose poem, if I may ask?
Dave Shumate: The prose poem is a poetic form that employs many of the poetic techniques of a traditional poem, minus the line break. In discarding this usually distinguishing element of poetry, a poet accepts the challenge to transport the reader without resorting to the imposition of white space after the line break. At its worst, a prose poem can be simply mundane. At its best, it can produce unexpected magic.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you share the views of critics who think that it is easy to write prose poems?
Dave Shumate: Jim Harrison used to call the prose poem “the most difficult of poetic forms,” and I quite agree. Discarding the expected line break can be like juggling with one hand tied behind your back. The best prose poems keep all the balls suspended in the air, defying the laws of poetic gravity.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember the first prose poem you read?
Dave Shumate: Probably one of Juan Ramon Jinenez’s prose poems translated by Robert Bly.
Geosi Gyasi: “High Water Mark’ was your first collection of prose poems. Were you surprised by the success it achieved to the extent of winning the 2003 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize?
Dave Shumate: Yes. Like most poets, I write in the solitary confines of my study as an exercise in dreaming while awake. After a few years I look to see if I can shape a book out of a small portion of the many poems I have composed. High Water Mark came about in that way. I was delighted to find that Ed Ochester found it worthy of Pitt Press’s series. Delighted.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write with the aim of winning a prize?
Dave Shumate: I write with little aim at all. I enter each writing session with almost no sense of where a poem might take me that day. I am usually surprised to find where I end up.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you respond to the label, American poet?
Dave Shumate: I haven’t thought about that much. I suppose I am an American poet in the same way I am an Indiana poet or a Kansas poet or a New Mexico poet. I don’t think it matters much where you are from. The poetry I am most drawn to is quite universal, regardless of the time and place in which it was written. After fifty years of reading them, I am still drawn to the Tang Dynasty poets of China, so that makes them Hoosier poets, from my warped perspective anyway.
Geosi Gyasi: How long, roughly, does it take you to write a single prose poem?
Dave Shumate: Some prose poems tend to appear on the page as if they are writing themselves and then go through days and weeks, maybe months of revision, polishing. Others are assembled in a more laborious fashion over days and weeks, very much like line break poems.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you mention any contemporary prose poets you most admire?
Dave Shumate: Charles Simic. Louis Jenkins. Jim Harrison.
Geosi Gyasi: What are the technical details you consider in writing a prose poem?
Dave Shumate: If by “technical details” you mean formal elements, I am highly conscious of the sonic elements in my work as well as its rhythms, its pacing. But mostly I am traveling in the wake of the poem rather than leading it along. I remember hearing Michael Ondaatje quoting the old Chinese adage “follow the brush,” which to me means to respect the will of the poem and not try to impose my conscious will too much upon the direction the poem might want to take. In truth, writing a poem feels like witnessing a subtle negotiation between the intellectual and the intuitive components of my being.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you explain this line from your poem, “In the Next America”: In the next America only the descendents of slaves will perfect the art of levitation?
Dave Shumate: Much is yet owed to the descendants of slaves. The ability to levitate would be a small down payment on that debt.
Geosi Gyasi: What has been the relationship between you and readers of your work?
Dave Shumate: I hear from readers from time to time, by email or at readings, and always enjoy their responses. A while back I gave a reading at a retirement center in Kansas to about a hundred residents and was delighted that they connected with my poems so deeply.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that the art of poetry is dying?
Dave Shumate: I don’t think so. It feels to me like it is more pervasive, more accepted in our culture than fifty years ago when students might have been ashamed to admit an interest in poetry. Now the genre feels more mainstream, relevant.
Geosi Gyasi: At what time in the day do you write?
Dave Shumate: Early morning. Later in the day I tend to do some editing, but morning is where the wonder resides, at least for me.
Geosi Gyasi: Does Zionsville, Indiana, provide a good home or environment for your writing?
Dave Shumate: Yes. But I also spend time in New Mexico, and that is equally conducive. Almost anywhere with a comfortable chair and a lot of silence will do.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there any other forms of poetry that interests you?
Dave Shumate: All other forms. And I write in other forms as well, but most of what I have published so far has been prose poems. I write fiction as well and publish some of that, too.
Geosi Gyasi: To be honest, which of your poems do you regard as your best?
Dave Shumate: Very hard to say…. In my first book I included a poem, “A Nazi in Retirement,” which feels quite, quite right. In my latest book, Kimonos in the Closet,
I feel like “Bringing Things Back From the Woods” and “Between Dogs” also get to the deepest heart of their subjects. I try not to publish anything that doesn’t feel like it glows in the dark, but that’s a rather high standard to set, so I fudge a bit.
Geosi Gyasi: What keeps you writing and writing?
Dave Shumate: I write to return to that coherent, quite state of mind that gives rise to poems. I find it enticing. The poem is the by-product of that state of mind.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you say to journals, which state as part of their submission policy that prose poetry is not welcomed?
Dave Shumate: I have never encountered such limitations, but if a journal doesn’t find prose poems suitable for their audiences, I certainly respect that. Some people eat pasta. Others go in for ceviche.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you see yourself writing more prose poetry books in the future?
Dave Shumate: I am working on another book now, along with a long piece of fiction. I hope to have the prose poem book completely edited by the fall, and the fiction finished sometime in the spring.