Flat Lands and Open Waters: Reading Hybridity into the Midwest was moderated by Nickole Brown, co-editor of White Pine Press’s Marie Alexander Poetry Series, which publishes one or two books of prose poetry each year. While the series itself does not focus on the Midwest, several of its authors write about/from the region, and the panel featured these voices.
I’ll mostly stick to an overview of the panelists’ remarks below, but I want to quickly note that this was one of the most thoughtful, cohesive, and enjoyable panels I’ve attended. I was not particularly familiar with the panelists or the press before attending, and I left looking forward to reading more of their work. The authors all have impressive resumes, but I’ll simply link to their White Pine books below, since they read from these during the session.
The session began with the newest author in the series, Re’Lynn Hansen. Hansen (author of To Some Women I Have Known, 2015), hails from Chicago and likened the Midwest to “a Brigadoon… a space between mountains that no one else can see.” She also, wryly, compared it to a cult (“Midwestern people are like cult members… you have to like it,” and “we have our secret places… we know secret shortcuts.”) Most perceptively, she talked about how the Midwest is “not so much a region but an anti-region,” much like the prose poem is not so much a form but an anti-form. In the midst of her talk (which slalomed beautifully through the comedic, heartfelt, personal, and communal) she read from her newly released book, which serves as a memoir in prose poems.
Rochelle Hurt (author of The Rusted City: a Novella in Poems, 2014) began by noting that “the Midwest is confusing for a lot of people.” (True.) Her talk complimented Hansen’s as she expanded on the notion of the Midwest (like the prose poem) as a paradox. In particular, she discussed the dramatic shifts between rural and urban centers, and the rustbelt’s tug of war between hope and despair. Reading from her novella, she focused on sections where one of the characters starts to merge with the rust of the decaying city, the place bleeding into not only the form of the narrative but the very bodies of its characters.
The third speaker, Madelon Sprengnether (author of The Angel of Duluth, 2006), spoke of how varied her literary influences are (from Dickinson to Williams), saying “I want to be able to make use of anything that appeals to me.” This mirrored her later comment on hybrid forms, which can “act as a loose container for all these dispirit elements.” Amidst Sprengnether’s “elements” we find the play of light across prairie and lake, and the memory of a father’s death in the Mississippi river. She ended with a marvelous poem about a garbage collector being carried into heaven, surrounded by garbage, “into a wild bloom of disorder.”
Allison Townsend (author of The Blue Dress, 2003) gave the disclaimer that she was not from the Midwest, did not particularly want to be from the Midwest, and came here reluctantly twenty-five years ago. She added, though, that not only did she survive but she came to do her best work here, suspecting the place of pushing her towards the prose poem. Like the other panelists, Townsend emphasized tensions within form and place, likening the seeming reticence of the Midwest to the “hushed restraint of the prose poem, where everything swirls under the surface.” I also loved her notion that, “like barbed wire… prose poems fence me in and allow me to see through at the same time.” Townsend’s poems explore the ramifications of the early loss of her mother, and she noted that living in the Midwest enabled her to write of this in ways she might not otherwise, how the landscape left her “psychically vulnerable and overexposed.”
During the Q&A, Brown brought up the fact that all of the panelists (and many of the audience members) were women. I appreciated how the panelists handled this question with neither oversimplification nor deflection. Rather than making pronouncements for all women, they considered their own personal responses to it. Hurt noted an affinity with the prose poem’s invitation to make up our own rules as we go, to break and confront the rules. And Hansen added the appeal of the form as a borderland, nebulous, open for new definitions rather than received ones.
It can be difficult to talk about Midwestern writing as a thing without falling into the parallel pitfalls of nostalgia vs. flyover brushoff. These panelists succeeded in giving us a sense of some of the Midwest’s breadth (from rural to urban perspectives, from natives to transplants), while providing an angle on the region specific enough to hold onto during an hour and fifteen minute conversation. In addition to the form, a subtle editorial aesthetic held these authors together – not too closely, but rather like “a loose container,” perfect for carrying its “dispirit elements.”
Laura Donnelly’s first collection of poetry, Watershed, won the 2013 Cider Press Review Editors’ Prize, and her poems have appeared recently in Midwestern Gothic, PANK, and at Poets.org. She is on the creative writing faculty at SUNY Oswego.