A Cast-Iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly:
Commentaries From 80 American Poets
on Their Prose Poetry
Edited by Peter Johnson
(MadHat Press, November 2019)
Distinguished editor Peter Johnson is professor emeritus of creative writing at Providence College, and the author of six collections of prose poetry.
In 1992, he founded The Prose Poem: An International Journal, which he curated through 2000, publishing nine annual volumes. For the final two, Johnson asked selected poets to choose one of their prose poems and to write a commentary about it. In his introduction to A Cast-Iron Aeroplane, he describes this latest anthology as “an expansion” of that earlier project.
As Johnson says, this is “a useful book,” in part because it “provides a good way of looking at the prose poem as a legitimate genre by focusing on what the poets themselves have to say” about composing their poems.
“Simply put,” he continues, it’s “a conversation among diverse poets”—and while there may be no consensus of opinion among them, the commentaries “can often situate their prose poems in a broader literary, historical, and cultural context, and may even help us evaluate and appreciate their poems.” (xii)
This was true for me while reading the book, for example with Amy Gerstler’s “Bitter Angel”:
You appear in a tinny, nickel-and-dime light. The light of turned milk and gloved insults. It could be a gray light you’re bathed in; at any rate, it isn’t quite white. It’s possible you show up coated in a finite layer of the dust that rubs off moths’ wings onto kids’ grubby fingers. Or you arrive cloaked in a toothache’s smoldering glow. Or you stand wrapped like a maypole in rumpled streamers of light torn from threadbare bed sheets. Your gaze flickers like a silent film. You make me lose track. Which dim, deluded light did I last see you in? The light of extinction, most likely, where there are no more primitive tribesmen that worship clumps of human hair. No more roads that turn into snakes, or ribbons. There’s no nightlife or lion’s share, none of the black and red roulette wheels of methedrine that would-be seers like me dream of. You alone exist; eyes like locomotives. A terrible succession of images buffets you: human faces pile up in your sight, like heaps of some flunky’s smudged, undone paperwork. (90)
Of course, how a reader experiences a piece of writing may not be quite what an author had anticipated. In this case, I was unaware of a key postulation during my first reading, so Gerstler’s commentary afterward was enlightening:
“It’s a little difficult to remember what in blazes I was thinking about when I wrote this poem.... Stumbling down memory lane, scanning for landmarks, I seem to recall wanting to construct a poem that pondered a besmirched deity—one as imperfect, harried, and untidy as I usually feel myself. I wanted to postulate an ‘angel’ prey to human frailty—not exactly a new idea, but I decided to try to construct my personal version...” (90)
She then elucidates the nuts and bolts of the construction process, which I found fascinating. Not surprisingly, it made me re-visit her poem. Even though “Bitter Angel” stands very well on its own sans commentary, now that I’ve read both I do appreciate the poem even more.
The same is true for “Watch” by Kim Addonizio, from her novel-in-poems Jimmy & Rita (2012), excerpted here:
I wake up on someone’s couch it’s dark only a little moon through the window my skin cool and hot a man on me trying to push it in I’m too wasted I just let him he doesn’t take very long. He gets off me and goes back through a door. I pull down my skirt go out to the street
walk blocks and blocks
a park huge dark trees men asleep on concrete benches
black woman in a leather miniskirt and silver boots asks me for a light. A car comes slow around the corner two men looking at us... (1)
Addonizio writes in her commentary that the current #MeToo movement made her remember the poem:
“...I don’t know if #metoo will ultimately have much effect on the power structures that ensnare us, just as I don’t know whether literature about poverty or any of the other capitalist ills can transform the world....our job as writers is to pay attention, and to speak, however and whenever we can.” (2)
Speaking of paying attention, Beth Ann Fennelly attended a reading where a writer became emotional at the microphone and said, “I can’t believe I’m up here crying like a pussy.” The comment niggled at Fennelly in the days that followed, and she asked herself, “How did that strong part of a woman’s strong body become co-opted as a symbol for weakness? This could not be. I picked up my pen...” (69). And she spoke: “What I Think About When Someone Uses ‘Pussy’ as a Synonym for ‘Weak’” (68) is a powerful and memorable poem about hard labor.
It’s gratifying to find my own feelings about my favorite genre articulated by the poets themselves—but more eloquently. For instance, in this excerpt from Greg Boyd’s commentary on “Edouard’s Nose”:
“The humor, paradox, irony, and playfulness inherent in many of my favorite prose poems result from a head-on collision between the routine linguistic expectations of prose and the intensely lyrical disruptions of poetry. I take particular delight in how the very shape of the prose poem lulls and attracts the unsuspecting reader, who often wades into it expecting the calm waters of the familiar, only to find himself caught in a linguistic riptide.” (23)
And from Jamey Dunham’s commentary on “Trickster at the Free Clinic” (which includes a stellar description of a certain polarity):
“Like the shape-shifting character of Coyote, the prose poem has always occupied a precarious position in the literary landscape. With one foot in myth and the other groping for a toehold in truth, the poems straddle such an existential divide they seem to lose track of their feet altogether and appear instead as a mysterious crotch spread across the horizon. And just as the sight of celestial genitalia would likely stir alternating waves of curiosity and horror, arousal and disgust, so too has the prose poem been simultaneously embraced and disparaged to the point of near dismissal. Add to that the additional concerns of cultural insensitivity and appropriation and you really can’t help but wonder why anyone would unlatch the gate and wander into these woods unless it be for the lure of danger itself.” (63)
The lure of danger, yes! And that particular delight of playfulness and paradox.
Which brings me to the “spectacular wizardry” (167) of John Olson’s “Kierkegaard at the Home Depot”—and his commentary, itself redolent with the fragrance of poetry.
Thus far, I’ve only read about 300 prose poems by Olson, the author of nine books of poetry. He’s also a novelist, and combines poetry and science in erudite yet accessible essays. Reading his writing is both recreational and medicinal for me, both entertaining and vocabulary-expanding. He’s a master of paradox and juxtapositions “in a multitude of flavors” (169). As he says in his commentary for “Kierkegaard,” he wants to explain things with his poems and have fun at the same time by “div[ing] into the language” (171). I often find the results awe-inspiring and frabjously mind-boggling. Talk about linguistic riptide!
Having some serious fun happens more naturally when writers feel safe to experiment and to play. From his 1998 interview with Robert Bly, Peter Johnson includes an illuminating discussion of Bly’s “Warning to the Reader,” which cautions both writers and readers about poems of light.3 In addition, Bly points out:
“One reason I couldn’t write as well when I was twenty-five as I can now is that I didn’t feel as safe then. At twenty-five you think you’re going to do the wrong thing, and you probably are....this fear cuts down your ability to play....for me one of the joys of the prose poem is that I don’t feel as much fear there. I’m writing in a new form, so to speak....the ability to make leaps has something to do with how safe you feel....” (18)
As Johnson writes about his own prose poem “The Millennium”:
“...If I’m walking down the street to a friend’s house, I have to stop at traffic lights or to make turns. Isn’t that what verse poetry is? Isn’t that why it’s called verse, from the Latin verto, to turn. In contrast, the prose poem is like an open pasture where no direction is necessary. Where anything can happen. Where contradictions and juxtapositions (those odd leaps that often transcend logic) are not only welcome but expected....” (110)
Such leaps figure prominently in the appeal of prose poetry for this reader. As does the form’s inclusivity and expansiveness. From Steven Monte’s review, quoted on the back cover of Aeroplane:
“As for the poems themselves, no succinct summary will do them justice. Generically speaking, they riff off the anecdote, the description, the short-short story, love poetry, surrealist poetry, and even ekphrastic poetry. Sometimes prose is mixed with verse, and one poem is reminiscent of a page out of a Renaissance emblem book.”
Kathleen McGookey riffs on the rejection letter, as a way to deal with “a difficult topic” in her poem “Ordinary Objects, Extraordinary Emotions.” I share her gratitude “for the prose poem’s ability to borrow characteristics of other kinds of prose,” as she writes in her commentary,
“and to wear those borrowed clothes as a disguise.... When a reader expects one thing (a straightforward rejection letter) and the prose poem delivers something oddly different..., a little chill runs down my spine.
“I hope it’s not just me.
“Imagine what the prose poem might do as an encyclopedia entry or personal ad or recipe or horoscope or fairy tale or fable or instruction manual or permission slip or memo or advice column or legal brief or prayer or dictionary definition or....” (152-153)
After devouring A Cast-Iron Aeroplane, I wanted more. I simply did not want this book to end. And given that it’s only 224 pages long, looks like there might be room for another 40 pages and half-a-dozen more writers (she says wistfully).
Beyond a light-hearted quibble that the book’s a few pages short for my greedy appetite, I do have a more serious observation: Women poets seem under-represented there.
To my surprise, the total of 80 poets includes 51 men (i.e., 64%), but only 29 women (36%). Which seems a significant disparity to me.
Of course, Aeroplane does include acclaimed women authors like Kim Addonizio, Nin Andrews, Maxine Chernoff, Denise Duhamel, Carolyn Forché, Amy Gerstler, Kathleen McGookey, and Naomi Shihab Nye, to name just a few.
I offer the names of three more American women poets (although I could think of several others as well) whose writing, one might argue subjectively, also deserves inclusion in a definitive anthology like this: Jane Hirshfield, Linda Nemec Foster, and Elizabeth Kerlikowske.(4-5)
(My list would have included Renaissance woman Lorette C. Luzajic, too, but she’s Canadian.6 While Canada is a major part of North America, A Cast-Iron Aeroplane apparently favors writing by Americans who are U.S. citizens. Which also discounts the Southern continent of Americans. I wonder if the book’s subtitle should refer specifically to US poets?)
In any case, despite its disparity between the numbers of men and women writers, I still appreciate this book as an essential reference, one I’ll dip into again and again with pleasure.
A Cast-Iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly is undeniably useful: a practical portrait of the diverse voices and facets of prose poetry, and a fascinating look into the minds of writers and their creative process. My admiration to Professor Johnson for compiling this singular collection. I hope he plans additional volumes, because I already look forward to reading them, with relish.
- This title is borrowed from Steven Monte’s review on the back cover
of A Cast-Iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly, as quoted above.
- Issues of The Prose Poem: An International Journal also reside online at
Web del Sol and
The Digital Commons at Providence College.
- Peter Johnson and Robert Bly, Interview: The Art of the Prose Poem, in The Prose Poem:
An International Journal (Volume 7, 1998)
- Linda Nemec Foster is the founder of the Contemporary Writers Series at Aquinas
College and the author of 11 poetry collections, including the critically
acclaimed Amber Necklace From Gdansk; Talking Diamonds; and
The Lake Michigan Mermaid (2019 Michigan Notable Book).
Sample prose poems: Flight to Warsaw and
On St. James’ Feast Day, the Shells of
- Elizabeth Kerlikowske is co-author with artist Mary Hatch of Art Speaks:
Paintings and Poetry (Kazoo Books, 2018); and author of four other books,
including Dominant Hand, a full-length poetry collection, and
The Shape of Dad, a memoir in prose poems.
Sample prose poems:
God’s mustache fell from a great height with cloud still on
it. and Phantoms
- Toronto-based Lorette C. Luzajic is a mixed-media painter, the founding editor
of The Ekphrastic Review, and the author of two dozen books, most recently
Pretty Time Machine, a collection of 100 of her ekphrastic prose poems.
Sample prose poems:
Luzajic is also
Featured Artist here in MacQ-2.
- Part I: An Interview with Prose Poet Peter Johnson by Nin Andrews in The Best American Poetry blog (5 February 2020)
- Part II: A Cast-Iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly: A Continuation of an Interview with Peter Johnson by Nin Andrews in The Best American Poetry blog (6 February 2020)
- The Prose Poem and the Problem of Genre, an essay by Peter Johnson
in Plume (Issue 94, June 2019)
- Essay on the Prose Poem by Charles Simic, delivered as a talk
on June first, 2010 at The Poetry Festival in Rotterdam and published as an essay
in Plume (Issue 102, February 2020)
- Two works by Peter Johnson appear in Issue 1 of MacQueen’s Quinterly
Anniversary [from his 2018 collection of prose poems Old Man
Howling at the Moon]
Snails [from his collection of prose poems Eduardo &
- Two works by John Olson are published here in MacQ-2:
Crocodile [ekphrastic essay, after sculpture by Philip Hanna]
New Terms [prose poem]
- Two prose poems by Kathleen McGookey appear here in MacQ-2:
581 Prestwick and
- Clare MacQueen’s review of McGookey’s full-length collection
of prose poems, Instructions for My Imposter, appears in KYSO Flash
(Issue 12, Summer 2019):
“Softball-Sized Eyeball Washes Up on Florida Beach”:
The Proetic Vision of Kathleen McGookey
is founding editor and publisher of MacQueen’s Quinterly and its
predecessor literary and arts journal, KYSO Flash; and she served as
webmaster and associate editor for Serving House Journal from its inception in January 2010 through
its retirement in May 2018, after publishing 18 issues. She is among the co-editors
of Steve Kowit: This Unspeakably Marvelous Life (Serving House Books, 2015),
and the editor, designer, and publisher of
20 books for her
KYSO Flash micro-press.
MacQueen serves on the
Senior General Advisory Board for The Best Small Fictions, published by Sonder Press in 2019 (and Braddock Avenue Books in 2018 and 2017). For the 2016 edition, published by Queen’s Ferry Press, she served as Assistant Editor, Domestic.
Her reviews appear in KYSO Flash and Serving House Journal; her short fiction, essays, and poetry have been published in Firstdraft, Bricolage, New Flash Fiction Review, Serving House Journal, and Skylark, among others; and her essays, anthologized in Best New Writing 2007 and Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging (Serving House Books, 2012).
“Softball-Sized Eyeball Washes Up on Florida Beach”:
The Proetic Vision of Kathleen McGookey, a review by Clare MacQueen
of Instructions for My Imposter, a full-length collection of prose poems
by McGookey, in KYSO Flash (Issue 12, Summer 2019)
You Seek Lies in a Different Cookie, fiction by MacQueen in New Flash Fiction
Review (Issue 10, January 2018)
Tasting the New, micro-fiction by MacQueen in Serving House
Journal (Issue 1, Spring 2010)