Question: Why a prose poem, and what is a prose poem?
Hass: I haven’t arrived for myself at any very satisfactory formulation of what a prose poem is. Certainly it has something to do with condensation . . . I don’t know how to define it in terms of genre, and when I was working, I guess I just stopped trying to think about that. What I did think about was what the conventions of the prose poem were. At the time that I was starting to write them, the prose poem, as it had been revived in America, was used almost entirely for a kind of wacky surrealist work, and I think that nervousness about using prose was that then you had to put a lot of what people thought was poetic—that is to say, wildness and imagination and free association—into it to make sure that it was poetry, because if it got too near the conventions and sentence sounds of expository prose or narrative prose . . . then it really wasn’t poetry. So almost as soon as I started working, I got interested in those boundaries: what the prose poem wasn’t supposed to sound like . . .
It almost seemed like photography to me, and it gave me a feeling that I wanted to experiment with the form . . . I wrote a whole lot of them, and I got interested in textures, the way that you would with a given palette . . . I felt excited because I knew it [a particular prose poem, "Churchyard"] was exactly what the prose poem wasn’t supposed to be. It was too much like the sound of expository prose. . .
Later, something else occurred to me: I was working in these forms because they had a certain outwardness that verse didn’t have. I think I was at a time . . . when things were going on in my life that I didn’t want to look at, didn’t want to feel. And I wanted to keep writing, so I unconsciously started writing prose to avoid the stricter demands of incantation. When I was doing it, it seemed to be exploratory; in retrospect, it seems a sort of long escape . . .
. . . the whole time I was working on the prose poem I knew that somehow I never particularly loved the idea of the prose poem. But it was interesting to me to think about a larger form that might mix verse and prose . . .
Question: I wonder what your thoughts are about being a poet in America in the ‘90s, and particularly in terms of politics.
Hass: Well, it’s a dilemma to know how to be political now and also how to think about politics, but it’s a dilemma whatever you are . . . When I was in graduate school, I was very involved in politics. In Palo Alto, a group of us started a newspaper, a community self-help organization, and a free university, and there was a polticial organization that went with all of this. When I finished all my graduate work, I had to make a decision, whether to stay there and figure somehow to make a living while continuing this work, or go be a professor and get on with my life as a writer . . .
The job, itself, my own writing, and the kind of emotional issues I deal with in the writing all took me away from politics outside my immediate community . . . The social world returns a bit in Human Wishes . . . I think that if you’re somebody who thinks about that stuff, it enters your writing. And for some writers—if you’re South African or something like that—it’s an inescapable subject. The problem for American writers, particularly for white male American writers, is that it is an escapable subject . . . I think we’re all haunted by the martyrdom of Mandelstam out of a kind of bad conscience . . .
Anyway, I think about politics a lot; I go through periods when I don’t think about it at all, but then at other times I think about it a lot, and I’ve written about how one things about it. I don’t think that there’s any easy solution to the present retreat . . .
I think political writing is problematic . . . People say that being antipolitical is ultimately subversive, but there’s always Oppen’s example hovering over one’s head, saying that subversive is a dime a dozen, all artists think they’re subversive. Don’t flatter yourself . . .
So it’s puzzling. I know what I hate, but I know less and less about how to change it. That’s why I said in "Rusia en 1931": "Poetry proposes no solutions: it says justice is the well water of the city of Novgorod, black and sweet." Mandelstam’s great political ideal was the Italian city-state, and the most Italian city-state in the Russia of the Middle Ages was Nizhni Novgorod, and it was famous for being a free place because they didn’t tax you for the well water. Anybody, citizen or not, had access to the well water at any time. It was his image of a just, small society. And I think that’s right; I think the task of art is to over and over again make images of a livable common life . . .
Another task is to make images of justice: make ideal images or make outraged images or just do witness. There are all the usual tasks . . . It’s part of the job of being a poet, but you’ll always feel a little bit like a voyeur and a tourist writing those poems. And a little uneasy reading them. But the choice is that or silence, and so you do it . . . The trick—I’ve seen it in Milosz’s work especially—is to write very honestly about the actual dilemmas, which means thinking about them clearly, which means not flattering yourself that you know what the solutions are . . .
Not writing from knowing the answers . . .
I guess a lot of the questions in poetry can only be answered by poetry. That is they can only be answered by dramatizing and intensifying the contradictions which we suppress in everyday life in order to get on with it . . .