“Prose poetry” exists somewhere in an unquantifiable blur between poetry and prose. The early pioneers of prose poetry were French. Aloysius Bertrand pretty much invented the form with Gaspard De La Nuit, published posthumously in 1842 (Bertrand died of tuberculosis a year earlier). Charles Baudelaire, who leant heavily on Bertrand, sprinkled some of his genius on the form with Paris Spleen (1869). Subsequently Arthur Rimbaud ripped the prose poetry world into colourful petals with his A Season In Hell (1873) and Illuminations (1886).
Unfortunately the English tradition does not have such an illustrious history of prose poetry. The decadents, who followed Baudelaire, such as Oscar Wilde and Thomas de Quincy wrote a small amount of prose poetry, however neither is remembered for being a “prose poet”. It is very hard to think of an English language writer known principally as a prose poet. No one has really mastered the art. However some great modern prose poets have emerged since the 1980s, many of whom were featured in Stride Books’s genre-defining anthology A Curious Architecture (1993).
In his forward to When Kerosene’s Involved Sebastian Matthews, alleges that “Daniel Romo was born to write prose poems”. Well, anyone with basic literacy skills could have been born to write prose poems. Someone could be described as born to talk on the telephone; talking and writing are not exclusive talents, which explains why so many people do them. Writing prose poetry does probably come fairly easily to Daniel Romo, but to say he was born to do it seems more than a little redundant.
Furthermore there is not a great deal in When Kerosene’s Involved that is especially poetic. There is nothing anywhere near as inventive and magical as the form’s masterful French grandparents. There is very little cadence or subtlety. Perhaps this is why Daniel Romo is a prose poet, because his language isn’t exciting enough for him to be a “poet” and his storytelling isn’t well developed enough for him to be a “short story writer”. There are however, some glimpses of talent; I enjoyed the start of “Attraction”:
I say, rain. You say, pyro. I say, Spain. You say, Cairo. I say, The Mexican-American War was actually started over a woman. You say, Tell me more. I say her name was Lupita Conchita de la Macarena. She batted her eyes and spread her thighs one too many times…
In these instances Daniel Romo reveals himself to be a capable writer. His imagery is entertaining. However his, admittedly strong, style is frequently too conversational and the linguistic tricks he’s absorbed have been done in better ways by better writers. Daniel Romo’s limited linguistic palate and lack of skill as a storyteller – in particular at building and releasing tension – are twin negatives which end up demeaning his work. Prose poetry deserves the best of both the poetry and prose worlds – not the worst. The best prose poets are as skilful in prose as they are in poetry, Baudelaire and Rimbaud certainly were. Daniel Romo does not possess anywhere near the same genius. This is how he begins “Prism”:
Voice loses itself in lies. Self-doubt is a misapplied algorithm. We worship childhood idols because we’re too scared not to follow in our father’s footsteps. Our mothers kiss rosaries; pray for our safety after they drop us off at school.
Is this poetry? It reads more like a self-help manual. Perhaps that is where the American voice will lead the prose poem. If so, readers are better served looking elsewhere. Although Daniel Romo displays a few entertaining and original touches, he is not doing anything with prose poetry that I can support.
Charlie Baylis lives and works in Nottingham. He is the flash fiction editor of Litro NY. He reviews poetry and fiction for Stride and Neon. His own creative writing has most recently appeared in Stride, Agave and Litro, he own poetry has been short listed for the Bridport (UK) and Pushcart prizes (US). He spends his spare time completely adrift of reality.