Poems from ninety poets, including Killarney Clary, Wanda Coleman, Peter Everwine, Richard Garcia, Amy Gerstler, Robert Hass, Eloise Klein Healy, Jane Hirshfield, Garrett Hongo, Mark Jarman, Dorianne Laux, Philip Levine, Larry Levis, Morton Marcus, Czeslaw Milosz, Luis Omar Salinas, David St. John, Joseph Stroud, Amy Uyematsu, Diane Wakoski, Charles Wright, and Al Young, among many others. Twenty-two essays from poets, including Robert Bly, Maxine Chernoff, Mark Jarman, Diane Wakoski, Charles Harper Webb, and more.

Thoughts on Bear Flag Republic and prose poetry:

Speaking is natural, writing is not. Prose and poetry will forever combine and recombine to express what utterly needs to be told.
AL YOUNG

A prose poem has the shape of water; it spreads out. Some poems are that expansive, that open and fluid, and their shape needs to reflect their nature.
Marsha de la O

 

   
 
Introduction to Bear Flag Republic by Christopher Buckley and Gary Young

What is it, then, that one loses? That everyone loses? Where
I grew up, the specific place meant everything. As a child in California, I still thought of myself, almost, as living in the
Bear Flag Republic, not in the United States. When I woke,
the Sierras, I knew, were on my right; the Pacific was a two-
hour drive to my left, and everything between belonged to
me, was me.

Our title is taken from the quote above by one of our poetic heroes, the Fresno poet Larry Levis. These sentences are from his essay “Eden and My Generation,” and they focus and reinforce one of our main concerns in poetry, the importance of place. In 1999 we compiled the anthology The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place, which contained seventy-six poets writing about the varying landscapes and regions of California. For our prose poem project, we have gathered the work of ninety poets. We have also added many essays that amplify the history, process, definition and range of the poem in prose. We hoped to uncover in the capacious prose poem form poems that were infused with a sense of vitality, identity, and soul-making. We invited poets who have significant roots in California, poets born and living here, poets who live elsewhere but have deep roots in the state, and poets who have moved here and made California their home. In every case, these are poets who write about California as a substantial portion of their poetic project. We began by looking for prose poems that either directly or indirectly touched on California or on our lives here. We wanted poets and poems motivated by a vision that issues from an appreciation of our gloriously diverse environment—urban, rural, coastal or pastoral.

The great California writer Lawrence Clark Powell, in the introduction to his anthology California Classics, had this to say about writers and the pull of California:

“If I were exiled from California, I could draw a topographical map from memory, so deeply have its configurations entered my consciousness. Seen from the air or seen from the ground, in all seasons and weathers, California’s beauty never palls; and it has been blessed with great writers to praise its beauty.”

We came to realize that California’s unique place on the edge of the continent provides a jumping-off point, and many of the poets grounded with the values of this place have turned their vision to other lands and other traditions. California was the end of the line for American expansion on this continent, but California’s poets have continued the migration, at least aesthetically, with the knowledge that if you follow the admonition to “go west,” you’ll eventually end up in the east. Californians are justifiably renowned for reinventing themselves, and we should expect no less from their poets.

California cannot lay claim to the prose poem, but this mercurial, subversive form has enjoyed a great flowering here, and while we were able to compile a representative and substantial anthology, we did not come close to exhausting the reserves of talent and accomplishment available. We have included many senior poets whose careers have contributed in no small way to the contemporary history and development of the prose poem in the United States. Poets in mid-career are also well represented, and we are proud that about a third of the work presented here is from young poets carrying on and expanding upon the work of those who wrote previously. In addition to a wealth of prose poems, we also offer twenty-two essays divided into two categories: “History, Definition, Nuts and Bolts,” and “Processes, Influences and Reflections.” Most poets also contributed brief prose complements in addition to their poems. We believe that these supplemental texts will be useful to readers, writers and critics alike.

Charles Baudelaire predicted that the prose poem would be the poetic form for the twentieth century, and our contributors have cast a large net over the literatures of the world to suggest precedents and progenitors of the prose poem. The poets describe a pedigree that reaches back millennia to the Chinese Fu; the Bible and Shakespeare join Arthur Rimbaud and Aloysius Bertrand in a long line of practitioners that include Anne Bradstreet, Walt Whitman and Ernest Hemingway. There is, of course, a long tradition of poets writing prose poems in the Americas, especially among Mexican poets. Foremost among that group would be Octavio Paz, Jaime Sabines and José Emilio Pacheco; but also Juan José Arreola, Gilberto Owen and Julio Torri. The great Spanish poet Luis Cernuda wrote prose poems all through the 1940s and 50s, and in South America the two Nobel laureates from Chile, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, were practitioners of the form. In the 1950s the longer volley and echo of the prose poem rhythms surfaced in the writing of Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Patchen. While we could go on naming names of the progenitors, we should not forget the prose poems of James Wright and David Ignatow who moved the prose poem toward clarity, objectivity and assessable beauty. Robert Bly, whose essay The Prose Poem as an Evolving Form graces this anthology, set a high standard with his seminal collection, What Have I Ever Lost by Dying.

The point then is that we are not inventing anything new; there is a long and rich tradition of writing the prose poem, one shared enthusiastically by California poets. We wanted to present the history of the prose poem, and the wealth of talented practitioners in our state; that’s what you’ll find in Bear Flag Republic. Because of the prose poem’s amplitude and generosity, we felt justified in offering such a hefty anthology dedicated to a discrete focus—the prose poem’s form is as expansive as our state.
 
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