Joel Brouwer: 100-Word Story as Prose Poem

The line between a prose poem and a story is often a thin one, perhaps not discernible at all. Poet Joel Brouwer’s 100-word prose poems in Centuries, a National Book Critics Circle Notable Book in 2003, reside on that thin line.

He adheres to a definition of the prose poem as “a piece of writing that deploys every tactic of poetry with the single exception of the line break,” which means that lyrical novels such as The Waves could be classified as a prose poem and a novel (gosh, novel as prose poem?).

Whether Brouwer’s centuries are poems or stories really doesn’t matter, though. As Andrei Codrescu put it, they “work as missiles, pastries, or treasure chests.” We sat down with Brouwer (virtually) to find out more.

Why did you decide to place the constraint of 100 words on your poems in Centuries?
There are so many prose poems and pieces of short poetic prose that I love. Stein, Calvino, Michaux, Cortazar, Kafka . . . I could go on. I wanted to try the form out, but the lack of boundaries intimidated me. I was accustomed to working in lines. I like a narrow bed. I needed some kind of limit, and 100 words seemed like a good possibility. I wrote a few, found the process both fun and irritating (always a wonderful combination), and kept going.

Do you think your 100 word poems speak more to the box they’re contained within or to what’s beyond the box?
I think some are quite aware of their box and others try to gesture outside it. Some seem to me very dense and coiled, self-conscious, inward. Others are airier, more allusive, expansive.

Some of your poems seem are very narrative, like stories, while others seem to be very much prose poems. How do you think of them?
I don’t! Well, OK, in seriousness, I think they’re poems. In Michael Benedikt’s crucial 1976 anthology, The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, he said in the introduction something like, a prose poem is a piece of writing that deploys every tactic of poetry with the single exception of the line break. That’s always seemed to me an excellent definition. As long as the author is cognizant of everything a poet is cognizant of—sound, rhythm, image, tone, metaphor, allusion, etc.—then the thing’s a poem, even if it’s not in lines. Incidentally, this metric suggests that any number of works generally considered prose are in fact poems. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is a nice example.

What was your writing process with the 100-word form? Did you count your words while you wrote, or did you write a piece and then edit toward 100 words?
There were several different models. Some would start with a single sentence and accrue. Others would begin as several hundred words and be chiseled down. Plus myriad variations in between. It was most fun when the piece got to be maybe 10 words over or under the limit. Then you go through the poem interrogating every word: Do you deserve to be here? Are you pulling your weight? Are you crucial? Because if I can cut you, I can buy myself an adjective. Cutting pronouns, prepositions, articles, and replacing them with nouns and verbs . . . there is perhaps no greater joy.

Do you write with such containment in mind now? How has writing 100-word pieces informed your other writing, whether it’s an essay or a poem?
I don’t write in forms this circumscribed at the moment, but I do have certain idiosyncratic tricks I use to try to keep my writing free of fat. I think working on Centuries taught me the value and pleasure of compression. I won’t forget that lesson.

For more, read four of Brouwer’s 100-word stories featured in this issue of 100 Word Story. They were originally published in Centuries, put out by Four Way Books.

Brouwer is also the author of several other collections of poetry, including And So (2009) and Exactly What Happened (1999), winner of the Larry Levis Reading Prize from Virginia Commonwealth University. He has also published several chapbooks.

Photo credit: Joel Brouwer

One Response to “Joel Brouwer: 100-Word Story as Prose Poem”

  1. Susan Sink says:

    I love the definition of a prose poem, Joel. Thanks for this interview, 100-word stories. I hope more people read “Centuries,” as it’s a fantastic book. Every word and every piece definitely proved themselves to be allowed to stay!

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