In this fascinating article, Maria Jastrzębska talks about the genesis and background of her eagerly awaited new book.
The True Story of Cowboy Hat and Ingénue is a story of two women's quest — and love — told in prose poems. With other outcasts, including the suave Dame Blanche who runs the Eldorado bar they frequent, they seek to create a rural utopia while the landscape all around them echoes with reminders of conflict and death. Their story as they journey together is interwoven with the stories of many other characters during a time of war and oppression in the not so distant past.
I was born in Warsaw and came to the U.K as a child. I grew up between two cultures, Polish and English, so it's perhaps no accident I am drawn to poetry which crosses borders and genres. Boundaries of gender or identity fascinate me as much as geo-political frontiers. In poetry, as in the imagination or memory, everything happens at the same time. Present is interwoven with past and, in any case, as Cowboy Hat says to Ingénue: How do you tell which is foreground or background?
Despite positive changes in recent years, in the U.K, poèmes en prose are still not always seen as a valid form and there are strict rules for their behaviour. Some years ago Anne-Marie Fyfe ran a workshop on the prose poem, in her Coffee-House Poetry series at the London Troubador, where she got us writing the same piece in verse and in prose poem form. It struck me then how these were simply two languages at our disposal, which is perhaps what Baudelaire had in mind calling them poèmes en prose. In preparation, Anne-Marie had contacted various editors many of whom to our dismay said they just wouldn't countenance prose poems. I'd spoken to an editor (someone I respected) who said you couldn't have dialogue or narrative in a prose poem. Anne-Marie Fyfe also invited American poet Louis Jenkins over from the States, whose attitude by contrast was refreshingly relaxed. Luckily too there were other writers to read, including Charles Simic, Carolyn Forché, Mary Oliver — all so different from one another.
Since then, thanks to the work of exciting poets, such as Carrie Etter, who has both written superb prose poetry and also written about it as a rigorous form, and Jane Monson, edited This Line Is Not For Turning — An Anthology of Contemporary British Poetry Poetry, published by Cinammon Press, things have moved forward. Linda Black too has written in depth about the prose poem. As editors of Long Poem magazine, both she and Lucy Hamilton have opened their doors to a wide range of styles well as honing the form themselves in their own fine work. I've found journals such as Shearsman magazine open to prose poetry as well as excellent online journals for instance Molly Bloom and the erstwhile Shadow Train.
I discovered more writers: Ana Becciú, Ilya Kaminsky, recently Oleg Woolf. Increasingly too there are wonderful poets writing on the cusp, such as Vahni Capildeo and Claudia Rankine, who have not only been published in the U.K but won awards here. There have always been writers defying classification, walking the boundaries, think: Borges, Pessoa, Calvino. Time and time again, I have returned to Anne Carson whose playfulness with form and with narrative has inspired me for years.
For some years I'd written narrative verse poems as well as prose poems, poems that resembled half-remembered stories like those from childhood. Early on in writing this book I thought long and hard about its form: should it be a novel or a poetry book? What is the difference? After all there are overlaps: rhythm and sometimes even rhyme (at least internal) occurs in prose as well as verse. To some extent it is a question of framing and how a book is then marketed. We read differently if we think we're reading a poem or a piece of prose. Is the difference mere convention — fashion even — at any given time? Yes and no. There is an intensity, a pace in poetry, the distilling of experience — and so narrative — which differs from prose though once you try to grasp these distinctions they become slippery. The True Story of Cowboy Hat and Ingénue refused to cross over into novel form. A friend called it an epic spaghetti western. I liked that. I kept coming back to the prose poem and then challenging it to see how far I could go. And when I had crushing doubts, like many poets, I turned to poet and mentor Mimi Khalvati, whose understanding of poetic form is unsurpassed and who pushes me further than I might otherwise go.
I began writing this book in Spain and went on to write more in America. I stumbled across the characters in a few lines which seemed to be going nowhere — always an interesting destination. Before long my characters were on a quest and I was on a quest with them.
I'm fascinated by the tension between lyric and narrative and enjoyed containing both within the prose poem. I also enjoyed playing with a sense of 'otherness', so that different voices, clichés, dialects — pretend or real — and non-English phrases (mainly Spanish) create texture in this work. Unusually, I've not included Polish, my mother-tongue. I was influenced by Spanish, which I don't speak myself, so that was an opportunity to make new discoveries. You could say that there is the two women's quest and there is my own quest — and love affair — with language.
I was also interested in upending notions of gender and sexuality. Early on Ingénue asks if everyone is a lesbian. Cowboy Hat and Ingénue live on the margins of society. They are trying to find freer, expanded ways of being themselves, building homes and community, travelling, sharing — sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. How can any of us find ways to live outside or beyond the stereotypes we grew up with? Are we simply reacting to them or careening to the opposite extreme? Equally, how can we not try? Dame Blanche was born male, Mercedes runs a brothel, Master Wu Wu is a martial artist, perhaps a magician… And then there is the land and seascape. And the river.
Love and war are themes I return to in my work and in this book they form two distinct narratives. I grew up the child of people directly affected — traumatised — by occupation and war. Polish children I have worked with in schools ask questions about it or else play computer games based on war. In the West, we are living in peacetime but facing the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. It seemed impossible to write a love story without war stories. As for love, well these lovers travel, question and quarrel, make up, make love; they also drink more than is wise. Who knows what will happen to them, how it will end?
Maria Jastrzębska is a poet, translator and editor. Her most recent collection is At the Library of Memories (Waterloo Press) and her translation of selected poems by Justyna Bargielska, The Great Plan B, will be published by Smokestack Press in October.