lessons from a distance

lessons from a distance

The Thickness & The Threshold: A Lesson With Alina Stefanescu

The Thickness: At some point, I found things thickening around me. I found myself in the beginning or the middle of the end of something all at once. I imagined a way out but the way hard to imagine because it wasn’t linear. At that point, I was not in a linear space. To be in the thick of it all is unlike being in a thicket or a small evergreen shrub. It is easier to crawl out of a bush than to decipher the is-ness of it.

“I will poem my way out,” I said to no one. 

And not even the imaginary thicket heard me. If it had, that would be a different poem, a poem about the relationship between myself and a thicket rather than a poem about the thick of it all.

To convey the sense of simultaneity, I needed everything blurring together. But no magic to excuse it. I needed no magic but maybe a witness. Or a woman yodeling in the corner. And a fishwife licking her lips. A way to move between the yodel and the fishwife without relaxing or offering a false sense of ease. Remember: this is no restful thicket. This is the thick-ness. 

The Memory: I remember attending the funeral wake of a neighbor in Transylvania, his body laid out on the dining room table with two quarters over his eyes to pay Charon in the crossing to the next life. The village peasants spoke of death as a part of life–like birth, like thirst, like hunger–rather than act of God or a special-purpose event. A meaningless mark on the threshold deciphered by angels. We know not what they speak. 

To want to know the unreadable part of one’s story is to assert its significance, to demand divinity. The superstition that includes fear of worry or anxiety, the unnamed. Anxiety has no shape–moves like the ghosts we create to give form to what we can only imagine. 

And there it is again: the thickness. A thick skein of unexplained connections returned to the surface of my mind by a simple sequence of repetition. I am not trying to solve it–only to feel a little deeper into the mystery of this space.

The Pulse: How to write into the thickness? Sonic effects like parataxis, mirrored repetitions, and alliteration can be used to create a loose rhythm or cadence, a unique pulse for each piece. I think that’s how you start to know you’re closing in on a prose poem–it has a little heartbeat you begin to discern, a pulse you can hear and hone and work around. When that pulse matches the form and content, the creature has its own life. 

The Parataxis: Parataxis  means  “side by side arrangement”–placing things side by side without connecting them. Think of the long poetic sequences in the King James Bible, with vivid descriptions, narrative, characters, and moral injunctions flowing straight into one another with no explanation.  “And”  does so much connective work in the Old Testament, especially in the Song of Solomon. 

As a poetic technique, parataxis (or paratactic syntax) builds through lists and accumulations in a staccato fashion, a persistent blow after blow that creates mystery, surprise, and strangeness. The juxtaposition and compression forge instant connections through movement and breath rather than explication or description. Parataxis opens a space in the mind where anything can happen—interruption, eruption, expulsion—and lyric exists alongside the silly or the ironic or the deeply humiliating, creating a vivid, jewel-like tension between different tones. Here’s this, here’s this, here’s this, here’s this… with no explanation and unrelenting abruptness, just this mystery of the strange and the beat that brings it together.  It builds on the leaps between disparate sentences or ideas or sensations or objects. 

Experiment with parataxis. Pick a few sentences and phrases and lay them around, subverting chronological or linear order. Try to mix tones to create variation–first serious, now absurd, then offended, now offensive, then surreal, now eerie–and keep doing that until you feel comfortable altering tone. Experiment with line lengths–pair an abrupt three word sentence with a 15 word sentence–and notice how the relationship between the sentences is altered. Check the pulse. Play around again. Keep checking the pulse and feeling for shifts in tone or texture. 

The Dread: Dread is a certain kind of knowledge, the power to read the marks moonlight leaves on a brick wall. 

The Threshold: For Renee Gladman, “standing at the threshold of time–the beginning of something, the end of something” is position assumed by the writer. We are staring at something and then conscious of staring, and then self-conscious for staring, and then interrogating the gaze itself–the socialized part, the personal part, our complicity. 

There is a sense in which we are asking questions of the subject while simultaneously asking questions of the self compelled by the subject. I think this is the trickiest part of the thickness. I think we have to tread carefully. 

How is the sad Virgin Mary statue bound up in the pale blue hue of the thickness?

And how does the way I know the dolls want something link me to a girl who knows a man waits across the street for dusk to grope its way into night? How does the way I know resemble the knowing of the people I’m writing about? 

As for the thickness, it is insoluble. It cannot be dissolved into something else. It cannot be solved. If you find that the thickness can be solved or resolved in a poem, you have actually found that what you started with was not the thickness but a problem. 

Because problems can be solved or dissolved. 

But the thickness thrives in uncertainty. 

And you know what I mean because you know something, too. 

You know so many things that others cannot possibly know. 

You should write those unknowable things. 

There is a door. There is a threshold that asks us to cross it without crossing over, without leaving ourselves entirely, without losing the ability to write what is known.  To straddle. I keep my hand on the pen and sink my face into the thickness. I bring the terror to the page and take its pulse.

Love, alina


Pulse matters. Pulse is throb of blood moving through a living body. Pulse is a sign of life. Checking the pulse of prose poems can help signal when the poem is finished, what it’s lacking, whether it’s pacing doesn’t match its body, etc. 

What’s in a name? prompt: In her memoir, Melissa Febos describes a year in her teens when she hated her name–when she needed the cover and charm of a new one: “Melissa was bringing a ribbon to a sword fight. Melissa was leading with my softest part.” Write a prose poem about your name–explore its connotations, its private family meanings, its profanations and hallowed moments. 

Fear of loss prompt: In an interview, poet Marilyn Chin said: “I am afraid of losing my Chinese, losing my language, which would be like losing a part of myself, losing a part of my soul… Sometimes I think I lose a character a day.” What do you fear losing in a way that would render your selfhood alienating and estranged? Write into the space where loss threatens a certainty or established part of self. 

Cracking open abstraction with Adrienne Rich prompt: Write a prose poem inspired by these words from Adrienne Rich. What “tiny thing” can you use to crack another thing (maybe an abstraction like trust, loyalty, etc.) open? Image you have to alternate between short lines and long ones. Experiment with images and associations from the sacred-profane binary.

“Because I think that the truth of art allows us to take a microcosm, a tiny thing like one woman braiding another woman’s hair, and let it stand for so much else.”
—Adrienne Rich

Definition poem exer-prompt: A definition poem is a type of prose poem that borrows the frame of a dictionary to subvert the form by pushing boundaries and probing the points of a pressure in a word. The soft spot is the word itself, or the way meaning often comes from connotation rather than denotation. Working by implication–by removing the logical connections between cause and effect–the definition poem deliberately withholds connective terms, encouraging the reader to “catch” the meaning via suggestion or implication.

Think about a few words that rub you the wrong way–words for which the dictionary definition is not satisfactory. Select one of those two-faced words–a word that lends itself well to inverted images, say virginity or pure or helpful–and try to write a definition poem with the word as conceit. Structure the poem as an actual dictionary definition so you can watch counterpoint weave through the piece. Experiment with parataxis and strange juxtapositions that don’t quite follow. 

The drag queen inside me prompt: Read Denise Duhamel’s prose poem, “The Drag Queen Inside Me“. Notice how the poet uses the drag queen as a vehicle for exploring the discomfort and self-alienation of her teen years. Maybe I was a witch with a Miss Stake through my heart. Notice how so much of the wordplay and exposition relies on playing with the prefix, “mis-“. Notice also how Duhamel alternates between first person and plural first person. Write your own poem that creates a conceit (maybe a hidden self, what hides inside you) as a means of exposition. You can try to adapt a prefix if that works–but don’t force it. Try to use the first person, which brings us closer and makes it intimate. 

Abstract from the outset : Read Sean Thomas Dougherty’s prose poem “Untitled“. Notice how the power of the first line– One thing that can save: the green darkness–builds from two abstractions that create suspense. The remainder of the poem uses this abstraction as a frame for exposition. Start a poem with “One thing can save…” and then add your own abstraction. Be sure that the abstraction is interesting enough to withstand repetition. It’s okay to follow the abstraction into the dark rather than summon a didactic purpose. It’s okay to wander blindly behind an image.