Interview: David Shumate
David Shumate is a Professor and Poet in Residence at Marian University in Indianapolis. His first book of prose-poems, published by University of Pittsburgh Press, won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize in 2003. His current collection of prose-poetry is titled The Floating Bridge. Wrote Jim Harrison,
“I was deeply taken by David Shumate’s The Floating Bridge. There is none better working now at this very difficult genre, the prose-poem.”
Many people say they have never heard of “Prose-poetry.” What is it?
Prose poetry is a form of poetry that ignores the well-established convention of line breaks. Most people can tell a poem is a poem by its presentation on the page—vertical. A prose poem looks like a paragraph abandoned by its brethren, left to fend for itself.
I am drawn to this humble form, or non-form, as some would have it, because it forces a poet to rely perhaps more heavily on other poetic conventions in its exploration of a subject. It also does not force a particular kind of reading of the poem on a reader, which can give the reader a somewhat more open entrance into the poetic experience.
The prose poem as we know it today had its origins in nineteenth century France, but you can go back as far as early Chinese literature and find poets working in somewhat similar forms.
Your first book, High Water Mark, was the book that introduced me to prose-poetry and I always recommend it to people. Who are some poets or books you would recommend to new readers?
I am drawn to many American writers, especially Jim Harrison for his clean and frank verse, but I find myself quite taken with modern European writers and classical Chinese and Japanese writers also. Tomas Transtromer, the Swedish poet, is a fine writer who sometimes ventures into the prose poem. Ralf Jacobsen, the Norwegian poet, is also quite fine. Lorca, Jimenez, Machado among the Spaniards. And Herbert and Zagajewski among the Poles.
Do you write in other forms? What other forms do you write?
I spent about ten years working with fiction, and I still dabble in that now and then, especially when I have extended free time to write, but I keep returning to the prose poem, which at times turns into a kind of prose sonnet, about fourteen lines, give or take a half dozen, which often presents a situation, involves a twist or turn part way through, and comes sometimes to a kind of resolution or further complication at the end.
This last week I’ve also been working on a kind of collaborative “non-essay” with a fellow writer. I’ve have no idea where that will lead, but it’s intriguing.
And I’m messing around a bit with drama, though, in truth, I’m sure I have no real idea what I’m doing. But in writing, I’ve often found that to be a virtue.
Your new book is The Floating Bridge. My favorite section is “The Bible Belt.” Can you tell you tell us a little about it?
Well, I have lived a good portion of my life in the Bible Belt—Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana—so it seemed like familiar territory. And I’ve been influenced by a lot of those odd perceptions and prejudices, and its beauties as well. So in this section of the book I find myself wallowing around a bit in that stuff, fighting back at times, offering alternative visions as in “Halo” and “Drawing Jesus” and “Jesus’s IQ” among others.
Even as a reader, it is hard to pick a favorite poem. My favorite, I think, is “History of the Umbrella,” or “The Dreams of Children.” Which is your favorite?
After I’ve lived with a poem for so long, I tend to lose my objectivity. I have a difficult time seeing it fresh again. So I can’t really point to a favorite poem. I react to them all differently.
What inspires you to write?
I write quite regularly. Several hours a day, usually, but not consecutively. When I sit down to write I often don’t have an agenda; I don’t know where that writing time will transport me. I may have a title or a phrase or an image that intrigues me, and then I follow it. I’m usually surprised to find where I end up.
You are Poet in Residence at Marian University in Indianapolis. How has teaching informed your writing?
Teaching writing keeps writing center stage for me and helps me, through my students’ eyes, to see the craft in different ways. But most of my teaching is quite fundamental, freshman and sophomore classes, and this is sometimes good because I think spending too much time in the creative workshop environment can be counterproductive, and might sometimes extinguish the intuitive elements.
As poet-in-residence I have no real responsibilities, except, I suppose, to speak in iambic pentameter on Tuesdays and Thursdays and in rhyming couplets every other Friday.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading a novel called Out Catching Horses by a Norwegian writer. It was popular a few years back. I just picked it up before a recent airplane trip. The novelists I’m most drawn to are Jim Harrison and Cormac McCarthy. I admire their clean prose, their honesty, and the timeless issues they deal with.
Famous last words (a.k.a. Shumatisms): What is your advice to poets and writers young and old?
Write frequently. Find the form that suits you. Play with images and words. Let them guide you into some glowing core where you never expected to arrive.