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The rise of prose poetry

Posted by. Professor Oz Hardwick
Posted on 12 August 2019

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Last month saw the UK’s first-ever prose poetry symposium at Leeds Trinity University, bringing together almost 70 delegates from around the UK and beyond including Australia, the USA and across Europe. It was an opportunity to celebrate the surge in popularity of prose poetry, and the launch of The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry, a new collection co-edited by Leeds Trinity University Professor Oz Hardwick which brings together some of Britain’s finest contemporary writers in the form.

Below, Oz shares his thoughts on the literary genre's growth in popularity, his first encounter with prose poetry, the success of the​​ symposium, and his future plans with Anne Caldwell following the publication of their latest anthology.  ​​

Prose poetry appears to be experiencing a surge of interest at present, with a number of significant anthologies and studies coincidentally appearing within a few months. Each of these books has its own distinctive take on the form, and The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry is unique in that it is the first anthology in a number of years to focus upon contemporary writers in the UK. And what a diverse bunch they turned out to be, with all kinds of backgrounds, and very individual takes on the form. There are some of the most prominent poets in the country involved – we even have the Poet Laureate by default, as Simon Armitage was one of our first contributors, and accepted his appointment as Laureate while the book was in press – but also many writers who are less well known but deserve the attention.

Although it has been around since the late eighteenth century, prose poetry, particularly in the UK, is a form that exists largely outside the mainstream, though I first encountered it decades ago in the phenomenally successful Mersey Sound anthology, with Brian Patten's 'Prosepoem Towards a Definition of Itself.' It's a hard form to pin down, but I think the easiest – if woefully inadequate – definition is that it's a piece of writing attuned to the metrics and registers of verse, but which does not have line breaks. I enjoy it – and have written prose poems since my teens – because it allows for rhythmic and melodic improvisation without the strong beat of the line break.

It clearly appeals to others, too, as Anne Caldwell and I had a mammoth task of selecting the poems to be included in the anthology from several hundred submissions. The anthology itself, though, is just the most visible aspect of a larger project, supported by Arts Council England, which has also involved aspects of writer development and workshops over the past two years. The culmination of this 'phase' came at the official launch of the anthology at the Prose Poetry UK Symposium at LTU on the 13th July, at which nearly 70 writers, academics, and the generally curious, came from around the world – Australia, the US, across Europe and the UK – came for a day of talks, discussions, readings and workshops.

This is far from the end of the line, though. We have a number of readings and workshops booked around the country for later in the year, and a number of new projects and collaborations are already taking shape following the crucible effect of the symposium. One of our keynote speakers, Professor Paul Hetherington, Director of the International Poetry Studies Institute, University of Canberra, afterwards described the symposium as 'wonderful and historic' – which sounds hyperbolic, but this is the first such event to have taken place in the UK, and there have been very few world-wide. Our other keynote, Cassandra Atherton of Deakin University, said: "The conference was a HUGE success. No-one had the passion and foresight to do what you achieved." Being British, Anne and I are delighted, if somewhat abashed, by such comments, but we'll concede that, in the burgeoning field of prose poetry, we have caught the moment and facilitated its continuing development.

The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry is available online​.