I had never heard of Russell Edson until coming across some examples of his work in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones last month. I immediately ordered a used copy of The Tunnel, Edson’s book of selected poems. After receiving the book I Googled his name to learn more about my new favorite poet, only to discover that he had passed away on 4/29/14.
Edson's "poems" are not like poems in the conventional sense. For example, they don't rhyme or follow any kind of structure or meter, but instead tread the subconscious like real-life dream sequences. Here are four of his poems, followed by my favorite quotes from the interviews I've been able to find online. Edson's interview responses are so good you don't even need to know what the question was.
Waiting for the Signal Man
Waiting for the Signal Man
A woman said to her mother, where is my daughter?
Her mother said, up you and through me and out of grandmother; coming all the way down through all women like a railway train, trailing her brunette hair, which streams back grey into white; waiting for the signal man to raise his light so she can come through.
What she waiting for? said the woman.
For the signal man to raise his light, so she can see to come through.
A man had just married an automobile.
But I mean to say, said his father, that the automobile is not a person because it is something different.
For instance, compare it to your mother. Do you see how it is different from your mother? Somehow it seems wider, doesn't it? And besides, your mother wears her hair differently.
You ought to try to find something in the world that looks like mother.
I have mother, isn't that enough that looks like mother? Do I have to gather more mothers?
They are all old ladies who do not in the least excite any wish to procreate, said the son.
But you cannot procreate with an automobile, said father.
The son shows father an ignition key. See, here is a special penis which does with the automobile as the man with the woman; and the automobile gives birth to a place far from this place, dropping its puppy miles as it goes.
Does that make me a grandfather? said father.
That makes you where you are when I am far away, said the son.
Father and mother watch an automobile with a just married sign on it growing smaller in a road.
There was a man who found two leaves and came indoors holding them out saying to his parents that he was a tree.
To which they said then go into the yard and do not grow in the living-room as your roots may ruin the carpet.
He said I was fooling I am not a tree and he dropped his leaves.
But his parents said look it is fall.
A Cottage in the Wood
He has built himself a cottage in a wood, near where the insect rubs its wings in song.
Yet, without measure, or proper sense of scale, he has made the cottage too small. He realizes this when only his hand will fit through the door. He tries the stairs to the second floor with his fingers, but his arm wedges in the entrance. He wonders how he will cook his dinner. He might get his hands through the kitchen window. But even so, he will not be able to cook enough on such a tiny stove.
He shall also lie unsheltered in the night, even though a bed with its covers turned down waits for him in the cottage.
He lies down and curls himself around the cottage, listening to the insect that rubs its wings in song.Russell Edson quotes:
I don't work with preconceived ideas about reality.
Writing for me is the fun of discovery. Which means I want to discover something I didn't know forming on the page. Experience made into an artifact formed with the logic of a dream. The poem is the experience no matter the background of experience it is drawn from.
I sit down to write with a blank page and a blank mind. Wherever the organ of reality (the brain) wants to go I follow with the blue pencil of consciousness.
I have no formal background in anything. I just make up things as I go along without a program. It's more fun that way.
Just get something on the page, you have nothing to lose except your life, which you're going to lose anyway.
In poetry the patterns of rhythm and rhyme give distraction that the dream brain might be free to dream.
What do I do outside of the tunnel? Is there an outside?
Just being able to write a sentence, or a group of them into a paragraph, means something has happened.
At best the poem is an impersonal amusement where the writer and the reader laugh together at finding once again that only reality is the reality of the brain thinking about reality.
The prose poem allows the individual to create his or her own boundaries.
The good writer tries to write beyond genre.
What name one gives or doesn't give to his or her writing is far less important than the work itself. But fables are message stories, and I don't like messages. Fairy tales say in their openings, we're not real, but we're fun. My purpose has always been reality, and it still is. I learned to write by writing; but with an intuition for a way that wasn't more than what I could bring to it.
For me the spirit of the prose poem is writing without genre; to go naked with only one's imagination.
Pure poetry, for instance, is silence. It was fiction that taught poetry how to speak.
Words are the enemy of poetry.
The poet has to create into language something that has no language.
The best advice I can give is to ignore advice. Life is just too short to be distracted by the opinions of others. The main thing is to get going with your work however you see it. The beginning writer has only to write to find his art. It's not a matter of talent. We're all talented. Desire and patience takes us where we want to go.
I write to be entertained, which means surprised. A good many poets write out of what they call experience. This seems deadened. For me the poem itself, the act of writing it, is the experience, not all the dark crap behind it.
If I've done anything special, and of course I have, it's just by doing what anybody could have if they thought it worth doing.
I like making something out of almost nothing at all. It leaves room to imagine rather than retelling what one already knows. I think of myself more as an inventor than a decorator.
There's only the writing, which I admit to knowing very little about.
My best pieces seem written by someone, or something, else.
We work best when our intellects and imaginations are in harmony at the time of the writing. I like to go real fast before I ruin what I'm writing by thinking about it. It's looking for the shape of thought more than the particulars of the little narrative.
My ideal prose poem is a small, complete work, utterly logical within its own madness.
Insanity is always at the elbow, and so I try for order on the page.
One shouldn't have to explain anything to the reader.
Unless one is describing something entirely different than what one knows of the given world, description is deadly to a prose poem.
I never liked the term "experimental writing," but what else is a prose poem? Having written a number of them, I still don't know how they're written.
I write for amusement, not to change others.
I write as a reader, not knowing what the author will say next.
One sometimes needs a vacation from the idea of oneself. The prose poem is the perfect vacation spot. I've been going there for years.
Movements bore me. They're usually peopled by those needing umbrellas even when it's not raining
I always write what needs to be written at the time of its writing.
Anybody could write like Edson if they wanted to. I find myself doing it all the time.
Prose poems look easy precisely because they are. The hardest part for many who would write them is accepting how easy they are to write, and having the courage to write them in spite of that.
In that the prose poem is a critique of the very act of writing, it's probably so surprised that anybody would be writing it that it almost giggles as it finds itself on the page.
An influence, if it has any positive meaning, is really a kind of permission that allows us to open something in ourselves.
It was possible to make things out of almost nothing at all. That's a very creative feeling, starting from almost zero and being able to make something that's at least trivial. And sometimes to make something somewhat more than trivial. But trivial will do. At least it's more than the zero of nothing. People tend to aspire to more than they need, when in the end they turn out to be just another corpse belonging to the general ecology.
The idea of someone bravely speaking in public with a pronounced speech defect can be quite touching, particularly to people out for an evening of culture.
No one is a poet for all of his or her life. One is a poet when one is engaging that way of mind; that is to say, when one is writing. I would say to a son or daughter, ‘go ahead, it’s as good as anything else; your days are numbered anyway no matter what you do - have fun’.
Anybody who says that his art takes all his time is probably someone whose time doesn’t mean very much. My advice is to schedule one’s ‘artistic works’ with a job that pays. This gives time edge and purpose.
The problem with poetry is that it spends so much time scene setting, locating. Most of my pieces are not really located. They just happen.
I never write for people, for the unseen audience. I just write what comes.
A lot of poets would do themselves a lot of good if they had another art they messed with - be it painting or whatever. A lot of our poets, they write, they teach, they write blurbs, they write some criticism, but they never get out of language. To be able to do something else is a nice thing.