about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Against Prompts
A Review of Against Prompts
by Bill Yarrow

Spencer Dew



Let’s begin at the end, with the eponymous manifesto: “Prompts are the whips of someone else’s imagination,” the author declares, the presence of another mind demarcated in bold, a threat to the heroic agency of the “real poet,” described as a creator, an architect, a thinker of imagination and “inner resources.” “The only thing a prompt ever produced is production,” which seems delivered tongue out of cheek, an assertion of the necessary ability of a “real poet” to prompt herself. Reading backwards, then, this volume is a collection of such exercises, self-generated formulae or constraints or conceptual projects. The works here include poems are assembled from bits of dead poets’ letters, acts of admittedly “incompetent [if inspired] translation,” one “largely found poem” culled from a Wikipedia page. The methodological footnote at the base of one piece reads, in full: “In ‘Skunk Hour,’ Robert Lowell wrote, ‘My mind’s not right.’ To see exactly what was in Lowell’s mind, I wrote this poem made entirely of anagrams of four of more letters from the phrase ‘Lowell’s mind.’” One poem is a list of potential prompts, albeit perverse ones (“Write a poem containing seven sixteen-syllable words // Write a poem of 1000 lines / in which prime numbers figure prominently”). Throughout these pages, many poets are named, paid homage to or made game of. We have poems “after” the works of various poets (a practice derided in the manifesto), and we have experiments gone far more meta, like a piece offering the perspective of a poet-as-patient, a psychoanalyst, a literary critic, and the writer’s spouse. Allusions are cross-referenced and vivisectioned; imagery overheats (“like a Mexican intestine . . . like a meatloaf donut . . . like a feline supine Christ”) and engages in grotesque contortions (dreams of “Thalidomide babies playing Skee-Ball,” as a starter). Section headings urge attitude as much as approach, for the creator: “Be Ekphrastic,” for instance, or “Be Ballistuc.” It’s an odd assemblage, this book, like a series of mascots with T-shirt cannons instructing a ballpark full of baffled fans on the proper way to play baseball. With verve, in short, drunk on the very mission of it, which can sure feel like arrogant pride and preening but is phrased here, more relatable, as being “still in their thrall,” enchanted by words, by language as puzzle and playing field, instrument and prize. As one poem says of Auden, on the college circuit, “Someone in the audience / should have heckled him / but everyone was in awe / of his assembled glory.” There are plenty of points here where a heckle is called for, but readers will also likely feel a prompt—to pick a word—toward sharing in the sense of celebratory wonder and pursuing, in their own way, some angle of the wild, word-struck vivacity that crackles across these pages.

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