Ellen LaFlèche


Exploring the genre of prose poetry was a wonderfully creative tool that helped me explore my feelings when I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes five years ago. Prose poems live and breathe on the outskirts, challenging and changing established boundaries; this very placement within and between boundaries is precisely why the form was so useful in navigating my experiences within institutional medicine.

Despite its increasing popularity within the literary world, the status of prose poetry remains contested. According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, "Most critics argue that prose poetry belongs in the genre of poetry because of its use of metaphorical language and attention to language. Other critics argue that prose poetry falls into the genre of prose because prose poetry relies on prose's association with narrative, its consistent divergence of discourse, and its reliance on readers' expectation of an objective presentation of truth in prose. Yet others argue that the prose poem gains its subversiveness through its fusion of both poetic and prosaic elements."

Blurring these boundaries even further is the emergence of the term "flash fiction," usually referring to a complete, tightly woven short-short story of 500 words or less, but sometimes used interchangeably with the term prose poetry. Many prose poems also rely on narrative structure and tell a story. Both forms are usually - but not always - presented in paragraph form with complete sentences and traditional punctuation. It's beyond the scope of this article to resolve these fluctuating definitions; rather it uses these blurred boundaries as creative tools for exploring questions of health and illness.

These shifting boundaries, and the interesting areas of overlap between the genres of poetry, prose poetry and flash fiction, helped me to clarify my feelings about illness. I experience diabetes as a disease that lives on and between boundaries. For example, the person newly diagnosed with diabetes is told that they have "control" over the disease process. Achieving this "control" involves a difficult regime of diet, exercise, self-education, glucose monitoring, frequent labwork, and numerous visits to specialists. But diabetes is also a progressive disease, a reality that even the most dedicated diabetic cannot change. And even someone with tight control over their blood glucose levels can experience complications. So the idea of "control" is both a reality and an illusion. Some experts claim that diabetes can even be "reversed" with various dietary supplements such as cinnamon capsules or fenugreek seeds. These did not work for me, and I had to struggle with feelings of guilt over not being able to miraculously reverse my illness. Perhaps the most confusing boundary was when a specialist told me that I could be a "healthy person with an illness." What did that mean? Was I ill, or healthy? Or both? Can a person be both ill and healthy at the same time?

Navigating these new boundaries, and struggling emotionally with the idea of "medical control," was even more challenging for me than the daily regimen of diet, exercise and monitoring. My exploration of prose poetry/flash fiction was a rich and creative navigation tool. I began to write prose poems that twisted the outcome of traditional fairy tales. The prose poetry/flash fiction format was especially useful because it provided a narrative structure while also demanding attention to metaphor, rhythm and musicality. I believe that the best poetry - whatever its genre - taps into the unconscious; so, too, do fairy tales probe hidden archetypes, universal symbols that all humans understand and respond to.

Immediately following my diagnosis, I wanted to write about diabetes. I considered writing a free-lance article for the newspaper. But because so many members of my family also have diabetes, I worried about their privacy. My attempts at writing "non-prose poetry" about diabetes were frustrating: I craved a strong narrative structure because I had a story to tell. I needed a format that would allow me to write in complete sentences while relying heavily on metaphor and my unconscious emotional reactions.

My first prose poem was written from a weekly exercise that was part of a local writing workshop. The facilitator would give us a common word - say, pike, or train, or tree - and ask to free-associate for three minutes, scribbling in our notebooks whatever came to mind. The word that day was "silver." My three minutes of scribbling resulted in sentence fragments about Rapunzel. Her hair, long and flowing at the age of 80, was a beautiful silver color. My journey into the archetypal world of fairy tales had begun.

I had written and published four prose poems before I realized how strongly I had tapped into my unconscious feelings about illness. All of the fairy tale characters were struggling with some form of disability or illness. In my first prose poem, Rapunzel has suffered a stroke (a possible complication of diabetes.) ("Rapunzel Recovers from a Stroke", Patchwork Journal, online at www.writingretreats.com) She cannot speak, so she spits fire at the nurse who wants to cut off her archetypal long hair. Rapunzel's hair is her power. I realize now that this poem helped me to prepare myself for a possible future complication. Yes, I will spit fire at any person who tries to take away any part of my power or dignity.

In "Identity Theft", (Silkworm, 2007) Rumpelstiltskin experiences rage at his situation. He has been promised the queen's firstborn son - he did, after all, save the queen's life by spinning straw into gold. But the queen refuses to honor her side of the bargain. She deceives him by stealing his identity. Rumpelstiltskin has lost control - something that I deeply fear as a try to manage my illness - and he feels justifiable anger. He splits in half, "a kind of split personality." Only after seeing this prose poem in print did I realize that the words "split personality" reflect my struggles over the daily duality of control vs. non-control, over the strange duality of illness vs. health.

In "Hansel and Gretel: The Witch's Side of the Story", (Georgia State University Review, spring, 2006), the witch is blind. Again, blindness is a possible complication of diabetes; once again, I had to see the poem in print to consciously realize why I had chosen to write about the witch. She used humor to deal with her blindness. When she hears Hansel chewing on her roof, she bemoans the cost of chocolate tiles - they have to be imported from Switzerland. The witch does not fare well in this poem - she ends up in the oven. She is about to become toast. But she promises that her children will remember what happened. They will tell her story with "Grimm" determination. She comes full circle in the poem, using the power of words as she makes the archetypically fearful transition into death.

I recommend explorations of prose poetry/flash fiction as a way to create a narrative about illness and disability. Its location in the outskirts of traditional poetic form makes it a creative tool for personal story telling. I'd love to hear from you at ellafleche@aol.com

Ellen LaFleche has worked as a journalist and women's health educator in western Massachusetts. She recently won the Poets on Parnassus Prize for poetry about the medical experience. The winning poem, "Snow White Faces Terminal Cancer," was published in Pharos. She has poems published in Patchwork Journal, Georgia State University Review, The Binnacle, and Words and Pictures Magazine. She struggles daily with Type II diabetes, which has challenged both sides of her family for years. She is especially interested in writing about health and healing as well as working class issues. Her poem "Saving Cinderalla's Foot" can be found in this issue of Wordgathering.