Video games occupy a liminal space, a threshold between digital and physical worlds. Our choices and actions in one directly influence the other. Video games conform to their own sets of rules, which may or may not mimic the laws of physics, morality, etc. In this sense, they share quite a bit in common with prose poems.
Prose poetry blurs lines between “worlds,” this time on the page: those of fiction (with its dependable paragraph blocks) and verse (with its experimental arrangement and use of language, as well as its frequent refusal to conform to a story arc). Prose poetry doesn’t play by the rules. It’s where the concept of poetry butts right up against the most experimental flash fiction. This slippery form subverts expectations, often grounded simply in the author’s choice to deem it a poem despite its formatting, as implied in Jeremy Noel-Tod’s introduction to The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem. In describing his selection process, he writes, “My main rule of thumb has been only to include things that have already been published as poetry… This does, I realize, beg the question of definition, and raises the possible answer that … poetry is in the eye of the beholder.”
This shared liminality makes prose poetry a fitting vessel for writing about video games. It brings out the dreamlike quality of entering a digital environment. It allows for the openness of free verse but with less anguish over where, oh where to insert a line break. Alyse Knorr, in an interview with the minison zine for their MiniGames issue, stated, “Games are full of rewards to win, levels to beat, secrets to find, and (effectively) an unlimited number of chances to do all this. I hope that my poems are imbued with a similar rich sense of potential and exciting possibility…” Granted, she wasn’t focusing on prose poems specifically, but it drives home just how well the expansiveness of gaming can fit into poetic paragraphs.
I have only recently cozied up to this evasive form, and my entry point was—you guessed it—video games. One of my prose poems, “The Game of Castle Adventure” in TOWER Magazine, flirts with and eventually rejects the completion of the titular computer game’s quest, first cataloging items collected throughout the rooms and then, in a reversal of time, describing putting them back. And “The Labyrinth Proper,” published here on Sidequest, braids together several strands of thought about opportunity, mobility, and the pressures of training for knighthood in the setting of Shining in the Darkness. Another, “A Whirlwind Tour of Nightopia,” forthcoming in Wind Guide You, leads the reader on a tour of several levels from NiGHTS: Into Dreams, told through the perspective of an occupant of that game world. With this one, I wanted to take a game environment, strip away its most anxiety-inducing elements, and present it as a secret destination for an adventurous guest.
Because prose poetry arranges its content differently than other poems, I believe the reader approaches it more like how they enter a story, essay, or other prose. We see words extending the length of the page, slipping into the skin of paragraphs, and on some level, it alters how we process the density of the content. We expect a familiar arc—a plot, some character development—yet the prose poem defies our expectations. It opens us up to a different reading experience. In Kimiko Hahn’s “Pulse and Impulse,” she describes the zuihitsu, a literary form similar to prose poetry, as processing emotion that didn’t work for her in a more typical format. She writes, “Paragraphs absorb the emotionality differently than lineated poems… There was an absorption, an acceptance of the emotion that the verse could not bear.”
Let your own work lean into this potentiality. Try stream of consciousness about that one level you can never beat. Mix and match your reactions to two disparate games. Bring a game character into our world but without a plot or quest, for once, weighing them down. Ben Lerner uses prose poetry in Angle of Yaw to discuss cheat codes (and many other topics). Look at prose poetry as your own way to subvert the code.
Katherine Quevedo was born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her husband and two sons. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling Award, and her debut mini-chapbook, The Inca Weaver’s Tales, is forthcoming from Sword & Kettle Press. Her speculative fiction appears in various anthologies and magazines. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys playing old-school video games, watching movies, singing, belly dancing, and making spreadsheets. Find her at www.katherinequevedo.com.