My mobile phone, resolutely rectangular and sized to my palm, decided the form of my seventh book. The first line came on the fringes of vague intention. It was evening, I was weary of my laptop, slumped in my reading chair, trying to brush aside a phrase, an image that hounded me to distraction, and I did what all writers do to release the gnat of creative unease – write it down – and there was my phone at easy reach.

I have always been a keyboard writer for two reasons: a) my fingers type faster than they can write, b) typed text is legible unlike the scrawls of my pen. Hence all my manuscripts have been created on laptops. But the phone is a different matter – with it I share a trouble relationship, and the smarter each successive device becomes, my annoyance with it grows.

I have thought of my phone as intrusive at worst, and a distraction at best, neither to my taste. And yet that evening, when I traced that persisting image on the swype keyboard, a novella took shape and my mobile phone became complicit in its form.

A new way to write

It was the rectangle, the width that the phone screen offered my sentence that became its blueprint. I moved with the sentence from left margin to right margin, a few words filling up the line, spilling into the next. My novelist’s instinct leaned towards the narrative, but the poet in me was waking to the spatial economy, the distillation demanded from feeling.

Like most readers, I recognise poetry in its sounds, in its imagery and sensibility – such were the words I was putting into my phone – but my eye sought prose. Somehow, I could not bring myself to break the line. The width of the phone seemed just right for the width of the composition – it ran like prose and it looked like verse. Yet I knew what all composers of condensed lines are aware: when the line lost its tautness or spooled, it became more prose, barely poetry.

At first this new aesthetic intimacy with the device was perturbing. I will take it one composition at a time, I told myself. This was after all just between my phone and me. A private indulgence that nobody need see, tucked between the calendar of classes to teach and papers to grade, beside half-written academic manuscripts, in the shade of messages to family and friends.

Soon it became exciting, the new inhabitation of form that I would still not name, something of the articulacy of prose, something of the music of verse. Then there was the comfort of not waiting for a time to write, but to squirrel away words on the lit rectangle of the phone whenever the idea arrived, even if for a swift minute or two, as one moved from one chore to another. I wondered about the circumstances of a writer’s life and the gravitation to certain forms. Then the words themselves and how they responded to each other, all this moved with me.

Enter the prose poem

The sea in thought, tumbles, an infant moon unsheathes. His letter had said so little – let’s meet.

The first composition was simply titled “One” and a man and a woman meet by the sea in six sentences, the last sentence just one word. Hello. Naturally, the second composition was titled “Two” and the couple walked on the beach in the dark. Again, my phone screen filled up in a few lines. I was ready for the next composition.

By the time I reached the fifth composition, I knew that I was in the middle of a chapter (I named it “Counting Breath”) and that there would be seven compositions to each chapter. A plot for a novella emerged.

I began to transfer what was in my phone to my laptop and this time with its title – Love in Seven Easy Steps. But the change of screen dimensions became a disturbance to the storytelling aesthetic I had settled into. I adjusted, widened left and right margins, till the rectangular format of the phone had been simulated on the laptop. Each composition, whether two lines or ten, became a box.

A box for love, and for the first time in my writing, it felt as though the laptop (or phone) was not just a mode, a typewriter with glorious cut-and-paste options, but it was teaching me something about a new form, its celebration of space – space for the eye, for the ear. It was teaching me about the marvels of that less-understood, oft-overlooked literary form – the prose poem.

Jeremy Noel-Todd, who introduces and edits The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, writes of a distinctive feeling (which he calls “expansiveness”) that prose poetry is able to give form to, “unchecked by metre or rhyme, prose poetry flows by soft return from margin to margin, filling the empty field of the page.”

Connoisseurs of literary form have repeatedly wondered why the prose poem is not the same as poetic prose or, indeed, how to tell the two apart with scholarly certainty. Brevity and autonomy of meaning, both at the level of sentence and the whole composition, seems to be a crucial component for the text to qualify as a prose poem. To lose compactness and prosodic intent would be to meander into the realms of pure prose.

I saw the first possibility as much in image itself (Circles of water grow under beers) as in the dimensions of my phone screen. When a poet prefers to forfeit the charge that comes with line breaks, that charge gets transferred to the pacing of a sentence within a paragraph, the punctuation (every comma is a new tension) and all that is held back. Articles became more superfluous than ever.

Narratively I was still in the dominion of the novel, but unlike the prose novel where I fretted more about the details I had to put in, in the prose poetry compositions I experienced the versification with every word I pulled out.

When asked about her personal definition of poetry, Anne Carson (contemporary poet brilliant with form) made a vivid comparison with prose: “If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it.” The architecture and the running person and the heat of fire – in the best of prose poetry, these elements blend into an undulating experience.

Literary subterfuge

As genre boundaries and their blurring goes, prose poetry tends to come closest to short fiction or flash fiction, but we will do well to follow the decision that Noel-Todd takes in putting together the Penguin edition of prose-poetry: to go with whatever the writer identifies as their genre of intention and execution. If they say it is poetry, then no matter how it appears to the eye, let’s begin with an open-minded acceptance.

Also, let us not forget that for the longest time, the two (prose and poetry) have been pitted in opposition, not easy to undo, and sometimes utterly beguiling as with the line that Emily Dickinson writes to Susan Gilbert: “We are the only poets, and everyone else is prose.”

One of the most memorable innovations in prose and poetry in the twentieth century was by William Carlos Williams in Kora in Hell (1920). In its prologue he writes, “But the thing that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things that lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose.” This close dalliance between something elevating and something close to the nose, perhaps best captures the intention of the prose poem.

Its potential for literary subterfuge can be seen in the trial that Oscar Wilde endured in 1895 – in response to the charge of obscenity in the letter sent to Alfred Douglas, Wilde claimed and defended it as a prose poem, a licence for an erotically fuelled imaginative flight.

I must report that when my manuscript moved into the laptop and from there onto a printed page, my relationship with my phone did not improve, and we mostly continue to avoid each other. I hope to never compose on it again. But the possibilities it opened by suggesting a genre that I had not attempted prior to this manuscript have stayed with me.

To work with the prose poem is to unequivocally inhabit the unit of a sentence and to practice the poetic patterns made possible between words, clauses, other sentences. To my mind, prose poetry is not a conjunction or hybrid of two genres but its primary intent or movement is poetry, and its prose quality lies in the appearance and movement of lines, more blocks than stairs.

The sensation of prose in my own crafting came to me more strongly in the decision to work towards a novella. The challenge was to sustain the narrative through transitions of time and morphing of character in compositions that allowed very few strokes. The couple that met one evening by the sea will drift apart and then meet again after a decade.

They walk past the streetlamps where they had once kissed, now frugal with words, avoidant of touch, darning gaps with warmth, slowly, slowly into hollow footsteps. His silence asks her, why don’t we love like before? We were given a sealed box, she thinks, at each kiss we spent air, now there is barely enough left to surface.

So, what happens next? To that question, any narrative writing whether prose of poetry or both, must happily submit.

Gayathri Prabhu is the author of Love in Seven Easy Steps, a novella in prose poetry published by Magic Mongrel Publishers, 2021.