Speculate, the new book from Eugen Bacon and Dominique Hecq, offers a fascinating and often gripping look at literary collaboration. The book is divided into two halves: in each, one author responds to the prose poetry of the other. How those responses work make for one of the book’s most thrilling elements; the other is the stylistic range involved, meaning that some of the prose poems read like dispatches from a more surreal locale and others feel compellingly candid. I spoke with Hecq about the book’s origins and the ways in which it came together.
Early on in Speculate, you talk about your working methods for putting the book together. How did you get to that point — did one set of microlit predate the other?
Eugen and I are part of a prose poetry group and, at one point, we noticed that we were constantly responding to each other’s posts through fiction and feedback. The first part of the book evolved directly from that conversation. Though part two continues the dialogue, the prompts came from prose poems I was working on at the time for various publications or competitions.
What are the works of flash fiction or prose poetry that have most impressed you over the years?
I periodically re-read Russell Edson’s work, but because he published thirteen collections of prose poems, it’s not a fair answer. So, I’ll try to be more precise.
Let’s begin with my literary ancestors—Charles Baudelaire whose book of prose poems Le spleen de Paris (1869) and Arthur Rimbaud’s Une saison en enfer (1869) were constant companions in my youth. Then I discovered Edmond Jabès’ meditation on the Jewish experience, The Book of Questions (1979), which fascinated me because of its obsessive deconstruction of both word and narrative. Though I can’t remember the contents of James Joyce’s Giacomo Joyce (1915), I do remember its impact at the time of reading. Then I remember vividly being blown away by Anne Carson’s book-length prose poem Autobiography of Red (1998) and, more recently, by Gaspar Orozco’s Book of the Peony (2017) in Mark Weiss’s translation.
I’m currently reading Avant Desire, A Nicole Brossard Reader (2020) edited by Sina Oueyras, Geneviève Robichaud and Erin Wunker, which comprises a number of stunning prose poems. Like Edson and Carson, Brossard is an author I never tire of re-reading. They just never disappoint.
Some of the works in the collection have a fantastical, dreamlike quality; others feel very rooted in the contemporary world. Did you give yourselves any guidelines for what was or wasn’t fair game, tonally speaking?
No, Tobias, we didn’t give ourselves guidelines. The only mis/guide was crossing genres and taunting modes. In fact, what excites us about prose poetry is that it uses poetic techniques to set up and subvert the reader’s expectations. And since we delight in crossing boundaries, it’s a perfect form.
How did the organization of Speculate come together — both in terms of the order of the stories and the way the artwork and design accentuate the writing?
The stories evolved for a dialogue and we wanted to recreate the flow and rhythm of this dialogue. The artwork was totally unplanned. It was our publisher’s idea and work. Tricia Reeks is a closet artist coming out!
One of the recurring themes of the collection seemed to be (though this might be my Americanness talking) the Australian landscape. Am I totally off-base? Were there any other spaces — real or fictional — that helped to shape this book?
Wow. Yep, totally off-base. Put that American right back in! For sure, Tobias, your observation is really interesting. I’d never thought that the Australian landscape could be a recurring theme of this collection. This said, the impulse to record and know the landscape is one of Australian literature’s dominant theme since the early days of colonisation. Interesting. Also funny: we live in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. Granted: we are surrounded by parks and wetlands and bushlands through which creeks flow down to the river Yarra, and then the sea. And we walk through that landscape daily in fact or in our imagination, not least because of the threat of global warming.
Eugen Bacon is African Australian, a computer scientist mentally re-engineered into creative writing. She’s the author of Claiming T-Mo by Meerkat Press and Writing Speculative Fiction by Red Globe Press, Macmillan. Eugen’s work has won, been shortlisted, longlisted or commended in national and international awards, including the BSFA Awards, Bridport Prize, Copyright Agency Prize, Australian Shadows Awards, Ditmar Awards and Nommo Award for Speculative Fiction by Africans. Website: eugenbacon.com Twitter: @EugenBacon
Dominique Hecq grew up in the French-speaking part of Belgium. She now lives in Melbourne. Her works include a novel, three collections of stories and eight books of poetry. Hecq’s poems and stories have been widely published in anthologies and journals. Often experimental, her work explores love, loss, exile and the possibilities of language. Kaosmos and Tracks (2020) are her latest books. Among other awards such as the Melbourne Fringe Festival Award, the Woorilla Prize for fiction, the Martha Richardson Medal for Poetry, and the New England Poetry Prize, Hecq is a recipient of the 2018 International Best Poets Prize.