Category Archives: flash fiction

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: When a Question Becomes an Answer

by Meg Tuite

Is writing another form of depression that needs a page instead of an ear to hear it?

How often do you write the same story over and over again? Are you trying to get somewhere? But isn’t it supposed to be about the journey? What do we want to convey? Should it be in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person, or maybe a mix? Past tense, present tense or both? Should it be written with differing voices that aren’t in linear time or should it be written at all? When does it seem like it doesn’t matter? That what is written won’t change anyone, not even the one who writes it? Is it true that anything and everything is interesting in the hands of a skilled writer? And where does the skill come from?

No one can really teach you how to write well. But, isn’t anything done well, reworked over and over again until it moves somewhere. More skill involves more time in front of the page, writing and writing and then there’s the editing part which is more intensive sometimes than the writing itself. So, then would that mean that a person with an eye for that extraneous crap in a story is really the writer?

And is there a way to lead a healthy life as a writer? Do you start off with coffee and hole up for a few hours? Or eat some eggs or oatmeal, take some vitamins, and then hole up again. Or sit in a cafe surrounded by the white noise of stranger’s voices so you don’t have to actually be alone to complete the task?


And what about exercise? Do you become a head with a body slugging behind it? How much energy is left over to run or go to a gym? And do you really care to move around after your mind has been on a treadmill trying to circumvent so many questions and possible paths? Or do you just say, fuck it, I’ll do that tomorrow and get some wine, Scotch, beer? Or maybe you’ve already been there, and so you take another Xanax and go to an AA meeting.

Do you have a social life? After spending many hours alone, does your tongue still work and do you have anything to say besides what your story or book is about? Or do you sit back and listen complacently because you have already completed your task in the world and let others tell you why their life is not coming together?

And is it a good thing to be in a healthy relationship? You know, happy and trusting and oh, yes, we both love our solitude and that makes being together all the more peaceful and uncomplicated. Or is best to have a lot of drama, so you can rage on the page and throw lamps and knick-knacks, end up sleeping with the neighbor’s cousin or stealing lawn ornaments or street signs to keep life interesting?

Do you work all day in an office, while you keep a notebook of thoughts for your manuscript

awaiting you at home? Do you turn the key in your lock and strip off your uniform and get your holey pajamas with that t-shirt you got from making the 50k words in a month NANO one year, grab some more coffee and sit at your desk?


Is there a better stream that flows at night when you hear traffic and sirens, music somewhere out there, but you just keep plugging those veins with caffeine as you remember that one time in high school, or that guy who always started his stories with ‘I got to tell you,’ or walk that fine line between waking and dreaming and let the free-float of words pressure themselves into some kind of formula that makes sense when you’re stoned or is so close to not making sense that you are sure it’s multi-layered and is one of those abstract pieces that can be interpreted so many different ways depending on the reader?

Do you surround yourself with books and a thesaurus? Do you keep checking for that one word that will absolutely blow minds with its inimitable impact? How about a word count? Do you shoot for 1500 words a day? 2500?  Or are you set up in a stark room, maybe the basement with the shades down and no books, no view, no sound but the cracking of joints when you stretch?   

And how do you know your work is authentic? Do you get out your copy of Poets and Writers and look for a summer workshop? Or maybe make certain that everyone knows you are serious about your vocation and get into an MFA program? Those are places where they attempt to guide you in a distinct direction. You are surrounded by classes full of writers just as confused as you are or maybe they aren’t? They are always tapping away on their keyboards whenever you see them on campus. Maybe that’s their voice and not your voice? Maybe they are misguiding you, and you become more and more certifiably lost as you sit with a group of other writers who continue to give you advice, though each one likes or dislikes or is confused by a different part of your story.

Or you decide to go to AWP. Yes, you are going to go to the largest writers conference for five days. You go to a panel on how to publish a book without an agent. You go to a panel on how to speak your truth, how to write a blog, what genre is best for you. In between panels you get a map of the book fair with millions of books for sale, walk aisle after aisle, booth after booth of small-press publishers, large-press publishers, literary magazine editors, MFA programs, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenplays, graphic novels, playwriting, agents, and in-house readings with a floor plan that makes any museum look like a bathroom stall. You stagger off after drinking your way through a pariah of off-site parties and readings each night with a bag full of books, brochures, pamphlets, buttons, stickers and business cards and rush to make your flight back home.

Do you remember whom you met? You look on your phone and see tons of photos of you with other writers or publishers or were they editors? Do any of the notes you made make sense? Why do you feel so depressed? Did you lie in bed for a week after it was over wondering why you have no energy to even open your computer? You might remember snippets of introductions of authors who have bios that go on like breakdowns. You remember staring out over a balcony at what looked to be enough people to fill a city and think that every one of them has written at least one book, if not more, trying not to calculate. Your back aches and your credit card is maxed out.

And while you’re lying in that bed, do you remember that first desk you sat beneath? Not the one at school, but the one your mom bought you for five bucks at the school rummage sale that waited for you every day against a corner of your room. And do you remember that you wanted to be dead when you were three? And when you got that writing desk with paper and sat at it when you were eight, it was the first time that you found a way to disappear and appear without anyone seeing at the same time.

You sit in a therapist’s office with headphones on and a beep that goes back and forth. “What do you see,” asks the therapist? Your eyes are closed. Aren’t those images of snapshots you saw when you were a kid? Yeah, you see your Dad. And yeah, you are shaking. “No,” you hear yourself think. “Nothing is clear,” you say. “It’s a blur of images.”  You can’t be sure of any of them, even if you spend an entire lifetime trying to hide the tremors that unhinge you.

You do know one thing, for sure. Writing is the only reason you’re still alive, whether anyone reads it or not.

Theft
by Meg Tuite
The girl didn’t want all the necklaces from the store rack that she slipped into her coat pocket the size of a rural mailbox opening, but did want friends to notice that she wasn’t as afraid as the tremors that spread across her face like the make-up and lipstick she just palmed in her hand that would only make her imperfections brighter, more shrill when one of her friends got too close to her and whispered  secrets about other girls that could have been her pimples, flat chest, crazy thoughts, secrets that her mom told her would save her from the captivity of convention, anchor her within her own breed of otherness, keep her from walking within the lines as her mother slipped a pen and notebook into the girl’s pocket and went back to confiscating the wail of wind in stranger’s depressed faces, demolished buildings, the bruised colors of the girl’s interior with a paintbrush, humming a soft, velvet tune that the girl wanted to crawl inside larger than her bulging pocket filled with sparkly trinkets she would hand out to friends at school the next day.  

(Published in MadHatter’s Review)

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Meg Tuite is author of two short story collections, Bound By Blue(Sententia Books, 2013) and Domestic Apparition () San Francisco Bay Press, 2011), and four chapbooks. She won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award from Artistically Declined Press for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging (2014) written with Heather Fowler and Michelle Reale. She teaches at Santa Fe Community College, and is a columnist at Connotation Press and JMWW. Her blog: http://megtuite.com
Hollow Gestures” nominated for Best of the Web at Blue Lyra Review
Fingerprints,” ekphrastic flash w/ art, music on video published by Michael Cooper, Orange Monkey Publishing.
“Worn-Out Fabric” published in People Holding
Video book trailer for “Grace Notes” with David Tomaloff and me; video by Marc Neys
Root People” published in Nervous Breakdown


JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Back to Age 9

Available at Amazon

by Len Kuntz

When I was a boy, there was always a lot of turmoil in our house, things I didn’t understand. I was painfully shy and had no friends, so I didn’t know how normal families lived, yet I knew ours was different.

The only place I felt safe was the basement bathroom where no one ever went. Sometimes late in the evening I would wedge myself between the sink and toilet, sitting over the heat vent because warmth, too, signified a kind of safety, as our house was always quite cold, because heat cost money and that was another thing we lacked.

I was around nine when this habit started. I’d stay up for hours, holed away in the bathroom, reading Gulliver’s Travelsor any other book I’d gotten from the library. Reading was escapism, something that felt like wonder, something I desperately needed.

School was another safe place and one semester in fourth grade, we focused on creative writing. The teacher assigned us four different writing prompts each day and we were to pick one to write about. I’d always choose all four because it seemed a shame to waste a good story idea, even if it wasn’t mine.

At the end of the year, my teacher pulled me aside and said, “You should think about being a writer when you grow up.” I thought she was joking at first, but the more I thought about it, the more the idea became a kind of dream that I carried around with me, tucked away safely in my shirt pocket, right beside my heart.

That summer our garage burned down and we were laying the foundation for a new one. All of us boys were helping out. (Len is on the far right at the end of the wagon) My brothers were very good with their hands, as well as my father, who was a mechanic. Me, I wore puka shells, had long, David Cassidy hair, and read poetry. My assisting simply meant handing over tools.


At one point we broke for lunch and as my brothers left, I was alone with my Dad, something kind of rare, but for whatever reason I felt brave enough to say, “Hey, Dad, I figured out what I want to be when I grow up.” To wit, he asked, “Yeah, what’s that?” He was staring at me then, but I still told him, “I want to be a writer.” Without hesitating, as if he knew what I was going to say all along, he said, “Quit your fucking dreaming. How’re you going to eat on that?”


Though it was a knife to the heart, I don’t think he meant it that way. We were poor. The way you made a living was with your hands and hard labor. He just couldn’t fathom being able to feed yourself, let alone a family, by writing words.

But what he’d said quashed my dream and so as I got older, I took a more pragmatic path and ended up having a corporate career.

More than thirty years later, I retired early and started writing full-time. This was around 2009. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know there were online journals and had never even heard of the term “Flash Fiction.” But once I discovered them, I became a student.

It was easy to assess who the top writers were at that time, so I picked a handful—Roxane Gay, Kim Chinquee, Kathy Fish, xTx, Meg Pokrass—and I read everything they wrote, read it forward and backward. Then I started submitting to the same places I’d seen them published, not realizing that for a novice like me, some of those places are extremely hard to get into. But that bit of naivety helped as my first few pieces landed in some of the top sites—Juked, Elimae, Storyglossia and others.

Along the way, I kept trying to be a student of the craft.  Additionally, I watched people like Matt Bell, who really worked hard at immersing himself in the writing community, and I tried, in my own way, to emulate what he had accomplished. What I never expected is how easy it would be, how welcoming and supportive other writers are. And it didn’t occur to me until later that, as writers, we’re all boats in the same ocean, just using different oars.

It’s a joy and a gift to be able to create and engage with other writers. It’s like finding your soul mate and realizing how lucky you are, never taking it for granted.

It’s been a long, sometimes crooked, road since I was that nine year old boy, but when I’m reading something that really sings, or when I’m totally engrossed while I’m writing, I think I’m still him. I’m warm and I’m safe. I’m quite happy.


                                                        Beautiful Violence 


Here’s what happens:

She thinks this is forever.  You love her.  You say so regularly.  Most of the time, you’re kind.  Occasionally, you’re a bastard because you have fists and impulses that are difficult to quell.
           
Still you’re her best thing ever.  She tells you that often, especially during sex–those seldom, soft-churning, almost-like-lovers, sex times.

And so a home movie or two is fine.  She’ll do whatever.  

Really, whatever.   Film all you want.  It’ll be ours to watch alone, titillating. 

Yes, she actually says that.

And then, out of the blue, the impulses and fists become overactive, finding flesh and bone, making hamburger over and over until she finally leaves you.

Stupid Bitch, why’d it take so long? 

But you still have the movie.  It’s just sitting there inside your phone, so you download it to a site where everyone can see what a ruler you are of women, how you dominate them, how they do whatever you command, and the video gets so many hits that you somehow start to make an income from it, plus your face is pixeled out, but not hers, because it’s important for her agony to be choreographed.

History—those tortured, yet intimate moments—is recorded from mere memories.  Easy peasy.  Yay!

And so you strut in front of a mirror naked, fists raised toward the ceiling, noticing how large your gut’s gotten, everything bigger now—ego, bravado—though not your understanding of love, sex, or how violence can possibly be a thing of beauty.

 _______________________________









Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State, an editor at the online magazine Literary Orphans, and the author of I’m Not Supposed To Be Here And Neither Are You out now from Unknown Press. You can also find him at lenkuntz.blogspot.com


JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Mirko and other Muses

by Andrew Stancek


“You will bail us out, won’t you, sweet Mami,” Mirko laughed, at the conclusion of my 2011 story called “Moving On.” That last line from the first of my Mirko tales marks a beginning.  

At the time, my stories, reverberating with the influences of Chekhov, Faulkner, Munro and other luminaries, were only taking me down a death spiral.  But Mirko, a hooligan in Bratislava in the sixties, was different.  He shook me, called me by name and said, “Come, let’s do a little slumming.  We’ll have a blast.”  

In that flash story he is thrown out of home by his mother and handed over to a father only marginally more responsible than he is. Mirko pushes all the buttons.  He came, he told, he departed.  Almost thirty of his misadventures have since been shared with readers.  I’ve moved to other narrators, to other tales.  But Mirko’s in-your-face attitude, his eagerness to rush in regardless of consequences, was a breakthrough.  I continue to wrestle with long stories and a whale of a novel while finding the challenges and possibilities of flash liberating. 
The world of Bratislava, of the sixties, of my childhood, has been fertile soil.  I have dreamt of that world all my life, and now I tinker with the right words.  Other preoccupations have followed:  flying, food, war, fatherhood and sonhood, death. 
Adam Zajac, in my serialized novella Wingy Unbound, has discovered the secret of flying which I have longed for ever since watching the gulls soaring over the Danube. A book of my early childhood called Perutenka concludes with the heroine growing wings and flying off, and ever since, imprisoned by one limitation or another, (too young, too clumsy, too daydreamy, too, too, too) I have longed to soar like the gulls, and do so with my protagonists.

Frequently, as I sit at my computer in southwestern Ontario, I suddenly inhale the sweet cherry aroma of bublanina in my grandmother’s kitchen, my mouth fills with the tang of bryndzove halusky, and I am transported to Bratislava, my magic kingdom. I am again at my grandfather’s side as his magician hands turn empty boxes of chocolates full; we ramble through the woods and return with a basketful of fragrant summer cep mushrooms, hands sticky with the juice of berries, both crowned with a wreath woven of field flowers. I am again beaten in dark passageways by groups of jeering hoodlums; my palms throb after an encounter with the bullying Comrade Houskova’s idea of appropriate classroom punishment. My father and I make our Easter sibacka rounds, greeted by neighbors with chocolates for the youngster and a glass of something to take the morning stiffness out for him, culminating in full-voiced singing of folk songs. From those kernels, stories grow.


I dream of my father, his early escapades with me, his dark moods, his absences, his betrayals, his death.  In my eulogy at his funeral I shared the story of how he, a non-swimmer, rescued me when a sudden undertow grabbed my raft, and I only cried in terror.  As a three year-old I accompanied my parents, still married, to Rosutec Mountain in the Tatras, where I scrambled up a bank, fell, looked back, to see a cow low in my face.  My father yelled, “Hybaj, kravisko”, (Get away, huge cow), and that of course became a family tale, and another of my stories. My darker memories of him culminate in my stories of sons cutting down the rope around father necks.
War is the context in that novel I keep struggling with, which I will perhaps, one day, finally bring to a conclusion.  I have seen tanks first-hand, rumbling through the streets of my occupied homeland.  After immersing myself in research to ensure I avoid missteps, I walk away from it, time and time again.  But it will come.  It continues to bubble in me – it has to come out.
So I wake in the morning, see the glint of light on broken glass, hear the echo of an owl hoot, smell cinnamon and nutmeg folded into apple strudel.  My fingers race on the keyboard.  A story pours out.  I break off, like Sheherazade in The Arabian Nights who managed to postpone her death, night after night.  A thousand stories later, she was deemed worthy of living on.  I have many stories yet left to tell.  Perhaps even a thousand and one.

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Andrew Stancek entertains Muses in southwestern Ontario.  His work has appeared in Tin House online, Every Day Fiction, fwriction, Vestal Press, Pure Slush, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and Camroc Press Review, among others.  He’s been a winner in the Flash Fiction Chronicles and Gemini Fiction Magazine contests and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Read Andrew Stancek’s work:

Horses’ Heads



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JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Syntax makes me hot

 by Sally Reno
It took 3 days to read on radio

I have always written short. I remember, before I was school-aged, composing little notes. As soon as I knew the alphabet, I had things to say. Very short things. This because my method was to ask my mother to spell out for me aloud the words I wanted. I somehow sensed that she was not going to be willing to spell me through anything like a Russian novel.

By 17, I was writing and publishing what would be called flash fiction today. The peculiarity of this was noted, but not always reviled. There was a lot more experimenting with form then than there is now.

“To irony, ambiguity, and tension–Andother things I do not wish to mention.”

~Kenneth Koch 

At Columbia University, I was fortunate in being able to take a poetry writing class with Kenneth Koch, a thing well known to be a life changing experience. He taught us never to undervalue either simplicity or surprise.
Lady Murasaki composes flash fiction circa 1000 C.E.
The magic words, “flash fiction” came along only recently, but people have always written very short fiction. The form has a history millennia longer than the long forms like novels. Romans of the classical age, early medieval Japanese court ladies, and 17th century Frenchwomen have been especial masters of the craft.
The next issue of blink-ink print, coming in early April and themed, “Mystery Train” will lead off with a 40-word microfiction by Petronius Arbiter, written about 54 A.D. Petronius lived in Cumae and had been to see the Cumaean Sybil. He constructed a couple of stellar sentences about the experience. When, eventually, he built a scene in the Satyriconaround them, the purport of the scene was to make fun of anyone who would say anything so preposterous as those two sentences. Yet, they remain one of the best pairs of sentences in all of literature.
I love sentences. Most writers will tell you they love words. Words are good, but sentences are the bees’ knees. Syntax makes me hot.
I have been a hired-gun writer most of my working life and have only gotten back to writing the things I wish to say in the last decade or so.
I began as a political speechwriter, which was my introduction to writing comedy. A joke I wrote for the Mayor of NYC to tell on The Tonight Show provoked more hate mail than anything the show had received up to that point—an early career triumph that I am unlikely to live long enough to top.
I am also a radio-head, another exercise in writing short best defined as getting to the point immediately or sooner. It also teaches the difference between writing for the eye and writing for the ear.
The Mayor tells a joke.

The best radio also breaks the waves of form. At WBAI, we read every word of War and Peace on-air. This was accomplished by relays of readers working around the clock. My best recollection is that it took about three days. We also pioneered naked radio, claiming to be broadcasting with no clothes on. We invited listeners to come down to the studio, take off their clothes and join us. It was a fine measure of living in heady times that so many people took us up on that offer.

This was before the corporate Kraken crushed the life out of broadcasting, but even then, the commercial spots were heinous. The effect of that, in legal language, was that of an ‘attractive nuisance’—something I could not resist messing with. To my knowledge, I was the first (and probably the last) to write and produce radio commercials that exploited multi-tracking capabilities around tiny whacked stories.  I recorded 30 and 60 second stories with bed music and the commercial message woven through them on side and travel tracks. Thus, I learned what is actually at stake when we say, “in a minute.”
Perhaps because of time spent telling other people’s stories, I like to throw some elbows in my writing. I like it even better when I hit something.
I am among those writers who need to get a first line down in order to release the goat pen of babble. That first line is often the first line of the finished piece but not always. Sometimes that first sentence is entirely gone when the piece is finished—the sacrificial sentence. I suppose this amounts to being mostly muse-driven. As such I don’t benefit from disciplines like writing at the same time every day or setting a daily quota of words or pages. Sometimes a whole piece will leap from my head fully-formed. Only the white goddess knows why.

See Sally Reno in action at the January F-Bomb event: MOUTH CRIMES with Gay Degani and hosted by Kathy Fish:


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Sally Reno’s fiction has been among the winners of  National Public Radio’s Three Minute Fiction Contest, Moon Milk Review’s Prosetry Contest, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in a vaporish grotto where she serves as Pythoness to blink-ink print and Haruspex for Shining Mountains Press.

Author photo by Jesse Coley

Giving Context to Structure

Reprinted from an article that appeared in Flash Fiction Chronicles in June, 2009

Content, structure, and language work together


No one element can make a story work. Many writers use a series of steps—brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revision, editing, and proofreading—to juggle content, structure, and language. The order of each step is a matter of choice and fluctuates with story ideas. Here is my preference:

  •  To create content: brainstorm, free-write, draft a first draft
  •  To apply structure: outline first draft, then draft second draft
  •  To perfect language: revise, edit, and proofread

Content refers to the subject matter of a story


Allow the story to blossom
The who, what, when, where, and how of a specific idea.

A character (the protagonist) finds himself in a difficult situation at a certain time and place and must deal with that situation. 
How the protagonist deals with the situation depends on the protagonist’s wants, character, and the nature of the obstacles he must overcome.

Content provides the “story question or problem” that propels the protagonist through the plot and ultimately reveals a universal theme, a jolt, an epiphany, some small observance of life.
Content evolves from a premise, notes, a rough draft, research, observation, plus the attitudes and concerns of the writer.

Structure refers to the basic organization of a story


Unfold the story for maximum effect
Just as a play is divided into three acts, most stories have three main segments.

The opening (Act 1) gives a story focus and meaning by providing the premise, setting, and tone of the story as well as hints at the nature of obstacles the protagonist will face.

The main body of the story (Act 2, which I like to split into 2A and 2B) focuses on the protagonist’s actions to resolve the story problem.

The conclusion (Act 3) reveals the results of the protagonist’s struggle and infuses that struggle with meaning.

Each segment of a story has a similar structure: the overall story as well as each chapter, each scene within the chapter, each beat within the scene

Structure also involves other devices such as set-ups and pay-offs, sub-plots, and the shaping of structure specifically to content.

Structure evolves from outlines, note-taking, drafts or a combination of the three.

Language refers the diction and style used to express a story’s idea


Choose precise language
Diction refers the specific words that are chosen.

Style refers to how those words are combined, the order, the length of sentences and includes the use of literary devices such as metaphor, symbolism, and allusion.
Grammar keeps writing clear and understandable.
Language evolves from revision and rhythm.



Process is what brings these three basic components of composition together


The rough draft is about content…making it up.The second draft is about structure…making sense.The third draft is about language…making it clear.The fourth draft is about perfection…making it publishable.

Actually, the steps to the writing process bleed into each other like ink dropped from a leaky pen over one spot. The blotches don’t land in exactly the same place, but they seep beyond each other’s borders, and create a new kind of art.

Interview with Susan Lewis: Is it Poetry, Prose Poem, or Flash?

Susan Lewis lives in New York City and edits Posit. She is the author of How to be Another (Červená Barva Press, 2014), State of the Union (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014), The Following Message (White Knuckle Press, 2013), At Times Your Lines (Argotist Ebooks, 2012), Some Assembly Required (Dancing Girl Press, 2011), Commodity Fetishism, winner of the 2009 Červená Barva Press Chapbook Award, and Animal Husbandry (Finishing Line Press, 2008).
Gay Degani: I’ve read many of your poems – especially your prose poems – but before we get started with discussing that subject, I thought my first question should be more about you, for me and the readers to get to know you. Can you tell me a little more about what brought you to writing? I noticed from your extended biography that you went to law school. Being a lawyer means lots and lots of writing, did that play any part in your decision to turn to writing?

Susan Lewis: It’s true that law involves plenty of writing – and reading. That was probably why I thought I might be better suited to the field than I was! I’d been a bookworm since I was tiny: a bit sickly, I was always reading. I was also taken all over the world (school be damned!) by my parents, who were globe-trotting Hollywood producers – and spent a lot of time in planes, trains, cars, and hotel rooms – reading.

By the time I was a teenager I had powered through the canon. As for writing, when I was six or seven, I fell in love with a slim volume of poems by Basho, and started writing Haiku, Tanka, etc. I kept writing poetry, plays, and short stories until I went to college, where I studied – and therefore wrote – literature and film criticism. After which I wanted to be “relevant” and “engaged” in social justice – hence my foray into law. The fact is law taught me plenty about discipline and accuracy. But it was not a great fit. I’m no warrior – I’ve always loathed competition. And intellectually, I’m more intuitive than methodical, preferring insight to argumentation, implication to explication.

GD: What launched you from law to writing, the actual step between pragmatic practice to creative work? How did that evolve for you?

SL: Ah, well, like almost everything I’ve ever decided to “start,” I had no idea what I was getting into when I “tried” writing! After getting my BA in only three years, going straight through law school, and finishing a very demanding stint as a law clerk to a US District Court judge, I decided to nourish my soul by “taking a year off” to write. 

Well, that year turned into a few, during which I discovered, to my chagrin, that I had no desire to go back into law. For a while I wrote screenplays, but discovered that world wasn’t right for me either. So I decided to pursue an MFA in fiction, which is all I wrote for many years. Then I morphed (yet again!) into a poet, albeit one with a foot still in the narrative door. But the fact is I’ve never lost my pragmatic side: so alongside the writing, I taught for a few years, and then served as a fiction editor, poetry editor, guest editor, managing editor, and finally, founding editor of the journal I run now (Posit).

GD: Let’s talk about your work!! One of the reasons I wanted to have an opportunity to interview you is because you do have one foot wholly into poetry and the other foot straddling the rather unclear line between poetry and fiction, what some people would call “prose poetry.” I began thinking about this “unclear line” between the two when I read one of my stories at an event and received several compliments on my poem! It was narrative flash, but because it was read aloud, I suppose it was harder to tell.

When I met you earlier this year, you introduced yourself first as a poet, then laughed and said something about how your poems sometimes merge with fiction (not your exact words, my apologies). I wanted to know more. What about prose poems? Are there distinct features to each side of the line, prose v. poem? Does it matter what we call them?

SL: Gay, I love these questions. In fact, the prose poem is a form with a venerable history (dating back to Beaudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé), and so yes, I believe it is a term with meaning, and not a shallow or arbitrary label, which is not to say that many prose pieces might not reasonably reside in more than one category.

From Beaudelaire
First and foremost, it comes down to the author’s intention/understanding – in which tradition she would like her work to be situated. But it’s also a question of the publisher’s understanding. For instance, although I tend to consider most of my short prose pieces poems, I have had a number of them published “across the aisle,” as flash fiction! And that’s fine with me – I’m not rigid about the label. But I do think there are ramifications.

For instance, in the readership. As we both know, fiction and poetry readers are pretty distinct populations, with very little overlap. (As are, to a significant extent, their publishers). Naturally, they’ll view the work from quite different frames of reference. This also speaks to how the author wants her work approached – which of its features she’s hoping readers will engage.

For myself, I’ve written most, but not all, of my short prose pieces in the belief that I was writing poetry – without necessarily knowing, during the composition process, whether they would end up lineated or in blocks. I also considered them poetry partly because I was inspired by, and responding to, the work of writers generally considered “poets.” In addition, I envisioned poetry readers as their “target audience.” On the other hand, for years I wrote short stories, even very short “flash” pieces, which were informed by a consciousness of, and admiration for, an entirely different literary corpus. (As were my intended readers).

As for what makes fiction “fiction,” and what makes poetry “poetry” – any generalization can be shattered by the right counterexample. Nonetheless, casting a piece as a work of fiction invites comparison to literature that tends to emphasize character, description, dramatic arc, etc. Poetry, on the other hand, is presumed (or permitted) to be more about form or language itself, with a more primary focus on rhythm, texture, music, argument, etc. But we don’t have to look at prose poetry to see the lines blur; consider, on the one hand, Beckett’s fiction (or even Joyce’s); and narrative poetry on the other (Dante, Milton, Browning, Tennyson, etc.)

GD: I love learning about this. To introduce readers to your work, I selected one I particularly like that was published in the Brooklyn Rail earlier this year. What draws me to this work is the wordplay throughout, the way so many words and phrases echo each other. For example,

From: “Say What You Want”

Reach across this bloody chamber floor, clamor with comrades clambering for pale rays grasped like straws, gasped & ghostly. Sipping light like salamanders, cave-bound.

“Chamber,” “clamor,” and “comrades clambering” as well as “grasped” and “gasped” and “light” “like.” Is this what’s called an internal rhyming scheme? I’ve read poems here and there over the years, but haven’t studied them since college so the terminology is not part of my personal lexicon. 

Can you talk a little bit about the four pieces published under the heading from State of the Union

Readers of this interview can find them here: Brooklyn Rail/Susan Lewis

SL: I’m glad you like those pieces! I’m not sure I’d use the word “scheme,” but what you are identifying are indeed internal rhymes (as well as other poetic devices, such as alliteration and assonance). Since these are prose poems, as opposed to lineated verse, there are no line or stanzaic, breaks – so in a sense, every prosodic device is “internal.”

Those pieces are from my most recent chapbook, State of the Union, a group of twenty-five prose poems struggling, more and less playfully, as well as more and less abstractly, with the question of union – on the personal as well as social scale. I’m interested in the energy and provocation generated by wrestling to unite, or at least encompass, oppositions.

It strikes me as a quixotic struggle parallel to our struggle as humans, which I think is both imperative and impossible, to “only connect,” as Forster so succinctly admonished. Just consider the irony of that word, “only!” In a sense I’m just reaching for the artistry of Forster’s epigraph – using compression to encompass sincerity and irony, darkness and light, bleakness and humor.  

That little book has been fortunate to receive several generous reviews, but one that particularly moved me was by Moira Richards in a June issue of the Cape Times, treating my poems as relevant to the struggle for unity and dialogue in South Africa!

GD: You really know your stuff. What advice would you give a writer who finds herself (or himself) trying to decide which way to write a piece, as poetry or prose? In other words, if they feel they need to decide because they’re buried in a muddle of words they like, what criteria would you have them use?

SL: First, I’d think about which kind of reader I was wishing for. Then, I’d try writing it one way and if it flowed, I’d take that as a good sign. If the process stalled, or seemed to be stultified by the task of fitting into that particular form, I’d try changing it up, and see what happens. I believe in letting go and listening – in letting the piece you’re writing tell you what it wants to be – which can sometimes be surprisingly far from our original intentions.

GD: And my last question, could you please name your inspirations in life and in writing?

SL: Wow! The first thing I need to do is add the words “some of” before “your!” Writers who have inspired me include, but are definitely not limited to: Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Julio Cortazar, Russell Edson, Michael Palmer, Bin Ramke, John Ashbery, Jose Saramago, Jim Crace, Yasunari Kawabata, Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee…not to mention the extraordinary writers I continue to discover almost every day.

In line with my fondness for duality, I’m inspired by two radically dissimilar groups of people in my life. There are those with the spirit to endure and even thrive, despite the often harsh challenges life throws at them. Others decline the refuge of optimistic delusion, and brave the pain caused by facing reality head-on. Their common denominator is courage, which inspires me in every shape and size.

***
New from Susan Lewis:

This Visit
BlazeVOX [books]
Paperback: 104 pages
ISBN: 978-60964-169-6
$16
cover art by Michael Janis

An elegy to this visit of the living to our own existence, This Visit is a pastiche of lyrical dissonances assembled from intimate voices yearning for connection. The world of these poems is constantly struggling to take form, like Michelangelo’s slaves emerging from the half-hewn stone, or Duchamp’s nude descending a multitude of linguistic staircases by way of half-lines, half-steps, snatches of overheard lines, and the primordial rhythms and rhymes ingrained in our bones.