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Flash Fiction–Short Short Story or Prose Poem?

August 9, 2013

1 Screen Shot 2013-08-09 at 10.38.27 AM  I am still getting used to flash. Not merely as a genre, but as a concept. It takes some getting used to. Just listen to the name. Flash. Whoosh. Pow. Any artform that sounds like an audiographic ejaculate from a superheroic comic — well, that would make anyone nervous.

When mining the interior of a concept, one can work hands-on from the perspective of a practitioner or from the perspective of a philosopher who keeps his intellectual distance. I have approached flash’s friction warmly, doggedly, and from both vantages.

There are clearly two schools. One derives from Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour.” It wants flash to be just like other great short fiction, only shorter. It wants character, story, tension, plot, development–the whole enchilada–but it wants it in an economical, Totino’s (gross!) bite-sized delivery system of one thousand words or less.

The second school has a more ambiguous origin because any terse scene that could exist –and after some creative editing does–exist in a self-contained form could qualify, no matter how long the original poem from which it is excerpted. Sorry Holderlein and Rimbaud, the Greeks have you beat again.

This kind emerges with its one voluptuous constraint *!BREVITY!* on shimmering display within its Venusian conch shell, naked and afraid in a world of stanzaic order, covering itself with Poe’s purloined rules like those conveniently placed fronds in portraits from Eden.

Albrecht Dürer (1507)

Albrecht Dürer (1507)

Extrapolating from Poe’s arguments about the defining function of length in short fiction, we might reason that if the primary constraint defining flash is its dramatic curtailment, then a degree of aesthetic compensation may occur in such works, exerting itself on the language.

The logic goes like this: A short story about a break-up could have interesting characters or twists (it probably doesn’t given the hackneyed subject matter, but for the sake of Hypothesis–and his Greek twin Hyperbole–let’s just imagine that it could), but an incredibly short short story about a break-up would by the very fact of its brevity cause readers to expect something more in the language beyond content.

Whether that aesthetic surplus is intentionally put there in every word, every sentence, or not is beside the point. A very very short piece of writing naturally draws its reader’s attention to the form of its construction. Advocates of this school champion  flash for providing unique opportunities for the intersection of prose and poetry.

The emphasis on language (afforded by brevity) enables the flashes of this school to let go of many of the rules associated with conventional story telling. Rather than tell a story that relies on causal, chronological, or emotional coherence, these flashes are often more surreal. They are rather like prose poems without wearing any of the poet’s official humbuggery–the badge, cone hat, and neon vest, for instance.

(In a perfect world, poets would go about so the rest of us could spot them easily, perhaps dressed like construction workers, lazing about in clusters along roads, smoking and chatting next to huge machines, brandishing clipboards in gloved hands and occasionally waving elaborate flags angrily at you as you drive by).

Slide2In any case, there are some who want storyier flashes and others who want the poemier kind. The key is that neither group of gatekeepers will admit which side they prefer their verbal cattle to enter. They can tell by the intonation of the bleating or by the particular wag of a curled tail what kind of hog you are and what kind of mutton you write.

That’s their fun, I suppose, the deciphering and the corralling of pork, prose, and poem. The trick now is to figure it out yourself. Which pen is yours?

Recently, I’ve split the difference and embarked upon an entirely new kind of piece–the flash non-fiction. Three cheers for hybridity. Or should we think of it as a type of hybridity calculus, since flash non-fiction is like the tangent of a tangent?

I want to thank the editors of Shadowbox for giving my piece a shot. It’s a poetic, storyish clipping from an actual event that happened to me.

The experience has left me humbly and gloriously confused anew, so much so that I am brought to this found poem, a mash-up in celebration of weird beginnings.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a screaming comes across the sky

“Let us go then, you and I.” It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness. Someone must have slandered Josef K.,

for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.

Hope is the thing with feathers. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond. A story has no beginning or end;

arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.

  1. Michael, thank you for this orientation to flash. I’ve been struggling to figure out what it is, and how to do it, and your examination of it here leaves me “humbly and gloriously confused anew,” in the best way, by which I mean, inspired. Your shout-out to Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” helps me make sense of the roots of the form. And your mash-up is brilliant; you even found a great way to stick the landing with those slant rhymes! Thanks for an illuminating and enjoyable read.

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