ABCs of Flash Writing: P is for Poetry

Posted by on May 3, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Flash Writing: P is for Poetry

Where Poetry Ends and Flash Begins

Always be a poet, even in prose.
—Charles Baudelaire

The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor.

All great art transcends genre. The artist works in a particular vein, adopts conventions, follows rules, but at some point, the true piece of art lifts off, levitates, breaks free from convention, forgets rules, and blurs the lines of genre. That might be obvious, but it’s worth keeping in mind when it comes to the topic at hand. Flash fiction is one of contemporary literature’s greatest proving grounds for the shattering of genre boundaries. The distinction between prose poetry and fiction seems to matter little in flash.

As a poet, I can say that poetry has forgotten to take lessons from fiction, whereas fiction seems to continually be drawing on the generative forces of poetry, the root of which is metaphor. The ability to compare disparate things, to overlay images in order to produce a new, original, more ineffable image is one of language’s greatest pleasures. This has never been lost on fiction writers. But with the rising popularity of flash fiction, we see more poetic techniques sneaking across the aisle. Economy of language and narrative compression are no doubt elements native to poetry that are being adopted by the authors of flash fiction. There’s also in flash a heightened attention to rhythm and to the music of language.

This incorporation of poetic techniques into the writing of short fiction blurs the line between flash and prose poetry. Incidentally, the first flash fiction piece I published with Spry was originally submitted as a prose poem, but shuffled over to flash by the editors. Many prose poems can just as easily be labeled as flash, and vice versa. As such, we shouldn’t get too hung up on the labels. For in any given piece of flash, the genres of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction can all be in play.

Consider one of contemporary poetry’s most famous prose poems, “The Colonel,” by Carolyn Forche. A landmark in poetry of witness, Forche’s prose poem unreels from the start in short, direct, rather prosaic sentences:  “What you have heard is true. I was in his house.” The poem is basically an accretion of concrete details that escalate from the banal (“coffee and sugar,” “daily papers, pet dogs,” “green mangoes, salt, a type of bread”) to the horrifying (“many human ears on the table”). At face value, it’s a pretty straightforward narrative:  we went to the colonel’s house, we ate dinner, we talked, the colonel intimidated and terrified us, the end. The poem is “poetic” because of its compression and unity, and because of its haunting simile, when the narrator likens the human ears the Colonel has spilled onto the table to “dried peach halves.” The fact that this is the only direct metaphor in the poem makes it stand out all the more. Visceral, accurate, memorable, this comparison of the grotesque to the commonplace is the crescendo of the piece, the note that keeps on ringing long after we’ve left the poem. But, we might wonder if “The Colonel” were written today would it still be labeled as prose poetry. According contemporary standards, we’d probably call it flash, or a micro-essay. Forche might still insist that it’s a prose poem because of its semiautobiographical nature, because the poet seems to present herself as the narrator. This draws our attention to a growing rift between poetry and fiction:  poetry mainly comes directly from and represents personal experience, whereas fiction largely engages the imagined experiences of others. There are of course countless exceptions to this rule, but it’s a trend that can be really limiting for the poet and the fiction writer alike.

We need to learn everything we can from all genres, especially with the flash/prose- poetry/micro-essay triumvirate, and apply those lessons as we see fit. Make the best piece of art possible and forget the labels. A former professor, the fiction writer and poet, Chris Abani, once said that there are many genres, but only one craft. I could claim that all writing springs from poetic intuition, but that’d sound like genre-bias (even though it might be true). That “The Colonel” can fit nicely in a variety of categories is a testament of its strength as a great piece of art—it’s beyond genre. And I think that’s what writers of flash should aspire to create:  amalgams, hybrid beasts, fierce new species ready for flight.   

Greg Emilio is a Southern California native whose poetry and essays have appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Miramar, Permafrost, Pleiades, Spillway, and World Literature Today. Recently, he was first runner up in Spoon River Poetry Review’s 2017 Editor’s Prize, and in 2015 won the Pangaea Prize from The Poet’s Billow. A devout bon vivant, he bartends while pursuing his PhD in English at Georgia State University in Atlanta.