Saturday 16 January 2010


People not uncommonly say that short stories are more like poetry than novels. Some short, single-focus stories may well be mistaken for poetry, just as some poetry gets called "chopped-up prose". In the journey from story to poem there used to be a no-man's land of unpublishable short prose. The only hope of publication for these pieces was in poetry magazines. Texts in the format of recipes or shopping lists became poems. Anecdotes and vignettes couldn't be prose-lineated in poetry magazines because they weren't "Prose Poems" - a term that had rather been taken over by surrealists and erstwhile experimentalists (Baudelaire, Russel Edson etc.) So they got a line-breaks make-over.

Now the literary landscape's changed - we have Flash. Flash isn't a genre or a mode. Definitions vary, but in practise it's short (less than 1000 words, sometimes a lot less) and doesn't use poetic line-breaks (though it may still use line-breaks the way that adverts, lists, etc use them). Usually it employs narrative, character or plot, but sometimes it uses juxtaposition. The style may be poetic without it needing to be a poem, though the more it jettisons traditional story features (character, plot, length) and adopts poetic ones (sound effects, form) the more like a poem it will be.

I think Flash writers reading some poetry magazines for the first time might see familiar material but might wonder about all the line-breaks - "It's Flash with hiccups". Some free verse writers don't like adjusting let alone removing line-breaks though they have trouble explaining what they are for - "they just feel right" ... "they just came out that way" ... "they give the imagery room to breathe", etc. The poets might indeed be able to point to a line-break that introduces a telling pause, neglecting to explain what the pauses presumably introduced by all the other line-breaks are for. The "free" in the phrase "free verse" means to me that the author's freed of the need to put line-breaks in just for the sake of a restrictive form, but that freedom has become a duty, with many poems adopting the regular rectangular stanzas of older formal poetry.

I don't think there's such a thing as a neutral line-break. They're never hidden characters. To me each line-break added is an effect that is potentially powerful but can as easily backfire. And yet, reading poetry one might believe that line-breaks don't have to pass stringent tests to justify their existence the way that adverbs do. Irrelevant ones are politely ignored, like someone's speech impediment. Take Catherine Smith's "Snakebite" (in the Forward book of poetry 2009). It's 13 3-line stanzas ending with "Tomorrow/ we'll feel sick as dogs. But tonight,/ here, under a bright, full moon,// we're amazing, and as we hug/ on my doorstep, I taste you,/ kiss the snakebite off your lips". If you gave a point for each line-break that did something and deducted a point for line-breaks that did nothing (or less than nothing), I don't think you'd come out with a positive score. It's not an auto-cue text, it's literature, so why not let the story speak for itself? "If in doubt, leave it out" is a maxim that can be applied to more than words. Flash takes the radical approach of eliminating the poetical line-break.

I think many poems written in the past few decades in retrospect fall more appropriately in the Flash category - poems like Carolyn Forche's The Colonel for example. Simon Armitage's poems in the Winter 2009 issue of "The Rialto" (a poetry magazine) looked very Flashy to me. Some magazines ("Tears in the Fence", for example) avoid genre classification by not labelling sections "Prose" and "Poetry". Sometimes (as in a few New Writing anthologies by the British Council) there's a section entitled "Texts" for debatable works.

The 2 Flash writers I've followed most closely (it's hard to avoid them if you read online) are Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman. They both write poetry and short stories as well as Flash. Their Flash spans a spectrum. Pieces like Tania Hershman's "Hand" is where poetry takes over from Flash. The shortest piece in her The White Road and Other Stories book (Orange Prize Commended) is 102 words long. She's got Flash into the august "London Magazine", and in June 2010 BBC Radio 4 will present a week of her Flash. Vanessa Gebbie's contributed to "Field Guide to Flash Fiction" (Rose Metal Press), and has edited SHORT CIRCUIT - A Guide to the Art of the Short Story. Her Flash tends to be closer to prose, I think, which may be because she's more serious about her poetry (her work's been short-listed in the Bridport poetry competition).

Both are relatively new writers emerging without historical baggage into a world where Flash is a viable option and poetry isn't necessarily considered a higher form of art. It will be interesting to see how this new generation of writers redefines the genres.


  1. Great post, Tim. Loads to think about, mull over. But for the moment, can I say I love the thought of poetry being 'flash with hiccups'!

    (appropriate word for verification: CRAMPART...)

  2. Tim, thank you so much for the lovely mentions, and for a great post about flash fiction. I am often puzzled these days when I read a lit mag and something which I think is flash fiction is then described as poetry - I don't know what to call what I write, and in many ways would rather not have to. But when you submit, you have to choose: poetry editor or fiction editor? Labels, labels, labels... as someone who was put off poetry at school, and is now having my eyes opened to it in a totally new way, for me it is just about great writing!

  3. Is "The Time Traveller's Wife" SF? Who cares? What matters is whether you enjoy it. But labels can matter to readers and writers. Something labelled as "a sonnet" is asking to be read against a body of past sonnets. And if a trad sonnet won a Flash comp I suspect the organisers would receive complaints. But especially if its line-breaks are removed, why shouldn't a sonnet win? Prose has Forms just as poetry does, and what's wrong with rhythmic prose with loose rhyme? The sound effects intensify the emotion don't they? (sonneteers have been wasting their time for centuries otherwise). Is Flash going to ban iambics, regular sound effects, etc. If you were asked to edit the Faber Book of Flash what would you exclude - Found Texts? Acrostics? Langpo? Gertrude Stein? If Pater's prose got into Yeats' 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse surely it's a candidate for a Flash Anthology?
    I think once you're an anthologist or judge such arguments need to be rehearsed. Good luck!

  4. For what it's worth - is it the writer's job the worry about categories at all? Traditional poets, maybe, where form is imperative. otherwise, not, I suspect.

    Ive had pieces written as fiction accepted by poetry magazines. And pieces written as poetry accepted as prose, with (as you say!) a few line breaks edited out.

    I just love rhythms, and sounds, and can get totally carried away... need to watch that!

  5. sorry - typo.

    I meant 'is it the writer's job to worry...'

  6. "Anthologist or a judge", I am at least one of those right now, maybe I will get myself into trouble! Good.... I hate labels.

  7. Good for you, T.

    Why should a judge or an editor of flash work 'ban' anything, Tim? Yikes.

  8. If "ban" is too strong a word, how about "exclude"? Looking through the history of anthologies and competitions I think it's clear (and understandable) that there are exclusions. Sometimes they're explicit in the judge's report (I read in one report that the judges decided that 'the main prizewinners should touch on ... the big issues of death and love'), sometimes they're unspoken, but clear enough from the selections (no rhyme, no 'avant-garde', no twist-endings, etc - see 'anthology wars', etc). If an editor/judge of a big comp/antho says 'I like all types of writing, it's just that all the rhyme [or avant-garde] sent in wasn't very good' I tend to assume restricted taste rather than restricted quality. I think sometimes (especially with committees) the safe option is chosen so that the media doesn't cause a fuss and so sponsors and contestants aren't scared off.

  9. Well, speaking as a prose person who has judged OK quality comps, and edited a lit mag - I wouldn't have picked a 'twist in the tale' piece. That's cheating, and is not usually a sign of quality writing at all. Whereas a surprising ending which is organic... that's a different matter.

    I think it is natural that an editor or judge will have preferences. It is to be hoped that one of the preferences is for stunning quality.

    but that is just as regards prose - I know zilch abpout poetry as Im told regularly.

  10. At the moment I only follow one flash fiction writer faithfully and that’s Nathaniel Lee. His site is Mirrorshards and his calls his prose pieces “flitterfic” which is as good a term as flash fiction I guess. He leans quite heavily on what I think of as the “gag” format; each story ends in some kind of punch line. Often he has anthropomorphic creatures working in offices and other incongruous things like that. He crams a lot into the 100 words he allocates to these pieces. I read them every day in the same way I read the Garfield strip and they don’t take much longer. But none of them are memorable, not the flitterfics nor the Garfield strips. I’ve read hundreds of Garfield strips and they all start to blur after a while and yet there are a few that have stuck. A lot of flash fiction feels the same. And you can’t read a lot of it. It feels like a waste, like gobbling sweets. I’ve got a copy of Anthropology by Dan Rhodes and it’s much the same. They don’t satisfy.

    My favourite poem of all time is ‘Mr. Bleaney’ by Philip Larkin. It’s 223 words long. And it does satisfy. It has a narrative and is a very stripped-down poem. It would work perfectly well if you reformatted it as prose. So, why does it work? I think part of it is that it’s not trying to be clever. He simply says what he has to say and it just so happens all it takes is 223 words to say it.

    I have written a grand total of four flash pieces in my life. Three of them are actually tiny dialogues. ‘Ugly Truths’, the longest, has 435 words. It’s online here if you want to have a look at it. It’s a story I’m very fond of and it was written very quickly. I said what I had to say and got off the page which is probably my #1 rule of writing. I never set out to write a flash piece. I wrote until I stopped.

    I’ve read very few pieces of flash fiction that I think are very poetic. I’ve read many poems that are chopped-up prose. Much of the problem with the line break is that poetry has moved so far away from its roots that rules are meaningless. I write according to a set of rules which is why my poems have shapes but even I have to agree that my rules are not perfect because no two people ever read a poem the same way but I do feel a need for structure in a poem. I don’t feel that with prose. The dominant need there is for flow.

    Respect has to be earned and I don’t think flash has earned it yet. It needs a champion. It needs to be taught in schools and by “taught” I mean studied, broken down, analysed the way poems are. On one level ‘Ugly Truths’ is a bit of fun but its message is serious. Maybe if Ian McEwan brought out a book of flash people might take it more seriously than they do just now.

    I tend to agree with what Vanessa says. Categories cause problems. If we all just agreed that there is writing and that writing can be good or bad I think we’d all get on a lot better. Naming something sets up parameters and I get so tired hearing people try and define what, for example, a poem is. I recently watched a video called Poetry Is which is 81 minutes worth of poets all trying to answer that simple question. And some of the answers are laughable.