Wednesday 31 January 2024

"Flash fiction as a distinct literary form ..." by Shelley Roche-Jacques

In "Flash fiction as a distinct literary form: some thoughts on time, space, and context" (from "New Writing - The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing") Shelley Roche-Jacques look at some aspects of Flash, prose poems and short stories.

  • She suggests that Flash has a distinguishing feature that prose poems don't need - "I am of the opinion that something needs to happen, or perhaps more importantly, that a context needs to be created in which there is the possibility of something happening"
  • When comparing Flash and short stories she thinks "most critics and writers seem to suggest the difference is more in degree than kind"

That seems fair enough to me. I think it's useful to restrict the "Flash Fiction" category to pieces which acknowledge the concept of narrative. There are pieces of short creative prose that aren't prose poems or CNF, nor do they create a narrative context, but such pieces (on the essay/flash spectrum maybe, or shaped prose, or triptychs, etc) can fend for themselves.

She makes some other observations that I agree with too -

  • "As an avid reader of flash fiction, I have noticed the prevalence of the simple present tense. ... Perhaps, as Flick points out, because of the simplicity and sense of immersion it offers."
  • "the brevity of the flash fiction form perhaps affords the writer greater freedom to play and experiment. The deft use of deictic elements can be seen as a way of establishing swift immersion and/or negotiating the spatio-temporal layers and landscape."
  • "Due to the limited space in flash fiction, a popular and effective technique seems to be to have the protagonist ‘thinking forward’ beyond the end of the scene"

I think lots of U.A. Fanthorpe's pieces could nowadays fit in a short text category, but that's another story ...

My out-of-date contributions to the debate include -

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Seán Hewitt

I went to see Seán Hewitt at Pembroke College tonight (in their new auditorium). He has degrees from Cambridge and Liverpool, and lectures at Trinity College Dublin. About 80 people attended, 20 queuing at the end to get books signed! He said that writing his second poetry book he was conscious of writing a book rather than a set of poems. That wasn't so with his first book.

Friday 12 January 2024

How to review poetry

A while ago Charles Boyle (CBeditions) noticed that a book he published which the TLS described as "an astonishing achievement" and the Literary Review described as "a masterpiece" sold fewer than 100 copies in its first year.

In ‘Next time you dive’ (or How to play a poem) from "The Friday Poem" Jon Stone "illustrate[s] what he thinks we need to do to broaden the readership of poetry"

Helena Nelson has a piece in the same issue. In "Are poetry reviews pointless?" she writes "First, I want to test out Stone’s theory that I can profitably respond to a set of poems as “toys”. Second, I want to review a book in a non-typical way, avoiding “florid” terms and a standard evaluative stance."

When I read a book, I write it up online. I used to try the odd review-style write-up - I keep a list of longer poetry reviews online. Nowadays my write-ups are mostly jottings. I posted a write-up each Wednesday and Saturday, which used to match my reading speed. Now that I'm reading (and listening to) more books, I'm filling up future Wed/Sat slots so fast that I'm up to April 2025. So to slow myself down I think I'll try to write some reviews again.

Rather than toys, I think I react to poems as if they were disposable alien technology - if I don't understand what a part does, I remove it to see what happens, or re-assemble the pieces. Biologists try to understand DNA that way sometimes. However, I have a feeling that I might end up writing similar reviews to before, "fun to play with" becoming a substitute for "good" when describing a poem.

When a new art form (e.g. Cubism) emerges, at first people don't know how to react. There are many individualistic responses. Many will be resistant to change, pointing out how the new work lacks what old, familiar works have. Before too long, collective experience will come to a broad consensus about an interpretative framework. That framework can become too rigid though - a new orthodoxy that fails to keep up with new ways of looking. So let's see what happens if things are shaken up.

Saturday 6 January 2024

Formalish verse

Deviations from standard forms are common - to reduce rhythmic monotony; to surprise; to emphasise a word/phrase, etc. These deviations work because of readers' expectations. In mosques, Islamic art deliberately breaks the pattern too.

But other deviations are harder for me to understand. Here are some comments by poets about their poems in "The Best American Poetry, 2000"

  • Olena Kalytiak Davis's "Six Apologies, Lord" is one of a "sequence of 'Shattered Sonnets' that sort of simultaneously distort, discard, and highlight formal, thematic, and rhetorical sonnet conventions."
  • Adrienne Su says of the 6-stanza "The English Canon" that "I deliberately ended the first four stanzas with '-ing', which is a kind of cheater's rhyme, and the last two with the imperfect rhyme of 'combat' and 'scratch.' I threw in 'protest' and 'trust' near the end, for fun. Between the cheating, the imperfection, and the distance between rhymes, I hope that the poem reads as free verse, yet looks formal because of the tercets. The combination of the free and constrained, of modern and traditional, seemed suited to the subject, writing to and from the canon".
  • Mary Jo Salter says "The poem was a liberation to write, technically speaking; though it rhymes, the rhyme scheme changes every stanza, and the meter is deliberately clunky."

In my Relaxed Forms article I list further examples. I still struggle with the idea of random deviations - if I can't see a reason for breaking a pattern, my instinct is to query the craft. I'm most suspicious when the deviation comes in the lines which the poet particularly wants us to understand, as if clarity and form are in opposition.