Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.
Three practitioners of the brief lyric narrative share insights about keeping their work short AND fully realized. A lively discussion moderated by Ilyse Kusnetz will take place about how the panelist authors identify primarily with a single genre (fiction or poetry), yet also choose to write and edit short work that straddles forms. Panelists will explore how current publishing embraces not-so-easily-categorized pieces. The session concludes with attendees writing postcard stories.
Alright, fellow poets, fiction, and non-fiction writers (or combo of all three!), we’re going to treat this panel as if we’re sitting around a table, sharing our lively thoughts and reading our work to each other in short snippets.
Can you please tell me what you think constitutes “a brief lyric narrative” as we called it in our panel proposal? Some writers use the term “short-short” or state their work is prose poetry. Nowadays, the term “flash” is pretty flashy.
Sarah Freligh: I recently reviewed the new anthology Flash Fiction International for Brevity and found it interesting that aside from a few mentions of “fiction” in their Introduction, the editors refer to the selected pieces as “flash,” a reluctance on their part perhaps to corral these works into the small pen of a specific genre. The suggestion then is that “flash” transcends genre, that the best works are hybrids combining craft aspects of both prose and poetry, i.e. the narrative urge of prose with the lyric economy of poetry.
A prose poem, however, is not tied to conflict, time, and consequence the way a story is; the prose poem instead owes its allegiance to aspects of poetic craft, most especially sonic devices. While some prose poems ARE stories (I’m thinking here of Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel”), most are not bound by the cause/effect of narrative and its insistence on conflict as both ignition and fuel.
Cate McGowan: A brief lyric narrative tells me a story with such lovely imagery and compressed metric language that I can divide it into lines and sell it as a poem. That’s when I know I have something.
Yes, Sarah! Note my short answer above versus your lovely explanation? I think both are relevant, but which answer do I prefer? Well, of course, yours. But note that many times I can’t take a poem and make it into a story. The way you describe poetry versus flash fiction captures the struggle I am currently having. Last week, I sent in two stories to a flash fiction journal. One was a poem on which I’d removed the line breaks. The other began its life as a story. Which one do you think was accepted? The story. Of course, I promptly changed the converted poem back to a “real” poem with line breaks and stanzas. The darn thing had no conflict, but aurally it has substance and the cause and effect to which you refer.
Sarah Freligh: Yes, an ear for the cadence and sound of language, definitely. Perhaps the shorter the piece, the more important language becomes?
Karen Craigo: I absolutely agree—with brevity, every morpheme or phoneme becomes essential. There is no room to mess around.
Please share a very short piece of your own. This might be a few paragraphs or a stanza (or a complete story or poem) that you think exemplifies a fully realized world or concept. It might be a work-in-progress or a published piece, whatever speaks to our theme of crossing genres in fewer words.
Karen Craigo: “Working the Retriever”
This machine we called the Retriever operated on belts. It was always moving, brought metal bins from the sub-basement, a giant room, though I never once saw it, but sent maintenance there ten times a night: a bin offline or upended, gumming up the works, patient charts scattered among the gears. I was a clerk then, six bucks an hour, good money for a summer gig that was mainly easy, if dull. When all went well, I stuck lab reports or X-rays in the record, one folder, one bin at a time. I was alone at my machine, plenty of downtime to view platelet counts or photos of kidney stones, or to note the penned-in tumor on the diagram of a breast. But sometimes, a crisis: a patient in the ER, unresponsive on the table, unspecified cause of morbidity. I had to act fast, find the chart with the allergy, the condition, the med that contradicts, and haste meant everything. Once or twice a doctor shadowed my chair, both of us rigid and listening to the old motor strain. But the Retriever kept its own time, and somewhere deep below it made a grab, haphazard, and lurched the data skyward. Finally, there on the conveyor, the bin, its fifty records, among them the one with the answer or with none, filed, one hoped, correctly, all the info laid out with care, anchored in place by a little piece of tape.
Sarah Freligh: “We Smoke” was the winner of the 2015 Sycamore Review Flash Contest, but it’s also included in my book of poetry. Like any story should, it introduces a conflict up front: the mysterious “we” (and we read on to learn their identities) are smoking in defiance of the nuns’ edict that they not do so. The act of smoking, too—I hope—becomes more significant when we learn that “we” are pregnant, unmarried young women and are carrying children that they will give up for adoption at birth. Smoking, then, is both defiant AND a denial as well as a way to cement their community. They smoke as a way to ignore Ruby the Waitress who in effect sides with the nuns that giving up their children is a good thing. They smoke in the bathroom at night at the Mercy Home for Unwed Mothers, the only place where they take ownership of—however temporarily—the children they’re carrying. In the end, they smoke as a way to avoid the inevitable. So the repetend of “We smoke” provides unity in the manner of a prose poem, but also moves the narrative forward in a (I hope) story-like way, an arc if you will. “We Smoke”:
We smoke because the nuns say we shouldn’t—he-man Marlboros or Salems, slender and meadow fresh, over cups of thin coffee at the Bridge Diner. We fill an ashtray in an hour easy while Ruby the waitress marries ketchups and tells us horror stories about how her first labor went on for fifty-two hours until her boy was yanked out of her butt first and now she has this theory that kids who come out like that got their brains in their asses from Day One. She says we’re smart to give our babies away to some Barbie and Ken couple with a house and a yard with real grass and a swing set, and we nod like we agree with her and smoke some more.
Nights we huddle up under the bathroom window in the Mercy Home for Unwed Mothers and blow smoke at the stained sky while we swap stories about our babies doing handstands on our bladders, playing volleyball with our hearts, how our sons will be presidents or astronauts, and our daughters will be beautiful and chaste, and because we know our babies are not ours at all, we talk about everything and nothing while we watch a moth bang up against the light and smoke some more.
Cate McGowan: Here’s a recent short piece: “Waiting for the Northbound Trolley”
Wearing silt-stained slacks and smelling like a Saturday of swabbing decks, I stand on the sidewalk sipping my Colt. I roll up my sleeves, hair on my arms prickling in the ocean breeze, and gaze at the asphalt pinkened by a neon marquee. Venus, blue and fecund, winks and flirts high on the horizon.
At 11:42, the trolley hisses to a stop, late as always, and Miss Emmie Travis hops off, carrying a knapsack bulging with sodas and romance novels; she shuffles by me, head down, slow to begin her weekend cleaning. She staggers toward the hotel, then disappears into the parking lot. And like a lonely bugle reveille, her arrival sends me bumbling back to the ABC to buy another 40 just so I can hear the cashier girl say, “Wait. Don’t you want your change?”
Does your piece include little lies or little truths? A combination? (Remember, that was our panel title!)
Karen Craigo: Mine is very truthful, actually, or tries to be. Maybe I’m overstating the heroism of the medical records clerk a little—my job was seldom truly vital, almost never life-or-death, and my dealings with doctors were infrequent, to say the least. Looking it over, though, I’m struck by the almost journalistic accuracy of the thing. This was a weird, hard-to-describe piece of equipment, but by damn, I did my best.
Sarah Freligh: I like how “The Retriever” becomes a realized character through action and description.
Both little lies and little truths. I’m not saying what’s what and where!
Cate McGowan: There is no truth here, except forbidden love has driven me to drink! Really, though, in my own life, I would reckon that longing is the most painful experience a person can have. It comes in many guises: longing for lost love; longing for dead or dying relatives, spouses; longing and regret for lost opportunities. The possibility that I could have been different, could have chosen a different path at every junction haunts me. So I guess that piece is indeed a little truth, a little lie. The speaker feels such love for Miss Emmie, and yet… yet… he/she is invisible to all but the cashier. I have been in that place, for sure.
Wow. I don’t care if Karen’s or Sarah’s pieces are truth or lies. They are beautiful. One thing I note was their repetends and phrases (and Sarah points hers out, too—thanks!). And I think someone who wants to write flash needs to know those are mighty weapons in the arsenal. Karen and Sarah do that and more.
And Karen, I don’t think you are overstating the heroism of the clerk. This heroism takes the guise of patience. More than anything you are showing us that everything matters, even the (note the proper noun) Retriever, whose godlike mechanized slow-motion reminds us of how life and the world continues to move one second at a time, no faster, no slower, no matter how much we want it to operate differently. And life ends in death. I felt like I was watching a methodical angel of death.
Sarah, what can I say? That first-person plural narrator is indeed rebellious in revealing its truths. But also, the anaphora is brilliant, relying on aural effects just as poetry does. But the repetition does something else, too. By repeating over and over that they smoke, they are just pregnant girls who are trying to justify their actions and loss, make sense of how they are stuck in this awful place. The more they tell me the reasons they smoke, the less I am inclined to believe their brazen flippancy.
Sarah Freligh: Yeah, that’s the arc I was hoping for, that with each repetition “We smoke” and the revelations that follow, the reader is closer to the “truth” of these girls, closer to understanding their motivation. So maybe that’s another aspect of flash fiction, that because these pieces are just that – pieces of a longer narrative — the narrative is filled in by the reader who, by seeing the larger picture, understands more than the character can. Or will.
Karen Craigo: Geesh, I’m with the right people! Love these pieces and your explanations of them. My own understanding of flash is expanding as we write this!
Can you explain how or why when you wrote this work that you felt the need to compress it?
Karen Craigo: This is actually part of a series of poems on the topic of work and money, and just as “The Retriever” refused to do its job faithfully in real life, it also refused to fall in place as a poem. In a practical sense, a prose piece breaks up the lineated poems nicely—but I don’t consider this a poem at all. I think it feels very much like a short essay. I will say that avoiding line breaks seemed like a concrete poetry move to me—this was a conveyor belt that was constantly moving (until it broke), and thus one line or one sentence dissolves into the next without any indication—just like that belt went by me for so many summer midnight shifts, the only thing in the room for me to look at.
Sarah Freligh: Work and money, so topical. And yet few poets seem to address this anymore, the gigantic elephant in the room that unites all of us, regardless to color, ethnicity, age or gender.
Would enjambed lines create a similar forward motion, conveyor belt sensation?
“We Smoke” started as a poem. There was a stanzaic arrangement and lineation that felt as if it was working against the voice of the speaker/narrator. The form essentially was throttling possibility. Once I freed it from the imposition of form, the voice began to move into the driver’s seat and a multitude of voices emerged. There’s the nuns who appear as hearsay, “say we shouldn’t” smoke. There’s Ruby the waitress with her own two-cents worth of indirect dialogue and there is the “we” and what they’re telling each other in the bathroom at night when they smoke. In the end, what they don’t say is loudest of all, lingering in the air like the smoke must have. That voice thing, I don’t think that would have happened if I’d been occupied with line breaks and sound rather than voice.
Cate McGowan: Well honestly, the more I write, the shorter and more dense my work has become. I find my published work, including most of the stories in my recently published collection, bloated. My instinct is to cut it all down to the bare minimum, to the essence of emotion. As Chekhov once wrote to Gorky, “[S]hun all descriptions of the characters’ spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge clearly from their actions. Don’t try for too many characters. The center of gravity should reside in two: he and she.”
Mine started out as poem, and it’s been in my discard pile for years, but it has conflict or a complication, something a story needs, something we have all said here. “Waiting” is not nearly as finished as Sarah’s and Karen’s pieces, so who knows what will happen to it? I may expand it. Or I might revert it back to a poem.
Karen’s piece does feel concrete. Her use of phrase after phrase, those long sentences that make me breathless by the time I get to the end, the slow, methodical trail of words, really all mimic the Retriever. Wow, yes, I get that!
Sarah, it’s the voices that get me every time. They usually control my own work. My narrators and characters speak to me and keep me up at night.
Do you have any tips for those who are interested in trying this concentrating and combining in their work?
Karen Craigo: I don’t think you can choose just any topic for the brief lyric narrative form. So many topics call for details and development. A short piece needs to be contained, pretty much, in a small space, and thus the form invites one to present an image, more or less, instead of a conventional story. I do best when something in the story is mimicked by brief prose, like this one which is an unbroken chunk of text. It is suggestive of the ever-rolling conveyor belt, and of the dense information found in a charge.
Sarah Freligh: Start with a first line that contains a conflict and a bit of mystery. There’s your flame. Now throw some dry wood on your small fire, i.e., complications. Compress time (a year in five sentences, say) or expand time (a minute’s worth of “real time” told in 250 words).
Once you’ve got your structure, what seems to you like a story, go back and examine each word. Your nouns should be vivid and specific, rather than vague and general, while your verbs should convey to the reader both the “what” of the action as well as the “how.” Why say “Sarah walked slowly into work” when you could say “Sarah trudged into work.” We get the slow walk, but we also understand Sarah’s attitude toward work. “Trudge” sounds exactly like what it is. I trudged into work too many days to count.
Finally, read it out loud for the sound of individual words as well as your syntax. Does it speed up where it should slow down, punch where it should soothe? Words do that. Phrases and sentences do that. Listen.
Cate McGowan: Yes, I cut unnecessary adverbs, adjectives, endings, and beginnings—these are all methods I learned from my buddy, Chekhov. I really obsess over each word, making sure it needs to be in a piece. As a way to improve or manipulate meaning, I creatively employ stanza or paragraph breaks, interesting punctuation, and half-scenes.
Sarah Freligh: Yes, Chekhov—one of Raymond Carver’s “instructors” and Carver was, like Hemingway, a master at omission. I recently re-read “The Lady and the Dog” and was amazed at the ending, the protagonist’s epiphany and how redemptive it was, in only 18 pages of text. Yet not a fall note in the story. That’s concision.
Cate McGowan: What Sarah and Karen say! Wow, you ladies are amazing. I also love using in medias res—starting in the middle and ending there. I avoid too much exposition. Ambiguity is necessary for any work to intrigue a reader, but it shouldn’t obfuscate meaning; it should expand it.
Have you ever felt limited by your primary genre? Does writing a shorter piece free you to explore other forms? Is there value in this? Can you explain?
Karen Craigo: My primary genre is poetry, although I’m very invested in nonfiction, too. For me, poetry is a rather honest genre, but it includes more artifice than prose does, at least when I wield it. The essay lets me get personal—lets me get honest. When you see “me” in a poem, it’s poem-me. The “I” that inhabits my essays, though—well, that’s I—me. Karen. K-Dawg, as my students call me. I go to the prose form when I’m at my most raw and honest. I almost can’t believe the personal details I’ve revealed in my prose—things that would be suggested by symbol or metaphor within the bounds of a poem, but that are full-on confessions in prose. This is not a function of length for me (although I seem to be incapable of writing long essays—far too taxing, I think).
I was a journalist for about a decade in one of my earlier incarnations. Maybe I’m constitutionally unable to be less than truthful in prose.
Sarah Freligh: I think writing short-short fiction has made me a better poet. Writing poetry has made me a better writer of fiction, short and long. I think War and Peace could be 1,000-plus pages, but also three paragraphs (Try it. I dare you).
Cate McGowan: Yes, yes, yes! I am now considering eschewing fiction and pursuing poetry. In fact, I’ve applied to a few programs. I started in poetry and always thought I stunk. Now that I have had my adventure in fiction, I am brave. I can finally pursue my heart’s desire. Writing poetry to me is more difficult than fiction. It may not be as time consuming, as I revise, revise, revise everything. And revising two stanzas is a little more freeing than revising a twenty-page story. However, the problem with poetry is that the poet has to turn the combination lock just the right way. A few turns to the right, then hit the spot, a few turns to the left, then the sweet spot again. If a poet misses the mark, the lock will not open. I have to get it right from the start. That’s terrifying. But also, yes, rewarding if I do find the right formula.
In your experience, is the publishing industry open to this type of hybridization or the spanning of forms? Do you think it’s relevant to classify work as a specific type of genre or sub-genre? Or is it limiting? Can you provide examples of any experiences you’ve had publishing a short-short, crossover, or not-so-easily categorized work? Are there any publishing outlets you like that are taking chances with more experimental forms?
Karen Craigo: The publishing industry seems to like hybrid forms when it comes to short work. It can be a little trickier to publish a book of short prose, I think—no one is really asking to see those manuscripts, which may be even less marketable than poetry, if that’s possible.
If I can speak candidly beyond the publishing sphere, I could tell you about a major grant I won from a state arts council several years back. I was pushing up to the deadline, nothing was coming together, and then I remembered a friend who won a larger grant by submitting her fiction as nonfiction. (The state offered a major and a minor grant, $10,000 or $5,000, and she won the major grant.) Well, guess what? I took a bunch of poems, knocked out the line breaks in about ten minutes on Microsoft Word, put one to a page, and submitted the whole mess as creative nonfiction. Bang! Major award. Ten-thousand dollars for referring to de-lineated poems as essays. Very innovative, the judges said. It was nothing I hadn’t been doing for years, though, and consistently not winning anything with those pesky line breaks in place.
Sarah Freligh: I’ll pass on this one. I think those who are more published can answer this more succinctly.
Cate McGowan: No, the publishing industry wants what it wants. I have no clue what is acceptable any more. Readers should drive the market, but unfortunately, like everything else, the corporate heads make the decisions. The public is dumbed down as a result. Heck, change a setting and some names, and you have every mainstream novel out there. I tried to read Beckett the other day and could not believe how amazing it was. And I realized that few people would read him. Why use a fork and chew when someone spoon feeds you? There are indie publishers out there trying to get the public’s attention. Flash fiction has potential because, as everyone says, in this information age with the glut of images, ideas, and stories out there, we have to catch a reader’s attention quickly AND hold that attention. A 150-word story is better at capturing the average person’s gaze than maybe a Beckett novel. Though, I do love my Beckett!
I like the online flash fiction publishers and those that take chances. I’m thinking of the New Flash Fiction Review (disclaimer, I was just asked to edit for them). University publishers, such as mine, Moon City Press (Missouri State University), are looking for innovation. Thank goodness Moon City took a chance on me!
Sarah Freligh: The short prose form is immensely challenging for the reader, but if the writer is not experimenting for the sake of experimenting—“no tricks,” as Raymond Carver once said—then the short-short can contain the world of a novel with the gut punch of a poem. But so much is left to the silence and the white space, and that can be daunting for many readers who don’t pay close attention to the text. The short form commands attention, and sadly, reading attention has become fragmented and shortened.
For our grand finale, let’s do three things. First, provide a short prompt to help a writer produce a postcard story or poem. The final product should be no more than 75 words, let’s say. Then, and this is a dare, write your own responds to your prompt in thirty minutes or less. If you’re willing to get a little naked, include your rough draft here—try not to tweak it too much. Let’s keep these as close to first drafts as we can so that readers might see our own messy beginnings. Last, please comment a little about your process as you wrote and produced your postcard piece. (Please note that I am not the best at explaining my processes, and I’m not expecting a how-to). I think readers will be thrilled to read about our creation steps!
OPTION A: Sarah Freligh’s Prompt
I have a bunch of picture postcards featuring people doing people things. Postcards of Edward Hopper paintings (the people ones, not the landscapes) are good for this exercise as there’s a sense of mystery to them; we write to find out what that woman, wearing only her brown shoes, is doing sitting on a chair in front of an open window.
So the prompt is, draw a postcard from the pile, study it for a minute and then write a story in its entirety on the back of the card.
OPTION B: Generate your own prompt and write to it! Sky’s the limit!
Karen Craigo: I chose Option B, just because I don’t have a handy stack of postcards (although I love that prompt!). My thinking is this: short is good for the hard-to-say, like confessions or apologies or things you don’t dare to wish. Lyrical is good for hiding in plain sight—for obfuscating the life-truth while telling the absolute lyrical gospel. So here’s my prompt: Confess the worst thing in you, but restrict yourself to metaphor for the telling. (As an aside, I’d like to note that seventy-five words is only slightly more than no words.) “A Week Before Jack”
The toddler wants in the pumpkin, which he carries from room to room. Sometimes he’ll sit on the carpet, pull the stem, bite it, then turn to me and say, Open, Mom, open. But it’s not time to open the pumpkin. Give us eyes and we lose something—reason, will. We empty through the eyes, the mouth, the top of the head. It’s better this way, I tell him, but still he cries and pulls.
I have a habit of jumping the gun, not biding my time, and maybe I’ve passed it down in my genes. The pumpkin is my confession. This poem is dedicated to every soggy-centered cake I’ve ever eaten.
Sarah Freligh: I have a bunch of picture postcards featuring people doing people things. Postcards of Edward Hopper paintings (the people ones, not the landscapes) are good for this exercise as there’s a sense of mystery to them; we write to find out what that woman, wearing only her brown shoes, is doing sitting on a chair in front of an open window.
So the prompt is, draw a postcard from the pile, study it for a minute and then write a story in its entirety on the back of the card.
Here’s my attempt in 100 words, prompted by the picture postcard of a woman happily eating an ice cream cone: “Hot Out”
Aunt Fran sounded happier in Tucson than when she lived upstate. The sun was out often. AND NO SNOW! she wrote in loopy letters that cartwheeled across the page. The temperature was 98, but that was dry heat, no humidity.
Months went by and we didn’t hear anything. Then she wrote to say she was suffocating. God must be punishing her.
My father flew out and took care of it. All the burials and the questions: Had she been troubled? What kind of mother would drown her three kids?
The water was cold, my father said. It was hot out.
Cate McGowan: I went with Option A, Sarah Freligh’s prompt. I was inspired by the Edward Hopper painting, Automat. It took me about 15 minutes, not sure if it works, but here goes (funny, our titles are similar): “Look Out”
Pedestrians purled by in clumps. Over the snowy thoroughfare, the streetlights perched like long-necked shorebirds.
She worried. Yes, she’d given him the best blowjob he’d ever received. He’d said that. They sat in his car outside the mini-mart, and then she pushed him inside her.
“Need anything else?” The waitress dropped the check on the table and didn’t wait for an answer. Evie reached into her pocket, picked at the corner of his letter nestled in there; she knew what it said—no need to read it.
She slurped her tea, studied homeward bound commuters maelstromming outside on the sidewalk. She watched them the same way one might peer into a wildlife-filled aquarium.
I like this piece better now than the one I included in question 2, “Waiting on the Northbound Trolley.” As I said earlier, I like writing to a female/male tension and conflict (thank you, Anton!). OK, I went over a little, darn it. But isn’t writing flash about breaking some rules? Imagery is important to me, as is the richness of language, so I looked at the painting, and it is like the subject’s in a fishbowl, so I tried to use water descriptions or allusions. And Evie is the perfect name for a female, after all, Eve was the first female. In a later draft, I want to include that the woman is only wearing ONE glove, but that’s for a subsequent effort. I might play with the order of things here, too. It’s non-linear, but I like it!
Karen Craigo is the author of No More Milk, forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2016. She teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri.
Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Poetry Prize, and Sort of Gone, a book of poems that follows the rise and fall of a fictional pitcher named Al Stepansky, Her poems and short stories have appeared in many literary journals, including Sun Magazine, Sycamore Review, Rattle, Brevity, Cimarron Review, Third Coast, and have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac.” Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a poetry grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006, and a grant from the New York State Council for the Arts in 1997.
Poet and journalist Ilyse Kusnetz (panel moderator) is the author of Small Hours (2014), winner of the T.S. Eliot prize from Truman State University Press and The Gravity of Falling (2006). She earned her MA in creative writing from Syracuse University and her PhD in contemporary feminist and post-colonial British literature from the University of Edinburgh. Her poetry has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, The Cincinnati Review, Crazyhorse, Stone Canoe, Rattle, and other journals and anthologies. She teaches at Valencia College and is married to the poet Brian Turner.
Cate McGowan is the author of the story collection, True Places Never Are (Moon City Press, 2015), which won the 2014 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. A Georgia native whose flash been anthologized in W. W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, she’s contributed fiction and poetry to many literary publications, including Glimmer Train, Crab Orchard Review, and the English fashion magazine, Tank. Cate’s been an editor for the Louisville Review and SFWP and an arts writer and essayist for national outlets. She’s currently the Senior Editor for New Flash Fiction Review. Named a top college professor on Rate My Professors.com, McGowan teaches writing in Florida.