From Poetry to Prose in a Flash

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Part one – Weighing up the form
As someone who’s been writing poetry for more than 15 years, I think it was only a matter of time before my scope naturally widened from experimenting with established and new poetry forms into the realm of flash fiction.

Definitions of flash vary. Some journals and competitions will ask for under 1000 words, others 500 words maximum, some 300 or 100. I’ve even seen less than this, though the shorter forms may be called micros, ‘drabble’ (100 words) or ‘dribble’ (50 words) or follow any other rules that a journal, competition or writer might want to set. (My own Jellyfish Review published flash ‘Atlased’ is a sequence of twelve 21-word flashes: https://jellyfishreview.wordpress.com/2016/05/27/atlased-by-s-a-leavesley/)

There are also a variety of different types of flash. I won’t discuss these in detail here but a breathless one paragraph flash is as the name suggests, while a hermit crab flash borrows its form (eg a story told through a list, email/letter, game, instructions…). The mosaic/segmented/fragmented flash shares its narrative in parts. (Other examples of unusual flash fiction structures can be found in two articles by prize-winning writer Sophie van Llewyn here: https://theshortstory.co.uk/unusual-structures-in-flash-fiction-part-i-by-sophie-van-llewyn/ and here: https://theshortstory.co.uk/unusual-structures-in-flash-fiction-part-ii-by-sophie-van-llewyn/.)

In other words, there are various sub-divisions or forms of flash, as in poetry. Flashes are also similar to poems in terms of their compression, concision and ability to snapshot or close focus – these are just some, but not all, of the reasons why flash appeals to me as a poet.

Unsurprisingly, the poetry form that flash is closest to is the prose poem. Prose poetry is itself a form that some people find potentially oxymoronic or tricky to pin down, as the line break is an important part of the poet’s toolbox. But the line break is far from the only tool and technique for creating rhythm, or defining poetry. 

Carrie Etter is a highly acclaimed poet who writes both prose poetry and flash fiction. Some of her thoughts on prose poetry compared to both verse poetry and flash fiction can be read  in a Page Chatter interview here: https://pagechatter.org/2018/04/21/interview-with-carrie-etter/, where she talks of successful flash fiction as having “some semblance of a narrative arc” compared to prose poems’ use of narrative “in the service of an overall idea that the poem circles or inhabits”.

Celebrated flash fiction writer Kathy Fish judged Mslexia magazine’s 2019 Women’s Flash Fiction Competition. In her judge’s report, she describes flash fiction as having evolved from more than “an extra-short short story” to become a unique form in its own right – and one that is “wildly original in both content and form”.

In terms of trying to find an irrefutable defining line between a piece of prose poetry and a flash, Mslexia’s competition report newsletter notes the importance of narrative as often the only thing that distinguishes flash from prose poetry. As both narrative and unique form might suggest, flash may also be used for creative non-fiction purposes.

The potential closeness of various forms/genres is highlighted by renowned writer and lecturer Anne Caldwell in a prose poetry interview on Page Chatter (https://pagechatter.org/2018/08/18/interview-with-anne-caldwell/). She writes: “Flash fiction and the lyric essay, I think, share the idea of experimentation, and often the boundaries between these so-called genres are very difficult to define. Sometimes it is more useful to think about the writer’s intention rather than worry too much about definitions.”

From Poetry to Prose in a Flash

Part Two – From One Flash to Many

In part one, I considered some shared – and also distinguishing – features between prose poems and flash as forms. There is another similarity that I’ve not yet mentioned. Like poetry, flash can occur in sequences which build to pamphlet or book-length, such as Michael Loveday’s Saboteur Award 2019 shortlisted flash fiction novella Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018). The wider potential parallels between flash and prose poetry can be seen in the fact that some of these pieces were previously published by poetry journals as well as those featured in flash fiction journals. He writes more about this and the overlap/intersection of prose poetry and flash here: https://michaelloveday.com/2018/08/11/prose-poetry-flash-fiction-and-venn-diagrams/.

Meg Pokrass is a prolifically published flash fiction writer, tutor and Mslexia Flash Challenge editor who also writes award-winning prose poetry. In her essay ‘The Craft of Flash Novella Writing’ for talking writing (https://talkingwriting.com/craft-flash-novella-writing), she describes how her novella-in-flash, ‘Here, Where We Live’ (My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas in Flash and a Study of the Form, Rose Metal Press, 2014)drew on earlier poems and fragments as well as stories.She also provides a great list of general tips for flash fiction writers in her interview with Bath Flash Fiction Award here: https://bathflashfictionaward.com/2017/02/interview-with-meg-pokrass-flash-fiction-award-judge-march-june-2017/.

With hindsight, looking back now on my own short novellas, Kaleidoscope (Mantle Lane Press, 2017) and Always Another Twist (Mantle Lane Press, 2018) I can see both a poetry influence and a novella-in-flash pre-cursor in them. The poetic influence creeps through in the concision, sound of words and recurring references to one of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Meanwhile, the novellas are fragmentary, structured using small sections (like short chapters). These were intended to resemble a television series – each encapsulating an entire episode or incident, while also creating a cliffhanger or leaving something unresolved in terms of the over-arching narrative arc of the novella as a whole. As such, these sections tend unconsciously towards almost becoming complete stories in themselves, as found in a novella-in-flash. But my original drafts date from the noughties, so this wasn’t something I was aware of at the time, and in some ways this is a good thing, allowing me the freedom to write as felt best for the novella as a whole, regardless of potential classifications.

Ultimately, as with poetry forms, perhaps the best way for a writer to find (or refute)  a distinctive boundary between prose poetry and flash, is to read widely and start writing – experimenting with the form to reveal what it may or may not allow, then forming their own most-workable definitions. Whatever the ultimate conclusions, flash fiction is definitely a form that I’ve enjoyed as a natural extension to my work as a poet.

My (Far-From-Comprehensive) Recommendations for Poets Thinking about Writing Flash

Unbroken prose poems – there are lots of amazing flash fiction journals, too many to mention in this piece (though check my bio for some of my favourites). I’m including Unbroken in my consideration of the similarities/boundaries between flash and prose poetry, as this journal “seeks to showcase prose poems and poetic prose”.
Kathy Fish’s online fast flash courses (https://www.kathy-fish.com/?page_id=1425) – I did my first fast flash course with Kathy Fish in 2019. Over ten intensive days of online prompts and writing tips, I started more flash than I’d normally manage in a year! The level of tutor and fellow student feedback/encouragement was also amazing.

Flash Fiction Festival (https://www.flashfictionfestival.com/) – this annual weekend festival held in Bristol in June offers a fabulous mix of workshops and talks from writers, editors and presses from across the world. It’s also a great chance to meet other flash fiction writers. I really enjoyed both the 2018 and 2019 festivals.

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