Prose Poetry, Flash Fiction, and Venn Diagrams

At the recent Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol, I had the pleasure of co-presenting a short workshop with the writer Carrie Etter about the relationship between flash fiction and prose poetry. It’s a topic that fascinates me – two forms that are close to my heart. During our presentation, we talked about some of their differences, some of their connections. Carrie Etter, for her ‘Sudden Prose’ undergraduate module at Bath Spa University, draws a very clear line in the sand between the two forms. That line helps her students write better prose poems and better flash fictions, knowing what’s expected of each form. I was interested to find out, in recent conversations, that from the start Carrie knows whether a piece of her own writing is going to be a poem, a prose poem, or a flash fiction, something that speaks of a clarity of process to be marvelled at. By contrast, I often don’t know – pieces go back and forth between prose and verse, are imagined in different contexts for different purposes. I find I’m often writing pieces that exist in a fuzzy, grey area in-between story and prose poem, deliberately ambiguous about their identity, reluctant to define themselves.

I’m not alone in this. Some useful and relevant links and quotes by writers defining prose poetry and flash fiction can be found at the Page Chatter website. For example, this by the American writer Denise Duhamel: “Prose poetry and flash fiction are kissing cousins. They are kissing on Jerry Springer, knowing they’re cousins, and screaming “So what?” as the audience hisses.”

Here is an extract from what I said at the joint workshop, in which I put forward an idea that Flash Fiction is at the mid-point of a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles that can be labelled Short-Short Story and Prose Poetry:

“I think of the relationship between flash fiction and prose poetry being a bit like a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles. At the extreme on one side you have a short-short story with a beginning, middle and end, one, two or perhaps three characters, conflict and briefly rising action towards a crisis with a resolution. And on the other side prose poetry, at its extreme it’s revelling in the play of the language, the music of the sentences, there’s no story as such, it’s maybe more about an idea or has some philosophical purpose or it’s provoking a feeling or mood. It may demand you to read it several times before you can extract everything from it.

“And in the middle of the Venn diagram you have this huge overlapping area of the two circles where you can’t tell what it is – there might be a character, something might happen, but may not, the language is beautiful or noteworthy, but probably quite accessible, there’s music in the shape of the sentences, and you don’t know how to categorise it but you know you really like the writing, whatever it is. Here I find Louis Jenkins, Ian Seed, pieces by Tania Hershman and Meg Pokrass, pieces from Robert Scotellaro’s Bad Motel, Russell Edson, Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars, Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, parts of The House on Mango Street, parts of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, Vanessa Gebbie’sEd’s Wife and Other Creatures and so on.

In this Venn diagram, for me, flash fiction includes the possibility of prose poetry, whereas the short-short story does not.”

When aiming to publish in magazines, nowadays I often avoid labelling submissions as prose poems or flash fictions (because some editors don’t like one or the other!) and just call them “pieces”, leaving it to the editor(s) to decide. There are magazines such as Ambit, Stand, Under the Radar, The Frogmore Papers, Prole, Brittle Star, and Ink, Sweat and Tears that publish both poetry and stories, and I’m hopefully not wildly wrong in my impression that editors at these magazines seem more likely to tolerate stories that are closer to prose poems (and prose poems that are closer to stories). Quite a few of these magazines don’t use the Submittable system, so you don’t have to identify an online submission through a particular genre / form pathway (as many of you will have found, magazines using Submittable often filter their story and poetry submissions separately).

Something that does, for me, identify a piece as a flash fiction, is that it foregrounds a character, or maybe more than one. Whereas a pure prose poem, typically, foregrounds language, calls attention to itself as language. But there is much writing that foregrounds both character and language. So how else can we sift between the two forms?

Paraphrasing Charles Simic, for me there’s something about a poem that demands that it be re-read for it to work. A poem or prose poem demands a kind of double-take, builds a double-exposure into the reading experience. For me, that means that there’s some enigma at the heart of a prose poem, some sense of mystery to be savoured. It’s certainly not a story with a plot that resolves. Something remains unexplained on first reading, and must be lingered over, even at the risk of not being easily or immediately grasped. This degree of mystery, of lingering double-exposure, might correlate to the degree to which something is a prose poem rather than a flash fiction.

Some of the “pieces” in Three Men on the Edge were originally published as prose poems in poetry magazines. I’d suggest that the longer form of the novella-in-flash, especially, allows scope for individual pieces where the focus is music, image, metaphor, or description rather than story, allowing “narrative” to accumulate more gradually – rather than requiring it from every chapter. (Although many other novellas-in-flash that I love are deliberately novel-like in style throughout, consistently foregrounding the narration or the events / plot.)

The twelve-part sequence ‘The Invisible World’ in the middle of Three Men on the Edge focuses on a character grieving a death, but there is very little action in this section. I wanted to try a different approach to character, relying on description, symbol, metaphor, and the atmospheres of landscapes to suggest states of mind. At the end of this post is one piece (prose poem? flash fiction?) from this sequence.

Hybridity is built in to the DNA of the novel-/novella-in-flash, and I love the diversity of the works that appear under its label, from Kelcey Parker’s Liliane’s Balcony, to Alex Garland’s Coma, to Heather Cousins’s Something in the Potato Room, which range significantly in how plot-driven they are, or how closely they resemble something like poetry. For me, this diversity is part of the reason that the novella-in-flash form is so vibrant, and why it has a bright future.

You can find out more about Three Men on the Edge here.

 

ii. Bury Lake, February

His wife’s voice accompanying him, he circles the lake, breezes dragging shadows over the surface.

The water is troubled by a motorboat; waves lap at the land’s edge, nudging rotten branches lodged in the dregs of leaves, pulling, calling them back.

Honour me now I’m gone – companionship’s the cure. Don’t fashion yourself an abyss, don’t spiral within.

Sailors scurry across the lake, answering the winds. One dinghy flips, the pilot disappears beneath, only – as the vessel spins – to emerge, breathless, hugging the upturned keel.

 

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Why Clowns Have Never Been Funny

When did clowns stop being funny?

Some trace a change back to Stephen King’s 1986 novel It (adapted into a TV miniseries in 1990 and a film in 2017), where a malignant being disguises himself as a clown called Pennywise and terrorises neighbourhoods. It spawned a generation of cultural imitators, not to mention real-life counterparts (although King’s novel itself was supposedly prompted by newspaper reports of a violent criminal who dressed as a clown). There are people nowadays who are genuinely terrified of clowns (the phenomenon even has a name: coulrophobia, a word coined in the 1980s, or sometimes balatrophobia), to the point that some professional clowns apparently fear their tradition may never recover.

But Stephen King’s horror story is a particularly gruesome, extreme, and late-twentieth century expression of the ambiguity of clowns. It is certainly not the first.

A change in attitudes towards clowns is found by some commentators in the life of Joseph Grimaldi, the British entertainer of the early 19th century.

Grimaldi

His distinctive stage make-up created a visual template for modern circus clowns, but Grimaldi is rumoured to have suffered from bipolar disorder, and after retirement (brought on by physical ill-health), ended up in improverished, alcoholic obscurity.

Yet, we can go back further – to Pierrot, the stock character of commedia dell’arte, the part-improvised pantomime tradition originating in 16th century Italy. Pierrot, dressed in white clothes, and with whitened face, pined in frustration for the servant Columbine who was indulging in an affair with that archetypal trickster Harlequin. Pierrot was a sad, sensitive and naïve buffoon. The “zanni” (rustic fool) characters of commedia dell’arte grew out of the traditions of Greek and Roman theatre, but it was in commedia dell’arte that the modern clown concept has its direct roots. (Pierrot’s story was famously reinterpreted in Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera Pagliacci, where real life and art are seen to intermingle as the pantomime performer Canio (who plays Pierrot) is cuckolded by his wife Nedda (who plays Columbine), leading to jealous and violent revenge.) For more on the history of clowns, such as Auguste, whiteface, and hobo clowns, see here and here.

Pierrot, therefore, clowns have been associated with failures in human relationships, with loss and disappointment, ever since their origins.

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the figure of the troubled clown. Although I was born in the 1970s, I wasn’t a teenage fan Stephen King. But, like many other people, I was introduced to the ambiguity of clowns through a milder, more mainstream cultural example, the Motown song by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: The Tears of a Clown.

“Now if there’s a smile on my face
It’s only there trying to fool the public…”

“You’re gone and I’m hurting so bad
Like a clown I appear to be glad…”

Link to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: ‘The Tears of a Clown’ on YouTube

Clowns, Robinson told me, are the epitome of the ambiguous sign – there’s tragedy buried beneath the comedy. Until as a young boy I heard Smokey Robinson sing about it, I don’t think I’d perceived sadness within the clown figures I’d encountered in childhood.

Of course, in childhood for many of us there was also the Ronald McDonald clown. As an adult, I associate strange, hollow feelings with this device of 20th century capitalism and marketing. At what age did I first notice this? Certainly I don’t think any of my “political” awareness of this advertising figure’s ambivalent morality emerged until after Smokey Robinson had changed my perceptions of clowns. What’s clear  is that clowns, thanks to Motown, soon became complex and multiple in my childhood perceptions.

So, when trying to find a photo for the cover of my novella Three Men on the Edge, I wasn’t surprised to find myself repeatedly drawn back to the photograph below.

Three Men on the Edge front cover

[Photo copyright: Lynda Bryant]

It was snapped by my wife Lynda at the Rickmansworth Festival. The Rickmansworth Festival is held in May every year, and is the annual highlight of the local calendar – up to 20,000 people attend the weekend (not bad for a town of population 24,000 in the 2011 census). The Festival began in 1993 as a canal-based event for the British Waterways Trust but has since expanded across the Aquadrome (Rickmansworth’s public park of fields, playground, and boating lakes) and indeed into the rest of the town, incorporating a funfair, folk music performances, fortune tellers, morris dancers, and many marquees showcasing local arts and crafts and food producers. [Link to Festival]

I liked this photograph because not only did it show, in the background, one of the Rickmansworth Aquadrome lakes that are so central to the setting of the book, but also because the clown seemed to express exactly the kind of mixture of comedy, tragedy, danger and fear that I hoped to accumulate in the stories. What’s more, my wife took the photo because she loved the clash between the lake’s “natural” landscape and the garish, human-designed artwork [I’ve written more about the tension between the “natural” and the “human-made” here]

As clowns are so often associated with troubled, hidden lives, the photo also seemed to capture something about the book’s three male protagonists Denholm, Gus & Martyn, who teeter towards crisis while trying to maintain an equilibrium within the small society surrounding them. These men, in their differing ways, all share an incompetence with regard to human relationships. In real life, don’t many men begin with a certain native clumsiness in this respect, a broad trait of masculinity that has to be gradually unlearned by the individual? Maybe those who know me will tell you I am biased by my own life. I couldn’t possibly comment. [NB Interesting to note, at this point, that “clumsy” may share etymological roots with “clown”. Link to etymology]

Anyway, I was very pleased when my publisher V. Press agreed that we could use this photograph as the cover of the book.

The Rickmansworth Festival, while being mentioned in Three Men on the Edge, doesn’t feature heavily in it – I never managed to write that perfect story featuring it as a setting. But one regular Rickmansworth Funfair that does feature in the book is Carter’s Steam Fair. You may have seen this touring fairground, as it pops up in different places across the country. (I’ve even seen it recently at the local park in the city where I now live, Bath.) http://www.carterssteamfair.co.uk/rides.html

As I do with clowns, I find something ambivalent and ambiguous in fairgrounds. One morning several years ago, I was taking a walk through Croxley Green and stumbled across Carter’s Steam Fair as it was being assembled prior to opening to the public.

Chair-o-planes

It was early morning, there was a fine mist in the air, the fairground was deserted, and a feeling of melancholy overwhelmed me as I walked among the unpopulated fairground rides. I felt all of the emotion that I used to feel when listening to Bruce Springsteen’s magnificent song ‘Tunnel of Love’ in the 1980s:

“Well, there’s a crazy mirror showing us both in five D
I’m laughing at you you’re laughing at me
There’s a room of shadows that gets so dark brother
It’s easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love”

Link to Springsteen’s ‘Tunnel of Love’ on YouTube

So I’ll end this blog post about tragic clowns and funfairs with the story that my experience of Carter’s Steam Fair inspired, ‘Ceremony of Machines’, taken from the first of the three parts of Three Men on the Edge.

 

Ceremony of Machines

Denholm and Joan follow the Croxley Boundary Walk, through tunnels of hedgerows and hawthorns. They emerge into a clearing: a shock of burgundy, olive and gold signage. Carter’s Steam Fair is gathered on the Green, its annual ceremony of machines invading the mown grass. It is shrouded in rain-mist, deserted by the public after closing.

Here are the rock ‘n’ roll dodgems, Sensational Octopuses, Jubilee steam gallopers. The Paramount Chair-o-planes dangle on rusted chains from the top of the carousel. An il Tricolore ice cream van loiters at the edge of the Green. Vintage Scammell trucks litter the turf between rides.

The only person visible in the twilight is a pony-tailed man at a Test-Your-Strength stall. Rain has dampened the cigarette clenched like a reed between his lips, and he hunches over to fuss with synthetic dogs. Joan leads Denholm over to where the ritual beckons. The stall is decked in florid curlicues of Victoriana, flaunting portraits of Lloyd Honeyghan and Frank Bruno. A striped wooden hammer lies discarded on the grass. The bell at the top of the pole seems a long way up, its silver glinting like an object of worship.

“I’ll do you a deal while I pack up – two pound for three strikes. Release your inner wild man. Or woman. You can win this, er, cuddly toy.” He holds up the furred black dog; even the dog seems doubtful.

“My husband accepts your challenge,” Joan says, apparently for her own satisfaction. She starts scouring her purse. “Denholm, do you have change?” She doesn’t look up from the depths of her handbag.

Denholm withers. A relief to find his wallet empty. He offers up its bare leather as evidence to the man.

“How about you let him have a go anyway?” Joan asks, as Denholm feels his stick-in-the-mud stance stiffen.

“Nothing free in this life,” the man replies. Rain mizzles around them. He turns abruptly back to his dogs, leaving Denholm and his wife to face the silence of the fairground.

[Find out more about Three Men on the Edge here: Link to V. Press]

Test-Your-Strength Stall