Today is one of those days that are a blessing in the life of a writer. Someone has taken my responsibilities, with their poopy pants and their appetites and their endlessly unwinding stories and their insistence on sticking their fingers into the ear of the cat, and left me alone, with time—time to write.
Naturally, my response to this unusual boon was to hit the couch and fall straight to sleep, the unworried cat taking his place in close proximity to my gentle adult hand.
But my someone’s sacrifice wasn’t all for naught. Apparently, in the seventy minutes I was sleeping, I wrote a whole craft essay about the distinction between poetry and fiction when the piece under review is brief, non-lineated, and condensed.
I remember almost nothing of the dream essay—just that it had something to do with cat-ears and some woman’s distracting snoring in my entirely empty (except for me) house, and that my thesis had something to do with the phrase, “If the point is the arc.”
That was the dependent clause I woke to: If the point is the arc. I thought it over and over. If the point is the arc if the point is the arc if the point is the arc … then, what? It was enough, though. As I began to rouse myself, I recalled it. From the academic conference of sleep, wherein I was the keynote speaker, let the published proceedings reflect this bit of erudition.
As the longtime editor-in-chief of Mid-American Review, my very favorite submissions were Fineline Competition entries. The Fineline was (and still is) a contest that explores the “fine line” between flash fiction and the prose poem. The work always had a special energy and a more experimental feel than our usual submissions. With a name like “Mid-American Review,” writers tend to think that your aesthetic is, for lack of a better term, middling. A journal with such a stodgy name can’t possibly want risky work, is the thinking.
But as it happened, I was hungry for experimental work, and so were my fellow editors. I always hoped for L = A = N = G = U = A = G = E or found poetry, for long poems, for formal work—anything to mix things up. And the prose we printed always pushed boundaries and fought against convention.
We got the challenging stuff in the Fineline entries, in spades. Year after year, these represented the most solid submission category; many years we printed the winner and all ten finalists, just because they were all so delicious.
The Fineline Competition provided a wonderful occasion to consider distinctions among genres. While the contest was created to single out work that was liminal—neither clearly poetry nor clearly fiction—the truth was that it was almost always easy to tell what was what. The work that came closest to defying categorization always made it to the finalist stage, but on occasion none of the work offered a challenge in this way, and even the winner was just an excellent flash fiction or an excellent prose poem—occupying a single category, clearly an example of whatever genre it was.
I’m writing some flash fiction at the moment, and that’s probably why the issue entered my dream life. Adding to my dream fodder, yesterday I conducted a Q&A with a favorite writer for SmokeLong Quarterly, the flash fiction journal that I serve as interviews editor, and his piece would make a compelling Fineline. It is extremely brief and very lyrical, with no extraneous language, not even a loose syllable. The story itself is subtle—more of a character portrait than a narrative. Something happens, though—the character changes—so I would come down on the flash fiction side (and its appearance in a flash fiction journal certainly bolsters that analysis).
My flash of understanding, then, is this: If the point of the piece of writing is the arc of the plot, it’s fiction. If the point is the arc … fiction. If, on the other hand, the objective is to present a compelling picture, and a story is secondary or missing, it’s probably a poem.
I love a story by Jim Heynen called “What Happened During the Ice Storm,” written in 1985. It’s a double-spaced page that presents an account of what happens when a group of boys encounter a group of half-frozen pheasants. It actually reads like nonfiction to me—it’s just that honest—and maybe it is; I don’t know Heynen’s life story.
In this piece, the title backs me up: the point is the arc. “What Happened During the Ice Storm” is about what happened during the ice storm. It’s a somewhat liminal piece, too, though, like the forthcoming SmokeLong story I cited before. Heynen is as focused on painting a picture of the frozen plains as he is on saying what happened—but telling “what happened” is his announced objective.
Writing flash fiction is challenging for me, and I’ll just say, the big challenge for someone who is primarily a poet is to find the story. The short form allows for a simple narrative; there is no room for an elaborate subplot or a crafty MacGuffin. Sometimes, though, I leave the plot out altogether—and then I don’t think I have a story at all. Something has to happen for a story to exist. Some character has to change. A simple portrait does not a story make—but it can make a very fine poem.
A favorite Fineline winner of mine was a piece called “Fifteen Ways to Think About Italian Opera” by Alan Michael Parker. As the title suggests, the story/poem/Fineline was segmented, much like Wallace Stevens’ excellent poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and the segmentation chopped up the arc, frustrated the narrative, so that the story got muddied in the process. Still, I saw it as a story—the fifteen ways Parker offered sort of built in intensity and each one heightened the drama: “I gave up my tickets, I smashed my CD’s, I shredded my books, I hammered my toys, I threw my clothes from the roof in a storm. Maybe now I’ll understand,” Parker writes. He presents a character whose need to understand opera tortures and alters him.
But I missed the call. The piece that I would have sworn was fiction was included in a book of poems, Long Division, released by Tupelo Press. Occasionally, you really can’t make genre distinctions from the evidence on the page, and then, I suppose, we do something I would never suggest otherwise: trusting the author to make the call. Authorial intent is a laughable consideration for most aspects of writing. I really do hold with the idea that an author only half-creates a piece of writing, and my brain finishes the job—so I’m nearly as much of an authority on a piece of writing I love as the author is.
When other measures fail and it’s time to make the call, maybe the author can tell us if a piece is poetry or fiction or something else entirely. But at the end of the day, I’m not willing to relinquish my authority as reader. I’m getting out my protractor. I’ll do my darnedest to detect the arc.