Prose poems and flash fiction are both short works of creative writing that seem to me at times indistinguishable. Per Google, a prose poem is a “piece of writing in prose that has obvious poetic qualities.” Flash fiction, meanwhile, is a very short fiction story that, Wikipedia says, “still offers character and plot development.” So prose poems are not burdened with the expectation of including real-seeming people or a narrative arc, while flash fiction does not necessarily have to feel “poetic,” however you define that! But I think today’s examples, whatever you want to call them, include all of these elements.
I have felt a little resentful of very short forms like these, because they’re so popular (there are a million flash fiction journals out there) and also so hard for me to do (I tend to write long.) But I have to admit that when an author pulls it off, compressed pieces of writing like these are very powerful.
A Stone Is Nobody’s
A man ambushed a stone. Caught it. Made it a prisoner.
Put it in a dark room and stood guard over it for the
rest of his life.
His mother asked why.
He said, because it’s held captive, because it is
Look, the stone is asleep, she said, it does not know
whether it’s in a garden or not. Eternity and the stone
are mother and daughter; it is you who are getting old.
The stone is only sleeping.
But I caught it, mother, it is mine by conquest, he said.
A stone is nobody’s, not even its own. It is you who are
conquered; you are minding the prisoner, which is yourself,
because you are afraid to go out, she said.
Yes yes, I am afraid, because you have never loved me,
Which is true, because you have always been to me as
the stone is to you, she said.
Who is this guy?
Born in Connecticut in 1928, Russell Edson pursued the visual arts as a teenager and began publishing poetry in 1960. He was known for his funny, fable-like, elusive prose poems. According to the New York Review of Books, “Edson said that he wanted to write without debt or obligation to any literary form or idea, a poetry free from the definition of poetry and a prose free of the necessities of fiction, free even of their author and his own expectations.” Whether or not anyone can write in a way that is free of expectation, I know that when I was introduced to Edson’s work by a poetry teacher, it seemed to give me permission to write in ways I hadn’t considered before.
Story (actually, two stories)
Nearly every morning, a certain woman in our community comes running out of her house with her face white and her overcoat flapping wildly. She cries out, “Emergency, emergency,” and one of us runs to her and holds her until her fears are calmed. We know she is making it up; nothing has really happened to her. But we understand, because there is hardly one of us who has not been moved at some time to do just what she has done, and every time, it has taken all our strength, and even the strength of our friends and families too, to quiet us.
They are lost, but also not lost but somewhere in the world. Most of them are small, though two are larger, one a coat and one a dog. Of the small things, one is a certain ring, one a certain button. They are lost from me and where I am, but they are also not gone. They are somewhere else, and they are there to someone else, it may be. But if not there to someone else, the ring is, still, not lost to itself, but there, only not where I am, and the button, too, there, still, only not where I am.
Who is this lady?
Born in Massachusetts in 1947 to literary parents (one an English professor and one a writer and teacher), Lydia Davis is a short story writer, novelist, essayist, and translator. She has translated Proust and Flaubert, but is perhaps best known for her very short works. As it turns out (I didn’t know this until I started working on this newsletter!) she was influenced by Russell Edson. In a New Yorker profile, she recalls encountering one of his books: “Here was a contemporary, an American, whose stories, unlike those of her literary heroes, sometimes failed. Within days, she had started writing strange little stories of her own. She set a goal, two per day. ‘I didn’t think too hard about what I was going to do,” she told me. “I just snatched an idea from the air, I just went with it, and I didn’t think about what the meaning was of the story, and I still don’t like to do that.’”
Write a “strange little story” (or poem, if you prefer to call it that) in the style of Edson or Davis. If you need something more specific to get you started, use one of their themes here as a starting point: stones, fears, lost things.