"Stick your name on it and let it be read."
To celebrate the release of Short we’ll be posting an interview today with Alan Ziegler by Lincoln Michel, and an essay about short prose tomorrow, by Ann DeWitt. Check back tomorrow for more.
An Interview with Alan Ziegler, editor of Short.
Alan Ziegler’s latest book has a pretty self-explanatory title: Short: An International Anthology of 500 Years of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms. The anthology collects hundreds of short prose pieces ranging from short stories and prose poems to aphorisms and lists. The authors—who number over two-hundred—include Poe, Kafka, Stein, Hempel, Keret, Borges, Beckett, Carson, Lispector, and many more.
Ziegler is the prefect editor for this anthology. He is the author of several books of short prose (including The Swan Song of Vaudeville: Tales and Takes, and Love At First Sight: An Alan Ziegler Reader), and for many years he has taught short prose at Columbia University. I was fortunate enough to take his Short Prose Forms class at Columbia and his understanding of the genre was encyclopedic, enlightening, and infectious. Shortly after his class, I co-founded Gigantic, a literary magazine devoted to short prose.
In the years since I took his class, short prose has taken over. Every print literary magazine seems to publish prose poems and flash fiction, and the world of online writing—from Twitter and Tumblr to the blogs of glossy magazines—is dominated by short prose. As such, 2014 feels like the perfect time for Short to appear and remind us of the long literary history and potential future of the short prose form.
LINCOLN MICHEL: Short collects works of short prose (prose poems, flash fictions, mini-essays, etc.) stretching from Michel de Montaigne to Ben Marcus. Were there specific times and places where the form really caught on? And how has the form changed over the centuries?
ALAN ZIEGLER: Establishing the geographical, chronological, and word-count parameters for the anthology was difficult but essential to keep the book wieldy. So, Short leaps to the starting line in the 16th Century (for the Precursors section) and focuses on Western literature, sidestepping the great traditions of short prose in China and Japan. Things really heat up in mid-19th Century France with Louis “Aloysius” Bertrand and Edgar Allan Poe influencing Baudelaire and Mallarme, and with Rimbaud acting like a one-man pop-up store for prose poems (then taking himself out of the business forever). The prose poem continued to thrive in France (among other places), but didn’t really catch on in the U.S. until the 1960s and 70s with the likes of Robert Bly, David Ignatow, James Wright, and Russell Edson. After that it’s unstoppable, and of course short-short stories got into the mix under various names (I tend to prefer flash fiction) with the likes of Jayne Anne Phillips, Lydia Davis, Diane Williams, and Barry Yourgrau.
As for how the form has changed over the centuries—I think remarkably little. There is so much that feels contemporary in such precursors as Joubert (“the soul paints itself in our machines” and Leopardi (“He put on eyeglasses made of half the meridian connecting the two polar circles”). But such pieces remained in notebooks during the authors’ lives. The main changes may be in legitimization and categorization. Michael Benedikt’s 1976 prose poem anthology—among others—spurred the creation of countless pieces. For me, having a prose poem published by Benedikt in The Paris Review and being invited to contribute to a special prose poem edition of Poetry Now helped me to realize that forgoing line breaks did not mean I was also forgoing the joy of being considered a poet. Likewise, the option to call pieces flash fiction meant that writers of short prose weren’t required to operate in the arena of poetry if they chose not to meet all the demands usually made of short stories; it’s long been accepted that a fragment can be a poem; now that also goes for a story. As I point out in the Introduction: Who knows how many earlier prose poems might have entered literary society under different names, had they been widely available?