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?
LM: You write in the introduction about how fraught those genre delineations can be. I was struck by Diane Williams relating that when she was starting out someone said to her, “If only you called this poetry…I wouldn’t be so angry with you.” I also remember hearing about what a controversy it was for Charles Simic’s book of prose poems, The World Doesn’t End, to win the Pulitzer for poetry. Are those mostly battles of the past? Do people accept prose poems and flash fiction as integral parts of modern poetry and fiction now?
AZ: I recalled Diane Williams telling my class about that incident when she visited Short Prose Forms in the mid-1990s. I, too, was struck by the vehemence. To make sure I was remembering correctly, I asked her to verify the quote and give me permission to use it. The vehemence went two ways; a few years earlier, Simic’s book had come under fire for winning the Pulitzer for poetry. Louis Simpson (a previous Pulitzer winner) took issue: “If a prize intended for playing the violin were awarded to a trumpet player, everyone would see immediately how absurd and unacceptable this was.” But, to be fair to Simpson, the context behind this quote is that the Pulitzer Plan of Award called for “a distinguished volume of original verse.” No one would claim that a prose poem is written in verse. Simpson’s position was like a strict constructionist approach to the Constitution. Fortunately, the Prize administrator was a loose constructionist and declared that the award had come to be known as one for poetry, the prose poem is a “recognized form.”
Within the literary community, I do think that these are fairly settled issues now. Prose Poems are poems; stories exist with length-limiting qualifiers such as short short, flash, or micro; and not every piece of prose has to fit into any category—you can call it a text or a paragraph or just stick your name on it and let it be read.
LM: When we started Gigantic, that fact that we primarily published flash fiction made us stand out. (Though we were hardly the first magazine to do so, Quick Fiction and others predated us.) But in the last five to ten years it really feels like flash fiction is standard in most journals and websites. Do you have any journals you’d recommend to readers interested in flash fiction?
AZ: Gigantic still stands out because, since Issue One, you’ve had an editorial point of view that expands, rather than constricts, our concept of genre—starting with the subversion inherent in the title of the publication. If I had to single out one other journal, it would be Noon.
LM: When I took your Short Prose Forms class, we focused a lot on using and subverting different written forms—letters, religious parables, survey questions, lists—for creating literature. I found this incredibly liberating as a writer. I notice a lot of the pieces in the anthology experiment with these forms too. Do you think there’s something specific about short works that encourages this kind of experimentation?
AZ: The forms you mention are almost always short, so the subversion-costumes fit comfortably over their regular clothing. These forms all have familiar tropes and expectations for us to juggle. It’s a lot of fun to zig with a narrative when the reader might expect you to zag. As more forms and tropes take hold, we have more to subvert, such as the two pieces in Short based on literary magazine contributors’ notes, by Michael Martone and Stacey Harwood. A piece of short prose has to have some mojo going for it: an exquisite use of quiet language (see Cernuda), linguistic pyrotechnics (Rimbaud, Max Jacob), or a subversion of the familiar—which comedians do all the time: “A penguin, a rabbi, a horse, a nun, and a talking dog walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘What is this, some kind of joke?’”
LM: A lot of people have talked about how short prose is the perfect form for an age of Tumblr and Twitter. Writers like Teju Cole and Jennifer Egan have done some interesting literary experiments on Twitter in particular. Did you look at those micro-blogging platforms when researching for Short? Do you use any yourself?
AZ: There was a whole section in an early draft called “Shorts in the Clouds”—“twitterfiction,” dribbles, drabbles, hints, six-word stories, etc. And I love what Teju Cole is doing, echoing the form of Fénéon’s fait divers. But, alas, I wasn’t doing a book of Norton anthology proportions, so not only were these internet-driven forms excluded, but also many younger writers such as yourself. I’ve used Facebook as a way of “publishing” short prose pieces that are part of a memoir-in-pieces, and I’ve done a handful of tweets.
LM: The “Shorts in the Clouds” section sounds really interesting. Have you thought about releasing that separately some way, perhaps online?
AZ: Well, I’ve registered the domain shortproseforms.com, and someday there might be something on it. First, I need to finish Based on a True Life: A Memoir in Pieces.
LM: How does the experience of publishing parts of your memoir-in-progress on Facebook compare to the traditional method of publishing in journals? Do you think it’s helped shape the writing in a different way?
AZ: It has definitely helped the rewriting. I’ve been working sporadically on the manuscript for a long time. It needed (still does) some new pieces, but I also wanted to take another pass through the drafts I had. I thought about approaching one of my writer-friends and asking if I could email revised pieces several times a week, with no obligation to comment. Then it occurred to me that if I did it on Facebook, no one would even feel obligated to read, so I tried it out and it worked. I did a rewrite—sometimes just a few words, other times substantial—on each piece before I posted it. It’s amazing how a few “likes” can fuel your next day’s work.
LM: I once published a flash piece where the writer later told me they decided to expand it into a full novel. Do any of the pieces in Short have a double life as part of or origin of longer works?
AZ: I’m not aware of any; I selected pieces that had already come into the publishing world as complete units. But in my Short Prose Forms classes it’s always on the table to discuss whether a piece should stay as a complete unit or be expanded. It hasn’t come up all that often, but just as a piece that wants to be short shouldn’t be pushed beyond its natural limits, neither should a piece that wants to be long be confined.
Lincoln Michel’s fiction appears in Tin House, Electric Literature, Unstuck, NOON, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic magazine and Gigantic Worlds, a forthcoming anthology of science flash fiction. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. He tweets at @thelincoln.