“How To Catch A Fly In A Dark Room”

image

From The Master: Alan Ziegler’s Short: An International Anthology

Short prose is the written expatriate.  The cousin who you haven’t seen in ten years who comes to dinner with a food allergy. It is the small afterglow a band aid leaves as you tear it from the skin.  It is the list of things to do in life which you always meant to write amongst the living but are just now forced to say in the last minutes before you enter the great thereafter. 

Minimalism has often been falsely accused of loving sparingly, of being artistically effete. The idea that the fragment is a constructed vision of reality, an artistic reduction akin to signing one’s initials, overlooks the value of drafting, the value of the draft itself.  Drafts are previous for their very humility. The prose poem, or the short short, is the living draft. When I look back on my notes from Alan’s Ziegler’s class, in the margin there is a line which reads: “Is there not a wealth of humanity in exposing a naked foot?” 

To borrow from Zeigler himself, editor of the rambunctious new anthology Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays and Other Short Prose Forms and much-celebrated teacher at Columbia School of the Arts, short prose is the place where the impulses of prose and poetry collide. In its simplest sense then, prose poetry or short shorts are written in prose, rather than verse.  They abandon the line break altogether and work from the sentence rather than the line as the “unit” of language with which to wrestle, to untie. Charles Simic once said of this collision, the “prose poem is the literary equivalent of paella and gumbo, which bring together a great variety of ingredients and flavors and which, thanks to the cook, in the end somehow blend.”

Short prose has been on the receiving end of many a label—spare, chilling, lusty, emphatic, humorous, incongruous, adversarial, an enigma, inclusive, hybrid, “in short distance to the unconscious,” the rebel against tradition, a member of the “working class discourse,” subversive, compressed, an ambiguous ways of achieving resolution, “the work of a single hack,” and ultimately a means of seduction. This is perhaps the best definition of short prose that I know of—it leaves you wanting more. There is a synergy, a felicity, an almost human charge between sentences. As the Russian formalists say, “it is an orientation toward the neighboring word.”

As Ziegler wittily attests in his anthology, writers and critics—to varying degrees of creativity and in various languages—have long tried to categorize short prose under many zany if amorphous labels: “prose poems, shorts, footnotes, prose sonnets, short lyric essays, flash fictions, poems in prose, sudden fictions, tales and takes, microfiction, Anecdotes, Aphorisms, Brief Essays, Briefs, Crônicas/ChronicasDenkenbild, Drabbles, Espresso Stories, Extracts, Feuilletons, Figures, Flash Fiction, Fragments, Greguerías, Hint Fiction, Kurzprosa, Maxims, Microcosmography, Microstories, Monostichs, Nanofiction, Napkin Stories, Notes, Paragraphs, Pensees/Pensieri, Prose Poems, Quick Fiction, Reflections, Sentences, Short Short Stories, Shorts, Situations, Six-Word Stories, Sketches, Sudden Fiction, Tableaus, Transmutations, Tropisms, Twitterfiction, Utterances.”

These terms—along with Michael Benedikt’s 1976 The Prose Poem: An International Anthology—as Zeigler points out, “begat an exponential growth of writers working in short prose and did much in American in the 70s to unite the image poets with traditional short story writers such as James Bly, Russell Edson, Lyn Hejinian, Joy Harjo and James Wright.”  Benedikt himself was an early champion of Ziegler’s work and published a poem of Ziegler’s in The Paris Review in 1975. According to the introduction to Benedikt’s The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, prose poetry is defined by four key elements, an attention to “the priorities of the unconscious,” and “accelerated use of the colloquial,” a “visionary thrust,” “wit,” and finally a “kind of enlightened doubtfulness or hopeful skepticism.”  (Try dissecting that final one with a class of eager students and see what you come up with—I once had a particularly precocious young mind draw a map of eternity of the blackboard signified by a circle and the mathematical “set” for eternity, which she simply noted with the capital letter “E.”)

Part of what makes Ziegler’s new anthology, a response perhaps to Benedikt’s earlier compendium, so original is his dedication to a kind of forensic anthropology—the tracing down of short prose’s roots and various commonalities which have transcended cultures, languages, styles and eventually continents.  As Ziegler points out, Louis Bertrand and Edgar Allan Poe were born two years apart (1807, 1809), “separated by an ocean and a language, and never read each other. But they shared a sensibility and an admirer (Charles Baudelaire) that would set in motion the short prose movements from across the sea.” It is these sorts of observations which makes Ziegler a consummate expert on the form—he understands it not only as a conversation but a series of coincidences, which eventually led to a kind of quick-slippage in the handing off of the literary baton. 

The genre was inaugurated in France in 1862 when Baudelaire then published “Petite Poems En Prose.”  Baudelaire’s legendary line was to “invite the reader to always be drunk,” drunk on images and place and fleeting observations of Parisian street life. But Bertrand actually beat Baudelaire to the punch with his book Gaspard de la Nuit, written in 1842, which was only came to fame after his death. Prose poetry began then with the task of being a “flâneur,” a person who walks the city in order to simply experience it. The typical flâneur was a stylish person who would leisurely stroll the streets of 19th-century Paris, taking in the lush sensory experience of the window displays, the architecture, the storefronts, the signs and even the fashions he or she encountered on the street. In essence, the flâneur was an observant spectator painter of modern life. In an article in The New York Times just this year, one writer reflected, the goal of the flâneur, is “to observe, to bathe in the crowd, taking in its noises, its chaos, its heterogeneity, its cosmopolitanism. Occasionally, he would narrate what he saw—surveying both his private self and the world at large—in the form of short essays for daily newspapers.”[1]

Baudelaire offered this interesting reflection on the flâneur in his collection The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, “To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.” This too is how Ziegler starts his much celebrated class at Columbia; he sets his students out on the street to compose their first exercise with the following instructions: “Pick a starting point (anywhere in the city you feel safe), and then stroll rather than walk (Balzac overstates it when he says “To walk is to vegetate, to stroll is to live,” but you catch the distinction.)”

Ziegler then moves sure-footedly through time and space to trace prose poetry’s jump Across the Atlantic. To sum up, as Ziegler explains it: “Baudelaire read Bertrand and Poe in Paris; Peter Altenberg read Baudelaire in Vienna; Franz Kafka read Altenberg in Prague (and admired how his ‘small stories mirror his whole life’).“ In the United States, in the 70s, text and image writers such as Russell Edson “found a good example in the works of Kafka, who explored the vaunted dreamscape.” Today, about Edson, Lydia Davis says that he “opened my eyes, and after that I realized that absolutely anything could work as a form”.

The best definition of Short Prose that I know of ultimately is contemporary short story writer George Saunder’s take on Vonnegut, “I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters,” Saunders wrote in an essay on Vonnegut.  “He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box resemble real life – he can put whatever he wants in there.  What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit … In fact “Slaughterhouse Five’ seemed to be saying that our most profound experience may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual.  The black box is meant to change us.  If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.” 

W.S. Merwin wrote in a 1994 reprinting of The Miners Pale Children, originally published in 1970, “I recalled what I thought were precedents—fragments, essays, journal entries, instructions, lists, oral tales, fables.”  

Or as Russell Edson said, short prose is “experience made into an artifact formed with the logic of a dream.”

Or, as Ziegler himself says in “The Vassar Lecture,” the opening story in his collection The Green Grass of Flatbush, winner of the 1985 World Beat press Fiction Award judged by then Paris Review editor George Plimpton, “When I was in high school, I told a girl who I was trying to make fall for me that the three ingredients necessary for love are Magic, Mystery, and Motion.” It is these very qualities which make Ziegler’s work both palpable and prophetic. As the editors of Narrative report in their introduction to Ziegler’s most recent collection, Love At First Sight, Ziegler’s “takes,” are like “brief clips of rare footage that capture the newsworthy, even the rapturous, amid the ordinary.” Here they echo Saunders, “These [Ziegler’s] glimmers of life within our lives give us the fleeting sense that something significant has happened.”

Ziegler, like Baudelaire, was once a journalist himself; his prose glens with that ineffable mix of anecdote, reportage and concision. However, what makes Ziegler’s own prose so disarming is its commitment to unearth a quiet humanity and generosity toward his subjects, his ability to chronicle the overseen and overheard overtures of the heart.  As the editor notes in Ziegler’s most recent collection, “Though Ziegler’s poems are full of human troubles, they are far from pessimistic. Ziegler finds comedy in our isolation, in the absurd incompatibility between genders, and in our missed connections and miscommunications. His takes are optimistic—and ultimately cathartic—in much the same ways as blues music.”  (Ziegler, it should be noted, is also an avid musician.)  This sentiment is often echoed by students whenever I teach Zeigler’s work. One comment by a student stands out by comparison, “When reading Ziegler’s work you can tell this guy has heart.  You can tell, This guy is a good person.”   

Teaching Ziegler's The Swan Sing of Vaudeville is always the highlight of my semester in our closing unit on cohesive collections. Among my favorites in this collection are Ziegler’s shorts “Woolworths Parakeets” and “The Swan Song of Vaudeville.” In many ways these two pieces highlight the full breath of Ziegler’s inimitable talent—their mixture of rarified observations delivered from the street and their lyrical confessions of the heart which recall a certain Ferlingetian Coney Island of the Mind mixed with the kind of heat and man-of-the-street speak of some of Bukowski’s observations in Burning In Water, Drowning In Flame. Ziegler’s “take” begins: “Hundreds of Woolworths are closing and thousands of generic parakeets will be released on noon of the final day. Scrawny blue-and-green ten-dollar birds will scatter in downtown Las Vegas, uptown New York City, and suburban Lynbrook.” It ends with the plaintiff plea: “If you see one in your neighborhood, coax it home with seeds and love. Let it fly around the house, offer it the food off your plate, teach it the words you’ve longed for someone to say to you, and love it as you love the America you once knew.” 

I remember sitting once during in Ziegler’s infamous Short Prose Class at Columbia and hearing him quote Charles Simic, “Writing a prose poem is a bit like trying to catch a fly in a dark room.”  Ultimately, Ziegler’s Short: An International Anthology follows the generosity and ambitiousness of that libidinal ultimatum.

Ann DeWitt’s writing has appeared in NOON, Guernica, BOMBlog, Esquire’s Napkin Fiction Project, The Believer Logger, art+culture, Everyday Genius, The Faster Times, elimae, and Dossier Magazine, amongst others, and is forthcoming in the anthology, Short: An International Anthology of 500 Years of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms.  Ann holds a B.A. from Brown University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia School of the Arts.  She was a Founding Editor of Gigantic: A Magazine of Short Prose and Art in 2008.  She currently teaches in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Columbia University and in The Art and Design History and Theory department at Parsons, The New School, and is at work on her first novel.  For more of her work, follow her blog at:  http://talllikethreeapples.wordpress.com.

Photograph by Jerome Jakubiec

See an interview with Alan Ziegler about Short.

See more from this series.


[1] Evgeny Morozov, “The Death of The Cyberflaneur,” The New York Times, February 4, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/opinion/sunday/the-death-of-the-cyberflaneur.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all