So You Wrote a Book? Meg Pokrass

Meg Pokrass can be heartbreaking, shocking, witty, and wise in the same sentence, and her new book, Alligators at Night, is both bizarre and tragic, with turns of phrase that will take your breath away and narrators who are almost too smart for their own good. And while the work may be witty on the surface, it points to a deeper sophistication; profound insights, poignancy and sadness/hopefulness bleed through the seemingly regular occurrences of regular people looking for love, belonging, and redemption.

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Nancy Stohlman: So, Meg, this is not your first book. You’ve also published other collections of flash fiction including The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down, Cellulose Pajamas, and Damn Sure Right.  How is Alligators at Night different from your other books? 

Meg Pokrass: This book is mostly shorter pieces, newer, mostly pieces that fall between 100 – 600 words (with a few exceptions). This is the length of stories that I love writing the most.

NS: You have stories in Alligators at Night that were published over an 8-year period, from 2017 all the way back to 2009. Would you call this book a sort of “Greatest Hits” of your work?  

MP: I imported a handful of strong stories over from my first collection “Damn Sure Right” for “Alligators At Night”, but it’s definitely not a “best of” volume. Most of the pieces in AAN are brand new. But I would certainly like to have a “best of” collection published someday.

NS: Your story “Barista” appeared in Best Small Fictions and it is one of the stories (along with “Bug Man”) that ends on this lovely note of belonging and/or not belonging. I think many of your stories touch on this idea. Is this an intentional theme for you?

MP: I do agree, and it is unintentional. I think it’s something I ponder often, and have felt for most of my life, that sense of being an outsider. Of “almost” belonging. Which stems from my unusual and stressful childhood, leaving my father in Pennsylvania when I was five and moving with my mother to perfect California where we knew nobody. I loved California but never really felt that I belonged there. If I unconsciously use this feeling in my writing, then it’s finally useful to me! But it’s not a conscious thing at all.

NS: You are particularly great at endings. Your endings just seem to stop at the right time—not too early (although sometimes shocking) but not a beat too late. What is your philosophy around endings? How do you know when the story is finished? Do they end like this on the first try or is this something you refine afterwards? 

MP: I grew up as a writer reading the short fiction of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips and Bobbie Ann Mason. These writers taught me how to end stories, are masters of it. And I must have learned it long ago. I remember studying these endings, thinking Holy crap! That’s IT. It’s not a conscious thing, where a story ends as I’m writing it, but I like to end with a sense of some seemingly small yet significant character realization. A slightly new way of seeing or of understanding. Often I need to go back to a story after the first few drafts and hunt for that ending, find it through multiple re-readings. It’s often hidden. Sometimes I change the order of paragraphs and sentences, and sometimes the story structure benefits from this too.

NS: Okay, here’s the tough question: What is your favorite story in this collection and why? 

MP: “Barista”. I feel it captures something mysterious, something I can’t put my own finger on, and it feels as if it wrote itself. The idea that this story came from something I wasn’t aware of thrills me. I’m also rather fond of “Probably, I’ll Marry You”. I like what the story says about love, how deeply flawed the nature of romantic love is, and also how that is exactly what makes it so wonderful.  And “The Bug Man” because it is semi-memoir. My mother really was secretly smitten with our exterminator, and so was I. But he didn’t have long spidery arms, and I didn’t have a brother. And of course, our exterminator died of lung cancer. I love making something of such a sad but sweet memory.

NS: I heard you read “Imaginary Chinese Take-Out with Lydia Davis” at the Bath Flash Fiction Festival last year and you have a very funny, almost deadpan reading style that perfectly emphasizes the outrageous, weird situations of your stories. I know you have a performance background—how does that background inform your public readings? 

MP: That’s so kind of you Nancy. It’s wonderful to have that reinforcement. I’m sure the acting training helped. But I admit to having awful jitters when reading my own work. I’m so glad you can’t tell.

NS: Many of these stories have been republished and anthologized. How do you feel about your older work vs your new work? 

MP: I believe that about 1/6 of these stories are older, and a few have been anthologized. But most of the stories in Alligators At Night have been written in the last 3 years.

NS: You are (I believe) the first single author collection released from Ad Hoc Fiction. Congratulations! Talk about your journey with Ad Hoc Fiction. 

MP: This began as a rather casual and fun  conversation I had with Jude Higgins soon after I moved to England, when I was judging the Bath Flash Fiction Award and had visited Bath to take part in a reading with Jude and her writers. Jude told me that Ad Hoc was moving into publishing single author collections, and I boldly asked her, point blank, would they consider my new collection (I had a manuscript ready to go). The rest is history.

NS: Finally: What advice do you have for someone writing their first book? 

MP: I wouldn’t tell myself I was writing a book at all. I’d just keep making stories. That’s much less intimidating, and it’s exactly how it worked for me.

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Meg Pokrass is the author of five flash fiction collections and a novella-in-flash from Rose Metal Press. A new collection “What the Dog Thinks” and a novella-in-flash, “Smog Is Invisible” are forthcoming in 2019. Her work has been anthologized in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018), Flash Fiction International (W. W. Norton & Co., 2015), Best Small Fictions, 2018 and 2019, the Wigleaf Top 50,and numerous other international anthologies. Individual stories have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines includingElectric Lit, Tin House, McSweeney’s and Passages North, Tupelo Quarterly, Smokelong, Wigleaf, etc. Meg currently serves as Flash Challenge Editor at Mslexia Magazine, Festival Curator for Flash Fiction Festival, U.K. (Bristol) Co-Editor of Best Microfiction, 2019, and Founding/Managing Editor of New Flash Fiction ReviewAlligators At Night is available from Ad Hoc Fiction’s online bookshop.Meg’s website is: www.megpokrass.com and her teaching website is here: http://flashfictionworkshops.uk/ You can follow Meg on Twitter at @megpokrass.

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“The Bad Thing” to be included in 2019 Best Small Fictions Anthology!

The Best Small Fictions anthology is a yearly treat for writers and readers and I’m just thrilled to be included for the first time in what will be a truly stellar lineup!

Check out the entire lineup here!

I have to give my deep thanks to Jonathan Cardew and Connotation Press for first publishing “The Bad Thing”–check it out here as well as read a crazy 6-word interview between Jonathan and I!

Also, as a teacher, I want to give a shout out to all the people on this list who I have worked with in some capacity: in workshops, in person, as an editor, as fellow teacher. It’s no small thing for someone to entrust you with their creative process, and the greatest reward is to see writers getting the recognition they deserve! So here’s a special shout out to colleagues:

Christopher Allen, Lori Sambol Brody, Kim Chinquee, Sheldon Lee Compton, Tommy Dean, Nod Ghosh, Ingrid Jendrzejewski, Karen Jones, Fiona J. Mackintosh, Jolene McIlwain, K.C. Mead-Brewer, Meg Pokrass, Pedro Ponce, Santino Prinzi, Robert Vaughan, and Nan Wigington.

Rock on, flashers!!

NancyStohlman

*Compressed Q&A (6 words max)*
Q’s: Jonathan Cardew
A’s: Nancy Stohlman

Q: Earliest memory?
A: Waiting for the Oz ruby slippers

Q: Some writers you love?
A: Saterstrom, Svalina, Hemingway, Garcia-Marquez, Atwood, Geisen,

Q: How to write flash?
A: Let go. Then let go more

Q: How NOT to write flash?
A: prose poem, vignette = flash fiction: no

Q: Favorite recent story read online?
A: I can’t keep up. In awe.

Q: The problem with politics?
A: Too much emotion; no strategy

Q: Finish this: “I woke under stars…”
A:  with pierced bellybutton, *Sturgis circa 1994*

So You Wrote a Book? Robert Vaughan

Robert Vaughan’s latest book Funhouse is a wild ride–he starts us off in the kiddy rides and before we know it we’re doing double loops on the Scrambler and full speed on the Centrifuge, the floor dropping away and we’re spinning and stuck to the wall, hair full of static like crazy cotton candy.

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Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in 6 words:

Robert Vaughan:

Harrowing

Neglected

Frightening

Hilarious

Oddball

FUN

NS: You have authored multiple books including Addicts and Basements and Rift, which you co-authored with Kathy Fish. How is Funhouse different from your other books?

RV: Funhouse is a varied collection and contains four diverse sections. There is the opening flash and micro pieces. Then the two middle collaborative sections, “Hall of Mirrors” which I like to refer to as the “Kids in the Classroom”; and “Tunnel of Love” which is my nod to the numerous musical Divas. It also is my first book to contain my short stories in the fourth and last section of FUNHOUSE (unlike only flash or prose poetry in previous collections).

NS: I loved this tiny story, “Corn Maze”: 

“I got lost in a corn maze this morning. I know you’re not supposed to panic, but this happened in Soho. I met a lot of other people in there. Many of them were in the arts. One girl told me she’d been in there since Labor Day. I think she said this out of shame. She was wearing white shoes.”

For me this is the perfect example of a micro—lots of implication and white space for the reader to fill in the rest of the story. How you decide what becomes a micro and what becomes a poem?

RV: First of all, thanks for liking this tiny piece. I never really know what something I write is, prose or poetry or whatever. I often like to say that categories of writing were made for libraries and bookstores! I know there are all of these defining “rules,” etc. But I do feel like I tend more toward the gray areas, or middle ground, then the “defining areas” of what others tell us are a micro or a poem. It’s probably what drove me to start Bending Genres journal and workshops/ retreats. Who knows?

NS: Your “Hall of Mirrors” section (2) is somehow both sweet and chilling at the same time, like Shel Silverstein crossed with Tim Burton. I could totally see this as a stand alone (freaky) children’s book. Talk about your inspiration for this. Would you ever consider publishing it as a stand-alone?

RV: One of my favorite book collections as a kid was a gift from my grandfather. It was The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. I was fascinated by the poem lure (it’s all Iambic pentameter), completely entrancing gore and horror. Each kid dies (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B was for Ben who was bitten by bears…”) So, my “Halls of Mirrors” is a nod to Gorey, and grandpa, but also in my own way, I decided to twist it, make it my own. And it’s a great idea to possibly make this into its own chapbook. Any takers?

NS: Loved your choice of “divas”—I approve of all of them! Explain your process: did you pick the line from their song and then break it apart or how did you use it as a starting point?

RV: This section began in 2013 when my friend Joseph Quintela started a project while at Sarah Lawrence, called The Word Poeticizer. He asked 15- 20 of his poet friends to re-assign their own definitions of words. Then you could feed anything into his Word Poeticizer and pop a new version of the lyric or poem out. Then I decided to do the nod to divas, or female singers who have meant everything to me. I chose a line, and it evolved into these prose poems. My last part was asking Eryk Wenziak to do the layout, and he laid each poem on the page so uniquely, many with much white, and symbolic space.

NS: In your “Tunnel of Love” section (3) you literally doubled your alphabet, using pretty much every symbol available on the keyboard. If I were to name this section I would have named it The Scrambler! There is a lot going on in this section and it’s definitely your most avant-garde. Talk about your inspiration here.

RV: Again, because we used the Word Poeticizer, it became quite odd, more abstraction. I wavered with editing these “too much,” and then decided to go back to the originals, which became the “Tunnel of Love.” I felt like I wanted one entire chunk of the book that left people sort of “huh?” And yet, many times, I’m told it is a reader’s favorite part of Funhouse. I also think because it was a collaborative project at the onset, asking Eryk to add his brilliant touches really made it all the more wondrously strange.

NS: You are a writer that really embraces (and promotes) the hybrid form. Gun to your head: Prose or poetry for the rest of your life—what do you choose?

RV: I’d take the bullet! HA. Actually, I have to choose poetry. It’s my go to, again and again. With all of the bullshit going on the world, poetry helps me to balance, to feel more deeply. And my mentors are all poets: Dorianne Laux, Ellen Bass, Marie Howe, Nick Flynn. But then there are all these amazing contemporary writers who effuse hybrid forms: I’m thinking Sabrina Orah Mark, Alina Stefanescu, Kaj Tanaka, Len Kuntz, Maggie Nelson, Meg Tuite, Steven Dunn, and so many more. Deep Gratitude to them all!

NS: You seem inspired by visuals—both the drawings in Hall of Mirrors (amazing artistry by Bob Schofield) and the use of white space in Tunnel of Love are very visual. How important are visuals to your creation process?

RV: Of course, I am a very visual person. And Bob did great renderings for the Hall Of Mirrors. Almost like he was in my head it is so terrific! I’d love to think I am a sensory person (all senses firing). I like to write from visual prompts, and I am also inspired by how words look on a page. How the author thinks about this (or in more cases, not). So, visuals are very important to me. And then, also, what is going on BELOW/ BENEATH/ UNDER.

NS: What is your favorite story in this book?

RV: ______________?

NS: This is your second book with Unknown Press. Talk about your publishing process.

RV: My fortune started with Gloria Mindock and Cervena Barva Press, she published “Microtones” in 2012.  Joseph Quintela published “Diptychs, Triptychs, Lipsticks & Dipshits” (Deadly Chaps). My first full collection, “Addicts & Basements” was published by Civil Coping Mechanisms. Michael Seidlinger cold- called me after hearing me read and host a reading at the Boston AWP in 2013. (can you say HOLY FUCK?!!) In 2015, Bud Smith (Unknown Press) suggested Kathy Fish and I to do a collaborative book. I thought: she’s never going to do this! Turns out, Kathy was in a tough writing spot. We work-shopped that entire year (Fish, Smith, Michael Maxwell and me) online in the Night Owl Café. This made RIFT a possibility, which became a book! Bud and I also chatted about FUNHOUSE along the way. It came out almost one year later (December, 2017). Every single publisher I have worked with has been beyond my wildest dreams. So professional, beyond qualified, and brilliant.

NS: Advice to writers?

RV: Write as often as possible. PAY ATTENTION! Believe in yourself. Be curious. Meet other writers and greet your family. Make love often. Take suggestions with an open mind. Travel whenever possible. Cook with others. Read, read, read…

NS: Anything else you want to add?

RV: Have I mentioned how much I adore and revere you? Truly, I do. I’m so grateful to anyone who gives back to our writing community, and you always do in such a huge way.

NS: BLUSHING!! Thank YOU so much, Robert. I am honored to call you a friend. xoxoxo

Links to books or other promo links:

www.robert-vaughan.com

www.bendinggenres.com

Robert Vaughan teaches workshops in hybrid writing, poetry, fiction at locations like The Clearing, Synergia Ranch, Mabel Dodge Luhan House. He leads roundtables in Milwaukee, WI. He was a finalist for the Gertrude Stein Award for Fiction (2013, 2014). His flash fiction, ‘A Box’ was selected for Best Small Fictions 2016 and his flash, “Six Glimpses of the Uncouth” was chosen for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Queen’s Ferry Press).  He is the Editor-in-Chief at Bending Genres, LLC.

Vaughan is the author of five books: Microtones(Cervena Barva Press); Diptychs+ Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits(Deadly Chaps); Addicts & Basements(CCM), RIFT, co-authored with Kathy Fish (Unknown Press) and FUNHOUSE(Unknown Press). His blog: www.robert-vaughan.com.

Saturday, April 13: Writer’s Studio Literary Festival

Writers Studio Literary Festival

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Date and Time:

4:00pm
Location:
Arapahoe Community College 5900 S. Santa Fe Drive, Littleton, CO 80120-1801 303.797.4222
Cost is $20 for ACC students or $45 for Community Members; includes lunch! Register for sessions and pay online.

Spend a Day with Denver’s Stalwarts and Rising Stars

ACC’s Writers Studio Literary Festival, which will be held on Saturday, April 13 from 8:30am to 4:00pm, brings you the best of Colorado, from upcoming stars and a Colorado Book Award winner to Colorado journalism stalwarts.

An annual tradition, the Festival offers the opportunity for community members and students alike to spend the day honing their craft and hob-knobbing with professionals. Attendees work with two authors, which you choose from a group of six, for two two-hour sessions:

  • 8:30-9:15am: Check-in
  • 9:30-11:30am: Morning session
    • Steven Dunn – Applying Film Techniques to Writing
    • Joseph Hutchison – The Music of What Happens: Exploring Soundscape
    • Christopher Merkner – Writing About (Not Your) Family
  • 11:30am-12:45pm: Reading and lunch
  • 1:00-3:00pm: Afternoon session
    • Hillary Leftwich and Deanna M. Rasch – Discovering Your Ghosts in Writing
    • Nancy Stohlman – Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction
    • Kevin Vaughn – Finding Your ‘e’ Spot — Crafting Stories That Don’t Begin ‘Once Upon A Time’
  • 3:00-4:00pm: Participant Open Mic

We understand this will be a difficult decision — and that’s how we wanted it to be!

Attendees can expect to learn, to write, to conversate. There will be a continental breakfast served, as well as a hot lunch. Guests will be enamored with the lunch-time reading and will also have the opportunity to share the work they produced at the end-of-the-day Open Mic from 3-4.

Register and read about the workshops being offered here! 

“The Running of the Sharks” in Paris Lit Up Magazine

The Running of the Sharks

by Nancy Stohlman

After the rapture, the sport of bullfighting officially ended. Spanish matadors, national celebrities in crushed velvet, unfit for any other type of work, went sadly unemployed.

Belize saw an opportunity.  They designated a section of Shark Ray Alley, several miles off the coast, for The Running of the Sharks, where an assortment of tiger and reef sharks waited in a large cage.

All those who would have made the trip to Pamplona arrived instead in Belize. Thousands lined the swim zone with their boats, everyone wearing the traditional red scarf and eating the traditional red snowcone to symbolize the blood spilled in a good battle. As in Pamplona, participants could be amateur or professional, and the morning of the event they were all stretching and warming up on the decks of boats under the careless sun of a Caribbean morning. Then they gathered in the water.

On the first gunshot the participants had a one-minute head start, a froth of arms and legs swimming toward a safety boat half a mile away. On the second gunshot the cage opened and the sharks were released in a several-minute frenzy of man vs. beast. Medic boats lined the swim zone as pools of red blossomed and the maimed were yanked from the water.

The spectacle culminated in a final match between one shark and one matador in a snorkel and bedazzled wetsuit. The crowd submerged to watch the silent ballet—matador with harpoon and red flippers, shark with two rows of teeth and superior aquatic skills. Bubble gasps escaped from mouths as the matador attempted traditional arabesques and veronicas in the now underwater colosseum, daring to put his body as near to the shark as possible in their delicate dance of death.

But there were new rules: If the shark won he was set free, no shark fin trophies or shark meat for sale in the markets the next day.

To date, the shark has never lost.

*

paris lit up

Check out all the great happenings at the Paris Lit Up scene!

Portland: Fri, March 29: Grandmasters of Flash: They Wrote the Book On It!

Join me in Portland? It’s AWP Time! I’d love to see you!

Weds, March 27: (Off-Site Reading): Festival of Language
6:00-7:00 Ford Food & Drink   2505 SE 11th Avenue (at SE Division Street), Portland,
Facebook Event

 

Weds, March 27: (Off-Site Reading): Unlikely Stories and Rigorous at the AWP
8:00-10:00 Ford Food & Drink
Facebook Event

Friday, March 29, 2019:

AWP Panel: Grandmasters of Flash: They Wrote the Book on It!

10:30-11:45
Oregon Convention Center
777 NE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Portland, Oregon 97232

David Galef (moderator), John Dufresne, Nancy Stohlman and Randall Brown
You can tell a literary genre has hit the mainstream when it’s deemed worthy of a textbook. This panel features four authors of flash fiction handbooks talking about what techniques they’ve included and how to teach them. They’ll discuss theory and craft for varying audiences, from high school to college and beyond; the future of the genre; and who may write the next great flash fiction.

Join the Facebook Event!

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The Green-Eyed Ides of March: On Artistic Jealousy

Shakespeare was the first to call it the “green-eyed monster.” And since we are here, in a month of green, with green holidays and the Ides of (backstabbing) March, let’s talk honestly for a second about artistic jealousy..

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that, despite our very best efforts, artistic jealousy affects us all at one time or another. Recently, on a low day, I was feeling a twinge of the green and decided to put it out there on social media: “What do you do to not ride the green spiral down?” So many responses from funny to inspiring to serious, but the bottom line: most people could relate.

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If you have never been jealous of a colleague’s work or success, then you are a bigger person than me. Mind you, I try very hard to not go there, and I genuinely like my colleagues and I want them all to succeed. Nineteen out of twenty days I subscribe to the “we all win when we all win” mentality, and I deeply believe it’s the only way to have a rewarding artistic life.

But… no matter who you are, there is probably somebody out there who is kicking more butt than you, and it seems to be happening effortlessly (even though we rationally know that’s probably not true).

Over the years I’ve been jealous of many things. When I was overworked I was jealous of those with open, breezy writing schedules. When I was broke and raising two small children, I was jealous of those without financial worries or those who had the financial means to support their writing. When my creative well was dry and parched I was jealous of those whose muse never seemed to grow tired. When I couldn’t get published by a dream journal I would be jealous of those who did. When I was struggling to sell a manuscript or get a publisher/agent, I was jealous of all the new books birthing.

And…on and on.

If you look at the world through this lens, it truly doesn’t end. Of course you might have noticed that the common denominator in all these examples is ME! When I was feeling low, then I was jealous. And for me, that’s the key discovery here: Jealousy is triggered by a feeling of lack inside of ME–it really has nothing to do with them. Because if we were having a gold star day, then our colleague’s success, muse, money or time wouldn’t affect us at all.

To deny these feelings only stuffs them down deeper and then you end up with hemorrhoids and cancer. So while I don’t have a magic answer, here are three things that help me:

1. Speak it. Acknowledge it. Don’t pretend you aren’t feeling it. Tell someone. Or tell everyone on social media. Jealousy grows when it’s allowed to fester, so don’t let it fester. (Did you notice that “jealousy” contains the word “lousy”?)

2. Do something nice for yourself. You probably wouldn’t be feeling this way if you were having a gold-star day, so you probably need a little extra something. There was a time in my life when I would go eat a banana split every time I got a rejection. It just made the rejections go down easier and I love hot fudge. So…do something nice for yourself.

3. Try to remember Georgia O’ Keefe’s best advice ever: “I have already settled it for myself, so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.”

Meaning: Take all the good days and good reviews and all the bad days and bad reviews and flush them both down the same toilet and get back to work.

In solidarity!