The Problem of Reading: B. J. Muirhead reviews ‘Flashing the Square’ & ‘Writing to the Edge’

Flashing the Square,edited by Linda Godfrey and Bronwyn Mehan. Spineless Wonders 2014 and Writing to the Edge, edited by Linda Godfrey and Ali Jane Smith. Spineless Wonders 2014.

Flashing the SquareIn the introduction to Flashing the square, the editors mention the “problem” of how to read short and micro-fiction and suggest various approaches, including “on the ceiling while you are sitting in the dentist chair.” Having been produced as a companion publication to Richard Holt’s video installation Flashing the square (Melbourne Writer’s Festival, 2014, in Federation Square), this idea isn’t necessarily absurd. This, however, is a book, and it presumes a more relaxed situation, a matter of choice about when to take time to read rather than be distracted from scraping, drilling and grasping tools.

Almost as a comment on how to read micro-fiction and prose poetry, the left hand pages are blank. This creates a visual space that is unusual but very helpful in a collection of very intense, occasionally difficult pieces which require both visual and intellectual space if they are to be assimilated.

On first reading, Flashing the Square did not pass my bookshop test—the first, quick reading and flick through the book usually given standing in a bookshop prior to a decision to purchase. Some of the pieces seemed almost squashed, with too much left out in pieces that would benefit from as little as a dozen more words. Others began with lists intended to set a scene, but which seem pointless and boring. But on second and third reading, the works fell into place within themselves, images, ideas and words fell into place and began to expose themselves. Daniel John Pilkington’s ‘Tram 96 to St Kilda’ is an example of this. It began badly, with a list that did not inspire me to read on:

Corners. Jolting. Shoulders, elbows, knees, bags and flat faces, various tablets with their soft illuminations, their persistent genii.

When Pilkington turned from this list to describe aspects of being on a tram, the piece lifts, and then he writes about two young brothers:

One simply refuses: to have a conversation. The other seethes: you wouldn’t know if you were having a conversation. And the first, triumphant in closing some esoteric syllogism, nods: a conversation is when someone hurts someone. Silence.

This marvellous observation is dropped into our awareness then taken away again as Pilkington returns to a description of being on a tram in the aftermath of the conversation.

The works in this particular book often require patience, and expect the reader to delve deeply into themselves and their lives, fleshing out the story with an understanding of the possibilities lying within the words on the page.

Of course, there is a sense in which all writing demands this type of engagement from the reader, but few books contain work which puts the reader on the line along with the work, and in this book the reader definitely is on the line, facing a space deep within themselves. This seems to be because the writers have challenged the reader with spaces within the work which can be filled only by imagining between and beyond the words. At least partially this was because many of the ideas were larger than the allocated space

WTEIn many respects, what I’ve said reflects my own difficulties with the book, and one of these difficulties was a particular surprise to me. I experienced on ongoing urge to revise and re-write many of the pieces. This is an urge to which I am not accustomed, except with my own work. Usually I just don’t like the piece I’m reading, and I move on, or put it down and don’t read it. But these pieces kept me reading even when I stumbled over an idea or word.

When we turn to Writing to the Edge, the situation is quite different. None of the pieces seem smaller than the ideas and story they are presenting, and I feel more at home reading this book.

Whilst both books have a large variety of subjects and story lines, the constraints on the size are looser in Writing to the Edge, and authors have been able to fit their ideas into pieces whose size is more in accord with the ideas and their treatment. Hence we find small one paragraph pieces such as Elizabeth Hodgson’s ‘Crone’s which presents us with the idea of a group of old women:

Not just old like your granny. But older. Older than anyone else you’ve ever known about. And they’re there at every funeral of an elderly person. No one calls them. They know when to appear.

These women, unknown by anyone, may even be dead themselves, Hodgson says. And there are even smaller pieces by the inevitable Philip Hammial, ‘Family Reunion’ for example:

Aunt Jane is in father’s bed. Uncle Jack is in mother’s bed. I’m in bed with seven cousins, male, female, trans. Who will do what to who is anyone’s guess.

For the most part the longer pieces are more akin to what we think of as “traditional” stories, a perfect example of this being Mark Smith’s Joanne Burns Award winning ‘10.42 to Sydenham’.

In this story a man, about whom we learn little, saves a young woman from being harassed by louts on a train. All we really know about him is that he had killed people when very young. Clearly not a normal activity for an Australian. Only at the end of the story do we discover that he is coloured when the following conversation occurs:

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Sydenham,” he replied politely.

She laughed, but caught herself. “I’m sorry. I… I mean, what country?”

He smiled, a brief flash of white teeth. “I know what you meant.”

The “problem” of how to read micro-fiction does not appear in this volume; nor did I feel the urge to revise or re-write any of the pieces. There are challenges and ideas needing to be experienced, and they left me feeling fulfilled and happier for the reading.

All in all, Writing to the Edge is a much more pleasant volume to read; it is the book you would give someone who doesn’t usually read micro-fiction. Flashing the Square is the book you give to someone who already reads and likes micro-fiction, someone who is up to the challenges it provides.

– Bruce Muirhead

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BJ Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) and Flesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com

Straddling Prose Poetry and Microfiction: Shady Cosgrove launches Writing to the Edge: Prose Poems & Microfiction can be found here: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2014/09/12/straddling-prose-poetry-and-microfiction-shady-cosgrove-launches-writing-to-the-edge-prose-poems-microfiction/

Flashing the Square is available from http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/products-page/microlit/flashing_the_square/#more-4074. Writing to the Edge is available from http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/products-page/microlit/writing_to_the_edge/#more-4097

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Rochford Street Review relies on donations to cover costs. Any funds left over are used to pay reviewers.

Mallarme Got it Wrong: Mark Roberts Reviews ‘Captives’ by Angela Meyer

Captives by Angela Meyer. Inkerman and Blunt 2014

captivesSome years ago now I was informed that a number of recent pieces I had written were “micro-fiction/flash fiction”. This was news to me as I was under the impression that I was writing prose poems. Intrigued I started some investigation. What was the difference between a prose poem and microfiction? Where did the boundary lie between micro fiction and the short story? How many degrees of separation was there between a haiku and an epic novel?

So where to start? If you believe Mallarme then the search ends before it begins as he famously stated in a 1891 interview that “In the genre called prose, there are sometimes admirable verses, of all rhythms. But in truth, there is no prose: there is the alphabet and then there is verse”. So there is poetry and prose poetry and then ……words.

But things have moved on since 1891 and when, in 2015, I took to google and typed in “What is the difference between prose poetry and flash fiction” my screen suddenly filled up. After sifting through the references I decided that the best definitions were the simplest – such as:

“the base unit of the prose poem is still the image, whereas flash fiction, is about character and character development”.

http://thebarking.com/2010/11/how-to-tell-prose-poetry-apart-from-flash-fiction/

and

“Prose poems are poems crafted with the traditional sentences and devices of prose writing but still relying heavily on poetic devices such as heightened imagery and precision of language.

Flash fiction are stories crafted with the devices of storytelling such as story arc and tension but compressed into limited language, normally no more than 1000 words.” http://nancystohlman.com/2013/04/28/ask-a-flash-fiction-editor-is-this-flash-fiction-or-a-prose-poem/

Basically a prose poem is a poem without line endings and flash fiction is a short story without the length,.

When we come to the difference between micro/flash fiction and the short story I am on much firmer ground as I have developed my own method of categorisation based on train travel. Many years ago, as I travelled to and from work, I realised I could, for the most, part, use the daily train journey to categorise fiction. If I was travelling, for example, in Sydney, from a middle suburb such as Epping, Lidcombe or Hurstville to the city each day, then I could expect to finish the average novel in a week of toing and froing. A novella should be able to be finished in a single day’s journey to and from work, while a short story should be able to be commenced waiting for the train and completed before I stepped off in the city. To take this to the final level a single micro/flash fiction piece should be able to be completed between stations.

Angela Meyer’s first collection, Captives, allowed me to travel around the Sydney train network testing out my theory – and for the most part it was borne out. While I found one could just squeeze in one of the longer pieces, like ‘Nineteen’, between Waverton and North Sydney, I could easily devour three pieces between Chatswood and North Ryde.

Besides being the perfect train read, however,  Meyer’s microfictions also provided the final evidence that Mallarme got it wrong – beyond poetry and prose poems there is prose and the shortest piece of prose can be just as impressive as the most accomplished epic novel.

Meyer, at her best, can take your breath away. Her prose appears simple at first sight, you feel like you are starting a short story or a novel – then suddenly you are flung around and suddenly find yourself at the end of the piece dazed and surprised. The first piece in the collection, ‘ The day before the wedding’ is an example of this. The piece consists of 5 small paragraphs and slightly less than 120 words – but it is rich in emotion, both real and suggested. Within those 120 words we gradually build up an image of a relationship. This is first suggested in the title, ‘The day before the wedding’, which creates a context for the rest of the piece. Then we have the image of a woman running out onto the marsh disrupting a duck hunt:

“Stop! she called as shots rang out and ducks fell. Stop! to the men and the dogs in the blue dawn.”

There is perhaps a hint of Katherine Mansfield in these two sentences – so much is conveyed in very few words – shots, duck falling, shouting, dogs barking and the dawn sky. The next sentence turns the piece on it’s head as we learn the woman’s fiancé is pointing his gun directly at her.

“Still her love had the gun trained on her, and she stood, and even when he lowered it and his expression revealed play, a joke, she knew she’d seen his true face.”

So much has changed in the space of a few words. We start off with a wedding, the preparations, as implied in the title, then jump to a woman disrupting a hunt only to find out that it is her future husband and his friends who are hunting. By training his gun on his future wife we see a future of possible conflict. The final sentence hints a number of future possibilities – acceptance, rebellion – and we are left to ponder the significance of the final word:

“come in now, she said quietly. You’ll catch your death”

While short pieces like  ‘The day before the wedding’, which open up multiple possibilities in the space of a handful of words, are the highlight of this collection, Myer also shows herself to be at home in longer pieces such as ‘Nineteen’ which, according to my train station analysis, is almost approaching the category of a short story.

The look and feel of the book adds to the overall success of Captives. The book itself is quite small, recalling for me at least City Lights Pocket Poets editions. The collection is grouped into a number of sections and is set off by a series of simple images which I was surprised to read had been adapted from the notebooks and papers of Franz Kafka.

Captives is a stunning first collection and a must read for anyone interested in short fiction / Micro Fiction. It is the sort of book that you will remember long after you have left the train station.

– Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review and P76 Magazine. He also has a number of manuscripts looking for a publisher.

Captives is available from http://inkermanandblunt.com/home/projects/captives/

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Rochford Street Review relies on donations to cover costs. Any funds left over are used to pay reviewers.

Straddling Prose Poetry and Microfiction: Shady Cosgrove launches ‘Writing to the Edge: Prose Poems & Microfiction’

Writing to the Edge: Prose Poems & Microfiction edited by Linda Godfrey and Ali Jane Smith, Spineless Wonders 2014 was launched on Saturday 16 August 2014 at the NSW Writers Centre by Shady Cosgrove. This is what she had to say:

WTEThank you Spineless Wonders, Bronwyn Mehan, Ali Smith and Linda Godfrey for having me here to launch this great collection of prose poems and microfiction. I’m honoured.

What is it that makes great reading? For people who love novels – and I admit, that’s usually me – it’s about rounded characters. Driving plotlines. Sweeping narrative arcs and a precise use of language. It’s about escaping to another world and having a bit of time there.

Microfiction and prose poems don’t have the luxury of set-­‐up because as soon as the story begins, it’s over. It doesn’t have time to take too much time. Poetry, I think, might be a little easier, because you can force the reader to slow down by using imagery and metaphor in beguiling ways but even so the mastery is demonstrated in the brevity.

This is a marvellous collection of pieces that straddle prose poems and microfictions. And I LOVE that there’s a publication that places these pieces side by side because I think there’s a lot the prose poem can learn from the microfiction and a lot that the microfiction can learn from the prose poem.

Sydney writer Bridget Lutherborrow once said that she reads a microfiction for its ending. That the final lines of the microfiction need to shift the narrative status quo and take the story someplace unexpected.

And I was thinking about this as I was reading through the long-­‐listed entries for the Joanne Burns Award. And to be clear: not all of the pieces in the book were entries for the award, but many were. It was a difficult task – judging the winner – but I chose Mark Smith’s ‘10.42 to Sydenham’, a short-­‐short story about a girl being bullied on the train from the perspective of an African migrant, because of its ending. It’d be easy to overdo the themes in this story, to rely on stereotype or the grotesque – but by using tight, controlled language, he expertly leads the reader through the shifting loyalties of the story. There’s set-­‐up, tension, and a resolution that’s not as smooth as we were expecting. And this discomfort, this ending, is what makes the story. It’s a tight, thoughtful microfiction that stays with the reader after the book is closed. Well done, Mark.

The runner-­‐up prose poem ‘Happy’ by Hilary Hewitt lands at the other end of the prose poem-­‐microfiction continuum. I adore this piece! It follows Hao Zianzhang and his boutique pear venture. What wit! What use of language! This combination means we’re willing to follow the author from the markets of the first line to the marketing campaigns of the last without question. The poem tackles consumerism, waste, communism, infanticide and poverty in thirteen lines and the reader wants more. What? Yes, it’s true. It’s crazy. But each word is precise and this kind of care is riveting.

And I also really enjoyed runner-­‐up Mark Roberts’ ‘Cities that are not Dublin’. There’s a wonderful sense of Australia answering back to the colonial canon. The lulling pace and use of white space add to the ambience so that the reader, too, feels like they’re tucked beside a train window, burrowing into Ulysses.

These winning entries were all about Australia’s place in the world or the world’s place in Australia. It’s hard to pull off characters that are both personal and universal – but that was the core strength of these three pieces. We’re taken beyond ourselves, and in that process, recognise ourselves.

Other top pieces in Writing to the Edge: Philip Hammial has some enchanting vignettes that hover between poem and micro-­‐micro-­‐fiction. Elizabeth Hodgson’s ‘Timeless Crones’ honours the ‘older than anyone else you’ve ever known’ women. Patrick Lenton’s ‘Phraseo Rogue Editor’ excited my inner editing teacher, and made me laugh aloud. That a great first line ‘Adelie kept a locked book of recipes for black’ in Richard Holt’s ‘Her Dark Ground’. And Julie Chevalier’s ‘she cut a whole room of baby furniture from a catalogue’ in ‘The Man Who Walks After Work’ was a great moment that stayed with me. Oh, and the brutal banality that Jenni Nixon exposes in ‘Engaged’. All of it: great stuff.

In essence, this is a superb collection of Australian prose poems and microfiction. Make sure you buy five copies straight away and get some of the marvellous authors who are here tonight to sign them for you.

And finally thank you publisher Bronwyn Mehan and the crew at Spineless Wonders. Thank you editors Linda Godfrey and Ali Jane Smith. As Moya Costello said at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival a few weeks ago: “you guys are real deal”. The most innovative stuff in Australian publishing right now! Thank you for putting out another superb book.

I officially launch Writing to the Edge.

– Shady Cosgrove

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Shady Cosgrove is a senior lecturer at the University of Wollongong. Her books include What the Ground Can’t Hold (Picador, 2013) and She Played Elvis (Allen and Unwin, 2009), which was shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel Award. Her short fiction and articles have appeared in Best Australian Stories, Overland, Southerly, Antipodes, the Age and and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Writing to the Edge is available from http://shortaustralianstories.com.au/products-page/anthologies-3/writing-to-the-edge-pre-release-offer/

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