Word to Word: An Interview with Meg Pokrass by Curtis Smith

Meg Pokrass is the author of many collections of flash fiction, and one award-winning collection of prose poetry.  Her writing has been widely anthologized, most recently in Best Small Fictions 2018, guest edited by Aimee Bender (Braddock Avenue Books), the Wigleaf Top 50, and 2 Norton Anthologies of flash fiction: Flash Fiction International and New MicroExceptionally Short Fiction. Meg is the founder of New Flash Fiction Review. Her new flash fiction collection, Alligators At Night, has just been released by Ad Hoc Fiction, and is available worldwide. You can find out more at http://megpokrass.com/

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Alligators at Night. I’m always interested in a book’s journey, especially in the indie press world. Can you take us along for the ride that led to its publication?

Meg Pokrass: Thank you! When I moved to England I had in hand a new flash fiction collection manuscript, stories that had been published in magazines and that felt as if they belonged together. The stories, 75 of them, all have something to do with loss, but they’re not all sad. I like to blend sad and funny stories, and if felt like a good mix of both. Three of the pieces in this manuscript have won honors this year. “Barista” in Best Small Fictions 2018, “Alligators At Night” in the Wigleaf Top 50, and “Cutlery” in the Norton anthology, New Micro (W.W. Norton, 2018).

When I became involved with the Bath Flash Fiction Award as a competition judge and as festival curator, Jude Higgins, Bath Flash Award and Flash Fiction Festival UK’s founder, asked me if I’d like to have my new collection published by Ad Hoc Fiction, the press connected to The Bath Flash Award. ALLIGATORS AT NIGHT is their first single author collection.

CS: I’ve been a long-time admirer of your work and output. I think people come to the writing of flash fiction from a number of different perspectives, so let me ask, where does the spark strike most often for you? Is a story usually born from an image? A situation? From a character? From some fragment language that sticks in your head and won’t let you go?

MP: I’m an admirer of your flash as well Curt!  I think my stores come from all of the places you mention. It can be any one or a combination. It’s when I begin writing that things pop. I’ll usually assign myself words that come into my head that day. They might come from something I see on my walks, a book I’m reading, or bit of overheard conversation. If I’m watching a movie, I’ll sometimes grab onto words or images the film and jot them down.

By reaching to build something from these words or images while I’m writing, stories appear. I literally write my way from word to word and image to image trying NOT to overthink. After the first draft I take a look and there is this marvelous feeling of surprise. I have come to believe that stories must be hiding inside my brain, waiting for me to figure out some weird formula for setting them free.

Nine years ago, though I defined myself as a poet, I was seriously fascinated with writers of the short form, such as Amy Hempel, Jayne Ann Phillips, and Lydia Davis. I knew they did something that felt like magic to me, I was in awe of them. I didn’t think I could do it. And when I found out I could, the way I felt about myself changed, and my days took on a new focus. You could say I became obsessed with flash. I wrote my first collection, DAMN SURE RIGHT in under a year. I wrote a new story and I’d edit obsessively every day. I’d say it was the second time in my adult life that I knew I could be very good at something I loved doing.

CS: And while we’re talking about the form, what draws you to flash fiction? What do you see as its rewards and challenges? Who are some of your favorite flash authors?

MP:  I turned a few of my poems into stories just about nine years ago, and I liked what they became. I thought of it as an experiment. I sent them out to journals, and very quickly realized that they were interesting. Smokelong Quarterly was one of my first publications, and they asked me to be an editor there not long after they published ”California Fruit” in 2009. I remained there as an editor, cutting my teeth for most of a year. I left to help Frederick Barthelme launch New World Writing.

My favorite writers of flash fiction include you, Curtis Smith! And Jeff Landon, Stuart Dybek, Robert Scotellaro, Christopher Merkner, the late Richard Brautigan, Molly Giles, Pamela Painter, Sherrie Flick, Lou Beach, Lex Williford, Mary Miller, and yTara Masih, Grant Faulkner, but the list just goes on and on.

CS: There are dozens and dozens of stories in Alligators. Some, I imagine came easily, and some were probably a struggle. As you look back, can you identify what elements made some stories flow while others had to wrestled with?

MP: No, I wish that I could. I never know which ones are going to take years of work. I’m very lucky in that I adore revision. I revise obsessively. Most of them take 6 months to a year or so until I feel they’re ready. But some sort of pop out exactly as they should be.

CS: Most of the pieces here are in first-person, but every so often, we encounter one in third. What aspect of a story determines which point of view you employ?

MP: I don’t often know until I put a story away and return to it quite a bit later. I do feel that first and second-person POVs generally serve up the most immediacy in flash. But ultimately there’s got to be an intuitive feeling about which POV the story feels best told by. As writers, we must do right by the story, and it’s different each time.

CS: Can you walk us through your process? Do you have a notebook of fragments that you return to later to flesh out? Do you finish a piece in a single sitting then put it away and let it gestate before returning to it? Are your first drafts for content and form and your revisions for word choice and shine?

MP: I try to write something new at least 3 – 5 times a week, and I tell myself that it doesn’t have to be good. Taking pressure off is essential. Often I go back to old freewrites and finish them up. I have them sitting in archive sometimes for years until I’m ready for a particular piece. Your words “flesh them out” are spot on! I like returning to old unpolished stories with completely new eyes, and see this as an editorial advantage.

CS: I admire the empty spaces you craft into your work—the backstories handled with a single line or left out altogether, allowing your reader to fill in the blanks. In flash, how important is the handling of such histories that lend a selected moment a real weight?

MP: Very important. I think the writer needs to know the backstory. The movement of a story is, after all, determined by what came before it. However, communicating backstory is tricky. If it is left out, we need to get some sense of it in the action of the story. If we’re leaving it out entirely, the reader must be able to pick up its scent. Taking too much time to explain it or saying it too obviously is ruinous, often this just comes across as distrusting the reader.  The best way to keep the reader’s trust is to trust them.

CS: What’s next?

MP:  I have so much going on! I’m working on a coming-of-age novella-in-flash and putting together a new collection of stories. Currently, I’m judging Mslexia’s flash fiction contest. Tommy Dean and I are creating an interview series for the authors of Best Micro over at New Flash Fiction Review. Author Gary Fincke and I have founded a new anthology series called Best Microfiction which will be judged by Dan Chaon. And I teach ongoing online classes!

Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).

 

 

 

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