Every emerging writer dreams of finding herself in a conversation with the editor of an esteemed literary magazine. For the new writer, especially, there are hundreds of unanswered questions about the submission process. So you can imagine my excitement when I found myself speaking with Ralph Hamilton, the editor of RHINO Poetry. During the course of our conversation, he was kind enough to offer some insights into the publishing world. In the process of discussing the typical type of submission that Rhino receives, Mr. Hamilton acknowledged an odd disparity. For whatever the reason, writers generally submit higher quality prose poetry than flash fiction.
Our conversation was long over before I thought to ask the obvious question. What exactly is the difference between prose poems and flash fiction. To be honest, I’m guilty of submitting the same piece of writing as both. For the most part, the call for submissions determines how I submit the piece. If a magazine calls for flash, I’ll submit it as a flash. If a magazine calls for a prose poem, I’ll submit my piece as a prose poem.
Suddenly panicked, and convinced that I had been making a fool of myself by consistently submitting the wrong genre, I decided that it was time to do some research. If flash fiction and prose poems were different, the question remained. Why?
Let’s start with the prose poem. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, a prose poem is “a work in prose that has some of the technical or literary qualities of a poem . . . but that is set on a page as prose.” Those “qualities” can be anything from heightened language to heightened emotion. Repetitive patterns of sound, figurative language, and imagery often appear in poetry — whether there’s line breaks or not.
Check out Amy Lowell’s Bath from Selected Poems of Amy Lowell (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002):
The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.
. The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.
. Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots. The sky is blue and high. A crow flaps by the window, and there is a whiff of tulips and narcissus in the air.
Even without line breaks, the poem’s lyricism, vivid imagery, and parallel sentences scream poetry. The language arrests the reader and forces him to pay attention to every detail.
Of course, it’s also possible for regular prose to be poetic. Supposedly, Mallarmé once said, “There is no such thing as prose . . . There is the the alphabet, and then there are verses which are more or less closely knit, more or less diffuse (Edward Hirsch, A Poet’s Glossary).”
Excuse me? No such things as prose?
Of course, after reading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves or the first part of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, it’s easy to see how prose can also be poetry. Even the simplest of prose has rhythm, if only because all language has rhythmic qualities.
Still, despite the inherent poetic components of language in general, the average reader still intuitively recognizes prose as prose. Which leads us to flash fiction.
Finding a definition for flash fiction from an authoritative source proved nearly impossible. The Encyclopedia Britannica and Merriam-Webster failed to provide a single tidbit of information. Luckily, Dictionary.com came to the rescue, defining flash fiction as “very short works of fiction that are typically no longer than a couple of pages and may be as short as one paragraph.” As you can see, there is no absolutely no mention of poetic language.
In Writer’s Digest, William Highsmith acknowledges that, when it comes to flash fiction, different markets expect different things. That being said, most editors expect flash fiction to be fewer than 1,500 words and often even less. Many editors also agree that plot serves as the primary driving force in flash fiction. While a good poem may not need much of a narrative, a good piece of flash fiction demands it.
Things start to get confusing, however, when Highsmith insists that the best flash fiction boasts “the verbal efficiency of a poet.” And apparently he’s not alone. In her blog post on The Review Review, Becky Tuch cites plenty of editors whom believe that flash fiction should also be poetic. Take Jamacia Kincaid’s Girl for example. It easily reads like poetry with its repetition and rich imagery.
In the end, there may be no definitive answer as to what differentiates prose poetry from flash fiction. Writers, as well as editors, unfortunately, will have to rely on their best instincts. When submitting flash fiction or prose poems, it’s always best to read the journals first. Develop a gist of what kind of works they publish. If the examples of flash fiction feel like poetry, it’s probably okay to submit more of a hybrid piece. If the prose poems read like regular prose, you can rely on less conventional poetic techniques.
Ever since poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud began abandoning rhyme in the early 19th century, critics have hotly contested the definition of poetry. With the popularization of flash fiction, it’s now possible to argue about the definition of prose. But hey, life is complicated! No wonder literature is too.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Jessica Terson’s poetry has previously appeared or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, New Orleans Review (web feature), River Styx, River Teeth Journal, Southern Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Her flash fiction can be found in Beloit Fiction Journal. She currently resides in