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Category Archives: Flash Fiction

Spinning To Mars by Meg Pokrass (Blue Light Press)

Spinning To Mars by Meg Pokrass (Blue Light Press)

Meg Pokrass’s Spinning to Mars is a kind of non-linear novella in flash that keeps circling back to romantic relationships that aren’t making it and clearly were never meant to be. Pokrass comes out of a tradition that includes Stewart Dybek, Pamela Painter, and Robert Olen Butler, each of whom are masters of flash fiction and who understand unsatisfying relationships. In Pokrass’s collection, we keep coming back to two people who don’t quite understand each other and don’t really seem to want to but would rather retreat into a world of books and cats.

     Each flash story captures a moment in the life of two people who might or might not be the characters from the previous stories. It is never explicitly stated that this is the same woman often circling back to the same relationship, but we do see patterns repeating again and again. Throughout, it is familiar in that she captures what keeps us from satisfying relationships in our own lives, which is mostly the distance they intentionally keep from each other insuring that they will never understand the other’s life. Pokrass is a master of the novella in flash and uses it to its full purpose. Although each piece is well crafted, because they have been arranged as they are, the statement of the collection is that we ruin our lives in depressing patterns that we never break out of. She seems to be saying that if we had a little critical insight into those patterns, we would be able to find greater meaning in our loves and lives.

     Running through the collection is also a discussion of the awkward ways that people express themselves physically as they move into middle age. In this collection, people let themselves go, stop caring that they are near other people. In “Separation,” a wife is leaving her husband. “After packing your third bag, you find yourself staring at his penis which pokes out the side of his shorts when he lies down” (40). This would seem to be a violation, but there is a friendliness built on this kind of physical intimacy. She is leaving him for a reason, but their bodies have become comfortable. Of his penis, she writes, “It has always been friendly. You’re going to miss it” (46). Awkward bodies and closeness because of that awkwardness flow through this collection. These people have lost their inhibitions as they have entered middle age, and it is comfortable and even nice. This emotion is captured best perhaps in “Classified,” where a woman meets “one of the saddest men on earth”:

    A smile obscured his sadness. His belly poked out of his shirt and he pushed it back with his hand.

    She knelt and smoothed the dog’s ears. The dog had rancid breath and she liked it. (51)

The belly, the rancid breath, and the hand are what matter here. They humanize these characters, make them relatable and likeable. She uses the awkwardness to make them attractive.

     There is a reason that Meg Pokrass’s work is gaining in popularity right now and so many people are reading her. It is powerful and human. Through these flashes that are sometimes only a sentence long, she is able to get down to what is truly human in all of us.

John Brantingham 24th July 2021

When It’s Called Not Making Love by Karen Jones (Ad Hoc Fiction)

When It’s Called Not Making Love by Karen Jones (Ad Hoc Fiction)

Karen Jones’s heartbreaking flash fiction collection, When It’s Called Not Making Love, is published by Ad Hoc Fiction which specializes in flash fiction authors and has published writers like Meg Pokrass, Diane Simons, and Jude Higgens. Jones’s collection takes a look at adolescent and young adult sexuality from the point of view of Bernadette, someone who is on the outside because she is considered overweight and just a little different. Jones is a master of point-of-view and draws us into Bernadette’s interior life allowing us to live in the awkward body of someone who wants and needs love but does not know exactly how to engage meaningfully with other people. It is an exceptional collection showing how people are at the same time used and rejected sexually and what that does to the psyche.

The most powerful flash piece for me was the final and titular story. In it, we are given three moments with three young men who have sex with Bernadette from behind, so they do not have to look her in the eye. They brag of the numbers of their sexual conquests, and she tells each they are her first in an attempt to elicit a stronger emotional reaction from them. The problem is in the way that these boys look at her and in how she sees herself as undeserving or incapable of having a fulfilling emotional experience involving sex. It ends with the line, “Maybe someday another boy would like her enough to look her in the eye while he fucked her. Maybe she’d even call it making love” (38). The difference between making love and getting fucked is the key concept of the story and collection. Bernadette does not seem to know how to achieve love, so she settles for what she can get. Of course, this is the key problem for many of us when we are young and are just trying love out. She captures that problem so well, and she had me musing about my own youthful fumblings toward emotion.

Her awkwardness in her own body is her defining characteristic in her world. Early in the collection, she begins a friendship with a girl named Jenny, whom everyone thinks is superior. Her grandmother tells the main character, “‘She’s half the size of you and twice as smart  . . . And so pretty. Why can’t you have silky hair like hers? Why are you such a lump of a girl, Bernadette?’” (3). This is a social condition that we are all aware of, but Jones does an exceptional job of drawing out what it means to be a human being who is seen as an insufficient accessory. This expectation that she is Jenny’s accessory and a bad one at that drives her early sexual encounters where she is often offered sexually to a friend so that Jenny can get the boy or the experience she wants. She is abused and neglected. She is a person capable of exceptional emotional range and she is denied the chance to have those emotions.

When It’s Called Not Making Love captures so well the pain of young people who want a kind of physical perfection and think they will never have it. It also captures the trap of thinking of this world in terms of perfection and imperfection.

John Brantingham 29th March 2021

Five Ghost Stories by Dennis Callaci (Bamboo Dart Press)

Five Ghost Stories by Dennis Callaci (Bamboo Dart Press)

Dennis Callaci’s Five Ghost Stories is a book that I think could only have been written in quarantine. In five very short stories, Callaci explores the way that so many people’s interior worlds, or at least mine, have changed. This kind of exploration might have felt overwhelming. After all, we are still in the midst of the lockdown. However, it was refreshing. Fiction has the ability to let us know what we are not alone in the world, and that our pains and joys are shared. Callaci’s book did this for me.

I find myself often going into an interior space these days where I replay odd memories of my youth, meditating on things that I had forgotten but had a strange power when I was young. Callaci does so as well, developing a kind of David Sedaris approach to memory albeit intentionally without humor. So, in one of the stories, he writes a story of memory, two brothers putting together a model, the emotions of two children bent on finishing a project becoming all consuming. And that memory becomes powerful to the author and reader in the moment, reminding us that while the passions of youth might seem silly and strange now, when they were happening, they truly did matter to us. They were important and part of our formation. He discusses these early relationships with family members in all their complexity, laying out vignette memories and allowing us to draw out meaning for ourselves.

In ‘The Cemetery Calendar of Days,’ he creates a kind of alternative universe where a creeping disease and its political impact has created a world of tension where communities feel that they have to patrol to keep themselves apart from others. In doing so, he captures this current alienation that I am feeling as well. It’s not just that the characters in the story are self-isolating; it’s that they are creating a social climate that divides them even farther. This sense of alienation spills into the next story where the main character tries to help a woman the way his father used to help people. Her car has a flat tire, and he wants to change it for her, but she does not speak English, and he does not speak her language. She does not even roll down her windows for him though because our world is often terrifying, and she is frightened of him.

Five Ghost Stories reminded me often of the work of Meg Pokrass, flash fiction pieces that capture a moment in time and the emotion of it, and like Pokrass’s work, Callaci’s draws us into those moments to show us that what seems mundane truly does matter. 

John Brantingham 18th January 2021

Chaos and Ash by Kendall Johnson (Pelekinesis Press)

Chaos and Ash by Kendall Johnson (Pelekinesis Press)

In a world where movies and books often treat trauma casually and even glibly, Kendall Johnson’s Chaos and Ash from Pelekinesis Press gives us an inside view of what it truly is and what treatment actually looks like. Johnson is someone who understands trauma. He is a Vietnam combat veteran and a former firefighter who rushed into the chaos of wildland fires in California. He later became a trauma psychotherapist and consultant specializing in big events. He was a second responder to 9/11, the Rodney King uprising in Los Angeles, wildfires across the United States, and the Northridge earthquake. He is someone who has spent a lifetime dealing with his trauma and others’, and where other books I have read treat the concept as an aside, Johnson’s book gives it the weight it deserves.

     That Chaos and Ash is a fictionalized memoir in flash and a few other forms is appropriate to the way he helps us to understand what trauma is. It is fictionalized to some degree to protect those he worked with. He does not describe the real events of his patients, but creates out of a lifetime of therapy. It is flash vignette because there is no clear throughline, nothing easy that we can find. There is not one simple thesis statement that can help us to understand the concept. Instead, what he deals with are fragments and moments that often do not make a logical kind of sense on top of which, he has not fully recovered all of the memories that he is trying to work through in this book. Much of what happened in Vietnam is coming back to him, and while a half-remembered event in most memoirs would not work for me, in this collection, that half-memory is the point. What we are getting is what it is to be inside the mind of someone suffering from this pain, and it is not easy, and it is certainly not clear.

     Beyond the flash, Johnson uses a few other forms as well to open up what he is talking about through the way he says it. He is also an abstract expressionist painter, and a number of his pieces are scattered through the book, giving us another path into his experience. He has poetry here and there. Later, he includes open letters to the NRA and Congress, one to parents and teachers, and a third to incident commanders. These take his artistic expressions that might be interpreted in multiple ways and add a more direct argument as to what he sees as the problems with the way society is working, how it throws us off balance. These multiple approaches help us to understand what he is talking about in a number of ways.

     This is not a pornography of violence and trauma. Johnson is not simply laying out his and other people’s pain so that we might gain a kind of vicarious experience. He is creating a fiction based on his life so that others might see what moving forward means. He is making the point that this is not something to be cured through a couple of sessions of therapy. In fact, he is showing us that the concept of being cured is absurd. There is no such thing as leaving it behind but rather he is looking for ways to move forward through this kind of pain. 

     The main character who like Johnson is a trauma psychotherapist who has been to Vietnam himself is in therapy himself, and his psychologist helps him to deal with both the pain he lived and the secondary trauma of those who work with trauma survivors. He speaks to his therapist about the role he is expected to play and how he gets through it:

“I’m expected to project an attitude of ‘I’ve seen it all and know just what to do.’ That’s half the magic.” I felt myself going on the defensive a little. “And when I’m not OK, when I’m scared of the situation and don’t know what to do, I fake it. I guess I manage to selectively dissociate, to take note of my feelings, and then put them in a closet somewhere and get on with it.” 

“You certainly got good at that in Vietnam. And paid a price for it—you’ve been disconnected for years. Amnesia. Our work would have gone more quickly if you hadn’t been dragging around a pretty big sack of leftovers.” 

I took a breath and let it out slowly. “It may not be perfect, but I guess I get by.”

Over the years, I have enjoyed popular nonfiction psychology books, but none of them have shown me what real pain looks like as this fictional account does. Those books are often neat and their discussions give observations that are meant to be definitive. This is a discussion of how messy psychological pain is, how his experiences in the past are rubbing up against the way he is trying to help people in the present in his practice. Psychologists have often presented themselves as godlike, able to clearly and easily point to this or that and solve or at least identify the problem immediately. Johnson lets us know that such an attempt does not make a lot of sense because problems are layered upon other problems and the psychologist is just a human being trying to see the patient through the foggy lens of his past.

     For me, Chaos and Ash was refreshing. It is nice to have someone speak truth about something that should be taken seriously and so often is not.

John Brantingham 3rd January 2020

Tears in the Fence 72 is out!

Tears in the Fence 72 is out!

Tears in the Fence 72 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, multilingual poetry, prose poetry, flash fiction, fiction and translations from Mandy Haggith, Andrew Duncan, Elzbieta Wojcik-Leese, Charlotte Baldwin, Jeremy Reed, Lynne Wycherley, Joanna Nissel, Mandy Pannett, Sam Wood, Genevieve Carver, Sarah Acton, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Mike Duggan, Daragh Breen, Tracey Turley, Karen Downs-Burton, Barbara Ivusic, John Freeman, John Millbank, Olivia Tuck, Rowan Lyster, Sarah Watkinson, Greg Bright, Robert Vas Dias, Lucy Sheerman, Andrew Darlington, David Punter, Beth Davyson, Michael Henry, Judith Willson, John Gilmore, M.Vasalis translated by Arno Bohlmeijer, Paul Rossiter, Charles Wilkinson, Rupert M. Loydell, Reuben Woolley, Kareem Tayyar, Peter Hughes, Zoe Karathanasi, Lucy Hamilton, Lydia Harris, Lucy Ingrams, Mark Goodwin, Simon Collings, Aidan Semmens, Vasiliki Albedo and Ian Seed.

The critical section consists of David Caddy’s Editorial, Jennifer K. Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment XIV, Andrew Duncan Apocalypse: An Anthology edited by James Keery, Lily-Robert-Foley on Jennifer K. Dick’s Lilith, Clark Allison on Geoffrey Hill, Alice Entwhistle on Frances Presley, Belinda Cooke on Peter Robinson, Nadira Clare Wallace on Ella Frears, Ian Brinton on Ray Crump, Norman Jope on Menno Wigman, Oliver Sedano-Jones on Anthony Anaxagorou, Steve Spence on Gavin Selerie, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 7 and Notes on Contributors.

Mentoring and Critical Appraisals

The Tears in the Fence editors now offer more Mentoring and Critical Appraisals in poetry, drama, performance, scriptwriting and voice work.

Playwright, Performance Studies Lecturer, and poet, Louise Buchler is offering Mentoring in Scriptwriting and Verse Drama under the same scheme. She has more than twelve years of experience lecturing in Writing for both Stage and Screen. She made the shortlist for the National Theatre London’s Africa Playwriting Competition recognising her as one of the top twenty playwrights on the African continent. Her plays have been widely performed. Her poetry has been published in Tears in the Fence and various publications in South Africa. Louise is also available for Performance and Voice coaching. Please email Louise at tearsinthefence@gmail.com

Poet, essayist and editor, David Caddy offers critical appraisals and mentoring in Poetry, Flash Fiction and Publication for other literary genres and projects. This involves taking a manuscript from first draft to publication, advising on where to send your work and the range of available options for a prospective poet and author.

Recent comments on their mentoring include:

‘The appraisals from David and Louise were thoughtful and precise. Their feedback ranged from specific matters of craft to the broader question of how I might take my writing forward. They responded to the work on its own terms and even picked up on recurring motifs and concerns I hadn’t been aware of myself.’ Phil Baber

‘David’s critical appraisals are immeasurably helpful. His work
towards my first full collection was immensely useful.’ Jessica Mookherjee

‘David’s close and perceptive reading of each poem, help with ordering and sequencing my pamphlet collections, and support with my first full collection has been enormous. I thoroughly recommend his critical and mentoring services.’ Geraldine Clarkson

For more details visit
https://tearsinthefence.com/mentoring

The No Breath by John Goodby, Distances by Ian Seed (The Red Ceilings Press)

The No Breath by John Goodby, Distances by Ian Seed (The Red Ceilings Press)

On the back cover of John Goodby’s little volume of poems Lyndon Davies tells us why these little poems are favourites of his:

“It’s like being in a calm dark room with little slots and windowlets opening just briefly onto brilliantly lit spaces out there and all over and then closing again before you can get a really good look.”

There is of course something of Alice’s glimpses of the garden through the little door at the bottom of the rabbit-hole in this analogy but it also reminds me of the wonderful 1970 prose book by Philippe Jaccottet, Paysages avec figures absentes. Early in that short book the poet of Grignan refers to “ouvertures”, openings, like rents in the world through which one can gaze for a moment:

“And so, without desiring or seeking it, what I discovered at times was a homeland, and perhaps the most rightful one: a place which opened up to me the magical depths of Time.”

In his own words, “ces ouvertures proposées au regard intérieur apparaissaient ainsi convergentes, tels les rayons d’une sphère; ells désignaient par intermittences, mais avec obstination, un noyau comme immobile.” That glimpse of a still centre, the far perceived from the near, can be felt in Goodby’s ‘Teller’:

“Plump fingers on the keys, clumsy prey,
From all corners of the house
Opened to hear better
The same dress, with blue roses.

Just a few could have been stairwells,
Thinking of himself as he was
Matted with night and the casement,
The pointed roofs, the largeness of snow.

What opens with a title suggestive of either counting money or votes moves, with the opening words of “plump fingers” on keys, to hint at the telling of beads as well as the playing of a piano: that patient counting of meditation complements the focus upon musical notes to suggest a concentration upon the moment. The third line announces an opening which allows the pianist’s playing to be heard more widely and a touch of vision, a dress with blue roses (Hardy’s “air-blue gown?”), appears before the eye’s glimpse. The moving radii of Jaccottet’s thought lead to possible stairwells, awareness of what lies beneath the surface, and the poet rests for a moment “Matted with night”. What lies woven beneath one’s feet finds its counterpart in “pointed roofs” and an endless whiteness. It is a moment caught! A slot, a windowlet, a suggestive sense of something lying beyond the immediate.

Ian Seed’s prose vignettes reflect upon the individual in relation to others: twenty-nine little prose poems introduce us to a world of Europe and a world of domestic reminiscence. The intensity of the moment is caught rather like the way the writer finds himself standing in front of a huge bookshop that he had never seen before. As he says “The city looked different this morning”.

“The streets and squares were bathed in a beautiful, yet somehow ominous golden glow, which had so distracted me that I was now lost.”

The pressures of time mount as he realises that not only is he going to be late at the school in Turin “where I taught English as a foreign language” but that as the shop’s door is being opened by a “hunched old man with rimless spectacles” he should already, as a teacher, “been with my pupils”. The shopkeeper seems to offer an invitation to the teacher to enter this new world where books in different languages “lay on shelves that seemed to stretch into the distance”. Caught within the dreamlike moment, a world which seems to diminish the mundanity of what lies outside the shop, the writer discovers a book titled The Unseen Everyday and is compelled to recognise that here is a text “which would finally illuminate my understanding of the life beyond life”. The general vagueness of such a thought is then immediately qualified by the realisation that such an illumination belongs “within the life itself that I led, although it would never enable me to find my way around the city arrive on time.

These two little books from The Red Ceilings Press are published in limited editions of 60 and 70 copies and I suggest that you get hold of them fast before the window shuts and that glimpse of a tantalising and refreshing world disappears.

Ian Brinton, 17th June 2018

http://www.theredceilingspress.co.uk

Tears in the Fence 66

Tears in the Fence 66

Tears in the Fence 66 is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose poetry, fiction and flash fiction from Rachael Clyne, Camilla Nelson, Steve Spence, Isobel Armstrong, Anna Reckin, Jeremy Reed, Greg Bright, Adam Fieled, Maurice Scully, Zainab Ismail, Michael Henry, Sarah Cave, Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, Paul Kareem Tayyar, Jinny Fisher, Alison Frank, Bethany Rivers, Nick Totton, F.J. Williams, Vahni Capildeo in Conversation with Suzannah V. Evans, Mike Duggan, John Welch, Jill Eulalie Dawson, James Midgley, Richard Foreman, Andrew Henon, Cora Greenhill, Peter J. King, Jane Wheeler, Jonathan Chant, Martin Stannard, Kate Noakes, Jonathan Catherall, John Goodby, David Clarke, Ren Watson, Claire Polders, Flash Fiction 3rd Prize winner, Keith Walton, Flash Fiction 2nd Prize winner, Sheila Mannix, Flash Fiction 1st Prize winner.

The critical section features Ian Brinton’s editorial, Jennifer K Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment XIII, Steve Spence on Poems for Jeremy Corbyn, Norman Jope on Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry, Andrew Duncan on Seditious Things, Nick Totton on J.H. Prynne & Non-Representational Poetry, Lesley Saunders on Jane Draycott, Geraldine Clarkson, Jeremy Hilton on Sharon Morris, Alfred Celestine, Ulrikka S. Gernes, Scott Thurston on Allen Fisher, Steve Spence on New Plymouth Poetry, Will Daunt on Amos Weisz, Oliver Dixon on James Byrne, Cora Greenhill on the Scottish Women’s Poetry Symposium, Suzannah V. Evans on Richard Price, Mandy Pannett on Trumbull Stickney, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 2, Kat Peddie on The Sovereign Community, Notes On Contributors and David Caddy’s Afterword

Tears in the Fence Flash Fiction Competition

Tears in the Fence Flash Fiction Competition

The Tears in the Fence Flash Fiction Competition is now open with a First Prize of £200, Second Prize of £150 and Third Prize of £100. The winners and other highly commended entries will be published in issue 66. The competition will close on 27th May 2017. Winning entrants will be announced on the Tears in the Fence website https://tearsinthefence.com/flashfiction site on 24th June 2017.

SUBMISSIONS

Submissions may be done on http://tearsinthefence.com or by post to Tears in the Fence Flash Fiction Competition, Portman Lodge, Durweston, Blandford Forum, Dorset DT11 0QA, England.

RULES AND GUIDELINES

All entries must be unpublished and 400 words or less and the original work of the author.

There is no set Theme.

There is no limit to the number of entries that one person may submit.

Entries may not be submitted elsewhere for the duration of the competition.

This competition is open to anyone over the age of 16 years.

The editors of Tears in the Fence will judge this competition.

The decision of the judges is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

All entries will be judged anonymously and considered for publication.

Please do not put your name, address, email or any identifying marks on the Word or rtf document in which you enclose your flash fiction.

No entry form is required.

Please enter by email to tearsinthefence@gmail.com through the Submissions page on the magazine’s website or post to Tears in the Fence with a separate covering letter and appropriate fee.

Fees

Entries must be accompanied by submission fees of £5 for a single submission, £7.50 for two and £10 for three. More than three flash fictions should be made on another entry.

Entries are only included in the competition when payment is received by PayPal, follow the instructions on the DONATE button on the magazine’s website, or by cheque, made out to Tears in the Fence.

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