I first heard about Randall Brown about a year ago through his fantastic essay in "The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction," a dynamite craft book filled with essays, writing prompts and fantastic advice. I then discovered that he teaches, runs an MFA program, has his own book out and edits a fantastic web site filled with flash fiction prompts, essays and competition announcements. To top it off, he also has a brand new small press focused on short literature called Matter Press, which includes a The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. What I’m saying is that: 1. He’s a maestro of short literature, and 2. He’s a very busy man. Both of which make me grateful that he took the time to speak with me about Matter Press and the art of writing very short literature.
RM: Please tell us about the genesis of Matter Press, and what you hope the future holds for it.
RB: I began writing (very) short fiction before I knew that a label existed for it (flash, micro, sudden, quick and so on). I became fascinated with the particular challenges of writing in that confined space and the creative process of rising to the challenge of compression. When I became Director of the MFA Program at Rosemont College, I knew they needed a literary journal to be associated with the program, so Matter Press was born, with its readers being graduates or degree-candidates of the program—and its focus being on reading to discover not what we think "compression" means but what other writers have discovered within the form.
My own thoughts are that flash is a machine of compression—a mindset—a desire to make the most minute of movements matter. It is fiction that cannot tolerate uncertainty but for a moment, so it rushes to its ending before it loses nerve. It's fearlessness in the face of insignificance. Your own "Attention must be paid" in a world that no longer holds any. It's the urge to get it all down and then move on quickly to something else. It's that madness of a room covered in scribbled notes, the kind stuck in bottles and floated on oceans. Flash is a very tiny thing that doesn't want to be anything else. It demands you fill the nothing of space with something uncontainable. But I want to move beyond what I think of it to what others have found it to be.
So, through the journal and press, I hope to learn more and more about compressed prose and poetry, and I hope writers feel that the journal is a fine home for their compressed work.
RM: I've heard many perspectives on the difference between prose poems and flash fiction pieces. What's your opinion on the issue (if we can call it that)?
RB: I think many writers immerse themselves in the creative process of working within these tiny word-count limits without much thinking about whether it will be called a prose poem or flash fiction. When I send work out, I don't label it. I say something like "Here is my 312-word 'Title.' Hope you like it." It sometimes ends up in the poetry section, more often in the fiction section. I find that the label doesn't matter much to me, and I imagine that it doesn't matter much to many of the writers working with these compressed forms.
That being said, I have noticed some things that seem to differentiate the two labels. Pieces that are formatted as a single paragraph seem more likely to be considered prose poems, as are pieces that generate their meaning through more poetic devices, such as a central image or object (kind of like Eliot's idea of the objective correlative). Longer, multi-paragraphed pieces end up as fiction, as well as those that use the meaning-making structure of narrative. That structure is some version of this:
The inciting incident, plus that character’s closely-related singular, powerful desire, leads to a confrontation with inside/outside implications. The ensuing conflict leads to a resolution of some sorts. The dramatic imperative ensures a high-stakes story with a hard-earned resolution at the end.
Of course, the compressed space of very short fiction often doesn't allow one the full use of narrative structure: the opening quietude, the inciting incident that arouses deeper desires, the movement from desire to action, the series of acting and failing, acting and failing, acting and failing until, through that process of acting and failing so often, one gets an ending that feels hard-earned, an epiphany, a transformation. So one must find ways to compress the narrative, but the more a piece seems concerned with the issues and challenges of compressing narrative, the more likely I think it is to end up being called flash fiction.
In short, the prose poem seems to be about building a poem with the sentence rather than the line break. If I had grasped the line break, I would've loved to be a poet. But alas, I've been sentenced to the sentence.
RM: Matter Press's description mentions that it looks for "particular moments of compression, out of which expand the universal." As an editor, what are the common ways in which pieces you see fail to achieve this movement?
RB: Anytime you are asking for things that are short, you are bound to get pieces that have been (clearly) drafted and submitted fairly quickly, and these often have a kind of temporary, fleeting insignificance to them. Also, there are those writers truly drawn to the idea of compression, and those that don't necessarily have that passion or immersion with it. We, as one might guess, are looking for the passionate writers. So, the ones that resonate seem to be concerned with getting things right, no matter how long that process takes; and they seem to be engaging with the questions raised by writing within a constrained space. In reading such work, I get the sense that the writers have found in compression what could not be found otherwise, that they view the constriction of time and space as a need for urgency and profundity. There's an energy to the pieces, that feeling of something very tiny in the process of bursting beyond its confines.
RM: Compression seems to speak to a fair amount of pressure being applied on a piece of literature. Who are some writers we should check out that apply that pressure well?
RB: So many! Here's a list of some of the current and forthcoming writers in the journal whom we love: Steve Almond, Kim Chinquee, Elizabeth Colen, Myfanwy Collins, Lydia Copeland, Nicelle Davis, David Ebenbach, Kathy Fish, Sherrie Flick, Roxane Gay, Peter Grandbois, Carol Guess, Beverly Jackson, Tiff Holland, Cynthia Litz, Sean Lovelance, Darlin'Neal, Jennifer Pieroni, Chad Prevost, Ethel Rohan, Peter Schwartz, Curtis Smith and Ray Vuckevich.
RM: What books have occupied space on your nightstand over the last few months? Any that you would recommend?
RB: I just read the galley copy of the new Rose Metal Press collection of five chapbooks: "They Could No Longer Contain Themselves: A Collection of Five Flash Chapbooks" by Elizabeth J. Colen, John Jodzio, Tim Jones-Yelvington, Sean Lovelace and Mary Miller. Wow. Also, I got to read the gallery copy for Sarah Etter's "Tongue Party," winner of the Caketrain's chapbook contest. Pretty remarkable. I'm really enjoying the books from j.a tyler at Mud Luscious Press, especially Molly Gaudry's "We Take Me Apart," and the chapbooks from The Cupboard, especially the co-authored "Bully (by James Scott) / Bullied (by Ryan Call)."
The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts is currently accepting fiction and creative nonfiction submissions at matterpress.com.