Meg Pokrass Turns Poems into Stories

When you read Meg Pokrass, you know she was once a poet. In fact, she’s taken many of her poems and transformed them into stories—perhaps the perfect activity for any flash fiction author. But to present her fiction as guided mainly by lyricism is misleading. There are few authors out there as daring and honest and real as Meg Pokrass. She possesses that rare gift of a writer, knowing how to poetically tell a tale while not flinching from the uncomfortable truths she discovers along the way.

Pokrass is the author of Damn Sure Right (Press 53), a collection of flash fiction. Her work has appeared in more than a hundred online and print publications, and has been nominated for Dzanc’s Best of the Web, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and Wigleaf’s Top 50 [Very] Short Fictions.

I read in a profile of you that one of the things you learned in childhood was “how to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” What does that mean?
That is a quote by Sanford Meisner, considered one of the great acting teachers of the 20th century. As a kid actor, this was my mantra.

I brought this training to writing because it was what I knew.

A way to bring emotional understanding is to recall a time you experienced something similar. Creating believable characters is in imagining how you would think and behave in their unique circumstances.

A character’s needs, dreams, actions, and interactions are what engage the reader. Using sense-memory recall helps a writer discover truthful details.

You were first an actress. I’ve always thought every writer should study acting, if only to truly get out of one’s skin. What did acting teach you as a writer?
Any time we imagine how other people live and feel, when empathy and curiosity combine, we grow as artists. Acting for me was escaping my own unsolvable conditions through embracing the life story of a character not unlike me.

I had a turbulent childhood, my parents had a traumatic divorce when I was little, and I had a lot of anxiety growing up. Not only was I constantly reminded that people had it a lot worse than I did, but playing other people, getting outside of my own skin, as you put it, was an effective way of healthy distraction.

Have you noticed that it is far more interesting to see a character cope with loss by finding creative ways to survive, rather than indulging in self-pity? We learned this as actors, and I remember it often as a writer. Nobody likes to watch someone wallow in self-pity. It is not interesting.

Why did you start writing flash fiction?
I began writing flash fiction in 2008. Before then I wrote poetry in private work with a few mentors, Molly Peacock and Ellery Akers. Both poets were superb writers and teachers.

In the novels Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, Evan Connell did something fascinating; he created novels in vignettes of moments quilted together. I fell in love with the idea of small, linked pieces; a strong feeling of really knowing and breathing these characters was achieved in those books without employing a traditional narrative or plot.

In the early nineties, I discovered Amy Hempel, and was sold forever on the short-short form. Add to that, Jayne Anne Phillips’ Black Tickets and Susan Minot’s Monkeys. Later, Lydia Davis.

But I was still writing poetry and didn’t think I had it in me to create fiction.

Frustrated with chronic writing blocks, in 2008, I looked hard at old poems that had  been worked and reworked. I began making them fuller, doing freewrites from them.

My poetry group was appalled when my flash fiction began getting published in magazines. Looking back at that now, their disgust made it more of a challenge, a bit rebellious. Back then, flash fiction and internet writing was fairly new.

Many of your stories have a novelistic bigness to them, despite being so short. Are you ever tempted to try to fill in all of the gaps around a short piece and make it into a novel?
I have written a novella, and currently am very interested in the thought of creating longer works. The novella, The Sticky Lust of Hummingbirds, follows a girl’s relationships with her mentally ill brother and workaholic mother, and an absent father, over a ten-year time period.

You often use found words or story prompts to begin a story. What draws you to this process?
Prompts entrance me the way fireflies did when I was a child living in Pennsylvania. My eyes went somewhere unexpected with the fireflies; by following them I ended up in different parts of the yard, places that didn’t seem interesting in the daytime. A prompt can free the brain from order and sameness. This is why I love them.

Sexual experience features significantly in your stories, especially early sexual experience. It’s interesting how you’re able to capture sex as a pathway of a characters’ seeking rather than as a titillating or sensationalistic element.
Grant, thank you for this generous observation. I write about sexuality with the intention of uncovering a character’s vulnerability and strengths. My characters often seek to find and possibly recover what is forgotten, broken, and bruised. I had a great acting teacher who taught us that our ultimate job was to find the sex in a scene, as it is the most primal, emotional reality we inhabit. Writing about sex for titillation is a whole different kind of writing, and one which doesn’t interest me.

You’re very active with different writing communities and publications. How does writing with others or editing others’ writing influence your own writing?
Editing others’ work reminds me about the fact that it is emotional honesty and vulnerability which wins us over. We see work which is technically excellent—because there are so many writing programs and they churn out extremely competent writers. But none of that matters if there is no soul.

Working with Frederick Barthelme as an editor at New World Writing, formerly called BLIP, formerly called Mississippi Review online, has been extremely instructive. Rick will only accept a piece if it wakes him up. If it excites. Good writing is stuff you just can’t escape from, it haunts and follows and ruins your waking hours. It decides on you, you don’t decide on it. No matter how many “rules” are broken, if it makes us feel, we will be captivated.

Writing a few humor pieces with Bobbie Ann Mason was fascinating. Her novels and stories taught me this long ago, but I didn’t know it: how seemingly random connections can make a story wonderful once they are sewn together and injected with heartbreak. And how, as a writer, we are best when we embrace the strange little moments in our stories.

You also teach flash fiction. What’s your favorite bit of advice you give students?
Write when half asleep for the first draft. Sometimes it is best to wait a few weeks or a few months to edit it.

Write about what obsesses you.

Lose control, get lost in it, and in the editing. It will come together.

I read that Richard Ford decided not to have children because he thought he’d be a lesser writer as a result. Has being a mother—and a rather avid pet owner—made you a lesser writer or enhanced your creativity?
Having a child and too many animals has given me quite a lot of creative material. Hmm… I’m not sure I buy that Ford really chose not to have a child in order to be a writer. Plenty of productive, prolific writers have kids. I think Ford and his wife probably didn’t want kids. People feel very awkward when addressing the fact that they don’t want to have children. There’s a cultural stigma attached to not having kids, unfortunately.

Animals are as necessary to many writers as words. They create so much caring, and so many daily mishaps. They enrich life. Loving an animal feels necessary. This is why they use pets in medical situations, to bring warmth and feeling to humans in pain.

What can we expect to see from you next?
I’ve been writing prose poetry and flash. I’m teaching a flash workshop and planning for panels. And, I am writing longer, some traditional length pieces, mostly comic pieces. I have another collection coming out in the Fall of this year. And I will be looking for a publisher for my novella, The Sticky Lust of Hummingbirds.

For more, see Three Stories by Meg Pokrass and her Story Prompt, which will now be a feature in each issue.

One Response to “Meg Pokrass Turns Poems into Stories”

  1. 21milz says:

    would love to see an example of your work.

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