William Ruof chats with contributor and Flash-Prose Contest winner Jeanne Wagner. You can read Jeanne's flash-fiction piece, “Self-Portrait as a Supermarket Bouquet," in issue 55.
William Ruof: Have you written flash prose before or was this a relatively new medium for you?
Jeanne Wagner: This isn’t the first, but one of my first, flash fiction attempts. I’ve been writing prose poems for many years. I think the difference, though, isn’t just the length of the work but the predominance of narrative. I notice that when I write flash fiction, rather than my usual free verse or prose poem, the ‘voice’ becomes sassier, more rebellious, there’s more sarcasm and humor. It happens almost unconsciously – something about the form that makes the doppelganger in me come out to play.
WR: What do you think is the hardest part about writing flash prose?
JW: The most challenging aspect of flash fiction (I’ve had a recent go at a flash essay) is getting the narrative, with its poetic leaps, to be both condensed and to flow smoothly. Narrative has always been difficult for me: the ordering, what to leave in, what to leave out. The good narrative poets make it look natural, but that’s deceptive.
WR: The imagery in your piece is very strong, so much so that it comes off as poetic. Do you think imagery can be considered the most important device in flash fiction, as it makes the piece accessible to readers?
JW: I wouldn’t want to define imagery, or any other device, as the sine qua non of flash fiction. I like to think that the boundaries between the genres - free verse, the prose poem, and flash prose - are accommodating and porous. Imagery does play a large part in unifying my flash fiction. In “Self-Portrait” I’ve sexualized the flowers, which I hope comes across as funny as well as ‘poetic.’ The imagery is definitely meant to reinforce the narrative, unifying the various parts and making the whole more accessible on an emotional level.
WR: You introduce the idea that the speaker may feel the way she does because of the past behavior of her parents. To keep with the theme of plants and people growing up, what do you feel has more influence, nature or nurture?
JW: I don’t really feel that I’m exploring the nature/nurture dichotomy so much as the nature vs. domestication theme. The Romantic poets dwelled on the loss and alienation that comes with civilization, with subduing and exploiting nature within and without. Nature in “Self-Portrait” is compromised by commercialism, botany is degraded to mere décor. Flowers become anonymous merchandise. The posy is cut and brought indoors. Accompanying this is Rousseau’s romantic idea that the loss of childhood is the beginning of estrangement from nature and from true spontaneity. As we leave childhood, nature is supplanted (there go those ‘plants’ again) by societal norms. So, I guess what I’m exploring is the idea that the ‘flowering’ of adulthood is also a deflowering. Paradoxically, becoming sexually mature, which can be seen as fulfilling nature’s purpose, is also in some respects a kind of severance from our natural selves.
WR: At the end of your piece, the speaker seems to relish the memory of first hearing a certain poem. As a writer, what do you feel is the biggest challenge in trying to capture something you experienced for the first time?
JW: For years I’d been trying to trace the triggering poem. Once I came across a few lines of it as an epigraph in a novel, but I failed to write down the poet’s name. I do remember, however, that it was a famous 19th or early 20th century poet, one of the dead-white-men-Romantics my brother introduced to me in those secluded tutorials. More than likely it was one of the poets who were instrumental in awakening my love of poetry. I thought if I ever rediscovered that poem, I could write about the experience of hearing it as a young girl while sitting on my older brother’s lap. I began to think about the slightly kinky overtones and the obvious analogy between the poem’s interpretation, the whole ‘flower plucking’ trope, and the speaker’s incipient ‘flowering.’ One day it occurred to me that I could write it despite my failure to retrieve the poem. I often write about remembered moments. The act of memory itself is an appropriation, a plucking, though one that leaves the body of the remembered intactus—to wring out the metaphor. In this poem I incorporate several memories, like mutually-reflecting mirrors: there’s the original flower, the poet’s image of that flower, my memory of the lost-flower poem, and my rendering of that memory. I knew I would never be able to recapture the original experience. Memory is like Schroedinger’s Cat, it changes the moment you peer into the box where you think it is kept. What I did do was root around in that box and pull out all the associations I found lying nearby. What I didn’t do was find that poem, so if anyone out there recognizes it, please, please, tell me it’s name.