Interview with Meg Pokrass

By Barb Johnson

This year’s flash fiction contest judge, Meg Pokrass, is the author of a flash chapbook, two novellas-in-flash, and eight full flash fiction collections, most recently, The House of Grana Padano, which was co-written with Jeff Friedman, and Spinning to Mars, which won the Blue Light Book Award.

Her flash fiction, prose poetry, and hybrid writing have been internationally anthologized, and her flash stories have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines, including, Electric Literature, Waxwing, Washington Square Review, Tin House, Smokelong, McSweeney’s, Wigleaf, MoonPark Review, Five Points, Hobart Pulp, Split Lip, and Matchbook. 

Pokrass serves as Founding Co-Editor of the Best Microfiction anthology series, and currently runs Mslexia’s quarterly Flash Challenge Contest. She has taught in the master’s programs of many colleges and universities, including Indiana University, Newcastle University, and University of Pennsylvania. 

Bayou Magazine spoke with Pokrass about flash fiction as a form, her experiences with collaborative writing, and what she hopes to find in this year’s Flash Fiction Contest entries. 

I’ve heard you say that one of the strengths of the flash fiction form is that flash is “sticky.” Can you talk a little about what you mean?

I’m fascinated by the intimate and personal qualities of flash fiction. How the writer must involve the reader with every word. When mastered, flash presents a potent, unforgettable glimpse into a character’s entire life that is much larger than the moment we see. The best flashes, I don’t know how else to say it, are sticky. They stick to our brains, impossible to shake off. 

You’ve published many collaborative flash stories and a few full collections that were written with another author. Can you talk some about how those collaborations came about and what you got from the experience?

I have found that the playfulness and improvisational quality involved in creative partnerships has kept me excited about writing and has given me something completely new. 

Each of my collaboration experiences has been entirely different, so it’s hard to sum things up. With Jeff Friedman, back in February 2020, during the covid pandemic, we started out by sending prompts to each other based on our own stories and meeting on Zoom to chat. The prompts and our long conversations led us to the idea of writing a book together. At that point, we had no idea how we might proceed. I asked Jeff if I could do a version of one of his stories from his collection Floating Tales. He, in turn, wanted to do a version of a piece from my collection The Dog Seated Next to Me. We started about by “doing” each other’s styles, with each other’s permission, which was addictively fun. In a short time, we developed several techniques for writing each piece from scratch together. 

With Aimee Parkison we both started off writing to music playlists that we both loved. We chose songs that had been meaningful to us in our lives and made Spotify playlists. We started writing stories loosely to music, and those stories grew and grew. With our co-written pieces, one of us would write half and send it to the other to write the other half. The half-a-story method really seemed to be our favorite, in the end. I’m excited to say that our collaborative collection, Disappearing Debutantes, will be published by Outpost 19 in 2023.

With Rosie Garland, we have tried many things, including the Exquisite Corpse constraint exercise. But generally, we tend to begin with what we both refer to as “story stubs”. I’ll send Rosie a document filled with story starters that feel like a promising beginning of something that never quite fulfilled itself. She’ll think about the pieces for a while and change/expand/improve them with her unique voice and vision. I do the same with hers. The miracle in this style is that one begins with a piece that never blossomed and end up with purple orchids! 

An earlier collaborative experience was with Bobbie Ann Mason, back in 2013. We wrote many humor pieces together. There were some straight-up dialogue stories. We performed a few of them together at AWP and at the Carnegie Center in Lexington. These are wonderful memories.

All writers seem to have themes that preoccupy them and which tend to crop up in their writing. What are your writerly preoccupations?

People tell me that I’m the queen of messy love stories.  I suspect they are right. “Messy love” is my own term, and I suppose this is one of my preoccupations. Another theme is father loss. Another is loneliness and isolation. They aren’t particularly happy themes, but the messy love stories tend to lean toward humor. 

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Jane Smiley said, “Every first draft is perfect. All it needs to do is exist.” Honestly, this takes all the pressure off. I can’t write if I don’t remember this. 

And what would you warn new writers against when trying flash fiction for the first time?

I would say to avoid thinking of flash fiction as a truncated short story. That is simply not what it is. It is its own, unique animal, and reading flash fiction is the best way to understand how that animal behaves—or doesn’t.

You are this year’s judge for Bayou Magazine’s James Knudsen Prize in Fiction. We’re adding an extra challenge to the contest: All submissions must be 500 words or less. Tell us what you’ll be looking for in these flash stories.

I’m looking for stories that move me. Stories that beguile and entertain me like circus lovers. Stories that linger, that are “sticky.” I want to be charmed, seduced, surprised, ruined. I hope to see stories that take big risks and win them.