Explore O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press offerings on Amazon.
Support publication of Erik Harper Klass’s forthcoming novella.
Subscribe to the O:JA&L YouTube channel.
Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.
Follow O:JA&L on Facebook.

The O:JA&L Masters Series
Flash Fiction

Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

INTERVIEW: Featured Writer PETER CONNERS

Poet, Author, and Publisher
Executive Director of BOA Editions Ltd.

Click on the title PLENTY: How to Write Very Short Fiction
to explore more of Peter Conners’s work by downloading his new PDF chapbook,
available now in the Masters Series from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press.

Peter Conners has published 10 books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Those books include the prose poetry/flash fiction collections, Of Whiskey & Winter, The Crows Were Laughing in their Trees, and Beyond the Edge of Suffering, all published by White Pine Press, as well as the PP/FF novella, Emily Ate the Wind (Marick Press, 2008). He lives in Rochester, New York, where he works as Executive Directory & Publisher of the literary publishing house BOA Editions, Ltd. 

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: I’ll begin the interview by saying I love PP/FF: An Anthology. I’ve had it since it was published in 2006 and still turn to it now and then. It is filled with fascinating pieces and I’m glad it’s still available for new readers (here).

In that anthology, I particularly liked your editorial stance of having both prose poetry and flash fiction in the same collection. Tell us more about the pros and cons of category or genre isolation.

PETER CONNERS: I’m really glad to hear that you’ve gotten so much out of that anthology. PP/FF came out of a very specific time with regards to what was happening with prose poetry in the country and also where I was coming from as a writer and editor. At the time I was approached by Ted Pelton at Starcherone Press about putting together the anthology, I was editing a literary journal called Double Room: A Journal of Prose Poetry & Flash Fiction which I had co-founded with the poet and scholar Mark Tursi. The whole concept of PP/FF as a symbol that bypassed genre while encompassing a variety of short prose forms was developed out of the work that we did on Double Room. Along with the creative work that we published, each issue had an interview component in which contributors answered questions about the forms. So I was deep into the discussion of what this type of writing was all about, how it was approached, who was specializing in it, and how they viewed it vis-a-vis a historical literary lens.

Double Room itself had come out of a discussion I had with Michael Neff who was the founder of Web Del Sol – a literary website that housed multiple journals – after he approached me about starting an online-only version of The Prose Poem: An International Journal. That journal was founded and edited by the prose poet Peter Johnson and it really carried the torch for prose poetry at a time when it was much less common to encounter prose poems in traditional literary journals. Peter’s work on The Prose Poem was instrumental in keeping the form visible in the ‘90s and also helped prose poetry carve out space for itself as its own unique literary animal. However, it was also very much Peter’s journal, and even though it had stopped publishing, I wasn’t interested in carrying on with it (to be honest, I’m not even sure Peter had been approached about the idea). Instead, I was interested in starting a new journal that was dedicated to prose poetry and flash fiction, but also called into question the whole concept of genre classification with regards to them. My longtime friend, Mark Tursi, was getting his PhD in Creative Writing at University of Denver at the time, and was very focused on prose poetry in both his scholarly and his own creative work, so I immediately asked him to be a part of the journal. He agreed and in fall 2002 we published the first issue of Double Room.

After three few years of Double Room, I was asked by American Book Review to put together an issue dedicated to PP/FF as its own designation. I believe an editor at ABR had attended a panel talk I gave at an AWP conference during which I got off a nice little rant about PP/FF that was met with cold, blank stares. I can’t really remember what I said, but I was a bit of a zealot and I was definitely interested in stirring shit up. I was also completely unknown, had never published a book, physically (and psychically) lived outside any hip literary scene, wasn’t an academic, had only just started working at BOA Editions as their marketing director, and was coming out of a zine community that prided itself on giving the middle finger to any concept of a literary status quo. In other words, I wasn’t particularly concerned that people didn’t take kindly to my PP/FF proselytizing. If anything, I remember feeling energized by the negative reaction. At that time, American Book Review was really good at lasering in on the edgier margins of the literary world (they may still be, it’s just been a while since I followed them), so I’m sure the editors saw my position as rich territory that fit their general approach.

In this case, one thing truly did lead to another. There is a direct line from Double Room, to my AWP rant, to the ABR PP/FF issue which caught Starcherone Books founder Ted Pelton’s (another excellent literary shit-stirrer) attention, and led him to approach me about putting together the PP/FF anthology.

With regards to your question about the pros and cons of category or genre isolation, I must acknowledge that there’s certainly an irony to the concept of destabilizing one set of labels (which I was absolutely trying to do) and replacing them with another one of sorts (PP/FF). But, at that time, I was very committed to this idea of smashing the lines between the short prose forms by circumventing previous genre names and replacing them with this symbol that didn’t commit too much in either direction. When I accepted ABR’s offer, it was with every intention of using their platform to, in essence, write a manifesto about PP/FF. That manifesto vibe is what led to putting Marcel Duchamp’s famous “Fountain” artwork (a urinal signed with the signature R. Mutt) on the cover, and drawing a direct line between PP/FF and previous avant-garde art movements. I guess you could say, when it came to shit-stirring, I wasn’t lacking in ambition.

Once I had my say about PP/FF in these various outlets, I mainly stepped away from talking about it. I didn’t want to build a whole career around the concept – I just wanted to put my beliefs out there and let them stand or fall. Once I got into working at BOA, I had to let go of editing Double Room too, but as soon as I could, I brought several of the writers we published there on-board as BOA authors. The first, and most well-known, of those being Russell Edson (another quietly world-class shit stirrer). If you follow my own writing around these forms and the work that I have continued to publish and edit at BOA, you’ll see that I was less vocal about PP/FF because I was actively working within the world I’d created with it. Much as with the symbol itself, that work stands (or falls) for itself. I point to it as a way to address your core question about the value, or lack thereof, of genre designations. The answer is in the work. In many ways, genre labels have been under assault and undergone active dismantling on many fronts over the past 30 years – and I generally think that’s a good thing. Other than being useful sales and marketing tools – which they remain, regardless of theoretical arguments – no one should feel overly governed by genre designations at this point. They only exist to the extent that we empower them. I follow Aleister Crowley on this line: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: In PP/FF you quote Michael Benedikt about prose poetry and his definition remains strong today. He says prose poetry is “A form of poetry self-consciously written in prose, yet characterized by the conscious, intense use, of virtually all the devices of verse poetry—except for strict meter, rhyme, and the line-break.” Do you think Benedikt’s words can also describe some flash fiction? Your anthology shows that the category walls don’t always remain strong or secure. Would you say some work in your anthology escapes even Benedikt’s description?

PETER CONNERS: Michael Benedikt was an excellent prose poet in his own right. His great service to the form though is his 1976 anthology The Prose Poem: An International Anthology. It is a touchstone anthology – very hard to lay hands on now – and planted a solid flag for prose poetry on American soil. I included his definition in the PP/FF introduction because it was the best one that I’d encountered. The truth was that most of the academics who can be counted on to make authoritative statements about what a thing is or isn’t didn’t want to get anywhere near prose poetry at that time. It was almost like an astrophysicist or a pilot acknowledging the possibility of aliens: you can do it, but it might not be the wisest career move. I corresponded with Benedikt, but didn’t know him personally. To me he was a lowercase “a” academic – meaning he had the mental bandwidth to do the work (and a Masters in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia), but was outsider enough to sidestep the bounds of decorum and take up this weird little form as a writer and editor. I suppose we continue our “shit-stirrer” theme here. So, yes, Benedikt’s statement still holds water for me as far as a prose poem definition goes. Less so when it comes to work that stands more clearly in flash fiction territory, because then narrative needs to be addressed. But Benedikt wasn’t talking about flash fiction, only prose poetry. That all said, you have to remember that when it came to PP/FF, I was interested in smashing definitions, not endorsing them. So, in a way, I used Benedikt’s good definition as a place to push off against rather than as a safe haven for the writing in the anthology.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: You say “PP/FF is prose poetry and flash fiction balanced on a makeshift teeter-totter that never lands…” You also say “PP/FF is a symbol of a vital and important literary form that is constantly in flux, appropriating, moving and growing.” Is the teeter-totter still doing its work? Do you see such writing as more or less important today?

PETER CONNERS: Well, as I’ve said, when it came to PP/FF I wasn’t lacking in ambition. I was pretty bold when it came to putting my views out there. In addition to the literary implications, I loved the idea of a symbol – which, to me, is visual art – standing in for a more formal definition. I still do. But I don’t get the sense that anyone has really taken up the whole PP/FF mantle. Sometimes things have their moment and then they’re gone. I believe that PP/FF did whatever it needed to do at that time, but when it comes to whether or not that specific teeter-totter is still rocking, I see no evidence of it. That said – and I take zero credit for this – I also see genre as being much less a firm set of boundaries by subsequent waves of poets and writers. Most literary journals seem to have a little of everything in them at this point. If anything, the idea of sticking firmly to genre seems a little fussy and passe. So while it may not be my particular teeter-totter, there’s still rocking going on.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: In an interview with Nin Andrews, you spoke of how difficult “well-written but uninspired” manuscripts can be. You say these are the hardest to grapple with and an editor “can’t edit duende into a manuscript.” Federico Garcia Lorca explains duende as “the fiery spirit behind what makes great performances stir the emotions.” What would you add to that? Do you think a writer senses duende in his or her work or would that judgment come from editors or readers who recognize it?

PETER CONNERS: I’ve loved the concept of duende ever since I first heard it, because it articulated something that I’d felt, but never heard spoken. That is: some artwork carries energies that are beyond craft, style, form, or any other traditional way of talking about them. They are filled with a “fiery spirit” that seems beyond the comprehension, or abilities, of even the artist who created them. Sometimes artists even acknowledge this – the sense of being guided in creation by forces beyond themselves and their own training. In those cases, yes, the artist recognizes duende in their own work. You can imagine them standing back and saying, “Well, where did that come from?” I believe that readers and audiences in general can feel that too, although they might not attribute it to anything beyond the talent and skill of the artist. Which is also fair. It takes mastery to tap into that level of creation – you need to have cleared the pipeline between you and the divine as much as possible. So the artist certainly does deserve credit even for the fieriest examples of duende. I think it would be fair to say that artwork that survives for decades after it was created usually has some duende built into it. Language, style, structure, etc. can appear archaic after a while, but the animating spirit in our greatest work burns through.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: The editor of Rattle recently wrote an essay about some word changes on the horizon as “publishing” changes to “curating.” Instead of saying “my work is published at . . .,” the new phrasing would be “my work is curated at . . . “ Do you think it’s useful to have a rewording, changing from “publish” to “curate”? The essay provides a link to the publications that have joined in with the movement. Does BOA Editions have such plans?

PETER CONNERS: As someone who worked at starting their own movement, I don’t subscribe too much to movements. I read that essay and I understood what was being said though. It really came down to the marketplace more than the creation of art. It was about publishing and the fact that most journals don’t want work that has been “previously published.” It also addressed the challenges imposed on this “previously published” issue by the advent and immediacy of social media. In short, if I post something, does that make it “previously published” and, thus, rule it out for publication in other places. Those are certainly useful and fair conversations to have. And “curating” is a legitimate term to use for what editors do in selecting work to publish. I can – and do – curate BOA’s publishing list. But the idea of an author saying “my work is curated at BOA” makes me cringe. It’s also inaccurate. I select individual manuscripts to publish, but selection is no guarantee that I’ll continue to publish every manuscript after that one. That’s not usually the case. So I don’t “curate” an authors’ work in a general sense. I publish a specific collection of their work. And, yes, I curate BOA’s publishing list. But for an author to say “my work is curated at BOA” feels inaccurate. In all fairness, I’m not clear if that’s what the Rattle folks intended either. But my main reaction is: this isn’t a discussion about art, or even definitions. This is a discussion about the behavior of the marketplace and the value we ascribe to art. Is something more valuable if it’s never been seen before? In visual art, the opposite is usually the case – artwork becomes more commercially valuable the longer it hangs around. But, in the world of small press publishing, we place more commercial value on work that hasn’t been read before. It seems like that’s the area to focus the discussion on rather than what we call the act of publishing.    

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: I read that you’ve recently published two new books, Merch Table Blues, a novel, and a volume titled Beyond the Edge of Suffering. One review says Beyond the Edge of Suffering is a “blend of prose poetry, flash fiction, and other spare poetic forms” and deals with the complexity of a global pandemic. It sounds interesting. How would you describe the other spare poetic forms you use in that book? What’s your method for always keeping the writing projects going?

PETER CONNERS: Well, I hope it’s all interesting to one person or another. It may not come as a surprise at this point to hear that one of my goals as a writer was to publish books in every prefabricated genre. Which I have now done. In a low key way, it was my own way of discounting the concept of genre. Also, I’ve often described that particular writing mission this way: writing is about words, so I can do whatever I want with them. Because I bounce around a lot with my writing, I can’t expect everyone to love, or want to read or publish, everything that I create. I’m just not that needy when it comes to my writing. But I absolutely defend my right to create anything that I want with words. I describe Merch Table Blues as a “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll murder mystery.” It’s really a straightforward murder mystery novel. I wanted to see if I could do that too.  Beyond the Edge of Suffering is PP/FF all the way though. In fact, it may be the most PP/FF of all my books. There are pieces in there that can be easily placed under Benedikt’s prose poem definition, there are pieces that are very much short fictions, and then there are a whole bunch that don’t fit comfortably under either prose poetry or flash fiction. I would definitely tell anyone with the ears to listen that Beyond the Edge of Suffering is a PP/FF book.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: I was delighted to see that BOA Editions has published Little Mr. Prose Poem: Selected Poems of Russell Edson (here) I’m an Edson admirer (who isn’t?). I see too that Charles Simic, a Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, wrote the Forward to that collection. Many say Simic is one of the great writers of our times. It’s sad that he recently passed away. Such a loss that is to the world of poetry. But Edson and Simic certainly make an amazing combination. What other exciting works are on the horizon for your own writing and for BOA Editions?

PETER CONNERS: Russell was not only one of my favorite prose poets, but one of my favorite people born into this world. I didn’t know him well, but I was fortunate enough to spend time with him on several occasions, chat with him on the phone quite a bit, and study everything he wrote or said about writing that I could put my hands on. He was truly an iconoclast. It was a pleasure to bring him into the BOA fold – direct from connecting with him via Double Room – with his first BOA book, The Rooster’s Wife, in 2005. A few years after Russell passed away in 2014, Craig Morgan Teicher approached me about doing a Selected edition of Edson’s poems. For some reason, it didn’t feel like the right time yet though. But we continued to have the discussion, and that eventually led to the 2022 publication of Little Mr. Prose Poem: Selected Poems of Russell Edson. Having Charles Simic write the foreword was certainly the icing on that cake. Simic wasn’t exclusively a prose poet, but he did win the Pulitzer Prize for a collection of prose poems published in 1989 titled, The World Doesn’t End. In a way, perhaps he brought even more legitimacy to the form by being so highly regarded as a capital “P” poet, rather than exclusively a prose poet. “If Simic can do it, and win a Pulitzer, maybe it’s not so bad?” Who knows. In any event, he certainly admired Russell Edson’s work and was a heavyweight on the world poetry stage, so it was a thrill when Craig lined him up to write the foreword.

As far as BOA goes – and in keeping with our theme here – I’d say that many current, new, and forthcoming BOA books make interesting moves when it comes to breaking down genre lines. I hate to single any out because so many of them do that sort of work. Not all of them, mind you – it wouldn’t be fair or accurate to paint all of BOA’s authors with that same brush. At BOA, we publish authors who work in traditional forms and also authors pushing the boundaries of what would be considered their nearest genre designation. Returning to our old friend Lorca, I’m less interested in what boxes they fit into with regards to genre than in whether or not the work has duende. If it does, then I’m interested in it, regardless of its form. And if I don’t recognize duende in it, it may very well be my own shortsightedness, which I hope another publisher will recognize and remedy. Our literary corner of the world is so small, I root for everyone working in it because they’re working against the grain. They’re shit-stirrers. And I always root for the shit-stirrers.

As far as my own work, I’ve completed the personal mission of publishing books across genres, so I’m in a bit of a holding pattern, waiting for what comes next. I’m working on a new novel which is a prequel to Merch Table Blues and delves into the formation of the cult that is introduced in that book. I also spill out poems, songs, essays, and bits of other written matter along the way. Honestly, I’m kind of interested in just seeing what requests come in (like this one) and then doing that thing next. In a way, it’s probably a good time to get me to do just about anything writing-wise. I’m basically wide open to the possibilities.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: Well, it’s been wonderful talking with you. I’ve enjoyed your past work and am eager to see what all comes next. Thank you, Peter Conners.

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
PAMELYN CASTO, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia Of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly flashfictionflash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L. Pamelyn Casto’s new book Flash Fiction: Alive in The Flicker (A Portable Workshop), a new release from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press, is available now on Amazon.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprints Buttonhook Press and HOT BUTTON PRESS Contemporary Issues, supports writers and artists worldwide.

Follow O:JA&L on Facebook.

OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) recommends the services of Duotrope.

 Duotrope®