Friday, October 4, 2019

Tobi Alfier - Poetry vs Prose

You may have noticed that the Cholla Needles Website has been updated to include the following paragraph: "Please note that as of issue 37 (1/1/2020) we reserve the right to edit flash fiction sent in with line breaks back into flash fiction pieces. We accept the work because we love it, and feel it has become too commonplace for writers to pass off their wonderful writing as poetry. We have allowed this in the past because we were not receiving much of it. Now it's the bulk of what folks are sending here. Poetry, of course, will continue to be published with the line breaks the author chooses. Thanks for understanding the new policy." It has also been posted on Facebook.

In 2000, Lawrence Ferlinghetti posted an article in SF Gate, a portion of which stated "How did this curious state of affairs come about, and how come no one ever mentions it? Perhaps because there has been a kind of considerate silence between poets and friends, between poets and editors. No one wants to commit the sin of saying flat-out that someone's poetry is prose. A poet's friends will never tell him, and the poet's editors will seldom say it -- it's the dumbest conspiracy of silence in the history of letters."

Both of these paragraphs are way more articulate than what I say to Jeff when reading submissions: “This isn’t a poem, this is a story!”

Poets who submit to Cholla Needles are very lucky, because as Rich says, he loves the work. He’s going to reformat it as flash fiction, i.e., margin-to-margin, and accept it. Jeff and I don’t. Other journals? It depends if they have this category in their guidelines. And it still has to be good!

In my blog post of July 5, 2019 I said:

Many times first-person poems end up sounding like memoirs, or stories. They are not poetic.

Any writing that starts with you in bed, listening to your husband or wife snore is probably going to sound more like a story than a poem.

That doesn’t mean you can’t write it. It means that it’s time for you to explore short fiction or flash fiction.

If you don’t call it flash fiction, Rich Soos will. So don’t pretend it’s a poem by writing it in stanzas. Write it margin-to-margin. You can have line breaks like new paragraphs, but still use the full line.

You know you could still write margin-to-margin with gorgeous poetic language, and then it’s a prose poem, but we’re not talking about that now. We’re talking about Flash Fiction.

Flash is:

            Generally 500 words or less;
            Oftentimes first person;
            Has more dialog than a poem;
            Does not pretend to be poetic. It has a beginning, a middle and an end.

My Flash Fiction is usually classified as Short Fiction because it has more than 500 words. This blog post right now, has 491 words.

That’s pretty cool. Now you are writing in multiple genres, not just poetry!! There is absolutely nothing wrong with that!!

Just be sure, that whatever you write, it’s good. Have your trusted readers review it. Make sure you respect it. Well done!

As we get close to Halloween, forget it. Just eat all the candy or take it to one of your wonderful independent bookstores. You can’t send it to me, it’ll melt.

As we get closer to Thanksgiving, remember it will be the perfect time to write a recipe poem. It could be a great, poetic, wonderful poem, not Flash Fiction.

Think about poet Kevin Young and all the Odes in his book Dear Darkness. Start thinking about your favorite part of Thanksgiving and write an Ode—a praise poem. Oh my goodness, Ode to Mashed Potatoes? Think about the silky smoothness of them on your tongue, the way you can make a well for the gravy and it’s a reservoir just for you and your spoon. How they’re like the desert clouds softly floating by out the window, a bed with the softest flannel sheets caressing your palate as you dream of turkey and stuffing, cranberry sauce five ways and the matching pumpkin pie softness waiting just for you. Before you grab your sleeping bag and go out on the porch to watch for falling stars.

You can make this be a poem, people. Not Flash Fiction. But you all know the kindest editor in the world is going to make it possible for you to submit either.

Before I go make mashed potatoes to inspire my own Ode, have a great week. Be safe. Write beautifully.

And finally, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti would say:

            “A lot of manuscripts that come in, you wonder by what outrageous fantasy the author believes that this should be pressed into print.” - Lawrence Ferlinghetti


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Tobi Alfier's most recent collection of poetry is Slices Of Alice. She is also co-editor with Jeff Alfier of the San Pedro River Review. Don't miss Tobi's columns on the craft of poetry: insert your email address in the "Follow By Email" box to the right of this article and you'll be notified every time a new article appears.


  1. What a freeing post! Thank you. For years, I've been afraid to tell writers in my poetry groups that their poems feel more like prose. Probably because I expanded the definition of poetry to, 'whatever the poet says it is.' Which makes me part of the 'conspiracy' Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote about. So, thanks for a slap on the side of the head.

  2. Wow, thank you!! You can still say it in a way that doesn't cut them off at the knees, but you should say it. I wrote a 464-word piece today, and NO WAY is it a poem. It changes who I'll submit to, and maybe get less rejections!


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