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Depth Charge: James Grinwis

The development of the contemporary American short story has benefited from poets who have carried their discipline over to prose poems, or even to the sometimes less adventurous realm of traditional fiction. No surprise, then, that the prose poem has seen a resurgence of late, along with very short stories. It is the latter that James Grinwis is making the most of with a distinguishing poetic élan on the page that neatly blends the two forms together.

While Grinwis has been publishing his poems in established journals such as Conjunctions, American Poetry Review and Columbia, very short fiction has been the new love in his life for the past four years. His foray into the genre began with him picking up Quick Fiction, a small biannual dedicated to short narratives of 500 words or less. Grinwis was impressed with these stories—“so brief though sharply charged,” as he put it in our e-mail interview—and eventually sent his own in, with one selected for their third issue and another for a promotional postcard.

Straight-ahead fiction, with all its conventions, its narrative expectations, appears an unlikely literary destination for a poet accustomed to the fluidity of language to visit. Grinwis, however, lauds the freedom that short narratives represent over longer stories while recognizing that flash fiction has more “rules” to navigate than prose poetry—and therein lies the potential to jolt the reader. “I think flash writers develop an arena to pull off some innovative surprise, ambiguity and multilayered meanings. Because it is pulled into a single small space, the charge should have a serious blast…Every sentence should carry as much weight, or nuance, as possible.”

Structurally speaking, Grinwis’ short fiction is not as intricate as poetry can be: They are single paragraphs, albeit tightly packed with complex imagery, comparable to what one finds in a prose poem. “I always want the paragraph to be as good as I can make it before I move on,” he explains. “Flash allows me to condense a whole story idea into a single paragraph, and thus eliminates the mucking around stuff. I often set off to write one of my tiny stories and it turns into a prose poem; sometimes I don’t know the shape a paragraph is going to take, but over the years I feel I’m getting an idea of what makes one of my own works a flash fiction and another a prose poem.” It is this working through the distinction between the two genres, this blurring that Grinwis engages in his process, that has had a direct bearing on the craft of his stories. “I think my poetry informs my flash fictions more than vice versa. I used to focus on writing narrative poems, which require a sense of narrative development along with an attention to maximizing line breaks for the best effect. If I did not have some kind of grounding and love for poetry, if I had an easier time writing novels or 30-page stories, I would imagine a flash would be intimidating.”

Yet flash fiction can be daunting, and not only for writers. Though most of these stories written nowadays, with their experimental bent, may be considered outside the canon, Grinwis contends a wider audience is becoming interested in smaller narrative structures, thereby helping the genre from being permanently relegated to a marginal status. “I just see it as sprouting up all over the place. I imagine a lot of fiction writers, novelists especially, may unfairly dismiss it as not outwardly weighty or substantial enough. It remains on the margins, but if I were an editor of a big publishing house, I would view it as a growing form with massive potential.”

Readers will get the opportunity to see more of Grinwis’ collected fictions in an e-book forthcoming from PulpBits Press, and in the meantime can find his work on-line in the current issue of Double Room and at the Web edition of Pindeldyboz.

Grinwis will be reading with another flash fiction writer, Kim Chinquee, on Friday (March 3) at 7pm at Big Orbit Gallery (30D Essex St.) as part of Just Buffalo’s Orbital Series.

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