Poetry or Fiction?

For literary works of 100 words or less, what is the dividing line between poetry and fiction? It can’t be the presence or absence of line breaks since there is a recognized poetic form called prose poetry. It can’t be the presence or absence of a well-defined plot, either, since narrative poetry has been around for millennia–not to mention the mere whispers of beginnings/endings in hint fiction. Many stories submitted to PicFic ended up being recast as poems then published at unFold, and vice versa. But a recent twitterzine submission from Eric Berg highlighted the issue to the point that we decided to run it in both zines simultaneously.

In PicFic, Eric’s words appeared as a story:

Across the Ravel Rave

My body am become the ticky-tacky-tock-clock. Pumping off joints. Breathing out-in pressure. Why won’t you come?

If the reader infers that “Rave” in this title refers to a type of dance party and  “Ravel” refers to Maurice Ravel and his music, setting and tension are immediately established. The reader can wonder why the view point character would attend a dance that plays Boléro. The reader can feel the repetitive drum and bass lines making the clock that ticks while the view point character waits, even hear the joints popping in the plink of violin strings. (Seriously, listen to the song while you read the story five times slowly if you don’t believe me.) The repetitive nature of the music echoes the speaker’s presumed repetitive checking of the watch and incessant worries about being stood up. This work has backstory, conflict, characters, setting, and the hint of a resolution. It is a 140 character tragedy.

OR (and this multiplicity of meaning is what I love most about micro writing) the reader might take the word “Ravel” to mean its old sense of falling apart and “Rave” to mean incoherent utterances. This meaning is enhanced by the (intentional) incorrect usage of verbs and prepositions. In this scenario, the reader is given a first person glimpse of a speaker succumbing to madness, possibly through grief or a broken heart. This slide has a beginning in knowing/hoping, a middle where the speaker tries to make sense of change/doubts, and an ending in not-knowing/giving up. Setting is left more open to the reader’s imagination with this interpretation, but it still contains enough elements to be regarded as a story–most likely a tragic one.

In unFold, Eric’s words appeared as a poem:

After the Fifth Cigarette

I am become
the ticky-tacky tock-clock.
I pump off joints, I breathe out
pressure. Why won’t you come?

The poem’s title, unlike the story’s title, brings readers immediately inside the speaker. There’s a holding of the breath, a focus on a particular internal moment. Readers who have smoked (or lived around smokers) may even experience a sensory moment if their bodies remember the feeling of smoke in the lungs and nicotine in the brain, nerves, and muscles. Through the use of line breaks, we are taken from the speaker’s surface thought (“become”), through his/her coping mechanism (smoking, watching the clock, controlled-breathing) to land at his/her deepest desire (“come”). And while a reader would be able to imagine a story around this moment, story isn’t really the point of the work when presented this way. Feeling is the point–a feeling that is universal and shared between the poet, speaker, and readers.

So the sum total of all this rambling? The dividing line between poetry and fiction in micro works is a shifty one depending on who is reading the work. But at the end of the day, I draw the line where the perceived heart of the work falls: storyline = fiction, shared experience = poetry. Where do you draw it?


4 Comments on “Poetry or Fiction?

  1. isn’t the difference here derived from/also the change in the title?

    for me that is a clear example of the power and importance of the title.


  2. Thanks for your input, Dhyan. The title definitely has a lot to do with the difference and I agree that it highlights the importance of a title. It also highlights why writers should take great care with their titles for micro works to make sure each title pulls its weight. But then that leads to the questions: What prompted the writer to feel the need to change the title depending on which zine he submitted to? What is it about the text that allows it to play chameleon and what does that say about poetic/fictional distinctions?


  3. Such interesting questions–you’ve got me thinking…

    I appreciate the time it took to put this post together. I always enjoy access to the back-story/context that accompanies creative works, and meaning-making from various vantage points including those of producers (writers, editors, publishers) and consumers themselves (readers). Thank-you for taking the time to articulate these thoughts.

    I’m still thinking about your questions …


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