Bartleby Snopes Writing Blog

Becoming a Better Writer

Author: Leonora Desar

Blurring Genre Boundaries with Ashley Inguanta

Ashley Inguanta’s poetry collection For the Woman Alone (Ampersand Books) is rich with lyricism, imagery, narrative. Yes, narrative. In her poem “7 Ways of Unfolding,” Inguanta tells the story of how the self transforms through a relationship. The melodic language and rhythm are not what you would necessarily see in fictional narrative, but there is an arc, from the first time the narrator sees the woman she will fall in love with, her voice “a soft burning sun”—to the aftermath of their relationship.

Photo credit: Lauren Laveria (Lauren Rita Photography)

Photo credit: Lauren Laveria (Lauren Rita Photography)

Inguanta has also imbued her fiction with poetry. In her flash piece “Inside,” published in SmokeLong Quarterly, the reader is captivated by language. In describing the narrator’s attraction for her future teacher, Inguanta writes: “I want to run my fingers down her spine, press each bone, understand her vertebrae—alone, each one hard like ivory, yet together, they’re as supple as a feather, as malleable as pure gold.” The ending also reads as if it could be the final line in a poem: “Out of the rips fly birds with piano keys for wings.”

I spoke with Inguanta about the relationship between poetry and fiction. What are the boundaries if any between the two, and how does one inspire and enrich the other?

BS: At what point do you know if your work is poetry or flash fiction? What is the difference between the two?

AI: Often, for me and for many others, the line between prose poetry and flash fiction is blurred. I find comfort and freedom in this blurry line. In grad school, I read Stephen Graham Jones’ collection Bleed Into Me, and the way I approached writing changed. The way Jones blended genre astounded me. I admire his work, especially this collection, deeply.

To me, flash embodies movement. The POV character moves from point A to B and either does change or has the opportunity to change. The most powerful flash I have read makes bold discoveries and takes leaps that are inevitable, not predictable. Poems, however, embody rhythm. The speaker understands (or wants to understand, or puts up a wall from understanding) something bright, almost blinding, sometimes excruciating—and in that, there is a layer of clarity, even if it only lasts for a moment, even if it is unsustainable.

To be honest, I have trouble differentiating between prose poetry and flash, and these traits do overlap. But I accept that, and I find strength and freedom in blending genre.

BS: For the Woman Alone is rich with narrative and story. Did you intend to write all of the pieces as poems?

AI: Yes, I wrote each piece as a poem. Each piece as “poem” felt very clear to me. I began For the Woman Alone in Florida, when my heart felt happy, seen, and loved. But when a heart feels this way, a heart needs to understand how to climb mountains, how to swim through large and powerful waves—alone. My heart eventually learned how to do these things. At the time, I was living in Brooklyn. I remember the way I carried my own body, my own weight, through all of the seasons. In Florida, we carry our bodies through the heat and rain. Brooklyn offered me strength in a different way—with different air, different grounding. So yes, For the Woman Alone was intended to be poetry, and that clarity stuck with me as the book took shape.

BS: Did you start writing poetry or fiction first? Does writing in one genre inspire the way you approach the other?

AI: I began writing poetry at age 12. To put it simply, I was experiencing my first real crush. But I had no idea what I was feeling at the time because this crush was on a woman—my middle school English teacher. I did not know why I felt pulled so strongly to her, but I knew the feeling was beautiful. When the feeling didn’t go away, I started writing about it. I wanted to understand it, to discover something.

Fiction came later, but not too much later. Maybe a few months into 7th grade I started writing stories, which were more like vision boards. I wrote about the person I wanted to be: A young woman from New Mexico who would go on adventures with her friends. I’ve been fascinated with the West for as long as I can remember. Fiction helped me understand possible futures, possible ways I could grow into the outer world.

Poetry, though, helped me understand my inner world. Eventually poetry helped me understand the inner world of others.

Both fiction and poetry are gifts.

BS: I love how your flash fiction piece “Inside” is filled with lyricism and poetic imagery. Does writing poetry influence the way you approach language when writing fiction?

AI: Yes, completely. I love rhythm, the way it moves the energy of poems and works of fiction. I don’t turn off my love for rhythm when I am writing fiction, even though I place character first. And when I am writing poetry, I don’t turn off my love for character, for journey—even though rhythm and image come first.

BS: What elements are most important to you when crafting a piece of fiction? How do you balance poetic language with other elements such as character and plot?

AI: Character is my priority when I write fiction. Learning about / sitting with / writing the story of the POV character is the journey I expect to go on when I write fiction. I always say, “have curiosity, not expectation,” but I do expect this from fiction. I am curious about the character, but I expect us to form a relationship. If we can’t, the piece doesn’t get written.

It’s very hard for me to write if I do not understand the rhythm of something. I don’t think too hard about balancing poetic language with character and plot; instead, I focus on the character’s world and the rhythm/language naturally shapes that world.

BS: In both fiction and poetry, what’s left unsaid can be just as important as what you reveal on the page. How do you decide what to leave unsaid in a poem or story?

AI: When I am revising a piece, I often ask myself, “Am I explaining this too much?” I tend to over-explain, to make things too literal, in my first drafts. Working with positive/negative space in my writing is something that I will always struggle with, but it helps me to think visually. I love showing emotion/direction of a story/poem with image, and I often work from there when deciding what to leave out, what to keep off the page. Image carries mood and can show so much about a character, about a poem’s energy.

BS: What do you think fiction writers could learn from poetry to enrich their work?

AI: Reading poetry brings rhythm into our bodies. Through this rhythm, we can find courage, we can stand face to face with our most intense emotions. “A Map to the Next World” by Joy Harjo brings me to a place where I can sit with death, feel it and speak to it without static, without walls. By reading poetry, I find myself becoming more grounded, filled with different rhythms. One poem may feel like a stampede, and another may feel like a cat’s step. This rhythm is extremely important to me when I write fiction. Without it, my heart strays.

BS: What advice would you give to yourself as a young writer if you could travel back in time?

AI: At 12, I would tell myself to be unafraid of my own voice. At 15, I would tell myself to come out sooner, to stop feeling guilty about spending hours alone writing. At 16, I would tell myself to cultivate more quiet time, because I remember that being all I wanted. I would tell myself to eat something, to kiss a girl, to write about every taste, every feeling, every risk. At 17, I would tell myself to take more risks, to open up to the page. At 21, when I finally found this openness, I would tell myself to trust it, to find power in it.

BS: If you could hang on to this time machine a little longer, which writer from the past would you visit? What would you ask? 

AI: I would visit Adrienne Rich. I would pick her up in my car, and we would go West. I would ask her to draw a map to get us there, and I would trust every line. During our drive, we would understand the way landscape changes. We would feel this in our bodies, and the shift would go unspoken. At the right time, I would ask her if we could write a continuation of her poem “Song,” together, because now we may not be as lonely.

BS: Tell us about your latest project.

AI: For the past two years, I’ve been working on a full-length collection of poetry, Bomb. This book explores how destruction and transformation work together.

Bomb begins with two women, and they both love each other deeply: One is attaching a bomb to the other, and they both experience this building/creation as intimacy, as care. Later, we find out what the bomb is made of. These women, their world explodes. They learn about themselves and about each other. And eventually, the bomb creates something expansive, something excruciating, something necessary, something exquisite.

Ashley Inguanta is a writer and photographer who is driven by landscape, place. She is the Art Director of SmokeLong Quarterly and the author of three collections: The Way Home (Dancing Girl Press 2013), For the Woman Alone(Ampersand Books 2014), and Bomb (Forthcoming with Ampersand Books 2016). Ashley has been featured in numerous publications, including Everyday Fiction, Orlando Weekly, American Microreviews & Interviews, and The Great American Brainstorm. In 2013, she was named as “one of the six Central Florida poets you should know” by Orlando Arts Magazine and recently won an Orlando’s Best Award for Best Poet.

Beyond Anecdote: How to Write Flash Fiction That Means Something

When an editor finds your flash submission anecdotal, you can typically expect to receive a rejection letter. But what does “anecdote” mean, anyway? Some say that an anecdote has flat characters, or an underdeveloped narrative, or that it lacks an intrinsic logic or natural progression. An anecdote can mean all of these things, but for me it mainly means that the story doesn’t delve beyond the surface, that it lacks staying power and emotional impact.

I’ve selected five of my favorite flashes to demonstrate how a story can carry weight and meaning in 1,000 words or less. The five stories I’ve highlighted are very different, but each goes beyond their surface narrative, creating something potent and universal.

Before you read what I have to say about the stories, read them for yourself and think about how they make you feel, what elements evoke your response. Then think about how some of the tools the authors use—language, structure, voice—could be developed in your own work. This, more than anything, will teach you how to write flash that means something.

“Egg Toss, August 1989” by Meagan Cass, published in SmokeLong Quarterly

This story has it all—vivid characters, rich setting, poetic prose—all of which add up to create a sense of loss for something that never really was. I love the sense of honesty here. Cass refuses to package things into a neat dichotomy—a glorified past and childhood versus a less enchanting present.  Here the past is more complex, as often is the case in real life, earning our trust in the story’s emotional truth.

Body language creates a sense of movement and adds to the story’s authenticity—we can see the aunts curling away from the father, the way the mother drinks her beer too fast.  Every detail counts, deepening our understanding of the characters.  And while the language is lovely, there are no throwaway symbols or metaphors. Instead, Cass focuses on the image of the egg—“whole, opaque, blessed”—to convey the narrator’s desire for his family to be whole.

“Out There” by Lindsay Hunter; published in the author’s short story collection Daddy’s and in The Nervous Breakdown  

You’d be hard-pressed to find a flowery phrase in this story, but isn’t the language brilliant just the same? Read it aloud to see what I mean—there is a rhythm here, a kind of music, with each sentence luring us more deeply in. Hunter begins with a declaration: “People burn cars out there.” Then we have a longer sentence that contrasts with the staccato of the first, grabbing our attention with the image of a father shaking lighter fluid over a car “like he was seasoning it.” What kind of father does that? we wonder. And what does “out there” mean?

The reader suspects that “out there” could be a metaphor for abandonment. It’s a place where things are left behind, like an old car or the narrator’s dog Jinx, who is abandoned by Pop and left to join a pack of wild dogs. Or like the child narrator herself, who also finds herself abandoned. Perhaps “out there” doesn’t mean just one thing—it also seems to embody the chaos of the narrator’s father, the danger of becoming like him.

What makes the story great is that Hunter doesn’t draw these parallels in a heavy-handed way—if anything, the deeper meaning of the story is an afterthought. Instead, Hunter focuses on evoking a sense of place through imagery—the choir of dogs with their “brutal chorus,” “God’s bloody iris” —which seem sprung from the language of dreams.

Seven Items in Jason Reynolds’ Jacket Pocket, Two Days After His Suicide, As Found by his Eight-Year-Old Brother, Grady” by Robert Swartwood, published in PANK

I love the way that Swartwood uses objects to tell a story, the way the structure of the piece leads you down the rabbit hole of the narrative. The mystery of Jason Reynolds builds with each found object—a plastic compass, a pack of gum, photographs held together by a paperclip. The ordinariness of the objects act as a foil to the complex character that emerges, a character Swartwood manages to make us like in spite of what we learnthat he’s a killer.

Swartwood accomplishes this by giving Jason multiple dimensions, by having him take a beating for his brother, by layering the character with each discovered object. The ending, which could have been a gimmicky twist in a weaker story, is a gut-puncher. While surprising, it also flows from the progression of the narrative. By the time we finish reading, we wonder if we knew who the “FOURTH” would be all along.

“Run for Your Life” by Kate Wisel, published in Bartleby Snopes

This was love at first read. In fact, I loved this story so much I couldn’t stop to think about why I loved it—it hit me on a visceral level, much like the moments of impact the narrator observes and experiences in the piece.

Part of why I couldn’t stop to think is because Wisel doesn’t let me. She grabs me with her first sentence, sweeping me along with her narrator as we run down Comm. Ave., until I feel that I too have glistening calves, “like nylon.”  Here, language mimics content—the pace of the prose is breathless, picking up momentum as we watch the bike thief from the narrator’s eyes, the way he springs free from men who try to restrain him “like he was dribbling a basketball through their legs.”

We only slow down to learn about the narrator.  Her backstory about stalking her ex is brief but potent. In fact, the narrator’s choices—both past and present—are what make this more than a well-written anecdote. Her final choice—delivered in a wallop of a last line—hits the reader with nuanced meaning and resonance.

“It’s End of the World Karaoke” by Ashley Inguanta, published in PANK  

Inguanta manages to build a world in only 663 words, creating a vivid moment in time before that world goes silent. The premise—hanging out in a bar and belting out karaoke until the Earth burns down—is a surprising take on apocalypse. The lighthearted details—nachos, taking a photo for Facebook—stand in contrast to the doom and gloom narrative we expect to see.

But Inguanta takes it a step further by creating Javier, the main character we see her world through.  Javier is what elevates this piece from a unique premise to a memorable story. He wants so much—to be kissed, to connect, to not be alone. The details about his past—namely that he only ever kissed one girl, and that she had a small breathing problem— make his story feel vivid, authentic.

It’s specifics like these that make a character universally resonant, not broad, general brushstrokes. While the world Inguanta creates is fantastical, the emotions she evokes—desire and loneliness—are our own.