with critique by Jendi Reiter
I love to fish, and for more years than I can remember I have been coming here, to the lake. I spend the entire day here, every day, from dawn to dark. In the beginning I remember that I took my rod and tackle and a small lunch. Of course I knew that many said that there were no longer fish in the lake, but I had also heard otherwise, and was determined to be patient, and to learn the truth for myself. I would bait my line and cast it into a likely spot and wait, looking out across the great water. The far shore can only be imagined, at this distance. Over the years, while I have heard others say that the lake was drying up, shrinking in size, I have noticed little change, either in the lake or in my experience of it. The fact that I have caught no fish has little meaning for me, while the possibility exists. As time passed, I even ceased to bait my line, and then after many years, to bring my lunch or my tackle. I am always alone here, and from time to time I move along the bank to various spots, sun and shade. The places, the spaces where I was, close up behind me, and the new spaces I occupy open for me, as always. The sun, as it passes over, casts shadows through the trees on the ground before me. Some of them seem strangely shaped, like fish.
Copyright 2010 by Hank Rodgers
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Flash fiction or prose poem? Like the optical illusion that can be either a vase or two facing profiles, this hybrid genre eludes a single definition. Its multivalence makes it an apt form to address the mysteries of faith and doubt, as Hank Rodgers does in "Fishing". A good story or poem, like a spiritual parable, will reveal paradoxes and ambiguities in the reality we take for granted, awakening us to multiple perspectives even as it also brings out universal themes that connect us.
"Fishing" begins, at least, in the conversational voice of prose. We expect that it will take place in the everyday world of hobbies ("I love fishing") and practical details ("I took my rod and tackle and a small lunch"). Although the syntax remains straightforward and suited to realistic narrative throughout, the content drifts imperceptibly into the metaphorical realm of poetry.
The "once upon a time" feeling starts with the decontextualized voices whom he quotes as the source of his contradictory information about the lake: "I knew that many said that there were no longer fish in the lake, but I had also heard otherwise"; and later, "Over the years, while I have heard others say that the lake was drying up, shrinking in size, I have noticed little change". We are deprived of the cues that would tell us whether these sources are reliable or whether the narrator has waited an unreasonable length of time. That is, we don't have the data to assess his character or theirs, which a proper naturalistic story would provide.
Meeting vagueness where we expect a further fleshing-out of the specific location, as befits a story, we begin to feel that the lake is more of a symbol than a place. On the other hand, the narrator's apparent failure to remark on this transition could also be a reason for us to question his sanity, if we choose to remain with our feet planted on the farther shore of narrative realism, where we began. It could still be a story, but a story about someone who has lost touch with the reality that we, outside the narrative, must fill in.
Rodgers' piece reminds me of Mary Ruefle's fascinating book-length foray into prose-poem-parable territory, The Most of It (Wave Books, 2008). Tagged by the publisher as an essay collection, it's nothing near as rational, which is precisely the point. Each stream-of-consciousness discussion unwraps the strangeness, even the incoherence, of the original concept, and makes that bewilderment a pleasurable resting place. This is the mindstate of Zen, and also of poetry: the shift from analysis to awe. (Read samples here and here.)
"Fishing" takes the reader on such a journey from the realistic to the mythic, and possibly back again, depending on whether one prefers to see the narrator's persistence as enlightened or deluded. It is what we bring to it, the piece seems to say.
"Those who have ears to hear, let them hear," Jesus says after telling one of his parables. You'll recognize the signs of God's presence if you're looking for them, and on the other hand, if you want your doubts confirmed, that's what you'll get. Jesus isn't in this poem, of course—or is he? In the Western literary tradition, you can't write a poem about faith and fish without situating yourself in the Christian dialogue.
As a believer myself, I'm inclined to focus on this narrator's progressive sense of peace as he leaves the agendas and security of the practical world behind, along with his lunch and his fishing gear. Letting go of the intention to catch fish in the literal sense, he finds their shapes again in the mysterious patterns of the heavens. By not striving, he is effortlessly aligned with his environment, which is almost personified, almost expressing volition and benevolence toward him: "The places, the spaces where I was, close up behind me, and the new spaces I occupy open for me, as always."
However, from Rodgers' other writings, I know that he's interested in religion but comes down on the side of materialism and atheism. The moral purpose or personality we might read into the cosmos is comforting but illusory. There is fodder for that worldview in "Fishing" as well.
Critics of religion say that faith-based habits of mind are dangerous, making a virtue out of indifference to contrary evidence. So, when our narrator says, "The fact that I have caught no fish has little meaning for me, while the possibility exists", we could worry that he's joined a cargo cult. As the popular saying goes, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."
Of course, a person of faith would say that the spiritual discipline of surrendering to the unknown is the real answer to prayer. Since so much of life really is unpredictable and precarious, this kind of equanimity may be more practical than you'd think.
What's more Zen than the willingness to make a fool of yourself? Without it, none of us could sit down to write, to shut out the world's practical demands and chase the cloud-fish of poetry that we're never quite sure we've caught.
Where could a poem like "Fishing" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Orlando Prize for Sudden Fiction
Entries must be received by July 31
Feminist writers' foundation offers twice-yearly prize of $1,000 and web publication for unpublished flash fiction by US women that celebrates "liberation from the restraints of time and gender"
Donald Barthelme Prize in Short Prose
Postmark Deadline: August 31
Gulf Coast, the literary journal of the University of Houston, offers $1,000 for prose poems or flash fiction up to 500 words; online entries preferred
Gemini Magazine Flash Fiction Contest
Entries must be received by August 31
New online journal offers prizes up to $1,000 for stories up to 1,000 words
Ginosko Literary Contest
Postmark Deadline: September 1
Contest for prose poems, flash fiction, and full-length stories up to 7,000 words (all genres compete together) offers $1,000 and publication in Ginosko, an online literary journal whose name means "To perceive, understand, realize, come to know; knowledge that has an inception, a progress, an attainment. The recognition of truth by experience."
Other resources of interest:
Marie Alexander Poetry Series Book Contest
Open for submissions during the month of July, this free contest from an imprint of White Pine Press offers $500 and publication for a book-length collection of prose poems by a US author.
Poemeleon: The Prose Poem Issue (Winter 2007)
This issue of the online journal Poemeleon features examples by notable poets such as Jimmy Santiago Baca, Chad Prevost, and Cecilia Woloch, plus book reviews and an essay on prose poetics.
The Best of The Prose Poem: An International Journal
Online anthology at Web del Sol includes work by Robert Bly, Maxine Chernoff, Russell Edson, Charles Simic, James Tate, and other leading lights.
Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics
Published by Firewheel Editions, an imprint of Western Connecticut State University, this literary magazine features a wide variety of established and emerging writers.
This poem and critique appeared in the July 2010 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.