How Does a Poet Write short #fiction?

Damyanti Biswas interviews Tar Masih about short fiction
Best Small Fictions Guest edited by Robert Olen Butler

As part of my ongoing guest post series in this blog,  we heard from Jude Higgins last week.

Today, it is my pleasure to welcome the wonderful Dee Cohen, a poet, photographer and prose author who speaks about writing, and her piece in the The Best Small Fictions 2015, an anthology  guest edited by Robert Olen Butler and compiled by Tara L. Masih.

She has shared fantastic pieces of writing wisdom, and I’ve highlighted some of them for you in blue.

1. Tell us about your journey into fiction writing.

I was a weird kid, never quite feeling comfortable or fitting in. Books were a source of  escape, information, and inspiration. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading or trying to write. Poems and short pieces were the most direct route to what I needed. Here are a few maudlin lines from my first “grown-up” poem in about 7th grade: “I dreamed of springtime flowers, but God I saw them cry. My soul has lost its powers, I must leave it to die…” I’ve been beating up that poor soul ever since.

2. How does your work as a poet inform your flash fiction?

I don’t actually have much of a distinction between the two. My prose poems change easily into flash pieces. Sometimes I meld two or three shorter poems together with a bit of filler to create a prose piece. The heightened language of poetry translates well into short fiction. I’m always revisiting the same themes, looking at them from one direction, then another. Poetry and short fiction allow me pluck out small moments and shine a light on them.

3. Name pieces of flash fiction that you admire, or authors you like.

I admire the writing of Lydia Davis. In a short amount of words, she can totally unnerve me as a reader. That is fine editing.
I also consider prose poems to be effective flash fiction. For example, check out the opening of Elizabeth Bishop’s The Fish (with line breaks removed):

I caught a tremendous fish and held him beside the boat half out of
water, with my hook fast in a corner of his mouth. He didn’t fight. He
hadn’t fought at all. He hung a grunting weight, battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there his brown skin hung in strips like ancient

Recently, I’ve read the work of Tara L. Masih. She manages to make leaps into the metaphorical, a kind of collective understanding, as a natural progression in her pieces without it feeling forced, ending them at precisely the right moment.

4. What are your tips on those embarking on the writing life?

  • Reading is the best teacher. Read what you love, then try and figure out what makes it so damn loveable. Read what you don’t like and try to articulate what makes it so damn annoying. You’ll stumble upon many answers by reading the works of other people.
  • It also helps to find a group of like-minded people that you can share your work with. Critiquing the work of others is very helpful in discovering your own voice.

5. What makes a great piece of flash fiction?

For me, a piece has to offer both safety and surprise. I have to trust the author’s voice, be willing to put myself in his/her hands. Then I have to be taken somewhere unexpected.

6. Tell us about your piece in the Best Small Fictions anthology. What is it about? What did you want to get across when you wrote it?

The piece By Heart started as an assignment in a poetry class to write something with a lot of internal rhyme. I don’t really care for rhyme, it’s so rhymey, and everything ends up sounding like a 3rd grade spelling list. So I took a child struggling with a 3rd grade spelling list and I linked it up with an angry, impatient mother. In that way, the rhyming worked for me, stressing the mother’s frustration and the child’s dread. From there, the poem evolved into a short fiction piece.

Damyanti Biswas interviews Dee Cohen
Dee Cohen
Dee Cohen is a poet, prose writer, and photographer, currently living in Albuquerque New Mexico. Her poetry has been published in various journals, including Spillway, Kimera, Perihelion, Stirring, RipRip, Mal Pais Review, Adobe Walls, Mas Tequilla Review, Anthology of Orange County Poets, Fixed and Free Anthologies and others. Her book of poems, Lime Avenue Evening, was published by the Laguna Poets. Two of her prose pieces have been published in DimeStories: California, New Mexico, and Beyond. From there, her story By Heart was selected for inclusion in The Best Smalls Fiction 2015.


Do you write short stories or flash fiction? Do you have tips for those steppin into writing? What issues do you face while writing fiction?  Do you have questions for Dee? Have at it in the comments!

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Add Yours
  1. sargondorsai

    Thank you for this interview. There is a lot of great information here and I feel like I’ve grown as a writer for having read it. I’m always trying to better my ability to write, to truly learn my voice. This will help.

  2. Damyanti Biswas

    Thank you, Dee, for this interview, and your always kind and insightful responses to the comments. You are a wonderful guest.

  3. Dee Cohen

    Thank you both for enjoying my interview. Your thoughts remind me of how idiosyncratic our writing paths are but also how much we have in common. It only takes a little bit to inspire me (or re-inspire me), sometimes someone’s words or a random idea or comment. This blog is very nice for helping people feel less alone in the writing process. Thanks!

  4. Leigh W. Smith

    I don’t know that I have a lot to add to this dialogue, apart from a resounding “absolutely”! I majored in poetry at school and feel like I can move mellifluously from poetry to flash (or short stories) and vice versa, so, because I enjoy reading and writing both, I have. Great poets–Bishop, Marianne Moore, Stevens, Eliot, Anne Carson, Robert Okaji, to name only a few.–have an uncanny ability in and attunement to the musicality of language, and I aspire to that whenever I write fiction. I’m still learning, and so this post/interview has been a great and significant reminder of not forgetting some of my literary roots [although I wrote fiction–very, very bad fiction–before I wrote abysmal poetry as a child, I don’t want to forget either]. There’s a place for poetry even (and perhaps especially so) in genre fiction like speculative and certainly in literary fiction, which I also enjoy writing and reading. In any case, another excellent interview, Damyanti; also, thank you to Dee for sharing your knowledge and congratulations on the inclusion in Small Fictions. It looks like a definite keeper!

  5. the bespectacled mother

    To read something one likes as well as to read on a subject against one’s liking is the advice I am taking home although I do not see myself dabbling into fiction writing. Dee’s 7th grade poem and her thought of battering her poor soul in those days made me chuckle 😀

  6. Dee Cohen

    Thank you all for the great responses. I’m pleased my comments helped in any way. Yours have inspired me too. I’ve been writing more, always good! Thank you Damyanti for featuring me and my work. D

  7. vishalbheeroo

    I thoroughly enjoy reading the interview on the need to read what we don’t like and it’s an advice my mentor gave me during my first days in journalism. I dabble with flash fiction at times on blog and it’s quite a challenge.

  8. macjam47

    I enjoyed reading this interview. Dee’s 7th grade poem is actually very good. I’ve read a few poems by junior high students that didn’t stand up to Dee’s at all.

    • Dee Cohen

      Thank you macjame7, I remember reciting that poem out loud on my lonely way home from school. So even though it is somewhat overwrought, it was the start of my future… D

  9. suzanne

    I love writing short stories and flash fiction but have never been sure I’m doing it “right.” This was helpful! I am going to check out Lydia Davis and Tara L. Masih. My motto when writing fiction is “less is more” (which is funny because my blog posts are often too long for even my mother to read entirely) and I like challenging myself to use as few words as possible to communicate powerful imagery. The real challenge is communicating just enough so that readers, who can’t see into my head, get the full picture without all of the fluff.

    • Dee Cohen

      I’m never sure I’m doing it right either. It feels like every writing piece is a puzzle I have to solve. I agree that less is definitely more but too much less can be overly cryptic. Writing groups/buddies can sometimes help with feedback. D

      • suzanne

        Definitely! Oddly enough I love to share my novel’s progress with writing/reading pals but some of my flash fiction hasn’t been read by anyone but me. I’m feeling like it’s time to start letting them go, though, to start the editing and compiling process.

  10. whitec71

    I really enjoyed this article. The advice that is given is invaluable. Plus being part of a writers group is imperative. I just don’t seem to know where to look to find a group. Do you have any articles about that. Great blog that offers great inspiration for other writers like myself.

    • Dee Cohen

      Hi Whitec71, Have you tried local Meet Ups to find writers groups? They are often links to finding people in your community. D

    • Dee Cohen

      Damyanti did a great job getting to the core of my answers. Thanks to her and you for kind words. D

  11. Dee Cohen

    So true! But sometimes actually putting it into words can help me avoid those annoying pitfalls in my work…

    • Dee Cohen

      Sorry Alex, In retrospect, I think my comment was annoying. I should listen to my advice. D