Prose poetry and flash fiction are conjoined twins; they share so much in common in terms of structure and internal organs that they are inseparable. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean they are indistinguishable.
Generally speaking, the base component of a poem is the line (and line break), which culminates in an image, whereas the base component of a short story is the sentence and its big brother, the paragraph, which convey character(s) and character development. Since prose poems don’t have line breaks and both the prose poem and flash fiction are predicated on the paragraph, this leads to some awkward first encounters.
At a bookstore, a young patron mistakes Prose Poetry for Flash Fiction, and tells him how much he loves Kim Chinquee’s work. Prose Poetry smiles sheepishly and Flash Fiction looks away before clearing her throat and informing the ill-informed fan that while Chinquee’s work is indeed top-rate, it’s probably best to classify it as flash fiction, not prose poetry.
She explains that the base unit of the prose poem is still the image, whereas flash fiction, is about character and character development.
Perhaps this is why Prose Poetry is definitely the wackier of the pair. His sanity has been questioned on a few occasions. Like at his senior high prom, which took place on a riverboat. Much to the chagrin of his conjoined sibling, he showed up in as much pirate regalia as he could wear on his half of the body. He’d been swigging rum for hours beforehand, so he could barely manage to light the long fuses he’d woven into the long, black locks on his side of their shared head.
Due to the alcohol Prose Poetry had imbibed, Flash Fiction—dressed in half of a lovely white gown—spent the night inadvertently drunk too, and they spent the night lumbering around the dance floor, friendless and frowned upon by the more popular kids (the Essay, The Ode, and so on).
That is to say, Prose Poetry is some of the funniest—and strangest—writing you’ll find anywhere. It lends itself to the comic, and the absurd. Maybe humor is easier to convey in a sentence than in a line break. If you think I’m kidding, read some Russell Edson, some Daniel Pinkerton, some Dag Straumsvag, some James Tate, some Lee Stern (I will send up a full post about him soon), or some Mark Vinz.
By comparison, Flash Fiction is the more staid of the pair. That’s not because Flash Fiction is boring, but because Prose Poetry often only focuses on humor and the comic image. (This should be viewed as a problem, as prose poetry can do more. I’ve seen this in my own work. Too often my prose poems are funny, but they are throwaways, good only for a few readings.) Really, it’s easy to simply be funny. All you need is a good juxtaposition or two, a walrus, some good verbs, and you’re on your way.
Flash Fiction is something else, as it’s about character (and change), and it’s therefore more difficult to pull off in such a short space. (Hell, some people can’t pull it off in a short story or even a novel; hence the ever-present complaint “nothing happens in this story…”)
I’ll end with a question: So who are your favorite contemporary prose poets and flash fictionistas?