by Lillian Ann Slugoki
Roland Barthes argues in his famous 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author,” that the writer and the work they produce are not related. Presumably, he’d never met Meg Pokrass. In an interview on HTML Giant she said, “Brains have limits, bodies are genius.” When I read this, I thought, That is the secret of her success. Her flash fiction is muscular, visceral, compressed as if written deep inside a body. Her body. From “The Serious Writer and her Pussy”:
As a serious writer, in mid-life, she must master speaking the word ‘pussy’ with confidence and authority. She practices doing so out loud for her next book store reading. The serious writer is starting a book tour to promote her new novel which is bursting with ‘pussy’.
Here is a feminism that is witty and biting, also impossible to ignore. The diction is razor sharp, the approach direct, and the persona doesn’t mind offending you. She’s as transgressive as the heroine in Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” rising out of the ash, except the serious writer is on a broomstick, wearing Groucho Marx glasses. There’s no angst here. There are “soul infections,” as Pokrass herself has said, but they are comically rendered. She is not a suicidal arrow, she’s a trickster, a shape shifter, a writer who chronicles the maladies of the modern world, and who makes us laugh. And this, too, is a secret to her success. Pokrass’s voice refuses the liminal spaces, it insists on being ringside, wearing a top hat. Her texts are performance—bold, dark and funny.
The trick of course with flash fiction is compression. Can you wrestle with language and see, as William Blake suggests, “the world in a grain of sand,” in 100 words, in 500 words, or even 1,000 words? And can you still tell a story? With characters you care about? For Pokrass, the answer is yes. This is the medium she has mastered. And this is the world she’s created: We are hussies, and we have pussies, and we are laughing.
Pokrass’s work has been published in over 150 online and print publications—including The Literarian, PANK, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, HTML Giant, The Mississippi Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Dr. TJ Eckleburg Review—and has been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Damn Sure Right, a collection of her flash, published by Press 53, has been praised by the likes of Frederick Barthelme, who said that Pokrass writes “like a brain looking for a body,” and by Jessica Anya Blau, who wrote that her “flash fiction conveys entire worlds that are touching, haunting, funny, moving and strange in the most beautiful ways.” Pokrass’s persona on Facebook mirrors, and perhaps enhances, the performative nature of her work. She has several avatars; most beloved is ineffectual agent Peg Mokrass, who sports enormous cat’s eye sunglasses and a Mona Lisa smile. “Peg” is currently curating a page called Helpful Hints for Hussies. The banner reads: “Welcome literary hussies and strumpets.” It is a collection of vintage cheesecake photographs, accompanied by mordant micro narratives, e.g. “Many hussies disguise themselves as dogs in order to work their way into a married man’s kennel”—with accompanying photo (a group of women and dogs, with matching spotted coats, circa 1960). I love the way she uses hyperbole to mock the tired trope of sexually aggressive woman, the dreaded vagina dentate; and we’re still laughing. Feminist theory talks about writing on top of a stable narrative, or revisioning it, and many scholars and authors have done so with passion and seriousness; but I now recognize that comedy works better than tragedy. And besides, politics notwithstanding, the comedy of the absurd is the human comedy.
“Summer Cottage” is only 108 words, yet we are drawn into the micro-narrative from the first line:
Second day in a damp bikini, my straw hat hiding, playing a little game. I lose things. Pouring mom’s Kahlua into a plastic cup and licking the sides. Yesterday, I kissed a root-beer boy who said he’d meet me at the pool today at one o’clock with the hat. Mom watches me smear chapstick on my lips, perched atop the sofa and a sweater over her shoulders — staring down invisible graffiti on my body. “See ya.” Laughs at a movie of my face, then back to her book. Desert air feels blow-dried and fake. By the pool, root-beer boy stands looking as though I’ve dropped from a tree.
Annis Pratt writes in Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction that—because the traditional bildungsroman portrays the male journey, or the male narrative arc, and it has been around for a very long time—a female bildungsroman “…portrays a world in which the young woman is destined for disappointment…every element of her desired world…freedom to come and go, allegiance to nature, meaningful work, exercise of the intellect…inevitably clashes with patriarchal norms.” What’s transgressive is how Meg is able to flip that convention: her female protagonists are not destined for disappointment, but transformation.
It’s not enough, however, to just reverse the terms, male to female. You can’t insert an adolescent girl into The Catcher in the Rye or even Jason and the Argonauts and have the same story. We can’t tap into those cultural myths and narrative tropes. However, great writers—Margaret Atwood, for example—deploy different kinds of narrative strategies to overcome this. In Oryx and Crake, set it in a dystopian future, Atwood creates a new apatriarchal space for her female protagonist, where she can invent her own rules. In “Summer Cottage” Pokrass also invents rules: she discards linear time, which is disruptive to the reader. We thus know to expect the unexpected. Her protagonist is a bit of minx, but clearly aware of her own agency, or power, “boys stand looking as though I’ve dropped from a tree.” She doesn’t appear before them, she lands. I would argue that this isn’t a moment, but the moment—the loss of innocence, and the attendant gain of wisdom as well as transformation. Pokrass inscribes the same trajectory in “Leaving Hope Ranch,” but this time from the gaze of one girl who witnesses the transformation in another:
I spread the lotion in deeply because this was the last time. I made myself look at her. From here, she had already become a woman.
The mise en scene in both stories is pitch perfect; time and place rendered by a few skilled brushstrokes. And this skill is demonstrated over and over again in Pokrass’s extensive body of work, for example in “I Married This,” recently published on The Literarian:
My husband, Gordon, looked as though he’d found religion—as though he’d never tasted real food before this beef stew meal at Angie and Ron’s. He appeared to be sucking his teeth after every bite, taking his time, thinking about what he’d sucked—then stabbing a new forkful.
Or perhaps, the wife stabbing him, in the face, with her fork. The reader’s imagination can venture beneath the surface; hilarity ensues. The violence that lingers is delightful and invigorating, while the scenario itself is archetypal—the trope of the suburban dining room, and the hapless, human characters that live there. The distracted wife, the caveman husband, the folly of the marriage, writ large, in just two sentences, 48 words.
Pokrass started out in the theater, as an actress, so it makes sense that her work is so performative. She also spent several years imprisoned in her body, with illness, so again it makes sense that her writing is so physical; after all, “bodies are genius.” Pokrass lives in San Francisco—an idiosyncratic city, set on seven hills, with a thriving, almost atavistic literary culture. Her sister, Sian Barbara Allen, was a well known character actress in the 1970’s and 1980’s. This ensured that Pokrass grew up around celebrities, which certainly must’ve added a bit of frisson to the festivities. Add a career as a performer, then a poet, sidetracked by aforementioned illness, and rebirth as a prose writer with a singular, powerful voice.
Meg was named Master of Flash in last year’s LitQuake in San Francisco, the largest independent literary festival on the West Coast. It’s her medium, and it’s changing the way we tell stories. Maybe it’s an outgrowth of the digital revolution that is transforming the very paradigm of what it means to write, to read, to publish. Or perhaps, Meg Porkrass and others like her are re-inventing or revisioning an older literary tradition of short-short fiction in the tradition of Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry, or Jorge Luis Borges. Time will tell. In the meantime, be on the lookout for Peg Mokrass and her marauding band of hussies.
Lillian Ann Slugocki has created a body of work on women and sexuality for print and for the stage including: Off-Broadway; The Erotica Project, co-authored with Erin Cressida Wilson, National Public Radio, American Theatre Magazine, Seal Press, Cleis Press, Heinemann Press, Salon.com, and more recently on Her Kind.com, Jezebel.com, and Beatrice.com. Her latest book, The Blue Hours, was published by Newtown Press. “Streetcar Deconstructed” will be published in A Wreckage of Reason 2: Back to the Drawing Board, Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014. Her work has been reviewed, among others, in The New York Times, The London Sunday Times, The Village Voice, and Art in America.
Photo courtesy of Meg Pokrass