Editor's note: Flash fiction is a highly stylized writing burst — a few hundred words maybe — typically describing the complex and often absurd happenings in everyday life. Short stories they are, grown ever shorter as fragmented readers’ fight to filter what comes at us. In newly published Jellyfish, pioneering educator and prose poet Mark McCaig, presents the genre with 200-word dives into the human character, along with two poems. Jellyfish illuminates pains, excesses and charming realities in the human condition — in a flash.
NBB What do you hope your book will mean to its readers?
MM First, I hope they enjoy dipping briefly into these characters. They kept showing up for me, so here they are for the rest of you. Now you're stuck with them! I guess I also want readers to maybe experience these characters as mirrors. That's always the hope with fiction, right?
NBB Writers sometimes imagine writing to certain readers. Did you have an audience in mind?
MM I think I'm always writing to my wife and muse, Kim McCaig. With this project, my teacher and mentor from the early nineties, Don Oliver, was also an inspiration. He definitely asked what I think are the right questions about our peculiarly siloed, specialized society.
NBB As co-founder of Fairhaven School, where students in a democratic setting are encouraged to do what inspires them, do you see students inspired by writing?
MM For sure. When people have freedom, they express themselves, whether in the music studio, the art room, on the stage, what have you. Naturally, many of our students write in journals. I've read some fine poetry, fiction, and nonfiction over the years. If they let me, of
course! Many writers are fiercely private, as you know.
NBB I loved the underbelly of technology in this book. Like EMF, with the worker high up on the cell tower, thinking about fantasy football and flipping cigarette butts into the wind. The piece that found a place in my head was Upgrade, in which you travel from the happy floor of an American cell phone store to the sordid scene of children recycling American eWaste. Exploitative dumping was long one of my journalism focuses and I’m wondering how you came to be thinking about this outrage.
MM You mentioned Fairhaven School, Bill, and part of the inspiration for "Upgrade" was observing the arrival and attempted takeover of people's lives by these supercomputers we all have in our pockets. I've been watching that at the school for twenty-five years now. Doesn't it feel like a giant social and financial experiment? I think of the wireless carriers and manufacturers as today's robber barons, and somewhere I learned about the toxicity of some of the components in the phone's guts. The contrast between an upper class American teenager getting her first phone and another child across the world just surviving by cleaning our discarded phones just wrote itself.
NBB The natural world has often been a focus of your writing. I recall in Abundance, your book of poems a few years ago, there were a variety of birds. There were fish. And sky. Does being outside get your writer juices flowing?
MM Absolutely. As life gets more and more digital, I feel most alive when I'm outside, generally looking up. I had my best season of migrant warblers this past spring, thanks to some friends who know them a lot better than I do.
NBB In the evolution of Mark McCaig as a writer, any idea where you might be headed? More poems? More verse in the genre of Jellyfish?
MM So many projects, so little time! Like many in my little beach town, being able to get outside has gotten me through the isolation, anxiety, and weirdness of living through a global pandemic. I've been working on a suite of prose pieces exploring the intersection of the natural world and COVID-19. I also have a number of poems towards a second full-length poetry manuscript. On the way back burner is a nonfiction collection of essays.
NBB We happen to know you’re a Washington Nationals devotee. In a 10-word-or-less flash about their season, what might you write?
MM Pitching, pitching, pitching, and for God's sake, keep Magic Juan.
—Meet Mark McCaig at New Bay Books' Writers on the Water event Sunday, August 28, 1-3 pm at Bayside History Museum, 4025 Fourth Street, North Beach, MD. Win $100 and read your stuff in our Poetry and Flash Contest for Maryland writers. Winner announced that day. Write us at NewBayBooks@gmail.com for details