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Rosemarie Dombrowski on Phoenix's Literary Scene, the Art of the Flash Memoir

Rosemarie Dombrowski is a writer on a mission.

The poet, ASU lecturer, and co-founder of the Phoenix Poetry Series will lead a two-part creative writing workshop on the art of the flash memoir at 7 p.m. on July 22 and 29 at Changing Hands Bookstore. The writing workshop is open to the public, and it's just one of the ways she’s trying to pull literary culture out of the ivory tower and straight into traffic and the cityscape, straight into the pulse of contemporary life. 

By trade, Dombrowski is a poet, and she rebels against the idea that poetry can’t be relevant to the masses.

“We’ve been arguing that poetry isn’t quite dead," Dombrowski says. "It was declared dead in the early 2000s, and the conversation about its death has been perpetual. Now people are saying the only reason it’s alive is because we keep talking about the death of it. But there are always poet laureates of state and poets interviewed for these articles that say it’s not dead… At the state-level, it’s almost our responsibility to make sure we’re making it relevant in our communities.”

Around the metro Phoenix area alone, Dombrowski cites at least eight poetry series that do just that: events on the light rail, in wine bars, coffee shops, art galleries, and even at farmer’s markets. She’s on the editorial board of Four Chambers Press, which holds a poetry series at Downtown Phoenix Public Market in the fall. Dombrowski thinks there’s a misconception that literature only belongs in MFA classrooms and literary journals. She discovered that disconnect firsthand when she was pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature and was troubled by the separation between academia and creative writing. Though she still loves to teach, she acknowledges it can happen in both a classroom and a bar. Now, she’s interested in how literature can become a conversation again.

“[Poetry] is undeniably an oral art form, it historically has been” Dombrowski says. “When Jake [Friedman] moved to town and started Four Chambers… he contacted me to ask if I’d join the editorial board. After I heard his mission, I said Yes, absolutely. He didn’t want to just start a publication. He wanted to start a community arts forum. He wanted to start the conversation [and get] people to talk about literature again. He wanted to make the literary arts visible, and he wanted to inject the literary arts into spaces where they hadn’t been injected before… That’s the exciting thing, that people are kind of shocked to see us in those spaces.”

In searching for more accessible literary venues, Dombrowski has also considered the work’s physical form and how readers might access a story in new ways. She acknowledges that she hardly reaches for a long novel anymore. One genre she’s particularly excited about is flash, a genre through which extremely short stories are told in about 750 words or less. 

“I just wrote a piece about flash and waning attention spans," she says. "Even as a Gen X-er, I have to something of the adult ADD, but I’ve always had it. When I was younger, I gravitated towards poetry because I didn’t have a very long attention span. I needed to move from one thing to another very quickly. I need to flit. I need to keep moving. My mind’s always racing… Most of what we have to disseminate in our society, if it hasn’t been done and most of it has been, we can do it in three pages. We work in soundbytes, video clips. It’s how we disseminate information, it’s how we absorb information.”

The flash genre reflects the pace of contemporary life — Dombrowski even views tattoos as a kind of flash portraiture. She also knows that the flash genre isn’t just for millenials. She sees it applying to writers who really want to hone their craft, or anyone who wants to convey something important about his or her life.

Flash fiction is beginning to move into the mainstream, and Dombrowski cites Lydia Davis, Aimee Bender, Amy Bloom, and Lorrie Moore as some of her favorite flash authors. Her own collection, The Book of Emergencies, is a poetic memoir about her autistic son – a flash memoir with an overarching narrative, where the fragmented form itself reflects how her son experiences the world. When people insist that nothing in their own lives is of worthy literary value, she adamantly disagrees and refers back to flash genres.

“I taught my first creative nonfiction course in 2004. What I was telling them then, because I think Charles Barkley had just published his memoirs or autobiography or whatever, is that there’s always some athlete or someone who’s publishing a memoir and it becomes a New York Times bestseller. And you don’t know who the ghost writer is and you’re like who’s this hack writer and why didn’t I get asked to do this and get paid the $5 million up front, this is ridiculous!

You can distill a philosophy, a sociopolitical idea, a protest, or even just something seemingly mundane in the course of a day. If you can distill that beautifully, lyrically, poignantly, and effectively, then you’re a great writer.

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"So I started telling my students then: We’re not Charles Barkley. No one gives a shit about our lives. You write a 5,000-page tome about yourself, no one’s going to read that. So if you want to write about yourself, you need to distill whatever it is you want to capture. A day in the life of, a year – you need to distill that into something creative and evocative and tight and short and well-crafted… Once you can do it in 25 lines, if you ever can, you can distill a philosophy, a sociopolitical idea, a protest, or even just something seemingly mundane in the course of a day. If you can distill that beautifully, lyrically, poignantly, and effectively, then you’re a great writer.”

For more information about Dombrowski's upcoming flash memoir workshop and to reserve a spot, see the Changing Hands event page. Her future writing workshops at Changing Hands, including Femmes with Pens, will be introduced in the fall.

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