Writer-in-residence Cooley to extract big questions from tiny texts

If poet-in-residence Nicole Cooley had her way, this article about her upcoming Brown Bag lecture on short writing forms would fit into this 25-word sentence.

From the 25-word short story to dollhouse furniture, Cooley is fascinated by small things. At 12:15 p.m. today on the porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall, she will gave a talk titled “Tiny Texts: Flash Fiction, Short Poems, One-Minute Plays.”

Cooley, director of the MFA program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, City University of New York, has published four collections of poetry. She is currently finishing a nonfiction book, My Dollhouse, Myself: Miniature Histories.

She became interested in dollhouses after setting up a “dollhouse land” for her two daughters, which brought back memories of her own dollhouse when she was younger. After talking to friends, she discovered that most everyone wanted to talk about dollhouses.

“I realized that dollhouses are resonant for so many women,” Cooley said. “They often tell the stories of mothers and daughters, and sisters, and intergenerational relationships.”

What most interests Cooley about tiny forms is their ability to open up these larger questions and issues in such a small space. She gave the example of the short story often attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

“That’s the whole story … but everything is there,” Cooley said. “I love the way that tiny things play with silence. If you have a 15-word short story, what is that short story not saying?”

To achieve moments of silence with a medium that does not make noise — the written word — Cooley focuses on the physical space on the page.

“There’s a way in which a line break and a stanza break in a poem create immense silence,” she said. “And you can change an entire poem by just shifting it into two stanzas as opposed to one, or just shifting the first line as a single stanza.”

Similarly, a 25-word story separated into paragraphs is entirely different than that same story written as one sentence. A one-minute monologue, she added, is also different than a one-minute play with dialogue shared between multiple characters.

Cooley referenced the flash fiction movement started in the 1980s and the rise of the prose poem in the last 15 years as evidence of authors shifting toward shorter, more compact forms.

Even in the last couple of years, Cooley said, the notion of the tiny text has evolved. From the cell phone journal to the short story written on Twitter, the 21st century has seen the popularity of the miniature form grow at an exponential rate.

“I worry that people’s attention spans are getting shorter, so we all like shorter things,” Cooley said, “but my view is that these shorter things actually require a lot of concentration and focus and have really big lessons to teach us.”

Cooley attributes part of her fascination with miniatures to her background in writing fiction. She found that her poetry kept growing longer and longer, so she took on a challenge: downsizing her writing.

“I think you should always be trying to write the thing that you don’t want to write,” Cooley said. “I gave myself the challenge to write smaller poems, a tiny poem, which is difficult for me. I started doing that, and then I got interested in the idea of the tiny text and the miniatures, so it all connects. It’s all of a piece, I think.”