Announcing our July illustrator–Fay Henexson!

Fay image1I’m thrilled to announce that Fay Henexson has graciously allowed us to use her beautiful photography to illustrate our July issue. Fay is a native Californian, a librarian by profession and a photographerby avocation.  She developed a passion for photography during her career as a law librarian with the California Attorney General’s Office, and since her retirement has relished the opportunity to expand and deepen that passion.

She maintains a strong interest in nature and outdoor photography, but no longer considers herself an ‘outdoor photographer.’  Instead, she tries to simply be ‘interested’ – in the present moment, and in whatever direction her eye, and her heart, may lead her.
Fay image2
Fay has developed a fascinating interest–she uses her camera to find abstracts – in old buildings, neglected machinery and other objects. The untended object becomes unintended art.
Fay image
She has also been exploring techniques that go beyond straight photography, such as motion blur, photomontage, scanner art and light painting.  Her work can be seen on her website and its companion blog, Spirit Standing Still.


Thank you, Fay, We are so looking forward to the July issue!


A Fine Line by Cyndy Muscatel


If only I hadn’t decided to go out on deck that night.

Anchored in the middle of the Galapagos chain of islands, our boat floated on the Equatorial Line with the ease of a high-wire aerialist. The lure of the night sky called, and I slipped out of our cabin to stand by the rail. How could I not go out and see the Southern Cross high above me to my right—the Big Dipper and the North Star to my left? I was smack-dab on the middle of the earth.

Who could have guessed that one of the mosquitoes using me as target practice that night was illiterate? We were in a “No Malaria Zone,” dammit. I’d checked twice with the CDC before we left for South America. My luck—Ms. Quito Mosquito, an Anopheles by genus name, was an empty-headed beauty queen who didn’t care about the pronouncements of the World Health Organization. She was an indiscriminate vampire who’d gotten mixed up with some malaria folk. Filled with their plasmodium, she paid it forward, thrusting the microscopic parasites into my bloodstream. I really don’t blame her. She was a fact of Global Warming. I became one of its victims.

I almost died. That sounds so melodramatic I feel embarrassed to write it, but it’s true.

“Her fever is still spiking at 105. Now her kidneys are shutting down,” the doctor said to my husband. They stood on either side of my hospital bed talking as if I weren’t there. I was—I just didn’t have the energy to open my eyes. I was so weak by that point my body couldn’t even gain purchase on the bed. The nurse’s aide would pull me to the top, but I’d slip to the bottom within an hour.

“Well, what do we do?” my husband asked.

“I don’t know,” the doctor said. “But I’m thinking she has only twenty-four hours left to live.”

“What are you talking about? For Christ’s sake, she’s strong and healthy. She just did the Inca Trail two weeks ago. You better figure out something.” The aggressiveness in my husband’s tone was comforting. Although he knew nothing about taking care of someone who was ill, his Type A personality got things done.

They moved out of the room, but I could hear the murmur of their voices from the corridor. I tried calling out, “What are you talking about?” but my feeble attempt went unheard. What was the doctor saying out of earshot? I wondered. Could it be any worse than what he’d just said?

We’d been having problems with the doctor from the beginning of my illness five days before. My first symptom had been an aching in my legs, which spread to all my joints. That morning I was supposed to pick out granite for our house remodel. I told my husband I felt achy and exhausted—we both attributed it to our arduous trip in Peru and Ecuador. I drove myself to the warehouse, but by the time I got there I felt I couldn’t keep my head up. I managed to choose the granite and through force of will to make it home and to my bed. From then on, the world became murky.

I do remember calling my daughter in Los Angeles and telling her how sick I felt. She started keeping close tabs on my symptoms and began plugging them into the computer. On the second day, she called the doctor to tell him she’d been checking online and she thought I had malaria.

He freaked out. “Don’t you ever call me again with this kind of crap,” he told her. “I am the doctor—I make the diagnosis.”

Even though we’d just returned from a third-world country, he refused to consider the possibility that I had an infectious disease picked up on my travels. He was obdurate until he got scared that I would die. In desperation, he relented. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t too late, and fortunately the infectious disease specialist was from Pakistan. He’d seen malaria many times and put me on the malaria antibiotic doxycycline. Within eight hours I was able to sit up and dangle my feet over the side of the bed.

The next morning, the aide who had wiped my face and arms with such care for four days while I shook with fever was able to guide me into the bathroom. It was the sixth day since I had fallen ill.

“Oh my God. My face is so yellow,” I said when I looked into the mirror.

“Not as yellow as it has been. It’s much better,” the aide said.

I looked again and thought the color appalling. Then I saw how thin I was—beyond gaunt. I hadn’t eaten anything since the aching began. When they weighed me, I had lost fourteen pounds. I also lost my appetite. It took days until I learned to eat again. When they brought me a tray of food, a slab of something covered in gravy, I was so nauseous that I almost passed out. Finally I was able to nibble on soda crackers and sip some ginger ale.

For much of the acute stage of my illness, I was in Hallucination Land. Once I was hospitalized, I saw myself in the Chicago train station every afternoon at 4:00 p.m., waiting in line to buy a ticket to Syracuse. It was always my turn next. On the Sunday the neurologist administered the spinal tap, I hallucinated up a soothing mid-century décor for the procedure. The room was low-lit with futons in aqua and coral. That night I was forbidden to move for eight hours, but the bone-aching pain made me toss and turn. A handy-dandy hallucination had me imagining I was cradled in the arms of four strong women, although in reality it was my husband holding me tight.

I had other mental experiences that were not exactly of the “real world.” I saw a faraway light with a door sliding shut on it. I knew if I didn’t keep the door open, it would be the end for me. One afternoon I was overwhelmed with the effort. “I’m too tired,” I said in my head. “I’m going to let it go.”

But my father came to stop me. I think he was dressed in one of his satin smoking jackets. He’d been dead for two years. “Daughter, we don’t give up in this family,” he said.

“Okay, Dad. I’ll keep trying then.” Knowing he was close by, the task no longer seemed as difficult. Dad was as real to me as the nurse who came in to take my temperature. Maybe more real.

Then there were the children only I could see reflected in the blank television monitor. Dressed in white, they stood around my bed, which was now in a lush garden. I leaned forward and a cherubic baby popped up from behind my pillow.

“Maybe they were angels sent to guide you to heaven,” my friend Else said when I told her later.

I shook my head. “No, that wasn’t it. They were taking care of me. I am safe with them by my side.” It was as clear a statement as my slurred speech allowed.

The slurred speech thing got me into trouble. In my head, I heard myself talking normally. I had no idea that the thirteen words came out as four aloud, and garbled at that. My husband thought I’d had a stroke. My son and daughter, both hundreds of miles away, were frantic. Friends who came to visit me in the hospital told me later they cried at the elevator when they left. They all thought they had lost me. I, of course, was in oblivion.

Going back to the general topic of malaria for a moment, the parasite burrows into the liver. I know this because malaria has become a hot topic, and it was the cover story in National Geographic. That’s why I was jaundiced. But I can tell you from experience that those little buggers hit each body organ hard. Talk about the domino effect. As they circulated, the newest system they entered went wonky. I had MRIs, CAT scans, PET scans, a colonoscopy…you name it. But I felt it was my head, inside and out, which took the brunt of the barrage. I lost everything from memory to handfuls of hair. Parts of my memory, short and long term, were wiped clean. Even today it’s hard to figure out if I’m having a senior or a malaria moment. One strange aside is that my ability with numbers increased. I am better at math and can memorize numbers that I never could before. As for my hair, it seems to have highlighted memory. Lots of it still falls out every year in May—in memory, I guess, of my case of malaria.

Joking aside, the language issue was tough on me. If I am vain about anything, it is my facility with language. Words have always come trippingly to my tongue, but for months I had aphasia—I might have said fork when I meant foot. Some words were simply gone. Like Ottawa. I was reading Middlesex and I had no idea if Ottawa was a place, a car, or some kind of food. Not knowing made me feel as if I were surreal. I couldn’t write for a year—couldn’t put the proper mix of words together. It was so frustrating, I abandoned the effort. This from a person who thought the essential items to bring to the hospital besides clean underwear and lipstick were a pen and notebook. I wrote every day while I was there. I kept the notebook—none of the handwriting looks like mine.

When I went home from the hospital, I was still very sick. My recovery was no faster than the pace of the tortoises we’d watched in the Galapagos. I had a fever and a cough for months. I woke up sweating and parched every night. I could not get my energy back. I also used to have the shakes all day long. Those tapered off, but even now, six years later, if I get overtired, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, shaking. And I could not get my energy back. I didn’t have that buffer between feeling tired and complete depletion. It’s only in the last year that I don’t have to nap each day.

As I reread what I have written, I am struck by how close I was to dying. I wonder when it is finally my time if Dad will be there again, this time to welcome me in. In? In to where? Heaven? But I don’t believe in Heaven, do I? Or life after death, for that matter. I believe that when we die our individual spark leaves our earthly bodies and soars back into the teeming, churning mass of the collective energetic field of the universe. But what if I am wrong? What if on that May afternoon when I looked into the television that wasn’t turned on and I saw a lush garden—what if I were seeing heaven?

When you almost die, it does change you forever. As my body started to shut down, I didn’t think about the novels I never got published or whether I’d been a good mother and grandmother. I accepted I was dying and I had few regrets. Except I remember distinctly asking myself, But what about the fun I was going to have? Where did the time for enjoyment go? It will be a shame to miss out on that.

I have never forgotten that. I have a worker-bee mentality, but I am getting better at plain enjoying life. I also lost my ambition. I had a novel half finished and completely outlined. I think it was good—I liked the characters and the plot was strong. At first I wasn’t strong enough to go back and finish it. By the time I got my concentration and language back, I’d lost interest. I eventually returned to magazine writing, doing feature interviews with entertainers, authors, politicians, and professional athletes. But when my editor quit, I left with her. I wasn’t willing to put up with the unsteady ego of a new broom. And I don’t miss it. I love the freedom to be able to travel whenever we want. I love the freedom to be able to write an essay, a blog, a poem, or a short story without feeling I have to have it published to prove myself. I want to experience life not to only write about it. I no longer think I have an endless stream of days, so each one is more precious than before.

If I could, would I change that moment and not go out on the deck? Part of me says yes—I have certain health problems that I know were brought on by the trauma of the disease and the fever, and I’d certainly like my full head of hair back! But the experience is part of the fabric of my life. I have learned so much from it. Besides, I got to balance for a while on the greatest equatorial line. I got a peek into eternity.



Cyndy Muscatel (Need Bio)

Interview with Annie Penfield

Annie Penfield

Jennifer McGuiggan: We met at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the summer of 2009. As we progressed from strangers in a writing workshop to lunchtime buddies to friends, it became apparent that you were someone I wanted in my life both as a confidant and as a writing colleague. Your generosity of spirit, commitment to authenticity, and love of the written word is evident both on and off the page. I read an earlier version of “The Cocktail Glass,” and I know that it went through several iterations as you revised and reimagined the essay’s structure and content. Can you trace that evolution for us?

Annie Penfield: There are two ways the structure of this essay changed. Initially, “The Cocktail Glass” was part of a triptych that involved the arc of addiction and recovery and rebirth. However, while I was waiting on the rebirth, my husband relapsed. So instead of the “happily every after” I planned to write, I wrote a new section (“The Stone”) about that stumbling. Now no longer a tidy triptych, this essay formed a link in a series of essays.

Second, “The Cocktail Glass” went through its own journey. Encouraged by the editor at r.kv.r.y, I revised it as a flash essay. A great exercise in compression. The essay benefited from a quicker pace, and as a shorter essay it was a better fit in the larger spectrum of linked essays. Just as the marriage gifts in my life were revised to suit the present climate of my marriage, from promise to sobriety, so too did these essays transform to the life I was living, a longer journey, not striving to some kind of happily ever after, but building trust and joy each day.


JM: You’ve published several essays about your family’s experience with alcoholism, but I know that neither you nor your writing are solely defined by this one issue. What other themes and topics are you exploring in your work?

AP: To write of our struggle with addiction helped dispel the shame, and allowed me to work out my anger, and understand myself in each new place as I continued to chart my journey through recovery. The action of dissecting various scenes of my own life has given me courage to tackle difficult subjects with my children. Alcoholism was a destructive force, but to write only of that is to continue to allow it to rule me.

Whatever question I am wrestling with at the moment is the material on the page. I wrote several essays about the unexpected death of a horse that created a crisis of faith: what happens when our safe haven no longer protects us from heartbreak and becomes the source of our grief? I have a nonfiction narrative manuscript about my time living on a sheep station in Australia, a coming of age story about living in rural isolation, chasing sheep from horseback, and challenging the parameters of my upbringing. I am working on an essay about biking and riding in Argentina, and it is probing the question of what it takes to let go: of growing-up children, and of a growing business. I recently finished an essay called “Flight” about witnessing the death of my aunt and considering the choices we make and how we survive our own choices. A recent trip skiing (mostly uphill) in the Alps has me reconsidering the pace of my day. A common thread that runs through these stories is a search for belonging and considering what is our emotional inheritance. “Moving forward” seems to come up a lot in all my essays: my personal growth and how I evolve family traits.


JM: Do you have any writing-related quirks or pet peeves?

AP: My grammar is very bad—and I feel badly about that. I can’t grasp some basic rules and I commit the same errors repeatedly. I rely heavily on friends for editorial help and feedback.

I have a hard time with “you” narrators because I debate them and resent being told what to do. However, I loved Lit and Mary Karr’s powerful opening with the open letter to her son. The “you” was defined immediately and the intimacy and plea of the piece was very relatable.

The Cocktail Glass

JM: We’re both lovers of great sentences. What are a few of your favorites?

AP: I underline a sentence for its beauty, or for its power. Simple sentences made profound by all that has come before. I love to experience the power of words that have been layered with meanings established over the course of the piece. I love a sentence that is a tipping point into discovery. And when language has been used in a unique way that has been earned by the particular tone of the writer. And of course, I like to consider the decisions of sentence length. So many reasons a sentence stops me in my read: the power, the language, the description, the discovery. Here are some of my recent finds:

Blood, Bones, and Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton
Hamilton is a chef who left home at sixteen. She writes: “I loved folding myself into Michele’s family and loved how much time they could all spend together it seemed, without running out of conversation.”

Heart Earth, Ivan Doig
Ivan Doig and his use of syntax and his words flavored by his landscape: “Heart and Earth don’t have much membrane between them.”

“Slamjam it all into herself at once and what an avalanche everyone else’s circumstances make.”

“The sheep are full of run this morning.”

“She can blurt this out and yet not have it scald out as complaint or blame or pain or plea…”

H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald
On being broken by grief: “My legs broke, buckled, and I was sitting on the carpet, phone pressed against my right ear listening to my mother and staring at that little ball of reindeer moss on the bookshelf, impossibly light, a buoyant tangle of hard grey stems with sharp, dusty tips and quiet spaces that were air in between them and Mum was saying there was nothing they could do at the hospital, it was his heart, I think, nothing could be done, you don’t have to come back tonight, don’t come back, it’s a long way, and it’s late, and it’s such a long drive and you don’t need to come back— and of course this was nonsense; neither of us knew what the hell could or should be done or what this was except both of us and my brother, too, all of us were clinging to a world already gone.”

On training a hawk: “I was training the hawk to make it all disappear.”

Leaving Before the Rains Come, Alexandra Fuller
“They tended to wear their socks with sandals and outsized safari hats, and they stood with legs akimbo, as if they needed a little more real estate than the rest of us just to stay upright.”


JM: You and I have talked a lot about the struggle to establish consistent writing rhythms. What’s working the best for you these days?

AP: I have three children and several horses (and a donkey). I own a business, a tack shop in Vermont. They can feel like competing interests, but all the pieces enrich each other. Writing helps me see those intersections. With such fragments comprising a day, it’s rotating priorities, and often writing is sacrificed. Recently I have been able to pare down work, through creating a stronger team at work. And I have reconsidered my pace: what is the urgency? A slower pace doesn’t mean I have stalled. I am still moving forward in my writing practice. Trust the process and keep writing, keep writing. Protect the time and know that reading is critical to writing, as is quiet time—on a horse or in a car or in my garden. It can take time to transition and create a stable base for change. I have committed time each week, and I play around with the different hours in the day best suited to write. I make commitments to writing partners to submit on a monthly basis.



Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan is a writer, editor, and teacher based in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her works has appeared or is forthcoming in New World WritingConnotation PressNuméro Cinq, Flycatcher, The Manifest Station, The Collapsar, and on the websites of Prairie Schooner and Brevity. She was a finalist for Prime Number Magazine’s creative nonfiction contest and was nominated for Best of the Net. Jenna is at work on a book of essays exploring the polarities of longing and belonging, from where we live to what we believe. Visit her in The Word Cellar and The Word Cellar Writers Guild, an online community for writers.


An Interview with Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Sarah Fawn Montgomery1

SJ Sindu: Your poem, “The Talking Cure,” is dedicated to Bertha Pappenheim, one of Josef Breuer’s patients who was diagnosed with hysteria. Although she is better known by Breuer’s pseudonym for her, Anna O., Bertha Pappenheim was an accomplished feminist and activist in her own right. What drew you to her story? Why did you choose to write about her?

Sarah Fawn Montgomery: Bertha Pappenheim was a woman with tremendous accomplishments—writer, translator, social worker, feminist, activist, founder of the League of Jewish Women—yet she is remembered for her role in a male discovery and for the ways in which she deviated from traditional female roles. Much like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who is often remembered as the madwoman who narrates the “Yellow Wallpaper,” despite her many accomplishments, Bertha Pappenheim’s diagnosis and treatment—brief in comparison to her rich professional life—are recorded in textbooks and thus what captures our cultural imagination.

I was drawn to her story because she is said to be the original psychoanalysis patient, cured because of the treatment’s success, but in fact she rejected psychoanalysis and most of her time spent in therapy. She was largely mischaracterized in early medical texts that heralded her physicians as heroes and brandished wild rumors about her psychosis and personality. Historians have since discovered many discrepancies between Bertha’s life and the way she is characterized in these texts, and it was most likely Bertha’s activism and her later resistance to the gender roles she found so confining as a young woman that allowed for her improvement. Writing about her was an act of discovery, of re-visioning and recasting her in history.


SJS: This poem points the finger at historians and researchers for taking part in the erasing of her own agency in her treatment. Why is this project important to you? To the poem?

SFM: Given the fact that many Victorian women were diagnosed with hysteria when the root cause of women’s unhappiness was most likely their limited social and political power, it is perhaps not surprising that Bertha became overshadowed by her illness, her symptoms and “strange” behavior, with physicians looking towards cure rather than cause, heralding their abilities rather than the patient’s individuality. In many aspects Bertha as woman became secondary to Bertha as patient, Bertha as case study. This happens frequently in medicine, doctors spending more time with a patient’s chart than with a patient, inquiring into symptoms and treatments rather than the many things that make a patient an individual. For patients, the details of their lives, the intricacies of their identities feel largely ignored.

This silencing of patient perspective by rewriting patient narratives into medically sanctioned language is what strikes me as important, because it is not exclusively an act of translation and healing—it is also an act of erasure. This is especially true when it comes to those with mental illnesses, those who experience reality and the world very differently than what has been deemed “sane” or “safe.” There is a long history of treatments for the mentally ill that seek to silence and erase—things like the Rest Cure that silenced women by way of inaction, emetics to induce vomiting, chains and cells to limit mobility, the lobotomies many assume we’ve moved past, but were replaced by chemicals like chlorpromazine (the first antipsychotic) that was actually heralded as “chemical lobotomy.” It’s important to examine this history, and seeking out these stories is an act of reclamation in many ways, a kind of activism that is crucial to help spread knowledge about neurodiversity.

Golden Guavas (Talking Cure)

SJS: Why the poem? Why not short story or essay? What does the poetic form allow for, aesthetically and in terms of craft, that other forms may not? And why the poem specifically for Bertha’s story?

SFM: There is power in true stories, in finding connection with other people who may be living life with depression or anxiety, with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. There is also something incredibly jarring about learning the ways we’ve treated—and continue to treat—the mentally ill. True stores require we confront our social attitudes towards the mentally ill and our medical practices, which is precisely why I am so drawn to them for poems and nonfiction.

In terms of craft, poems allow for a creation of mythos through compression, juxtaposition, and lyricism. The poem asks readers to challenge traditional texts—history books, medical literature—and confront the mythology we have created abound psychoanalysis, psychopharmacology, and other treatments. The poetic form offers a new text, an optional narrative that places Bertha—patients, really—at the center, rather than her diagnosis, her treatment, her physicians.


SJS: This poem seems to be part of your larger project of writing about the psychiatric treatment of women by the medical and pharmaceutical industries. Your two recent poems, “After Electric” and “After Electric II,” which appeared in Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine, are about electrotherapy. Your memoir-in-progress, We’re All Mad Here: An American Pharma-memoir, is about your own experience with what you term neuromythology and the psychopharmacological industry. Can you tell us a little more about this project and why you think this subject is important to write about?

SFM: Examining the gendered nature of madness and questioning the rhetoric surrounding mental illness, patients, and treatment is what drives these projects. Understanding this largely gendered history is crucial—especially when considering the fact that contemporary pharmaceuticals for mental illnesses are prescribed at an alarming rate of 2:1 for women compared to men. I’m particularly interested in the language of psychopharmacology and the ways social construction impacts increasing rates of mental illness. I hope to reframe narratives of mental illness in order to represent a more nuanced understanding of the illness experience and medical industry, and provide medical information about madness and cure along with a thoughtful understanding of what it means to live with mental illness.

We’re All Mad Here draws from work in creative writing, women’s and gender studies, and illness and disability studies, and uses my personal experience with mental illness to interrogate  the rhetoric of mental illness treatments and challenge contemporary narratives surrounding mental illness. While chronicling my experience with diagnosis and treatments, I also examine America’s history of mental illness treatments—Quaker moral facilities to asylums, the Rest Cure to Prozac—arguing that the shift from physical and talk therapies to current chemical treatments has transformed madness from a temporary ailment to a chronic condition in our cultural imagination. I also investigate the historical construction of mental illness as a female malady to expose the ways current cultural attitudes towards women and their bodies coerces and controls madness. I study the memoirs, interviews, and medical records of other patients alongside my own experience, in order to question why our stories differ from the narratives we so often see portrayed in mass media, and why mental illness continues to increase in the United States despite so many “cures.”

As I navigated the mental health system the stigma and shame associated with my diagnosis and the lack of compassion and communication by those in the medical profession made me question nearly everything about myself—something many patients experience. My work seeks to provide a sense of community and legacy for those of us struggling with mental illness, as well as issuing a public warning about the danger of diagnosis and the complex and constructed definition of sanity.


SJS: What was your research process like in regards to your memoir, and smaller projects like this poem? What is something you learned in your research that blew your mind?

SFM: I am most interested in the ways we talk about mental illness and how this in turn impacts patients, the care they receive, and what we believe to be true about the illnesses themselves, so research is key. It’s not enough to tell my story—I need to connect it to the stories of others living with mental illnesses, to the history of care in this country, to current events and the ways mass media reports on those with mental illnesses. So the research involved reading lots of personal accounts like Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, Lauren Slater’s Prozac Diary, Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon, William Styron’s Darkness Visible, and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, and examining their attitudes towards physicians and prescriptions, their discussions of mental illness as an inherent part of personhood or a separate entity, and moments where their narratives resisted the contemporary narratives about mental illness with which we are familiar.

I also read lots of books about the history of mental illness treatments like Barbara Ehrenreich’s and Deirdre English’s Complaints and Disorders, which examines the medical treatment of Victorian women, Herb Kutchins’ and Stuart Kirk’s Making Us Crazy, which traces the history of the ever-expanding DSM, and Ethan Watters’ Crazy Like Us, which explores how globalization is spreading mental illness. And Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic and Mad in America provided all sorts of information that gave me pause, like the fact that chlorpromazine is actually neurotoxic by design, developed to numb the nervous system and derived from a chemical often used in agricultural insecticides. I was also staggered by the fact that lobotomies were practiced on young children to curb uncontrolled imaginations, or the large number of mentally ill patients sterilized without their permission. There’s so much we aren’t aware of concerning the history of various drugs, their side effects, and their prescribing patterns when we watch commercials on TV or see the portrayal of the mentally ill in mass media.


SJS: Is the memoir something you’re actively working on? What phase of the writing process is it in? When can we get excited about reading it?

SFM: The book is completed and under review with presses right now, so I hope it will be out in the world soon. There’s always the urge to revise, however, the more I learn from other scholars, activists, and neurodiverse folks. Plus, pop culture is ripe with current events—the upcoming election, recent films that portray disability in problematic ways, new medications hitting the market each day—that speak to the issues I raise in the book and continue the conversation.



Sarah Fawn Montgomery holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she teaches and works as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor. She is the author of Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (both from Finishing Line Press). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Confrontation, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, Georgetown Review, The Los Angeles Review, Natural Bridge, Nimrod, North Dakota Quarterly, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, Southeast Review, Terrain, Zone 3 and others.

SJ Sindu’s debut novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, is forthcoming in 2017 from Soho Press. She has received scholarships from the Lambda Literary Retreat, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference. Her creative writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, The Normal School, The Los Angeles Review of Books, apt, Vinyl Poetry, PRISM International, VIDA, rkvry quarterly, and elsewhere.


A Writer’s Drawer by Jamie Ritchie Watson

Jamie Watson

I can’t remember when or where I first heard the advice that a writer should place her work in a drawer for a period of time before taking a second look at it, nor exactly how long that drawer time should be, but clearly, it’s a good idea to give yourself some time and space from any creative work when possible.

For my essay “Baby, do you pay here?” the time from note taking to finished piece was longer than thirty-five years. The experience that was the impetus for this writing took place about two years before my first son was born and he celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday this month. I wrote the original draft nearly twenty years ago and it remained in a drawer ripening until late last year. It is little wonder it did not rot, but recently, in an effort to downsize, I was purging files, shredding documents when I rediscovered this manuscript. After rereading it, I thought it might be worthy of publication.

Don’t misunderstand. I never really forgot it. The individuals who inspired the work were never far away; their faces – their voices could be easily summoned, and as I age, the lessons learned in a geriatric-psychiatric facility come into clear view. While I am reaching back to recall, the distance between sympathy and empathy is shorter and the image is sharper.

Even as young person, I recognized the life altering opportunity I had in working with the patients in the manor. These were extraordinary people in a heightened environment where the stakes were high. Voices were louder, movements were frenetic, smells were pungent, emotions were unrestrained, and the doors were locked. Confusion was the common denominator on a regular basis, but in spite of that confusion, I made critical connections with people who had a significant impact on my life.

Trained as an actor, I was no stranger to the heightened experience of the theatre and I possess a more than healthy dose of empathy. I understand what Thornton Wilder’s Emily means in his play, Our Town, when she returns from death to ask, “Do any human beings realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” The character of the Stage Manager responds, “Saints and poets, maybe.” I am neither, but I understand the importance of capturing an experience to share in order to move an audience from one emotional place to another. I could not deny my impulse to write. Though theatre is my formal training, I am no playwright. Initially, I tried writing poems, but they were not good, so twenty years ago, in an effort to get something on paper, I wrote a thirty-plus-page account. Not long after writing it, I read it to my husband and two sons. My older son, a high school student at the time, commented that there was a lot of description and that not much happened. I think he was looking for a plot. He had a point. With that critique duly noted, I placed the document in a drawer.

I rediscovered the document six months ago. The thirty-five year old son who had offered the initial advice is now an anthropology professor whose writing is exquisite. His younger brother who also listened to the reading of the first draft is a singer-songwriter and brewer – an artist.

So, I took the piece from the drawer, read it as though it had been written by someone else, and later that day told my husband, a professor of theatre and a writer, that I thought it could be worthy of publication in some form. He read it, agreed, and helped me to think about and edit it from its original length and scope. I am grateful to him for his support and encouragement and to our sons for listening to all their mother’s stories. I am pleased that “Baby, do you pay here?” lives outside the drawer to honor the lives of the individuals who inspired me to write about them.


In Search of the Right Word

Teresa Burns Murphycropped

In Search of the Right Word:
A Meditation on the Writing (and Rewriting) Life
by Teresa Burns Murphy

I spent a lot of time in graduate school sitting in the hallway outside my advisor’s office. I’d fidget. I’d fret. I’d check and recheck the time, waiting for the precise moment of my appointment to roll around. Then I would tap tentatively on his office door.

“Come in,” he’d say in a voice that didn’t sound all that welcoming.

As I talked to him about my latest project, he’d remove his glasses and rub his forehead, grimacing as if he were in pain. Frequently, before I even finished speaking, he’d regard me with an icy stare and tell me how I’d gotten pretty much everything wrong. His comments were usually accurate, but his delivery left a lot to be desired.

Often, after these sessions were over, I’d meet with a friend to discuss the advisor’s remarks. This man was also her advisor, and we found these postmortems to be beneficial. Following one particularly brutal session, my friend listened patiently to my tirade.

When I finished, she gave me a sympathetic look and said, “I’m sorry he dismissed you.”

In that moment, I envisioned a judge pounding a gavel and shouting at an earnest petitioner, “Case dismissed!” I imagined a boss slapping a pink slip into the open palm of an employee who was expecting a paycheck and yelling, “You’re dismissed!” I heard a teacher, exasperated by a group of students’ lack of comprehension, bellow, “Class dismissed!”

Most importantly, I felt validated. I had known that my advisor could be curt with his criticism, but to be dismissed evoked so much more. I had been booted, discharged, given the ax, and ushered out. And then I began to think of my own tendency to be dismissive and wondered who had felt dismissed when interacting with me. I was determined not to be dismissive or dismissed.

The impact of my friend’s word choice is precisely what propels writers to tear into their first drafts as well as many subsequent drafts, sometimes crossing out and replacing a single word dozens of times. Why do we put ourselves through such a painstaking process? The right word can make us feel heard. The right word can spark reflection. The right word can unlock the knowledge that is inside of us, helping us recover feelings we thought had been lost. So, we keep listening, we keep reading, and we keep writing (and rewriting) in an attempt to find those elusive right words – the ones that will resonate with readers.

(Read Teresa’s wonderful essay Peeling Away the Mask.)



Interview with Patty Somlo

Patti Somlo

Mary Akers: Hi, Patty! Thank you for agreeing to speak with me today about your emotional short story “Time to Go Home.” Warrior is a great character. And I find myself wondering if there was any specific inspiration for him. Do you have a “Warrior” in your life?

Patty Somlo: The character, Warrior, was actually inspired by a Native American man I sat behind on the bus one day, riding from my home in Southeast Portland, Oregon, to downtown. As in most of my writing, though, details of my own life slipped into the character and the story. My father was a career Air Force officer and a veteran of the Vietnam War. I also grew up in an alcoholic family. Many years ago, I worked on a documentary film entitled, Warpath Against the Devil, about Native American Pentecostal ministers, and we filmed several camp meetings on the Navajo and Apache reservations. I met many “Warriors” there who had turned to Christianity for recovery.


MA: One of the things I liked most about your story was the changes of scenery that divide the story into a series of vignettes. This strikes me as being very much the way memory works over time. Was that your intent in structuring this story?

PS: Yes, it was. As someone who has spent time in therapy, I understand how much the past unconsciously seeps into the present, affecting who we are. Especially for a character like Warrior, who for many years tried to drink away his demons and has lately begun to confront them, the past and present are inextricably linked.


MA: Many editors shy away from characters that express emotion in stories. But I worry sometimes that when instructors and/or editors equate emotion with melodrama they end up scaring writers away from exploring the deeper emotional lives of their characters. Honestly, I feel like we’re all overflowing with emotion all the time–some of us just hide it better than others. Did you ever worry about letting Warrior have his good cry at the end?

PS: I tried to make sure earlier in the story that what Warrior had experienced made it possible for him to “believably” sob at the end, and was the right thing for him to do. In some popular fiction and movies, emotional endings sometimes feel fabricated, because the emotion hasn’t been earned. Characters need to develop emotionally and then an ending suggests itself. I always have to fight against some pat ending, tying everything up too neatly and it seems false.

Time to Go Home

MA: When I choose an illustration for each piece, I sometimes find that the authors make connections to the artwork in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated. How did you feel about the image that Lori McNamara gave us to illustrate your story?

PS: I loved the painting for a number of reasons and thought it fit the story. “Home” is an important theme of my story and the image spoke of home. I also felt that the painting’s brush strokes, being more impressionistic than realistic, captured a quality of the story. And, of course, it is just a beautiful image with lovely colors that makes you want to look at it a long time.


MA: What have you read recently that knocked your socks off, or that you’d like to recommend others read?

PS: I would have to say the novel, The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It’s young people from India who go to Europe for better opportunities. It had everything I like in a novel. I was pulled in almost from the first page. The story was compelling. The characters were well-developed. And it was dealing with something important going on in the world right now. Especially in this time when we have a huge refugee crisis in Europe, the book really gave me insight to the lives of people who, for economic or other reasons, have to leave their home countries and try to make it in the West.


MA: And finally, because we are a recovery themed journal, what does “recovery” mean to you?

PS: I think of recovery as both going backward and moving forward. To recover, one must go back and find what was lost, usually the person that was there, before abuse, addiction, illness or grief happened. Then, you can move forward, building on that, to create a new person you weren’t capable of being before. As the word suggests, recovery is active and ongoing, not something that happens in a short period of time, but a way of living.



Interview with Wendi Berry

Wendi Berry, photographed at Visual Arts Center of Richmond Tuesday evening, March 15, 2016. (Skip Rowland)

Virginia Pye: What possessed you to write “Be Still, My Growling Stomach,” a fantasy that builds on ancient mythical tales?

Wendi Berry: I didn’t set out to write fantasy. I was in my fourth semester in Queens University low res MFA program, working on a novel and stories, and I kept getting feedback that my male characters all seemed “pitiful.” My peers were asking, why so pitiful and why do the female protagonists see them that way? I was asking myself that question, when this story leapt out. In Steve Rinehart’s workshop, they said it was allegorical.


VP: What were you reading when you got the idea for this story?

WB: I was reading Jim Shepard’s short story collection, Love and Hydrogen, including “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and wanted to try my hand at inhabiting a monster. A monster, I guess, who found men trifling. Out came this dragon. The most fun I had was creating the dragon’s lair and describing the flowers and plants. I needed a name for a dragon and when I read online that Jormungand was a great beast in Norse mythology, I thought that’ll work, and shortened it to Jormu.


VP: Your story starts with a great opening line: I ate a man for breakfast. When you wrote that did you know how the story would unfold?

WB: I knew I wanted a strong voice. Looking back, it felt as if I were channeling Mae West. She’s quoted online as saying: “All discarded lovers should be given a second chance, but with somebody else.” Through an encounter with Rodney (sympathetic because he had just lost his wife and was grieving), there was an opportunity to view how Jormu saw this one. Did she hold Rodney in contempt? Could she give him his second chance? Writing several drafts, I discovered that not only Jormu, but her mother, too, had been used and abandoned by men, so the disappointment had been handed down and was deep.

red hibiscus

VP: I gather you have a novel you’ve completed and hope to sell soon. Can you tell us about it? I’m curious to know if it relates to this story–even thematically?

WB: The Apple in the Jar concerns a reclusive woman named Leash (née Lisa) hiding away in Chapel Hill for 17 years and pondering what the local shaman meant when he said “to put the apple in the jar,” when she asked about relationships. Leash gets called back to Richmond, Virginia for a funeral and is thrust back into friendships she thought were long since over. Thematically, the dragon story relates in the sense that she’s disappointed in her relationships with men, but unlike Jormu, Leash emerges from her cave and breaks free of some old expectations.


VP: What are you working on now and what are you reading?

WB: A collection of stories on the dignity of loneliness. This includes couples who are lonely. The title story is “Eating Lunch in Cars.”

Recently, I finished reading Rick Bragg’s memoir, All Over but the Shoutin.’ I really admire his use of concrete detail (such as the mother’s flip flops and cut off dungarees), to tell such a heart-rending story of family poverty. This past week, I finished Pamela Erens’ debut novel The Understory and was enthralled by the first person narration of being evicted in New York. Two years ago, I had the great fortune to attend Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and I enjoy supporting the writers I met there. Pamela was one of them. Another novel that I can’t stop thinking about is Mona Simpson’s Anywhere but Here because of the mother/daughter relationship and the tenuous sense of home and place.


VP: You received your MFA from Queens University. Was that a good experience for you, and do you recommend long distance writing programs?

WB: Through the years, I had applied to full residency programs, and it wasn’t happening. The clock was ticking, and I knew there were gaps and things I wasn’t getting. I was publishing, but wanted to take my writing to the next level. Queens’ critiquing process helped me see more clearly the mechanics of storytelling and voice and how to flesh out characters. Seeing how other stories got built gave me patience with my own process. I read a lot of good books and met other writers during the residencies. Since graduating, the support has been tremendous. Queens offers not one but two alumni programs, so I continue to meet writers, and there’s a chance to promote my work. A bonus was I got to study with Elizabeth Strout who assigned me to re-write chapters from multiple viewpoints. I’ll never forget, during a spring residency, many of my peers were out trying the local cafes–I was in my dorm room discovering what was driving my most trying character. It was awesome!



Virginia Pye’s second novel, DREAMS OF THE RED PHOENIX, was called “Riveting,” by Library Journal and “Superb historical fiction!” by the Historical Fiction Review. Her first novel, RIVER OF DUST, was an Indie Next Pick and a 2014 Finalist of the Library of Virginia Award in Fiction. Her award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and her essays can be found in The New York Times Opinionator, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Huffington Post and elsewhere. Please visit her at:


Interview with Tom Sheehan

Tom Sheehan

Diane Buccheri: A statement up front before we start: Tom, you keep alive everything that passes in front of, around, and in you, like flowers that never die. You pick each flower and write a story or a poem, recovering the details barely imaginable in daily life. I know you grew up with your paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather feeding your literary hungers and tastes, fighting for your palate. How do you tell younger writers to depend on such memories rather than ditching them like today’s plastic wrapping. Because you write in many voices, genres, do you know or recognize what makes a new day a poetry day or a prose day for you? Are there tell-tale signs saying where your energy is going, in what direction, for what cause?

Tom Sheehan: When I go down inside myself, searching or alerted to some knowledge, possession, kinship with an idea, a moment, it’s all of me being searched and telling me where I’m going, what I want to say. There are times when certain words leap to be said again, knock themselves loose from tissue holding them in place, to be used, to come out of their cover for a further idea, a metaphor, a stick to measure by. Such words are not created by me, but are borrowed for this occasion, this particular use … they’ve been around for a long time on their own, waiting to be picked up again by passersby, like me, like others before me. When a poem comes out of it, it’s hot light, lightning, illumination on the leap.

Prose takes another road and is often catch-as-catch can, simple as looking out the window from my chair where I can see the river (high tide, low tide, mid tide), the road, the wide cast of birds in the skies (pigeons, ducks and geese, cardinals, hawks, turkey vultures, yesterday an enormous black-winged eagle supposedly mastering his sky and being chased by a hawk a fifth of his size), the traffic, a chunk of history from the First Iron Works in America where I worked on the reconstruction 64-68 years ago, a site once operational from 1632-1638, and reconstructed and dedicated as a National Park, and my home being built 100 years after the initial operation. I am so travelled back in time, thrust into situations, exposed to characters who had a place in this founding … who hang around for the likes of me all these years later. Objects come at me, those past characters in their plights and situations demanding answers or resolutions, and I am impelled to complete the reconstruction of the whole site. I swear I hear the Scottish slave workers talking about home after their importation for laboring with iron ore, turning the world over on its side, ballooning great industries.


Diane: You get under the skin, into the hearts and minds and senses of each of your “characters” who are indeed real people or become real by your writing. Your sensitivity is astounding, even to me, after reading and publishing your work for over 10 years. How much is taken directly from real life?

Tom: Every word, every poem, every lie, every story, is taken from something, some place, someone I have encountered.

Not Yet an Angel

Diane: Do you ever know a piece or poem is done?

Tom: I fear there is always an imperfection that can be found, can be fixed. It’s nice to think that in 50 years, or whatever, someone will read a piece of mine and say, :”What he meant here is…” Perfection is search.


Diane: In your reading, what things stay with you?

Tom: Where words leaped at me, the explosions of the language, where a highlighter might go crazy on a page: Thomas Wolfe’s “O waste of lost, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this weary, unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door.”; Melville’s “Call me Ishmael”; McMurtry on horseback; a poem I’ve recited a thousand times … John F. Nims’ “Shot Down at Night”; hearing W.B. Yeats’ recording of “Lake Isle of Innisfree“; introducing Seamus Heaney to a standing crowd at St. Ignatius Church, Boston College, part of the James Joyce celebration, March 2, 1982.; a classic lead sports page paragraph of a Boston Globe sports report in October of 1941 by Fred Foye: Harrington-Shipulski, Shipulski-Harrington. Shipularington Harringpulskiton :The names Mike Harrington and Eddie Shipulski became a dizzying maelstrom of air bombs, bucks and touchdowns, and when the nose drops were administered here this drear day undefeated Melrose awoke to find itself defeated with Saugus High School, otherwise known as The Shipulski-Harrington Athletic Club, leaving town with a 13-0 victory.(I was in love with the language and the sport.)

And my father saying, early in the games, at the edge of my first failure, marked by the touch of his hand on my shoulder, You come into life with two gifts, love and energy, and baseball and football and hockey are going to take both of them for all you’ve got. I think his heart remembered a loss, his knees their pain. When they took his leg off, the pain did not leave him.


Diane: How often do you participate in readings?

Tom: At 88, only the regular venues over the years; Out Loud Open Mike at Beebe Estates in Melrose (for 15 years perhaps) with Melissa Wattenberg and Rick Amonte, and the Jellicle Literary Guild in Melrose, MA with Raymond Soulard, editor of The Cenacle.


Diane: Do you remember your first reading, the last?

Tom: The two go together, strange as it seems: On Wednesday night, April 27, 2016, I had a revelation as I sat in the audience, waiting for my turn in a reading at Out-Loud Open Mike at the Beebe Estates in Melrose. Out of nowhere I suddenly remembered my first public reading 80 years earlier in Marleah Graves’ 2nd grade classroom of the Cliftondale School in Saugus, MA. I have lived here in Saugus since 1936, 80 years of my lifetime. We second graders sat on little green chairs in a circle in front of the classroom and I had written a piece on two pages of math paper about the freight train logos that passed daily through a local train crossing, or came out of my rabid reading about “elsewhere,” such as The Route of the Phoebe Snow, The Lackawanna Valley, The Boston & Maine, The Nickel Plate Road, The Hiawatha Line, Aroostook Valley, Bangor & Aroostook, Chesapeake & Ohio, etc. The names, the geography of them, fascinated me and my quest for learning more. When I finished my piece the girl beside me jumped up and kissed me on the cheek. Shortly after my son Jamie was born, about 40 years later, my wife Beth and I went to a plush restaurant where we first had to stand in line and wait for seating, and when my eyes met the eyes of the hostess, she said, loudly, “The Sheehan party, please.” And it was the same girl who kissed my cheek on that long-ago day, and we were seated right away. (Note: the school building is now named in honor of the teacher, the MEG Building, and serves as a civic center.)



Diane Buccheri is the founder and publisher of the former OCEAN Magazine. OCEAN led her into photography. Words and images fill her days.


Interview with Todd Follett

Todd Follett

Sage Curtis: Your piece, Placental Insufficiency, starts with an epigraph, which sets a haunting tone for the reader and puts them in a place of darkness and/or silence. How do you see the epigraph’s relationship working within the poem, and your work on the whole?

Todd Follett: At the time I wrote this poem, I was very interested in Dante’s Inferno, particularly this early passage about the sun going silent. It always struck me as a wonderfully haunting image that I was waiting to use. I was also reading a bit of David Wojahn at the time. The poems of his that were most striking to me dealt with an unborn child being lost and the complete devastation which that absence can have, the vacuity it leaves on people’s lives going forward. It resonated with me.

I felt the combination of these ideas was compelling, the land of the silent sun and the life unrealized, and I ended up writing something that in ways echoed the Christian story of the Harrowing of Hell, where Christ descended into the underworld to free the pagans and children who’d been condemned. I even called the first draft of this poem “The Harrowing”.
I think the epigraph represents the sort of dark, slightly romantic vision which I try to cultivate in my work.


SC: It looks like you’ve threaded a few different influences through this one poem. I know this to be a common practice through your work. How does this “braiding” inspire you and help to create your unique images and language choices?

TF: I’ve always connected with braided writing and poems that rely on metaphor and analogy. I think it’s a great way of exploring the emotional or existential intangibles that connect two somehow analogous moments without ever directly focusing on them. Also, for as long as I can remember, I’ve had a knack for explaining something by using a different moment or image, and I enjoyed making things clear that way. Perhaps this was because, growing up, I often felt like I didn’t understand things the conventional way, the way most people understood them. Analogies and metaphors helped me realize there are many ways to approach an idea. It’s certainly a reason why I’m such a big fan of Larry Levis – I view him as a master of that braiding, metaphor-driven style.

For the last twenty years, as I’ve dived deeper and deeper into poetry, the more I see life as a series of moments that echo and resound within each other, almost like a patchwork of meaning. For me, it’s a rewarding way to learn to see the world. As an example, the other night I was going on a walk, feeling a bit stressed out and indecisive, and I saw the moon looking exactly half-full – I thought, “even the moon is unsure what to do”. It’s a weird synergy like that which can drive me to write a poem, or at least start one. Whether I write about the experience or not, though, I tend to take a real comfort in those connections.


SC: So poetry is always happening in your brain, essentially. Besides being inspired by the world’s strangeness, what else gets you motivated to write?

TF: When I feel a negative emotion that’s hard to contain, that’s a time when I want to write. Over the years, people have commented on how dark my writing is, but it always just felt natural to want to get the negative things out on paper and connect with others over the experience. I’ve always thought of it as an exorcism, really. I don’t tend to write about times when I’m happy, because there’s nothing to get out; I want to live in those moments, not vent them.

I’d have to say other writers get me motivated as well, whether we’re at that phase where we’re both trying to get our work published or they’ve been getting published for decades, it always feels like a bit of a relief to be around other poets and their work, as if I can be more myself in those moments.

Reading great poetry books is probably the biggest thing to inspire me, though. It’s hard for me to read Matthew Dickman, Jamaal May, Tracy K. Smith, Frank Stanford, or Larry Levis and not at least jot a few ideas down, even if it’s the tenth time I read it. I feel like some of my best poems are love letters to my favorite poets.



Todd Follett’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry Review, Natural Bridge, The Pedestal Magazine, Flights, and several other publications.

Sage Curtis is finishing her MFA in poetry at University of San Francisco, where she looks for microphones to read into and sometimes (always) find poetry on the streets. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Reed Magazine, Vagabonds Literary Journal, burntdistrict, 34th Parallel, and more.