Interview with Wendy Miles


Gary Short: Your poem “Those Who Once Lived There Return” appears in the “SPIRITS” issue of r.kv.r.y quarterly, and indeed there is a ghostly quality to the poem. I’ve noticed a sense of things and people absent but seemingly present in other of your poems. How would you describe the territory, both literal and metaphorical, that your poems inhabit? Do you think of your poems as haunted? What places do you write from?

Wendy Miles: I think about both concepts—territory and haunting—quite a bit. I’m interested in the reverberation of past events—memories, personal histories—and how objects are imbued with spirit. That’s one thing that draws me. When I talk about “Those Who Once Lived There Return,” another poem of mine called “Float” seems necessary in the conversation because in these two poems I feel enveloped by reverberation—while in a specific landscape. One reason I’m so pleased to have “Those Who Once Lived There Return” published in r.kv.r.y is that “Float” was also accepted, but I got Mary Akers’ e-mail the day after “Float” won the 2014 Patricia Dobler Award. So that poem doesn’t appear here, but it was the breakthrough I needed in order for “Those Who” to exist. When I finished “Float” I was in residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (one of my favorite places). I was in my room for the night, on my little twin bed. I had the last few lines—which contain the word “love”—and I remember deleting the second “love” and then saying to myself, No, this poem is love. And I put the “love” right back in there.

The next day I printed it off and drove it to the post office, which was the postmark deadline. And it won! The marvelous poet Yona Harvey picked it! She said she found in it “delight.” To my mind, she found the love. Not a cliché but the real source that insisted its way into that poem. And for me that poem is also a place, and since its creation the only time I’ve gotten back to that place is with “Those Who.” It feels sort of magical, really, though I risk credibility saying a word like that, don’t I? In any case, Mary was kind enough to create the “Spirits” issue upon acceptance of “Those Who Once Lived There Return.” My initial thought was, These aren’t spirits but ghosts. I told myself, It’s just semantics, Wendy. But maybe not. To me, the word “spirit” connotes something happier. I was spirited away, She shows great spirit, that kind of thing. And ghosts, well, ghosts linger, don’t they? Ghosts drape themselves across furniture in empty rooms. If my poems are haunted, then hopefully they are also haunting. Does one condition create the other? Hopefully.

I often incorporate “true” events into my poems—in ways that reinterpret and shift and resettle the events—in different places, rooms, pastures, abandoned houses, yards, and so on. My mother told me once about a cat being lifted off the ground—carried away—by a hawk. And you can see what happened to that little story in the poem. It got shrouded in light and magic and it settled here. Speaking of light and magic, I just love the accompanying artwork by Dawn Surratt.


GS: You had a discussion on the NPR affiliated show Prosody last year. The interviewer, poet Jan Beatty, talked about leaping language and images as an evocative force in your poems. Could you could talk more about the notion of leaps in your poems?

WM: By recognizing “Float,” Yona Harvey gave me such a gift. By featuring me on Prosody, Jan Beatty gave me a gift as well. These are both wonderful, powerful women and poets—they know the depth and breadth of such recognition and encouragement—especially for women over the age of forty. The interview wasn’t rehearsed, and when Jan mentioned poetic leaps, I thought, Wow. So this is what it means to have paid some dues. For some time I’d been trying to move away from straight narrative into a more associative type of poem, and any gains I’ve made have been long sought and hard won.

About nine years ago I began to think of some poems as already existing—as sort of hovering out there in all their beauty and insistence—with my task being to puzzle them out, to put together scenes, dialogue, bits, moments, memories that I already recognized as “poem-ly” or “poem-ish”—to link them in ways that brought out their best features. Now that I think about it, it’s very visual, each time like making a still life. And it’s intuitive. I try to balance reading other writers and studying craft with my own intuition. I don’t think I’ll ever feel I’ve paid enough in “dues.” I’m not that confident. But the poems are confident. Does that even make sense? Yes. Of course it does.


GS: What are you working on now? You mentioned some self-portraits. Would you talk about that?

WM: The self-portraits. Yes. It seems I’m doing a series of them. I’m not sure how many there will be, and I didn’t set out with a series in mind. The first one sounded fun to try, and the result enticed me so much that I did another and another and so on. They feel like a natural progression from the work I’ve been doing with atmosphere. So I place a woman—or a girl—in a setting. There’s a bit of a Hansel and Gretel echo to me, but safer. The female’s perspective in these poems is at turns playful, curious, lonely, but her sense of “knowing” is always substantial. Portraits are usually as much about the environment surrounding the figure as the figure herself. Anyway, that’s what I’m up to now, and I’ll see where the poems go—where the figures want to dwell. I’ve joked, saying, Who do I think I am—Frieda Kahlo? But we know, don’t we, that if we’re lucky, a figure observed over time discloses some secrets. If we’re even luckier, with each look, that same figure also entices by holding things back.



Gary Short is the author of three poetry collections: Theory of Twilight, Flying Over Sonny Liston (which won the Western States Book Award), and 10 Moons and 13 Horses. He has been a Stegner fellow at Stanford and a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He has received a Pushcart Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Gary teaches fall semesters at the University of Mississippi and has a home in Panajachel, Guatemala.

Interview with Rebecca Spears


Bill Howze: You’ve woven together several evocative themes in your essay “Breath“: memory, family gatherings, cold weather, disease—tuberculosis in particular, its symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, means of contagion, and cultural manifestations, and porches—porches appear more frequently than any other setting. How did these themes present themselves to you?

Rebecca Spears:Breath” didn’t begin intentionally as an essay, nor as a whole story that I could tell in a linear way. I didn’t know what this story was or why the image of my grandfather on the porch at the VA hospital was so important to me. Yet throughout my life, the image would slip into focus, from time to time, in my waking memory.

The process of making “Breath” began with that fragment and other memory fragments that I jotted in notebooks and put into computer files, images that, for a long time, I didn’t know were connected or what they really meant to me—so I suppose the notion of themes wasn’t apparent until much later in the process.

I’d been writing poetry for some time, and I often work with images first, writing down an image that intrigues me, trying to get all its details sketched. I may not do anything with that image ever, or it may sit in my notebook for a while before I use it.

Anyhow, once I realized I was collecting images of cold winters, of the pleasure of the cold, of having one’s breath taken away—both literally, as in disease, and figuratively, as in a stunning winter scene, I was able to start recalling other images of breath and air. That’s when the larger theme of breath began to take shape.

From there I veered toward the way that cold weather can bring people together in a huddle, in closed spaces. And as I continued to work with these images, I thought about “cabin fever,” how the air gets stale, and less oxygenated, how when you step out into a cold landscape, there’s a momentary feel of the air turning crystal and filling your lungs with good, fresh, oxygen.

Then I began collecting images of the coming warmth in spring, and how that meant gathering with friends and family outdoors on our porches. Some of my best memories are of relaxing on porches, sharing the time and space with friends and family. Porches, I realized, are safe places, because they are connected to our shelter, and yet from a porch, we can look out at the world.


BH: You introduce the term “exsanguination,” the way “blood retreats from the vulnerable parts of the body, most noticeably the nose,” to describe “the air on cold days and the experience of inhaling it.” In addition to the sensation, the term also describes a movement that recurs in your essay in situations of vulnerability: the family moves away from the ice- rimed windows, toward the oven and the kitchen table; you retreat from contact with the “snot-boys” possibly carried by your students; waiting for the results of a TB test, your anxiety manifests itself as a tightness in your chest, a sort of nervous exsanguination. What other responses to vulnerabilities might haunt this piece?

RS: I first experienced winters that could kill a person when I moved to the Midwest with my husband, so that he could finish an undergraduate degree and then attend medical school. We moved from Texas with one child, and along the way, we had two more children. Over the decade that we lived in Illinois and Iowa, I realized how vulnerable a family is to the vagaries of fortune and well-being.

One vivid memory I have is of taking our kids to the park on a wintry day. The hills were overlaid with snow, and we sledded for an hour or two, having a fun romp. Within a week, both kids had developed pneumonia, an illness that I’d never thought much about. At the time, I believed that our afternoon in the park might have been to blame. Luckily, with antibiotics, the kids recovered. Yet my son, who was asthmatic, took longer to get well, and the cold continued to aggravate his asthma terribly all that winter. (By the way, I didn’t realize until much later that our sledding hadn’t caused the pneumonia. It is a bacterial infection, and that is why it can be treated with antibiotics).

The second year in the Midwest, everyone in the family (except me) came down with a terrible flu, and I played nurse to all of them for a couple of weeks. At one point, I thought my husband was going to die, really. This was possibly the first time I realized how precious life is and how it might be taken away in an instant. We are indeed vulnerable creatures. So I think this essay tries to put into perspective how germs (or “the snot-boys”) can change our lives in monumental ways.

And the epic cold that I first experienced in the Midwest could and did kill people every year we lived there; people would get stranded in blizzards and perish; people would fall on icy sidewalks and break their bones. The power could go out and someone might freeze to death in his own home. So perhaps the larger vulnerability that haunts this essay is our fragility, our mortality.


BH: How did you decide the order of the eight sections of this essay? Each section begins with an engaging sentence, and there are only a couple of relatively direct transitions from one section to the next. An editor might observe that the essay could have begun with any of these five sections—your grandfather waving from a screened porch; Claire’s reference to the “snot-boys”; your mother’s story of your grandfather with TB living at your house; your teen years and swimming; or even your recent experience of having a small cabin built on wooded land.

R.S: In the end, I sought to make this piece image-driven, because the process of writing itself was so image-driven. In addition, I wanted the reader to experience the discovery of the connections among the images as I discovered them myself. The essay tries to mimic my own wonderment, as I uncovered the connections.

Of course, I took a risk in shaping the essay in this way. I realized that readers could get easily bored by it and decide not to read; or that the reader might be baffled even by the end of the essay. Thus, for many of the sections, I tried to tease out the strongest part of each scene and begin close to the highest point of tension to keep the reader’s interest, and I hope, to make it easier for readers to find the relationships among the scenes. Fiction writers and screenwriters are often advised to go into a scene “late and leave early.” I kept that in mind while crafting each section of the essay. At the same time, I was also weaving in the larger story of tuberculosis and how it literally takes away the breath.

The last thing I want to address is the seeming lack of transition in the essay. I decided to use juxtapositioning as a way to stitch the pieces together. Poets often juxtapose phrases and images in a poem in ways that let the reader make his or her own connections in the interstices. In my poetry, this is a habit I’ve had a lot of practice with. I wanted to try that with the essay. And I might add that, as a teacher of writing, I have to work so often with my students on logical progression in academic writing that it exhausts me. As a creative writer, then, I want to let loose and get away from the strictly linear form.



William Howze is a humanities program consultant and video producer for museums and cultural organizations. He received his BA and MPhil degrees from Yale University, specializing in American Studies, Art History and Museum work. For his PhD from the University of Texas, he documented the influence of genre painting and Western art on the films of John Ford. Recently he has selected works of art and written essays to guide viewing for Medical Humanities, An Introduction, a textbook to be published by the Cambridge University Press. In addition to producing several dozen short videos for art museum exhibitions, he edited and co-produced The Strange Demise of Jim Crow, a film that documents the struggle to integrate public facilities in Houston that has been broadcast on local and national public television. He has taught as adjunct professor, visiting artist, or faculty advisor for the following institutions: University of Houston College of Education, Art Department, College of Architecture, and Distance Education Program; Texas A&M University Visualization Laboratory; Houston Baptist University MLA Program; University of Houston Clear Lake History and Humanities Program; and Texas Christian University Department of Radio‑TV‑Film. He created the department of Special Programs at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth and initiated the museum’s program of public lectures, workshops, festivals, film series, and continuing education college courses, with funding from the NEA, NEH, TCA, TCH and other sources.



Our 2017 Nominations for Best Small Fictions

Many thanks to the authors below for letting us publish their fine work but also huge thanks to Beverly Jackson, the wonderful, insightful, and hard-working editor of our Shorts On Survival section. Bev took on the difficult job of selecting work to nominate from a long list of worthy pieces. We are so fortunate to have her keen eye and supportive editorship.
Congratulations go to:

William Woolfitt for “Hatchlings” (Spring 2016)

bougainvilla cottage (Fetal Decision)
Barry Friesen for “Fetal Decision” (Spring 2016)

On Perseverance (Triptych of Textures)
Lucinda Kempe for “On Perseverance” (Summer 2016)

Glenn Erick Miller for “Weightless” (Fall 2016)

Cover Image
Kay Merkel Boroff for “Painting the Elephant Gold” (Summer 2016)

Good luck!

Interview with Paul Beckman


Sally Reno: I love your SOS piece Higher and Harder! Tell us something about how it came to be, your inspiration, your process

Paul Beckman: I’m in a writing group and we take turns putting out prompts. This prompt was to pick the title of a couple of books in your house and write a story using the titles. I picked Elie Wiesel’s Soul’s on Fire and Italo Calvino’s The Path to the Nest of Spiders.

I had no idea what I was going to write about. The first sentence came to me and I followed sentence after sentence with what seemed logical to the writing and ended up with an ending unlike anything I’d written before. This is my basic writing process. I rarely know an ending much less a complete story when I begin.


SR: Today you are published/publishing just everywhere and kind of setting the world on fire. When did you think of yourself as a writer and was it always your plan to concentrate on writing when you retired from the daily grind.

PB: I’ve always written a lot and submitted frequently during the manila envelope and stamped return envelope days. I wake up anxious to write and go to sleep thinking of stories. The only difference between being retired and writing and working is that I somehow had more free time when I was working. I knew that I’d continue to write as well as travel and use my photography skills above and beneath the water. It’s worked out that my photography has taken a back seat to writing and I’m not surprised. I find it hard to devote anywhere near equal time to two creative endeavors. So my original plan proved the old adage “Man plans—God laughs.”


SR: Your writing is well known for its humor. We know that the comic is harder to do well than tragic. Do you have any professional tips for us on how to get to funny?

PB: I see both the humor and the tragic all around me and both manifest themselves in my writing. I don’t plan to add humor—it comes out as part of the story or it doesn’t. If I have a tip, it’s to allow yourself as a writer to see the bizarre in all of the situations around you. I was told that my story Family Healing, which was one of the winners of The Best Small Fictions 2017, was aided in being chosen because of the humor injected in a serious situation. I write a lot about dysfunctional families and relationships and those subjects lend themselves to the tragic/comic mix.


SR: Your narrative characters are often flawed, frequently grumpy or angry, sometimes combative. Yet, they are always likeable and relatable. They make me think of Lenny Bruce’s famous tag line, “We’re all the same schmuck.” Please tell us how you achieve this, and talk about your relationships with your characters.

PB:  There’s an old saying, “You never know what’s going on behind someone’s closed door.” I imagine I know and can put myself in their place or insert myself in a position to watch what goes on.

The smiling glad-handler’s a tyrant to his family; the goody-goody kids are screwing and doing drugs. The Rabbi is a misanthrope unbeliever. The true innocents are the little kids. My characters seem to choose the paths they take and insist on going in that direction. Years ago I was in the Anderson Street Workshop in New Haven, run by the wonderful writer and teacher, Alice Mattison, and she used to talk about her characters dictating where they should be going and how to get there. My characters role play so often to become what you call the ‘likeable’ and ‘relatable.’


SR: Your wheelhouse is at the shorter or micro-fiction end of the flash spectrum. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the short-short-shortest form generally and your reasons for being attracted to it.

PB: Unless there’s a requirement for a specific word count (and most of those are in the lower range) I do not set out with a goal to write to a short-short piece. One of the great things about writing flash is that you write what you write and stop when you’re finished. Nancy Stohlman, a writer, mentor and editor of mine told me to “arrive late to the story and leave early.” That has been a great piece of advice that has allowed me to write a story and then rewrite it in half the word count and if necessary come to a compromise. I also learn by reading flash and short-short flash stories and am often in awe of how much a good writer can say in one or two hundred words.



Sally Reno’s fiction has been a winner of National Public Radio’s 3-Minute Fiction Contest, the Dr. T. J. Eckleburg Review  Prosetry Contest, Vestal Review’s 7 Word Caption Contest, Fast Forward’s 6 Word Story Contest, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and The Best Small Fictions 2016.  She is Managing Editor at Blink-Ink Print.


Interview with Alan Toltzis


In November, Alan Toltzis was invited to speak with Professor Cheryl Lester’s class on Jewish American Literature & Culture at the University of Kansas. The class read “Clearing Ivy” and submitted questions to the author; the students’ names appear with each question. Cheryl Lester is on the faculty of the English and American Studies departments at the University of Kansas and specializes in 20th-century US literature and culture. Recent publications have appeared in Fifty Years after Faulkner: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha; Critical Insights: The Harlem Renaissance; Critical Insights: The Sound and the Fury; The Faulkner Journal; Approaches to Teaching As I Lay Dying; Faulkner and His Critics; and A Companion to William Faulkner.

Hannah Feldman: What inspired you to write Clearing Ivy? Was it a specific location or genre of poetry that inspired it?

Alan Toltzis: I wrote the poem at the beginning of the year, when the idea of new-year resolutions was fresh in my mind. Like everyone, I have habits and I saw ivy as a metaphor for how a habit takes hold and how difficult it is to free yourself once it does. I’ve removed ivy twice—once when it was overtaking a fir tree and another time when it was climbing a brick wall behind a goldfish pond. Imagery from both instances worked their way into the poem. As for genre, I love renaissance poetry and this is as close as I can get to a metaphysical conceit.


Elena Pratt: What does the poem mean to you?

It’s a reminder of how vulnerable we are and how much we are at the mercy of our weaknesses. Even when you break a habit, you’re never the same because the habit has changed you.


Hannah Feldman: What is/was your process for writing this poem/poetry in general? How long did it take you to write this poem?

The main work for most of my poems takes place over a few weeks with some minor fine-tuning afterwards. I often use images I’ve carried with me for decades before they work their way into a poem. I work in books and write according to a plan or outline. So, while I knew this poem was going to be about a particular kind of endurance, it was just good timing that it coincided with the new year because it worked well with the idea of resolutions.


Alexa Schmidt: Do you start a poem with an intention in mind, or do you begin with a feeling and see where it takes you?

AT: For the poems that I’ve written over the last 3 years, I always begin with an intention in mind. However, once I start the writing, the poem can take me in different directions than I originally intended. Part of the finished work comes from the original intent and part from the power that the words and images have on me and the poem. A lot of the internal rhyme in my poems come from the power and influence one word can have on another.


Savannah Pine: In the other works we read, you use mostly use quatrains. Why do you use a different form with “Clearing Ivy?”

AT: Form always follows function for me. In most poems, the lines and stanzas come from the natural flow and phrasing of the language and the words at the end of a line always have special emphasis. A poem’s organization can have a significant effect on its meaning and should help the reader understand the work better telling the reader how the poet hears his own poetry. Occasionally, I write in traditional forms (villanelles, sonnets, quatrains, quintains) because that’s what the poem requires or because the form pushes the poem where it needs to go.


Alexa Schmidt: How do you decide where to break lines?

AT: Line breaks can come about in a few ways. They break where it is natural, in terms of meaning and phrasing. But for set forms, the rhymes and rhythms have a lot to do with how lines break.


Robert Curtis: You are clearly referring to nature taking over human structures as a form of slow ruin. You refer to the inevitable not having to happen quickly. That said, is there something specific you are referring to when you say the “inevitable”?

Yes, I often make parallels between nature and human nature. When something or someone has complete control of a situation or complete mastery over you, it can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants and for me that is very powerful. I think the line works because “inevitability” is such an abstract concept but it seems almost human in the poem because of the conceit.


Kit Rice: What do you attempt to draw from your audiences? What kind of reactions or emotions? What about for this specific poem?

Whenever I write, I try to make the language so precise that the reader can experience my exact emotions and experiences through the words on the page. The reader only the words on the page and my responsibility is to make sure that every word I wrote is the right word, nothing more and nothing less. For “Clearing Ivy,” I’d like it if readers can feel themselves being pulled decline and decay of their own personal habit and the struggle they have had pulling themselves free.


Kit Rice: Did you intend for the ivy of this poem to represent anything in particular? It has the characteristics of many things (namely illness, time, and death). This poem had a fairly ominous tone to it. Can you speak to what inspired this poem?

It’s a metaphor for habit or vice. The way it sinks in and grips until it can take over your life if you’re not careful. I had a particular habit of mine in mind but it doesn’t matter what the habit or vice is because the feeling to giving in to a habit is universal.


Madeleine Moore: What is your writing process when composing a poem? Is it structured with a base idea that you build up and around, or more free flowing and spontaneous?

I wish my work more free-flowing and spontaneous but it’s just the opposite and I have to be careful not to overthink. I start with an idea that I want to write about, which for “Clearing Ivy” was endurance, willpower, and determination. Once I decide on the idea, I tend to experience the world through that particular lens and then I meditate on it. That process leads to a few words, an image, or an event that I am able to connect with the idea for the poem. From there, it’s a matter of the hard work—putting the right words down, refining, and rewriting until I’m satisfied.


Seth Miller: You make use of interesting line breaks and white space.  Do you think this tends to distinguish your poetry (at least the poems that make use of such devices) as a more visual than oral medium?  And sort of following on that – what about font, exact typesetting, coloring – do you care about these sorts of things, and are you ever slightly bothered by the choices a particular publishing venue makes?

I’m very sensitive to type and layout and think visually but the sound and rhythm of a poem must work too. The visual aspect adds another dimension. For instance, in my poem “Questions and Answers,” the first section is shaped like a question mark. But sound comes first and I read my poems out loud when I’m working on them.


Seth Miller: Your other poems seem to all have a link (though sometimes obscure) to religious ritual (parashiot, sefirot haomer, etc).  Is there anything religious to which “Clearing Ivy” alludes?

“Clearing Ivy” is from a series of 49 poems that are loosely based on a Kabbalistic concept that mediating on each of the 49 aspects of conscious human emotion, during the 49 day between the second day of Passover and Shavuot can elevate consciousness and awareness, refining the soul. The poem was written to correspond with a specific aspect of the emotion of endurance that has to do with willpower and determination.


Hannah Silverman: How would you say you’ve gotten your start as a writer? Did you start out as a poet, or did you evolve into one?

Purely by accident, I took a class in modern poetry at Temple University that was taught by Thomas Kinsella and then took a few other classes and workshops he taught. That’s the course that opened up poetry for me and I consider Mr. Kinsella to be the man who taught me how to read. I never stopped reading intensely, using the approach he taught me. To write a poem, you have to read.


Hannah Silverman: Which biblical figure do you identify with while writing? (In reference to the Noah poem, where did your influence come from?)

A handful of the poems in “The Last Commandment” are about Biblical characters. Instead of looking at their iconic nature, I think of them as everyday people, which led me to the examine things like the letdown Noah experienced after the flood. In “Elegy for Sarah,” I have lines about the private sorrow Abraham felt when Sarah died. And in “Spectra,” I focus at how Jacob, at first, missed seeing heaven in the story about Jacob’s ladder. Once I have the insight, I try to make it personal.


Hannah Silverman: Would you rather live in a dry heat, or frigid cold climate?

Give me hot weather any time. For me there’s no better feeling that heat sinking deep into me. It probably comes from hearing my mother say how the heat never bothered her. . . until our house got central air.


Interview with Christine Fadden



Laurie Saurborn: One striking aspect of your poem “Dark Feather” is how it captures the movement of flight. Flight, or that which makes flight possible, is present in the spilt paint that curves “like a crow’s wing.” It is here in the spring, which will “land light / on those boulders.” As it meditates upon its subject, the movement of the poem is akin to circling, as if the speaker is a bird looking on all this from far above. Could you tell us more about how you came to write this poem, and how close or far you feel from the events it describes?

Christine Fadden: When I sat down to write this poem, it came quickly, which normally would signal to me: Don’t trust it! I know you poets—I’ve heard the stories of nights lost agonizing over the placement of a comma. But also, as a fiction writer, hell, I’ve been working on my novel since 2010. Writing must take time, right? 100 words or 10,000, we had better revise. I did very little revising with “Dark Feather”—I changed a verb tense or two, adjusted a few line breaks.

In a way though, I had been sitting with this material for months, mourning the loss of my aunt (the subject of this poem), and so maybe my sense that I just came to the page and blurted my heart out isn’t entirely accurate.

It’s interesting: I didn’t “circle” or strive for distance on purpose, and did feel the piece came across as perhaps too cold and blunt (i.e. “this is when you start dying”) when in fact, my aunt was the first loved one I lost as an adult—and grieving her brought me to my knees. I had lived with her fairly recently, in my early forties, while working on my novel.

The home she and my uncle opened up to me, sits on a quiet ridge in a rural town. The three of us spent lots of time in the backyard together (the front yard, where she fell, not so much). Either way, when I got the call that she had fallen and hit her head, I imagined one scenario. Until I could fly back east—it took me a few days to get a grip on what was happening even though I sensed immediately she’d never regain consciousness—details trickled in. Of course, details don’t help. They change nothing. But maybe the circling has something to do with those days in which I was trying to make sense of the impossible—a very active and healthy woman falls not from a great height, but down three stairs—and that’s it?

Maybe the circling is an echo of “No, no, no.”

My aunt was lifeflighted to Pittsburgh. Maybe that’s the angle I had to take—I’m in that helicopter; I cannot be on that ground, because of some deadening force it now contains.


LS: I usually associate feathers with flight, and flight with flying (or running) away. But this poem maintains a tender, mournful attention on the “you,” as if creating a place for the absent loved one to rest. Was it difficult to revisit this event? Was writing “Dark Feather” a cathartic process?

CF: My aunt traveled the globe, but if she’s resting anywhere, it’s in one of her trees—or in the heart of one of the birds she fed, saved, or counted. More difficult than revisiting the event itself, is revisiting certain questions: Why, when she texted me four days before she fell, did I cut her short with an ‘I have to work now’ message? If and when I find an agent for my novel, will she know? (Damn it, I want her to know!) Did I ever directly say “thank you” for the time, space, and support she gave me?

My aunt gave me a place to rest, so that for whatever it’s worth, I could create. So yes, even if I am able to logically or artistically process the event itself, over time, those questions will always haunt me. I know it’s senseless to ruminate that way and I probably did thank her more than once, but I’m a writer—ruminating is one thing I excel at.

Forcing myself to fit just a portion of the pain onto one single page definitely was cathartic, but given the way grief waves move and mount, eventually I’ll need to hit a release valve again—somehow.


LS: Throughout the poem, careful details abound: Drunkard Joe, tomatoes, seed and suet. But the non-human primarily populates the landscape of the poem: the cats are okay, but Drunkard Joe is dead and there are no other people around. How did you decide what details had a place in the poem, and which did not?

CF: At the time of writing this poem, I wasn’t ready for these interiors—conversations over coffee in the kitchen, the human heart and all the ties back to so many amazing childhood summers and holidays. My uncle is like a father to me, and I didn’t dare tread on his suffering, or on that of my cousins or my mother.

I probably had to take the poem outdoors, not because my aunt died there, but because no matter the season, she did so much living there. She moved out there. I can only describe the details I included as shorthand to her soul.


LS: Among many other things, you are at work on a novel, you write short stories, and you work as a professional ghostwriter, editor, and writing coach. All to say, you write a ton of prose. Could you speak about how you manage to traverse the poetry/prose divide? Or do you feel there is a divide? Are there reasons you chose to address this event through poetry? Have you written about it in prose?

CF: I do read and write prose for a living, and interestingly enough, two of the projects I’m currently collaborating on are about death—sudden and assisted. Also, I just put my cat of fourteen years down. I’ve cried more in the past year than I have in any other and wonder if this is my time to learn some core aspect of grieving, or of love. I doubt very much I’ll write about the “Dark Feather” event, or any death-related events, in my own work in the near future—I need to get back to the hilarious! It’s too bad death is so rarely funny.

But the poetry/prose divide—yes, for me there (usually) is one. Always, the words we choose and the way we set them next to one another matter, but in prose, sentences have to pull the reader much further down the road. Even in some flash fiction, I think, sentences and paragraphs hold, cast, and propel a long arc; whereas, the words, phrases, and lines of poetry, to me, feel like piercing instruments. There is something, for me anyway, that is blunter about poetry. There’s no arguing with it, no denying it. I set out to write a poem when I need to put my finger in the socket. I want to wake up. I go to story to roll around a little and to dwell.

Now that I’m answering this question, I see I probably don’t want to dwell on the events of “Dark Feather.” I wonder, because the death was so sudden, how I would work it out as an essay or short story—and if I were to go there, wouldn’t the piece end up being more about my aunt’s life? Or about how her death has affected everyone—one year later? Hmm, you’ve given me more to process, about the grieving process and the writing process! Now we’re talking about content dictating form, and (again) about distance from the event. There are probably infinite ways to talk about distance, right? (I love that topic.) But, for now, I have no prose in me for this—it’s still too fresh.


LS: Another thing I admire about this poem—about your process—is that you take one detail from a shocking moment and use it as a way to enter an alternate reality, one where time vaults from past to present to future, one where your aunt is absent but her cats are taken care of and where the catnip still grows. As you wrote, were you surprised by something that found its way to the page?

CF: Yes: I did not see the streak of black paint on my aunt’s hand. I landed in Pittsburgh several hours after they pulled her from life support—did not get to see her (body?) one last time. My mom, her sister, told me about that streak of paint and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I didn’t see it as related to a feather, a crow, or flight, at first. The color black is heavy, grounding, and, of course, often representative of death—or maybe the warding off of evil. The crow carries a warning, or provides wisdom and a connection to the spirit world.

Maybe what surprised me is that by visualizing the paint, at first in motion, arcing, I set myself up to be able to transform it once it dried. That mark of death, on the hand of my aunt who really did so many good things with her hands, has somehow merged with something alive, wild, wise, and free, and therefore, is rendered slightly less terrible.



christine-fadden1Christine Fadden’s work appears in Cobalt Review, Hobart, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Gulf Coast, The Louisville Review, PANK, Joyland, and elsewhere. She is the winner of the 2014 Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival Prize and the 2013 Blanchan Award through the Wyoming Arts Council. She lives in the Olympic Rain Shadow, beneath some trees.


laurie-saubornLaurie Saurborn is the author of two poetry collections, Industry of Brief Distraction and Carnavoria, and a chapbook, Patriot. A 2015 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship recipient, her work has appeared in such publications as American Literary Review, storySouth, The Cincinnati Review, The Southern Review, and Tupelo Quarterly. Laurie teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, where she also directs the undergraduate creative writing program. She is currently at work on a collection of stories.





Our January Illustrator is Pat Zalisko!!


I can’t even begin to express how thrilled I am to be working with Pat Zalisko on the January issue. I first engaged with her work when we were both fellows at VCCA and I’ve continued to be inspired by it ever since. And the rarest of the rare is happening for this issue–Pat is reading each piece of work and using the work as inspiration to paint and/or choose from her body of existing work. Pat is an avid reader and a prolific artist and we are incredibly fortunate to not only have her work, but to have her direct engagement with the written word. Someone, please pinch me.

Here are some samples to whet your appetite for the upcoming issue, which has a theme of SPARK.


day-of-the-perigree-10-16Pat has wonderful childhood memories of painting intricate Ukrainian eggs, pysanky, one of her first creative experiences. This distinctly feminist art form was developed thousands of years earlier and has ritualistically been taught to Ukrainian girls and women. Born and raised in New York City, she was encouraged to pursue a practical career as an attorney.  She retired from a successful legal career and fully embraced her passion for painting in her new Florida environ.

Pat broadened her innate knowledge by studying in residencies, local universities and with select instructors such as Steven Aimone and Harold Garde, both of whom recognized her talent and commitment to creating art.

Over the past several years, her art has regularly appeared in major private and public collections in the United States and abroad.


eileens-garden-9-16In the artist’s own words: “As I paint, I shift back and forth between intuitive and cognitive states. Intuitively applying paint and drawing elements on surfaces, often rapidly and without analysis, prompts powerful memories and perceptions. It is visceral — pure sensation, emotion, and memory. Then, shifting into the cognitive, I record and explore as I move between the emerging image and the instinctive application of paint and mark. ”


It’s Pushcart Time Again!

This time of year is always tricky. We love ALL of our authors and it’s tough to pick only six pieces out of the more than 60 that we publish each year. But it is also an honor and a delight to be able to make six writers very happy by valuing their fine, hard work.

After much deliberation, here are our 2017 Pushcart Nominations (in no particular order):

  • 1) “Fetal Decision,” a flash by Barry Friesen, published April 2016
  • 2) “The Talking Cure,” a poem by Sarah Fawn Montgomery, published April 2016
  • 3) “Weightless,” a flash by Glenn Miller, published October 2016
  • 4) “Care Packages,” a short story by Jerri Bell, published July 2016
  • 5) “Flame,” a short story by Chloe Ackerman, published January 2016
  • 6) “What to Do On a Day Like This,” an essay by Danielle Kelly, published July 2016

Congratulations all, and GOOD LUCK!

Richard Bader: On “Harmony”


I sing in the choir of my local Unitarian Universalist church, and the seed for what became the story “Harmony” got planted not long ago when I was asked to sing a duet with a woman in the church I didn’t know very well. The song was a sort of Irish sea ballad, an original composition written by a church member who was Jewish. Our church at the time was in a period of conflict over some issue or another, and my duet partner and I were on opposite sides of the conflict. I suspect that much of this—the Irish song written by the Jewish member, the congregation in the midst of conflict—will bring nods of recognition from anyone familiar with Unitarian churches.

I approached our first rehearsal with some not-sure-what-to-expect wariness. Would the conflict spill over into our singing? Would there be lots of judgmental eye rolling when one or the other of us missed a note or mistimed an entrance? There’s a real vulnerability to singing, especially when you’re singing a duet or a solo, and we each had solo parts in the song. With a piano, you can press the key for C and be pretty sure a C is what you’ll hear. With a voice, there’s more room for error, and in our choir—and I suspect in all choirs—error is very much part of the learning process.

What happened surprised me. The vulnerability that I felt carried over into awareness of the vulnerability that my singing partner must also be feeling, and that’s practically the definition of empathy. Through the act of singing together, something had changed. “Harmony” is not even close to being a fictionalized account of actual events, but the story was for me a way to look at what might happen when music brings together two people who have no business being together.

After the story published I had the occasion to talk with a man who has devoted significant parts of his life to exploring the therapeutic benefits of music, in particular its benefits for veterans suffering from PTSD. It’s his belief that at the core of PTSD are three cognitive distortions. One: others are bad. Two: I am bad. And three: the world is dangerous. When you make music together, he said, it’s hard to hang onto the idea that the people you’re making music with are bad. Once that distortion falls away, then “I am bad” starts to collapse as well. And then the world starts to look like a less dangerous place.

He seemed delighted when I told him about singing the duet in church.

Interview with Danielle Kelly

Danielle Kelly

Mary Stike: At the beginning of your essay “What To Do On a Day Like This” you write, “…running was becoming my M.O.” Does this idea carry through the rest of the work? How so? Is this a description that is an underlying theme in your writing?

Danielle: Running occurs several times in the essay. I run from the state then run later to my room. There’s the assumption that the children run at some point as well as the shooter running away from the scene. Running plays a big role in the rest of my work and I attribute it to my Appalachian heritage. Growing up in West Virginia, I’ve felt the desire to stay and leave simultaneously. I didn’t want the label of the region to define who I was as a person, but even more so as a writer. I write what I know. My Appalachia is different than the Appalachia depicted in the books I read when I was younger. When I ran to Connecticut for Graduate School, I was running because of my misunderstanding of the region where I grew up. Similarly, I carry the same notion into my writing. Many of my characters run because they don’t understand the importance of their role in their larger setting.


Mary: You have a great strength of writing details into your work. Idina Mendel’s gritty voice, the naked mannequins, the scent of woodsy-musk and peppermint on your friend, the LORD tattoo on the man at McDonald’s all contribute to the depth of this piece. Do you think the use of this level of detail in a work is important? Why or why not?

Danielle: Detail is important in how the reader sees and interprets a piece of writing. I turned to the details of the piece to help me remember the ordinary on a day that turned into a national tragedy. The details I include are what I remember about my journey home on December 14th; they are things I can name and recognize while surrounded by the unrecognizable. One detail that still sticks out to me are the naked mannequins. When I first drafted the piece, the mannequins were just there in a storefront. As the essay took shape, the mannequins took on more meaning, a foreshadowing of sorts to the events of the day. The mannequins are a great example of trusting first instincts when writing because in later drafts details will hold more meaning than the author originally intended.

What to Do on a Day Like This(Diamonds and Rust)

Mary: In the face of the tragedy, the “arm to shoulder chain” of children seemed lacking in comfort to you. When you arrived home, your dad places his hand on your back when he says “You’re lucky.” Please comment on the strength of family ties and comfort that influence you in the piece.

Danielle: Not only am I a very family oriented person, I also am drawn to reading and researching the types of family structures. I grew up in what is considered a nuclear family structure, where Sundays and Holidays were spent around a dining room table, passing stories between generations. During my time away from home, I grew closer to my family. I called many immediate family members multiple times a day. The events at Sandy Hook shocked the nation and left us reaching out to hold our kids, parents, siblings, etc. As a nation, we were numb; I was numb. I kept revisiting the idea of physical touching between family members because I too spent months yearning for the physical touch from a family member or friend. Seeking comfort in a hand, a hug, or an arm around the shoulder from my family meant knowing I wasn’t alone. Those children needed to know they were not alone.


Mary: How did your chance encounter with this horrific event transform you as a person? How does your writing reflect that transformation?

Danielle: My chance encounter reminded me not to get so caught up in the small stuff. When I left that morning, I was unsure if I had made the right decision to leave Connecticut. For five months I swam in the “what ifs” and how my decision to leave would affect my future. I was lost, stressed, and depressed until I pulled into the driveway of my childhood home. I thought about the elementary school across the street and my dad who had taught in the public school system for 30+ years and suddenly my “what ifs” didn’t matter. What mattered were the daughters whose parents didn’t make it home from work that day. What mattered were the families that didn’t have their children to sling an arm around when they got home from school. What mattered were the children whose “what ifs” never took flight and the parents whose “what ifs” might never cease. I believe this piece, is full of those “what ifs”, giving them flight through small details that add up to a larger whole.



Mary Imo-Stike identifies as an American Indian, and a feminist. She worked “non-traditional” jobs as a rail worker, construction plumber, boiler operator and gas line inspector. Now retired from work-life, she obtained an MFA in Poetry from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 2015, and is currently the poetry co-editor of HeartWood Literary Magazine. Her work has been published in Antietam Review, Phoebe, The Pikeville Review, Appalachian Heritage Cactus Heart and Young Ravens Review, and will be included the forthcoming issues of riverSedge, and Connotation Press.