Interview with Mark DeFoe

Mark DeFoe

Mark DeFoe’s poem “ Sago: Buckhannon, WV—January 2, 2006: 6:30 a.m. ET” appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of r.kv.r.y. focused on Appalachia. The poet Julia Kasdorf comments that she knew of the Sago Mine Disaster through Mark Nowak’s Cold Mountain Elementary (Coffee House 2009) and DeFoe’s essay on Sago published in Appalachian Journal in 2006. In 2014 she visited the miner’s memorial at Sago with students in West Virginia Wesleyan’s MFA writing program.

Kasdorf: I’m interested that you chose to write a lyric poem about the tragedy and its aftermath. Maybe you could talk a bit about the possibilities and limits in terms of genre and voice.

DeFoe: The prose piece in Appalachian Journal has a narrow scope—the media portrayal of Appalachia, media ignorance of mining and careless and lazy reporting. Prose often has a specificity, an immediacy. As a genre, I think it tends to address the concrete, the known, the “real” if you will.

Poetry, on the other hand, can lend itself to a broader scope, a wider picture that embraces present and the past, both myth and gritty reality. And of course, poetry tolerates the personal, the subjective, the lyric voice that speaks in the poem and the narrative storyteller voice.

As I described above, I was trying to accomplish two different ends in my separate writings on the meaning of Sago—using the strengths of two different genres—prose and poetry.


Kasdorf: Looking a little more closely at the poem, I’m interested in your use of epigraphs. I associate Ishmael’s voce with the lone survivor Randal McCloy Jr., but the other is more ambiguous, a statement about a culture’s relationship with time—progress, perhaps, and maybe history.

DeFoe: The quote from Moby Dick is perhaps just academic pretense on my part. I expect Randal McCloy has little in common with Melville’s character Ishmael. The passage from Jim Wayne Miller, a writer who knew Appalachia well, is more relevant in my opinion. It suggests a culture that lacks control of its destiny, that is being propelled into an unknown future by huge forces. In the case of West Virginia, I think of the energy companies and their political allies who have long exploited the people and the land for their profit. And in the poem I also rue the ignorance and short-sightedness and child-like fundamentalism of many West Virginians which continues to keep them in thrall to these powerful interests—be they coal or gas or chemical.


Kasdorf: The miners go underground like soldiers; the women remain and carry on with their lives: sacrifice, loss and resilience. Someone might call this a beautiful myth. Can you talk about this, and also the distortions of mythic narratives.

DeFoe: Dealing with myth and archetype is always a danger. But myth and even stereotype contains some truth although that truth is often buried under layers of complexity. It is hard to dig down to the truth of coal culture in one short poem—or novel or essay, for that matter. As a writer, I felt the need to say something on the events of Sago, to not let it fade away. If a writer is afraid to touch a subject because it is surrounded by myth or stereotype or ambiguity, then that writer has put a serious limitation on her or his subject matter and world view. If a writer feels the need to always be politically correct, that writer may find himself unable to speak.


Kasdorf: I notice the poem begins with a first person “I” and then shifts to “we” in the third and fourth stanzas, which is always a risky move. How dare you speak for many, someone might ask.

DeFoe: You bring up a sticky issue, Julia. It is always presumptuous to speak for others. I am very aware of that. In the poem I call myself a “bystander.” I have never been a coal miner; I was a college professor. But I have lived in Buckhannon, West Virginia since 1975. Perhaps that gives me some right to the “we” pronoun, as the poem says, to attempt “to patch the quilt of our history with words?” I did not wish the narrative voice in the poem to seem totally removed. Sago was five miles from my house.


Kasdorf: Could you talk about your choice to frame the poem with the bamboo instead of the phrases “ I think of…” which could have been a possibility?

DeFoe: I guess I wanted to bring the poem back to surface, out of the mine “where the sun never shines,” to end the poem in the beauty of West Virginia. It is an attempt to bring some hope into a sad situation. Maybe someday no one will have to go down into the dark to earn a living.

But the last lines are also tinged with irony—the voice in the poem says it is lovely to be “sucking my lungs full of good spring air.” But at the same time it is lonely to be detached, to be only an observer. a non-participant. It is an expression of survivor’s guilt, I suppose.




Julia Spicher Kasdorf is the author of three collections of poetry in the Pitt Poetry Series, most recently Poetry in America. She teaches writing at Pennsylvania State University and is currently at work on a documentary project about fracking and the natural gas boom in her home state.

Laura Long On Recovery, Writing, and “The Survival of Uncle Peachy”

Laura Long

My short fiction “The Survival of Uncle Peachy” began as a poem. It was one of several poems that portrays working-class lives in my first book, Imagine a Door. I grew up in West Virginia, and many people around me were not verbally expressive. I tried to fathom their inner lives, and the artistry and grace that some people created in their everyday lives. A poem that sketched a truck driver’s life evolved into this story about Uncle Peachy after I added another character into the mix. The story connects in my mind with how recovery involves imagination, and how imagination can open one up to a new mix of the past informing the present.

I see recovery as a constant in our lives, as being alive to elements of the past and “recovering” them to use in new ways. Every day implies the questions “Where was I? Where am I now?”

Recovery means taking risks. I learned this from children who had cancer. I taught creative writing at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for three years. The gist of the job was hopeful, since over 85% of the children survived. In twice-weekly sessions, I became an astounded witness to the passion these children brought to writing. They were fierce in their imaginative play. They quickly grasped that they could express their individuality in writing. Creative writing was intensely powerful for the dozens and dozens of children I taught, not just a few. So I learned that writing and recovery are deeply linked. Both require the courage to face what is real in the present moment. At the same time, through writing a person may dream and devise a deliberate relationship to the world.


Interview with Debbie Bradford

Debbie Bradford

Jennifer Flescher: One of the things autobiographical writers often discuss is concern for the actual people involved. How do you deal with that in your writing? How did you deal with that in “No Such Thing as a Small Secret?”

Debbie Bradford: This is something I agonize over in a lot of my writing. My teenage years were full of moments many of the participants would not want to see recorded in print. I am just starting to publish work about this time period, so it is still new terrain for me but I’m starting to get the hang of it. For “No Such Thing as a Small Secret,” I changed some names and I tried to find the balance between the needs of the story and the needs of the real people about whom I’m writing. There was a section in earlier drafts that might have cast someone I love in a less than positive light. While revising, I realized that the story did not need that part in order to work. When possible, I’d rather cut words than harm a person. I’m glad I made the choice I did. This will likely be a more troublesome issue in some of my other stories. I hope to have a clearer answer before I publish them.


JF: Did you talk to anyone from your family or your past during the writing of this essay?

DB: I’m not sure if this is true for all twins, but a funny thing about my sister and me is that even though we grew up in the same house at the same time, we seem to have had remarkably different childhoods. It’s always a riot to show a story draft to my sister – which of course I do with every story I write, whether she’s “ready-to-know” or not – and hear her version of the events. A few parts of this story are actually Amy’s memories that had to be re-implanted in my head.

My family is very supportive of my writing. My father is a writer too – though I think he wishes I would write fiction, or at least call what I am writing fiction. At different points during the drafting of this story, my mother, my other mother, my father and my sister all read and offered feedback – and cheerleading.

For this story, I mostly talked to my family (yes, I got the OK from my mom about the “back massager”), but for some of the other teenage years pieces I’m working on, I have contacted people from my past that I probably have no business contacting – ex-friends and ex-boyfriends evicted from my life for good reason, now back in my world through, you guessed it, Facebook.


JF: The story seems to have had a lot to do with what you were afraid would happen that never did. Did you edit it to keep it focused on fear and love? Or did you or your mom ever face the kind of discrimination that scared you?

DB: I don’t recall any explicit demonstrations of homophobia. The discrimination was mostly behind-the-scenes: people talking about us, distancing themselves. But it was also bigger than that – societal, more pervasive. My mother stayed “closeted” until she left Texas, so my guess is that she was aware of, or experienced more, discrimination.

I think she worked hard to keep my sister and me sheltered from it and she actively looked for places where we would feel supported, including a group for teenagers with gay parents: TRUST (Teens Relating Unique Situations Together). As the group’s euphemistic title implies, even “open” was still mostly closed. When researching for this story, I came across a quote from the group’s founder. She said: “As a parent, you have to ask yourself, ‘do you have the right to shove your ideas down a child’s throat when it’s so different from society’s norm?’” That ought to give some idea of the atmosphere in which my story takes place.

No Such Thing as a Small Secret 

JF: Your experience is complicated–it was personal and societal at the same time. Did you have the opportunity to think about it that way when you were young? Do you think about it that way now?

DB: My ability to see the bigger picture was not well-developed back then. I was preoccupied with being a rebellious, angsty teenager – I was really very good at it. Now, I see the connection between the anger I felt and how difficult it was to be part of a non-traditional family in Dallas, TX in the 1990s. If my mother didn’t have to hide who she was and therefore ask me to keep this big secret, my teenage years likely would have been different. The pressure on her was enormous, and bound to push on the children she was trying to protect, however noble her intentions.


JF: You could have chosen to start and end in many different points of this essay, and the title refers to the “secret” of it all. Yet you begin with your mother’s voice and end with the word “home.” How did you come to that choice?

DB: Part of the answer is that back when my parents divorced and my mother came out, I felt betrayed – like I’d been lied to my whole life. The opening scene of my story alludes to my mother’s denial; she hadn’t just been lying to me and Amy, or my father, but to herself as well. Even so, the feeling that something terrible had been done to me was tough to overcome. It’s hard to find empathy for a person by whom you feel hurt or who you feel didn’t consider your needs. It took me a long time to find my way back to my mother, but I think the closing scene shows that I was at least open to the possibility in that moment.

The other part of the answer is that the secret was really my mom’s, not mine. Imagine having to keep something so big, something that informed every part of your life, hidden – something as big as your marriage. While I was struggling to figure out how her so-called “choice” impacted me, she was struggling to figure out how to live it – made all the more complicated by a daughter sneaking out of the house and being brought home by the police on a semi-regular basis.


JF: What do you think was the biggest thing you learned about yourself writing this piece?

DB: I used to blame my mother – both parents really – for the anger I felt during my teenage years. When I wrote this essay, I thought it would become the beginning of my memoir about that time, since it seemed this was the thing that set me off, set me on the track to becoming a collector of traumas. Through writing this piece, I began to realize that, while maybe the break-up of my family was the catalyst that started me acting out, the experiences stemming from that acting out shaped me more. I no longer believe my anger at my parents was the primary fuel for my rebellion, and therefore, I no longer see this story as the beginning of my book. And you’ll just have to read it if you want to know more…


JF: In your essay you begin with your mother’s question, “What do you look for in someone you love?”. Now that you are married, with a daughter of your own, how do you hope that she will answer that question one day?

DB: My mother and her wife have been a model for my sister and me as to what makes a healthy relationship. They work incredibly hard to support and understand each other and to function as a team. My husband and I strive for the same. I hope that for my daughter, it will be a question that doesn’t need to be asked – that she will assume this is what she deserves and what she will have: a partner who respects, supports and loves her – the way my moms do.



Jennifer S. Flescher is a freelance journalist working and living in Newton, MA. Her poetry publications include The Harvard Review, Fulcrum, Lit and The Boston Globe. Her non-fiction publications include Agni-Online, Jubilat, Perihelion, and Poetry Daily. She is editor and publisher of Tuesday; An Art Project.

Interview with Pinckney Benedict

Pinckney Benedicts

Kristiana Kahakauwila: In my mind, Pinckney, you’re the honey badger of writers. That is to say, in your writing, you are “the most fearless animal in all the animal kingdom. [You] really don’t give a shit.” In your work, I find a deep attention to craft, but also this resistance to expected structures and narrative forms. There’s a sense, as I read the stories in Miracle Boy in particular, that the story genre is getting remade. Did you set out to undo expectations of the story genre? Or did the impetus come from elsewhere?

Pinckney Benedict: Holy crow! I’ve just Googled this thing, and now I want to be the honey badger of the animal world. That’s what I always pictured when I read the unspeakably great Saki story “Sredni Vashtar,” which features an animal called a polecat-ferret, supposedly terrible and vicious, which turns out to be disappointingly domesticated when you investigate it. I loved that story as a kid, but then I found out many years later, through the wonders of the internet, that a puny little polecat-ferret couldn’t possibly do what the animal in that story manages. “Sredni Vashtar went forth, his thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white. His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death. Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful.” From now on when I read that story, I’ll just substitute honey badger for polecat-ferret, and the whole thing will work for me again. A classic restored!

Much as I suppose I just did with that extended non-answer to a gracious and flattering question, I tend to chase my own thoughts and impulses down some pretty long, dark, twisty, and highly personal rabbit-holes. I’m not so much trying to undo anybody’s expectations as I am trying to follow the story where it seems to me that it leads, whether or not that’s a conventional pattern. I’m not afraid of conventional structure and am happy to embrace it when the story seems to call for it; I have a lot of pretty much conventionally plotted stories, and it pleases me when things work out that way, because I can be pretty sure that even casual readers unfamiliar with my work will follow along.

By the time you get to the stories in Miracle Boy, though, it’s true that I’ve developed a certain faith in readers who come across my fiction and their desire to see a story by me, written as I choose to write stories. Nobody stumbles onto my stuff randomly in the bookstore; nobody comes across my work by accident. It’s one of the benefits of being relatively little known. Folks who come to my work tend to do so voluntarily and with a reasonable amount of good will going in, and I feel pretty free to throw some pretty tough challenges at them. I try always to arrange some alternate sort of satisfaction for every readerly expectation I frustrate, though. I love feeling that you might come away from one of my stories having encountered something entirely unexpected but something also satisfying and fulfilling.

KK: You seem willing to follow your obsessions into anything– the graphic novel, religious explication, stories about cars, low-budget Canadian horror films. How do you amass these interests? And what kind of courage does it take to put your obsessions on the page? Do you ever censor or hold yourself back?

PB: I love Jesus, cars, and guns, sadly not necessarily in that order, and so I guess it’s no surprise that those elements show up in a lot of my fiction. I often gift my characters with objects that I myself want–a rare muscle car, a classic firearm, gifts of ability or religious fervor–that I myself will for one reason or another never possess. I tend to write about people who live in environments where they’ll encounter the objects of my obsessions and who very frequently share them. That way I can convincingly embody their thoughts, their knowledge, and their energies. It also means my characters behave in ways that interest me, ways that I’d probably behave if I didn’t have to worry about keeping a job, a family, staying alive, and so on, or if I had a stronger personality and no desire for advancement or to be accepted in the community in which I find myself. I end up being genuinely interested in whether they live or die, prosper or wither, find love or die alone, because they are somehow me, if the world had been just a bit different.

The graphic fiction thing has brought a lot of pleasure into my life. And I do have one, now that I think about it, that deals with Jesus (it was published on an intensely readable site called, now sadly defunct, I believe) called “Run, Killer, Run! Go, Killer, Go!” In that one, Jesus wields an Army Colt in either hand and has a shining sword coming out of his mouth. My kind of Jesus. The piece was titled by my son, who was a little boy then and who loved to help me out with titles, and it’s a primer for people (re)born into the terrifying year 2509. And another, called “Kentucky Samurai,” tells the story of a young ronin who wears his ancestral armor and drives his father’s Boss 429 Mustang into the wilds of West Virginia to seek after adventure and death when Kentucky proves too pacific for his war-like tastes.

So no, I don’t censor myself much when it comes to putting my own impulses on the page. It’s not courage, though, I don’t think. More like an incapacity to monitor my thoughts properly when I get excited, coupled with the feeling that I have to dig that stuff out of my skull somehow or I’ll go crazy from its clustering and fermenting and gestating in there. It’s impossible for me to imagine that, if something seems impossibly cool to me, others won’t find it that way as well, which is probably a failure of empathy but is a dysfunction that appears to have served me reasonably well so far.

The Beginnings of Sorrow

KK: I felt that with the names you chose for characters. They’re unexpected, challenging (especially because they require a reader to learn the allusions) but they’re also deeply satisfying. For example, in “The Beginnings of Sorrow” your main character is named Vandal. His dog is Hark. His father Xerxes. Each of these names will resonate with the meaning of the story. At what point in your construction of a story do you choose characters’ names? And how do you find names that are so perfect and so otherworldly?

PB: As somebody with an alliterative name, and the (to me) exotic and challenging last name Kahakauwila, you no doubt learned to pay attention to names much the same way I did: by fighting (either rhetorically or, just as often in my case, physically) to establish your name’s seriousness and legitimacy. Perhaps you also spent time, as I did, wondering, “Why me, God?” And when God responded neither by changing your name to something more ordinary nor by giving the people around you profounder sympathy for those of us with irregular names, you just shrugged and prepared to put up your dukes (literally or metaphorically) yet again, until finally you grew into your name and/or people stopped wanting to fight you over it.

Or maybe you didn’t, but I sure did, and the struggle gave me an intense interest in naming and in the power of names. I was pretty happy as a kid to find out that ancient and venerable civilizations–back to the Bible again!–regarded naming with deadly solemnity, because the familial accident of my name made it seem a matter of grave importance to me as well. So I take it pretty seriously in my stories, storing up names in a great long list for months or even years before I find the right character on whom to expend them. For “Beginnings of Sorrow,” I felt that the story possessed sufficient mythical dimension that I could deploy some particularly pungent names I’d been saving up: Vandal, Xerxes, and so on.

And Hark, the dog, is named that in part because the name is short and sharp and rhymes with “bark,” and, you know, Hark!, because we need to listen to him because he’s the first of the talking dogs and what’s that all about? It’s also the name of a character, a scary spy, in James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks, a picture book that creeped me right the fuck out when I was a kid. It’s a book in which a character’s name beginning with X (Xingu, if I recall correctly) is a big deal, and that contains a poem one terrifying stanza of which reads, “Hark, hark, the dogs do bark,/ The Duke is fond of kittens./ He likes to take their insides out,/ And use their fur for mittens.” Holy shit!

As always, too, for me, it comes back to growing up in West Virginia, in a region where people had old, dignified, incredibly rich names, names that had gorgeously transmogrified through generations of misspelling and isolation, names the connected to the land, multisyllabic names that sounded like they must magically mean something: names like Belcher, Seldomridge, Brackenridge, Loudermilk, Tuckwiller, Snedegar, Argabright. If I had gotten nothing else out of growing up in Greenbrier County, I’d have been gifted with a great wealth of hugely evocative names. I’ve also had generous folks bequeath me their names, when I’ve asked and sometimes when I haven’t, for use in my stories–a guy named Miles Feather, for instance (I love names that are objects: Broom, Bone, Candles), and the fabulously named Attilla Fuat Gokbudak. Names to me are better than money.


KK: I’ll be seeing you at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Minnesota in April. With more than 10,000 writers in attendance, it’s an intensely social conference. Although writers are often pictured working alone, hunched over a wooden desk in some candlelit room, skittish if called out of our reverie, we do sometimes enjoy a little human contact. In terms of your writing process, what kind of social interactions solicit ideas, inspire, or make you excited to get back to the page?

PB: I’m not a particularly social person. As my wife, the novelist Laura Benedict, likes (with great accuracy) to say, “If the Benedicts are invited, then it must be a very large party indeed.” The same is true of my writing life. I have a very small number of folks to whom I show my work when it’s drafted, and they tend not to be writers, or at least professional writers, because people who think of themselves as writers tend to focus on fiddly technical aspects of the work. I’m pretty solid on the technical stuff, generally speaking, and what I want to know is when I’m finished writing is, Does this work as a story? Basic stuff, non-esoteric. Are you sufficiently interested in this character and his dilemma that you’ll hang with the weird curve-balls that I tend to throw? Have I gotten so hung up on my own cleverness with language that you start to lose track of what’s going on? Is it exciting? Did it scare you? In two or three days will you still be thinking about that guy with his face ripped off?

These are the kinds of questions that writers often don’t seem willing to ask, of themselves or others, apparently. They seem beneath us, maybe, as though our interestingness weren’t ever in question, or as though that might be a base thing to try to strive for, to intrigue another human being into turning to the next page rather than going to sleep or flipping on the TV. And really, it’s all we want and all we should want, and more than most of us will ever achieve. But the other stuff is easier to talk about: this section needs to be in present tense (writers worry so much about tenses! and readers pretty much never do, in my experience) or your images are very pretty here. The stuff that is tough to talk about–you are boring me here and it makes me hate you and wish that you would die–never gets said.

So my close friends tend not to be writers, or at least people who think of themselves primarily as writers, though they may in fact be excellent writers. They tend to be big readers, though, and that’s a difference: writers say they read a lot, sure, but writers, I have found, lie. And they lie a lot about how much they read.

So when somebody I like (and I make sure that I like my early readers, because why would I care to try to please and intrigue someone I do not like a great deal? and I make sure that they like me, because why would they bother to tell useful truths to someone who they did not like a great deal?) and trust says to me, “This is a good story” or “This is not a good story, and here’s what I didn’t care for,” then I’m inspired to go back to it, to fix what’s wrong or to double down on what’s right. Other sorts of social interactions drive me back to the word processor just because the world outside my head is so full or distractions and unattractive, frightening, confusing weirdnesses. The weirdness inside my head makes me happy.

That said: Hey everybody! Looking forward to seeing you at AWP!


KK: Yes, Everyone, see you at AWP! On our panel we’ll be speaking about the influence of Joyce Carol Oates and how her mentorship shaped our work, our teaching, and our writing lives.

Pinckney, you studied under Joyce as an undergraduate at Princeton University and have spoken of her with deep regard. What freedoms or permissions did she give you that affected your writing and your writing life?

PB: It’s pretty simple. At the beginning stages of my writing life, she liked what I was doing and said so unequivocally. That was all the permission I needed and all the permission I have ever needed. When I went off to grad school, for instance, it was pretty obvious that the people around me couldn’t stand what I was doing. All I had to do, though, was think to myself, “Hey, buddy! This hillbilly nonsense was good enough for Joyce Carol Oates, so nerts to you!” That attitude has stuck with me.


KK: r.k.vr.y’s founding editor, Victoria Pynchon, quotes an interview with a sculptor who advised that the secret to a successful and happy life was to “choose to do something with your life about which you’re passionate but which you cannot ever accomplish.” Is there an aspect of writing that you feel like you’ll never accomplish, but that you love continually striving for?

PB: Oh yes. That seems right to me, because I am made very much in the old-fashioned tragic mold, as opposed to the therapeutic one I seem to see so much of all around me these days. My gloriously doomed project? I want to capture, fully and completely, in every shading, nuance, and tone, the time and the place in which I grew up, populated by all the people among whom I lived.

This is, I suppose, something like what my old teacher and yours, JCO, used to refer to as the writer’s “great subject”: the thing that is at the heart of all the writing, and each new piece reveals just a bit more of it, so that the whole is composed over the course of years and decades, a lifetime’s labor. That’s one of the reasons that I’m not in any hurry, generally speaking, over what I do or how much I publish: I have no burning desire to create or to put out any single story, because they are all–I hope, if I’m doing my job right–just little pieces of this vast story of a single brief moment in an insignificant place that passed out of being many years ago and that can never with any real hope of accuracy be recaptured.

That’s the unachievable goal I’ve been pursuing for many years now, and I am, if I say so myself, happy as a clam.



Kristiana Kahakauwila is the author of THIS IS PARADISE: STORIES (Hogarth, 2013) and a fervent admirer of Pinckney Benedict’s work and wicked sense of humor.

Interview with Eva Marino

Eva Marino

David White: Your story, “Sitting in the Sandbox”, is fictional, but draws on a sense of realism. What is it about the nitty-gritties of reality that speak to you? What is the distinctive appeal of a true-to-life fictional story?

Eva Marino: What truly draws me to the nitty-gritty stuff is how people respond to it. But what I really admire is the human spirit (as cheesy as that sounds), and it amazes me what a human can endure. A person can survive about three weeks without food, or he or she can endure years of ridicule or domestic abuse. In the end, after enduring such torment, some people still have the ability to be optimistic or kind, instead of the opposite. This strength is what attracts me to true-to-life stories because I find it easier to connect to characters who struggle with faults and obstacles, and I like to see them push though and strengthen themselves along the way.


DW: Besides being a talented writer, you’re an award winning artist; how do you feel your art and your writing intersect? And when you feel creative, how do you choose whether to paint or write?

EM: Well, I have the tendency to daydream a lot, and I mostly daydream about the little details in life. For instance, I could be looking at a desert sunset and admire how brilliantly the colors blend in the sky or how they hit the curves of the clouds. Not only do I like putting these little details on a canvas, but I love how words can act as paint, also. I guess my attention to detail is what intersects both mediums, and it’s something I’m really careful about when it comes to any form of art.

When it comes to painting versus writing, I guess it depends on what I want to capture. In my paintings, I usually want to try to capture the colors or expressions that words can’t really explain, and I usually leave the interpretation to the viewer. In my writing, I want to be more specific about a scene, and I want to make it active. It’s kind of like saying my paintings are made to capture a moment, and my writings are made to capture a series of events.


DW: The story is told in first person. How do you make the decision to use a first-person narrator rather than a removed narrator?

EM: In the case of “Sitting in the Sandbox,” the topic of the story was very personal to me, and I’ve gone through a similar conversation with a close friend of mine, so I felt that first person was appropriate because it was like I am personally telling the story. For me, first-person narratives are easier to use when trying to make a closer connection with the reader, as opposed to a removed narrator, who doesn’t really have an emotional connection to the story. I know many great writers are successful in making an emotional connection through removed narrations, but I’m not quite good at it yet.

Goldfinch (Sitting in teh Sandbox)

DW: r.kv.r.y’s focus is on recovery, on “obtaining usable substances from unusable sources.” What are your characters trying recover? What are their “unusable sources” and how do they obtain “usable substances”? 

EM: My characters are just average teenage girls, but one of them, Dhalia, is met with the issue of not being accepted as she is, and the narrator is trying to be the light in her friend’s dark world. Dhalia is trying to recover her sense of self because she is afraid of her family’s rejection, and the narrator is trying to recover the best friend that she is slowly losing to self-loathing.

Their “unusable sources” are the situations in which they have found themselves in: a young girl fearing ridicule and rejection because of who she is, and a best friend in pain. Out of these sources, both of them obtain friendship, love, and compassion. Dhalia finds a friend who she knows will love her for everything that she is, and who will comfort her when she is in pain, and the narrator finds a friend who trusts her completely. The two girls know they can share anything with each other, and I think is really important in any healthy relationship.


DW: “Sitting in the Sandbox” alludes to a time of innocence, a time of childhood, and yet, your characters are verging on adulthood. Could you explain your symbolism here? Why a sandbox, which is associated with the playground?

EM: Well, most teens struggle with people telling them to act more mature, but they are still not treated as adults, and this constant wavering between childhood and adulthood can be dizzying. In all honesty, there are many children and teens in this world that deal with adult problems, and they are not quite sure how to deal with them. Dhalia, a teenager, is struggling with her identity, as most teens do, and she is unsure of how to handle the situation. Although I am new to being an adult, I think I can safely say that many adults still go through this struggle with finding themselves. This inner struggle, along with other adult issues (e.g. taxes, jobs, health, money, etc.) can make someone wish they were back in elementary school, playing in a sandbox and not having to care about the nitty-gritties of the world.

So, the symbolism of the sandbox is the girls’ wish to stay young and innocent. The girls don’t want to deal with stressful conflicts, expectations, and responsibilities, but their fate is inevitable. By being on the playground, they are trying to hang on to what innocence they have left before they are thrust into adulthood.



David White teaches Creative Writing to high school students.

Interview with Hannah Baggott


Erica Trabold: Hi, Hannah. I’m so happy to be able to sit down and talk with you about your poem Alternative Therapies: See “Juicing” and your poetry in general. As your desk mate at Oregon State, it’s been a joy to be introduced to your work, read your poems, and share in the thrill of publishing them. I’m not a poet myself, but as a nonfiction writer, I’m very much interested in the autobiographical elements of your poetry. Your work, to me, seems very autobiographical. So, to start us off I’m wondering, how do you approach truth in your writing?

Hannah Baggott: I’m interested in Richard Hugo in “The Triggering Town” saying that truth must conform to music, and for a long time I was totally on board with that and was willing to invent whatever I wanted back before I wrote about illness. But, illness as subject matter has driven me to make sure that even if the events are slightly shifted for craft or style or point, the poems are always emotionally true. Always. That’s what I’m trying to get at in my work, to be emotionally valid at every point. So, even in things that are narrative, if the narrative is slightly shifted, even though sometimes that makes me uncomfortable—I never want to lie—sometimes there is more emotional truth in adjusting the narrative than it is as we live.


ET: In the poem published in Rkvry, “Alternative Therapies: See Juicing,” you name specific drugs and later name juicing as a form of therapy, but you don’t directly name your illness. Can you talk about your choice to focus on the effects of therapy rather than the illness itself?

HB: I’ll give some background. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2007 when I was sixteen, but its effects didn’t become apparent to me until after I started writing poetry. First, “multiple sclerosis” is not a very poetic phrase—it strains the jaw—but secondly, I’m a lot more interested in chronic illness and therapies for treating incurable disorders. Often, there are side effects of the medication or treatment, and you can’t differentiate the side effects from the effects of the disorder itself. So, in a lot of my poems, and especially in “Alternative Therapies: See Juicing,” I’m looking at that anxiety and the effects from treatment. I think that it has a wider effect on readers if it’s not grounded in “this is a poem about multiple sclerosis.” Instead, it says, “this is a poem about trying to figure out the mind and body and really not being able to” because the poem in itself doesn’t offer redemption or a solution.


ET: You mentioned something interesting at the beginning of that answer about how you didn’t notice the effects of MS until after you started writing poetry. Do you have a specific memory or experience about those two things intertwining?

HB: I’ve always been interested in writing. I’ve kept a diary since I was seven, and I have them all. They’re not very interesting, but as a younger writer, I was interested in language and what that could do and how to write about my experiences in a way where my parents couldn’t understand it. I didn’t want them to be able to read about all the mischievous things I was up to. Moving forward and into this MFA program at OSU, I never thought about writing about MS because at the time, illness seemed like such a trope. I didn’t want to fall into self pity, into dark places, or give in to possibilities of depression that chronic illness can often bring. I never addressed illness because I just didn’t want to. It was too scary, and I didn’t think it was very interesting, honestly.

But then, I took a class with Jen Richter during my first term at OSU on poetry and medicine. We read these incredible collections that framed the perspective of doctors and nurses, but also people with illnesses, or the partners of people with cancer, people experiencing the medical system or the effects of illness on the body in some way, and it was just incredible. I was inspired to attempt that. The book that I read that I think threw me into it and made realize I could write about this in a way that mattered was Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay, which is a really interesting cross-genre memoir, and also just really beautiful and lyrical. That’s where I got my start—that’s what pushed me into writing about illness.

Alternative Therapies

ET: People with chronic illness understand that recovery is a constantly ongoing process. Now that you are comfortable with the subject matter, how do you think your work speaks to that experience?

HB: I want to push back, first, on the concept of recovery. I do think that it’s a beautiful concept and it’s something that we all work toward as far as illness is concerned, especially with treatment and the desire to be whole and not “other.” But the concept of recovery in chronic illness is potentially unattainable, at least for me right now with MS. I can only speak from my experience, but MS is degenerative. There are periods of health, and there are periods of illness—good days and bad days, if you will. But, recovery is not really an option in the prognosis, if that makes sense, of a full and total recovery from something autoimmune and neurological and degenerative, which has taken me a long time to accept.

My poetry addresses that idea of progression, and in the collection I’m working on currently, the phrase that I’ve found for it is that it attempts to “stay in the mess” of illness, rather than looking back nostalgically at any time before where it was good, or looking at any concept of redemption or full recovery, or even idolizing that as an option… because it’s just not. But, that’s okay, and I think in that understanding there’s a sense of emotional and mental recovery, in growing to accept the physical reality of a chronic illness like MS.


ET: You call yourself a “poet of the body.” Can you share more about how the body informs your writing, specifically in terms of illness?

HB: I know in my bios and in other ways of discussing my work, I do identify as “poet of the body” over “poet of illness” or “poet of degeneration” because my writing, even the poems that aren’t grounded in illness, does indeed come back to the body, and to sensation, and to physical experience. I’m also interested in the relationship between body and mind, and that’s something you can see in “Juicing.” You can hear, especially when you read it out loud, an anxiety, and there’s a fallacious logic in the poem, which is what a lot of my other poems do. For me, to ground poetry in the body is to ground it in something universal—the body is universal.


ET: I think you demonstrate this through the two characters in this poem. Even if a reader doesn’t have experience with illness, there are people they care about that might or might in the future. And because you place the loved one in the poem, the partner, maybe that’s an entry point for people who do not identify directly with the subject matter. In the final stanza, it seems that your partner becomes a mode of therapy superior to juicing. Can you talk more about this relationship and the role that support from loved ones can play in the day-to-day of chronic illness?

HB: My partner’s name is Max. I was mapping out the current collection that I’m working on, my MFA thesis, and I looked up at him and said, “All these poems are about you. This collection is about you as much as it is about illness.” It’s about our relationship and that level of support and calmness there. The intention of this particular poem was to reflect on my own flawed logic and emotional instability that come as side effects of medication. I have a fear of not being myself, losing control mentally, emotionally, or physically. It’s hard to pinpoint causation.

But the poem does turn to focus on the partner –the one static thing. Max has been with me through all of these changes in just the past year, where I’ve started to progress into something a little bit worse. There are a lot more challenges, but he’s always there no matter what and no matter what kind of state I’m in, keeping me in check and letting me know everything’s going to be okay, even if I don’t feel present. The partner, especially in these poems, becomes grounding, present, and fueling for both characters… which sounds kind of dangerous. But I think in the context of illness, it works, or it has to because otherwise you have a speaker with illness alone and the potential to get a little bit existential, questioning the world and the hand you’ve been given. If you’re lucky enough to be a supportive situation, you’re given a little bit of room to be unstable without having to worry about losing yourself. Someone is holding the space for you.


ET: Sometimes readers approach illness or recovery-oriented writing with the assumption that it’s going to be depressing. How do you find balance between that and writing about the realities of chronic illness?

HB: Rafael Campo talks about this in some of his writing. In “Illness as Muse,” an essay published through the Bellevue Literary Review, he talks about how people tell him that his work is so depressing. When illness is the theme of any work, I think calling it depressing is kind of misleading. I think it’s human. There’s a lot that can be gained if readers would seek out work about illness without assuming that it all is going to be depressing or completely redemptive. There’s something to be said about the gray space in between what we might assume to be depressing and what we might assume to be almost too sentimental, which was one of my fears about “Alternative Therapies: See Juicing.” The end of the poem, I wondered, “Am I getting borderline sentimental here?” But then, it’s not, I don’t think, because it’s not a conclusive answer to anything that was asked. It’s just said. Dark doesn’t have to mean depressing.


ET: Earlier, you mentioned a larger project. What else are you working on right now?

HB: The current collection that I’m working on here at OSU, which I’m finishing up this year, is on illness, but framed in faith and intimacy, which are kind of the big words. They’re big concepts, and it doesn’t sound too specific, but again, under the idea that everything “stays in the mess” there’s a mess of processing faith and intimacy in the context of progressing illness. That’s the collection that I’m working on and that I’m really jazzed about.


ET: Where can readers find more of your published work?

HB: As far as my other work, I have a good deal of work out there that isn’t about illness, but it is grounded in the body. One particular journal that I am excited to have a poem in is the Bellevue Literary Review. I recently was lucky enough to win their Marica and Jan Vilcek Prize for Poetry for a poem called “Dysesthesia.” It goes through the nine layers of hell in the context of my own life in a meditative sense, and it comes out in the Spring 2015 issue. Links to my other work are listed on my website:



Erica Trabold (@ericatrabold) writes and teaches in Oregon, where she is pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Seneca Review, Weave, and Penumbra.

Archives – Fall 2014


fall 2014
vol. xi. no. 4



“Mouseskull” by Ann Pancake

“The Beginnings of Sorrow” by Pinckney Benedict

“Elemenopy” by Sylvia Foley


“Alternative Therapies: See ‘Juicing'” by Hannah Baggott

“There Is No Such Thing As Spring” by A. Inguanta and S. Squillante

“SAGO: Buckhannon, WV–January 2, 2006: 6:30 a.m. ET” by Mark DeFoe

“I Tried to Drag Back” by John McKernan

“Pas de Deux” by Patrick Bahls


“No Such Thing as a Small Secret” by Debbie Bradford

Shorts on Survival

“The Survival of Uncle Peachy” by Laura Long

“Sitting in the Sandbox” by Eva Marino

“In the Waking Hour” by Keith Rebec

“Pillars of Salt” by Margaret Frey

Homepage Fall 2014

All images appear in this issue courtesy of the artist, Mike Quesinberry.

Dear Readers,

Welcome to our Fall 2014 “APPALACHIA” issue. We’re incredibly proud to present to you the wonderful and diverse array of voices in this issue, all complimented by the beautiful photographic art of Mike Quesinberry which he has graciously donated for this issue.

We’re featuring work from some of my very favorite Appalachian writers as well as hearing from an array of new voices. For the first time ever, we even have an audio file of a short story: Ann Pancake’s terrific story “Mouseskull,” read by the talented voice actor Gina Detwiler. We’re exploring the oldest mountains in North America and having loads of fun in the process. You should find a lot to enjoy in this issue. I hope that you will take the time to explore it.

Our January 2015 issue will be themed CAREGIVERS and our April 2015 issue will have the theme of WOMEN. Thanks for reading.

Yours in Recovery,

Mary Akers

“Mouseskull” by Ann Pancake


Listen to Ann Pancake’s wonderful short story MOUSESKULL as performed by Gina Miani Detwiler.


Ann Pancake grew up in Romney and Summersville, WV. Her first novel, Strange As This Weather Has Been (Counterpoint 2007), features a southern West Virginia family devastated by mountaintop removal mining. The novel was one of Kirkus Review’s Top Ten Fiction Books of 2007, won the 2007 Weatherford Award, and was a finalist for the 2008 Orion Book Award. Her collection of short stories, Given Ground, won the 2000 Bakeless award, and she has also received a Whiting Award, an NEA Grant, a Pushcart Prize, and creative writing fellowships from the states of Washington, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The Georgia ReviewPoets and WritersNarrative, and New Stories from the South. She lives in Seattle and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. “Mouseskull” first appeared in The Georgia Review.

Gina Miani Detwiler has a BA in English and Drama from Vassar College and studied Theatre Directing at Columbia University. She worked for several years as a theatre specialist and Entertainment Director for the US Army in Germany and has acted, written and directed for theatre companies in Colorado and New York.  She loves reading aloud to her kids and was thrilled to be asked to contribute to r.k.vr.y with an audio version of the amazing story Mouseskull. She’s written the novels Avalon, The Hammer of God, and the forthcoming Forlorn.


“Alternative Therapies: See ‘Juicing'” by Hannah Baggott

Alternative Therapies

You and I fight in the kitchen—juice splattering the walls,
kale flesh on the floor, ginger dripping down our vertebrae—

because I had taken too much Ritalin, but it’s fine;
the neurologist said it’s fine, it’s fine. And I am crying

over the dirty dishes in our old sink that doesn’t drain well.
Recycled saline, I say. But your fingers whisper small circles

behind my ears, singing bluegrass hymns over the train whistle
we hear every hour. It’s okay. It’s okay, you say, holding up

a straw to my deaf mouth. After, my teeth beet-tinted, I shiver,
so you run the shower hot because you know

how Solumedrol makes me cold and Interferon makes me cold
and IVs make me cold. You take off your clothes

and mine; the carrot juice washes off my hands like rot.
Then, you see the bruises— the space

between the skin and the veins pooling to shades of blackberry
and eggplant. You trace the holes.

I tell you how yesterday, I watched the blood spray out
at the sweaty nurse in the faded scrubs.

I keep seeing him jump back and goddamn,
forcing gauze so fast on the opening,

I thought I burned him. You’d never burn anyone,
you say, planting your feet to rinse the brine off us both.




Hannah Baggott, a Nashville native, is a poet of the body. She is pursuing an MFA in poetry at Oregon State University while teaching writing courses. She has received awards for flash fiction and critical writing in gender studies. Her work can be found in Tupelo Quarterly and other journals. Learn more at

Read an interview with Hannah here.