Interview with Liz Prato


Mary Akers: Hi, Liz! Thanks for agreeing to talk with me today, and for letting us have your wonderful short story “Covered in Red Dirt.” I first read it in your kick-ass collection Baby’s on Fire and absolutely loved it. I feel a strong sense of longing when I read “Covered in Red Dirt,” and an additional sense of…for lack of a better word…unfinishedness…? And I don’t mean that the story feels unfinished—it doesn’t. I mean deliberately “unfinished” in the way of a beautiful piece of wood. Something that gleams with its own confident beauty, without adding flash and gloss to distract from its essence. I think that idea gets at the longing that I feel. As an artistic choice, it’s very effective. I carry that story with me because of it.

Liz Prato: Whoa, I’m so grateful for what you’re saying about the “unfinishedness” of Covered in Red Dirt, because some people DO think it’s not finished. They’re like, “Where’s the end? What happened?” But the outcomes weren’t the actual story for me. The story was the narrator’s stasis—and it’s hard to get stasis on the page in an interesting way because, generally, nothing happens and that’s inherently dull. But there is a certain kind that occurs when you’re in Hawai‘i—especially on the more rural islands, like the Big Island and Kaua‘i. It starts out feeling like relaxation, or harmony, but can easily morph into not acting, not making decisions.


MA: Yes. The narrator’s stasis–such a good point. Colors are an intense and evocative part of this story, too. Beginning with Kimo’s brown skin with white splotches, then the bed’s red-brown koa wood, the red dirt everywhere, the yellow surfboard, the blue waves…and then the ending! Those final words: “bright white.” So good. It’s a sensuous, color-saturated story for me as I read and then I get slapped by that glorious and perfect ending. Was the use of color intentional on your part? Or simply an intuitive result of the writing process?

LP: A little of both. It’s impossible to write about Hawai‘i without writing about the natural landscape, and it’s impossible to write about the landscape without color. Kaua‘i is saturated with all these insane shades of green and blue and brown, and the red dirt is everywhere. I was aware that once I got red on the page then blood was on the page by association, and that opened up the story in a corporeal way. Also, race is an issue in Hawai‘i. People like to say it’s a perfect melting pot, and race doesn’t matter, and that’s ridiculous. Race matters deeply. Skin color has meaning. It’s a huge part of how people identify themselves and others. But the vitiligo (which I have in real life, by the way) is also a metaphor for how our identities get split.

Tomoka Trail, 24x24, acrylic, mixed media on canvas

MA: Another one of the standout stories for me was “A Space You Can Fall Into.” Wow. You have this wonderful talent for succinctly and devastatingly conveying a whole moment–distilling a whole life-changing moment–in just a few words. Words that are ostensibly about something else, but we know–we KNOW–what is being said, without being told. My very favorite writers do this and it slays me every time. In the passage I’m thinking of, a young girl (Shelby) is having decidedly non-romantic sex for the first time in the bed of a pickup truck with a friend of her cousin’s whom she has just met:

“…she looks up at the sky and notices it for the first time: you can see stars here. All of them. Every star that was ever made, whether it still exists or not, looks down at Shelby in the back of the brown pick-up truck, and they don’t twinkle or glow or any of those other things you expect stars to do. They just burn.”

Would you like to comment on that?

LP: As a reader, I want to be able to feel what the character is feeling not just by being told, but by how the atmosphere is rendered. There’s that scene in The Stranger where Meursault describes walking down the beach towards the Arab—who he claims he didn’t intend to kill—and the surroundings are described with such sharp syntax, words like blast and strike and gasped and bleached and blade and glare. The sounds of these words make it clear that this man is about to snap under the pressure of anger and violence. When you have an unreliable or detached narrator, like Meursault, or one who’s emotionally guarded, like Shelby, what that character won’t say outright needs to be rendered through how they see the world. Because that’s still my job as an author, to let the reader into the world, even if the character might not want to.

MA: That’s so smart–and similar to the problem from that first question about how to show the narrator’s stasis–though in Shelby’s case it’s a sort of emotional stasis. You’ve tackled these difficult narrative choices and made them work in fascinating ways. I also appreciate your deft touches of humor. Your deadpan delivery often catches me by surprise in the best way. I’m thinking, specifically, of Meg’s scenarios for Celia in “When Cody Told Me He Loves Me on a Weird Winter Day.” Humor is such a complicated thing and can be difficult to do well. Can you talk a little bit about humor? Its benefits? Its pitfalls? In writing and/or in life.

LP: Just today I sent my husband this gallows-humor text about my dad’s first of several suicide attempts, which happened exactly 8 years ago. If someone didn’t know me, the whole thing would seem pretty bleak and even unstable, but my husband texted back “Haha!” Thank god I married someone who gets that humor as a survival tactic. It lifts us out of whatever micro-tragedy we’re mired in, and gives us a chance to breathe. Even in some of the saddest episodes of my life, I could still locate the small absurdities to laugh about. It’s not a coincidence that the first two stories you mentioned—Covered in Red Dirt, and A Space You Can Fall Into—have almost zero humor and were written during a real dark period in my life. I couldn’t see the happy or hopeful ending, and couldn’t see the humor then. But for the most part, that deadpan or gallows humor will always be a part of how I approach the tough stuff.


MA: Me, too. I’d be lost without gallows humor. It’s so versatile! So flexible! Multipurpose, even. 🙂 Can you tell me something about your current writing project?

LP: I’m working on a collection of linked essays that explore my decades-long relationship with Hawai‘i through the lens of white imperialism and pop culture. I have this deep soul connection with the Islands that started with frequent visits when I was a teenager when my dad was building a housing subdivision on Maui. It recently occurred to me that the very thing responsible for bringing me to Hawai‘i is also responsible for destroying it and its culture: white mainlanders coming in and taking the land, the a‘ina, for their own. And being a tourist continues that cycle. In the essays, I’m braiding my personal narrative of coming of age in Hawai‘i as a teenager and going there as an adult to recover from the death of my entire family, with Hawaiian history and cultural affairs. I invoke Joan Didion and The Brady Bunch–wow, there are two names I never thought I’d say in the same sentence–and language and war and the ocean and ashes. In a sense, it’s a love story. My romantic beginnings with Hawai‘i were naïve and predicated on the shiny surface. Now, my abiding love encompasses not just Hawai‘i’s beauty, but also its struggles and deep wounds.


MA: That sounds fascinating. I would love to read those essays. And finally, because we are a recovery-themed journal, what does recovery mean to you?

LP: I’ve always thought of recovery as the process of renegotiating my relationship to the world after I’ve fallen down, deep down, and needed help getting up. That sounds simplistic, like a sound bite, and it totally denies what an active, exhausting process recovery can be. It’s not like recovering from running a marathon, which is mostly about resting and taking hot baths and getting massages. Recovering from trauma or addiction or illness is about rearranging your insides. You have to accept and integrate new ideas of yourself and the world into your DNA, and it can be a painful and hard. But the other option is to live a life where I’m not fully engaged, and I can’t do that. That’s what my mom and dad and brother did, and they’re no longer on this earth. That’s a powerful reminder not to succumb.


MA: Wow. That may be the best answer to that question I’ve ever gotten. Thank you, Liz, for such a wonderful discussion.

An Interview with Pat Zalisko


Mary Akers: Hi, Pat! Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me today. I’m such a fan of your beautiful work and I’ve learned more about your process as we’ve collaborated on the Winter 2017 issue. One of the things I so admire is your continual search for inspiration. I feel like you are always “open” always taking in the world around you and processing it into beautiful images. Is that just my outsider perception? Or do you recognize some truth in that?

Pat Zalisko: Mary, thank you for asking me to collaborate with you. That project opened up yet another opportunity to explore in my art making. I am incredibly grateful for you sharing this project with me!

The world is a rich and burgeoning storeroom, a bottomless cupboard filled with ingredients that spark new art or a series. I am only processing what we are all seeing, feeling, experiencing, but in my own way. This project was particularly important to me, as you approached me at time when I was exploring line and mark making during a residency. I discovered several things then, including that what I read and heard was being translated into a new visual language. I’ve coined this series, Disappearing Lines.


MA: “A rich and burgeoning storeroom.” What a wonderful way to put it. That’s going to be ricocheting off my brain pan all day. So good. I imagine when using other sources of creative work for inspiration–particularly writing, as you have done here–there must be some things that are difficult to translate, or perhaps TRANSMUTE is the better word. Can you talk briefly about the joys and frustrations of that process?

PZ: As readers, we digest writing through the filters of our own experiences, personalities, thought patterns. How each of us processes an elegant piece of prose, for example, will be different. And when I read something that is moving, I can only interpret it against my own personal biases. Powerful words stay with me long into a piece of art. But I do feel that we all share a common experience, a common thread. And I find this shared history comforting, because it at once confirms our individual dignity and our universal frailty.


MA: I feel that your artwork offers that, too–the comfort of shared history and experience. I’ve thought a lot about the function of art, the accessibility of art, and the conversation between artist and “consumer.” I feel strongly that art takes two to be fully realized. At first, the artist is simply in conversation with his-or-her own mind … until there is someone on the other side of that art, enjoying it, experiencing it, or even hating it. But it seems to me that art takes two brains to be fully realized–-the creator’s brain and the experiencer’s brain. Do you agree that conversation is inherent in the creation/realization of art?

PZ: Absolutely. I once had a spirited debate with a mentor, who felt slighted when he discovered that his art was often misinterpreted/interpreted by viewers in a manner other than what he intended. I disagreed with him. I don’t believe that it’s an artist’s mission to dictate how their work must be viewed. Art – like writing and music – are designed to evoke an emotional response.

If a sculptor or painter – or playwright, novelist, poet – intends a work of art to portray a particular point of view, but it’s interpreted or seen in various other ways, that ‘conversation’ between the work and the viewer or reader is valid nonetheless. The ‘consumer’ of the work is just as unique as the creator: we each take in the work through our own filters and life experiences, and this gives the work just as much (if not richer) meaning. And that dialog between the work and the viewer or reader is a spiritual, expressive one.

Slattery's Ghost

MA: Along those lines, did you feel as if you were “in conversation” with the authors whose work you used as direct inspiration for a painting? Did you read and then immediately paint? Or read, let it percolate, and then paint?

PZ: The writing here was particularly powerful. In most instances, I read and allowed the words of these writers to wash over me. I read them, several times. I still return to them.

During this project, I journaled choice words or phrases, theirs or mine. I silently rehashed lines and words on a continuous loop in my head as I painted, keeping music going in the studio to maintain my pace. In this sense, I suppose, I felt more like a student, listening avidly to the wisdom of gifted instructors who could shed light on our tragedies, loves, triumphs, relationships, flaws. And I was conversing, in my way, by creating art in reply or to document what I felt. Through it all, I was learning new perspectives for the reactions we’ve all had to the experiences described by these writers.


MA: That continuous loop is such a rich vein creatively, isn’t it? Now I feel like I need to start paying more attention to my inner loops. 🙂

Did any of the work surprise you? By that I guess I mean, perhaps the deeper you went into painting it, the deeper you felt the meaning of what you had read …

PZ: This is interesting. I discovered that I would dream about select pieces here … and I still do occasionally. For example, Noa Sivan’s Two Cats, Jeff Rose’s Lighting Up, and Stephen Eoannou’s Slattery’s Ghost touched me to the core. And Haley Yelencich ‘s On Transmutation continues to haunt me, unearthed old memories and treading new ground in my art. All of the authors you selected stirred up the embers of emotions that we’ve all felt, but incorrectly presumed were long dead.

Tomoka Trail, 24x24, acrylic, mixed media on canvas

MA: I feel as if abstract work lends itself especially well to emotional interpretations and that what we bring to a viewing of abstract art influences what we “find” in the painting. Do people sometimes interpret your work in ways that surprise you? How do you feel about that?

PZ: Abstraction captures things that cannot be seen, described or felt in any other way. To paraphrase Paul Klee, it makes “visible the invisible.” Perhaps exactly because it doesn’t describe in exhaustive detail that which we experience in the world, I’ve pursued it. I’ve spent a working lifetime using words as a precise weapon and tool. The ‘words’ of abstraction, however, completely elude such use. They are far more potent, can feel like the slap a doctor delivers to a newborn’s bottom or a surprise punch, without uttering a syllable. I’m hoping to feel the magic in that art, rather than literally read it.

I do agree with you: if I, as an artist, process what I’m seeing/hearing/reading/feeling in my own unique manner, then we, as viewers or readers must necessarily bring our own interpretations to a work. We have no choice. I am always interested to hear how viewers perceive my art.


MA: What role do you think recovery plays in the creative process? Have you found yourself drawn to images or themes that you later realized stemmed from something you needed to work through?

PZ: I was perhaps drawn to this collaboration with you because of that reason, because as you shared these particular pieces with me, I relived the immediacy and freshness of emotions and experiences from my own life or those close to me. In that sense, it gave me the opportunity to review those events from an older, more detached perspective. It was therapeutic for me and I thank you, and these writers, for that opportunity.

Creating intellectual property like writing or art puts a face on and names that otherwise eludes the artist or writer. Identifying “it” in the work helps us understand and work it out. This can be a painful experience with beautiful, transformative consequences.


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

PZ: As I age, I’m discovering that healing means facing that which we fear most, whether it’s an addiction, an illness, our parents’ aging, dysfunctional siblings, surviving and escaping war, starvation, death. If we can confront the pain of that fear, perhaps finding solutions in creative efforts (like making art, writing, reading, composing), we emerge from these tragedies and trials, often finding love and support from others and we realize that we’re not alone.


Interview with Stephen G. Eoannou

Steve Eoannou

CD: The common thread in your short story collection, Muscle Cars, and in “Slattery’s Ghost” are engaging, flawed men struggling through life. This is not unique, yet your stories most certainly are. How did you develop your taut, unflinchingly honest voice? In your creative process, which comes first, character or plot? 

SE: What comes first is something real, a nugget of truth, a fact quirky or interesting enough that gets me thinking that a story can be built around it. I read a newspaper article about migrating geese taking over a local park and “Culling” was born. Ted Williams’ head is really frozen and sitting in a canister in Arizona. How bizarre is that? My parish priest was killed when I was sixteen and it was traumatic so “Slip Kid” was written decades later. I had just finished reading Jimmy Slattery’s biography and was fascinated with the multiple sightings of his ghost haunting his favorite bar and staggering down Chippewa Street. I knew I wanted to write about that and even came up with the title—“Slattery’s Ghost”—before I had either a plot or a main character. Once I stumble over or remember something that makes me curious, character comes next. What kind of guy would want to shoot all those geese with a World War Two rifle? Who would drive cross country to steal Ted Williams’ head just to bury it in Fenway? Who shot that priest five times in the back and why? Who would be interested in Jimmy Slattery ninety years after he was lightweight champ? The stories and the voices of the characters emerged when I was trying to answer those questions.


CD: “Stealing Ted Willams’ Head” is one of my favorite stories from Muscle Cars. This overwhelmed-by-normal-life protagonist agrees with his buddy’s plan to steal the head of famed baseball player, Ted Williams. But, like with many of your protagonists, plans don’t work out. Talk about the genesis for that character and the quirky scheme to take the head.

SE: I used to work out at this gym in North Buffalo and in the locker room there was a black-and-white photograph of Ted Williams hung on the wall. His swing was perfect. I’d admire that picture every time I went to work out. I vaguely remember reading about how his head had been cryogenically frozen after he died, but I didn’t recall the details. I found the articles online and it was all so macabre and sad. Teddy deserved a better fate. Actually, he deserved to be rescued but by whom? I was thinking about that the night I went to my high school reunion. At some point during the night, I realized I had just finished the same conversation with a guy that I’d had with him thirty years earlier. I started eavesdropping then on the conversations around me and heard old arguments like which Tripi sister was hotter and who had the coolest car back in the day. I felt like I had one foot in the present and one in the past and it struck me that that should be exactly the predicament of the guys who want to steal Teddy Ballgame’s head. Both characters are stuck—one in the past and one in the present–and they need an adventure like driving two thousand miles to steal a head to get them moving forward. I went home that night and started working on the story. It’s one of my favorites in the collection.


CD: What has been the most surprising thing about your life as a writer?

SE: The most surprising thing to me is that I have a writing life. Writing is humbling. I had three failed novels and a drawer crammed with rejection slips before I began to publish on a regular basis. I think I averaged about a published story every eight years until not too long ago. It’s hard to keep trying when the rejections are pouring in and there’s no support or encouragement coming from any quarter. There’s a great deal of self-validation and satisfaction with each story that’s published and each invitation I receive to give a reading or to teach a class or to give an interview like this one. I love the network of writers that I now have in my life and the people I’ve met—bookstore owners, editors, publishers, readers—who love books and reading and writing. I feel very fortunate to be a small part of it.

CD: Also, as a writer, what is your Kryptonite?

SE: Time. I fight against it every day, and it always wins. There are not enough writing hours in the morning before I have to go to my paying job. There are not enough editing hours at night before I have to sleep. Getting up at 5am to write has gotten more difficult over this past year, and I think it’s because I’m older. I have a sense of urgency now to get words down on paper because time is going so quickly. It doesn’t help that I write slowly. People always say you have to ‘make’ time to write. Well, you can’t make time. We’re stuck with the twenty-four hours we got. I can’t create an extra hour so I can revise. What I have to do is steal time. I steal from my nine-to-five job. I steal from time with my kids. Workouts are cut short or skipped all together. I’m stealing minutes at lunchtime and on breaks to polish sentences. I have a buddy who writes screenplays. He grew tired of Chicago winters and not having enough time to write because of his real estate job so he quit his old life, cashed in his 401K and headed to Hollywood. There is no Plan B. I’m rooting for him. He stole back the whole 24/7. I hope he writes something magnificent for all us time thieves nickel and diming are way through our manuscripts.


CD: Which writers inspire you? 

SE: John Irving was the first writer to inspire me. He was the one that made me want to be a writer in the first place. I remember finishing The Hotel New Hampshire when I was in high school and wishing I had written it. I loved how Irving could make me laugh until I realized how sad it all really was and then the laughter stopped. It was like a slap coming right off the page. I then discovered William Kennedy and Richard Russo at about the same time and loved the sense of place in their novels. They were New York writers like I wanted to be, not New York City writers. I wanted—still want—to write about Buffalo the way Kennedy writes about Albany and Russo writes about Upstate New York. Their turf just isn’t the setting for their work. It becomes a character as fully developed as any other. It took me a long time, too long, before I realized that my home town, my neighborhood, is filled with stories waiting to be discovered and told. My writing went to another level when I finally realized this and began mining in my own backyard. “Slattery’s Ghost” is a good example of this. I knew Slattery was a South Buffalo fighter and light weight champ in the twenties and that my Dad had thrown him out of his restaurant in the forties when Slattery was washed up and an alcoholic, but I didn’t know anything else. I read his biography, Slats by Rich Blake, and realized that Slats was such a Buffalo guy, a legend, that I wanted to write about him and his life and somehow weave it in to a present-day story. I was very pleased with how the story was constructed and that it found a home at r.kv.ry. How cool would it be if that story inspires a young writer out there to take a swing at writing a story of their own? If it does, I hope that writer lets me know so I can buy them a beer. I’m still waiting for Russo and Irving to buy me that first round.



Carla Damron draws on her experiences as a southerner and a social worker in her writings, including the literary novel, The Stone Necklace (2016), and three mystery novels, Keeping Silent, (2001,) Spider Blue (2006) and Death in Zooville, (2010). Damron’s short stories have appeared in literary collections and journals such as Marked by WaterSix Minute FictionMelusineIn Posse Review and Fall Lines. Damron received an MFA in Creative Writing in 2011. In 2016, she was honored to have The Stone Necklace selected to be the “One Book, One Community” read for Columbia, SC. Read more about Carla at


Interview with Terri Muuss


Mary Akers: Thanks for agreeing to talk with me today, Terri. I loved your poem Write to Save Someone. I’m wondering, has writing always been your first artistic love? If not, what was it and how did you transition to poetry/writing? 

Terri Muuss: Actually, acting, theatre and directing have always been my first loves. I came to acting quite young and naturally. It will always be a huge part of who I am and how I see art in a larger sense. Much of my poetry is born out of a theatricality I possess from being onstage these many years.

That being said, poetry was always sort of waiting in the wings for me. When I was in tenth grade, my best friend was a beautiful person and poet. I spent long days at her house after school as I had no inclination to go home to my own dysfunctional house. There, she read and wrote poetry in front of me and it certainly inspired me to use it as an avenue for expression. Later, during senior year, I had a teacher hand me a packet of poems by e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes that she thought I would enjoy. That packet sent me on a journey of reading as many poets as I could. Still, poetry was off to the side while theater took center stage.

It really wasn’t until I was faced with the trauma of my past and of putting myself together that writing became both a therapeutic tool and an artistic passion. To better understand the trauma of being sexually abused as a child, I wrote and wrote and wrote. Mostly poetry but also monologues. At the end, what I’d constructed was a one-woman show skeleton that became Anatomy of a Doll. I performed the show throughout New York City and then the country at conferences and in theaters. Even then, I didn’t identify myself as a writer. I thought of myself as a performer who just happened to use my writing as a script. When Veronica Golos (my friend, mentor and a gorgeous poet who’s won numerous awards) began taking an interest in my work and started editing it in a poetry workshop she led out of her house on the Upper West Side, I started to see myself in the context of being a poet and poetry as a vocation. I think the form of poetry works well to showcase the dissociation that comes with abuse much more than prose does. Veronica is still my editor, having worked on both Anatomy of a Doll and my book, Over Exposed.

But the biggest transition from actor to writer happened during my marriage to poet Matt Pasca. He’s always seen me as a writer and, before I even claimed that identity for myself, always pushed me to go deeper, to write more, to get better, to submit my work. Through our marriage I have grown as a writer and come to see myself as a poet.


MA: You write a lot about painful events and speak openly about them. Most people wouldn’t be able to do that. Where does this ability come from? What has been the reaction from friends and relatives about this openness?

TM: Many people have said they’ve seen me as courageous because I share the truth of my childhood sexual abuse, subsequent rapes, addiction and my recovery quite publicly. I have to acknowledge that this is the way it is perceived by other people. For me, however, it’s born out of necessity and so it’s never felt or seemed like courage. I have lived my life according to the 12-step saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” I know that what I keep inside me, what I feel shame about, what I try to hide, will destroy me from the inside. Giving a voice to my pain and shame and grief and mistakes gives me back my power, my joy and my life.

I’ve also grown to see that if I’m hiding the fact that I was sexually abused, I am sending myself and others the message that it was somehow my fault or that there’s something for me to be ashamed of. I’ve come to understand that what happened to me was not anything that I should be ashamed of. I was the victim so why should I be ashamed. I’ve also come to understand that the sexual abuse and the rape and the violence are a part of me but they are not the entirety of me.

Lastly, if I can help someone (with my story) to recover, let go of their shame, and move into survivorhood, then it is all more than worth it. As social worker and researcher Brene Brown states, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” I choose let go of secrecy and to douse my shame with empathy, and empathy for the world must begin with me.

Friends and relatives have been overwhelmingly supportive, although for some of them, it took a period of adjustment and listening that gave birth to deeper understanding. I surround myself with people who are willing to be empathetic, courageous, vulnerable, and honest with both me and themselves. I consider myself very lucky to have a wide circle of supportive people in my life.


MA: Are you very involved in a poetry community? Have you initiated any events? What advice do you have for readers who might be trying to do the same?

TM: I’m a licensed social worker and the macro version of social work is community organizing. The first rule of community organizing is to listen to the community. Too often, people come into a community with their own expectations and demands. They try to foist onto a community what they want to see the community have. If you’re really trying to build community, through the arts or otherwise, ask questions and be willing to hear the answers. The community might not want the same things you want for them but if community is your ultimate goal, you need to let its members be your guide. Too often in the poetry community, as in other communities, people set up an event that mirrors the kind of poetry THEY want but disregard what the community is really is looking for. Finding the right venue, format and publicity are integral to success.

My husband Matt Pasca and I run an event in Bay Shore, NY called  Second Saturdays at Cyrus which has featured poets and an open mic night at Cyrus Chai & Coffee Company. The event is successful, in part, to our long-held connections in the writing and poetry scenes on Long Island and New York City, which allows us to feature very talented poets of different backgrounds. Every day there’s a poetry event somewhere in NY but usually the poetry sounds like poetry of whoever’s running it and the poets performing look a lot like them. Second Saturdays is the opposite as it showcases both the diversity of NY community and their poetry. This is one reason it is almost always standing room only. My husband, Matt has 20 years’ worth of teaching in the high school here and a deep investment in the community, and we’ve used that to let the community be aware of this space as a safe place to come and share art, community and poetry.

I would recommend to anyone trying to build a community that it’s so important to have collaborators in any community venture. Without them, burnout is a real factor. You need to be able to share the workload, bounce ideas off of each other, and laugh together to elevate stress and keep it going!


MA: Do you have any books out? What is next for you? 

TM: I have two books out currently. Over Exposed is my memoir, told in both poetry and prose. Grabbing the Apple is an anthology of New York women poets that I coedited with M.J. Tenerelli. I work with a group you called the Poets of Well-being (made up of Susan Dingle, Maggie Bloomfield, Nina Yavel and I). We are all social worker-writers who are in long term recovery (we have over 100 years of sobriety between us). You can find the group on Facebook. As a group, we travel to conferences and venues to showcase how writing can be a therapeutic tool for helping others overcome addiction and abuse. We facilitated a workshop at AWP in Minnesota, at the Expressive Therapies Conference in NYC and were even invited to the 2016 NASW conference in DC. Next, I am deep into work on a new poetry manuscript with the working title “God’s Spine” which works to  showcase poems around the theme of finding beauty, recovery and spirituality within ourselves and in the beauty of connection with others.

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.