Briefs Blog

Behind the Words: Kasie Whitener

Posted by on Dec 29, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Kasie Whitener

Kasie Whitener’s short story “Two Trunks” introduces readers to a character whose physical discomforts on a sweltering day at the zoo serve to inflame the frustration she feels over the state of her marriage. Kasie generously answered some questions about how her story came together, and she also filled us in on her vibrant South Carolina literary community and her two novels.

Veronica Montes: It’s been some time since your story, “Two Trunks,” was published in Spry Lit, so I thought we’d start this interview with the present and work our way back to it. You’re currently working on a cool project that provides creative resources for the writers in your region. Can you tell us about that?

Kasie Whitener: I’m co-host on a radio show called Write On SC that focuses on craft conversations and promoting South Carolina authors. We’ve been doing it for almost 200 weeks. It airs live locally on Saturday mornings and streams on podcast platforms. I’ve also been part of some creative entrepreneurship efforts through the Arts Commission and the Women’s Business Center helping not just writers, but musicians, dancers, chefs, painters, and other creatives establish businesses around their art. I’m the President of South Carolina Writers Association (SCWA), a 450-person professional organization here, and we’re working on a variety of different initiatives for growing the literary community.

What are some of the ways your writing practice benefits from your involvement in an active writer’s community?

There’s a lot of opportunity to talk about my own work in those events and conversations. Any time I present, emcee, or serve as a panelist, I’m able to share with the audience that I have work published. Also, being engaged with all those storytellers makes the work I’m producing stronger as I continue to learn about my craft by reading others. My involvement with SCWA includes four workshops that meet regularly to review and critique pages, so that’s also helped my work get publish-ready.

Congratulations on the publication of your novels After December and Before Pittsburgh! The titles make me think that these are the first in a series; is that right? What genre best describes them? What themes do they explore? 

Thanks! The books are a duet, so there won’t be any more in this series (as far as I’ve planned). I call them GenX fiction, but it’s commercial adult fiction leaning toward character-driven literary. The first-person narrator is a young man of 22 experiencing the first major tragedy of his life, the death-by-suicide of his best friend. Themes include growing apart from childhood friends, earning trust and confidence from one’s parents in our 20s, and overcoming addiction and idleness to discover and pursue one’s purpose.

Let’s dig into “Two Trunks.” In response to a reader’s comment you shared that “Two Trunks” was the first story you’d written in a long time. What was it about this story that inspired your return to writing fiction? 

Wow! Great question! I was leaving my full-time job in corporate training and exploring the possibility of a freelance writing career when my mom told me about the experience one of her friends had on a zoo field trip. I decided to write about the tension between the public woman and her private struggles. Many of my stories since “Two Trunks” have grown out of the conflicts I’m working through personally. So maybe it was this story that reminded me fiction is a place where I can safely process my conflicts.

The zoo makes for a sensory-rich setting. I’d love to hear about your choices. How did you decide which details would most effectively place the reader inside Tracey’s headspace?

The zoo is such a singular experience. We don’t see, smell, or feel anything like that spectrum of senses anywhere else. It’s at the same time natural and animalistic, and controlled and contained. I wanted to play with the parallels of caged animals and restrained women, with the expectations we have of natural beings and the suppression that we expect human women to self-inflict.

I’m intrigued by the idea that Tracey’s clothing is never quite right. Her lingerie feels performative; her zoo outfit makes her miserable. What insight into Tracey’s character did you hope this might offer readers?

Clothes are costumes. We wear them to hide our natural state of nakedness which inherently makes them obstructions to being our natural selves. I don’t think Tracey’s a nudist or exhibitionist; I think she can’t find the right fit – the clothes that would reflect who she is and what she wants, but be acceptable by the standards of wife, mom, teacher—all roles that define Tracey.

Claudia plays a small, but necessary part in this story. Can you share what you had in mind with her character?

She’s what Tracey thinks she used to be, a reminder that she was once young and fit and attractive and that life was easier, accidental even. Claudia reminds Tracey that certain realities of her womanhood—her internal female life—are changing simply because she’s older.

“Two Trunks” closes with an image that lingers after reading. How did you arrive at this evocative ending? 

Sometimes we have to learn to think of ourselves as the lioness. I want Tracey to be more aggressive going after what she wants, not waiting for her husband to instigate, but demanding the release. The final image is a challenge for Tracey—for all the Traceys out there.

Veronica Montes

Behind the Words: Risa Denenberg

Posted by on Dec 28, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Risa Denenberg

Risa Denenberg’s poem Twenty Years of Dead is stark, beautiful, minutely detailed, aching, and honest all at the same time. She paints not only a narrative, but an immersive setting in this piece, and it’s easy to lose yourself in it and feel as if you knew Jon, the individual referenced just before the poem starts.  

For those who have lost someone, Denenberg’s lines both resonate and linger; I should never have read your journals. Your love/was hilarious and full of grand gestures and/caution tossed… 

In the interview below Risa delves into her creative process, writing about the loss of a loved one, and growth as a writer.

Sarina Bosco: What is your process when you approach a poem? Are you methodical, messy, do you take time to step away or stay immersed?

Risa Denenberg: I write based on my need to hold on to something, or perhaps I should say I write on impulse. Sometimes I have a phrase or word in mind that itches or worries me, or a thought that recurs at an unexpected time, but then disappears, like a dream. I don’t trust my memory. I often have a sense of urgency, a strong feeling that I can’t put into words.  Perhaps I’ll jot something on a sticky note, in the margin of a book, in an email I send to myself. I write notes that might look like a journal entry, a quote, a meaningless phrase, a grocery list. I lose these slips of paper, these thoughts, all the time, but then sometimes the poem seems to emerge at once, when really, it’s been steeping in my mind in scraps for some time. A lot of my writing languishes, gets lost, or goes into the trash bin, but sometimes a poem comes out that feels finished or almost finished on first draft. About half of the poems that I write don’t change much from first drafts; others go through revision after revision, as I interrogate the words, asking “what am I trying to say here?”

What draws you to poetry and how do you think poetry changes or affects the meaning of your subject matter?

I’m moved by poetry when it is honest, when it says something meaningful or important or universal; when it moves me in a way that would lose some of its force if conveyed in another medium. Sound and rhythm, when it matches content or narrative, is transportive. Reading poems allows me access to feelings that tend, even prefer, to hide in shadows. Sometimes, writing a poem frees me to reach that same place. 

What does your writing space look like?

My writing desk sits in front of a large window where I look out at Discovery Bay. I face east and the sunrises here can be amazing. On a clear day, I can see Mount Baker with its frosted top in the distance. Living in the Pacific Northwest offers views of mountains and water everywhere; but the fact of fog and rain, so frequently obscuring what is known to be in the distance, is a poem itself.  

What do you enjoy or find particularly difficult about the process of writing about a lost loved one? 

Writing about Jon has become a regular event for me. It keeps him alive for me. After he died of AIDS in 1993, I held on to his journals, but did not read them until about six years later. Like many of us, he journaled about the rough times, times of pain and loneliness. I could remind myself that he also had joy and love in his life, but reading his journals was devastating for me. We were very close friends, and yet there was so much I didn’t know about his life. The first writing I did about Jon became a chapbook. I want to remember Jon and to do so, I haven’t stopped writing poems about him, to him.  

What have been the most challenging obstacles to overcome as you’ve grown as a writer? 

An obstacle can also be a gift. I’ve had a long career in healthcare; now semi-retired, I still work part time as a nurse practitioner. A career demands a lot of time and attention. You study science, not literature. You read for your job more than you read for pleasure. And yet, I’ve been a nurse throughout all of my adult experiences. I’ve shared a lot of pain and suffering with people I otherwise would never have known. I’m richer and more solemn about how I approach my life and relationships. I hope I’ve brought some of that into my poems. 

You do a wonderful job of capturing not only a person, but a whole life and community in this poem – do the descriptive choices you make come easily, or are you very deliberate about them?

 I find that as I write, images and details seem to return to me that I had forgotten. Writing “Twenty Years of Dead,” on the 20th anniversary of Jon’s death unearthed the setting, the people, the feelings of those days, and the very specific details about his death and the aftermaths. 

Is there a particular emotion that this poem elicits in you as both the writer and a reader when you revisit it?

Because it was written at such a distance in time, it mostly brings me a sense of fondness and gladness that Jon was in my life. On a darker side, I have regrets that can plague me. Could I have been a better friend? Could I have done something that might have prolonged his life? If he had lived another couple of years, he would have been able to use the medications that have prolonged so many others’ lives. He might be alive still. 

What poem or poet have you read recently that you would recommend to others, and why?

I love too many poets to recommend just one! But when I come across a poem that I really needed at a particular moment, I often share it on Facebook, as much to keep it somewhere that I can go back to it as to share it with others. Jon and I both loved being Jewish and how it shaped our friendship and our view of the world. This poem, published on Holocaust Remembrance Day, really spoke to me.

Behind the Words: Richard Prin

Posted by on Dec 27, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Richard Prin

Rare Soul’s author, Richard Prin, finds oases of nature in the city to craft his writing. There is a duality to Rare Soul that reflects the dual elements of Prin’s daily life; trees, subways, helicopters, apricots, wings, Windex…it’s a fascinating combination of nature vs. a somewhat twisted nurture, with Prin returning to nature throughout: Remember, if I die, to plug me in a/tree.

In the following interview, he tackles both the organic side of creating poetry as well as the necessary “work” that needs to be done. A fluent speaker of Swahili, Prin has an incredibly interesting writing & translation career in the works that shows just how versatile a writer he really is.

Sarina Bosco: Rare Soul is full of so many interesting elements and subjects. There’s an obvious pull toward nature in it – what kind of role has nature played in your life and in your writing?

As a lifelong New Yorker, there is a lot less nature in my daily life than the average human. That may be the reason I have always been drawn to nature as a refuge (though never enough to pull me away from the city). That second sentence “Trees charge me” is quite accurate – I have embraced the “tree-hugger” label ever since it started being thrown my way as a hippie teenager, and I once taught a “class” on the theory and practice of tree-hugging to a few dozen pre-teens. In the period that I wrote “Rare Soul” I was doing a lot of my writing in a shaded grove overlooking the pond in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (although this particular poem was written on my couch in the middle of the night). So its contrast of the natural and less natural (subway, helicopter, Windex) emerges quite organically from my life experience.

What is your process when you approach a poem?

Incredibly varied. I remember that I wrote “Rare Soul” while watching the Lee Chang-dong film titled, appropriately enough, Poetry. “The apricot throws itself to the ground” was a line spoken in the film. Something clicked, I paused the movie, and “Rare Soul” poured out. I am always looking for ways to write about the “crazies”, the eccentric rare souls I have befriended over the years – so the material was ready to flow, channeled by that image of nature’s forcefulness. Looking back at the document on my computer, I see there were no alternate drafts – no evidence of tinkering, even, though I’m sure I messed around a good deal with ordering, word choice, etc.

Would you describe your poetry as originating more from association/instinct, or deliberate construction?

I suppose my last answer was attempting to address this question, because “Rare Soul” was completely associative and instinctive, sparked by a single phrase. And that’s how I wish the process always happened! But I also write a good deal of formal poetry (mainly pantoums, often found pantoums) which is more painstaking, like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. And other poems wind up going through endless drafts, reimaginings, reorderings, taking years to develop, or sometimes even merging with another poem. I think those are more often the poems that begin with an idea or concept, rather than a phrase – which reminds me of an exchange where the painter Degas marveled that he had so many “ideas” for poems and the poet Mallarme quipped, “But poetry, my dear friend, is made with words, not ideas”. For me, at least, the making of a poem proceeds much more felicitously when it proceeds from “words” rather than “ideas”.

What does your writing space look like?

My desk is in our living room and tends to be the messiest sector thereof. My laptop sits in the center with a What Would Sun Ra Do? sticker on top. On the left side, two poorly-sorted piles of books (notebooks, books I’m meaning to read soon, recently-read books that won’t fit back in the bookcase) and a smaller third pile of Swahili texts I am translating. On the right side, a Coney Island coaster for my caffeinated beverages and a Brooklyn Bridge coaster for water. In the far corner, a pile of old notebooks and folders with several of my six-year-old’s notes to me piled on top – and a few of her artworks taped to the wall. After that, it’s pure bric-a-brac. A dish of spare change, a dish of wires, plugs and batteries dead or alive, a scattering of political pins, paperclips, chapstick, business cards, metro cards, more wires, headphones, postal stamps, cough drops, a can of compressed air, two cups of mostly-defunct pens and unsharpened pencils, sour bunnies, beard oil, a framed family photo – and I could swear I decluttered just a few weeks ago!

The last few sentences of your poem speak to growing older; how would you say your writing has changed as you age?

A surprisingly hard question to answer! Every angle I think of, I also think of an exception. Stylistically, I often worry my work has become less “loud” – but that might just be a selection bias where I remember the loud poems better than the quiet poems. Thematically, I was going to say that my work has become a lot more political since I wrote “Rare Soul” – but my poetry was almost exclusively political in my teens and early 20s, so that gap is probably just a function of regrettable apathy during the Obama years. I write fewer prose poems these days, and a lot more narrative prose (travelogues and personal essays) – but I’ve always been genre-fluid, as evinced by the very fact that we’re looking at a prose poem. So I don’t know if I can identify any evolutionary trajectory so much as patterns that come and go.

Which means those last lines hit me on a personal level more than an artistic level. I can still feel a lot of that tension – saying I don’t want to “be like them” (the crazies) but at the same time wishing my beard would “spark, whistle, chirp”. I am far more responsible about my lifestyle and mental hygiene than I was eight years ago (thankfully, I didn’t get drunker as I got older, maybe for the sole reason that I have a six-year-old). But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to go out carousing tonight with some shady characters and/or hop on the next flight to Dar es Salaam.

If there was one piece of literature that you could point to that changed you, what would it be and why?

James Baldwin has had a more profound effect on my life than any other writer – especially his collected essays. I began reading him as a teenager – thanks to a teacher who really put bell hooks’s theory of engaged pedagogy into practice – and the understanding I gained of myself, my identity, my society, has been pulsating in my mind ever since.

But this particular poem owes a greater debt to my favorite poet, Bob Kaufman. I also stumbled upon his work (Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness) as a teenager and was so immediately entranced by his bluesy surrealism that I almost marched out of the bookstore without paying, nose between his pages.

He was the first person ever referred to in print as a “beatnik”, and also an iconic lunatic, composing much of his work extemporaneously, standing on top of cars in the middle of San Francisco traffic and belting it out. There’s a poem by Bob Hershon that begins with the lines:

I never called the police when I heard Bob Kaufman

getting beaten up in the alley behind the house in North Beach

since it was always the police who were beating him.

They loved the way he bit and kicked and

scratched and never gave up.

Indeed, City Lights Books kept a collection bucket out for the bail money he needed almost every week. The imagery and motivations of “Rare Soul” are definitely tied up in my love of Bob Kaufman. I also tend to get arrested with some frequency – but in a purposeful and organized manner, committing collective acts of civil disobedience. As a white person (Kaufman was black, despite the Jewish last name) I am usually treated and processed respectfully, and a political group takes care of my legal representation and any bail that needs to be paid. Climb inside yourself, there is a madness there – a Kaufman line I used to take as a holy imperative. But increasingly, my answer is “no sir, don’t have the bells” – while my own rebellions and transgressions become much safer, deliberate, and controlled.

How do you feel the form in which you wrote this poem contributes to the subject matter?

The voice of this poem is insisting on some sense of control that isn’t really there. It recognizes the desire for chaos while trying to distance the self from that chaos. I think that’s why the prose form of a block paragraph made sense. But ontologically speaking, it’s still a poem. The language is chaotic, the images free-associated out of nowhere, and whatever logic exists is either obscure or paradoxical.

What is your editing process like?

Usually, I read the poem out loud to myself over and over again until I’m hoarse, paying closest attention to the rhythm of the words and how the syllables flow or spark when they rub up against each other in my mouth. In truth, I probably prioritize this too much – often to the exclusion of more wide-angle editing that would scrutinize the operative concepts and metaphors and consider what my poems are doing as poems, rather than just treating them as an assemblage of morphemes. I could definitely stand to ask myself more often – so why does that matter? What’s the point?

What are you currently working on?

A little over a year ago, I found myself between creative projects, having revamped an endlessly-revamped poetry manuscript, and finished yet another draft of a travel memoir. I got a Swahili taarab song stuck in my head and decided to translate it. Ever since, I have been devoting most of my creative energies to translation. And kicking myself for not doing it sooner! I speak fluent Swahili, and there’s an incredible body of Swahili poetry (among other literary forms) that either has not been translated, or only translated for academic purposes. So instead of staring at a blinking cursor all day, I find myself in the enviable position of always having too many things I’m working on. Right now, I am finalizing a manuscript of the 19th century poet Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy – while also translating Swahili hip-hop lyrics, a friend’s short stories, and a few chapters of the Afrofuturist novel Walenisi (testing the waters to see if I want to tackle the book in its entirety).

Sarina Bosco

Behind the Words: Jennifer Martelli

Posted by on Dec 23, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Jennifer Martelli

Jennifer Martelli (she, her, hers) is the author of The Queen of Queens (forthcoming, Bordighera Press) and My Tarantella (Bordighera Press), awarded an Honorable Mention from the Italian-American Studies Association, selected as a 2019 “Must Read” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and named as a finalist for the Housatonic Book Award. She is also the author of the chapbooks In the Year of Ferraro from Nixes Mate Press and After Bird, winner of the Grey Book Press open reading, 2016. Her work has appeared in The Academy of American Poets Poem a Day, The Tahoma Literary Review, Thrush, The Sycamore Review, Cream City Review, Verse Daily, Iron Horse Review (winner of the Photo Finish contest), Poetry, and elsewhere. Jennifer Martelli has twice received grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council for her poetry. She is co-poetry editor for Mom Egg Review.

In this interview, Jennifer circles from discussing her use of Biblical and religious images, braided and disparate images and how she fits them together, and winds up back at religion, atheism, and acceptance. 

Bess Cooley: Your piece in Spry bridges a party moment with a beautiful woman and a Biblical one: Moses parting the sea. God even appears at the end. Is that type of Biblical or other religious imagery something that finds itself into your poems often?

Jennifer Martelli: I grew up in a pretty religious household: mass, miraculous medals, saints, etc. There were statues of all these martyred figures all around me! So, it’s natural that they would find their way into my work. Both of my books—The Uncanny Valley and My Tarantella—feature the religious “artifacts” that I remember as a child. A lot of my poems concern themselves with devotion—or apathy—to God (or god). How do I navigate a world without a belief, but with strong iconography? When I actually use  “God,” I’m thinking more of a concept. In the Spry poem, the God image represents a perfect love, a perfect adoration—who doesn’t want that?

What about image braiding—those two seemingly disparate images that appear together and inform each other? Is that something you gravitate toward in other poems, as well? This seems to me something poetry is particularly good at taking on: that drive to combine images that might not otherwise be put together. Is that something that draws you to poetry, as well? 

Yes, I love when a poet can work with disparate images and have them illuminate each other. It’s so satisfying when it works, an “aha” moment. I think that it best mirrors how we think, how we interpret the world: not in a linear way. Think about the times that an aroma or a song can trigger a feeling that seems unrelated. It’s the job of the poet to describe that space where the two can shimmer side by side. That being said, I can’t tell you how many piles I have of poems where I don’t make that connection! This is why it’s important—for me—to have smart, honest, brutal readers. I also have poems that I had to set aside—for years—and then return and make the connection work. And some poems never get there; these, I cannibalize.

You have two poetry collections out—how do you decide how to put a book together, in what order to collect your poems? How does a book take shape out of those smaller pieces?

Organizing a manuscript is hard and mystifying. The Uncanny Valley was a manuscript that I had put aside for a very long time when I wasn’t writing at all. It has a much more biographical arc to it, which was the original organization. And, while it might have made sense chronologically, it wasn’t satisfying. So, because I am surrounded by brilliant poets, I asked a friend for advice. She could see a different grouping of poems that followed the speaker’s “vision”—of the father, the husband, the mother, the sisters, the self. It felt right. My Tarantella told a different story (maybe); this manuscript concerned itself with the story of Kitty Genovese, so there was a historical/factual arc. To the previous question, I was braiding three different ideas: the story of Kitty Genovese, my own childhood in an Italian-America community, and the 2016 election. I could feel when the book was done, when I’d said all I needed to say. I also relied on certain images and colors to thread through the whole manuscript. But organization does not come naturally to me; perhaps I’m too close to my own collections!

You also worked at Spry and on a few other journals. What has seeing the editorial side of things taught you about poems, or writing them, or even submitting them? Has that work changed how you view the craft at all?

As an editor and reader, I see how much brilliant work is out there; how much beautiful poetry is being written. In some ways, it’s easier to submit and faster to receive an answer about work. Remember snail mail? SASEs? I think what I see are trends: topics in poetry and styles of craft that seem popular for a time. I think it’s made me more careful when I submit—how do I want my cover letter to sound? have I followed the guidelines?

Who’s on your bedside table—real or virtual—right now? Do you read several books at once or one at a time? 

I’m reading several books right now. Jessica Cuello’s LIAR is a masterpiece! Also, Diane Seuss’s FRANK: SONNETS changed how I look at my own work!

Do you have any new projects you’re working on?

My collection, THE QUEEN OF QUEENS, was published by Bordighera Press this spring. It began as an exploration of my own early adulthood in the ‘80s, which was marked by the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro to the vice presidency, as well as the AIDS pandemic. When I began writing (and when the book was accepted), I had no idea that we would be fortunate enough to have Kamala Harris as our vice president, nor did I know that we would be facing another avoidable pandemic! I’m also working on a book about long-term sobriety. 

How has working on a project about your atheism been different than projects which have contained so many religious images? Or are you approaching all that work similarly?

This is a great question! I think I’m approaching religious imagery the same in this book about my atheism; this imagery was a huge part of my life—I can’t separate from it. In my earlier writing, I think I wanted to sound more “spiritual,” or tortured by a religious upbringing. Now, my poetry—especially my poetry about God, religion, etc.—is less angry, more accepting of my disbelief (unbelief?). So, in this manuscript, I am writing from the place of rejection, meaning, the act has been done! This new book-in-progress also addresses my thirty-year sobriety, which is—in theory, in some “halls”—dependent upon a “high power,” which I approach with the same agnosticism/atheism. That was scarier than rejecting Catholicism. Yet here I am!

Bess Cooley won the 2017 Mississippi Review Poetry Prize, and her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, The Journal, Columbia Poetry Review, PRISM, Verse Daily, Ruminate, and other journalsHer book reviews can be found online at Sycamore Review, Electric Literature, and Kenyon Review. A graduate of Knox College and the MFA program at Purdue University, she lives in Knoxville and teaches at the University of Tennessee, where she is also managing editor of online content for Grist, an editorial reader at Spry, and co-founding editor of Peatsmoke. 

Behind the Words: Jessica Kidd

Posted by on Dec 22, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Jessica Kidd

Jessica Kidd’s flash non-fiction piece, “A Half-Formed Moon,” defies its title by being a piece full to bursting—with imagery, with detail, and with what is left unsaid. In her words: “I’m a licensed massage therapist and weekend chef from Lexington, Kentucky. I received my MFA from Spalding University in 2013. In the years since my essay was published, I’ve done a lot of soul searching, drank more water, and found my other half. Actually, he found me, because without my husband I’d be a trash human that never leaves the house.”

DEvon Bohm: I was stunned by how much your piece packs into so few words—I would say it goes further than flash fiction and might truly be “micro fiction.” Can you walk us through how you end up writing a piece like this? Where do you start, what is the drafting process like, and was it your intention when you started out for it to end up whittled down so elegantly? 

Jessica Kidd: It has been so long since the piece was published that I’ve forgotten how it was categorized on the site. This is definitely creative nonfiction, a genre that made up the bulk of my work when I was actively writing. I’m not sure if that makes this piece all the more interesting or not, but it’s coming from a very personal place that follows me to this day. As far as composition, I figure that any story whether true or made up, and no matter the length, ought to have a beginning, middle, and ending. If I can write just enough that leaves the ending hanging for the reader to figure out what happened, to me it packs more a punch. As a hardcore introvert, I’m all about skipping the small talk and getting straight to the heart of a matter. That, combined with writing about a subject that was still fresh and raw for me at the time, helped me decide on a form for the piece. Get in and get out, but leave an impact. 

As a poet myself, I always wonder: why classify this piece as flash rather than a prose poem? What do you think the difference is—the intention of the writer, the focus on rhythmic language, the concept of plot, etc.? 

I can see how this piece could be considered either flash nonfiction or a prose poem. When writing with brevity you’re careful with your choice of words. A simple turn of phrase takes the place of a paragraph. If I categorize my writing as anything specific then it’s to make it searchable for readers, or because the submissions guidelines makes you check off a box. Otherwise, I write in any way that feels natural and does justice to the subject matter. 

Your piece deals with heavy, deeply emotional subject matter. Did this influence your decision to write in first person rather than third? Do you think it’s the closeness of the narrator that allows for the imagery to resonate? Do you hear the narrator’s voice first or create it? 

Being that it’s nonfiction, I automatically chose to write in first person, although I have switched to third person in longer pieces when I’m trying to get inside the head of another person. Looking back with a new perspective, I’m fascinated by the whole creative nonfiction world, especially when we write about deeply personal subject matter and open a part of ourselves to the public. This piece was written during a dark part in my life. I was reading an article recently about the language of depression: how content and style of writing and speaking looks and sounds differently in people with depression and anxiety. The article says that people with depression symptoms use more first-person singular pronouns when communicating, and fewer second or third person pronouns. It takes a lot of effort for me to not begin every sentence with “I.” No wonder some people are judged as being full of themselves. But, as the article states, that tendency to speak in first person can be a sign that a person lacks a sense of connection with others. Mental afflictions aside, any artist goes into a piece of work because they have something to say, and they’re either direct about it or they do so with a clever turn. Even when someone writes fiction and the narrator is speaking in first person, I believe the author is revealing something about themselves to an audience. We’re all trying to reach out from behind the page in our own way, to be heard and to touch the life of someone else even for a brief moment. 

What writers do you think have most heavily influenced your flash fiction writing? Any flash writers you recommend? (Or any genre, really!) What are you reading now? 

The writers who have had the most influence on me and my writing are (surprise) authors of memoir and personal essay: Joan Didion, Mindy Lewis, Mary Karr, to name a few. Unfortunately, I don’t remember specifically who I was reading at the time of writing the essay, or if I even had the energy and heart to do much reading. There was a moment when my tastes changed, and books by Thich Nhat Hanh and Thomas Merton began filling my shelves. In 2016 during a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, I was in the library and found a book of poems by Joyce Rupp. Without overthinking it, I found a poem talks about the benefits and drawbacks of being hidden. The silence leaves space for peace and reflection, but it can also lead to loneliness and a limited world view. It’s like living in a bubble. Writing any flash piece is kind of like writing in a bubble, only there’s a whole universe compacted into a tiny space. At the moment, I’m reading anything related to the mind and body. I picked up Brene Brown’s book Atlas of the Heart, which centers around language, emotion, and how humans build connections. Everything finds a way of circling back around, doesn’t it? 

Do you think your real life informs your writing life? Or do you keep them separated? Can one, or should one, influence the other? 

Writing should be influence by anything and everything. In graduate school, I was actually reading more fiction and poetry than what I was supposed to be reading and studying for my chosen genre. Lots of people might be retreating from real life at the moment, but it’s always fun to people-watch for inspiration. Authors like Amy Tan, Lisa See, Yu Hua, and Xiaolu Guo really grabbed me in the years that followed my essay’s publication. Their stories take subjects that are painful, uncomfortable, or enraging, and make them digestible by injecting beauty or even humor and projecting them through a lens that makes the stories easier to look at. In real life, you’ll notice that when something bad happens, there’s usually one person in a group who makes a profound statement or cracks a joke to lighten the mood. Not out of a lack of respect or sensitivity, but because they know not to dwell on something dark for too long without finding meaning in it. Don’t stare too long into the abyss, so to speak. I believe that, even when writing nonfiction, you’re still in the business of making something that people will want to read. Even if the subject matter is awful, it’s gotta be awfully pretty or awfully funny. 

It’s been 6 or so years since this piece appeared in Spry. Where has life (and your writing) taken you since then? Any changes in your work, challenges, or new projects you’d care to share?

Since this piece appeared, I’ve mostly hung up my writing hat and gotten my hands busy in other things. Literally. I went back to school to study massage therapy, and I now run my own business while also working at a spa. I’ve found a different way of connecting with people through the power of touch. But the written word is something I will always love, and hope to return to someday. Maybe I’ll write about massage… 

This has always been my favorite interview question, just for fun: if you had to pick any three literary characters to describe you, who would they be and why? What parts of you do they represent? 

Fitzwilliam Darcy, Pride and Prejudice – a brooding and misunderstood creature with a heart of gold and the social skills of a potato -Lucy Van Pelt, Charlie Brown comics- can be a little crabby, always ready with useless advice to other people’s problems -Grendel, Grendel- That time that Grendel said, “I shake my two hairy fists at the sky and I let out a howl so unspeakable that the water at my feet turns sudden ice and even I myself am left uneasy.” Me too Grendel. Me too.

Devon BohmDevon Bohm received her BA from Smith College and earned her MFA from Fairfield University. Her first book of poetry, Careful Cartography, was released from Cornerstone Press in November 2021. Follow her on Instagram or TikTok @devonpoem or visit her website.

Behind the Words: Laura Eppinger

Posted by on Dec 21, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Laura Eppinger

Laura Eppinger’s poem “Pomegranate” is a moment crystalized in time that leaves the reader to question the balance of the pain of living with the pain of never having lived at all. Eppinger lives in New Jersey and knows the Jersey Devil is real. You can learn more about her work here: .

Devon Bohm: What struck me first and foremost about your piece is how it deftly turns a well-used image, the pomegranate, into something new. Was part of your intention in the piece to use the pomegranate in a new and unexpected way? For you, is the unexpected part of poetry as a whole?

Laura Eppinger: I love this question! The description of a pomegranate as a jealous queen was new to me in 2014, but absolutely not invented by me. I was leading after school programs at a community garden with a volunteer who had grown up in Southern Italy. I admire her for so many reasons, but to keep this brief I will share that one day she brought a gorgeous array of fresh fruit to encourage students to try something new. She told us that her father had said the pomegranate was a jealous queen protecting her soldiers, and that story, the taste of fruit, the excitement of the children, the sun, the dirt — I felt so vividly alive in that moment.

In 2014 I had three jobs, no health insurance, lost all my earnings every month to student debt payments, and had been very sick with an infected tooth. (Smoking cigarettes didn’t help me any.) I was exhausted all the time and felt completely dead inside, unless I was gardening with children.

I wish I could say I was thinking about poetry as a whole when I wrote this poem. I was probably having a manic episode, to be honest. During this time I was too overstimulated to sleep most nights, then walked through every day like a zombie. This poem was an attempt to try to figure out just what was going on with me during a difficult time.

How do you go about writing a poem? Does inspiration have to strike or do you have a set writing schedule and process? Do you choose subject matter or does the poem lead the way? Are you neat and methodical or is it messy, different every time?

I have to confess! In the years since 2014, I have realized I am not a poet. Or rather, the writing I want to be doing isn’t poetry. (I love reading poetry, now and forever.)

I am only speaking to my own experience here and I do not wish to offend all poets and lovers of poetry. In my own weird dumb life, I have written poems based on inspiration: usually one image or scene from life that strikes me. I can’t think of a phrase that isn’t cliche for this, but, time seems to stop, and what I am looking at is clear and apparent. All of my synapses are firing and everything is connected. I just know I need to preserve this moment.

The question I always want to ask about a poem feels like an almost impolite one, but here we go … is this a fictional scene? Or a reflection on a real-life moment? Do you think poetry need be one or the other?

It’s not impolite! I do NOT think poems need to be autobiographical. I have so many thoughts about whether even the works we label Fiction or Nonfiction are fully one or the other, but none of my thoughts are original. I read about this question constantly and never arrive at an answer!

My poem “Pomegranate,” however, does recount a scene from my actual life. (Though of course it is just my account and my memory, which is fallible!)

Another one of my three jobs in 2014 was a manager of a health food co-op. Perhaps it is ironic that I spent so much time smoking just outside the back door of the vegan health food store, but I was just trying to stay awake during a 12+ hour workday.

Another poet volunteered while I was on shift and we became fast friends. We recommended reading to one another, gave each other writing prompts and challenges, and generally cheered each other on. Come to think about it, I’ve written about this friend for Spry again here.

I suppose this means my answer is: this one poem, pretty real. All poetry? No such rule.

The penultimate stanza in the poem takes on an almost trance-like, rhythmic quality in contrast to the more slowly measured previous stanzas. Is this form fitting function? Indicative of your writing process? Meant as a way to let the reader more deeply enter the speaker’s head? A love of the music of language? All of the above?

Is it irritating if I admit that I can’t always remember what “form” and “stanza” mean? I’m sorry! Not a poet.

One thing that shows up in “Pomegranate” that is real, and what I think this question refers to: watched a lover grow old, watched a passport sprout mold. When I was 24 years old I sold everything I owned to move to another country to be with a boyfriend and also work on a Master’s degree. It was an unmitigated disaster; he had a lot of addictions and mental health issues. We rented a single room together and had no space or privacy. We fought constantly and I have never heard such cruel things said to me, before or since. Oh, right, and black mold infested our room! He used to go out binge-drinking with his friends while I got high and scrubbed the walls for hours. If hell is real, that’s what hell is like. When I got back to the States I had to replace my passport because it was moldy, too.

After a year of this hell I dropped out of my MA program and moved back in with my parents. Throughout the next three years I nursed my wounds, swearing I never wanted to date anyone again, or risk anything, or get hurt like that. I focused on working and trying to save money to regain financial independence. I also felt conflicted–was I really never going to fall in love again, after such a bad heartbreak at 25? It’s necessary to mourn, but was I going to mourn for the rest of my life? Some days I thought the answer was ABSOLUTELY YES! But other days, even though I knew being in a relationship posed a tremendous risk, I wanted all that beauty and intensity and joy again.

A strange thing striking me now is that in headshot I use for Spry, taken three years after this awful breakup, I am wearing this ex’s jacket! Why did I hold onto it so long before donating it? My excuses were: It fit my style, money was tight and I couldn’t buy anything new, and so on. But I was remembering this pain EVERY time I wore my lightest jacket? Come on. It was like a Medieval hair shirt, a penance.

I can also see the roots of my hair peeking out under the black henna dye I would buy at the health food store with my employee discount. What a time capsule I have left myself in this poem!

What writers have most heavily influenced your work, past and present? Who are you reading—poetry, fiction, non-fiction—now?

When I wrote this poem, my poet friend had challenged me to read more Theodore Roethke. I can see looking back how I was drawing from 16+ years of Catholic education, thinking about prayers and hymns. This friend had also memorized “sweet reader, flanneled and tulled” by Olena Kalytiak Davis, so I did as well. We were obsessed with the concept of shattered sonnets.

These days I read a mix of Fiction, Nonfiction, Sci-Fi & Fantasy & Horror. I try to read as many independently published authors as I can. Right now I am loving and crying my way through “Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner, and in the last year “In The Dream House” by Carmen Maria Machado blew my mind in terms of what nonfiction can do. For Fiction I am currently reading “The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead. In the last year, “Milk Fed” by Melissa Broder absolutely broke my brain, I don’t know if I will ever recover!

It’s been 7/8 years since “Pomegranate” was published in Spry. How has your work evolved or changed in that time? What challenges have you faced in your growth as a writer? Anything new and exciting to tell us about?

I’ve changed a lot! And I want to note that my work has evolved due to positive changes in my life: I have one full-time job, instead of three part-time ones, meaning time for rest and writing and dreaming. I make enough money to live independently. I have healthcare, so I can take care of my body and also go to talk therapy and also refill a monthly prescription for an antidepressant. I am living proof that everyone deserves a living wage and every human should get the healthcare they need. Any other system (the current healthcare system in the US) is cruelty for cruelty’s sake.

I’m not writing political polemics (yet)! About a year after this poem was published, I started believing my genre was flash fiction. I tried to write a flash collection about two metalhead girls in Catholic high school–will always love the idea, but I just can’t get to a final, salable draft. Then in 2018 I found myself drawn to longform essays. I guess I did go to Journalism school after all, though I’ve only freelanced a few times in that department.

I go back and forth and write a lot of terrible first drafts in a lot of categories! I write essays that hurt while writing, and flash fiction that delights me. Every once in a while a poem comes to me, too. It’s all kind of a mess.

Exciting: My flash fiction collection called LOVING MONSTERS is out with Alternating Current now.

Beyond being a writer, you’re both a reader for Spry and an editor at another publication, as well! We know one of your focuses as managing editor of Newfound Journal is equity in publishing—could you tell us about that focus and its importance?

I am a reader for Spry and I am so glad I can tell you I loved reading your piece, “The Talk,” in our Submittable queue! We read anonymous submissions, as you know, so it is exciting to “meet” the person behind the words. Your story, about sexuality and girlhood, spends so much time in childhood bedrooms–that intimacy struck me right away and stays with me now. So glad it is published and out in the world.

And now to move onto the big theme of equity in publishing: I have a tiny role to play with Newfound Journal and also Spry Lit. I take this role seriously, while also seeing that these (wonderful) publications exist in the lit world ecosystem. Still, in my personal interactions with literary journal volunteers and submitters of words/images to a journal, I have a modicum of power and I must never forget this. I try to remember that my way of seeing the world, or writing or storytelling, is not the only way to do this, by any means. I want to learn something new, encounter what I never have before. (And good writing may make me encounter myself in a new way, question my assumptions, and get uncomfortable!)

The joy of “working” (these roles are volunteer) in indie publishing is that at its best, it keeps my curiosity alive. Please, tell me a good story! A funny story, a weird one, something unexpected and never cliche. Rip my heart out!

Because humanity is better served when we interact with art from many varying perspectives–voices representing diverse backgrounds in terms of race/ethnicity, national origin, ability, gender identity, sexuality, socio-economic class, age, and so much more. And gatekeeping, making it so that we all only read the dead white guys we had to read in high school (or at least, I did), makes literature all the poorer.

I can only speak for myself: During the darkest, hardest, hungriest, most desperate moments of my life, I had checked-out public library books in my backpack. Stories, or poetic images, have saved me and inspired me to keep going. Everyone deserves access to stories–especially stories that reflect them, their identities, their experiences.

And everyone deserves to have their stories heard! We all benefit when we read widely and experience perspectives of folks we haven’t encountered before. Or, maybe they validate our experiences, which we’ve never seen on the page before.

I’m pretty optimistic in this regard! I would say even in the last 15 years, independent publishing has gained more momentum and reach–even as the big presses in NYC keep merging and shrinking. (I was never aiming in that direction, anyway.) I feel like every “death of print/reading” moral panic has been answered with more ways that people keep reading and demanding words.

That said, there is still some elitism in all publishing and even the small press world–some badge of honor b.s. I will never understand because I do not have an MFA in any genre. For 10 years I subscribed to one of the bigger writing industry magazines, but cut the cord a few years back when one issue interviewed three different writers who all said their path to success was the same, elite, CIA-founded MFA program. And good for them! That’s a great path, and it is also not the only path, and it is certainly not the only path worth writing about in a trade publication.

It just points to how pernicious bias (in an individual or an organization) can be: We can’t see our own assumptions, which is why they are assumptions. I am determined to read widely, constantly, and seek out works that bash my head in and make me question everything. And I also have to react with grace when my own assumptions and failings are pointed out to me.

One more, just for fun: if you could have a dinner party with five literary characters, who would they be and what would you be serving them?

First of all, I never cook. I have a partner who is a foodie and an excellent cook, but maybe for this party I’d order something delivered?

  1. Eva Luna, from the Isabel Allende novel with the same name. She would tell stories and we’d all be entranced.
  2. A ghost or spirit dreamed up by Haruki Murakami. This party will get weird.
  3. This year I read “Silver Sparrow” by Tayari Jones and it brought me to tears! I feel like I know these characters intimately–so I’ll invite Dana from this novel.
  4. I loved every character in Kaitlyn Greenidge’s “Libertie.” Even when they didn’t get along with one another. I would ask Libertie and her mother to come to my party … maybe not sit next to one another at the dinner table?
  5. A Willa Cather character, for some practical, non-nonsense wisdom. Let’s say Ántonia Shimerda. I would seat her next to Libertie’s mother, Dr. Sampson.

Thank you for these excellent questions and this interview!

Devon BohmDevon Bohm received her BA from Smith College and earned her MFA from Fairfield University. Her first book of poetry, Careful Cartography, was released from Cornerstone Press in November 2021. Follow her on Instagram or TikTok @devonpoem or visit her website at

Behind the Words: Jacob Collins-Wilson

Posted by on Dec 20, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Jacob Collins-Wilson

The oil rig as aphid. The diver’s child learning to dive. Jacob Collins-Wilson’s poem “On the Gulf in Alabama” is a two-part study of what stands, static, off shore, and what plumbs the depths, ever moving. 

Kelly Samuels: Tell me about the chosen structure, specifically the two parts. When did you decide to do that? How did it come about?

Jacob Collins-Wilson: the two parts came about simply from time. i wrote the first part either during or right after i took a trip with my dad and his two brothers to visit my great uncle who lives on an inlet of the gulf. i love stars and the oil rigs are these false stars at night that i don’t like, but they also didn’t ask to be, so the first part of the poem is wondering what they want, but, like most poetry, is probably more about what i want/don’t want. and so the poem stayed one part for a while, about six months, but stayed in mind b/c i love the gulf and the warm water (i’m from the pacific northwest) and then i remember someone posted a video on youtube of joanna newsom debuting her song divers, which i think was called the diver’s wife at the time, and i was blown away by it and it felt so close to what i was writing about, so i revisited the poem inspired by her song (music is a big part of my life, though mostly hardcore/metal, but her creativity always makes me feel more creative).

How conscious were you of the connections/conversation between the two parts—the divers, the aphid imagery? Was that initial or was it developed in revision?

not much, at all. hadn’t thought about that until you mentioned it. i viewed the aphid as much more visually, of their legs to body ratio, which is true of a lot of insects, but the word aphid is solid so i went that way. the sucking or taking from another source similarity hadn’t occurred to me. the connection that i had initially was that both the oil rigs and the child diver are not in control of their actions/dreams/realities, they’re both forced into a life. but your point, i think, is true and interesting. 

The contrast between humans and structures/machines is evident in how stationary the rig is versus the mobility of the divers and their children. The speaker seems to have admiration for the divers—what they are capable of—while also pointing out what the rigs cannot do, and yet there is the comparison of the rigs to something of the natural world (aphids) and their personification, including the last two lines of Part I. Is the reader to take away any respect for the rig? Did you feel any in composing the poem? 

i feel respect for the engineering, the working, the time and energy and attention spent on oil rigs, in conception, design, execution, extraction, but also disappointment for oil rigs as a fact. i feel that with anything altered by something external, which is everything, really. for the rigs: they serve our purposes, and there’s disappointment in the lack of control inanimate and subjugated animates have. but my feelings come much more from a privilege of loving stars and infinite, dark seas which oil rigs pollute. every time i go to the gulf, i see more rigs. but i’m just as disappointed in my own hand in making them necessary. lastly, i feel the same about the capable divers in the second part as the oil rigs in the first, as i said before. both are subjugated.

How much research was involved in writing this poem?

zero. i’m not a big researcher for writing. i love learning, but have only deliberately researched something for a poem/story once or twice. i don’t mind being wrong because i’m just having fun writing. 

What poets would you say have influenced your writing? In what ways?

larry levis was the first poet who blew me away, his book winter stars is great, and his next three books, including the posthumous release, are great too. his work influences me to write beyond an action or surface, to write about infinite and intangible things. carolyn forche is from another planet and all her books seem impossible to me. her work influences me to write about anything but myself, and to see purpose and love in others perspective, or evil and darkness, depending.

This poem was published in Issue 4. What have you been working on since?

well, i had to look up this poem to see when i wrote it, which was 2013-2014, so: a lot. i wrote a manuscript for my mfa, a manuscript of only baseball/family poems, a manuscript of a single epic poem, and i’ve written two novel manuscripts. recently i’ve been writing flash stories and non-fiction and some short stories which is a form i’ve never liked or written until last year. right now, i’m working on a couple sci-fi pieces, a genre i’ve always loved but never written until now.

thanks for spending time with the poem, and for your insights and questions.

Kelly R. Samuels is the author of the full-length collection All the Time in the World (Kelsay Books, 2021) and two chapbooks: Words Some of Us Rarely Use and Zeena/Zenobia Speaks. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee with work recently appearing in The Massachusetts Review, Random Sample, and The Tusculum Review. She lives in the Upper Midwest. 

Behind the Words: Lauren Camp

Posted by on Dec 19, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Lauren Camp

Lauren Camp is the Poet Laureate of New Mexico and author of five books, most recently Took House (Tupelo Press). Honors include a Dorset Prize and finalist citations for the Arab American Book Award and Adrienne Rich Award for Poetry. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, and Beloit Poetry Journal. She is an emeritus Black Earth Institute Fellow and was Astronomer in Residence at Grand Canyon National Park in 2022. Her work has been translated into Mandarin, Turkish, Spanish, and Arabic.

And Lauren was also published in the sixth and eighth issues of Spry Literary Journal. Earlier this year, she was kind enough to be interviewed by fellow contributor Kelly Grace Thomas about her craft. Here is their conversation.

Kelly Grace Thomas: It seems like creation is at the center of your life in both poetry and visual art. Do you have a guiding principle or artistic mantra when it comes to the creative process? 

Lauren Camp: Creation is very much at the center for me, but the way I work is more organic and intuitive than logical.

I don’t write within the specific organization of time. Instead, I tack intriguing lines on the side of a grocery list, or varied scraps of paper. Some days, I only have time to make note of a wondrous word I want to claim for a poem. I need to show up to the page with something to be accountable for: maybe a history or a person. This often narrows to one of two themes: place or trouble. 

I am most entranced by process and happy to stay within it for eons, hours, months. I like to confound my poems, to tie them up with a few elements or storylines, and then detangle enough that the reader can follow. Meanwhile, I’m gradually moving toward an unknown—what I tell my students is the writer’s “discovery”—and the fullness I feel when that appears.

I’m not making visual art anymore, but when I was, I would slip colors and patterns around until they caused a perfect sort of friction. I wanted to feel a little unbalanced. I still look to do this, only now my materials are language.

Love that idea of your work looking at two themes. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to place and trouble? How do they speak in your work and what questions about each drive creative exploration? 

Places stick with me. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I want to celebrate and connect to them fully. I can elongate my noticing by casting their light and detail into a poem. This helps me hold memory of the place even more than a photo would. Though it may not be necessary for the reader to know specifically where this poem originated, I know. This was Virginia. Oaxaca. Wisconsin. Baghdad.

Any detail can spark me—a concern of the region, an element, what’s growing, what I don’t understand. And it’s fun to figure out ways to logic them into surprising language. In the high desert where I live, wind and sun are regular companions. They enter many of my poems. The demand I’ve created for myself is to make them newly viewed or felt, yet accurate.

“Trouble,” as I so casually referred to it, is harder to define. It might be a hurdle through any close relationship with someone I love, or a global or local issue. It is any palpable situation that has captured my mind and heart—for example, when I was afraid for my safety as a woman in a nearly empty building at night, or the horror of hearing a politician’s statements to a Senate committee.

Writing into and through trouble allows me to explore the situation and my emotions around it more, but it also lets me step to the side of it, to see it as someone other. In that role, I am focusing on the craft instead of the pulse of it—the point of view, the voice, word choice, pacing, etc. These are the poems I like best, the ones where I take some very heated instigating material and cross the threshold of it, draft by draft, moving it into something more.

I love this idea of “ ones where I take some very heated instigating material and cross the threshold of it, draft by draft, moving it into something more.” Can you share a little bit about your revision process, especially what you might do with a heated or heavy poem? How do you know when a poem is “finished”? 

The revision process is organic and eccentric, at least the way I do it. I’m reckoning with—by which I mean working toward and waiting for—intersections. In my drafts, I try to make meaning between the specific and the outer edge, the experiment and the reality. I rarely know what’s happening, and I like that act of faith. The process is dirty and radical and momentary, and it devises new directions based on all sorts of factors.

I’m glad for heated subjects. They give me something clear to work—and to work against. I don’t want to be self-indulgent. I also don’t want to relate too well to my material. I have to take it further…to illuminate it, change it, project it into how the world and the passage of time has affected me.

In so many ways, my revision process arose from other realms I’ve long immersed in: visual art and jazz. My compositional choices and sonic voice are structured from these previous studies, and they, too, help to compose and control tough materials. They open up space for play, even in poems of loss or longing. 

Finished? Ha, well… lately I’ve been going back into poems finished some years ago. But anyway, I’d say some are finished when they make me feel giddy. Surprised, I guess, by what I created.

I love what you said about the intersections in “between the specific and the outer edge, the experiment and the reality.” Can you talk a little bit about the experiment and reality in terms of constructing a poem, as well as collection?

The value of this approach became clear when I was working on the poems that became my book, One Hundred Hungers. I was trying to reflect the experience my father might have had as a child in a culture and country halfway around the world—and then push further, into the realities of displacement. I thought he would simply tell me. 

The project stalled for a long time because he didn’t. Gradually, I saw that I could write a different type of poem. I began drafting what I called “Variation” or “What if” poems, and these became an integral part of the mix. One example is “Variation (Let’s Pretend)”—a poem that let me experiment with my own research, intuition, imagination and hopes. It enlarged the story, allowing me to step into the poems more fully.

Thank you so much for giving us such an interesting sneak peek into your process. I have one, maybe two final questions. As someone who has had a lot of success in poetry what advice would give for poets who are just getting started? What advice do you have for poets who are in it for the long haul?  

What I love about the just-starting early times is how exhilaratingly possible everything is. No move is wrong because you don’t know that a wrong could exist. You simply throw yourself in and see what happens. You copy, you play. That’s wisdom right there. Such experimentation is necessary before the judgmental and learned self comes in and stops the party.

I’d encourage anyone to keep that phase up as long as you can. Don’t be in a rush to publish in those early days; it’s likely you’ll think about those works quite differently as time goes along. Roam out in every direction with your pen and keyboard. See how much your lines and linebreaks can help you to see. What can you make a poem do? What can you learn about yourself? about language? the way forward? history?

For poets in the long haul, welcome! It’s hard here, and it’s wonderful. This is the space of confrontation with the page and the poem. Play is still critical, but now you know far more, which means you know enough to know that you might only know a portion of the whole. You carry with you rules and techniques and approaches, some that are lauded, some tsked against. Listen to them. Also, ignore them. Be patient, both with yourself and with the community.

Thanks so much for this fascinating discussion. Is there anything else you’d like to share?  

I’d like to make a plug for supporting others. We don’t write alone. We write in a loose or exact conversation with others. Recognize that a great many voices and perspectives are what make poetry necessary in the world. Not just yours or mine. Cheer on others, loudly and with true intention. If poetry succeeds and reaches its audience, it’s because of all of us throwing our voices and worries and hopes onto the current winds and watching them be carried out. Be beautifully jealous of what someone else has created, and go back in, alone, to the page to see what you can do next.

Learn more about Lauren

Kelly Grace Thomas is an ocean-obsessed Aries from Jersey. She is a poet, editor, and educator. Kelly is the winner of the 2020 Jane Underwood Poetry Prize and 2017 Neil Postman Award for Metaphor, a finalist for the  2018 Rita Dove Poetry Award, a semifinalist for the 2021 Nimrod Poetry Award and a multiple pushcart prize nominee. Her first full-length collection, Boat Burned, was released with YesYes Books in January 2020. Kelly’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in: Best New Poets, 32 Poems, Los Angeles Review, Muzzle, Sixth Finch and more. Kelly has received fellowships from the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and Kenyon Review Young Writers’ Workshop. Kelly is the Director of Education for Get Lit and author of Voices in Verse: Poetry, Identity and Ethnic Studies; Stanzas of America: Celebrating BIPOC Poetry; and Words Ignite: Explore, Write and Perform Classic and Spoken Word Poetry, (all released with Literary Riot) and currently being taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband, sister and daughter. Learn more here.

Behind the Words: Joshua Peralta

Posted by on Oct 5, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Joshua Peralta

Oakland-based Joshua Peralta is celebrating the publication of his first book 3rd & Orange this past month. “First Days,” the opening chapter, appeared in issue 6 of Spry.

Originally from Southern California, he has lived in the Bay Area since 2013. He teaches English and moonlights as a remote dispatcher and factotum for a small towing and transportation company in Orange County.

His work has been published in a variety of genres in a variety of places. When he’s not writing, he likes to cook, drink good beer, spend time with friends and family, travel, and walk in the Oakland hills and regional parks. This interview was conducted via e-mail over lots of coffee. 

The piece “The First Days” is from 3rd & Orange, yes? Can you talk about the book and its publication?

“First Days” is the opening chapter of my first book, 3rd & Orange, which was just released. The book is a belated coming-of-age story about a young man who moves to a new town. Like so many young people, he is idealistic and searching for independence and a place where he can grow into the person he imagines himself to be. A big part of this imagined identity has to do with writing, becoming a writer. Along the way, his search is complicated by the inevitable magnetism of human relationships, friendships and romances whose rise and fall make him feel like he’s flying or drowning—or help keep him afloat. Ultimately, the character’s choices lead him to where he ends up—having gained a measure of the experience he sought, and coming to terms with the pain and regret and other indelible impressions life leaves us with. It’s a typical enough story, and not without humor.

Can you talk about the form of your book?

Well, depending on the day, I’m calling it a novel or novella. But it’s not exactly a novel in the traditional sense. Like a novel, it has a coherent narrative that unfolds over distinct chapters. It also has length. But its themes and dramatic arc develop through a combination of prose and poetry. The book can be read as novels are typically read, front to back. But it could also be read in reverse, beginning with the last long prose section and ending with “First Days.” I think it would also sustain a reading limited to just the poems or only the prose. That may sound strange, but I’m confident the book’s composition and the interplay between its prose and poetry will make clear sense to anyone who opens the book.

Why did you decide to combine poetry and prose?

At its core, 3rd & Orange is a book of poems. As a collection, they tell a story. But the story extends beyond the poems—beyond their beginning and their ending—and I knew that limiting its telling to poetry would limit my potential audience. So I felt compelled to balance the poems with prose. It’s pretty simple: I want people to read the book and share it with others. It’s a rare reader who turns to poetry these days, and it’s an even rarer one who can stomach an entire book of poems. I think I understand why. So much poetry these days feels overburdened, choked by obscurities and smug elitism. So much can feel stale or politically charged to score with a particular and often very narrow audience. There’s a lot of off-putting stuff out there. And it doesn’t help that, by its nature, poetry’s compression of language and typical disregard for narrative structures demand a greater degree of attention from readers than, say, a typical short story or novel. I imagine most people find that whatever potential enjoyment or insight poetry may provide simply isn’t worth the effort. For these and other reasons most readers prefer prose narratives. I know I do. And yet I retain a profound love for poetry. It has its own special magic. 

In 3rd & Orange, I have tried my best to create a book that strikes a balance between these two modes of expression, poetry and prose. My hope is that it will sustain reading as an integral whole. I wanted to create something intelligible, even welcoming, that would carry readers forward while also encouraging them to linger a while. I think I’ve achieved this. My hope is that anyone who picks up the book will find it worth their timeAnd that any pleasure it affords will have to do with the text’s hybrid nature.

When I read “First Days” I was immediately struck by the way you subtly work in the generations of people before these characters through objects—the “Little Dancer” replica given by a father who left, the waffle iron that had belonged to the narrator’s mother. The details do a lot of work and ground the reader into a world that existed before they appear in the apartment. Was that intentional? 

Yes. I wanted to hint at each character’s prior, separate existence, specifically their parental relationships. An unobtrusive way to do this was to mention objects or keepsakes belonging to each. But I had to resist being sidetracked by the temptation to include more, since more can quickly become too much. As I worked on the story, I’m sure I pared away objects so that what remained would feel more poignant, and less like an inventory of possessions, which might be tedious.  

Anyway, these couple items remain to hint at the hidden stories bound up in the objects so many of us schlep from place to place. When people enter into a new life together, the deepening of their relationship entails the sharing of all sorts of things, one of which is the origin stories that make their personal belongings so uniquely special and significant.

The repetition of “I remember” in “First Days” feels almost hypnotic and steeps the reader in nostalgia. Was that structure in place when you set out to write this section? Does it continue in the novel?

The words “I remember” were there from the first sentence, and their repetition was the device that enabled me to finish this story. I realize nostalgia is a bit of a bad word these days, and I get it. Often people are suspicious of nostalgia, and for good reasons. But however critical one might be of it, the pain and longing for home, especially a former home, is as valid a human feeling as any other. Many of my favorite writers have employed nostalgia to produce works of great beauty. Two names that come immediately to mind are Vladimir Nabokov and Ann Beattie, without whose influence I would never have written this story.

Nostalgia is the dominant mood in “First Days,” and it continues through much of 3rd & Orange. But I’d like to think in both, though especially in the book, it’s a healthy sort of nostalgia, one that is self-aware and mindful of the dangers associated with over-indulgence.

How do you feel about writing short? Writing long?

The short answer is that I like to write both. Both come with their challenges. The long answer can be found in the pages of 3rd & Orange. 

A medium-length answer is that most of my ideas or feelings or experiences, when they suggest themselves to be written at all, seem to suggest I write them at some general length (short and medium, mostly) in some specific genre (poetry or short story or essay, mostly). It’s impossible to say clearly how this works, and of course I obey only the tiniest fraction of these impulse suggestions. Rarely do I do any of them justice. When I do, I often notice I’ve misjudged their final length. But I’m almost never wrong about the genre. But once in a while I’m wrong about both. For instance, I had no clue what final form or length 3rd & Orange would take, neither the book nor its namesake first poem. I worked everything out as I went.

I should note that my current full-length biographical project started as a failed short article. That grew to a failed long article. The article kept metastasizing to accommodate an ever-expanding vision for everything I had to say. Then I devoted an 80-page master’s thesis to it. (In fact, the opportunity to focus on this project was my main motivation for entering a grad program.) But the project still wasn’t finished. Its tone was off and my vision felt squinched by deadlines and a desire to please professors. 

At the moment I’m three or four chapters into a complete rewrite, which has been difficult, but good and necessary. I’m much happier with the material and I feel I’m finally doing my ideas justice. I’ve got a long road ahead, and I move slow, but I have no choice but to move forward. The book must be finished. It will be finished! That I could ever have compressed it into a single article strikes me now as laughably preposterous. And yet my original idea—at the time I first conceived it—seemed totally doable in a couple thousand words. Ha! 

Writing can be fun and fulfilling. But more often it’s a pain in the ass, so it’s just nice to get it over quickly when I can. Mostly I can’t. 

I can relate. Where do you get inspiration from?  

The easy answer is everywhere. From the taste of a pint of beer, a conversation with a stranger, from overhearing others’ conversations. From a walk in the hills or down the block. From the books and music and films and art I love. From friends, from my mother and father, from my brother. From students, from the news, from traveling. From the people I love, from the breeze and the sunlight and beauty. 

I know you like to travel and recently spent a few months in Mexico. How does travel affect your work? 

Travel puts me in contact with new situations, new places, new people and makes me think outside English. It provides a lot of novel experiences and removes me from my comfort zone by putting distance between me and my normal routine. That can be refreshing and challenging. Mexico is particularly special to me and it shows up often in my writing. I’ve spent a lot of time traveling in and thinking and learning about Mexico. I can’t articulate the depth or breadth of my feelings properly here, but anyone who reads 3rd & Orange will pick up on a Mexican connection, so to speak.

What’s your writing routine like? How has it been affected/has it been affected during the pandemic? 

Routine. Ha. I’ve been trying to cultivate one of those for a long time.

As I’ve gotten older and busier I’ve had to get more serious about it. When I was younger, I remember so many writers I read and admired—from Stephen King to Nabokov—spoke about the importance of establishing a writing routine. Committing to a specific amount of time at one’s desk, at a set time each day. And I knew intuitively this was what I needed, that a routine would be best. And though I agree that routines can be very helpful, even beautiful, I have never been able to stick to one, at least not a daily or a weekly one. But I’m improving. And I don’t think I’ve ever been so serious in my approach to routine as I’ve been during these years of the pandemic.

In that time, I drafted and finished the manuscript for 3rd & Orange, and wrote several chapters of the long biographical project I mentioned above (which was interrupted and put on hiatus because of the closure of research facilities and libraries). But both projects had been brewing so long that I really was quite grateful for the disruption to the more distracting routine of workaday life. Had there been no pandemic I might still be kicking both projects down the line, telling myself I’ll get back to them someday.

Thankfully, I and most everyone around me has remained healthy, but there was a period early on where I was confronting my feelings about mortality—feelings compounded by the fact that I am not growing younger—and I had to admit to myself what I already knew—that one of my biggest ambitions in life was to write a book. It’s a pretty silly ambition given all the possible ambitions and things one might do with one’s life. But it’s my ambition. And I am the only one who will be accountable in the end for all that I’ve done or left undone. I already knew this to be the case, but the pandemic, and maybe a fortuitously timed reading of Stoner by John Williams, helped reinforce the idea.

What’s your current/next project?

The biographical project I mentioned above. It’s a new biographical portrait of the Depression-era writer John Fante. The book will be part bio, part literary and local history, and even contain an aspect of autobiography. I have high hopes for it. It will be one for the ages. A boon to anyone on the path of becoming a writer or artist, despite their age or background. Wish me luck! 

Anna Mantzaris

Anna Mantzaris lives in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in publications including Ambit, The Cortland Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, New World Writing, and Sonora Review.

Behind the Words: Meggie Royer

Posted by on Feb 1, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Meggie Royer

Meggie Royer not just a writer and poet, but she is also is a graduate student working toward her Masters of Social Work. Professionally, she advocates for survivors of domestic violence, but that doesn’t stop at the end of her workday. She also publishes Persephone’s Daughters, her literary and arts journal for abuse survivors.

Royer’s poem Salmonella was published in our sixth issue, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to interview her and share more about her with our literary community.

Erin Ollila: I’m always so interested in what sparks an idea for a poem. Where did the spark of inspiration for Salmonella come from?

Meggie Royer: I’ve always been fascinated by my grandparents and their history. Both sets of my grandparents were always very into preserving their history by passing down their stories to our generation, and it seemed as if every family get together was filled with reminiscences about the past, especially about life on the farm, or the war and traveling. I’m also always interested in little details I read in the paper, like a wedding ring showing up in the belly of a salmon one day somewhere, and so I combined that salmon detail with an imagining of my grandparents and their life with a sudden influx of salmon.

Is poetry the only genre you write in? If so, what do you like/dislike about the form? If you write in other genres, which is your favorite?

Poetry is the main genre I write in, although I do write in prose a fair amount as well. I like poetry because it allows me a great deal of freedom in my writing; I’ve always enjoyed being able to make my own choices when it comes to breaking my stanzas, how long to make my poems, how to format them, etc. I do find myself hesitant to write long poems, however, which is why I turn to prose to write longer pieces. I also find that I contract writer’s block much more easily when it comes to poetry than to prose. I’ve never been one to write specific kinds of poetry, either – sonnets, limericks, sestinas – I’ve always preferred freeform poetry.

When I write prose it really tends to just be longer versions of poems in paragraph form. I wrote several short stories back in high school and loved the topics and characters I could come up with. Much of the inspiration for those short stories came from the O. Henry Prize stories and the Best American Short Stories I would read back then. Now in addition to writing poetry-like prose pieces, I also tend to write more formal, academic essay-type pieces on gender-based violence and domestic violence, which are my career field.

It’s been a while since the poem was first published in Spry. What’s changed in your life since then?

I’ve since become a full-time Master of Social Work graduate student at the University of Michigan and have been working at a state domestic violence agency. These experiences have really opened my eyes to the various forms of violence in the world and the everyday, mundane ways in which they show up in our professional and personal lives, sometimes obviously, sometimes more obscure. It’s become a strong passion of mine. A lot of people merely think of domestic violence as hitting, but it spans so many different behaviors and encompasses so many dynamics which are incredibly complex. I’ve found myself drifting further away from poetry since “Salmonella” was published, in that I write less often now, but I find that sometimes writing less often makes my work even better, sharper. I have been doing several “daily poem challenges” in the past several months in order to keep up with my poetry, and I continue to publish issues of my literary and arts journal for abuse survivors, titled Persephone’s Daughters.

How big is your “In-Progress” folder? How many works-in-progress make it to a final draft?

To be honest, I don’t have an “In-Progress” folder. I either finish my pieces in one sitting, or I delete or throw away the pieces that I can’t seem to finish. I can’t recall the last time I actually left a piece unfinished and then came back to it later, other than for an essay for school. I wouldn’t really call it “giving up” on a piece, more like recognizing that I can’t give it the ending it deserves.

If you could go back and edit this piece, would you? Why or why not, and what, (if anything) would you change?

I wouldn’t go back and edit this piece, but I would like to see another ending for it. However, I can’t give it that. When I write one poem, I can’t rewrite it, or even portions of it. If I were that kind of person, though, I would explore the progression of the grandparents’ relationship further – what happened after they began to sleep apart? Did the relationship begin to disintegrate further? Did the salmon break something between them? Did the salmon eventually disappear? I suppose those are questions I would ask about my own poem if I were a reader. I do get the sense that in this particular poem, even if the salmon were to disappear, that the relationship between the grandparents would not return to the way it was before. It feels as if something was irreparably changed between them both. 

As a creative nonfiction writer, I’m always so curious how much of poetry is nonfiction and how much is fictional. You don’t need to tell us about this specific poem (unless you’d like to), but I’m curious about how much of your overall poetry is based on your own life.

I mentioned above that this specific poem was inspired somewhat by my grandparents and just a bit by past newspaper stories I’ve read, although that’s about all that was nonfiction about the poem. Overall, my poetry is a tapestry of small details of my own life, and details of things I’ve read in the papers, heard about from others, come up with in my own mind, and dreamt about. I used to have this thing where I would start off nearly all my poems with a small anecdote from something I’d read in the paper or in a psychology study, such as when I started a poem with a few lines about the 36 questions the psychologist Arthur Aron believes strangers must ask one another to fall in love.

I don’t think I’ve ever actually written a poem that was entirely nonfiction. I’ve written poems that are mostly nonfiction or mostly based on my own life, but I don’t recall writing one that was entirely 100% based on my own life. The closest I’ve come to that is a collection of poetry I published a few years back with Words Dance Publishing titled The No You Never Listened To, which was based on my experience in a traumatic relationship that culminated in my partner at the time raping me. I felt I could not do my trauma and my truths justice if I did not write them as close to nonfiction as I possibly could.

Whose work has had the most profound impact on your writing?

A few years back I read a book by the Irish novelist Maggie O’Farrell, called After You’d Gone, about a young woman whose lover is killed by a bomb. I have never connected to any other work as deeply since as I have to that novel. It was so utterly realistic and so utterly poetic. I felt as if I were actually in the young woman’s shoes, and in the shoes of all her family members and friends, whether those shoes were mules, peep toe sandals, boots, or sneakers. Ever since reading that novel, I have always challenged myself to write as sharply and as concisely as I can so that my audience is able to step into my poems too.

Do you ever let anyone read your work while in progress? If so, who? If not, why?

I have one close writing friend whom I send a lot of my work to, but I’ve never sent him any of my work in progress, only when it’s finished. I see so much focus in the writing community on editing and revising and writing draft after draft and doing workshop after workshop, but after doing a few poetry workshops in college, I decided that method wasn’t really for me. Sure, I welcome constructive criticism on my work, but I rarely actually implement it. For me, it just feels like when a piece is finished, then it’s finished for good.

How do you decide when a poem is complete?

Of course it sounds obvious, but as soon as the last line of a poem hits me hard, then it’s complete. I could write the most awful beginning and middle of a poem yet the most beautiful last lines, and it would still be complete. I always do go back and reread a poem for minor proofreading, but if the last line or lines really resonate with me, then it’s pretty much done. And by “resonate with me,” I mean if I read that last line or lines and am in disbelief that I could have ever written those lines, if it feels like a writer much better than me must’ve written those lines, then the poem is complete.

What 5 writers would you invite to your house for a meal (dead or alive)? What would you serve them?

That is a great question. I would invite Rod Serling, the screenwriter of the original Twilight Zone episodes, Maggie O’Farrell (the Irish novelist mentioned previously), Charlie Kaufman (the screenwriter of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Kelly Sundberg, who wrote a bestselling memoir about her abusive marriage to another writer, and the poet Richard Siken. I’ve gotten much more into cooking in the past year and have been exploring with quite a few recipes. I think I would serve them crab cakes, mushroom risotto, Riesling, and tiramisu for dessert. We’ll see if I could get the risotto right, though!

Erin Ollila believes in the power of words and how a message can inform—and even transform—its intended audience. When she’s not working with big brands and small businesses to marry strategy, storytelling, and SEO, you can find her hosting the Talk Copy to Me podcast or exploring southeastern MA with her family and friends. Erin graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and then co-founded Spry Literary Journal, which celebrates undiscovered and established writers’ concise, experimental, hybrid, modern, vintage or just-plain-vulnerable writing

Reach out to her on Instagram or visit her website to learn more.