Briefs Blog

Behind the Words: Kendall Pack

Posted by on Jan 28, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Kendall Pack

Kendall Pack’s short story “Exposure” was published in Spry Literary Journal’s tenth issue. His work has also appeared in The Disconnect and Superstition Review, and he is a former contributor to Utah Stories. He lives in Mesa, Arizona with his wife and two daughters where he continues to write and perform in several mediums, including narrative podcasts and an annual play that finally answers the question, “Do we really need more Thanksgiving content?” In the Fall of 2022, he will attend ASU Law School. Here Kendall and Spry contributor, Kristin Tenor, discuss “Exposure,” the importance of mentorship and reading good books as well as what’s up next for Kendall. 

Kristin Tenor: I love how the narrator directly addresses the reader within the first few sentences of “Exposure”, inviting the reader to participate in the story as it unfolds, or in this case, exposes itself. How essential is this bridge between writer and reader? Can a story resonate without it?

Kendall Pack: I grew up going to a lot of overnight campouts where storytelling was a given. In that format, connecting with the audience is a must. It’s an energy I am constantly trying to capture in print, and I’m glad I had some success here. Since “Exposure” is framed as a letter, it was necessary to address the recipient in that way, but I think it’s important to always have some connection with the reader, whether it’s overt like this or more subtle. In storytelling, we have the ability to read the audience as we go, and I try to act as both speaker and audience as my characters confess and hold back and process their story. I think a story can exist without that, but I wouldn’t like it much.

The family dynamic in this piece is familiar and yet unique to the narrator’s experience. How does one balance the familiar with the need to turn things on their head so the reader walks away both feeling connected and entertained?

While I write, I am constantly on the lookout for that shiny object, something that sticks out as strange that I can obsess over. I like this character because she gets so intensely focused on things that may have little significance in the world but that are so important to her. Here, she’s obsessed with a photograph, and that preoccupation gives me an anchor for the whole story.  I don’t think it’s my job as a writer to create some strange situation, just to amplify an interesting detail to show the strangeness of reality.

All that said, Mark Holly himself is not the most common detail, but I enjoyed having our narrator dismiss this obvious strange thing in exchange for others that meant more to her. 

The narrator discloses that the cameraman who took the photograph without her consent is Mark Holly, “a professional visitor traveling from West Coast to the East,” a bad news character who ends up incarcerated for crimes we never quite know. When the narrator says, “You recognize the name? Yes, that Mark Holly,” it prompted me to Google his name to see if a criminal named Mark Holly actually existed. No dice, but I’d love to know what or who inspired you to create his character?

Mark Holly was one of those discoveries I made along the way. As I was writing, I kept repeating his full name and emphasizing that he was this known entity until his role in the thing clicked. In the moment, I think I was imagining this college apartment where the protagonist’s brother lived, and I remembered those awkward conversations I overheard during my first semester when I slept on a friend’s living room couch in full view of visitors some nights. So Mark Holly started out as an avatar of sorts for me before becoming this omnipresent thing that haunts the story. I love those elements, the enigmatic things that fill the space beyond the story. I know it can be unsatisfying to some readers, but I always like a story where I have questions that will never be answered, mysteries I can endlessly ruminate on.

“Exposure” also circles around the narrator’s quest for transformation. Early in the story we’re told she is about to leave her family to go to The Retreat. Why do you feel the narrator finds it necessary to leave? Also, did you do any preliminary world-building prior to writing this story so as to better understand how The Retreat would play a role in this story , or did this place develop organically?

I think she felt the need to go because she was stuck in life. I’ve often felt that same need to do something extreme to break a cycle. The Retreat is such a big commitment, and in my mind, this character has never committed to anything. I grew up in Utah, where it’s pretty hard to get out without being sucked into an MLM or some self-help scheme, and I found myself on the receiving end of a lot of pitched. When friends or family or, in one case, former students would talk to me about these new, life-changing products or experiences, I always felt like they were scammed, but that I was somehow missing out on some secret they had. I took that thought process into writing this, and I didn’t feel the need to do any world-building other than what you see on the page since the main character is trying to figure out this new world herself. There are certainly things I imagine when I think about the Retreat, but I like the effect of having the character be somewhat clueless to this world she has made such a full commitment to. 

Besides being a writer, you’re also an English teacher in Mesa, Arizona. What is the best writing advice one can give an aspiring writer? Who do you consider your mentors?

A while, I realized that I was never going to write at the level I wanted to unless I carved out a committed daily writing session. Sometimes it was five minutes, sometimes it was a couple hours, but my goal was to touch the work every day to keep my mind constantly processing the story. Then I had kids, and then teaching sucked up the rest of my time. So I don’t get those big, beautiful chunks of time to work, but I carry around a notebook and keep 3×5 cards at my desk and try to be a writer for a few minutes every day. The bulk of my students don’t want to be writers, but I think the advice to write every day is equally important for them, because the act of it can show them how beneficial it is to process your thoughts through writing. 

I’ve had a lot of great mentors, especially in the graduate program at Utah State University. That school is big for technology and engineering, which was its own inspiration, but they have a great, active writing community with some incredible professors doing interesting work. I took a summer writing workshop with Rick Moody back in 2015 and then promptly lost his email and haven’t spoken with him since. But he said something that stuck with me. I’d written a sci-fi piece and his biggest critique was that I just needed to do more of what I was doing. That helped me take off some of the restrictions I’d put on myself and take stories further.

It’s often said to be a good writer one must read and read well.  What books do you recommend?  Is there a book you return to time and time again?

I was assigned to read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer during my senior year of the undergraduate program and, like much of the work I was assigned, I skimmed it. A couple months ago, I picked it back up and read it cover to cover. That book is so important for me now. The core concept is that a writer should read with the intent of becoming a better writer. When I read it now, I do so focused not only on the story, but on the tools the writer is using to construct it. 

I have a shelf dedicated to books I reread for lessons on prose. I have a three-volume paperback collection of Chester Himes’s Harlem Cycle and I find myself opening those, even to a random page, and finding something inspiring. All nine of those books are written with such abandon. Himes has some of the most ridiculous phrases in all literature, but he pulls it off by never letting up. His work is a reminder for me that I can literally do whatever I want in a story as long as it drives the plot forward. 

But the most important area of my bookshelf is my full row of Dave Barry collections. I am not joking when I say that Dave Barry is one of our greatest writers. If you have gone longer than a week without reading one of his articles, it is likely you are miserable. 

What are you currently working on?

I’m pretty invested in a story about a boat trip that turns spooky as well as finishing my novel about a middle-aged cyborg just trying to enjoy his vacation. I’m also working on recording audiobooks of that novel and its prequel with a buddy of mine who recently quit his job to figure out what exactly he wants to do, which is one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever witnessed. We’re also working on a short film, and all this before I head to law school in the Fall and start suing the pants off everybody. I find myself constantly pulled by all these projects, which means it tends to take longer to complete one project, but I love being immersed in stories. 

Kristin Tenor

Kristin Tenor is a writer and editor who finds inspiration in life’s quiet details and believes in their power to illuminate the extraordinary. Her work has appeared in various literary journals including The Midwest Review, Bending Genres, Emerge Literary Journal, X-R-A-Y, and more. Her flash fiction piece, “Matinee,” was published in Spry Literary Journal’s eleventh issue. She and her husband call Wisconsin home. 

Behind the Words: Claire Oleson

Posted by on Jan 25, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Claire Oleson

Claire OlesonClaire Oleson is a queer writer and 2020 Fiction Fellow at the Center for Fiction. She is a 2019 graduate of Kenyon College, where she studied English and Creative Writing. Her work has been published by the Kenyon Review online, the University of Kentucky’s graduate literary journal Limestone, the LA Review of Books, and Newfound Press, among others. Her chapbook of short stories debuted May, 2020 from Newfound Press. She currently lives and works in NYC. She’s 4’10” and has been for a long time. Here, Claire joins fellow Spry contributor Kendall Pack in a conversation about her writing.

What are you inspired by lately?

Silly hope really hits the sweet spot. Practical hope is nice too. I write and facilitate poetry classes for Cleaver Magazine; that keeps me engaged with contemporary poetry while I try to write contemporary fiction. I like it when those things hold hands—it makes them both better. I think the biggest thing might be the constant reminder, which I have to tell myself often, that we can make space for art and writing. We can carve out ditches to read and speak in. We are always in possession of that potential even in the midst of disconnection. I also like it when it snows, that’s nice for me. 

This is one of those big writerly questions, but what do you hope to contribute as a writer and editor to the landscape of literature?

I think it’s very difficult to look at oneself or one’s work in a broad and still emerging scheme like that, but to say something, I think I’d say empathy. I mean this in the sense of being able to feel characters and situations presented in fiction or poetry as well as experiences- rivers and evenings and hands sitting in sink water for too long, I want my work to be places people feel, work that is enacted at the level of the reader’s body, work that requires that participation to be completed. It’s not done when I’m done with it. I think it needs other people. I’m grateful for anyone who reads and participates. 

How do you “participate” as a reader?

I feel that reading alone is participation, is an act of creating, taking a set of thinking instructions and performing them yourself. One of the best things about writing for me is that it’s gives differently to different receivers. Everyone sees the “barn” or “heartbreak” or “sixth toe on the dog we adopted when we couldn’t pay the gas bill” differently. It’s not a direct translation, and it’s not complete on the page, it needs to be taken up in a brain and made again. It’s like that game telephone and the messed up places, the places where the message warps, are the spots where work is being done.

What part does Ohio (or other places you’ve spent time) play in your writing life?

I’ve been in the Midwest my whole my life exempting stints elsewhere for vacation. I live in Brooklyn now which is a sharp difference. I grew up in Michigan and attended college in Ohio. These are fly-over states, these are states whose region is often contested and rurality that’s often written down as wholly skippable. I’ve got a fondness for lakes and forests and rural landscapes and what they do to and for the lives that happen in them. I think as far as my writing goes, these areas have taught me a lot about isolation and expanse, about what we consider to represent mediocrity and what that means when it’s something you actively live or grow up in (the perception, at the very least). I think the Midwest has shown me you can get scared or passionate or disillusioned or immensely invested in the ordinary, in the rural, in the expansive and silo-studded. 

I’m working on a novel draft with an agent I recently signed at Janklow and Nesbit—it’s a queer, rural, experimental project that’s centered on Michigan as much as any one person in it. Being in a specific place has immense bearing on everything from your experience of the sky to what you might do in a county that has one bar and one ER. It’s a one-bar, one-ER project and I’m extremely excited about it. 

What moments of your life can you point to as essential Midwestern Experiences you want to recreate for readers?

It feels difficult to call something essentially midwestern that isn’t as basic as growing up in Michigan. But in childhood I’d say experiencing rural expanse, especially if a car breaks down in farm land you can get a sensation of “we might as well be in a tundra, it’s big and maybe pretty but also inherently uncaring, the corn doesn’t have empathetic capacity.” That, or any sort of salad that takes mayonnaise as its foundation. 

Readers of Spry need to know! Tell us about upcoming publications and projects you’re involved in.

I feel so fortunate to have received the Center for Fiction’s Emerging Writer’s fellowship in 2020; I was able to write 85k in a year because of outside enfranchisement. I was able to take a leap on the idea that a long project, a manuscript that centered queerness in both its form and content, was worth that time and energy. Having a community of fellows and the encouragement of an institution in Brooklyn let me get a white-knuckled hold on the idea that I could spill a lot of time and effort into writing and not be completely idiotic for trying. 

Maybe I’ll be found an idiot later, but for now, it’s going all right enough for me to keep spilling. 

A lot of your characters are apologetic or stuck in a rut. Is that a purging for you or just an opportunity to explore characters with mindsets different from your own?

Both. I definitely have gotten stuck in things and I’ve definitely apologized. It’s also a useful space to enter a story. In a very basic sense, it provides something “wrong,” which feels like a necessary foundation to establish to convince anyone that you have a story.  

What about the confessional style spoke to you for “Marinara”? Did you begin with that frame in mind, or was it something you applied afterward?

I usually start with image as a hook rather than plot. This can lead to a sense of dwelling and rumination on an occasion, and I think that sense is legible in “Marinara.” This story is perhaps confessional in how seems to regret itself as it manifests, how the narrator is communicating what they could not or did not comprehend at the time of its occurrence. I think this happens easily inside of emergencies, an odd slowness, a sensation of the ordinary or banal at the breaks between knowing and panic. I think the confessional voice is allied with that mixture, with knowing something has gone wrong, but having not been able to know it when it might have mattered. 

What was the image that inspired you for this story?

“Marinara” was, for me and at its start, about seeing body out of body, about being able to comprehend blood as pasta sauce or a brain as manifesting in sticky notes tacked onto walls. I think bodies happen both in and outside of themselves, they leave marks on home and food and image, they certainly operate in the cell, but I also think it can be argued that they operate in the home, in how we keep things, in what we are prompted to see and understand. 

In “Marinara,” as in some of your other stories, you explore the themes of the body, regret, and discomfort. What draws you to these topics?

I have regret, discomfort, and a body, most of the time. I’ve got a lot of anxiety, some of which is medical. This is not to say I’m in constant occupation of any of these things, but I do find them very interesting to occupy. Everyone’s got a body and everyone can feel their body but we still can’t know the body constantly, everything it is constantly doing at the level of the cell to keep us as us. I write a lot about what scares me and sometimes it makes it more comfortable to be in but most of all it helps to make regular the terrifying. When you are setting any piece of writing in any place, it is irrevocably first set in the human body of writer and or reader, even if it’s a sectioned orange narrating, it came from a human neurology. The body is unavoidable. Discomfort and regret are not, but seeing how they can come to or move out of the body allow a still body or a fictional body to achieve a believable organicism (I hope), a sense of living and being intermittently aware of what living is or isn’t. 

In this story, you explore harm to the body, and we aren’t entirely sure of the outcome of the attack. How does it feel to explore that?

The narrator, I hope, is legibly uncertain in a lot of ways. Leaving things ambiguous makes that uncertainty into a place the reader steps into as well, building a space for empathy between reader and narrator, even and especially when the narrator is flawed, incorrect, and or fabricating. Navigating a body that does not demand to exist in a fictional realism or even in realistic violence feels like having a body to me. The feeling of having and being a body is perpetual and occasionally very overwhelming, I hope some of that is legible in the piece. 

What do you like about the editorial role at Cleaver and the staff work at Kenyon Review? How does it inform your writing and vice versa?

The access to current writing and emerging writing and the chance, in writing reviews or reading slush-pile submissions, to shape its emergence or support its proliferation has been incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. Both positions have allowed me to work with dedicated and lovely people and to promote and feature the writing of dedicated and lovely people. The exposure to a lot of writing across the board, from spectacular to borderline abhorrent, helps to contextualize my work and allows me to teach myself, to see what I like and to see what is considered good, how what is good might be changing, and how to get better.

You recently put “queer” in your writer bio. What brought about that decision?

I think visibility can help bring a different readership to my work, can help assumptions about character be discarded until shown or not shown, and can reinforce for other queer writers and artists that we are out here, living and creating, and that their work is worth working on. It also verifies a queer reading of my writing. It forbids subtext and makes it text. 

Does it change the way you approach characters?

I like my characters to feel like they have done things before I wrote them and will do things after. If queerness is part of their arc, I want it to be a facet and not a core. I’m not centered on coming out stories. These folks are already in motion and some of them happen to not be heterosexual while they do it. I hope my stories can feel like excerpts from lives rather than holistic, bow-tied and wrapped-up independent entities. Writing characters like this, I believe, turns my stories into things that lean, things that require and ask for the support of the reader to imagine what is happening both in and outside the bounds of the text’s body.

Of all the things you could do, why writing?

I used to say because I’m bad at math but I can’t even say that anymore; I’m being real: I know how to use excel and quickbooks now. A great tragedy. 

But really: I like telling stories and most of the time I’m afraid to do it in person and without the lovely rehearsal that space on a page, and time with it, can give you. I hope it continues to help me to see better and read better. At its best, I think good writing opens us to know things differently we might have had an unconscious sense for, to rename our world better and know it deeper, to take ownership of experience while also making it accessible, an invitation to others to engage in and create experience out of languages. 

How do you see yourself growing in writing?

I want to keep working on longer projects like the current manuscript I’m editing with my agent, tentatively titled New Animals. I want to keep contributing to community spaces and make sure that the ability to express is not gate-kept or locked into institutional membership. I want to sleep better and for it to snow more this year. I want you to have a nice evening. I might want a dog in the next ten years. I want to keep wanting, and that’s the most real, enduring hope I can offer to both myself and the craft. 

Kendall Pack is a husband and father of two living and teaching in Mesa, AZ. His work has appeared in several magazines, on the local stages both as a writer and as a performer, and he is currently completing his first novel, an action comedy. In the Fall of 2022, he will attend law school at ASU.

Behind the Words: Randy Osborne

Posted by on Jan 21, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Randy Osborne

Randy Osborne’s essay collection, Over the River and Stabbed to Death, won the international Beverly Prize and is forthcoming from Eyewear/Black Spring in the U.K. His work is listed in the Notables section of Best American Essays for 2015, 2016, and 2018. It has been included in four print anthologies and nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, and many small literary magazines. He lives in Atlanta. 

Here, we interview him about his essay “Out of the Garden” published in the sixth issue of Spry Literary Journal.

As a fellow CNF writer, I know how tough it can be to write about mental illness fairly. Did you struggle with this in Out of the Garden? If so, what was difficult to show restraint or be more vulnerable? 

I did feel challenged by where to put energy. Telling the story from my own standpoint seemed obvious and natural, since it’s a personal essay. On the other hand, with another human being in the scenario – and a troubled one at that – I wanted to represent her as fairly as I could. In the end, her bipolar disorder turned out to be something I could not enter or inhabit, despite trying hard and reading books and talking with psychiatrists. I stayed with my girlfriend for about a year after she became seriously unwell; she refused medications, preferring to “self-medicate,” as they say, with alcohol. Friends and therapists advised me to leave, but I kept imagining that the person I once knew would reappear.  

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

Just now I read through the piece again and felt twinges or pangs, something like what I suppose a first-time, non-hardened criminal must feel in court when the judge reads the charges aloud. Most of what I write, when examined later, sounds to me like the dark, wistful prose of a guy who’s doing his best and probably won’t amount to much. But I wouldn’t change anything.

Is creative nonfiction the only genre you write in? If so, what do you like/dislike about it so much? If you write in other genres, which is your favorite? 

Probably because I grew up in journalism (it’s still my day job: I cover biotechnology for an online publication), I prefer the genre that we like to call nonfiction as opposed to what’s deemed fiction. There’s a certain strangeness I want to explore that can be made up in fiction but often seeps from everyday life. Much of what I’m writing now starts as realism and then departs; I appreciate touching that base first, like pocketing a lucky charm before I set off into the woods.

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

Quite a lot. On the writing front, since that essay appeared in Spry, my essay collection, Over the River and Stabbed to Death, in which the Spry piece is included, won something called the Beverly Prize. The win entailed publication, so my book is forthcoming from Eyewear/Black Spring in the U.K. when the Covid-19 smoke clears over there. Pretty satisfying, as the contest was international and pan-genre. (Apparently the contest really was judged “blind.” That’s how the riff-raff gets in.) The book’s title piece is here. In the personal zone, I got married to my longtime girlfriend Joyce and became a father again. We adopted a little girl whose parents lost custody of her because of drugs. Leela’s almost six years old now. 

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

For the conversation, Virginia Woolf. And to make Virginia happy, Vita Sackville-West. Those letters! I would ask Mary Moody Emerson, aunt to Ralph Waldo. Those letters! Ralph once wrote of Mary, “All her language was happy but inimitable, as if caught from some dream.” Of course Ralph would be invited; rude not to include him. I guess the last guest choice should be one of the moderns who’d appreciate the company already assembled. I’d go with Branka Arsic. She wrote On Leaving: Readings in Emerson, the best book on him that I’ve seen. The food choices I would leave to Joyce, who is amazing in the kitchen – at the chef level in my opinion, though she might disagree. 

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

Alas, I’m not that organized. “In progress” means that I have scribbled some notes, often cryptic, on slips of paper or I’ve sent emails to myself about some feeling that seems about to rise to comprehension. Usually it does rise, though not right away; the process can take years. By then I will have lost track of some of the slips of paper and emails, or all of them, but it doesn’t matter. They served their purpose.   

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

I associate “profound impacts” with youth, that period when an aspiring writer is on the lookout for writers to emulate. For me it was E.B. White, whose essays I discovered in high school. I no longer feel that I would do anything if I could write like him, but have fond feelings and often reread him. These days the impacts, profound or otherwise, don’t come from others’ work. They come from “ordinary” life.

What is your editing process like? Do you follow a personal set of rules or does it depend on the piece?

Depends on the piece. In some cases it’s like peeling the clothes off a lover. In some cases it’s like repairing a watch. In some cases it’s like shoveling snow.

What published essay/story/poem are you most proud of? Why?

For its battle scars, I appreciate this one – rejected nine times before winning first place for essay in a Writer’s Digest contest, then getting published by Bodega and showing up in Best American Essay’s Notables section. 

For similar reasons I’m pleased with a piece in the print magazine 34th Parallel. I wrote it after a long dry spell, and felt certain it would find a home nowhere. Two publications accepted it simultaneously, which had never happened before. Days later I got a rejection that included an insulting message. You know, the “feedback” that I always appreciate when editors withhold. Please, just say yes or no. Let it remain a mystery why.

What does your creative space look like?

Books piled everywhere and on loaded shelves, some of which have collapsed. We rented a storage unit for the overflow (and it, too, is overflowing). The window at desk where I write for the day job overlooks our apartment complex’s pool, five floors below. As for the other writing, I’ve learned to do that anywhere. We have a comfortable sofa and a coffee shop downstairs and a clubroom across the street. I’ll always find the place and the way.  


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.

Behind the Words: Michael Chin

Posted by on Jan 18, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Michael Chin

Michael Chin has had work in various publications, including The Normal School, Passages North, Barrelhouse, Hobart, Iron Horse Literary Review, Front Porch Journal, Bellevue Literary Review, Prairie Schooner online, Waccamaw, and Word Riot. He has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize Best New Poets, Best Microfiction, and Best of the Net honors  and had work on the Longlist for Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions (2017). His debut novel, My Grandfather’s an Immigrant, and So is Yours came out from Cowboy Jamboree Press in 2021.

Here, we discuss his Issue 10 story, “Contortions.”

What I love about this story is the relationship between the two sisters, how realistic it is — that combination of resentment and caring feels so true. Was there ever a draft of this story where the contortionist was wholly sacrificing? Or one where she was wholly selfish?

To be honest, this story came out relatively whole—there was a fair amount of re-working at the sentence level, but the character dynamics and most of the plot were there from early on. In my mind, it was pretty foundational to the protagonist that she’d have been influenced—if not defined—by this relationship with her sister and how she lost her. The illness and the loss are the biggest pieces, naturally, but all the sibling baggage, including the resentment that shouldn’t be, but inevitably is there was all intrinsic to the character and situation.

It’s so interesting that the contortionist chooses this hobby to pass the time while her family is away for doctors’ visits. What is it about this character that makes her choose contortionism rather than, say, baking or archery?

This was one of the last few pieces I wrote in Circus Folk, a full-length collection that came in 2019 from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle that’s all about different circus performers and, often as not, what led them to their circus careers. After I’d written a lot of the longer, core pieces, I started brainstorming other kids of performers I might address, and the idea of writing about a contortionist stemmed from that list-making process. I started to envision this contortionist’s act ending with her folding herself up into a box something like a coffin, and the rest of the story sort of reverse-engineered itself from there. 

The parents are mentioned here briefly, but otherwise they remain offstage for the story, giving the impression of the sisters against the world. Is this isolation intentional?

It was quickly clear to me that this was going to be a flash piece and as such, I wanted to keep the cast of characters tightly contained. I suppose that having the parents more present might have opened up additional avenues for this story to explore, but I wanted to focus on the contortionist act itself, and how the character arrived at it, and so the ‘camera frame’ narrowed to the sisters pretty exclusively. I don’t know that I’d very consciously thought about them as being so isolated, but that does seem right upon reflecting on the piece.

As Brenda grows weaker from her disease, we see the contortionist becoming stronger in her chosen vocation, incorporating her sister into the act, finally choosing the moniker Brenda to perform under, almost as if she is using her strength to keep her sister alive. Does this work, metaphorically speaking?

There’s definitely an element of these two separate bodies and personalities converging into one, and the idea that the contortionist is living for the both of them as this story goes on. I suppose that her folding herself into the box to be carried away at the end of her act is an extension of that dynamic—accessing in a very literal, physical way what the original Brenda might have.

That final image is such a powerful one, the contortionist secreting herself into that small, small box and being carried away, “wrapped,” as you say, in darkness. Do you think, sometimes, that she is tempted to stay? Or is it a relief for her, backstage, to unclasp the lid and pull herself out, bit, by bit, length by length?

A lot of what I explored with these circus pieces was the idea of how art is made and what it means to people, particularly as they link their identities to what they make or perform. There’s a significant element of the contortionist’s act that is about representing, reenacting, or honoring her sister’s experience. As such, I think there’s a way in which the contortionist lives and dies each time she takes the stage, and who she is off the stage is a separate person altogether. 

To make a clumsy comparison, it’s like how the version of me that’s writing is different from the version of me that eats chicken wings and watches pro wrestling, or the version of me that puts stuffed animals on his head to make my four-year-old laugh. The different versions are linked, no doubt, and even inform one another sometimes; they also exist on different planes, though, and are often oblivious to each other’s existence unless they’re forced to interact.


Cathy Ulrich is a writer from Montana. Her work has been published in various journals, including Wigleaf, Passages North and Black Warrior Review, as well as being included in Best Microfiction 2019.

Behind the Words: Cathy Ulrich

Posted by on Jan 14, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Cathy Ulrich

Cathy Ulrich is a prolific writer and an incredible member of the literary community. She was published in Spry in 2015, and if memory serves me correctly, she’s been working with us as an editorial reader since that publication. Every issue, we offer our staff the opportunity to take a break — we’re an all volunteer team — and every issue, I watch my inbox with anxiety until Cathy responds…always with a note about how happy she’s be to continue working with us.

And only then I can let out a sigh of relief. She is a quick reader, a detailed reader, and a dedicated reader. She encourages stories that may need small edits instead of immediately casting them aside, and when an issue publishes, she champions everyone’s work. I’m so honored to have gotten to know Cathy in the years since we published her work, and I hope you’ll take a moment to learn about her and connect with her now. 

Starlings is a beautifully written piece of flash. Since we publish both creative nonfiction and fiction at this length, I’d love to know which of these genres Starlings falls under.

“Starlings,” like a lot of my writing, has elements of truth in it hidden amongst the lie, the story. This piece has more truth than a lot of my others — it could probably be described as CNF. That year, we really did see a leg-injured starling, really did see a snow-white one in the midst of the others, thought it might be a different kind of bird, looked up on our phones white starlings.

To follow up from that question, where did the spark of inspiration come from to write this piece?

All the elements were there, so many starlings that year, I can still remember how they peppered the yard, the rush of their wings when they took flight. But the thing that sparked it into a story for me was my mother saying if we were birds, we’d be starlings. She says it to mean that we’re average, but I think starlings are really beautiful.

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

This is a game I try not to play! I try to be satisfied with a story once it’s been published, otherwise I’ll be filled with writing regret all the time. Although in this case, I would maybe make the breaks between the paragraphs stronger — each one is its own little section, and I didn’t make that clear enough, I think.

Shoot, now look what I’ve done!

I feel like every time I open Twitter I see that you’ve published something new. What’s your submissions process look like? Do you write something new and send it to a few places? Do you wait and send batches of work out at a time? 

I submit work as time allows — I like to be familiar with the journal’s aesthetic before submitting. In some cases, this works out perfectly: when I wrote “Starlings,” I thought it would be a good fit for Spry and, luckily, you thought so too! Other times, I am completely wrong and then I have to search for a new home for the piece. I try not to do simultaneous submissions — I am much too disorganized to keep track!

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

It’s about a quarter inch thick at the moment! I need to have a physical copy to mark up with pen, so I carry a literal folder around with all the things I’m working on, all my scraps of paper that might turn into something.

In a good week, I can write two or three pieces that might be worth submitting. (In a bad week, when I am very depressed or having panic attacks and can’t focus, I usually just stare at the wall on my lunch break; I can’t write at all then.) Usually two or three rounds of edits is all I give a piece — it goes from handwritten rough draft to the marked-up printout to a clean, pretty version. If I can’t get a story in that time, I have to put it away because it just isn’t going to work. Sometimes I completely rewrite it later and come up with something worth sharing, sometimes it is gone for good.

Another thing I notice from following you on Twitter is that you are such an excellent literary citizen. You’re always sharing the work of your peers. Why do you think it’s important to share fellow writers’ words? Why do you do it?

I love reading. All of my favorite writers love reading. So when I see something that makes me feel like, “yes, this is lovely,” I want other people to have that same feeling when they read it!

And it is so, so powerful to know that your writing has meant something to someone — I have become friends with a writer who shared one of my pieces before I was even active on social media. She didn’t know it out the time, but she actually helped save my life. I was suffering very badly, and seeing that somebody was moved by my words, well, it really saved me.

To follow up, what do you think it takes to make a good literary citizen? What do you wish you saw more often from your peers?

There’s something I’d actually like to see less, and that’s comparison. It makes me so sad when people see a story and say “I could never write like that.” That’s actually good, you know? Because that writer is already writing like that. I want you to write like you.

That comparison thing, it hurts you and it hurts the writer you’re comparing yourself to. We’re all just telling the stories only we can tell, sharing them how best we feel comfortable. When people start getting judged for that (positively or negatively), it can become really painful. We’re all just doing our best — there’s no need to put yourself down, or anyone else. There’s enough room in the world for all the beautiful writers and their words.

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

Flash is definitely my preferred genre. They only had poetry classes when I went to school, so my teachers were all poets, but I really wanted to write fiction. Flash is a bit of a compromise, and one that suits my temperament and skills.

Describe a perfect writing day.

Oooh, that would have to be I get a whole hour for lunch break, and the phone doesn’t ring (or if it does, my coworkers answer it), and I have enough time to write a whole story in my notepad before going back to work, maybe get some edits done on another. Yes. That would be just perfect.

You’ve also been a reader for Spry for some time now. I honestly have no clue what the journal would do without you. Tell us, what do you look for in submissions. What sings to you and what turns you off?

I’m so honored to be a part of the Spry staff — it means so much to me to be part of a project like this. What I look for in our submissions is an unexpected moment, beauty in the language, something that makes me look at a character or a poet or an artist and say, yes, yes, I feel like this too.

That moment. It’s just so wonderful.

Erin Ollila believes in the power of words and how a message can inform – and even transform – its intended audience. Her work can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, copywriting, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things content marketing. She graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. Reach out to her on Instagram at @ErinOllila, or visit her website

Behind the Words: Deborah Crook

Posted by on Jan 11, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Deborah Crook

Deborah Crooks is a writer and performing singer-songwriter living in Alameda, California. She’s released a number or records under her own name and with the band Bay Station. Previous publications include No Depression, Kitchen Sink and in the anthology “The Thinking Girl’s Guide to Enlightenment” (Seal Press).

Here, we discuss her issue 11 flash piece, “Animal Time.”

Cathy Ulrich: This is such a great opening: “It was our last day of the week of no thinking.” I know I personally have trouble shutting off my mind and just being. Was this week an escape for this couple? Or a struggle?

Deborah Crooks: It was an escape, but that’s the catch isn’t it? It’s exactly what you mention regarding quieting your mind. It’s often a struggle to truly get to an intended destination, even if the intent and mechanisms are in place. How to shut off certain thoughts when you’ve been set to one channel and then find yourself in another landscape?

You choose this one moment from this one week for this piece — one of their last moments before going back home. What made you pick this particular moment to focus on?

I’m always interested in endings and beginnings. Often it’s not until we’re at that edge that we truly realize where we’ve been and understand how an experience or place has influenced us. And also the bittersweet preciousness of moments I think I write sometimes so I don’t forget a feeling, even if I’ve taken liberties with details.

The description is so powerful in this piece, “Nothing ever completely dried,” it just pulls the reader into the scene. You write with the authority of someone who has experienced this kind of place — have you visited the setting in this story yourself?

Yes, I’ve been to the Caribbean Islands, and other tropical destinations, and that heaviness of air combined with warmth in those places always surprises me. It’s easy for me to get in the actual water in those places, which impresses and delights me as I have a harder time doing that where I live in California, even though I live near the water. It’s just rarely warm enough!

At the end, the narrator says they “wonder who we were.” During this no-thinking week, was this couple very different people from the ones they are in their day-to-day existence, do you think?

Yes, the people in the story are caught up in a different world of work, and urbanity, away from the elements, and their focus is more on mind than body. I think most urban, modern landscapes require a different focus just to move through them, connect with others, and, you know, pay the bills.

The narrator seems to be feeling some regret when the piece ends — is this because they were so different there? Or because they are so different here?

Here. When you know a different way of being you automatically have to compartmentalize it or reconcile it with your present state. I deeply love the natural world and how my being, all my senses, establish a different rhythm when I’m staying in a rural area, or camping or staying in a warm place with time and space. At the same time, my mind is very trained for media and highways and commerce, and I rarely have the guts to completely unplug anymore. Writing this was my way of exploring that reckoning with that feeling of longing for something else even as one is engaged in the current reality. In the meantime, I’m trying to maintain a connection in my day-to-day living in a metropolitan area – whether it’s noticing which birds are flying overhead or getting my feet on unpaved ground as much as possible.


Cathy Ulrich is a writer from Montana. Her work has been published in various journals, including Wigleaf, Passages North and Black Warrior Review, as well as being included in Best Microfiction 2019.

Behind the Words: Fred Shaw

Posted by on Jan 7, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Fred Shaw

Fred Shaw’s poem “Bully” deals with the causes and effects of cruelty. An honest and trenchant look into the mind and experience of a speaker who preys on the weak “as if it were a rite of passage,” Shaw’s poem appeared in the third Issue of Spry. He was kind enough to offer some insight into the poem’s origins as well as his writing process, the literary scene in Pittsburgh, and what honesty in poetry looks like to him. 

Marcus Whalbring: One thing I think about as I’m reading through “Bully” and your other poems in your book Scraping Away is the relationship between poetry and personal memory. The voice of these poems suggests the speaker is, in fact, you, interacting with your own memories, what some people might refer to as confessional. Is that an accurate assumption?

Fred Shaw: I don’t necessarily denote my work as Confessional, though it definitely has elements of that genre. Honesty is what I strive for through accuracy of imagery and setting, getting the details right.  Confessionalism seems to be linked to sin, and, for the most part, my conscience is pretty clean.

You’ve mentioned that one thing that inspired “Bully” was Tony Hoagland’s “Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People,” which talks about, among other things, the impact of “meanness” in poetry. Can you talk a little about how this essay influenced the poem and what the process of writing it was like? 

Saddened to hear of his passing a few years back, I feel honored to have studied with Hoagland as an undergraduate and did a deep dive into his book Donkey Gospel as a student in Jan Beatty’s senior seminar at Pitt.  I came to greatly enjoy his voice and perspective in those poems and others that would follow. I was working on my first chapbook, Argot, during a trip to close down my cabin in upstate PA and found myself losing focus.  Whenever that happens, I turn to reading and that essay got me thinking that my speakers were always too “nice” and needed to bear their fangs a bit, show a different side.  So often, as a writer, I found myself presenting speakers that were troubled though kind at heart.  In “Bully,” I thought I’d embrace that label and began thinking about the negative impact I’ve made on others.  Those are the things I think we try to forget and for me, that’s one of those “difficult things” I’ve been encouraged to write about by various professors in my past.

So this poem began by your wanting to write in a particular tone. What are your other strategies for finding your way into a poem? How do you begin?

As a poet who leans on narrative (but is also aware of line breaks and sound), I tend to think in scenes when it comes to writing, making it as particular and imagistic as I can recall.  The first decent (meaning I got some positive feedback in class) poem I wrote at 19 as an undergraduate was an “I remember….” poem and it seemed to open up a way of thinking that plays to those strengths.  The rest of it is distilling the language down, giving it a sense of compression in the lines, making each word count.

You said you strive for writing that’s honest. Can you explain what an honest poem looks like? Are there particular poets/poems you admire exemplifying this kind of honesty? What other qualities do you admire in poems you read? 

Not sure what it might look like, but I think it might make a reader cringe and have something of a physical reaction to it, positive or negative. (My older sister, referenced in “Bully,” told me she hated it when I passed it along to her.) In an “honest” poem, there’s no holding back from a societal perspective of poetry that seems to paint it as something that needs to be polite and play nice. Ai’s “Child Beater” has that effect on my students.  Terrance Hayes’ “Talk” also does that, I think.  Jan Beatty’s work is very “honest” in how it deals with so many of her topics and themes.  Those are just a few.  Language is important, for both its compelling sounds and the ways it connects with readers.  Robert Gibb uses some amazing turns of phrase in his work that is both painterly visual and hard-hitting.  I like Ted Kooser’s approach that poetry should be something his Aunt can appreciate, making it approachable for the reader.

Are there any voices that similarly inspire you outside of poetry? Fiction, film, music, visual art, etc.? 

Reading short stories and memoir seem to be what I’m drawn most to reading the last few years, though I read much poetry in several journals.  Films by the Coen Bros.  Jazz, especially Mingus and Monk. Peers of mine like local Pittsburgh poets Kris Collins, Bob Walicki and John Stupp are always producing work that I admire and remind me to get back to the keyboard.

Could you talk a little about the role Pittsburgh has played in your poems, and how Pittsburgh has impacted your life and work? How would you describe the literary community there?

Local writer Dave Newman summed up the city nicely in his novel Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children: “Pittsburgh is a postcard that the rest of the country never sees because no one here has the time to send it, because in Pittsburgh we work all the time,” Newman writes. “The teachers wait tables. The bartenders teach school … because here it is required that you must do to be.” Pittsburgh being the place I know best, has made me fiercely loyal to it, so much so that I once nearly came to blows when someone referred to it as “Shittsburgh” in a Seattle bar. I was surprised by my reaction, but it reminded me that place and setting shape us in many ways.  After reading WC Williams Paterson poems, and the Orkney poet George McKay Brown’s work in grad school, I found both seemed to be seeking the universal in their particular corners of the world.  I liked that idea, a familiar landscape, as a starting point for some of my work. As for the Pittsburgh literary community, it is robust, with readings happening nearly every day of the week–in fact, Pittsburgh punches well above its weight with the amount of quality poetry from here being published both locally and nationally. To paraphrase a corny T-shirt–“It’s a drinking town with a literary problem”

You said you wrote your first “decent” poem at 19. How long had you been writing poetry at that point? What inspired you to begin writing? What is it about poetry that specifically draws you in as a writer and reader of it?

“Decent” is a pretty subjective thing–my sophomore creative writing professor, Belle Waring, gave me a few nice comments on something I wrote for her class.  I think that’s all the push I needed to change my major and get a degree in writing as chemistry classes were not going well.  I had been fooling around with some lines, mostly surreal abstractions that were my best attempts at becoming Jim Morrison, The Door’s lead singer who I had listened to since I was a kid, my older sisters having most of their albums.  Typing those first poems on a manual typewriter was so great feeling–physically and emotionally– that I wanted to keep chasing.  Having parents that emphasized reading of any type was influential, as well, though my father’s reaction to my first attempts were understandably less than enthusiastic.  Poetry drew me in by its language, compression, and brevity, but also by its narrative aspects.  I initially wanted to write fiction but failed miserably. However, some of the narrative poems that I’d read in Ed Ochester and Peter Oresick’s anthology, The Pittsburgh Book of Contemporary Poetry, caught my attention and became the angle I pursued in my own poetry.

What advice would you give to other poets who are just starting out as far as reading, writing, literary community?

For my students, I have them read whatever speaks to them from the poetry anthologies I use for class as a way of seeing what styles they’re into.  From there, I hope that a natural curiosity develops, and they seek out poets whose voice and subject matter they identify with in some way.  While students don’t seem to be reader’s the way I was they’re pretty savvy about finding and knowing what they like.  Having them read full-length collections like Jeffrey McDaniel’s The Endarkenment or Jan Beatty’s Jackknife seems to be revelatory for those who haven’t approached poetry in a book-length kind of way.  As far as literary community, I figure they’ll find their tribes as they progress.

What are you working on currently? 

I have several book reviews in the works, and some unfinished poems I need to attend to as the life of an adjunct professor in the gig economy can make it difficult to carve out the time I feel the work deserves.  Summer is never as productive a time as I hope it to be, but I’m grateful for those moments of finding clarity and focus. I work pretty slowly and have come to understand my revision process much better over the years.  I’m less afraid to “kill my darlings,” as the saying goes.

Marcus Whalbring lives in Indiana with his wife and children where he’s a school teacher. A graduate of the MFA program at Miami University in Oxford Ohio, his poems have appeared (or are forthcoming) in The Cortland Review, Spry, High Shelf, Underwood, and the Oakland Review, among others. 

Behind the Words: Sheila Luna

Posted by on Jun 10, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Sheila Luna

Writer Sheila Luna’s work “Unbalanced” graced issue 9 of our magazine. This piece pivots around a narrator attempting to navigate life with her aging parents. Here, Luna and issue 10 contributor, Grace Campbell, talk about how to approach broad themes inside the tiny space of flash.

Grace Campbell: This piece spans a great deal of time. How did you reconcile the necessary compressions to represent a breadth of time in such a small piece?

Sheila Luna: In writing my essay, Unbalanced, I decided that it wasn’t necessary to explain to the reader how much time had passed to tell my story. Instead, I used repetition to string the memories together to give an illusion of time passing. Repetition, in a way, imitates the memory process. I have always admired the writing style of Joan Didion–how she builds paragraphs with a wide array of shapes, various sentence lengths, and turns around and surprises the reader with an irony. She can portray a tone that takes you in one direction, and then hits you with a blow. The ebbs and flows of her prose and the repetitions – whether a paragraph or an essay, come together like music. My piece is basically about memory. It is also about loss and grief, much like Didion wrote about in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking where her expert use of repetition gives rhythm to her prose and also illuminates objects and their meanings. Losing someone you love comes with so many emotions and pain. Not only the sick feeling in your heart of missing someone, but also nagging thoughts like I should have done more of this, I wish I could have told him that. After my dad died, childhood memories flooded into my head and I wanted to capture them. For me, writing is one way to do that. Writing keeps memories alive and makes sense of the chaos of grief. The trick in writing this short essay was to narrow in on a few details about my parents and my childhood – the shoes, the tree, the kitchen, and repeat them to give a sense of movement and at the same time evoke emotion.

You reference the mother’s memories being stolen like ‘a vacuum sucking cheerios from underneath a sofa’. It struck me as the kind of perspective usually common to parents of young children, yet this piece centers around adult relationships. What made you decide to use this reference?

Watching my mother’s memory slip away day by day, month by month, was agonizing.  I went through all the stages of grief when dealing with her dementia. First, I was in denial.  For a while I was mad at the cruelty of the disease. Angry that she had it and that it was taking her away from me.  While writing this essay, the first thing that came to mind was a loud vacuum cleaner – like the one my mom used in our house.  How she’d be insistent on cleaning every crumb off the carpet, especially when we were having company. It was very disruptive—that vacuum.   And who doesn’t have cheerios under their couch? With this image, I wanted to convey a dichotomy – a comforting piece of childhood and the harshness of a sucking vacuum and how life as we know it can be sucked up in two seconds.  Through several drafts–recrafting paragraphs and changing words– I never once touched the sentence about the vacuum sucking up the cheerios. It ended up being the sentence that I worked the rest of the essay around.

How did you negotiate the balance between the time spent discussing the relationship with the mother and the relationship with the father? Did the success of the piece depend on illustrating these dynamics equally or was that an organic byproduct?

My mom and dad were like one person to me. It was always the two of them.  Their names ran together. Their lives were entwined like two trees grown together to form one big trunk.   When writing about one, it is impossible not to include the other. When my dad passed away suddenly, it crushed our family. The pain of his absence almost became a presence.  But, I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt for my mom—losing her husband of fifty years—how her heart must have split in two. In writing this piece, I never consciously negotiated how much to say about my dad versus my mom.  The balancing act in writing this piece was instinctual. This part of the writing process borders on the mystical. Unfortunately, that does not happen with everything I write.

This piece deals with both memory loss and the loss of the narrator’s parents. Is loss a theme you tend to come back to often in your work?

Loss is a theme that I return to in my work because it is part of the human condition. Everybody can relate.  One of my flash essays, The Lipstick Helps, was recently published in Longridge Review.  This piece is about losing my mom to dementia. It is also about how a simple object– in this case a tube of lipstick–can evoke memories, feelings, and connection.  While grief and loss are profound subjects to write about, I also try to convey a touch of the spiritual—how love and joy are what hold us together. Anger, shock, denial, guilt, fear are emotions of grief and loss that make us crazy.  Everyone has experienced loss in some form. And we want to know how others work through it. The writer’s challenge is to craft a story that is not mopey or isolating but one that that readers will want to stick with and ultimately learn from or be moved by.   A good essay that deals with loss is deeply personal but it should also resonate with humanity. Losing someone you love is emotional chaos. While everyone’s grief is different, there are many books from memoir to fiction and even children’s books that can offer some kind of solace.  Examples that come to mind are A Grief Observed by C.S Lewis, The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke, Wild by Cheryl Strayed,  The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander to name a few.

As a writer of flash, do you find yourself focused on economy of language or succinctness of the story arc or both? How do these differing focal points work themselves out on the page?

A good flash essay drops the reader into a story that is underway already.  I’ve been told in writing workshops that the most important parts of flash are the first line, the last line, and the title and that those three lines knit the piece together. So, that is how I approach writing a flash essay.  Often, when sitting down to write, I come up with a title first, and that helps me to focus on the theme. My piece, Unbalanced, actually went through a few different titles, but then I realized that the essay was really about falling–being unbalanced due to grief.    A good last line should move the reader beyond the story. Maybe that goes for every piece of writing, but especially important for flash. The flash essay is short –even shorter than a short story–so I am conscious of my choice of language, imagery, and the element of surprise.  I studied art in college, so I also see the flash piece as a small painting, not a large canvas, with emphasize on negative spaces – the things left out. Every brushstroke counts.  While writers edit and rewrite and revise, the original strokes remain.  An original stroke of my essay Unbalanced was the vacuum sentence. A great flash piece should rip your heart out. One of my favorite flash pieces is  Sticks by George Saunders.  In this very short story, Saunders describes a man by actions and detail and imagery.  And we get to know him, even feel his joys and pains. The story begins with a happy tone and then builds to heart wrenching sadness.  Achieving a punch of emotion like this in just a few well-chosen words is what I try to achieve when writing flash. It is akin to poetry.  Sometimes it is like magic.

Grace Campbell is the author of the chapbook Girlie Shorts and a founding editor/head writer at Black River Press. She is a nonfiction reader at 5×5. Her chapbook, FWIW, was a finalist for the Turnbuckle Chapbook Competition at Split Lip Press. She was awarded third prize in the Atticus Review Creative Nonfiction Flash Contest (2018). She is a 2018 June Dodge fellow at The Mineral School. Her work has appeared in Gravel, New Flash Fiction Review, Jellyfish, Two Hawks Quarterly, Santa Ana River Review and many other places. She has a soft spot for corgis and tinted lip balm.

ABCs of Poetry: Z is for Zoetrope

Posted by on Jun 5, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: Z is for Zoetrope

“Stop worrying about what the poem means and just listen to the damn poem.”

                                                                U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith


If you are looking for sound for your poems, you can do worse than the letter Z: Zephyrus, Zeppelins, zeppoles, zithers, hazmat, Zip Cars and zero. Or zilch. When adding zing with Z’s you have the opportunity for zeitgeist, zebras, ziplines, puzzles, seizures, caesuras, or you can write an homage to the day when Thoreau met Zorro and they discussed Zora Neale Hurston.

Z seems to be inexorably linked with onomatopoeia, so simply by using z words, you can get the joyous sounds of sizzle and razzle dazzle. So how do you avoid ridiculous alliteration when writing with z words? I myself start thinking of zillions of zinc zebras sashaying and soft-shooing to a lazy-paced waltz at the end of the alphabet. The letter Z is made for sound, and sound is the engine of poetry. If you permit a variation of synesthesia, think of sound as movement in poetry.


The zoetrope, is an optical wonder that started as a child’s toy and was the precursor for modern film. The zoetrope is a circular device with printed images inside that creates the illusion of movement when spun. A rudimentary but working version was created in China as early as 180 AD. You view the images through the slits in the side, and the images “move” inside. Zoetropes were sometimes described as “persistence of vision” toys. Your goal as a poet is to leave the reader with an image or sound or motion after the poem is done. Z words mixed with images and ideas are perfect for poetry.

If your poem sounds good, it will move.


Spoken word poetry can be a revelation. I use a lot of audio and video to explore poetry with first-year writing students who engage with the form because the emphasis, nuance, phrasing and emotion are provided for them. It’s as reliable as a Zippo lighter.

G. Yamazawa’s fabulous poem “Elementary” won the 2014 National Slam Finals. “Elementary” is about homophobia, and begins with the memorable line “I was so young, I don’t even remember how old I was the first time I called someone gay.” Yamazawa’s poem has motion. He mixes metaphor, image, confession, anger, and performance. The poem moves, even on the page: “I notice that words have gravity/I’ve seen them crush people.”

Take a look at Yamazawa’s work on YouTube, and while you’re there check out Jamila Lysicott’s “How to Speak English 3 Ways” or Frank O’Hara reading “Having a Coke With You.” O’Hara had fun with sound and words: “Having a coke with you is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne/or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona.”

Another Spezialität on the YouTube menu is Danez Smith’s “Dinosaurs in the Hood.” Smith manages to do a lot of heavy lifting with sound and repetition: “…& no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy.”


When you are creating a poem and get stuck, fall back on sound. You are working in words in an oral art form that was meant to be heard. Gertrude Stein had a talent for punishing prose and making it work hard, and had an odd ear for sound: “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Her famous quip about Oakland is similar: “When you get there, there isn’t any there there.” 

Vladimir Nabokov knew sound. Look at this excerpt from Lolita: “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

Sidebar: Z TV

“Zoinks” is a word that should be familiar to anyone that has ever seen the cartoon Scooby-Doo. It was a favorite oath of slacker Shaggy, and was declared loudly, usually with a bit of trepidation and surprise. (Sixties TV also gave us the Batman “Fight Words” appearing on the screen in jagged dayglo balloons like the word Zonk! which might appear Robin punched The Joker. The words were typically accompanied by shrill horn sounds.) The word zoinks is derived from a word common in Shakespearean Elizabethan English, zounds, which means “by Christ’s wounds,” referring to the stigmata, and was considered a swear. Gadzooks is also a watered-down cousin, a PG oath. Zoinks and zounds sound zany, and if you unpack them you find a key event in Christianity. You can probably use them as swears, too, and no one will notice.


I am working on drafts of a poem called “How the Mayans Invented Television” a title clipped from the 80’s punk film Repo Man. I liked the sound of the Mayan snake god Kulkulkan: it climbs, dips, and zips as if on a rollercoaster. I also use his Spanish name, Quetzalcoatl, pronounced Ketzal Koat.

I read drafts of my poems out loud. Many lines crash and burn like a Zeppelin, and some make progress. Hearing the work out loud unlocks the poem.

We may never agree on what makes a good poem. But image, sound, and ideas make a potent combination. Especially sound. To quote Count Basie, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

With your next poem, you could do worse than building a metaphoric Zoetrope.

If your poem sounds good, it will move.

Christopher Madden is an educator, writer, poet, and editor at Woodhall Press. He is the editor of The Astronaut’s Son, a finalist for the 2018 Foreward Indie Book Awards. He is the co-director of the Black Rock Art Guild Performing Artists.

ABCs of Poetry: Y is for You

Posted by on Jun 4, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: Y is for You

The lyric poem, according to Edward Hirsch, has been in practice “for at least forty-five hundred years . . . and is as ancient as recorded literature” (356). In those forty-five hundred years, the lyric poem has expressed personal emotions, experiences, thoughts, and epiphanies through the speaker, who presents herself/himself through the lyric “I.” This makes perfect sense, since when you talk, write, or sing about yourself, you share the experience through “I.” For instance, “I taste a liquor never brewed” from Emily Dickinson’s poem 214; “Every year without knowing it I have passed the day” from W.S. Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death”; and “I took my lyre and said” from Sappho’s fragment 8. These are personal tellings, so the “I” is used, and if a “you” appears in a poem, the “you” is usually some other person the poet/speaker is speaking to (such as in an apostrophe) and a person who is not the reader. But today, the “you” has taken on a new function in lyric poetry.

Over the last few years, I have noticed an increased use of “you” to convey personal experience, as opposed to using the traditional “I” to convey personal experience. Further, this new lyric “you” now inhabits not only the space of the “you the reader” and the plural “you” of a general audience, but it also inhabits the first-person “I.” Often when a poet uses “I,” it is meant to be a universal “I,” where the “I” can anybody who reads the poem. The reader enters the speaker’s emotional being, and the speaker and reader unite. If the poet were to use “you” instead of “I,” it should feel presumptuous of the poet/speaker to tell the reader what the reader is doing, thinking, or feeling. For instance, if Dickinson wrote, “You taste a liquor never brewed,” the reader might step back and say, “No, I haven’t.” And then the reader is kicked out of the poem. The new lyric “you” avoids this aggressively presumptuous behavior and is as inviting as the traditional lyric “I.” For example, Kirby Knowlton’s “How We Live Now”:

They say you can tell if a dog is stupid or not
by if it recognizes itself in the mirror.
In the checkout line where I work, a man
reads the tabloids the week of Kim Kardashian’s
robbery and asks me, what did she think
would happen
. This is how we live now.
I tell my therapist how they bound her hands
with zip ties, the same things Zach E.
and Zack B. looped through a girl’s belt
loop to attach her to her desk in seventh grade,
how often, it’s only your attempt to leave
that informs you of your inability to.
Driving to work that week,
I marked time’s passing by the deer
rotting outside my neighborhood.
By Friday, its body soft and caved in
like a log seconds before it ashes.
Tell me you’ve never abandoned
something just because you could.

For this poem, I am concerned with the bolded “you” forms [that were bolded by me]. The second-person, epiphanic phrase “it’s only your attempt to leave / that informs you or your inability to” ends the sentence that begins in first person, “I tell my therapist.” It’s possible the poet wasn’t paying close enough attention to her pronoun use, but the title of the poem, “How We Live Now,” indicates otherwise. The poem right away establishes a relationship with the reader through “we.” Still the epiphanic pronoun shift is abrupt. However, the poem is attempting to bring the reader into the experience in a new way. The poem assumes the reader has had a similar experience and can easily relate to not being able to leave. The poem then ends in the imperative mood and assumes the reader of having done something, because the poem assumes everyone has abandoned something because they were able to do so. The empathetic tone of the poem, especially in the previous lines of the decaying deer, enables the poem to not be accusative, but embracing. The poet is projecting overwhelming emotions on to the reader, as they are too much for the poet to handle on her own, as evidenced by her visiting a therapist. Whereas in earlier lyric modes that used the lyric “I,” as noted by T. S. Eliot, the poet “is oppressed by a burden which he [or she] must bring to birth in order to obtain relief” (98). This is what the new lyric “you” does, except the poet is not alone in obtaining relief. The poet shares the overwhelming emotion, the burden, with the reader because the poet knows he or she is not alone in a certain type of experience. The lyric poet is no longer writing a poem that will be “overheard” by someone (if anyone), as many critics (as far back as John Stuart Mill’s “What Is Poetry” from 1833) have pointed out. The lyric poem using the lyric “you” directly addresses the reader. It creates a conversation with the reader, but not in a meta way, but in an emotional and therapeutic way. Additionally, the “you” becomes the subject (or shared subject) of the poem, and sometimes is also the object.

According to German theoretician Wolfgang Kayser one of the “three major lyric possibilities of lyric” is addressing (Culler 286), such as addressing a person, animal, god, or thing. The new lyric “you” continues that possibility but with a twist. Instead of addressing a person in a biographical or praiseworthy manner, the new lyric “you” directly addresses the reader with shared sympathy and understanding – it’s assumptive without a bold, assertive presumptuousness. In the end, it’s similar to TFW memes – “The Feeling When you,” and whatever follows the “you” is an action that most know well. The new lyric “you” resides in the second-person singular, second-person plural, and in the first-person. So, if you are writing a poem about a painful experience or an experience you think others can relate to, and/or if you want to speak in the mannerisms of the times (as poets often do), then you might want to consider using “you” as a new way to address your content and readers, as it is the new way for you to connect.

Tom Holmes is the editor of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics and the author of three full-length collections of poetry, most recently The Cave (winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013), as well as four chapbooks. His writings about wine, poetry book reviews, and poetry can be found at his blog, The Line Break: Twitter: @TheLineBreak