Her paper nautilus

by Karen Donovan

PaperNautilusI pull down my copy from the shelf. A Marianne Moore Reader. On the cover the poet poses in her tricorn hat and black cape, considering the photographer as if collecting a specimen. I see that I bought this copy used: a price of $3.50 is drawn in soft pencil on the top corner of the half-title page. Blue-eyed, eight-armed, pelagic, the creature carries its eggs in a wafer-thin shell it builds especially for this purpose. A nest that falls away after they hatch, burying form and pattern in the fossil layer. “I feel that I would not be worth a button if not grateful to be preserved from myself, and informed if what I have written is not to the point.” When you tell me my problem, finally, is that I have never known where I belong, I think you may be right.

Karen Donovan is the author of Fugitive Red, which won the Juniper Prize for Poetry and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press. Her new collection of poetry, Your Enzymes Are Calling the Ancients, won the Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award from Persea Books and is due in fall 2016. For 20 years she co-edited and published a journal of short prose called ¶: A Magazine of Paragraphs. She works as a writer for a nonprofit in Providence.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Her paper nautilus”?

This piece is part of a book-length manuscript of short prose called “Aard-vark to Axolotl,” which I wrote over the course of a year in collaboration with 78 cool engravings in my grandfather’s 1925 Webster’s New International Dictionary. The image that inspired this piece shows the Argonauta, a type of octopus called a paper nautilus. As soon as I laid eyes on this engraving, the poem by Marianne Moore began to haunt me of course. And I couldn’t stop thinking of the Argonauts themselves, who sailed with Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece. The process of finding the right words is always like wandering toward a solution. I used a little spiral-bound notebook to write all the first drafts of every piece in this collection, so I dug it out to look at the Argonauta page. Yup, plenty evidence of wandering. See for yourself: here it is.


Congrats to the Best Small Fictions nominations from Matter Press for Compressed Creative Arts: Sara Backer’s “Oh, What a Night”; Dan Crawley’s “Powers”; Jill Talbot’s “Malahat Highway on Boxing Day”; Christopher Allen’s “Falling Man;” and Kathy Fish’s “Five Micros.” Congrats to Christopher Allen for being chosen to appear in BSF 2019 from Sonder Press.

Check out the write-up of the journal in The Writer.


Poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction/prose poetry submissions is now open. Check out our new category triptychs! The submission period closes June 15, 2019; submit here.


05/23 • Nance Van Winckel (1 of 8)
05/30 • Nance Van Winckel (2 of 8)
06/05 • Rachel Rodman
06/06 • Nance Van Winckel (3 of 8)
06/10 • Erica Soon Olsen
06/12 • Beverly Jackson
06/13 • Nance Van Winckel (4 of 8)
06/17 • Avra Margariti
06/19 • Tommy Dean
06/20 • Nance Van Winckel (5 of 8)
06/24 • Stephen Reaugh
06/26 • Hege Lepri
06/27 • Nance Van Winckel (6 of 8)
07/01 • Danielle Hark
07/03 • Shirley Harshenin
07/04 • Nance Van Winckel (7 of 8)
07/08 • Matthew Barrett
07/10 • Andrew Stevens
07/11 • Nance Van Winckel (8 of 8)
07/15 • Peter Cherches
07/17 • Christopher Ryan
07/18 • Alex Durham
07/22 • Jessica Kehinde Ngo
07/24 • Jillian Pretzel
07/25 • Danielle Hark (1 of 6)
07/29 • Theresa Senato Edwards
07/31 • Stephanie Dickinson
08/01 • Danielle Hark (2 of 6)
08/05 • Callista Buchen
08/07 • Sara Elkamel
08/08 • Danielle Hark (3 of 6)
08/12 • Steven Ostrowski
08/14 • Karie Luidens
08/15 • Danielle Hark (4 of 6)
08/19 • Nick Ackerson
08/21 • Tyler Friend
08/22 • Danielle Hark (5 of 6)
08/26 • Suzanne Verrall
08/28 • Amelia Wright
08/29 • Danielle Hark (6 of 6)
09/05 • Richard Baldasty (1 of 4)
09/12 • Richard Baldasty (2 of 4)
09/19 • Richard Baldasty (3 of 4)
09/26 • Richard Baldasty (4 of 4)
12/23 • Tara Campbell