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All Hollow Things Taste the Same

by Karoline Schaufler

 

Yes, it was wrong of me to lick the human heart they brought to elementary school to say: “Healthy.” “Not healthy.” Wrong, to lick a bee’s back in the hope of tasting honey. Wrong — in my defense — for them to come in the first place with such a thing so recognizably begging to thrum not preventively cast in some kind of resin.

Imagine a twelve-year-old feeling a phantom pulse through her tongue, while everyone else cuts lines, calls names, and breaths through increasingly constricting straws. Wrong, in a different way, to needle for nepenthe in the wrong kind of vain.

Imagine she looks up at a front-row someone, with her teeth almost touching an aorta apiece and her eyes almost wishing they each weighed seven pounds, knowing everything will be stickier the second time. Learning it all tastes like the umbra of a buzz.

The ironic intake of the public speaker who holds a thousand cilia every other day but has never glanced over to see a child forging for amygdala in extraordinarily — wrong — places.

A stranger obligated to ask me to stop. Someone formaldehyde has given up affecting. Peering at me with one-fifth of an eye, while the rest of him silently confesses having never thought to peel back one lamina more. Never looked at the morass of coronary pockets and imagined probing for nectar. Secretly wondering if it is, in fact, there.

For some twelve-year-old reason, I would not relent until someone brought me a magnolia instead. Fair trade of atria for anther. Compromise of amber stuck to the residue on my chin.

Once relinquished, all I could say was: “Healthy.” Once chastised, satiated, blooming pistil and synapse, all I could do was carry around my tongue in my mouth for the rest of the day. A lolling queen in the chambers of a thrumming hive that are not cavae.

 

Bio

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “All Hollow Things Taste the Same”?

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visit

by Zoe Dickinson

 

oh!
how water
brings all the
pieces
of the world
closer
to each other!

now

the moon
enters the maple’s dripping,
empty branches

and
streetlamps
stroke yellow
into glazed
asphalt.

 

Zoe Dickinson is a poet and bookseller from Victoria, British Columbia. Her poetry is rooted in the Pacific coastline, with a focus on local ecology and human relationships with nature. She is the co-Artistic Director of the Planet Earth Poetry Reading Series.

 

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

I wrote this poem imagining what the Ancient Greek poet Sappho would think of a West Coast winter. For about half the year on Vancouver Island, everything is permanently dripping with rain. It took some getting used to when I first moved here, but over time I began to see the beauty in it: how water, like light, has the ability to change the way we see things. 

The River

by Laurence Musgrove

 

I’m going through the Cheerios too fast. I need to keep myself to one bowl a day. Just breakfast. Or dinner. Not both. Not lunch. If I was at my folks, I wouldn’t have to make these decisions. But that’s over. I felt this thing click in my head, like watching a door being locked against me. So now I’ve got to sort out how to fill the frig, try to tell what’s gone sour or bad on my own, stuff dirty clothes in my backpack, coins in my pocket, as I pedal after dark to the laundromat on the other side of the river, the river that could have easily killed me if it didn’t love me so much.

 

Laurence Musgrove is a Texas writer, teacher, and editor. His previous books include Local Bird – a poetry collection, One Kind of Recording – a volume of aphorisms, and The Bluebonnet Sutras – Buddhist dialogues in verse, all from Lamar University Literary Press. Professor of English at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, he teaches courses in composition, literature, and creative writing. He is also editor and publisher of Texas Poetry Assignment.

 

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

I attended an online workshop recently hosted by Writers’ Studio of Corpus Christi on composing strong openings for narratives. The first draft of “The River” was the result of that workshop. Afterward, I realized this opening also had a beginning, middle, and end. I then decided that it could also serve as a compressed piece of micro or flash fiction.

CNF: What You Love Most on Mill Street

by June Avignone

 

Michael, when I heard today you died falling off a bridge somewhere in Jersey
I thought, like a few others, that you probably didn’t commit suicide,
that you probably were just drunk and fell off accidentally and didn’t even
know your body was free falling toward the earth, knowing how our best words
can be our most savvy saboteurs.
But what do I know.

The last time I saw your face it was under a park bench in Paterson
in front of the bronze statue of Lou Costello swinging his Who’s On First bat,
your ear pressed to the dirt as if listening for the Great Falls roaring echo,
your jaw a bloody mess, your adjunct professor clothes soaked by rain
your apartment door just across the street,
sleeping like a lost crazy child in the dirt.

And the time before that you were sitting against an abandoned building
sharing a bottle with two homeless drug addicts I knew from the shelter
who drank Sterno twisted from a rag when all else failed but now had you,
and your savings from teaching at the community college. And I say,
Micheal, What the hell are you doing out here? I thought you were in rehab?
And you say, slurring loudly, almost proudly

No, no, you don’t get it! Read Bukowsk! Bukowski! He doesn’t care about
staying on wagons, he eats wagons for breakfast with crow heads. Then whisper
Listen! Be your own perpetrator or your writing will drown in pretentious silly shit!
And I say, Yeah yeah okay, you have a home, you have talent, get up. Go home,
when the filthy man with the brown bag leaning against him like a tree yells at me,
Leave him alone, bitch, he likes it out here!

That famous poet friend of yours at Columbia with the droning ego told me only
last month how you lost your apartment but live with your brother now and got a job
as a produce guy in an A&P where you met a nurse who fell madly in love with you
and your wrenching poems and just knows you’re doing fine.
But all I could think about was your soft hungry heart and bleeding face
on the ground before Costello ‘s feet and Bukowski’s words
Find out what you love and let it kill you

 


A former journalist and columnist, June Avignone is the recent recipient of an Allen Ginsberg Prize for poetry and author and editor of several books including Downtown Paterson, On Going Home Again, Traveling Small Distances and Cianci Street: A Neighborhood in Transition. She has had her poetry and essays published in a variety of publications including The Sun Magazine and the Paterson Literary Review.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “What You Love Most on Mill Street”?

The idea for “What You Love On Mill Street” came to me directly from a demanding crow who visits me daily on my porch in upstate New York, miles away from the Mill Street neighborhood of Paterson which I will miss for eternity.

CNF: Private Access

by David Hargreaves

 

 

Living in Oregon, born in Detroit, David Hargreaves’ translation of “The Blossoms of Sixty-Four Sunsets,” by Nepal Bhasa poet Durga Lal Shrestha, was published in Kathmandu in 2014. His own poetry has appeared in Comstock Review, Passages North, Naugatuck River Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Poets/Artists, Hiram Poetry Review, and elsewhere.He is Professor of Linguistics at Western Oregon University.

 

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

While observing a colleague teach Stevens’ “The Snow Man” to college freshman, the phrase ‘mind of winter’ evoked for me the concept ‘theory of mind’ in philosophy and cognitive psychology. Once the rhyme ‘mind/rind’ came into my head, the first draft was off and running. The related idea of ‘private access’ follows from the observation that certain 1st person experiences, a headache, for instance, are knowable only to the self; ‘ordinary language’ philosopher J.L. Austin captures the idea perfectly. I also have long been interested in the Nepal Bhasa language, which has a specific grammatical suffix reserved for action verbs with 1st person inner volition, obligatory in the same way other languages have ‘agreement’ or ‘tense.’ As a sidenote, I was living in Lansing, Michigan when Magic Johnson was a local high school star. Finally, while the poem was fermenting, along came a garbage truck with a robotic hand, which instantly reminded me of one of the handshapes in Buddhist iconography. The real trick was to keep myself from nerding out on the expository and instead try to relate the ideas to concrete instances. I also want to add that I’m very grateful that JCCA supports such hybrid writing.

The Chili

by Anthony Warnke

 

Curious about the large chili,
I google Wendy’s nutrition.

I refuse to capitalize google
as an act of defiance

like I refuse to capitalize
god when I text you:

oh my god, the chili

 

Anthony Warnke’s poetry has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Cimarron Review, North American Review, Salt Hill, Sixth Finch, and Sugar House Review, among other publications. His chapbook, Super Worth It, is forthcoming from Newfound press. He teaches writing at Green River College and lives in Seattle.

 

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

This is one of those poems that materialized in its final form in one sitting (if only every poem arrived so easily). I had recently gone to a Wendy’s for the first time in several years before writing it. The poem is a little knot of the politics and pleasures of everyday consumption.

Fifteen Billboards

by Shyla Shehan

 

In my rearview, billboards blur into dust
I pull matches from my skirt pocket.
Pizza Hut. I wanted something else—
a wild origami, a rare Pokemon.
A message from beyond—an arrow.
My mother doesn’t lie—she tells the best stories
and named her anxiety Desire.

The gum on the bottom
of my bright red converse
reminds me of your recent promotion
and pronouncement.
Our sacrifices will be worth it.

I declare outloud to noone, If the raven flies
at 3:36 PM, I’ll stop
. This seizure
of bedazzled ideas, rhinestones
and plastic pearls make my head spin.
Just let it all go. Please.

I invent a great idea melter
that melts fast so you don’t have to shovel
your way out.
                    Again.
Maybe I’ll drive south
to a town where the Home Depot
doesn’t stock shovels for snow.
Or to a town with no Home Depot
or Ace or Lowes or
Pizza Hut.
Why did she name me Red Riding Hood?

The next billboard urges me to turn left.
Turn left and you will be…
      wherever you are.
I watch as it disappears.

 

Shyla Shehan is an analytical Virgo who holds an MFA in Writing from the University of Nebraska where she received an American Academy of Poets Prize in 2020. She is a co-founder and editor at The Good Life Review and currently lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband, children, and four cats. Her full bio and published work are available at shylashehan.com.

 

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

The original draft of this poem came from a collaborative exercise in a poetry studio class. The initial lines were therefore distinctly those of the poets involved and somewhat disparate. However, despite this, the poem seemed to hold a unified meaning for me and the different voices lent themselves to the common experience we all have with voices in our heads and meandering thoughts. I felt compelled by the poem and had a strong urge to hone in on this notion while putting more focus on a singular speaker as she drives past billboards and they “blur into dust” behind her.

Used to Bees

by Adamson Wood

 

[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]

 

Sam never planned to die in Henderson. In fact, he never planned to live in Henderson either. But given that choosing where one was born still wasn’t an option, and that old habits died hard—or never—leaving Henderson felt like saying no to a cold beer that’s already tickled the stomach.

As he drove towards the remnants of town, passing the city limits sign for the umpteenth time, he couldn’t help but worry if Henderson was the one who’d decided to leave him. One zero of the ten thousand was already exed out with red paint, the zero still visible, a shadow of better days. The town seemed as deserted as his sperm count, and he doubted that even a thousand people still called Henderson home.

Strolling down Henderson’s wide lanes, originally built for an ever distant, perhaps overly optimistic tomorrow, Sam remembered faces that were no longer there. The apple tree on Shady Lane and Shepherd brought back memories of the golden curls and sunny smile of his first crush; Hank’s Creamery the wicked frown and sharp spank of his mother when he had brought home rocky road instead of a pound of ground beef. Yet yesteryear’s ghosts weren’t enough to bring back life to Henderson.

The town was far past its prime, evident in silence as disconcerting as a school fire alarm. There were no screeching brakes nor growling engines; no crosswalk counts nor shuffling shoes. Sam no longer heard the leaf blowers bordering nature nor the jackhammers rewriting the past. Instead, there were water stains and an encroaching sea, lapping at the town’s footsteps like a scolded dog.

As his old jeep crawled along the city streets, mumbling like his creaking bones, Sam shed a tear, adding one more to the pool filled by the families left homeless by the most recent storm, fresh enough that the air still smelled like mother earth.

He pulled his jeep up to the town library, its wide columns reminiscent of ancient Greece, history clinging to the present for dear life. Dropping down from his truck, the kind of vehicle one doesn’t plan to grow old in, he approached the entrance. Outside was Henderson’s final monument: a goodbye poster painted with the names of former residents, many of whom had been his colleagues and students.

Sometimes, Sam would go to the local school, now closed, and wander the hallways of the old building where he had taught English for thirty years. He’d teach a mock lesson—Shakespeare or Dickens to memories of budding students. Yet on the worst of days, not even Romeo and Juliet could lift his spirits. All he’d do was scream, hear the echo reach back to him like the hands of a lover.

Sam fumbled for the permanent marker in his pocket as he resisted the urge to add his name to the poster. He’d been coming here every day this week, yet not once had he uncapped the marker. To do so felt like an act of no return. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand why everyone had left or even that he wanted to stay. The city was dying, or dead, or destined to die. Two category five hurricanes in as many years might have been a coincidence, but three seemed like the twisted hand of God or fate. And starting over was hard.

Yet Henderson was all he knew, even if it was half gone. And writing his name still felt like signing himself away, drafting himself to some foreign future that would be little more than his grave. Sam threw the marker away before picking it up again, ashamed that he had just littered, even if littering fines in Henderson were a thing of the past.

As he left the library and walked to Marty’s Diner, the once bright lights now flickering like a worn light bulb, he thought about Marty. Marty was like him, a Hendersonian to the bones, but not even fifty years of memories had swayed Marty to stay. Memories wouldn’t pay the bills. He had closed up shop six months ago after his clientele started to dry up, taking the morning smell of bacon and eggs right along with him.

“It’s the way of the world,” Marty had told him, before leaving Sam with the store’s key for barely the price of a morning cup of coffee. “No reason to swim against the tide of things.” He found Marty’s word choice ironic, as rising tides were part of the problem.

Sam opened the diner’s door and took a seat at his customary table, taking out his breakfast plate swaddled in aluminum foil. The diner was at half capacity, each person with their own homemade meal. No one spoke. They didn’t have to. Their presence alone, at the same tables as always, was enough to give them a taste of the way things used to be.

 

Adamson Wood teaches at Lone Star College in Houston, TX and received his MFA from Lindenwood University. He recently finished his first novel. This is his first flash fiction publication.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Used to Bes”?

“Used to Bes” started as a practice sentence over a year ago in which I was working on imagery. I never intended it to become a story. Everything that came next, weeks later, was in response to a question: how did we get here? What circumstances led to this startling imagery? Questions and answers shaped the rest of the story.

Apartment 3

by Merrill Oliver Douglas

 

They shared a room
so narrow that from twin beds
pushed to opposite walls,

a girl could reach into
her sister’s dream and take
what she needed:

once
          a dollar
once
          a lipstick
once
          a furred animal

drained of its life
to drape on the collar
of a black cloth coat,

glass eyes glued
in arrow-shaped head,
tail caught in a steel clip
where teeth would have been.

 

Merrill Oliver Douglas is the author of the poetry chapbook Parking Meters into Mermaids (Finishing Line Press, 2020). Her poems have appeared in Baltimore Review, Barrow Street, Tar River Poetry, Cimarron Review, Comstock Review and The Briar Cliff Review, among others. She lives near Binghamton, New York.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Apartment 3”?

I’d been thinking about the apartment in Brooklyn where we used to visit my grandmother when I was small. Growing up there, my two aunts had shared a tiny bedroom, while my father slept in the living room until he went off to serve in World War II. I’d originally meant to put my father in the poem, too. Did he sleep on the couch? Where did he keep his clothes, school books, baseball mitt? (Did he have a baseball mitt?) But my aunts and their shared room asserted themselves. My father will have to wait for his chance in another poem.

At Kroger Pharmacy

by Francis Yasha

 

[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]

 

Ned took a step forward. The motion sensors overhead signaled for the transparent doors just below to slide apart in opposite directions. Ned stood where he was, afternoon shoppers streaming past on either side of him into Kroger. The doors closed behind the stream of shoppers, he waved his hands once again, then joined another round of entrants and flowed forward alongside them.

Ned wandered past the cash registers. How many people there seemed to be – how many people and how much food! The shelves were bursting with variety. Ned walked the bread aisle, circled back past the spices, then patrolled the bread aisle once again. A girl browsing the rye granted him a quizzical look. But he preferred wheat, and he could study the loaves another day, he told himself.

Ned guided himself towards the corner of the store and waited in line. Someone walked away with a neat white bag. “Kroger Pharmacy: prescription for pickup?” he heard.

“No, no for the – vaccination, please,” said Ned.

“Ah, okay. Insurance card?”

“Ah…no.”

“That’s okay,” said the pharmacist. Behind the counter, a broad monitor obscured Ned’s view of the man’s face.

“Go ahead and take one of those seats. We’ll be with you in a few minutes. Get a few things sorted out. Then we’ll call you in over there.” The pharmacist’s outstretched hand pointed to a heavy wooden door. Ned noticed another man sitting in one of the waiting chairs alongside it. “Thanks,” said Ned, then turned to take the second chair.

Every sixty seconds Ned counted sixty beats between the heel of his hand and the edge of the chair. The wooden door peaked open, and a girl emerged, smiling as she danced through the narrow opening. It shut behind her. “All done, honey?” said a woman’s voice, and Ned turned to see the woman, loaf of rye in hand, welcome the girl into her arms. “I heard Wilma’s is back open for smoo-thies,” she sang as they walked together towards checkout.

“Take a look at this article, would you?” said the man in the other chair. Ned turned and encountered the shining face of a cell phone. Ned blinked a few times, and his pupils physically narrowed to the light. “STUDY SHOWS: HUMANS BELIEVE ALGORITHMS OVER PEOPLE,” read the headline flooding Ned’s face, white block case illuminating his features.

“Jesus!” said Ned. He squinted against the brilliance and tried to discern a clean-shaven face peering out from behind it.

“Right?” said the man. “You seem like an old-fashioned guy, where’d you drive in from? I’m about ready to get away from it all too, move out to the country somewhere.”

“Um.”

“Ah, I’m sorry. I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Jake.”

“Ned.”

“Nice to meet you. Listen, Ned, you’re not here for that vaccine, are you?”

“Well I thought I’d –”

“I’ve been reading a whole lot, and let me tell you, I wouldn’t let my own mother get it. Goes into your cells. And once you’re in there, it’s a whole balanced system, you know?” Ned froze. He had lost count of the time. “That’s your whole genome. Your DNA, man. Even your mitochondria have DNA, did you know that?”

The wooden door propped open. Another pharmacist stepped out from behind it. “We’re ready for you Mr. Renfree,” she said looking back and forth. The voice alongside Ned kept speaking, quickly now, the tone dropping to an astringent whisper.

“Do you want to let that in? You can identify a person by the tiniest bit of DNA. With just one little cell, I could say whether or not it belongs to you, whether –”

“Mr. Renfree?” the pharmacist interrupted. Ned stood and walked over to her. He looked back at the chairs and saw the younger man still trying to communicate his warning – arms and legs writhing even as he sat, eyes widening in enacted surprise, face streaked with regret at some gruesome transformation overtaking his body.

The door closed, and Ned sat alone with the pharmacist. “These people,” she said, arranging some items on the counter, “know nothing about science.” The walls were reflective white, colorless like the inside of each letter on the cell phone headline. The block case echoed somewhere in the back of Ned’s vision: ALGORITHMS OVER PEOPLE. The cramped walls murmured soft warnings. How many needles, entering flesh? As many needles as naked arms, Ned reasoned, touching the fabric of his sleeve. “First, mitochondrial DNA is only from your mother. Second, mRNA doesn’t even –”

“I took my cell physiology.”

She stopped, needle in hand, and stared at Ned. “Well! It’s good to have someone versed in science then. Some of these people, my gosh.”

Ned had rolled up his right-arm sleeve. “Now this will only pinch for a moment. Any allergies by the way, past reactions to vaccines?”

“No.”

“Okay. This will only pinch for a moment.”

As the syringe moved towards his arm, Ned couldn’t help but turn his head towards it. There, in the eye of the needle, he found some horror which preceded the poke of the metal point. Before his skin would be pierced, all of the light in the room would swallow him up! All of the strangers would descend upon him with their opinions and their handheld tools. He had a total desire to break that cell phone, break the needle creeping along inches from his shoulder – or else to burst out of that room and –

And so he did. Out from behind that wooden door, past families and aisles packed with groceries, Ned ran. He slammed his entire person against the deceitful transparency of the automatic doors. A new stream of shoppers triggered the sensor, walked in together; they tried to reconstruct the events which had led this man to the floor, which had split the people still flowing past on either side of him. Ned found his way past all of them and ran.

 

Francis Yasha is a Michigan-based writer trained in engineering. This is his first published work of fiction.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “At Kroger Pharmacy”?

In an earlier draft, the viewpoint was more omniscient towards Ned and the memories that occur to him as he enters Kroger. But in my experience the great tension of the Grocery is the experience of anonymity in the face of common, often ordinary purpose. And so the final draft stands mostly outside of Ned’s thoughts.

CNF: Cicada Visits Me, Again

by Shanti Chandrasekhar

 

A Cicada on My Window – Part 1, May 2004

For weeks, I awaited your arrival, wondering what you’d look like, waiting for you to take me away. Lost in a swarm, I’d perhaps find my way to a different world. Away from agony. No more torment, no more anguish, no more tears. For seventeen years, I’d find peace.

Then return. Perhaps to a transformed, empathetic world. Return. To find what I’ve been seeking.

But when I spotted you perched on my window, motionless, weary, and lonely, your bulging red eyes reflected my being. Your still, transparent wings, too weak to fly, mirrored my exhaustion. My lack of strength to go on.

You sat there with an unquenched thirst. Wounded, wronged, alone. No, I was not repulsed by you. I wondered, if I offered you my friendship, would you know what we should do?

Cicada, where do we go from here?

 

A Cicada on My Deck Door – Part 2, May 2021

I let you be. I let you go. I did not follow you. Then.

But Cicada, perhaps you gave me the courage to move. I left, too. I walked out the door without turning to look back, knowing I wouldn’t return after seventeen years. I walked away, my mind focused on the path ahead.

I smiled again. I started to live. And then, something hit me. I was caught off guard.

Yet I did not fall.

It was not an object. It was not a meteor or something that you could see. It was invisible. It invaded me and over time, it merged with every part of my body. It became a part of me. It became me.

They gave it several names. Fourteen different names, fourteen different diagnoses.

I give it but one name. Pain.

Today you sit on my deck door, Cicada. Your wings flutter. Your body curls up. Cicada, are you in pain? Would you offer me your friendship? Just so, until you’ve to go away, I’d have someone who knows what I feel?

 

Shanti Chandrasekhar has published nonfiction pieces in The Washington Post and elsewhere. Her short stories have appeared online in Literary Mama and FewerThan500, and in District Lines, a Literary Anthology (Politics & Prose, Washington D.C.). She works as a project manager, writes, and lives in Maryland.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Cicada Visits Me, Again”?

I wrote the original version, Part 1, on May 21, 2004 as a poem and edited it twice that same year. A writer friend said to me, just because you hit Enter for line breaks, that doesn’t make it a poem. I didn’t respond and the poem sat in a folder in my laptop. On May 31, 2021, when I spotted a Cicada again, I wrote the second part and converted my 2004 poem into a nonfiction piece, now agreeing with my friend! Also, I edited some words in the poem back to the very first draft. Pain, emotional and physical, is hard to describe. But the Cicada spoke to me….

CNF: Bad Mom

by Elizabeth Amon

 

I was up in the night for a couple of hours with insomnia after you woke me asking for water, and I had to get up early to make your lunch and take you to school. So I was tired. But I shouldn’t have said it.

Your father was away on a work trip, and my boss asked me to do twice my usual load, which I had to finish before picking you up at school. So, I was stressed. But I shouldn’t have said it.

I spent an hour buying your favorite foods and cooking a nice meal that had no spices at all. And I made sure the different foods didn’t touch on the plate, and still, you refused to eat it. So, I was frustrated. But I shouldn’t have said it.

I was driving you to swim team practice or a friend’s house or helping you memorize lines for your fourth-grade play, but I was doing something for you, had been doing things for you every waking minute that I wasn’t working. I was trying to make you happy, but you were furious at me and complaining. So, I was resentful. But I shouldn’t have said it.

I try to remember exactly what you said to me that made me so angry, but like my childhood fights with my sister, I only remember the fury, not the facts. And your face afterward. You froze. Your eyes widened, and your lower lip trembled. “No one has ever called me that before,” you told me. You were too surprised by the terrible word to cry.

Bitch. I lost my temper and said, “Stop being such a bitch.” I instantly wished I could take it back. And I knew the moment I said it that it would be seared into you like a line in a YA novel. “The first person who ever called me a bitch was my mother.”

I said I was sorry, and we got past that terrible moment, and I buried the incident deep inside, but I was filled with shame. Who does that? Who calls their ten-year-old daughter a bitch?

Three years later, I ask you about it, and of course, you remember. You can’t remember either what you said just before I called you that word, but you remember that I started crying afterward. And you laugh, with a teenager’s glee, at an adult caught in a misdeed. And so do I.

 

Elizabeth Amon grew up in a one-stoplight town in New Jersey, longing to explore the wider world she read about in novels. Among other adventures, she’s traveled to the Soviet Union with a youth peace group, bartended in Paris, and followed in the footsteps of a cross-dressing 19th Century woman writer in Tunisia and Algeria. She’s worked as a journalist for nearly 20 years and currently lives in Seattle. She also writes fiction. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/elizabeth-amon/high-diveb/

 

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

I’m from a large family, one of four siblings. We fought with each other. We played pranks on each other. We called each other names. And we made up. (Usually.) My daughter, an only child, has no older siblings to haze her or younger siblings to harass her. This essay was a moment when, without thinking, I responded as if I was a child too, not the grown-up. I carried that shame for many years. When I talked to my daughter about it recently, her laughter freed me. But I shouldn’t have said it.

To Find a Ring

by Joseph Bernstein

 

From when I dropped the ring, it took one hour, eleven minutes, and fifty-three seconds to realize I lost you.

Three seconds to claw for it in the air, in the sink.

One minute to fret.

Two minutes to find and twist a coat-hanger out of shape.

Ten minutes to fish through the drain.

Five minutes to find the toolbox.

One minute to figure out the right tools.

Six to remove the drainage pipe.

Fifteen to clean up the spillage.

Ten more minutes fishing through the drain.

One minute of relief with the grimy gold band in my hand.

Twenty seconds to tally how much time I’ve spent retrieving a symbol of our love.

Ten seconds to tally how little time I’ve spent on the love itself.

Twenty seconds to wipe the grime and tears away.

Twenty minutes to write down this apology and request:

Sorry for losing our love in the mundane of the day to day. Its retrieval will be a tedious and muck-filled process. I don’t care how much time it may take to do, so long as you’re also willing. Take all the time you need to decide.

 

Joseph Bernstein is in the middle of a two year program in Israel, after which he will resume his normal state of affairs as a software developer located in Baltimore, Maryland. He is a lifelong pianist and an avid juggler in addition to his love of writing. Check out more of his creative work at jpbauthor.com.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “To Find a Ring”?

I wrote “To Find a Ring” during a four hour writing stint in my grandparents’ attic. The story popped into my head in the final ten minutes of a particularly dreary and dull session. (I almost decided to ignore the idea, eek!) From inception to final edits, the entire project took about an hour, which is the shortest personal time ever taken to complete a story from start to finish.

open question

by Carla Sarett

 

that guy I dated
     maybe
twice

we touched once
     maybe not
before

I saw her shot
     in black and
white

naked like an
     Irving Penn his
ex-

lover a dancer he’d
     hung her
over

his shiny new sofa
     in the East
80s

in a chilly decade
     I can’t recall
his

face but her
     slim back
arched

her face turned
     down I wonder
why

 

Carla Sarett is a poet, essayist and fiction writer based in San Francisco.  Her recent poems appear in Blue Unicorn, San Pedro River Review, Dust Poetry, Prole and elsewhere.  She awaits publication of her novella, The Looking Glass (Propertius) in October, and in 2022, a full-length novel, A Closet Feminist (Unsolicited).

 

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

This piece “open question” began with my memory of an image– the naked woman.  I am fascinated by our relationship to images, and how they situate us in the world.   I worked on it as a prose poem, and failed to get the sense of displacement I wanted, and then decided to shape it so the lines themselves are more puzzling.  

Rot

by Kim.M.Munsamy

 

[Editor’s Note: Click on the triptych below to view it at full size.]

 

 

Kim. M. Munsamy is currently completing her Masters in Counselling Psychology at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Her work has appeared in The Misbehaving Dead Anthology, The First Line Literary Journal, the F is for Fear Anthology, the Strange Births Magazine, and online journals Ripples in Space, The Fictional Café, and The Mystery Tribune.

 

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

I wrote ‘Rot’ almost a month to the day my mother died, driven by fluctuations of grief and normality, wanting to minimize pain by putting it into words. 

The Freelancer

by Daniel Felsenthal

 

[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]

 

When she stopped working for the publication, no one sent her an email. A couple of people assumed she had taken a vacation. No one knew anything else: whether, for example, her mother or father had gotten sick. No one knew if she had returned home to care for her parents. Or if she had married and become a homemaker who took on occasional freelance pieces, which she completed with one hand while the child in her other hand fed from her breast. Or if she was privately wealthy, and if this enabled her to stop putting on the pretense of making money from writing. Or if she had gotten deeper into drinking, or was ever into drinking, which was a question, for no one had ever gotten a drink with her. Or if she was into drugs, and if this was the reason for her departure, increasing dependency problems. No one knew these things about her. No one knew if she gambled. No one knew if she left to go to law school, for she was still young enough to go to school again, or moved back into her childhood bedroom, or into the room her parents set up, if they were no longer in her childhood home, to give her the semblance of having a room, because they wanted her to visit. Or if she moved to the opposite coast, the one that some said was better, or to the mountains north of the city, or to one of the cities that people who lived in larger cities described as “livable.” No one knew why it mattered, where she lived, for no one had ever invited her into the offices. The company had tons of freelancers, and even staffers, who lived in other cities and other countries. No one knew if she had left the industry entirely, or just the publication. No one knew if she had died.

Three people had access to her tax forms. Two people knew that she had filed as a single person, her address (51 137th Avenue) and her Social Security number (339-97-1338), which meant she was 31 years old and grew up in Illinois. Only a handful of people were even aware that she had left.

Before she went, eleven people received emails from her that began, “I hope you’ve been well!” Two people wrote her something similar. Everyone assumed that she was not quite as busy as they were, and that this was why she bothered being concerned with the well-being of co-workers she had never met. Sixteen emails marked low-priority by the publication went unanswered.

Three or four people missed her, without realizing what it was that they missed. Two people remembered a piece in which she used the first-person, and one person remembered it fondly. Three or four people were moved by her writing in general, while one person declared it vaguely offensive. Four people forgot every piece she wrote within a week of reading it. Three people believed her tone was too formal, yet one thought that she would loosen up in time. One person thought that she was too political, while two others thought that she should stop being funny. One person found her verbs inert. Two-hundred and twelve people began reading one of her pieces, and then clicked into another tab, having forgotten what it was that they were in the middle of doing, but not because they did not like her writing. Four-hundred seventeen freelancers work at the publication.

None of these people is her.

 

Daniel Felsenthal is a music writer for Pitchfork and the Assistant Editor of NOON. His short stories, essays and criticism have appeared in a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Village Voice, The Baffler, The Believer, Hyperallergic, Kenyon Review and BOMB, among others. In 2019, his novella, Sex With Andre, came out in The Puritan, and he received a 2020-21 Fellowship Grant from The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. He is currently at work on a novel and a collection of short stories. Read more of his stuff at Danielfelsenthal.com and find him on Twitter @D_Felsenthal.

 

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

A couple of months after I got vaccinated against COVID-19, I saw the latest film by the German director Christian Petzold, Undine, at the IFC Center in New York. The movie, a mermaid story set in modern Berlin, was forgettable—by no means awful, but not as good as Petzold’s earlier work. In one scene, a character searches for another character, the woman he loves. He goes to her workplace. He asks after her. The co-worker of the missing person looks baffled by his line of questioning. “I don’t know anything about her,” she says—or something like that, I’m paragraphrasing from memory—“She was a freelancer.” As usual, I was the only person in the movie theater who laughed, probably because I related to the line’s sadness and anonymity, more than I found it funny. I began to construct the voice of the story that would become “The Freelancer” in my head, which I then transcribed onto the notes app of my phone during the credits. I like the idea that the dialogue was just devastating enough to produce a 587-word piece of flash fiction, the way that single paragraphs of Proust have been adapted into entire literary careers, and songs from The White Album have sprung into genres of music.

Dear Mx. Ortiz

by Natalie Schriefer

 

May 1, 2021

Dear Mx. Ortiz,

I’m writing to inform you of my interest in the 3rd annual Queer Writer Fellowship. Please find attached my resume and portfolio, though I’d like to say something before you read them. None of my published work is about gender or sexuality. I almost didn’t apply, but then I noticed that you don’t write about queerness, either.

Can I ask why?

Last year, I would’ve said self-identifying. I’ve only been attracted to five people, ever, two women and three men. Does that make me bi? Pan? I don’t date much, so maybe I’m ace or aro or demi instead. Maybe my queerness is theoretical. I’ve never even consummated with a woman. How do I know, for sure, that I’d like it?

Forget it. And that was exactly what I tried to do, last year. I deleted my application.

Other labels are easier. Outdoorsy. Tomboy. Athlete. That’s what I like best about your poems, Mx. Ortiz. They stop the room when I’m reading. They remind me of sports, that flow state where the rest of the world fades—score the goal, ace your serve, cross the finish line.

In those moments, I’m ethereal. I never choke.

Last summer I climbed Mt. Washington. The weather was lousy, all clouds and drizzle, and the air at the summit was white mist. All that climbing, and we couldn’t see a thing, not the other mountains, or the trail we’d taken, or even the auto road right in front of us. Nothing. We only stayed long enough to take photos with the summit sign. On our way down, I thought about the elevations carved in the wood. 6288 feet. 1917 meters. We could’ve quit at any time, hiking up. At the trailhead, the skies overcast. At Lion’s Head, when the drizzle started. At the summit crown, scrambling up a half-mile of wet rocks. But we summited anyway. Every inch of it.

There’s so much we can’t control. I should revel in all the things I’ve climbed despite that uncertainty, the risk. Truth is, I’m scared. I was scared last year and I’m scared now, but the difference, this year, is that I’m tired, too. I don’t have to write about sexuality in order to prove myself. I can choose to, or I can choose not to. Either way, I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m tired of hiding. Justifying. This year, I’m ready to stop.

Thank you for your consideration.

 

Natalie Schriefer often writes about sexuality, women in sports, and the outdoors. Her work has appeared in print or online at jmww, Room, and MTV, among others. She received her MFA from Southern Connecticut State University, and works as a freelance writer and editor. Home base: www.natalieschriefer.com.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Dear Mx. Ortiz”?

In early 2020 I applied for a poetry fellowship. Writing my letter of interest got me thinking about the ways in which I had to blend my individual voice with the professional template of a cover letter. But what would a letter of interest look like if the narrator spoke freely? If they broke the template and tried to connect on a more personal, and less formal, level? The idea for this piece came not long after—as did the exciting news that I’d received a partial fellowship!

CNF: Me Without You

by Jasmine Sawers

 

I used to wish you dead and think wistfully on this motherless version of me: someone who was allowed to flush the toilet at night; someone who doesn’t cower when the dishes clatter in the sink; someone who doesn’t shake when voices are raised; someone who never learned how hard your hands are when they’re done being soft; someone who hasn’t been told a thousand times that you’d trade them for the 1980 miscarriage—the angelic never-child who would never hurt or disobey you; someone who never lived with your threats to kill them echoing between their ears; someone who didn’t spend a lifetime straddling the line between damned if you do, damned if you don’t; someone who crushed under their heel all those eggshells I spent a lifetime minding; someone who never grew out of the phase of wishing they were beautiful—that is, wishing they were white; someone without Thai simmering beneath all the English in their brain; someone who never learned the right way to make rice; someone who never learned to pour fish sauce liberally on American food to make it better; someone who never bathed outside in a barrel during the monsoon; someone who never chased chickens around a house on stilts; someone who has never been the fifth passenger on a motorcycle taking a bunch of kids to school; someone who doesn’t know when they’re being insulted in Thai; someone who’s never ducked beneath scaffolding in Bangkok only to discover a bustling halal restaurant, tucked away like a wink; someone who has never heard the call to prayer sweep over the canal at dawn; someone ignorant of the way you were passed around your family to be their workhorse, their wet nurse, their punching bag; someone who mourned a saint suspended in the perfect amber of memory; some fool, some poor fucking fool.

 

Jasmine Sawers is a Kundiman fiction fellow whose work appears in such journals as Ploughshares, AAWW’s The Margins, SmokeLong Quarterly, and more. Sawers serves as Associate Fiction Editor for Fairy Tale Review and debuts a flash collection through Rose Metal Press in 2023. Originally from Buffalo, Sawers now lives and pets dogs outside St. Louis.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Me Without You”?

I entered this by setting myself a challenge to write a complete narrative arc in a single sentence. I’d done so successfully before in a story that could be viewed as this one’s spiritual cousin, but I would define that piece as more of a carefully curated run-on than a grammatically sound sentence.

The opening phrase had been knocking around my head for a long time, but it never opened to me before suddenly slotting into my complete sentence plan. I intended to end on a note of derisive pity for this narrator’s alternate self, who would never know they mourned a woman who hated the reality of them as much as she loved the idea of them. However, as I was drafting what was essentially a list of the effects of trauma, it started to come off as whiney and one-note in its bitterness, no matter how true or earned. To be more honest and nuanced in my depiction, I had to step back and look with more objective eyes—more tender eyes—on the character of the mother instead of merely letting this narrator wallow, which allowed the piece to bloom into a fuller picture.

I’m more of a planner than someone who wanders into a piece without a roadmap, but I always leave room for discovery, for something I never expected to sprout up, because it’s inevitably what ends up giving my work its beating heart.

Lauds

by Jen Huang

 

All I ask for
in a day
is zero blood.

I want our hides whole
and untrespassed.

and no inner gambits,
faulty, giving up the ghost,

red plumes to write her name
across your history

The tidy monstrosity
that is the body,

working to clean up
its own mistakes

I want
none of this,

closed doors
and sealed windows.

The sun at its set distance,
each bone assuring bone.

 

Jen Schalliol Huang lives near Boston and received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her chapbook was printed through The Kenyon Review, and her work has appeared in Flock, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, RHINO, The Shore, Shenandoah, Sou’wester, and elsewhere. She is a reader for [PANK], was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, twice for Best New Poets, and once for 2020’s Best of the Net.

 

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

“Lauds” originated after a year of miscarriages. I took notes and wrote down lines at the time, which is a practice I’ve had for decades now. More recently, I came back to these files to see what scraps could be developed further. This poem felt like an invocation, a wish for the day, and so I titled it with a name for ritual morning prayers. “Lauds” can also mean praises, in a certain context, but the speaker isn’t here to exalt anything — not the body nor survival, not the external world nor refuge, not even the passing of time. Nonetheless, there is a sense of security returning to the body of the poem, which is, ultimately, the object of the speaker’s hope.

CNF: Body of Water

by Kylie Hough

 

My head–I wished it would stop. I got out my Mac, plugged in my earphones and played a thunderstorm. An octuple scull passed by the living room window making ripples so faint as to be barely audible. Then the city ferry, its passengers staring mute from the top deck. I stood up because they’re less likely to stare if I move between rooms.

It was late afternoon when I chose a position at the end of the rug. Indian or Turkish, it made no difference. It was as soft as lanugo on my soles.

I wondered about the feeling of the ellipsis, and the unfolding of thoughts as they struggled under the weight of sentences. I stood there–under the ceiling, glass separating me and the river, and I listened.

*

In the back-yard I can stand ahead of the light streaming from the door and look out to the jetty toward the mountains. The garden is planted with magnolias and birds of paradise which compete with nutgrass for snippets of sky. None of the pots on my windowsill are empty–orchids flourish, despite cramped conditions, with or without rain.

My dog takes naps on a cushion. His hearing is going and he walks too far in the wrong direction when I call his name. Every day I ask him to accompany me to work, but instead of standing, he sighs, lifts then lowers his head.

The smell I make is not lamb lung.

When I was new to motherhood I used to picture sneaking out of my bedroom. I fancied myself lifting my skirt, climbing over the balcony railing and jumping into the shrubbery before tiptoeing to a waiting Jeep driven by imaginary friends. At the botanical gardens said friends and I would wander down plant strewn paths thick with green so lavish we could barely make out each other’s shadows. We would lose each other and wander disoriented around a dry fountain, pondering nothing but our collective breath for hours.

Thunder storms point the way to that dream.

*

I look at my wrinkles in the scorched bathroom light. The strain will appear as a broken line in a once pure patch of skin on my forehead. It will take a week to emerge an inch above my eyebrows.

I pull a towel from the cupboard and run a bath.

Most of the time I’m not aware I hear it. Anxiety is a thing you feel. Even alone, it becomes-with. Sometimes you hear it after lunch in the space you forget to eject your medicine from crumpled foil. But I know where to go if you want to hear nought.

What you do is lower yourself into a body of water. A tub is sufficient but any watery form will do. River, ocean, stream – it doesn’t matter. Lie back and wait for the surface ripples to make themselves invisible. Take a deep breath, submerge yourself, and listen for the end of games you forbid yourself to play.

 

Kylie Hough studies Arts at UNE. A VC Scholar, in 2015 Kylie received the Lucy Elizabeth Craigie Award, the Richard B Smith Memorial Prize, and the Australian Federation of Graduate Women Inc. (AFGW) NSW (Armidale) UNE ARTS AWARD. She was a finalist in the Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction 2018 and is published with Feminartsy, the write launch, Verity LA, Other Terrain, and Posit. She has poetry forthcoming with Antithesis and is a grateful recipient of a 2021 Australian Society of Authors (ASA) Award Mentorship in Fiction.

 

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

In 2020 I took a unit called Literature and the Environment as part of my undergraduate Arts degree in English at UNE. I was reading the likes of Dr Astrida Neimanis, Val Plumwood, Audre Lorde, Maria Mies, Vandana Shiva and Ellen van Neerven for university assignments and in my spare time blending poetry and short fiction by a mix of Australian and American authors. Body of Water was inspired by everyone whose work I read at this time, but pays direct homage to Amy Hempel and Astrida Neimanis, whose works, The Collected Stories (Hempel) and Bodies of Water (Neimanis) provided the impetus I found to put fingers to keypad and begin typing a way through the anxiety that is my constant companion. I love a short, punchy read and know now that I’ve started, I’ll continue to enjoy experimenting in the flash genre.

News

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

Matter Press recently released titles from Meg Boscov, Abby Frucht, Robert McBrearty, Tori Bond, Kathy Fish, and Christopher Allen. Click here.

Matter Press is now offering private flash fiction workshops and critiques of flash fiction collections here.

Submissions

Poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction/prose poetry submissions are now OPEN. The reading period for standard submissions closes June 15, 2021. Topical Thursdays’ submissions are open year-round. Submit here.

Upcoming

08/30 • Andrew Warnke
09/02 • TBD
09/03 • David Hargreaves
09/06 • June Avignone
09/09 • TBD
09/10 • Laurence Musgrove
09/13 • Zoe Dickinson
09/16 • TBD
09/20 • Karoline Schaufler
09/23 • TBD
09/27 • Joan Wilking
09/30 • TBD
10/04 • Kim Chinquee
10/11 • TBD
10/18 • TBD
10/25 • TBD