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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.

Women’s Intuition

by Evann Normandin

 

[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.]

 

I fiddled with my ring and watched the back of Luke’s head while he spoke to the flight attendant at the front in halting Chinese. She smiled. Documents changed hands. He slid into the seat next to me and his thigh clung to my bare leg longer than it should have before he pulled away. “What did you tell her?” I asked.

“I said that my wife is afraid of flying. She moved us up in the plane.” He flashed two new tickets. I felt the Xanax start to kick in. My wife.

I’d bought the rings deep underground in a market of flashing neon lights and stiff, gem-encrusted shoes and handbags just steps from Metro 1 in the city center. I picked a bold almost-too-big-to-be-real cubic zirconia and a simple silver band for Luke while the saleswoman oohed, ahhed, and refused to negotiate prices. On the way to the airport, I pulled out two blue-velvet ring boxes. “Thank you for pretending,” I said, flexing my long fingers so the colorless stone might catch the light.

Luke held me by my fingertips to get a better look. “It’s nice,” he said. “I don’t think I would have picked it.” He plucked the thick silver band from its case and let it slip down his fourth finger.

“A little big,” I said.

Luke broke into a smile that lit him from the inside. “Almost perfect.”

I told him I’d booked the villa without air conditioning on purpose. Luke could smell the lie in the sweat that eeked through my thin green t-shirt—the same shirt I was wearing the day I’d learned my time was up. The air in Shanghai had been thick and heavy and I was unpracticed in navigating the city alone. The doctor was brief. The scans reminded me of a carelessly planted garden.

“Thailand,” I’d said, the moment I opened the door to our seventh-floor walkup. “I want to go back to Thailand.”

“Thailand.” Luke said. “Why?”

That night as the jungle pressed against the open windows and Luke pressed into me I wondered whether the passing of time might be ceremonial the way the ancients thought. Not the modern world’s graceless obedience to sequence and increment, but the stunning imperfection of human memory and the movements of heavenly bodies. Perhaps this was the same moon that shone through the plastic shades in our cramped dorm when I first ran my hands down Luke’s smooth chest and fumbled with his clip-latch belt buckle. And perhaps this was the same breeze that pulled my thin hair from its tight bun the first time he’d kissed me before the sun went down. Perhaps yesterday we’d had that wedding I’d always been too nervous to wish for in my father’s musty barn, with warm cider, crisp wine, and an iPod on shuffle. Maybe tomorrow I had already told Luke I was dying.

 

Evann Normandin lives in Massachusetts and works in educational publishing. Her writing has appeared in Broadway World, Rewire News, and Slush Magazine. She completed her BA at Middlebury College in English with a focus on literature of trauma and traumatic memory, and her MSc at the University of Edinburgh in English with a focus on trauma and post-apocalyptic fiction.

 

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

I found the first draft of a piece I’d been working on to submit to “Modern Love” on a laptop that came back to life after four years as an expensive paperweight. I wondered what would happen if I took one real, small moment—buying those rings at the underground market—and then fictionalized the rest. I’ve always been preoccupied with how spectacularly imperfect memory is. The compressed form felt right for a piece in which the protagonist considers her relationship to temporality in the face of an event as seemingly final as death.

CNF: Yarn

by Debra Fox

 

          my ailing father’s
          scarf
          wrapped around my neck

I lied when I wrote this. My father never owned a scarf. That the scarf exposes itself on its own line torments the part of me that believes in telling the truth.

The poem is not a complete fabrication—my father did ail. He crashed his dry-cleaning van into an oak on the same route he’d taken to work for sixty years. I never knew why. He was in shock by the time the ambulance arrived, and later he couldn’t remember what led to the collision. His eighty-year-old body suffered broken ribs, a shattered forearm and internal injuries so severe, he required six separate surgeries.

Fueled by the fear of losing him, and the monotony of visiting while he lay comatose, I jotted images into a notebook. The scarf materialized as the respirator pumped oxygen into his lungs. Knit of gray and black flecked wool, it mimicked the stubble on his unshaven cheeks. Though I yearned for something soft, the scarf was scratchy like him. I imagined it acquiring his scent—a mixture of Noxzema Shaving Cream and Lifeboy soap.

Another lie—the word wrapped. Nothing about it describes my relationship with my father. Of the gifts he gave me: the wooden box with a ballerina painted on top, later the red satin “Seventy-Sixers” jacket, and finally the gold bracelet to commemorate my law school graduation, all were unceremoniously delivered—no bows, no wrapping paper.

Nor did my father ever wrap me in his arms. Not when I returned from the year I studied abroad in France; not after I gave birth to my two children; and not after my husband’s cancer diagnosis. That didn’t stop me from employing it. The one verb in the poem.

A final lie—that coiling my father’s scarf around my neck would bring comfort. We shrunk from touching one another, or by extension one another’s possessions. That I spotlight the neck, a body part that houses the carotid artery and jugular vein with nothing but skin to protect it, feels unsettling.

After the accident my father lived another ten years. The part of me that longs for connection forces false images. I dream about wearing the scarf on a cold walk home from the train station. Or while sautéing carrots and celery in butter in my drafty kitchen as I prepare the potato leek soup he favored. Or when sitting by the fire with my husband on the first anniversary of his death.

 

Debra Fox is an adoption attorney and founder of Story Tributes, an enterprise that preserves the stories of people’s lives. She is a reader for Philadelphia Stories, as well as the mother of two sons: one profoundly autistic and the other a journalist. In her spare time, she loves to dance. She, her husband, and their son Matthew live on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Much of her published work can be found at www.debramfox.com.

 

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

I wrote the poem that inspired this essay several years ago. At the time, I felt unsettled because so much of it wasn’t true to my relationship with my father. Then, in April of 2020, my father died of Covid, and the poem began surfacing when I thought of him. I decided the poem had more to say, and that I should follow where it led.The result is this essay.

Travel Selfie at Peradeniya Junction

by Kristen Swan Morrison

 

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

 

 

Kristen Swan Morrison’s stories have appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Grain, and Wigleaf. She’s completing an MFA through The University of British Columbia. Originally from the Washington, D.C. area, she currently lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where she’s working on a novel and a collection of short stories.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Travel Selfie at Peradeniya Junction”?

The kernel of this piece started in British Columbia in 2018, a year before I went to Sri Lanka. My partner, his sister, and I hiked a steep trail to the peak of a mountain. All afternoon, helicopters whirred overhead. We sat on the summit to check the news. Apparently, hours earlier, three YouTube/Instagram influencers disappeared over Shannon Falls, recording themselves with a quadcopter. One fell. Two jumped in to save her. I think about them often. Their adventures still live online. My breath catches when I imagine the girl’s foot slipping on wet rock.

Bedside

by Michael Buckius

 

Bedside, I bring you chicken nuggets
The unemployment rate has fallen again
and it’s starting to make us look bad
We sigh, the dream is over
You light a cigarette
and pass me the pack
Tomorrow we will initiate
divorce proceedings
We will divide the Venetian blinds
vertically
find smaller windows
and become nostalgic
about horizontal patterns
of light through the smoke
the grease on our fingertips
the crumbs on an empty plate
beside the bed

 

Michael Buckius is a writer and filmmaker from Lancaster, PA. He earned his undergraduate degree in Film and Media Arts from Temple University, and his MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University. His work has appeared in Ghost City Review, Masque and Spectacle, Shrew, Write On, Downtown, and elsewhere. His first chapbook, Future Sarcasm, is available now from Tolsun Books.

 

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

The poem is about an opiate-addicted couple. The main person in the poem  realizes that they can’t live like this forever, and the only way to  move forward is to break up. The bringing of the chicken nuggets amounts  to one last grand romantic gesture before they move on with their  lives.

Soul Sale

by William Doreski

 

When I ask Satan to sell me back my soul he laughs. “What can I give you that you don’t already have?” I ask. He replies, “Nothing. You can have your soul back. What do I want with that filthy rag?” We’re sitting in a coffee shop in Midtown. Buses hustle past, snoring and shaking the plate glass windows. “You have to accept payment,” I say. “Contract law requires both parties to benefit from a transaction.” The waitress refills our cups. She thinks Satan is cute, with his pert little mustache and his crimson cassock. She glares at me, a grumpy wrinkled old man, and sneers. She’d spill coffee into my lap if she weren’t afraid of losing her job. “No benefit involved. You have to realize that your soul is worthless,” Satan explains. “If I accepted payment for returning it, I’d be adding to my burden of sin.” “But if my soul is worthless, what does that say about me?” “You sold your soul. You sold it so long ago that it became obsolete. I made a poor investment, but that often happens. Just pocket your soul and drink your coffee while it’s hot.” He hands me a slip of folded spiritual matter. I tuck it into my shirt pocket. It’s so tiny I’m afraid of losing it. “You might as well face it. Hell isn’t for you. You wouldn’t last five minutes before vaporizing.” “What about Heaven?” I ask. “Oh yeah,” Satan says, “I guess some people still believe in that pie-in-the sky stuff. Don’t think about it. Just take your soul home and stash it somewhere out of sight.”

 

William Doreski lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire. His most recent book of poetry is Mist in Their Eyes (2021). He has published three critical studies, including Robert Lowell’s Shifting Colors. His essays, poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared in many journals.

 

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

“Soul Sale” grew out of the question I had to ask myself: would Satan be interested in the soul of a nonbeliever? Then it struck me that nonbelievers don’t believe in the soul, so their souls would thin out and become ragged and shabby. Satan is usually depicted as a witty sort of fellow, and in speech and mannerisms (as well as ethics) like some of our local Republican realtors—people I meet every day at the local café. The idea of a soul worth so little that Satan just hands it back without expecting anything in return fueled the poem. The it was just a matter of putting one word after another.

this is where it ends after a tooth extraction

by Jeff William Acosta

 

[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.]

 

I lay my body in a field of bougainvillea
petals as I would if I am to be draped
in lilacs—no inch for mechanical body
nor all the moving parts cocooning
my shadow, or the ocean waves rising
and falling inside the concaved gums
as I bite down this gauze full of rusting
iron and copper scent. I have never been
so lost in an image where my tooth clings
firmly on to the jawbone. The tongue
remembers the touch as if it was meant
to rekindle the skinship. Now swallowing
has never been this so tormenting: whenever
I open my mouth, it means something
is missing: you whose name I never get
to hear often by the ear but lives beneath
the memory of the lips

 

Jeff William Acosta is a Filipino poet from Ilocos Sur, Philippines. His works appeared or are forthcoming in 聲韻詩刊 Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, The Dark Horse, CAROUSEL, Olit and among others. Find him at jeffwilliamacosta.weebly.com

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “this is where it ends after a tooth extraction”?

I wrote this poem after I got my first tooth surgery. While in the process, my tongue keeps touching my swollen and bleeding gums as if mourning or the gap makes my tongue want to fill what is lost, even when my dentist said that I shouldn’t. There is uneasiness. There’s this want like lust that lingers for hours. And for two days, I imagine myself just lying on the ground, on what my deathbed will look like—I think of death, of love and of someone that I used to know, and that the only thing I can do is remember, which is the closest thing to forgetting.

Abattoir

by Ellen June Wright

 

Such a pretty word for
a slaughterhouse
rank with blood
and the stench
of unsellable parts—
burned.
It’s from the French—
to fell
like a tree cut down
or a life in shambles
like a shanty after the storm
every board scattered.

 


Ellen June Wright is a poet based in Hackensack, New Jersey. She was born in England of West Indian parents and immigrated to the United States as a child. She attended school in New Jersey and taught high-school language arts for three decades. She has worked as a consulting teacher on the guides for three PBS poetry series called Poetry Haven, Fooling with Words and the Language of Life. Her poetry has most recently been published in River Mouth Review, Santa Fe Writers Project, New York Quarterly, The Elevation Review, The Caribbean Writer and, is forthcoming in, Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora. Her work was selected as The Missouri Review’s Poem of the Week for their website. She was a finalist in the Gulf Stream 2020 summer poetry contest and is a founding member of Poets of Color virtual poetry workshop in New Jersey. She studies writing at the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Ellen can be found on Twitter@EllenJuneWrites.

 

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

Inspiration is everywhere. I am a great fan of British crime dramas. One of my favorite shows is Vera, and in season eight, episode 1 a body is found in an abattoir. The word which is French fascinated me. It’s a pleasant word to say. It feels good in one’s mouth and such a beautiful word for a slaughterhouse. The incongruity seemed ripe for poetry.

Wading

by Cole Williams

 

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

 

 

Cole W. Williams is the author of Hear the River Dammed: Poems from the Edge of the Mississippi (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2017) as well as several books for children. Her poems have appeared in Intima: Journal of Narrative Medicine, Martin Lake Journal, Indolent Books online, Waxing & Waning, Harpy Hybrid Review, WINK, Creatopia, and other journals, as well as in a number of anthologies. She recently attended Rockvale Writer’s Colony and is currently a student in the MFA program at Augsburg University in Minneapolis.

 

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

I have been thinking about the plane of humanity lately. Our natural confinement to land with an upward threshold of about 20 feet; the height a human can fall from and survive injury, the amount of time we can hold our breath, the depths we can dive. Our limitations are vast, yet we interface with the elements ceaselessly. “Wading” was created with this mental exploration in mind. There’s an intrinsic play between the tone and revelatory nature of the center triptych piece and the word selections in the panels next to it. Through the process of extrapolating my own piece, I delved deeper into the meaning of the poem.

The Adventure of Stepping Outdoors

by Jim Ross

 

[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 COVID restrictions began to ease, the family agreed that we needed to rent a beach house at pre-Memorial Day, off-season rates within a three hour’s drive. After reservations were made, we heard that 90 percent of epidemiologists—people who professionally have been looking at when the easing of restrictions would be safe—said they planned to rent a summer beach house. So, the eleven of us—two grandparents, four parents, and five children between the ages of one and five—were in good company.

The best part of our week together wasn’t as much being by the beach as it was always having an excuse to step outdoors with each other, unmasked, fully vaccinated, without fear.

One night, after dinner, Ben, not quite 6, with three missing teeth already, kicked off a one-on-one conversation with one of his patented, probing questions.

“Papa, do you ever wish you could re-experience your childhood?”

“Yes,” I answered, “Every day. All the time.”

“What was it like? Tell me about it.”

“There was a creek. We lived every day around or in it.”

“Your family let you do that?” Ben asked.

“There wasn’t much way to say no. The creek was all we had. It was our life. We knew that across the creek we’d find adventure. In it too.”

“You didn’t have video games?”

“They hadn’t been invented yet.”

“Did you have the Internet?”

“Didn’t exist.

“But you had TV.”

“Ben, when I was your age, on school days, there were only three hours of TV a day.”

“That’s what your family let you watch, three hours’ worth a day?”

“No, that’s all that was on. It started around dinner time, went for three hours, and that was it. During the daytime, if you turned on the TV, there was nothing on.”

“Nothing?” Ben asked.

“Nothing.”

“Why were there only three hours?”

“TV was still an experiment then. They didn’t know whether it would work.”

“You mean it was an experiment like my idea to install magnets beneath your scalp and put magnets in a wig so we can cover your bald spot and make you young again?”

“Exactly. Even if you have a good idea, you have to convince people it’s worth the trouble. Everyone already had radio and there were lots of movie theaters. So, why did they need TV?”

“Why did you need TV?” Ben asked.

“We didn’t need it. Someone had to convince us we did. And that wasn’t easy. After all, we had the creek.”

“Papa, if you had no TV or computer games and no Internet, what did you do? Once, we stayed in a hotel and there was nothing to do. It was boring.”

“We went outside, every day, twelve months of the year, and played with other kids, usually around the creek. We made our own adventures, just us kids, no grownups.”

“Did your parents think playing outside with no grownups was dangerous?”

“Not as far as I know. When they were kids, they played outdoors. That’s what kids always did, unless they were at school or had to work.”

“And nothing bad ever happened to you?”

I think about it for a moment. “Once, I cut my foot on a piece of rusty metal in the creek. It bled like crazy. Someone carried me home.”

“Someone from your family came and got you?”

“Maybe, but more likely, one of the other kids’ Moms carried me home, whoever was closest.”

“One time I cut my finger,” Ben said, holding out his right index finger, “when I used adult scissors. My blood dripped onto the floor.”

“Did someone have to carry you?”

“No,” Ben laughed. “Did you ever make a raft?”

“I’m not sure. Come to think of it, we made lots of rafts.”

“How far did you go on them?”

“They always sank. Anyway, the creek wasn’t deep enough.”

“You needed an inflatable.”

“But there was a goat who guarded a place where we sometimes had to cross.”

“He wouldn’t let you?”

“We had to feed him something and then he did.”

“What was your biggest adventure?” Ben asked.

“One summer, we had almost no rain, and the creek dried up, except for a dribble that came from one spring.”

“What’s a spring?”

“It’s when water springs up from an underground river or lake, like a water fountain created by nature.”

“Can you drink from it?”

“When we were out, that’s where we went. We believed that water was special.”

“Magic?” Ben asked.

“It would be magic to drink from it again now.”

“Would drinking from the spring make you young again?”

“Maybe I could re-experience childhood.”

“What happened when the creek dried up?” Ben asked.

“Oh, we had this idea that, as long as we stayed in the dried-up creek, we could follow it wherever it went, even if usually we couldn’t go those places, and we wouldn’t get in trouble.”

“Did you go far?”

“Further than we ever imagined, in both directions, to places we’d never seen before.”

“Like, going to a number bigger than infinity?”

“We felt like we had, but we’d only gone further than we knew, not really so far.”

“What happened, Papa?”

“We saw a snake, a poisonous one, a copperhead.”

“You sure it wasn’t a milk snake? Because I’ve seen those.”

“We believed it was a copperhead.”

“What did you do?”

“Everyone threw rocks to kill it.”

“Papa, don’t you know, that when you throw rocks at a snake it becomes even more powerful?”

“I do now. Instead of throwing rocks, what do you recommend?”

Ben said, “Turn around and run.”

I asked, “Do you think you should run away from adventure?”

Ben said, “If it’s poisonous or too dangerous. Aren’t iPads safer?”

“Are they? You tell me.”

“Sometimes, I get stuck in an infinite loop.”

“We all do,” I said. “When that happens, it’s time to step outdoors and find an adventure.”

 

Jim Ross jumped into creative pursuits in 2015 after a rewarding career in public health research. With a graduate degree from Howard University, in the past six years he’s published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and photography in over 150 journals on four continents. Publications include Columbia Journal, Hippocampus, Ilanot Review, Kestrel, Litro, Manchester Review, The Atlantic, and Typehouse. Jim and his wife—parents of two health professionals and grandparents of five preschoolers—split their time between city and mountains.

 

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

My grandson Ben has been a source of inspiration almost since birth. I previously published a longer, diary-type piece about Ben and his twin, Bella, called “Ben’s Magic.” He’s always been remarkably well spoken and really asks questions like, “Do you ever wish you could re-experience your childhood?” And, he’s very inventive, always looking for new experiments to undertake. The pandemic cut off nearly all in-person contact between the grandparents and grandchildren. Virtual contact didn’t lend itself to prolonged conversations. Being together again, finally, let the good times roll. Ben provided the stimulus for this and other conversations. Later, I took notes. When it came time to turn it into a story, other fragments from the beach house came back. Lots of stories get to ten or more drafts. This one only had two. I view writing, especially about family, as legacy making and encouraging others to do likewise.

Sitting in the Parking Lot

by Ashton Russell

 

I’m thinking of calling you in the Publix parking lot but the woman in front of me is crying in her car. And also, I couldn’t call you anyway. What would I do? Listen to your old voicemail again. The woman doesn’t even have tinted windows. I’m not sure why that thought comes to me, like you can only show emotion in your car if you can hide behind the dark. She was on the phone when I pulled into this space. I came here for wine, in a desperate way. In my dream last night, you were there, and you told me to look around. Look at it all. Look at what the living had done. And it felt so real, like I could wake up and call you to talk about the environment, the state of the country, we could ramble about our thoughts on the younger generation. How everyone is a victim now, but haven’t we always been. But this woman is distracting me. I can’t get out of the car. I can’t stop watching. She is letting the tears run down, not wiping them off. And then she falls forward with her head on the steering wheel. I can see her shoulders shaking and I think yes, look at what the living has done.
 

Ashton Russell’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming from X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Literary Orphans, CHEAP POP and Southeast Review. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

 

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

Well two things – the phrase ‘what the living has done’ and the image of a woman crying in her car both came into my life separately – and years apart. I was driving and listening to NPR when an old lady in an interview said, “when the dead see what the living have done.” And then earlier this year I sat in my car and saw a woman across from me crying alone in her car.

On Trouble

by James B. Nicola

 

tornado has passed
all you kept in, outside now
except for yourself

*

every month too warm
every day mercurial
every moment, risk

*

One more person. Yow.
Truck too full, illegal now.
Short, moist, hot breaths. Ow.

*

stroll. dog approaches
owner leashed oblivious
scrouch—fast—Pet the dog

*

getting in trouble
going to heaven in spurts
how I love reading

 

James B. Nicola is the author of six collections of poetry, the latest being Fires of Heaven: Poems of Faith and Sense. His decades of working in the theater culminated in the nonfiction book Playing the Audience: The Practical Guide to Live Performance, which won a Choice award.

 

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

I suppose that sheer irascibility had a lot to do with the evolution of “On Trouble”—not only in life, but in art, drama, and literature as well. Oftentimes, I have imagined Shakespeare poring over a copy of Aristotle’s Poetics and saying to himself something like “Whaddaya mean a tragedy has to respect the ‘Unities of Action, Time, and Place?’ Fuhgeddabout that.” After all, Aristotle wrote over eighteen centuries earlier and was codifying what Greek dramatists had been doing yet another century before that. So Shakespeare interwove sub-plots galore, cast royalty with rowdies, spanned decades, and took audiences from Rome to Egypt, from Cyprus to Venice, and from Denmark to England and back, all in a heartbeat. The theater wasn’t called the Globe for nothing.

The form of “On Trouble” was born and bred by a similar response—of mine. This time, to haiku purists who eschew such mundane means as capitalization, punctuation, interjection, rhyme, enjambment, stanzas, sections, and dramatic scenario. As we say in the theater, “No rules, only tools.” Such a philosophy might get one in Trouble, of course, but is the only way we ever come up with Something New, whether a nonce stanzaic form or a nation. Besides, though syllabically similar, “On Trouble” does not claim to be “haiku” at all. I like to think of it, rather, as “ameriku.”

Donnie Ball

by David M. Hamlin

 

[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.]

 

Ron McLaughlin had unbridled fun when his boys were in Little League. He loved the game and the friendships and rivalries. His spirits rose every time a tyke hit a solid single or turned a routine grounder into an out. His boys were long since grown and gone, but Ron still relished the game. He’d been an umpire for more than a decade.

On a bright Saturday afternoon, Ron took his position behind the plate, adjusted his cap and mask and sang out his favorite words.

“Play ball!”

The Trout Homes Titans, sponsored, uniformed and nourished by pizza after every game by an aggressive real estate agent, were at bat. They were facing the hometown Cats. Ron knew the locals well but he’d not seen the Titans play before.

Their first batter ran the count full before he popped up to short; the next kid went down on three quick strikes.

The third Titan, who wore 1 on his uniform with lettering reading Donnie, connected and hit a crisp grounder toward third base. Donnie headed to first, not jogging but not going full tilt either; Ron trotted a few paces behind him.

The Cats’ third baseman scooped up the ball and threw to first. The throw was level and accurate and it smacked the first baseman’s glove crisply. Donnie was at least three strides behind the throw.

“You’re out,” said Ron. He threw his arm up to signal the out.

Donnie tapped first base and made the turn, heading to second. Everybody else froze, completely perplexed. When he got to second base, the kid gave his teammates in the dugout air high fives.

Ron took a few steps toward second base.

“Sorry, son,” said Ron, “maybe I didn’t holler loud enough. You’re out. Inning’s over.”

Donnie gave him a look, equal parts contempt and unbridled confidence.

“Nah,” said Donnie T. “I beat the throw.”

“Nope. You were at least two steps behind it. Good effort, but it’s still an out.”

The three Cats outfielders jogged across the grass and the infielders headed for their dugout, too. The pitcher walked across the infield grass to join the catcher who pointed to second base. Donnie had not moved.

Drawing a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Ron walked all the way to second.

“C’mon, now,” he said, “you know the rules. The throw was perfect. Go grab your glove and take the field.”

“Safe,” said Donnie “I beat the throw and stretched it into a double.”

Ron wasn’t quite sure what to do, so he threw his right hand in the air again and said, “Out!”

Donnie said, “You got some kind of problem? You’re wrong and” – with a sneer – “you’re too old to be out here anyhow. I’m safe. Batter up.”

Ron turned his back to the lad and looked in to the Titans dugout.

“Coach. Over here, please.”

The coach ambled out, shaking his head slowly.

Ron spoke quietly.

“Coach, you saw the play, right? Clean throw. He was out at first.”

“I know.”

“So, get him to get off the bag.”

“Easier said than done.”

“How’s that?”

The coach shrugged.

“I got a problem here. The kid’s dad is the reason we’re here. He put up all the cash to get the team together, bought the uniforms, lends us the company van to get to games, the whole schmear.”

“So what?”

“You notice the kid’s number?”

“Sure. He’s wearin’ number One.”

“Exactly. The old man put this outfit together so his kid could be on a team. I’m gonna be honest with you. I gave him number One ‘cause the dad asked me to, but the kid’s just not that good. Our starting left fielder got the mumps. I figured I’d make his dad happy and let him start.”

“That’s all well and good,” said McLaughlin, “but it doesn’t change anything. Rules are rules, coach. You need to get him to get off that base.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

While the coach talked to Donnie, the rest of the players, all standing near their respective dugouts, watched.

The coach spoke. Donnie shook his head. The coach laid a hand on the lad’s shoulder and Donnie slapped it away, stomping one foot on the base. The coach pointed emphatically at left field; Donnie didn’t move. The coach turned and walked away.

“He’s convinced he’s safe. He’s not going to leave that bag. I don’t know what to do. You got any ideas?”

Ron folded his arms across his chest.

“I don’t need ideas,” he said. “The game is built on rules. I know the rules. Your team shouldn’t be punished – they haven’t done anything wrong – so for their sake, I’m going to give him one more chance.”

McLaughlin walked over to Donnie and buckled his knees enough so he was at eye level with the youngster.

“If you won’t follow the rules, I have two choices. I can eject you from the game and your teammates can continue without you.”

“I’m not leaving,” said Donnie. “I’m safe. You’re wrong.”

“Then I have to forfeit the game. You and your buddies take the loss. You can’t make up new rules just because you don’t like the real ones. If everybody made up their own rules, it wouldn’t be baseball. It’s up to you. You want your team to play the game or not?”

“I couldn’t care less about those losers,” said Donnie. “I hit the double, none of them had anything to do with it. It was me.”

McLaughlin held the boy’s gaze for a moment and then turned to face the dugouts.

“Forfeit. Cats win.”

When Donnie arrived home, his dad was lounging in the backyard.

“Hiya, kiddo. How’d the game go?”

“Great!” said Donnie, “I smacked a double.”

 

In addition to his work in short fiction, David M. Hamlin is the author of two non-fiction books and, more recently, the Emily Winter mystery series (Winter in Chicago, Winter Gets Hot, Killer Cocktail). Information about his work and a couple of free short stories can be found at www.dmhwrites.com.

 

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

The idea for this story arose while watching a Chicago Cubs game (I am an unabashed Cubs fan) during which one of the more recent wrinkles in the game, a video review of a close and disputed call, led to thoughts about those who do, or do not, play by the rules.

CNF: (NINE) LEFT OF BOOM

by Kim Peter Kovac

 

  1. “Left of boom” is the military term for the time before a bomb explodes, versus “right of boom” which is the time after, based on a left-right timeline.
  2.  

  3. We (global populations, continents, regions countries, states, cities, persons) are left of boom; however, there are both seen and unseen forces pulling us rightward second by second.
  4.  

  5. Which leads to questions about how to understand our zeitgeist’s boom.
  6.  

  7. Is boom potentially an actual event, or one we create in our minds? How severe is it?
  8.  

  9. Is boom a real place you can find on a map? Is it the knife-edge of a cliff, the doorway to a deep forest, the guts of a glacier?
  10.  

  11. Perhaps boom is a glowing seed (metaphorical/psychological/mental) that lives somewhere within us.
  12.  

  13. Perhaps boom might lead to a giant hole in our personal bodies or our bodies politic.
  14.  

  15. How fast is the clock on tick-tick-boom, and can we slow down the ticking? Or stop it?
  16.  

  17. . . . . . . .

 

Kim Peter Kovac recently published his first collection, Border Sounds: Poems & Dispatches from Other Timezones. He has also published over 150 pieces in print or online in 12 countries and is enormously that one of his favorite prose pieces ever (and his second published), appeared in the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts: Cardigan Spy tells of a theater conference in East Berlin in 1986 where the host-provided translator also worked for the STASI.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “(NINE) LEFT OF BOOM”?

“Left of boom” is a term of art popularized by the military after 9/11 used to describe that critical period in which the good guys can act and avert a crisis, meaning the boom. What was a bit surprising is that it is can be used in context of other major events/decisions. For example, one could use left of boom to describe the time frame between when Donald Trump learned in February 2020 how dangerous COVID-19 was, and his decision to downplay it. In this case, of course, the ‘boom’ that could have been prevented was the unchecked spreading of COVID in the US. This is what led to the piece – a musing on the broad exploration of what ‘boom’ might represent, and which booms we might be able to prevent

psychic, reader

by Taylor Alexandra Duffy

 

The psychic in my building forgot my name. Holding her groceries, holding her elbow as we eased down her garden apartment stairs, she warned me about the siblings I don’t have, to keep an eye on nieces I’ll never know. Oh yes, I said, you’re so right, promising to call the father who’s been dead for years. A week later she was surprised to see me when I ran out to greet the sirens, finding her waiting on the stoop, clutching her chest. Breathless, she grabbed my wrist: darling girl, this was meant for you.

 

Taylor Alexandra Duffy lives in New York and works in research & development. She specializes in pending patents and penning short short
stories. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in *X-R-A-Y, Passages North*, and elsewhere. She was longlisted for the 2021 SmokeLong Quarterly Grand Micro. www.tayloraduffy.com

 

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

A couple of years ago I walked by a basement storefront psychic in my neighborhood, and the opening line popped into my head. Most of my stories start with some outlandish or very specific, fully-formed sentence crossing my mind, and I then try to build a world where that statement would make sense. I quickly wrote this piece in the notes app on my phone and the published version is exactly what I wrote in that two-block walk to my apartment.

Homeless in the Time of the Plague

 

[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.]

 

It’s winter here now. Snow on the ground. Lots of new faces. Sad, angry, scared faces. I can tell with some degree of knowing them that will do what they need to do to survive, and will. Them that won’t, and won’t. It takes some a while longer to get it that the same man that passes them by with only a dismissive glance will gladly empty the change from his pockets to follow them into the alley and see them on their knees in front of him.

This is the world we live in. The real world.

I saw in the paper the other day there are over half a million homeless people in this country now. They say because of the plague there could be twice as many by next Christmas. I’m sure lots of folks look at me and figure that’s how I got here. Figure I’m some poor victim of the sickness. Never figuring I’ve been on the streets nine years now by choice. Never understanding why any sane person would choose this.

So, okay . . . maybe I ain’t so sane after all.

My story is my own but not too different from lots of others I run into. My mother was an artist and my father was a trumpet player that spent half his life on the road with famous people like Miles Davis. When he was away mom’s artsy friends came to keep us company. When he was around it was a nonstop party with folks coming and going day and night. Folks like “Uncle” Lenny Bruce, Buddy Rich, Arthur Miller, and Jackson Pollack. Guess that’s why I grew up closer to my mom than dad, with a love of both art and music. But also a love of drugs and whiskey. Reefer and whiskey, cocaine and whiskey, uppers and whiskey, downers and whiskey, heroin and whiskey. Coke and whiskey’s what finally stuck. And never further than a phone call away.

Just so you know, Mom drank herself to death by the time she was forty. Dad overdosed on heroin at forty-three.

By the time I was nineteen I was getting known for my art. I took to piano and wrote lots of songs but my art seemed the best way to make a living. After my first showing in San Francisco in ’88 I was commissioned to create a few original pieces for a new L.A. film director named Quentin Tarantino. This led to a gig as visual-art director on his movie Pulp Fiction. That’s where I met my future, lovely wife, Angie. She was script girl on the set. Less than a year later we married and bought a house in Hollywood Hills and started living the dream. That dream lasted until ten years ago when Angie was killed by a drunk driver. Head-on collision.

She died all alone. We never got to say good-bye.

I tried to hang on after that. Tried not to lose my mind. But nothing seemed to matter. I lost the house. The cars. The friends. Just walked away from everything else. Then one day I woke up and found myself sleeping on the sidewalk. Bumming cigarettes, begging spare change, eating garbage from dumpsters in the alleys. And I didn’t care. Then the day came when I realized I felt right at home on the streets with all the other homeless. And like I already said, my story ain’t too different from lots of others. I met lawyers and professors and stock brokers and cops and doctors and actors and priests out here all in the same boat. No matter who you are or how you get here, you adapt or die.

My turn finally came. I caught the plague this past August and spent most of September, October and November trying to get medical help, in and out of shelters, emergency rooms and walk-ins. They didn’t even pretend to care. Three of my street buddies died from the plague since this all started. They were good people. Their only crime was trying to survive. Did the wrong thing at the wrong place and time. And nobody giving a shit when it happened. Doctors don’t care. Cops don’t care. Them that runs the shops and stores don’t care. And them passing by and looking all disgusted at you sleeping on a park bench sure as hell don’t care.

But really, I ain’t no different.

Yeah, I could teach the neuvo plague victims how to survive out here, but I won’t. And I could invite some back to my cardboard and tarp-covered shack hidden out in the woods to get out of the cold, but I don’t. Because in the end it comes down to survival. And if they’re right about this plague putting more and more people out on the streets, then hand-outs will soon run out. Times are already tough enough. I ain’t no martyr. Just a homeless man trying to stay alive another day.

Time will tell.

Mutilated Is the Word

by Ja’net Danielo

 

that fell from
my mother’s mouth—
blade on the tongue—
after her mastectomy.
When my time came,
I said to the surgeon,
           I’m not ready,
by which I meant
not for the blade
on the tongue
          but the knife
my body would take
to itself, for that final
moment—uncinematic,
not in the rain, not
looking me in the eye,
but just a shapeless
voice on the phone:
          This is where
it ends for us.

 

Ja’net Danielo is the author of The Song of Our Disappearing, a winner of the Paper Nautilus 2020 Debut Series Chapbook Contest. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Radar Poetry, Mid-American Review, Gulf Stream, Frontier Poetry, and 2River View, among other journals. Originally from Queens, NY, she teaches at Cerritos College and lives in Long Beach, CA with her husband and her dog. You can find her at www.jdanielo.com.

 

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

This poem was written a little over a year after having a bilateral mastectomy on a particularly bad day when I was struggling to accept this new body I find myself inhabiting. I remembered that after my mother had had her mastectomy, she said she felt mutilated. While I feared that I’d share her reaction, ultimately, I did not; instead, I experienced the surreal feeling that my body had broken up with me, swiftly and without explanation. This poem seeks to capture that.

Camelous, Said Dave, When The Marriage Counselor Asked Him to Describe His Wife

by Kayla Pongrac

 

And after he shared this adjective, Dave added, “It’s because Mary carries around these massive grudges that remind me of camel humps. They’re so . . . obvious.” Mary sat quietly in her chair, wondering how she could describe Dave; surely their counselor was going to ask her the same question. If she was “camelous,” he was desert material, too: dry of tongue and uninhabitable of heart. The counselor cleared her throat and asked Mary to briefly respond to Dave’s word choice. Was his description accurate? “Well,” Mary said, “I’d like to think I’m octopuslicious because sometimes I feel like I have three hearts and I can’t interest even one of them in forgiving him.”

 

Kayla Pongrac’s flash fiction chapbook, The Flexible Truth, was published in 2015 by Anchor and Plume Press. She’s currently working on a new collection of stories, which are being brought to fruition with support from: her favorite albums on repeat, many cups of hot tea, and her dog’s good company.

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Camelous, Said Dave, When The Marriage Counselor Asked Him to Describe His Wife”?

Octopus vulgaris. Eight-limbed mollusk. Resides in every ocean in the world. Known for its exceptional ability to change color, to camouflage. Discharges ink when threatened. Two eyes, one beak, three hearts. Three hearts! That was the “fun fact” that captured my attention. I forget when and where I was reading about these fascinating creatures, but I do remember how that specific fact got me thinking: what if humans, like octopuses, had three hearts? That’s the origin of this piece.

I’d like to think that if I had three hearts, it would be so much easier to forgive those who have hurt me most, but the female character in this piece surprised me when she came alive on the page; she knew for certain that no matter how many hearts she had—one, three, fifteen—forgiving her husband wasn’t happening, and she felt no shame in that.

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

07/26 • Jen Huang
07/29 • Lazar Trubman
07/30 • Jasmine Sawers
08/02 • Natalie Schriefer
08/05 • Daniel Felsenthal
08/06 • Kim.M.Munsamy
08/09 • Carla Sarett
08/12 • TBD
08/13 • Elizabeth Amon
08/16 • Shanti Chandrasekhar
08/19 • TBD
08/23 • Merrill Oliver Douglas
08/26 • TBD
08/27 • Shyla Shehan
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 • TBD
09/30 • TBD
10/04 • TBD
10/11 • TBD
10/18 • TBD
10/25 • TBD