This semester, Superstition Review is highlighting the Editors producing Issue 32. On Dec. 1st, readers will be able to view content that these interns have worked to compile over the course of the semester.
Meet John-John O’Connor, issue 32 arteditor
SR: What are your plans for after graduation? JO: After graduation I am looking to apply to law school.
SR: What are you currently reading? JO: The Stand by Stephen King.
SR: What is one place you’d like to travel to? JO: Oaxaca, Mexico
Meet Jonathan Gillespie, issue 32 advertising coordinator
SR: What are your plans for after graduation? JG: To either enter education or business administration.
SR: What are you currently reading? JG: Blood Meridian.
SR: What is one place you’d like to travel to? JG: The Netherlands.
Meet Hope Kan, issue 32 social media manager
SR: What are your plans for after graduation? HK: I plan to go into publishing and editing and pursue a Masters program.
SR: What are you currently reading? HK:I am currently reading The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S Thompson
SR: Describe your perfect Saturday morning. HK: Go on a hike, have a yummy breakfast, and enjoy a productive couple hours before seeing friends!
Family history is a tricky thing. I heard the expression from a young age “history is written by the winners” – but how does that really translate to family history? It’s hard to find anyone who is really a “winner”. Not only that, but I also think sometimes people don’t want to be the winners of their family. Or maybe they can only be the winners through omission and that’s how pieces get lost.
My Great Aunt Wren has always been a fixation. She never married or had children. She lived in the house she grew up in nearly her entire life, except for when she ran away for a period of time. I could never get a straight answer as to where she went…sometimes my mom said Maine, California…Montreal…I liked to imagine she went everywhere. She traveled the world, and then came all the way back. She died when I was 15. I feel like I was just starting to get to know her on her own terms. Right before she died she snuck me a cigarette, an American Spirit. I couldn’t finish it. She had a raspy laugh.
This is a conversation I had with my grandfather, Alder Bray. It was for a school project, but I also just wanted to record it. He was a private person, but I thought I could get him to confirm what I thought I knew.
00:00 [shuffling papers. Tap]
00:07 Bryn: Can I get your anything before we get started? Water? Seltzer?
00:12 Alder: No, I’m alright. Why are you recording me?
00:16 Bryn: For posterity…I think it’ll be nice to have a recording of you. Then I can always remember you.
00:25 Alder: Remember me? Do you know something I don’t?
00:28 Bryn: [laughs] Sorry, sorry. For way later. Years and years from now.
00:34 Alder: Alright, alright.
00:43 Bryn: First, tell me your name and where you are from.
00:49 Alder: My name is Alder Ulysses Bray. I am from Dennis, Massachusetts.
0:56 Bryn: What year were you born?
1:01 Alder: 1941. In Hyannis.
1:05 Bryn: Do you mind talking about grandma a little bit? How did you meet?
1:12 Alder: Katherine and I met through some…mutual friends. Family friends. We would have been married…uh…57 years this fall. She was an intensely giving woman.
1:33 Bryn: Yeah, mom always said she was very generous.
1:38 Alder: Yes. Generous to a fault, I would often tell her. If someone needed help, she was there. Not everyone deserved it, but that’s not really what she cared about.She was like that from the moment she met my family.
1:57 [chair creak]
2:00 Bryn: What do you mean by that? – from the moment she met your family?
2:07 Alder: She was introduced to them very early. I typically liked to wait before introducing anyone, but she actually met Wren before she met me. Anyway, she just hopped right in. The first time she had dinner with my parents, she did all the washing after. Wouldn’t let anyone else get an elbow in – she had insisted.
2:32 Bryn: That sounds very sweet. Your family must have adored her.
2:38 Alder: Yes, they certainly did.
2:42 Bryn: Where did she meet Wren?
2:46 Alder: At the hospital. Katherine happened to be working that night. Wren had to go in for…stitches.
2:54 Bryn: How old you both when you had my mom?
2:58 Alder: [cough] Sorry?
3:01 Bryn: How old were you and Grandma when you had my mom?
3:08 Alder: I don’t know. In our 20’s.
3:12 Bryn: [swallow] Can you remember anything about being new parents? What was my mom like as a baby? Or even as a child?
3:23 Alder: Oh, I guess she was a restless baby. Although all babies are. Felt like it was months before she would actually sleep. Up crying all night. Katherine would sit with her all night, rocking her to sleep. There was constantly a bottle of formula warming on the stove. You were a much better baby.
3:44 Bryn: [laughs] I imagine if I wasn’t, you wouldn’t be the one up with me.
3:51 Alder: I suppose that’s true.
3:55 Bryn: Can you tell me what Dennis was like back then? Maybe a little bit about your neighborhood?
4:09 Alder: Sure….ah, there weren’t as many houses as there are now. And certainly, no huge ones you see…just mostly little Cape Codders. P-town was still mostly just Portuguese fishermen. The farm across from where we lived was still operating…producing something. I think now it’s just a historical site. If that doesn’t make someone feel old, I don’t know what will [chuckles].
4:42 Bryn: [laughs] Well, what did they produce? The way you remember it, I mean.
4:51 Alder: They had dairy cows.
4:56 Bryn: What did your parents do?
4:59 Alder: Father’s family were ice harvesters. So, I think he did that for the first part of his life. By the time I was born, it was becoming a less…in-demand profession. He opened a hardware store in Dennis when I was…maybe 4? 5? Mother was mother, that was about it for her. She lost a lot of babies.
5:17 Bryn: That must have been hard for her.
5:22 Alder: It was. For both of them. They were just left with me and Wren by the end of it all. Now it’s just me that’s left, as you know.
5:33 Byrn: Do you sill think about your sister?
5:40 Alder: I do. I still find myself thinking I need to check in on her, but then I remember I don’t need to anymore. Must be something that becomes ingrained in you when you’re the oldest.
5:59 Bryn: Can I ask you something that might be a little – uh – well, it’s just kind of a grim story. I found this article from 1965 and uh –
6:11 Alder: Just ask whatever it is you’re trying to ask, Bryn.
6:18 Bryn: It looks like there was an awful fire at the farm by your home. Several people died or disappeared after it…it looks like you all thought Wren was gone after…her name is listed here…what – what happened?
6:38 Alder: Is this what this has been about the whole time? Trudging up ancient history?
6:45 Bryn: Grandpa…
6:57 Alder: I’m not upset. [sigh] Wren yammered about that for years. Blamed it for all her troubles. Like we did something wrong to deserve it.
7:03 Bryn: Why do you think she felt that way?
7:07 Alder: Maybe it was easier.
7:10 Bryn: Easier than what?
7:13 Alder: Accepting what happened in her life.
7:33 Bryn: Can you tell me about the fire at all? I can’t believe I didn’t know about this.
7:56 Alder: Fine, fine. There was a fire at the barn across the street from our home. Not the large dairy barn, thank God. They had a smaller barn on the edge of the property everyone called the Turkey Barn, but that must have been a relic of a time before me. I don’t recall there ever being any turkeys there.
8:12 Bryn: Did you know the Taylors well?
8:18 Alder: Sure. A lot of folks now don’t even know their neighbors. I was driving the other day and I waved at someone walking their dog. Headphones in. They didn’t even acknowledge me. It never used to be that way.
8:27 Bryn: Hmm mhm, can you tell me about the Taylors?
8:30 Alder: What do you want to know?
8:34 Bryn: I guess…can you tell me about your relationship to your neighbors? And your neighborhood?
8:41 Alder: The neighborhood wasn’t as densely populated as it is now. Wren and I could roam through woods and not see anyone or come to any real property for…miles, it seemed. We did spend some time over at the Taylors. I’d try to help them when I could, they had five children but only one of them was a son, so they could always use an extra pair of hands for the heavy lifting.
9:08 Bryn: Five children, that’s so many.
9:14 Alder: Most farmers had even more than that. But I guess the Taylors never got around to it or preferred their hired help. They would hire anyone.
9:25 Bryn: I’m not sure what that means.
9:28 Alder: Nothing…they hired immigrants and all sorts of folks…who knows if any of them had anything to do with that fire. There would be no way to trace them. No records or anything…[cough]
9:36 Bryn: Grandpa, I – I think that’s not really a fair assumption…
9:42 Alder: [scoffs]
9:45 Bryn: Do you remember the names of the Taylor’s children?
9:50 Alder: Let’s see…there was…Dorothy, she was the oldest. Very beautiful woman. Then…Susan? Samantha? Something with an S….Sarah! And Elizabeth, and…Evelyn.
10:13 Bryn: What about the son?
10:15 Alder: Hmm?
10:17 Bryn: You said there was a son. What was the son’s name?
10:21 Alder: Cormac.
10:28 Bryn: Cormac. Did you spend a lot of time with him? When you would help the Taylors?
10:34 Alder: Sure. We spent some time together. He was a nice enough kid.
10:44: [tap tap tap]
10:46 Bryn: Did Aunt Wren spend any time with the Taylors?
10:50 Alder: She did. We both spent plenty of time over there…running, shooting…that sort of thing. We had a television, but Mother was very strict about it. They might have had one too…but I never saw it. Never went in their home.
11:04 Bryn: Aunt Wren could shoot? I didn’t know that.
11:07 Alder: Oh yes, we all did. She liked to do the Annie Oakley. She would try to shoot a bullseye behind her with just a mirror and the gun on her shoulder. She missed most of the time, she had a much better shot just holding the gun normally.
11:26 Bryn: Wow. Did she learn to do that from the Taylors or…?
11:30 Alder: I’m not sure exactly, I went away for a while to work. I missed some of her teenage years.
11:35 Bryn: Were you…away…when the fire happened?
11:38 Alder: Yes. I must have been.
11:41 Bryn: I read that…Cormac was another one that disappeared after the fire. [papers shuffling] But I couldn’t really tell if that meant he died in it? It sounds like a body was never found.
11:50 Alder: No. No, he didn’t die in it. That’s ridiculous. No one thought that. Cormac ran off, as many people did those days. I think he might have even gone out to California.
11:57 Bryn: But why do you think that?
11:59 Alder: That’s just the sort of person he was. Had his head in the clouds, didn’t think about other people…his family. Sure, he worked hard but I don’t think he ever really knew the value of it.
12:07 Bryn: Did Aunt Wren spend any time with Cormac?
12:16 Alder: I suppose.
12:18 Bryn: What did they do together?
12:20 [tap tap tap]
12:25 Alder: It’s true, she did spend a lot of time at one point with Cormac. He might have even been the one that taught her to shoot so well. I’d have weekly phone calls with Mother and she mentioned them taking long walks together more than once.
12:40 Bryn: I see. Where were you at the time?
12:45 Alder: I was in Lowell. Worked as a truck driver for a few years. Wren wanted to go to college, and she was smart. I wanted to be able to help her with that. I didn’t want her to waste all her time.
12:54 Bryn: Did she?
12:57 Alder: Did she what?
13:03 Bryn: Did Aunt Wren ever go to college?
13:07 Alder: It’s stuffy in here.
13:10 Bryn: I have the A/C going…are you uncomfortable?
13:15 Alder: I’d rather a breeze.
13:19 Bryn: I can turn it off and open a window for you, Grandpa.
13:22 Alder: Hmm
13:25 [chair moving]
13:28 [window opening]
13:35 [inaudible sounds]
13:46 Bryn: Is that better?
13:48 Alder: Yes. We can hear the birds singing too. It’s pleasant.
13:55 Bryn: It is, Grandpa. Remember when we used to go up to Maine? You’d take me with you and your bird watching friends?
14:03 Alder: Yes, you loved it.
14:06 Bryn: I remember seeing the barn owl. That was my favorite.
14:10 Alder: I remember that too.
14:23 Bryn: Wren never went to college, did she?
14:34 Alder: No, it didn’t quite work out that way. After the fire, she was never really the same. She ran off for a while too…but she came back. She needed her family.
14:42 Bryn: She was there when the fire happened?
14:46 Alder: Oh yeah, we were all there.
14:54 Bryn: I thought you said you were away?
14:57 Alder: I must have been visiting.
15:03 Bryn: Alright…can you tell me anything you remember from that day? Did you see Cormac at all?
15:07 Alder: No.
15:11 Bryn: Why do you think Wren was never the same after that day?
15:32 Alder: I think for anyone…it’s a hard day when you realize your world is not safe. That bad things can happen. And when that shattering happens at your own home…I can only imagine what my sister was feeling. Perhaps abandoned. Betrayed.
16:12 Bryn: Grandpa, I just want to know. Did you or Aunt Wren have anything to do with the fire?
16:16 Alder: Fires are not unheard of in the area. Sure, it’s a wet part of the country so we don’t get…sweeping wildfires like they do other places. But accidents happen. There was an accident that day. You asked what I remember? I remember that Turkey Barn going up in flames. I remember the cows were restless at the chaos, but they were tucked safely in their barns. Why would anyone have been in the Turkey Barn? It was an old barn, and not much was kept in there. There was no need for anyone to be in there for any honest reason. Ashes. That’s all that was left, and I think we can leave ashes alone. There’s nothing to find in them.
16:58 Bryn: I just…wanted to understand the truth.
17:03 Alder: I’ve told you everything that you would need to know.
End of recording.
Gloria Rose-Potts is a writer originally from Cape Cod, Massachusetts with an MFA in creative writing from American University in Washington D.C. She was a stand-up comedian for five years and traveled around the country and once to Scotland to perform. She is interested in fairy tales, ghost stories, and nature writing. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.
Antonio Folcarelli: I saw that you performed stand-up comedy for five years. How would you say improvising and developing a sense of timing influenced your writing? Gloria Rose-Potts: What it really helped me with was developing a sense of tension. I think it is a lot of the reason I am drawn to horror and uncanny writing. Fear and laughter are really all about the control of tension with the audience or reader. It’s been really interesting writing for an unseen audience after performing for a live one.
AF: “Transcribed” has such an eerie undertone to accompany its central mystery. This comes to a head with one of the final chilling lines: “Ashes. That’s all that was left, and I think we can leave ashes alone. There’s nothing to find in them.” How do you build up a mystery in a short time without overwhelming or boring the reader? Did you have any goals in mind when you chose this ending for the story? GR: The eerie undertone always naturally comes out when I set my stories in New England. There must be something in the gray air here.
Honestly, a lot of trial and error. I would write in a lot of details, and then scale it back. Then add things back after feedback when folks told me things had gotten too murky or confusing. For the mystery in this story, I figured I needed a clear roadmap for myself. I needed to know everything that happened, and then I could control what I wanted my reader to know.
I knew it was going to end with Alder still keeping his secrets. The genesis of this story was me thinking about how we hide information from each other, and how we twist stories to fit what we want people to believe – or perhaps what we wish were true. How does all that negotiating get communicated? How do we lie? AF: I really appreciate the framing device of the story. It captures sounds of movement in a small room and even realistically depicts the passage of time in a conversation. How did you come up with this stylized presentation? What were some challenges or limitations that came with it? GR: Thank you, I was really in love with the concept, and then less in love as I was sitting in my bed with my clock app timing out each line. And then I’d do a rewrite and would have to do it all over again. Absolutely maddening. My undergrad degree was in psychology, and we had to transcribe interviews. We had to catch every single sound we heard; we couldn’t leave anything out. It was all important to the analysis. And as I said, I was thinking about how someone would withhold information and twist a story. It seemed like an interesting way to write a story, and it fit what I wanted to explore.
The biggest challenge was I love to describe a room, or the nature around people. There is none of that. To keep the dialogue authentic sounding, I had to keep it all pretty basic. I couldn’t get very descriptive, but I managed to sneak in a few flowery ~ writer-y ~ lines.
AF: In the opening paragraph, there’s this fascinating passage: “I heard the expression from a young age ‘history is written by the winners’ – but how does that really translate to family history?” Since ghost stories and folktales are so influential to our culture, what could up-and-coming writers do to avoid perpetuating stereotypes? GR: Oh man, this is a question I will be trying to find the right answer to for the rest of my life. For right now, I can just say: read. Read everything, but especially contemporary writers. But read the original stories too and pay attention to who is translating (take a translation class if you have the opportunity). If you find one thing that speaks to you or makes sense, find out what that writer is reading. You’ll eventually make yourself a little web of content you can get stuck in like a sweet little fly. You’ll start to notice the things that come up often and don’t ring true anymore (or never rang true). Read the non-fiction stuff about it too – sometimes clear analysis is the best thing for ignorance. AF: In 2022, you wrote the introduction to the story “As They Always Are” by Amber Sparks in the literary journal Grace and Gravity. Could you share what it was like to write that introduction? Had you collaborated with Amber or Grace and Gravity prior to that? GR: I did do that! It was for a class, actually. My professor was (is) the editor of Grace & Gravity Literary Magazine, and this was the From the Attic series. My classmates and I got to choose a writer who had appeared in print previously and write a new introduction to their piece. And then it all got published online.
We had a long list of amazing writers to pick from, and I had not met Amber or read any of her work at the time – but her short story was the type of writing I was aspiring to do. She was kind and thoughtful, and lovely to work with, so I felt very lucky.
AF: Do you have any new or upcoming projects you’re excited about? GR: Currently, I am beating my head against the wall working on another short story – so yes, I am excited about that (this is what creating looks like right?). It is loosely based on Vasilisa the Beautiful – but it’s modern day and takes place in a grocery store. It is exploring hourly customer service with the help of a magical doll. Antics ensue.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of three full-length poetry collections: To Everything There Is (2020), Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016) and A House of Many Windows (2013), all from Sundress Publications. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Colorado Review, Harpur Palate, Baltimore Review, and Booth. Her visual art has been featured in North American Review, Waxwing, About Place, Pithead Chapel, and other journals. Donna currently lives and creates in the western suburbs of Chicago and runs the monthly online reading series A Hundred Pitchers of Honey.
Charlise Bar-Shai: What made you want to become a visual artist? Donna Vorreyer: I have always loved to view visual art, and I was lucky enough to grow up with the Art Institute of Chicago just a short el ride away. I also used to love making visual art when I was young, and even won keys in some Scholastic Art competitions in junior high. But I moved away from it as I grew more interested in writing, and since I had limited time for creative pursuits as a full-time middle school teacher, the writing took precedence. I retired during the pandemic lockdown, and having so much time at home allowed me to start tinkering with some attempts at visual art: small daily sketches of things I had around me at home, some black and white grid portraits based on old photographs, some collage work with found material. The joy I got from that sort of creative work was less stressful and different from writing. I decided to take a class with poet Ciona Rouse and her sister, artist Lanecia Rouse Tinsley, and their encouragement to use what I knew from the writing process to explore the visual set me on a path to start creating more visual art. Over the past three years, I have used their encouragement (as well as online videos and tutorials) to try to grow as a visual artist, focusing mostly on abstract work. I do it mostly for the enjoyment of it, to see what I can learn, how I can grow, what themes emerge as I learn to experiment with shape, color, and texture.
CB: Have your written works inspired your visual pieces? Is there an overlap in your creative process? DV: That’s an interesting question and the answer is no, not really. So far, it has been helpful for me to keep those two processes separate. I have been writing my whole life, and I have had some “success” as a writer, in terms of publication, so I feel a certain type of pressure when I’m writing, a pressure to make it “good,” to live up to what I’ve done in the past. I have no such ego about art. I can more easily mess up and laugh about it than I can with the written word. In that respect, making visual art is less stressful for me than writing, and I’d like to keep it that way.
Working on a poem has a completely different feel than working on a painting, but what writing and painting have in common is that they both start messy – just getting things down, not necessarily focused and certainly not precise. It is in the next steps that they diverge. When I write, I love to revise, to focus on the diction, the sound, the line breaks and form, sometimes over months, before deciding that a poem is done. Each of these moves is deliberate as I make my way toward a final piece that is doing what I want it to do. In making visual art, I have a tendency to experiment more, to add and remove elements until I have a pleasing arrangement, sometimes completely foregoing an original plan or idea to follow something that emerges in the making.
CB: Did your time as an educator influence your artistic process? Did your students inspire you? DV: My students always inspired me when I was teaching, not only with their own talents but with their joy and openness to the world, their ability to take risks and try things that were new to them. In that way, I think that they have influenced my process in the sense that I have had to follow my own advice. I used to tell my students that no one could ever ask them for any more than their best, and that doing your best is what matters, even if it doesn’t have the result you want or expect. When I make a piece of visual art, I keep that mantra in my head, as things often don’t turn out how I want or expect them to, but I’ve found a way to embrace that and move forward from those “failures” and see what I can learn from the experience.
CB: Have you arranged a solo exhibition for your work? Do you have a plan for one? DV: I still have a hard time calling myself an artist, and I also have absolutely no knowledge of navigating the world of art in that way. (I have noticed that it is very expensive to enter shows, etc., which makes me nervous.) But my local library will be exhibiting a collection of my work in the new year, and that is exciting to me. So far, I have stayed within the world of literary journals, which is familiar, in terms of sending my art into the world to see what others may enjoy. Who knows what the future might hold?
CB: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an artist so far? DV: The biggest challenge has been to let go of my inner critic. My good friend, writer and artist Kristin LaTour, has been so helpful to me in that respect—if it’s no good, it’s just paper. Throw it away. If it’s on canvas, paint over it. Just have fun. And I’ve also created a group of writer friends who also make visual art —we live all over the country, so we share in a group online where we are sending work, what we are making, how we are feeling about it. It’s helped me keep moving forward, to view myself as an artist, and to recognize that I don’t have to be a good representational illustrator to create something beautiful.
CB: I want to discuss your piece “Order and Chaos.” I love the way you seamlessly blended painting and collage. Can you describe your process when creating it? DV: “Order and Chaos” began with collaging pieces of an old dictionary page regarding Mathematics. I placed them haphazardly onto the paper, almost in defiance of the rules and order that Math requires.
The other layer began with creating painted papers in dark shades (mostly black) with hints of greens and blues. Once the papers were painted, using a brayer to leave the grainy texture, I ripped them into curved shapes before placing them in a cyclical pattern that was more orderly than the text pieces. I like that the piece can work in multiple directions and places the text almost in the “eye” of the circles.
I often paint and rip papers to give the appearance of brush strokes in collage rather than using clean edges. I find it pleasing and more organic. I’m particularly pleased that this piece now has the perfect home with a dear friend who was a Mathematics teacher for years.
Jules spent adolescence entering garments with flexible flourish. Leotard the III tightened the skin of his royal last name. Rooms stepped around him, encompassed his acrobatic torso. If ever a toe haltered the stiletto point, it was his. His performances scattered worldwide, lisped from pursed lips to the downward flare of nostrils from one landowner to the next. He yearned for these collusions with applause. It was enough swell of ego to gust the wind through his unrepentant bowels to last him a lifetime of meteor-showered luminosity of relief.
When the Spring of Jule’s youth undid him, something outside the margins of reality strangely knotted itself into frenzied updrafts when he colluded with Miss Happ–an operatic soprano from Dodge City, Kansas: the windiest city in the US. She diffused air circulation into microbursts of high and low pressurized notes and somehow solidified sound into weather.
Frictional force flanked Miss Happ’s vibrato into a paroxysm of whitecaps and clouds. A chronic surf from the sky regurgitated rain and hail through Miss Happ’s polyphonic chords and Jule’s ‘double cabriole derriere’. Not even the circus traveling ahead of them with Siamese twins from Yakamo, and a 90-year-old looking infant could capture a quarter of the fanaticism of crowds who gathered for Jules and Miss Happ. Somehow through the margins of their 20 flat, skeletal cranio-facial muscles, within and without, the duo manipulated resonances of vocal tracts and leapt through thick, stilted air to arouse downpours to disgrace droughts, when landowners spent most summers weeping over parched crops.
When Jules and Miss Happ parted ways, he took root with climate and radiance. Town after city after town drowned their desire in his exquisite array of unitards. His rainbow-hued onesies diffused the torment of tangled couples unsettled by sexless agitation, over-cleansed cottages, and reassessed orientation. The audiences spun in circles. They rallied their particular gods. They whooped with Jules.
Every town dealt its own bleating fear, and through the flow of water found ecstasy.
And somehow, the wreckage of a swollen river bared itself and raged through every lack.
Meg Tuite’s latest collection is Three By Tuite. She is author of six story collections and five chapbooks. She won the Twin Antlers Poetry award for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging and is included in Best of Small Press 2021 and Wigleaf’s Top 50 stories for 2022, 2023. She teaches writing retreats and online classes hosted by Bending Genres. She is also the fiction editor of Bending Genres and associate editor at Narrative Magazine. http://megtuite.com
Past Lucky Diamond, Montana Lil’s, casinos roofed in Lincoln Log green. Past Lithia Ford and Montana Motor Mall, cars shining back the blue sky knife-edged white. Past Albertson’s and Ace, I turn off at last:
The Bitterroot—I say it as if I can claim it—seems to languish as it rests at ebb, biding time. I mine rocks like gold from the only uniced spot, the eaten away bank. My toddler throws them in the river, shallows it. More: I claw all I can from amid pine roots.
Shamelessly, to please her, feed her needs and have her touch the earth I take it, eat away. What’s that if it’s not what water does, unblamed?
Our going-to takes away. Our staying takes it too:
Ice clutches bed rocks all its rest then with this brutal blue takes off with them, drops them downstream when it reevolves to water.
On the road home we stop for bowls. Disposables pass through my hands to a large black receptacle. Does everything return to earth? To us? I do not like the food but eat it anyway because she does. I’d raze a forest, dam a watershed. I’d cut out the heart of the country and give it to her. Full now, I drive on.
Back past the dealerships with their lots of cars just like ours, glinting like pebbles in the sun. Past the casinos, warm and dim and carpeted, little wombs where you drop a coin in the machine and hope somewhere down the road it gives it back.
Lauren Tess’s poetry appears in or is forthcoming from a number of journals including Poetry Northwest, Nimrod, Salamander, Meridian, and Cimarron Review. She received a 2023 Academy of American Poets College Prize as an MFA candidate at the University of Montana, and a 2021 Open Mouth Poetry Residency in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Lauren currently lives with her family in Missoula.
Ashley Goodwin:I’d like to talk about your poem “The Machine.” I was moved by the bond between a mother and her child. Could you describe how you came to write this poem? Lauren Tess: Thanks so much! It’s lovely to hear that you were moved by the relationship in “The Machine.” When I sat down to write, I wasn’t thinking about circularity, an idea I only came to as I was composing the last stanza. Some things on my mind at the time were the outing itself, which was essentially as it’s described in the poem, and some guilt at pulling rocks out from between the exposed roots of trees just barely clinging to the riverbank. I felt I was accelerating their demise.
To get to Maclay Flat Nature Trail on the Bitterroot River here in Missoula, where we go in this poem, we have to drive down Brooks Street, which is overrun with big-box stores and car dealerships. I’m always trying to love and find value in these eyesores, these artifacts of our greed. Then there’s a jarring contrast between this commercial corridor and where it leads: these trails at the base of the Bitterroot Range. I wanted to make a world in the poem where the two locales aren’t mutually exclusive, and one isn’t the doom of the other. I’m not sure I succeeded, but after the first draft, I saw that some of the stanzas began and ended with the same word, and thus, I discovered a cyclicality in the poem that I hope for in life.
I’m choosing to have the long view, that the desires that brought about Brooks Street are the same desires that can save the world. That the love I have for my daughter, even though it leads me in this poem to selfishly pollute, waste, and claw away at the riverbank, is at heart completely selfless and full of hope, and that we all have this selflessness and hope in us, and it can be found anywhere.
AG: What is your process for composing? LT:When I sit down to write, I usually take time (lately, an hour or more) to quiet my brain and arrive at a kernel from which to begin a poem. The kernel is often a mundane moment or outing. Then I write, by hand, in an unlined notebook. The writing itself takes less time. After that, I type it up, adjusting line breaks where needed to what feels like the right line length. Sometimes during the transfer I will change a couple of words.
AG: On your website it shows you have two forthcoming poems called, “Turnout, Highway 200” and “Hoverfly.” What can you share about these? LT: I like to think these both also touch on my effort to reconcile being an animal that has happened to evolve some different traits from other species, and also being beholden to the built world in almost all aspects of my daily life. “Hoverfly” is about taking a walk as I was preparing to move apartments and observing the insect lift off from a flowerhead. Also in there is Beryl Markham, the first person to fly solo and non-stop west across the Atlantic, and her gliding over the ocean toward Nova Scotia after her plane’s engine died, suspended in uncertainty. (She crash-landed and was okay.)
“Turnout, Highway 200” is about a few minutes spent with my partner and our daughter on one of those scenic pullouts here in Western Montana. We had meant to go for a proper hike in an archetypal wilderness, but this ended up being our outing. We were by the side of the two-lane highway, and on the other side of us was the Blackfoot River and huge mountain peaks. Since I always feel like an interloper, the in-between space of this turnout felt like home for me, for the few minutes we were there.
AG: What is the most important piece of advice you have received as a writer? LT: That’s a tough question! Sometimes I feel like I can make anything into writing advice, for better or worse. My partner Brendan, who’s a writer, has often urged me not to revise too much, and this has been really useful advice. I know a lot of people find extensive revision to be an essential part of writing, but that’s not the case for me. Usually, I find it best for myself and my writing to abandon a poem that isn’t good rather than try to make it good. I write poetry because it’s fun and exciting and teaches me things about myself. In dedication to this fun, excitement, and discovery, I choose to write a new poem rather than try to revise a mediocre old one.
AG: What are your current poetic influences? LT: Lately, I’ve been inspired by Donna Stonecipher and Ed Roberson. They have mastered certain things I’m working on in my writing. As I read their poems, the words travel along my tendons; I feel their writing in my muscles, and I become more dimensional and feel my physical being as part of the physical world, and this is a joy. In The Cosmopolitan, Stonecipher shifts scales and locations so deftly, and writes about cities as if they were intimacy deployed or deferred; in her poems, the built world is as tangibly organic as a heliotrope. And Roberson’s syntax is always like oxygen; I think maybe my breathing actually changes when I read it, as his writing makes me feel euphoric. His poem “Prairie with Road” from MPH is one of my favorites.
AG: What does your writing space look like? LT: My writing space right now is a slightly uncomfortable armchair in one room of our apartment. We call the room the office. The chair is beside a window with a view into a maple tree’s canopy and our apartment parking lot. I do not like to write poems at a desk or table, and I need to have a view to outside. I always write during the day; I don’t think I’ve ever written a good poem at night.
Our heads bobbed up and down like buoys. I flailed my limbs how the swim instructor taught me, desperate to keep myself upright. I’d never swum in the ocean before, finding the texture and flow of the waves unmanageable. All I’d known was the stillness of the chlorine pool at the tennis club, where I’d spent long hours floating in the shallow end while the adults drank.
But this wasn’t Palm Springs. This was Sicily.
For the first time in my life, I was undergoing jet lag, never hungry at mealtimes. I slept in two-to-three-hour intervals on top of the covers, sweating out of every pore, the ceiling fan more decorative than functional. Aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins had made the trip for my great aunt’s bat mitzvah. When she retired from the Red Cross in the 80s, she followed a lover to Sicily who soon abandoned her for someone younger. But it wasn’t in her character to return home defeated, so she stayed. After spending her adult life as a devout atheist, she claimed that God showed himself to her in the ocean one day, not unlike the parting of the sea. She reconnected with her Jewish identity, at first practicing privately. Once she could confidently sing the prayers in both Hebrew and Italian, she joined a local congregation, whose recent formation symbolized the end of Jewish persecution in the area. Soon, between Shabbat and holidays and volunteer projects, her whole schedule was defined by the temple. Her bat mitzvah would be the culmination of her new identity, a permanent marker of her faith. At 75, she was the oldest person in her community to undergo this tradition.
On our third day in Sicily, I felt a stinging underneath my belly button, then a warmth in my groin. I rushed to the café bathroom to find a splotch of maroon in my Gap underwear. I took about 20 squares of toilet paper and folded them into a sturdy rectangle. Thankfully, the pseudo-diaper couldn’t be detected under my flowy skirt, the silhouette hidden under layers of paisley cotton. It wasn’t until later that night when my mom spotted the blood in the trash can that she finally knew what had occurred and offered to teach me how to insert a tampon. I screamed as it went in and she hushed me, fearful we’d wake my grandparents in the next room, who we were sharing our suite with. She ran her fingers through my hair and assured me that I’d be alright, that she didn’t start using tampons until she was in high school. I wasn’t sure if she was telling the truth or just trying to get me to feel better. Pads were going to have to do for now, even in my bathing suit.
The trip was the most time I’d ever spent with my mom’s side of the family. Most of her relatives lived in Palm Springs, where she grew up. Up until then, we’d only seen them for brief visits around the holidays. After my mom graduated from UC Berkeley, where she met my dad, they settled in San Francisco, got married and had me. She was often called the black sheep of her family, an animator amongst lawyers and doctors. Our relatives never made an effort to understand her, which alienated us from them. The car rides to Palm Springs were often plagued with a sense of fear of what my uncle or grandma might say to antagonize us, although they always hid their insults behind the guise of play.
In the days leading up to my great aunt’s bat mitzvah, most of the family would leave the hotel mid-morning to set up camp on the beach, where we’d linger until dinner time. Unlike my cousins, I had no desire to go into the water, so I always brought a book with me. That summer, I was making my way through the Divergent series, often picturing myself as the heroic Tris. There I was, 13, laying out on the hot sand for days on end, watching my second cousin rub almond-scented tanning lotion into her chest, listening to my grandma bicker with my grandpa about putting too much on the Amex. Tris’s life was so much more exciting than mine.
The day before the bat mitzvah began like the rest of them. We settled in the same spot. My mom did her usual twenty-minute morning swim. My cousins all splashed around closer to the shore, throwing wet sand at each other, playing Marco Polo and Colors. Lily, the youngest, got thrown to the ground and cut her shin open on a rock. She sobbed as her mom bent over her with the first aid kit. The rest of the cousins, completely unphased, went on playing without her. I was already well into the second book of the series when my uncle, my mom’s brother, approached my towel.
My uncle was more muscle than fat, a stocky 5’6’’. When he walked, his feet turned out slightly, his legs struggling to bear the weight of his upper body. His hair came out in odd patches, remnants of biotin shampoos and collagen supplements. He looked nothing like the TV ad models. Against the wishes of his third wife, he had an affinity for extreme sports, spending his weekends jumping out of airplanes or participating in endurance swims, in which someone in a little boat next to him would have to pour liquid food into his mouth so that he didn’t starve. He never survived these trips unscathed, often landing himself in the hospital. But it didn’t matter. He had money and health insurance and a family that did nothing more than give him a friendly slap on the wrist every time he almost died.
“Camille,” he said. “Get up.”
I looked up at him in confusion. I hadn’t slept more than an hour the night before. Throughout the two weeks we’d already been in Sicily, he had never addressed me directly.
When I didn’t offer a response, he yanked the book out of my hands.
“Come on,” he said.
My uncle led the way towards the water. My cousins all followed him like puppies, yipping and screaming. My mom was already wading about 100 feet from the shore. Suddenly, I was the only person left on the sand. I had been so enraptured reading that I hadn’t noticed everyone either head towards the water or back to the hotel.
“Don’t be a wimp, Camille!” My uncle yelled back at me. I looked towards my mom. She smiled and waved, clearly having not heard him. Just to get everyone to stop looking at me, I took off my cover-up and walked towards the water.
“Does she even know how to swim?” my uncle’s stepson Devon asked. He was a recent addition to the family. I hated the way he smelled like Axe body spray and armpit all the time, even after showering.
“She knows how to swim,” my mom said as she paddled towards us, then stood when it got too shallow. “Don’t be silly.”
We slowly waded our way in together. The adults were able to walk farther due to a height advantage, so for a little while, us kids swam next to them as they marched on. Once everyone was in deep enough, we formed a loose triangle, my uncle leading as our central point. I tried to stay next to my mom, but she kept swimming in front of me. Ever since we’d gotten to Sicily, she seemed uncharacteristically distracted. Back home, she noticed every small thing, if my dress was missing a button, if I had lied about doing my homework. Now she seemed somewhere else entirely. When we were alone in the hotel suite, she spent most of her time catching up on work. She didn’t seem to notice when I slipped out or when I charged Junior Mints to our room. One time, I even took a small bottle of vodka from the mini bar just to see what she’d do. I made a farce out of trying to open it. She looked over, smiled, and went back to her call with my dad, who couldn’t get enough time off work to join us.
I kept looking behind me. The shore receded. Soon enough, with so much water in my eyes, I couldn’t make out our umbrellas and beach towels from the rest of the landscape.
“Duck!” My uncle yelled. A wave, medium in size, was approaching. My heartbeat quickened and I lost feeling in my arms. At the last possible moment, I plugged my nose and ducked like everyone else. A few seconds passed in total darkness before I miraculously came up on the other side. I managed to use my right arm to tread while I moved my bangs out of my eyes. Everyone suddenly came into view. Devon was cutting his arms through the water like an electric mixer, thwacking Lily in the face, who seemed to have recovered enough from her injury to join us. Then I saw my uncle with his hands on my mom’s shoulders. He had this dumb, sweaty grin on his face. She was laughing but there was something about her expression that suggested she wasn’t fully in on the joke. He pushed her under the water.
“No!” I screamed. “Stop!” I aggressively dog-paddled my way towards them. “Stop it!” I screamed again, but my uncle just laughed. In a quick succession of mental images, I pictured my life without my mom. My dad sobbing over her grave. All my graduations she wouldn’t attend, the dance we wouldn’t share at my wedding. No more Passovers on the porch, no more Halloweens knocking on doors in Seacliff.
My rapid mourning turned rageful.
Feeling as though I was left with no other choice, I socked my uncle in the jaw. He let go of my mom instantly and reached for his cheek. For a fraction of a moment, I felt Tris-like, heroic, like I had done some good for the world. My mom devoted her life to caring for me. For once, I had returned the favor.
My mom bobbed up to the surface, coughing up saltwater. She rubbed her eyes and as everyone came into view, she smiled and laughed through her nose. More water came out.
“I’m fiiiiine!” She said, elongating her vowels. “Come on.” She nodded her head in the direction we were initially heading in.
The cousins all turned their attention to my uncle, who was screaming: “What the fuck!” His face was only six inches or so from mine.
“She was drowning,” I said, my words all chopped up from trying to get my breath back while treading.
“Camille,” my mom said. “It’s fine. We were just playing.”
“But I—you were going to die.”
My mom giggled. All the cousins joined in a choir of laughter.
She paddled closer, wedging herself between me and my uncle. “I’ll never die,” she said.
My uncle was silent at dinner. I caught glimpses of him leaning his left cheek into his palm, trying to cover up the swelling as he ate his spaghetti in massive, messy bites. His new wife did most of the talking, even sang for us after a few glasses of wine. She bragged about her 4-octave range and her time studying opera in Vienna. The younger cousins, who had not yet learned how to feign politeness, plugged their ears and grimaced at her out-of-tune and nearly glass-shattering performance. Devon, her son, rolled his eyes in embarrassment. I tried to discreetly check my flip phone under the table, waiting for a message from my dad. I wanted to tell him about what happened in the water, but I didn’t want to bother him while he was at work.
“Camille,” my grandma hissed at me during the dessert and coffee course. “Put that away.” It was only then that I noticed the soft glow of the screen under the white, lace tablecloth. I reddened through my sunburn and focused on cutting up my tiramisu into perfect triangles.
Back in the suite after dinner, my mom wrapped ice in a washcloth and held it to my right knuckles.
“My little pro-fighter,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything. Too many things I wanted to say floated around in my head, all canceling each other out. I studied the patterns in the carpet and counted how many squares I could see in my visual field.
“Hey,” she said to get my attention. “I’m fine, ok?”
“But you were drowning,” I said, automatically. My voice cracked a bit, warming up after my hours of silence. “You were going to drown.”
“You’ve heard the stories of Tahoe,” she said. “We’ve always been like that, your uncle and I.” The ice was melting. She fumbled around her luggage and pulled out a plastic bag to put the DIY ice pack in. “You don’t have an older brother,” she explained. “This is how he shows his love.”
I had trouble understanding her comparison of love and violence. I had grown up with parents who hugged the bad feeling out of me, rewarded me with treats and presents when I got good grades or moved onto the next level of piano lessons. If violent love was a part of her identity, why had she never treated me that way?
“I think you need to apologize to him,” she said.
“Why?” I asked, tears welling up in my eyes. I was so convinced that I had saved her. Shouldn’t she be thanking me?
“We still have a week left here,” she said. Her phone rang and she reached for it on the coffee table. “Please do this for me.”
She took her call into the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
I did not like the dress my mom bought me for the bat mitzvah but there was nothing else fancy enough in my luggage to replace it. Yellow was my least favorite color, but my great aunt, who had micromanaged her special day into oblivion, had assigned each generation its own hue. The top was a little too tight, so some skin spilled out of the bodice. The skirt was made up of layers of tulle, which made a scratching sound every time I moved.
My mom did my make-up and hair before tending to her own, so I sat there watching an Italian talk show, all done-up at nine in the morning while I waited for her. Although I did not want to apologize to my uncle, I was afraid of upsetting my mom further.
I’m sorry for punching you, I wrote on the hotel stationary, then crossed it out. It seemed too curt. I’m sorry for what I did yesterday. I was scared and I acted before I thought. Please forgive me. This seemed acceptable. I mouthed the words to myself a few times. It felt silly to rehearse something that was supposed to come from the heart, but I knew that I’d freeze the second I had to face him. It was better to go into the situation with some level of preparedness.
The temple was small and fit only our family and a few of my great aunt’s friends from Torah study class. Other congregation members stood in the back out of courtesy. I spent most of the service entranced by the architecture, the stained-glass depicting scenes from the Torah, the intricate fresco on the ceiling. The service was conducted primarily in Hebrew and Italian. After my great aunt led us through all the typical blessings, she gave a lecture, in English, on the significance of her Torah portion. That week in the Book of Numbers, God encouraged Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites. Although the Torah typically condemns violence, according to my aunt, this was a time where vengeance was permitted simply because God said so. As she slowly read through her speech in her best radio reporter voice, I rubbed my sore knuckles. Was my act of violence morally good because I had saved my mom in the process? I couldn’t help but feel a spiritual connection to the portion, as if God had been the force that turned my hand into a fist. I decided then that I wasn’t going to apologize.
The service was followed by a luncheon in the temple’s courtyard. My great aunt rented a hardwood dance floor and a DJ who exclusively played Italian covers of 80s hits. After sneaking a glass of wine, which I chugged out of fear of being caught, I decided that nothing mattered and joined my cousins on the dance floor. I showed them some moves Sammie, my occasional babysitter, had taught me back home, like the “Shopping Cart,” in which you pantomime pushing a cart down an aisle while you check the labels for expiration dates. Soon I had everyone, even my grandparents, doing it.
But not my uncle. He remained at one of the circular tables, slowly sipping a glass of wine and snacking on grapes. When his wife tried to pull him onto the dance floor for the Horah, he vigorously shook her off. I watched her scan the room in embarrassment, hoping nobody had seen their minor altercation. His left cheek had turned a reddish blue. It looked as though there had been attempts to cover up the swelling with his wife’s make-up, but it being summer in Sicily, any concealer had already melted off.
“Oh, come on,” my mom yelled to my uncle as the DJ smoothly transitioned from the Horah to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” “Quit being such a curmudgeon.”
He acted as though he didn’t hear her and clicked through his Blackberry with his right index finger.
“All right, Mr. Grumpy,” my mom said. “Have it your way.”
Suddenly, my uncle backed his chair away from the table and started towards the building. My mom chased after him. After about thirty seconds, when I was sure nobody was watching, I shimmied off the dance floor.
The poorly ventilated temple was now warmer inside than out in the courtyard. I took my kitten heels off and followed the low hum of voices down a few hallways until they got louder. When I sensed my mom and uncle were just on the other side of the wall, I sank down onto the cool tile and quietly folded myself into a cross-legged position.
“I’m not going to tell you how to raise your daughter,” my uncle was saying. They seemed to be standing in the alcove by the bathrooms, which helped carry their voices to me. “But she has no manners. Also, what’s up with her? You know.” He paused which led me to believe he was making some sort of hand gesture.
“She’s just a little under the average height,” my mom whispered. “She’s catching up.”
“And what are you feeding her?” he asked. “Do you just let her have junk whenever she wants? I see her out on the beach, just eating, eating all day. The other kids, they’re out there getting their necessary exercise, you know. It’s good for them!”
“She’s on vacation. Can’t you just cut her some slack? She’s your niece.”
“Has she even gotten her period yet? Aren’t you worried about her?”
“Yes,” my mom said. “She’s gotten her period. She’s just a bit of a late bloomer, that’s all.” I felt my face get hot in embarrassment. The idea of any man knowing what was going on down there felt like the end of the world.
“I was just trying to help yesterday,” he insisted, changing the subject. “I wanted her to feel included.”
“Bullshit,” my mom said under her breath.
“I don’t know why you’re getting so defensive,” he said, raising his voice. “Camille is the one who hit me. And she hasn’t even apologized.”
“You know, I wanted her to apologize,” my mom said. “I felt bad about what happened. She doesn’t have a brother. She doesn’t know what it’s like to grow up with one, all the rough housing and all.”
“For once, can you let me finish?” My mom asked. “You never let me finish.” That seemed to shut him up. “I’m tired of you treating me as a lesser parent because I didn’t stay near mommy and daddy and I didn’t go to law school and I don’t make my kid do a sport every goddamn day. You parent different than I do, and that’s fine. Your kids are fantastic in their own ways. And even if I don’t agree with how you do everything, I’m an adult. I would never say anything bad about my own nieces and nephews.”
There was a ringing in my ears, then total silence. I looked down at my belly, which now appeared to me three sizes bigger than it had been the day before. I’m not sure how much longer they went on fighting after I stopped listening. I sat there until a janitor approached with a mop and told me, in Italian, to move, which I only understood by his hand gestures. I shuffled back towards the party barefoot.
David and the girls left for the grocery store in our rented baby blue Civic a few minutes ago. Based on how far from town we are, I have about an hour to myself.
Every summer since the twins were born, David and I have rented this house in Martha’s Vineyard to get some quiet before heading into Boston to visit his parents. It’s not something we could ever afford on our own, but David’s family friend lets us stay here for practically nothing.
And now the girls are eight, although only yesterday they were crying at all hours of the night or giggling wordlessly with gummy smiles. I’m not ready for them to grow up and be their own people. I don’t know what I’ll do when I’m no longer depended on.
Ever since that trip to Sicily, I haven’t swum in the ocean. It’s not a fear of the water, considering I often attend a water aerobics course at the gym near our house back home. It’s something about the ocean itself, the vastness, never-ending sensation of it. My knuckles get sore just thinking about it, thinking about him.
But recently, it’s been calling to me, like when someone says your name in a dream.
The summer house is on the sand, the water only a short walk from the back door. I quickly gather the few things I’ll need, worried if I wait too long, the desire will pass. A few feet from the water’s edge, I lay out a towel and take my shorts off. I put my phone underneath my sun hat and lay the book I’m reading, Bolaño’s 2666, on the brim so that the hat doesn’t blow away. I’ve been lost in the 900-page epic all summer and picture myself as everyone on the page. I think about the books I read in middle school, about living vicariously through Tris, about wanting to escape the present circumstances, the blood in my underwear, the belly forming. I walk towards the water. It’s warmer than expected. I march at a steady pace towards nothingness, no end in sight, although I know it’s there, miles and miles away, another shore with another beach just like this one. When I can no longer walk, I lean forward and begin swimming. I glide for a few minutes until I can barely make out the house behind me. After surveying my surroundings to make sure there is nobody to interrupt me, I plug my nose and dunk my head under. At first, I study the water, cool blue in the afternoon sun, but when my eyes get tired, I close them and lean into the blackness. My tears seem microscopic against this great body of water. In a few moments I will resurface, my body’s final push towards survival, but for now, I curl my knees into my chest, put my free hand against my cheek, and give in.
Sofia Wolfson is a musician and writer from LA, currently living in Brooklyn. She has toured the US and UK with original music and her fiction has been published in Westwind and Open Ceilings. She currently attends the New School MFA Writing Program. Learn more about Sofia and find her music at her website, Instagram, or Twitter.
Eden Smith: You are not only an author, but a songwriter and musician. How does creating music affect your creative writing? What is the difference in your process between writing song lyrics and writing fiction? Sofia Wolfson: The most important lesson I take from writing songs that I try to infuse into my prose is concision. In a song, you’re only given a few minutes to get the whole story out. When I first turned to short stories in high school (after years of writing songs), I felt so freed by the blank page that I started writing these really lengthy and convoluted sentences. I quickly learned that prose and lyrics had a lot more in common than I originally thought, and soon enough my stories started to sound more like my songs, precise and honest. I always ask myself: how can I get this emotion across as clear as possible? But that doesn’t mean I don’t get to play with language. I find myself lifting many figurative elements from lyric writing (wordplay, alliteration, an obsession with the sound of words) when I’m crafting stories.
Both songs and stories start in the same place for me: I have to be engaging in another activity, whether that’s driving or running errands or walking around a museum, to get some sort of spark of inspiration. I find it extremely difficult to start from nothing and just write, whether that’s composing music or drafting a story. I’ll jot down a lyric or two in the notes app if it’s a song, or a brief summary of a conflict if it’s a short story, and save the note for when I get home. It’s usually pretty clear to me from the beginning if something will become a song or a story, but there have been times when I have explicated a concept in both lyric and prose form. In the novel I’m working on, certain chapters have a song sibling on my forthcoming record; there are memories, scenes, moments I’ve felt compelled to explore in both song and story-form. Almost all of my songs and stories have begun while I’m out and about, which can be frustrating at times if I’m unable to get it all down quickly!
ES: This story explores the transition from child to teenager and the richness of Camille’s Jewish culture, set against the backdrop of the Italian coast. How did you negotiate trying to capture these places and identities? SW: What I love about fiction is that I’m given the opportunity to imagine my way into spaces unknown to me. Through a combination of research and imagination, fiction lets me go beyond my lived experience. Camille undergoes a series of internal struggles not unlike I did at that age, but I wanted to employ some device to separate me from her, so that I could construct her with a bit of distance, which is where the setting of Sicily comes in. I have never been to Italy, despite having taken a few semesters of Italian in college. I chose it because I not only grew up interested in the country (my dad speaks Italian and spent time there in his 20s), but also because I wanted to set the story in a place with a rich and fraught Jewish history, which mirrors Camille’s own struggles with her religious identity. The Italian coast interested me because I wanted there to be tension between the beauty and luxury of the setting and Camille’s own bodily/emotional struggles.
ES: When did you decide that this story would be told from Camille’s point of view? What challenges or constraints did you run into when writing in the voice of someone so young? SW: I find family vacations to be very emotionally rich and formative experiences. I wanted to tell the story through Camille’s POV to explore how an unknown setting can shape a child’s relationships and internal life. There’s something very dissonant about witnessing your parents on vacation, seeing them outside of their daily routines. There were a few moments while drafting the story where I wanted to include a detail or insight that I had to omit simply because it would not make sense for a pre-teen to know, which can frustrate the writing process. But writing in a child’s voice is something I’ve taken much interest in over the years, so I found the experience to be primarily enjoyable. I was a theater major at an arts high school and despite quickly figuring out I was not cut out to be an actor, I relished in all the written work we had to do, all the character studies and scene analyses. I think that primed me for getting into different characters’ psyches. Much of the process of constructing “The Book of Numbers” was tricking myself into being Camille, reliving that awkward age, and letting her tell me what she was thinking.
ES: As I read “The Book of Numbers” I was struck by the theme of the tension between loving and being hurtful. Whether in the interactions between Camille and her uncle, or her uncle and her mother, love and hurtfulness often get mixed up in a very human way. Can you elaborate more on the connection you see between these two themes? SW: I was interested in the idea that hurt can be masked not only by love, but by family obligation. So often I’ve heard people justify hurtful actions by using (or rather, misusing) the language of love, which has always unsettled me. I think my generation is willing to fight back a bit more against the idea that there has to be a certain level of decorum and kindness to people who hurt you simply because of social constructions. The story was my way of exploring what happens when you attempt to put love and pain in their respective boxes (which you point out often get very mixed up in each other), and to assure the younger version of myself that the complexities I was feeling at that age were completely justified, that not everything (especially the bad feelings) has to be housed under the tent of familial love.
ES: Your descriptions of characters are arresting; you have a knack for knowing what details to include to paint a vivid character sketch. For example, the introduction of Camille’s uncle: “Against the wishes of his third wife, he had an affinity for extreme sports, spending his weekends jumping out of airplanes or participating in endurance swims, in which someone in a little boat next to him would have to pour liquid food into his mouth so that he didn’t starve.” This made me laugh, for starters, and it also relays a lot of information about the kind of person he is. Can you tell me a bit about your process for describing characters? SW: Thank you! I think it helps to be an introvert. I get most of my inspiration for characters at parties, or working one of my many public-facing jobs over the years. I love asking questions and getting people talking. I don’t know what it is about my face or body language, but people seem to love to tell me their entire life story (haha). The characters that end up in my stories are usually amalgamations of people I’ve met briefly at parties/work, people I’ve people-watched, and people close to me. No character is exactly based on a person in my inner circle; instead, I find a lot of joy in collaging details together to bring people to life on the page. What I love most about fiction is that I can mold characters to my liking in order to illuminate some sort of theme or answer to a question I’m trying to get at. I’m always trying to find that balance between the character appearing painfully and honestly human, and the character being used as a vessel to house larger meaning for the story.
ES: Can you tell us about any new music or writing projects we should be on the lookout for? SW: My forthcoming record Imposing on a Hometown will be released next year. Three singles from it (“View,” “New Year’s Eve,” and “From up Here”) are already out! I’m currently in revisions for my first novel, which is an ekphrastic exploration of an age-difference relationship between visual artists, set in LA (where I grew up). It’s my dream to see it published one day.
This semester, Superstition Review is highlighting the Editors producing Issue 32. On Dec. 1st, readers will be able to view content that these interns have worked to compile over the course of the semester.
Meet Zoe Soderquist, issue 32 blog editor
SR: What are your plans for after graduation? ZS: I plan on getting my Master’s in Technical Communication at the Polytechnic campus and becoming a technical writer (hopefully at a software company!)
SR: What are some of your hobbies? ZS:I love gaming, embroidery, watching movies, working out, biking, and watching YouTube.
SR: What is your favorite midnight snack? ZS: Anything sweet! I have a massive sweet tooth. Probably a drumstick (the vanilla fudge kind with peanuts) or some popcorn (properly buttered and salted movie theater style).
Meet Carolyn Combs, issue 32 interview editor
SR: What are you currently reading? CC: I’m reading Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson which is part of a longer fantasy series. I’m also reading Therapon by Dan Beachy-Quick and Bruce Bond!
SR: What is one place you’d like to travel to? CC: I really want to travel to Spain, specifically Castilla, I’ve always been fascinated with Don Quijote so I’d love to visit some of the sites from Cervantes’s tales.
SR: What are your plans for after graduation? AS: After graduation, I plan to pursue my passion for the English Literature field through editing, content writing and public relations. Eventually, I plan to return to university to complete my Master’s in English Literature in hopes of becoming an undergraduate professor.
SR: What is your hidden talent? AS: I have spent many years working in different fields with animals and it is a huge passion of mine. Being able to understand animals and their embodied communication is very important to me. I am very grateful for all of the experiences I have been able to accumulate with animals over the years.
SR: What are some of your hobbies? AS: I have so many ways I enjoy spending my time. My hobbies include listening to music, working out, sewing old clothes to give them a new life, going on walks with my dog, and binge watching many different TV shows.
SR: What are your plans for after graduation? RD: Master’s degree in Library Sciences at UA
SR: What are you currently reading? RD: Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter
SR: What is your hidden talent? RD: I cross stitch in 25pt, meaning 25 stitches per inch and 625 stitches per square inch. Miniscule and very detailed, a nightmare to do with stiletto nails, yet I get by and still enjoy it
I walked into a spiderweb in my backyard today, wispy tendrils spanning the landscape, a fine coating like a silk-strand tightrope, the walls, the fence, the door, it must have taken her days to build, the cobweb was gentle as it broke against my face, nature’s lace, the sun hitting it and the webs looked striped— three short, three long, three short again, the spider sat in the middle, a pin in the pincushion, a dart in the center, a cyclops eye to the soul, her visitors didn’t look too pleased, the flies lazily lounging in her creation, ungrateful bastards, I met a man who knew that pleasure, the high of enjoying another’s handiwork, I needed more from him than fading wordlessly into the background, more than an expert at excuses, more than wrapping himself in the threads of my labor and pretending they weren’t the trappings of love, stuck, a bag of marbles that remembered the feeling of skidding down the drive, a dimmed bulb that reminisced on the time it was turned on, I was done with stuck, so like the sinister weaver of my dreams, so like that darkened widow of the past, I plucked this man-child from the strands, pitied him for what he was, let him fall.
Ambrielle Butler is a writer and poet from Texas. Her poetry can be found in publications like Valley Voices, On the Seawall, Plainsongs, Red Ogre Review, and others. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @ajbutlerwriting.
Daniel Gernant: Did you always plan on writing, or did you start out on another career path before you changed passions? Why did you decide to become a writer? Ambrielle Butler: I’ve been writing stories and poems since I was seven, but I didn’t fully commit to writing until after I became a mother. While I originally was pursuing a career in the sciences, having a baby provided me with time to slow down and tap into my creativity as I sat with all these new emotions and experiences. I started writing again as a way of processing motherhood and I haven’t stopped since.
DG: I really enjoyed your poem In Her Web, could you share what inspired you to write this poem? Why did you choose to employ imagery of spiders? AB: We were given an assignment in a workshop to write a stream of consciousness poem. This piece started as an ode to the busy spider I saw creating her web outside my window. Watching her weave such elaborate handiwork, I couldn’t help but marvel at the lengths spiders go to meet their needs. From there, the poem evolved into a reflection on past relationships and the dynamics therein, the concept of being stuck in a mechanism of your own creation and the inevitable undoing of it.
DG: What is your ideal environment for writing? Please tell us more about it. AB: I have my best ideas at night. I’m less inhibited and can sit quietly with my thoughts. I’ve also always loved writing outdoors. Nature is so inspiring, which is probably why it shows up so often in my work, and helps me feel more connected to the world around me.
DG: If you had to choose a poem of yours that is your favorite, which would you say? Why is it the one you like the most? AB: That’s a hard choice. Every poem is personal and reflects a part of myself, and so some poems have more meaning at different times in my life. I’d say at the moment I’m particularly drawn to the vivid memories that Aubade for the Edge of the Cliffs of Moher brings. It was one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been, and perched on the cliffs, you really feel like you’re dangling at the edge of the world. It’s terrifying and exhilarating, your sense of fear and wonder playing tug-of-war the entire time. I also love the playfulness of Lobster Roll. As a self-proclaimed “foodie”, I had a lot of fun flipping the script and poking at the absurdity of the fine dining experience.
DG: How do you find inspiration when you are having trouble? Tell us about your process. AB: It sounds cliché, but I’ve learned that the best way to find inspiration is to simply start writing. I may sit down and feel like I have nothing to say, but if I can fill a blank page (or two) with words, I’ll usually unearth something worthwhile. I also always carry a notebook with me to jot down thoughts or phrases I may want to write about later. I’ve found inspiration from even the most seemingly mundane days.
DG: What are your future plans for writing? Can you tell us about whatever you are working on next? AB: I am continuing to publish poems and short stories in literary magazines, and hope to publish a chapbook in the near future. I also have a mystery novel I’m currently querying to agents and another one in the works. I’m very optimistic about what the future will bring and look forward to growing even more as a writer.
a couple folks mentioned your name in the list of people who made them feel uncomfortable.
they didn’t provide details
another member left the group voluntarily earlier this year, citing concerns with you
I wait. There’s no more.
It’s me. I’m the witch.
What is it about you? An seesaw from reassurance to self-reprimand. Why do you do this? I am angry at myself. I know why people are uncomfortable with me, and I know why I was informed of this in this manner by someone who’d known me for thirteen years. I know why the message had been written using that phrasing, ‘you made them feel uncomfortable’, rather than putting the state of feeling uncomfortable on them, a reflection of what they’d done, or indeed what they had failed to do. He knew my tendency to internalise guilt, to feel dirty. He knew that I was sensitive to shame. He knew, from having known me since the age of twenty-two, that I let shame grip me by the throat and squeeze, even if I am also aware that I have done nothing wrong. But I am not twenty-two anymore, and I know how this works.
In tech, you can wear a WonderWoman outfit to the office and reclaim the word cunt and talk about your period on Twitter but if you ask a hard question and don’t let it go, you will be caught and tried and burnt. From my very first days as a recent college grad, I couldn’t abide by the misogyny and the violence, and I’ve never lived it down.
I’ve written about abuse and objectification so many times that it feels embarrassing and old. It became my thing, a personality I never meant to adopt. However, people would still send me messages when something happened. Did you see this? And often, I had. I was drawn to it like a moth, not because I found it titillating, but because I felt I’d failed. Frustration, every time one of those messages arrived. Anger, every time.
I began my career in the space between marketing and technology in the autumn of 2006 having recently graduated from Washington State University. Not six months had passed since I’d downed a pint of Mac & Jacks at the Coug in Pullman, removed my graduation robes and driven out of town, and there I was: a woman in tech. During my time at college, I had been a member of the WSU women’s swim team, an endeavour that both brought me to the United States and paid for my education. The majority of the people I knew were tough, able women, including my two coaches. I knew very little about feminism because for twenty-two years, my life had roughly fulfilled the goals of the movement and not included many poor experiences on account of my gender. Perhaps an earlier awakening would have been useful. I entered the professional world at a time when women were supposedly liberated from the constraints of decades past; a lie of appeasement to satisfy contemporary demands. As industries, marketing, advertising and technology were extremely male-dominated, and both my femaleness and the burgeoning mid-2000s culture meant that I was noticeable in a way I had never experienced before.
During its peak, the first decade of the twenty-first century held itself up as a period of victory for women. While still under-represented in many professional spaces, it was at least becoming slightly less acceptable to question why we were there at all. We were allowed to exist, and exist outside the narrow tropes of decades past. At home, my television was perpetually tuned to MTV and VH1’s reality offerings, where streaky-haired girls fought with each other for praise, validation and fame. Their personalities and eventual downfalls were a staple of the cultural diet whose food pyramid layered over-sexed female naivety and conflict as its foundation, but granted these female characters stardom nonetheless. It had been ten years since the Spice Girls’ rise to “power.” We had been liberated from the trials of our mothers. What was left to achieve?
In the public-facing industry, my young, female contemporaries were placed in a similar position as the women on the TV in my apartment: we were allowed to be there, but there were trades to be made in return. In the throes of Facebook’s roll-out to the public, countless men who only knew me as a new hire at my company added me as a “friend.” Until that point, Facebook had been a platform used only at universities, and I had never met any of the people who now sent me requests and made comments, some more suggestive than others. Many had unsolicited advice, professional or otherwise: a man I didn’t know saw a joke I had posted on a colleague’s Facebook wall and admonished me for it, telling me in the middle of a long-winded diatribe he was going to “slap my wrist.” There it was: the first mention of physicality. I couldn’t smell it yet, but a representation of the stench that passed for networking in the days of early-2000s tech started to emerge. Greasy and confident, patronising and familiar. Laced with violence.
In reality television, happy people make terrible entertainment. Drama sells, and reality TV culture prized the exploitation of other people’s pain above all else. Work ethic, professional output, decency: none of this mattered. Conflict was currency. It still is, of course, but it is clear now that the trend of real-life television drama found a home for regular people on social media. Many of the interactions I had with members of the digital marketing community were not only inappropriately familiar and flirtatious, but fit neatly with the zeitgeist of the time, salivating for the salacious.
To my discredit, I was happy to play the part cast for me: the party girl, the snarky girl, the twenty-two year old girl with the foreign accent who was married. If I had been older, I might have wondered why my marital status mattered to men twice my age who only knew me through blogs and social media. I might have asked why a personality that I did not naturally possess had been cut out for me by the same people, and why I was happy to adopt it as my own. Instead, I let it wash over me. I had a good job, which was becoming less of a given and more of a scarcity as the 2008 economic crisis loomed.
The closest I’ve ever come to self-loathing was after two years of this. I realised with a growing dawn of self-aware horror that I had become someone I did not recognise or like. I had become a pathetic reality TV show character, providing bites of scandal whilst bickering with similarly typecast characters. We were the streaky-haired girls on the television, only we were playing our roles via message boards, blog comments, and Twitter. We were entertainment, sugar and sherbert and fondant icing, a distraction while the grown-ups, almost all of them men, did the real work.
Young women in tech were identified for our social media extroversion and pitted against each other for sport. I wrote off men who sent lewd messages like wanting to see a “cat fight” between another woman and me as losers and perverts, but the objectification still wore me down. Those men were not isolated in their thinking or reasons for approaching us. They operated in the same cultural reality as we did, one that promised female entertainment, conflict, suffering and eventual misery. During the same year as Britney Spears shaved her head and attacked a paparazzo with an umbrella, many women were looked upon to provide tiny versions of Spears’ story to assembled audiences: be hot, be naive, be the centre of attention, make a spectacle of yourselves. I harbour shame for how easily I fell for this exploitative version of fame: on a fairly clear intellectual level, I knew that I had been a more mature version of myself eighteen months earlier as I had competed in my last national championships, completed my final university papers, flat-hunted in Seattle and begun my job search. I had regressed behaviourally, and I knew it. Totally at the mercy of serotonin and with no understanding or tolerance of its effects, this was also the only professional reality many of us had known. In general, we were well-raised, intelligent young women, but we were also coaxed and encouraged by a pit of cheering onlookers who loved the show and, while telling us off, encouraged us to keep it up. Britney and the umbrella, the razor. You crazy bitch! Do it again.
All the same, I was shielded from this breaking all my boundaries and invading my life. I was married, and my husband did not work in technology. He didn’t engage with social media at all. When my marriage ended four weeks before my twenty-fifth birthday, this turn of events piqued the attention of men in my industry who maintained an interest in the personal lives of the industry’s young women.
It was January in Seattle and I was sitting in the tired light of our Capitol Hill office. Going home had become even less appealing than anxiously twirling on my swivel chair until bedtime. A man I only knew from our blog messaged me, prying for information about my break-up. He wrote screeds, instructing me on what I should and shouldn’t do, demanding insight into my life. It was three years later, in a pub underneath my London flat, that I learned this individual was apparently responsible for curating and distributing a list of women in the industry that he and his friends wanted to “photograph naked.” A campaign for revenge porn before it had a name, covert, upskirt, violent. I had been off-limits when I belonged to another man. But in the midst of a break-up! Now we have a mark on our hands. Smudged stamps not yet dry on my divorce papers at the courthouse down the hill, I had been added as a target. Inquiries were being made. Plans were drawn up. He visited London for a conference shortly after I moved there a month later, and he requested a private meeting with me. I didn’t reply. A twenty-five year old’s brain is completing its final stages of maturation, and for me, this came with an alarm system common to most adult women. When it came to this man, the alarm had gone off. I made sure not to meet with him, years before I knew what he really wanted. Later, I was told by a friend that she had lunch with him that week, frozen in terror as he stroked her thigh under the table. Only three years earlier, I couldn’t have told you much about feminism but by the time I was twenty-five and living alone in London, I fucking knew.
But we––mid-twenties women coming to terms with the fact that our empowerment and exaltation had actually been exploitation and objectification––we were never going to be enough. We had enough agency to back out of situations that became dire; we reported our assaults, even as I came to understand that those reports fell on deaf ears no matter the job description of the woman making the allegation. We were presented in the fashion of entertainers but we were not actually being paid for our performances. The industry hungered for more flesh and fewer repercussions. The first time I went to a conference and was presented with a group of hired models as entertainment, we stared at each other with the deadened fatigue of incompatible hardware, software programmed in different languages, a diesel engine looking at a petrol pump. We had no use for each other: they had not been hired to entertain me, and I did not wish to be entertained by them. They perched awkwardly beside male conference attendees, bony relics of the equally toxic nineties/early-2000s era when women were not only meant to be pleasingly dramatic, but excruciatingly thin. I started asking, why are they here? and learned with speed about the existence of weaponised sex positivity.
Do you hate them because they’re beautiful? It was an absolution from criticism, casting me as sex-negative and jealous. It was very effective. Yet again, women were pitted against each other: models from an agency, hired to populate an tech event, and the rest of us. Hate each other, please! Who’d be interested in a cat fight between Jane and Rebecca? asked a man on Twitter who’d also messaged me repeatedly about the end of my marriage. We need to make this happen! another replied. Let’s get it on! They suggested mud wrestling. “Who isn’t interested in that? Does it really matter who wins?” asked a man who, years later, would sheepishly visit my office in London and try to look me in the eye.
There it was again: violence. A request for gendered violence, and one on which they were publicly getting off. A reply, five minutes after the cat-fight request: “I want $5K on Rebecca.” Someone I knew through work was putting money on the table to see me beaten up.
It wasn’t just a joke. It’s not just banter. It’s a scale, a slope, a continuum. Invoking us in relation to sex and violence, over and over again, had consequences. When a group is objectified, disrespected and joked about for years, eventually that treatment becomes normalised and expected; the social blow of real violence is softened by the effect of continuous rhetoric. When a woman is actually beaten, raped or worse, it is just the far end of the continuum from a wager, placed on Twitter, to see us punched at the hands of our colleagues.
That smell, the high-whine of tension and extreme discomfort. It frustrated me to my soul. I knew that if I complained too much, I would be abandoned. I’d no longer be invited to speak at conferences, I would no longer be asked to contribute to articles or studies. Referrals would stop coming the way of my agency. And if people avoided my employer because of me, my job might be in jeopardy. I berated myself: why can’t you just go with the flow? Why can’t you just ignore the semi-naked models, the obscene requests, the hands on your skin? Why do you do this to yourself? Women around me ignored them and were rewarded for their efforts. Why couldn’t I? People noticed my discomfort. Men grew defensive before I’d said anything. One accosted me in a corridor to complain about my feminist leanings, towering over me, shouting. Two years after moving to London, I’d lost my patience.
I wrote a blog post that tore the collision of objectification and harassment apart and I left it in my WordPress drafts for a year. My palms broke out in sweat whenever I thought about the post and the Publish button. I knew that publishing it would be a moment of enormous change. I would lose professional opportunities. I would lose friends. I would lose business. During 2011, I came close to posting it a number of times.
Backed into a bar after an industry event with a hand slithering down my back, finding my low-rise jeans and beginning to rub, I pushed him away and ran, and I thought of that post. Photographs emerged from a conference that hired “nine former Playmates” as entertainment. I thought of that post. I travelled: seminars, networking events, training days. People hugged me too tight, squeezed what they shouldn’t, asked for too much. My female colleagues and I traded intelligence: who was safe, who was not, who had been assaulted and by whom. I thought of the post, sitting in drafts. At a conference in Poland, I was repeatedly taunted by two male speakers about the arrival of yet another hoard of hired models as soon as the event was over and the drinks began. A Twitter discussion about “booth babes” took place a year to the day after I’d written my article, and I was overcome. I had to let it out if I were ever to shake the aching frustration about what I thought I wasn’t allowed to say. At 9:42pm on a Wednesday evening in late December, I clicked the Publish button I’d feared for a year, tweeted the link and turned off my laptop. I turned off my phone. I went to bed.
By the next morning, I had comments to wade through from everyone from my parents to the then-head of SEO at Google. I had indignant, mean, mocking comments to field from men whom I’d upset. It was a few days before Christmas, and in the rush to leave for the holiday I only read an email from my line manager three days after he had sent it. I was, he said, treading on dangerous ground. Some of the men whose behaviour I had criticised were important. These were people we really couldn’t afford to piss off, or so the legend told. You could, he reasoned, make your point without identifying the people who’d perpetuated the culture, who’d shouted the insults, who’d emailed you the requests, who’d grabbed your flesh, who’d left you powerless and afraid. In my second act of defiance, I decided to simply not reply to his message. At that point, firing me for what I had written would have placed him on more dangerous ground than the shaky copse on which I stood. He never mentioned the piece to me again, but I never trusted him again, either.
If I were to spell out the incidents that followed, all the attempts to take back the scrap of power I’d scavenged, it would deteriorate into a laundry list of humiliation that wasn’t dissimilar to the treatment I’d had in years past, but at least included less groping. All the same, I noticed that most of the industry started to clean up its act. At the time, digital marketing was a much smaller community than it is today and it was clear that an industry whose origins were piecemeal and fairly wild-west, was growing up. I took pride in having played a part in this maturation, even though it had earned me all the stigma I’d feared.
The stigma didn’t disappear, but it morphed, and it was rendered somewhat toothless by the mid-2010s and the #metoo movement. Weinstein’s shaming, arrest and imprisonment took the gusto out of every old boys’ club. Quietly, the people who’d bragged about their terrible behaviour not five years earlier, cleaned up their public perceptions. They began to deny they had ever acted in the way they’d previously loudly advertised. I was branded again, but this time as a liar rather than a harpy. The narrative changed from “what we’re doing is fine!” to “we never did that!”
When they tell you the word “gaslighting” has been misused out of any meaningful existence, remember that this is what it originally meant: the things you remember aren’t real. The things you saw weren’t there. The words in your email or chat records, or even the tweets you can still look up? It’s you, you’re the liar. You’re the witch. By 2019, a full gaslighting campaign had come and gone to obfuscate the past. My former boss, not the one who’d warned me via email but the man who’d employed me straight out of college in Seattle, had tried to start an initiative to curtail the inclusion of abusive people at tech events but had abandoned the project due to legal concerns. He was billed to headline an event in the Netherlands. The event was run by a man who’d mocked me about feminism, and who’d sent a number of questionable tweets to both me and other young women. My boss’s wife, a feminist author, also spoke at the event, delivering a presentation on navigating online gendered harassment.
As the week began, historical images and video content of the event’s host and a number of other largely reinvented men flooded the conference hashtag. Not many years earlier, the host had appeared rather proud of the almost-exclusively male industry parties he attended with “playmates”, and video evidence of this had been easy to find, and to share. While it had been lauded on social media as impressive and fun in the time period between Spears’ torment and Weinstein’s downfall, it hit the ground like a sack of wet sick in 2019. The change I had tried to start almost a decade earlier had materialised. It was wild to watch. I was transfixed by the spectacle of an industry forest fire where my little matchstick had once been. The host of the conference publicly apologised for his poor behaviour in years past, remaining the only person from that era to have done so. Well-known as an activist whose primary bugbears were now receiving their proper cancellation, I was naturally blamed for a lot of this publicity and embarrassment. If I had only kept my mouth shut in 2011, and 2012 and 2013 and onwards, they could have had their champagne and drunk it too. The hypocrisy of quietly putting debauchery to bed and capitalising off feminism instead could have gone unnoticed.
A couple of months later, a different conference circuit stalwart climbed on stage at one of Europe’s leading marketing events and presented a slide that showed the silhouette of a man slapping a woman, the woman reeling backwards. I had fallen foul of this particular speaker in the past because I found his much-touted work with the far-right wing tabloid and network TV press reprehensible. Noting negative reactions to his violent image, he took to Twitter after the talk to claim that the slide had been included solely as “bait” for certain people. Including, presumably, me.
There it was again. A slap. A fight. Violent imagery. He was admonished, but at the same time, his “frustration” with people like me was offered by sympathisers as a point of note. This was more cryptic than in years past; in 2007, someone would just have said that I’d asked for it. He wrote an apology post on Medium, deleting both the post and all his apology tweets at some point after they had received numerous shares and much praise. In the midst of this, I was called “Queen of the trolls” in a large industry Facebook group by a regular keynote who had once taken me aside on the Brighton pier to tell me I was “getting a bad reputation as a feminist.” The picture being painted was that my concerns about misogyny and violence were nothing but trolling. Again, the narrative shifts: from prude to liar to subhuman. Weeks later, I received a message from my first boss about the email network he maintains between industry professionals. It arrived at midnight.
a couple folks mentioned your name
concerns with you
you’re the witch
It starts with a grope, a slur, the acceptance that “she”, whoever she is, doesn’t mind or doesn’t matter or was asking for it. It makes hurting us that little bit more okay. The people whose imagery slapped wrists and faces, or others who asked for sex, others still who leant over me screaming, whose hands slid over my body, who stroked thighs, typed threats: their credibility remains. When millions of women flooded social media in 2021 to say, stop placating and protecting bad men, people looked on in shock, unwilling to recall those emails they received or conversations they had in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2017, with you, trusting them with your story. It’s the first email every time, slate clean. No history, only you: a problem to be solved. A woman who doesn’t know her place. Again.
Jane Copland’s work has been published in Witness Magazine, The Independent, Newsroom New Zealand, Identity Theory, Litro, JMWW, Hayden’s Ferry Review, trampset and other publications. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Her stories have also been finalists in the Brick Lane Bookshop Prize, the Fresher Prize, New Millennium Writing, and the Nobow Press short story competition. She is from New Zealand and lives in Oxford, England.
Bryan Lurito: In your piece “The Eighth Rule of Fight Club,” I was particularly interested in the line “I’ve written about abuse and objectification so many times that it feels embarrassing and old. It became my thing, a personality I never meant to adopt.” Could you expound upon your personal experiences with this line a bit more? If you could go back in time, would you change anything so as to not obtain this affiliation, or do you feel what you write is important enough that you would still do it all again? How come? Jane Copland: I think it’s a fact that my life and career in technology would have been easier had I never said anything about these issues. That said, if I were given the chance to choose, I would do it again. I started talking about these issues in around 2009, so while I wasn’t the first person to bring them up, this came a few years before #metoo became a phenomenon. By that point, my activism and the work of several others had already made a difference, albeit a small one when compared with the progress made later in the 2010s. That head start was important. Almost fifteen years later, it’s also helpful to be able to look back on the evolution of the movement. In some cases, progress has been made. In others, as I speak about in the essay, people have tried to obfuscate the origins and realities of these problems. My early adoption of this cause helps keep those attempts in check, and provides context for when something damaging or regressive happens. I wouldn’t change this, because I know this work had a positive impact on what was a really grim environment fifteen or twenty years ago.
BL: You have found yourself successful with quite a few literary magazines and short story competitions. What advice would you give to people wanting to break into the writing industry? How did things change as you gained experience within the industry? JC: As repetitive as this may sound, practice practice practice. Write and read as often as possible. My most recent publication was in a short story competition’s anthology (the Brick Lane Bookshop prize here in London). I wrote the first draft of the eventual published piece four years ago. After the book launch this November, I found the first draft in my files and re-read it. It’s not nearly as strong a piece as the final copy; the difference is incredible! It was long-listed (but not published) once in a 2019 competition, but it failed to go any further. I edited it many times over the years, and even filed it away as a publication failure for quite a while, only deciding to try submitting it again this year. Four extra years of practice and experience gave that piece what it needed to earn publication.
It’s also true that for every good story, I’ve written thousands of extra words for the piece that end up getting cut. Those words aren’t wasted. All that “extra” writing solidifies the story in my mind: I know the entire universe inside out by the time the story is complete, and that knowledge comes across in consistency and confidence with place, characterisation, tone and storyline. I used to worry when a story I intended to be (let’s say) 6,000 words was making its way up to 8,000 or more. Now I don’t; I know this is a good thing, so I’d encourage young writers not to worry about this. Write 15,000 words! Maybe it’s actually a novel in waiting! Maybe you’ll find a brilliant 5,000 word piece in there. Just keep writing.
BL: What gives you inspiration when beginning a new story? How much of your work is translated directly from personal lived experience? JC: Some pieces I’ve had published are very thinly-veiled creative nonfiction! In fact, most of my early published flash fiction pieces were like this: translations of personal experience. Only after a while, you run out of good stories from your past to mine. Most of what I write is at least sparked by something I’ve seen or experienced, although it’s normally just a fleeting inspiration. For example, my work-in-progress is about a professional rugby player who finds himself set upon by a tabloid journalist in a lounge at Singapore airport, after the player has suffered a catastrophic knee injury in an international match. I got the idea while sitting in a lounge at Singapore airport with a badly injured knee (suffered running down hospital stairs in New Zealand, not while playing rugby against England!). The sense of place and conflict was so strong, I knew I had to use it. Similarly, my story “The Angel, Islington” was published in Witness Magazine earlier this year. It is about a teenage lifeguard at a central-London health club who is bullied by one of the club’s managers. However, due to circumstances entirely of the manager’s making, the lifeguard ends up saving the manager’s life. This is almost pure fiction. However, I started writing about the fictitious bully manager after watching a woman let her children behave badly at a swimming pool, and claim “my mother works here!” as her defence. They’re small sparks of inspiration, but they can grow into entire worlds.
BL: You repeatedly use the word “witch” to describe yourself throughout the piece. Why did you choose this title specifically? I have noticed there has been a cultural movement in recent times reclaiming the idea of a witch as something positive, however the use of the word within the text appears to be more negative in nature. How did you decide to use the title of witch to depict a form of negative othering? JC: The choice of the word “witch” as a negative wasn’t a literary decision. It was a word that popped into my mind when I received the message from my old boss, telling me I had been named as someone who made others uncomfortable in his email group. “Burn the witch” came to mind due to how I was clearly being blamed for post-#metoo negative publicity. I had done absolutely nothing to make anybody uncomfortable besides tell the truth about women’s treatment in tech. Those truths were the actual source of the discomfort, and I was being lined up as the scapegoat for the ensuing embarrassment. However, just as you say, I found myself internally reclaiming the title over time. A different person called me “the queen of the trolls” during the same period, which I didn’t hesitate to ironically claim as my own (aside from to say that if we’re doing the Tolkien universe, I’m clearly an elf, and my Legolas costume is flawless).
BL: I enjoyed your first-person style, which read like a dialogue or chain of thought rather than a traditional narrative. What made you decide to write in this unique format? How did the writing process differ when compared to writing a piece with a more traditional structure? JC: This was such a personal story to me, and I think the style reflects that. I’m not sure I would be able to write this any other way. Before writing this piece, I had only ever told this story verbally or via emails to friends, which clearly had a huge influence on how I was able to tell it in an essay. It’s a complicated piece in that regard, because it combines memoir with cultural criticism and facts of the period: my personal story is offset against the early 2000s in entertainment, technology at large, and the smaller industry of digital marketing. It’s also a style I like reading.
BL: Your piece is particularly empowering towards female readers while at the same time highlighting some of the issues they may face in the world. What advice would you give to young women transitioning into the workforce? JC: The workforce, including in tech, is a much friendlier place for women than it was twenty years ago. That said, some of these problems remain and, in fact, are just better hidden than they were before. This may sound cynical, but I don’t mean it that way. I think this is just good knowledge; a “trust but verify” prudence when it comes to professional interactions and relationships. People will tell you that they are on your side: that they would never again work with or support someone who abused you, or engaged in gross behaviour. But some people will let you down. I am certainly not saying not to make friends through work: I’ve made so many, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have met so many wonderful folks through work over the years. But especially with people who are purely professional acquaintances, it’s wise to have healthy reservations and internal boundaries. I did not do this. I believed shallow words from people who were not actually good friends, and allowed myself to feel let down by the things they went on to do. This is unhealthy on my part. Tech can easily foster this sort of failing, because it makes us feel very closely connected to people who are, in fact, nearly strangers. It is also a field that can attract people who are very good at leveraging this false sense of community for personal gain. Be mindful of that, and balance the creation of true friendships and professional networks with your own physical and emotional protection.