Equatorial: Seeking Undergraduate Poetry

Equatorial: Seeking Undergraduate Poetry

The cover of "Equatorial" Issue One. It shows a desert landscape; there is a road to the left and a rainbow to the right.
Cover Image for Equatorial Issue One

Equatorial is a literary magazine dedicated to publishing talented undergraduate poets. Its founding editor, Benjamin Faro, is pursuing his MFA in Poetry at Queens University of Charlotte.

Issue One of Equatorial featured five outstanding students and focused on themes of exploration. Submissions for Issue Two of Equatorial will be open until November 30, 2022. Read Equatorial‘s guidelines and submit here!

Submissions Open: Dear Mother Earth

Narrative Storytelling Initiative Submissions: Dear Mother Earth

The Narrative Storytelling Initiative‘s goal is to enhance access and public engagement with narrators and narratives. They are currently looking for messages written to Mother Earth in the future, with a maximum of 100 words. These messages will be included in a special exhibition piece at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory during the last two weeks of October.

Learn more and submit your message here!

A photo of Alice Kaltman

Alice Kaltman’s Almost Deadly, Almost Good


Alice Kaltman’s short story collection Almost Deadly, Almost Good will be released this November, published by the Word West Press. Kaltman’s book features fourteen interlinked short stories: the first embody the seven deadly sins, the last the seven heavenly virtues. With rich, reoccurring characters and compelling plots, Kaltman creates a collection that’s impossible to put down.

Kaltman’s opening story “Sunset Lounge (Lust)” follows a woman pining after her daughter’s attractive older boyfriend. In an unexpected but riveting twist, we discover tantalizing details about the boyfriend in “A Fancy Job (Gluttony),” and the ultimate conclusion comes in “Knickers in a Twist (Charity).” Just as the stories are linked, Almost Deadly, Almost Good links good and bad, with a special attention to gender and class.

Story after brilliantly written story, we’re shown our own fears, our own foibles, our own forbidden desires, and tenderest heartaches. These are stories of human beings under pressure, at their most “changeable” moments, and we readers can’t look away. Nor do we want to. With candor, wisdom, and humor, almost deadly, almost good  reminds us to be good to ourselves and to each other for we are all at once, beautiful and aching and ridiculous.

Kathy Fish, Author of Wildlife: Collected Works from 2003-2018

Alice Kaltman is the author of Staggerwing, Dawg Towne, Wavehouse, and The Tantalizing Tale of Grace Minnaugh. To learn more about Kaltman, visit her website.

To preorder Almost Deadly, Almost Good, go here.


We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Kaltman’s collection. This interview was conducted via email by our Blog Editor, Brennie Shoup.

Brennie Shoup: Could you discuss your inspirations for Almost Deadly, Almost Good?

Alice Kaltman: The original idea for a linked collection occurred to me after I wrote the first story in the book, Sunset Lounge. It was so clearly a story about LUST that it got me thinking how fun it would be to create a chapbook based on the Seven Deadly Sins. I already had a few stories and characters that fit the bill for other Sins: Greedy Senator Levinson from Into the Woods, poor languorous Cecil from Cecil’s New Friends, envious Greta from Come On Over to My Place. Once I’d finished the other sinful stories, I fiddled with content to link them. Characters appear deeply in the plots of other stories, or sometimes they just pass by. So much fun!

BS: This collection is full of humor. Could you discuss this humor and how you balanced it with more serious themes?

AK: I’ve always felt that pathos is more tolerable if it can be softened with humor. That’s not always the case, and there are writers out there who do gut-punching stuff that I love, that make me weep. Sometimes tragedy needs to stand on its own broken, bloody legs. But in my own writing, I veer towards the humorous. It makes it feel more human and authentic to my vision of people and the crazy misguided things they do. I’ve been a psychotherapist for over 30 years. If you can’t laugh, you’ll sink. Need I say more? 

BS: Despite its title and theme, most of the stories in this collection don’t appear to be explicitly religious. What made you choose the motif of the seven deadly sins and seven heavenly virtues? 

AK: I can’t recall who it was, but I mentioned this project to someone along the way and they said, “Hey, why don’t you do the Heavenly Virtues also?” I had no idea what the Seven Heavenly Virtues were. I’m an agnostic Jew, who veers towards the areligious. And Jews don’t really ‘do’ sins and virtues. But I looked the Virtues up and …goldmine. I fiddled with new content and old content, pulled some sections from my novel Dawg Towne, added some new stories and revisited old ones. It was super fun to change POVs, add links that weren’t there before, change timelines, etc. Plagiarizing one’s own work is one of a writer’s deepest pleasures. Or at least one of mine.

A photo of Su Cho.

Su Cho’s The Symmetry of Fish


Congratulations to Su Cho for her debut poetry collection The Symmetry of Fish, published by Penguin Books. Winner of the National Poetry Series, Cho’s collection explores immigration, family, and language. At the heart of the collection is a coming-of-age narrative, and Cho offers insights about how language changes and condenses over generations, not diluted but distilled.

Each year, the National Poetry Series chooses five poetry manuscripts to publish, with the goal of increasing the number of poetry collections published and available. Paige Lewis, author of Space Struck, chose Su Cho’s manuscript for publication.

In her debut collection, The Symmetry of Fish, Su Cho presents us with a speaker who attempts to separate seemingly unlike things: the religious and flippant, the fishbone from the flesh, herself from her memories. In one poem Cho writes of a desire ‘to isolate these moments / pipette them into test tubes / whirl them in a centrifuge.’ Lucky for us, this turns out to be an impossible endeavor. Instead, we are graced with a glorious combination of the incompatible…

Paige lewis, author of Space Struck

Su Cho’s essay “Cleaving Translation” won the 2019 Wabash Prize in Nonfiction. She was a finalist for the 2019 Black Warrior Review Nonfiction Contest and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. To learn more about her, visit her website.

This poetry is quite marvelous. All hits no skips. I was incredibly moved by these poems about family and immigration and the relationship we have to languages. I particularly loved the poem about translating for parents. I look forward to more from Su Cho.

Roxane gay, author of Hunger

The Symmetry of Fish will be available October 11, 2022. To preorder the collection, go here.

A photo of Jonathan Franzen.

Tomorrow Talks with Jonathon Franzen: Crossroads


Join ASU’s TomorrowTalks with Jonathan Franzen Wednesday, October 5th at 6pm AZ time. TomorrowTalks is a student-engagement initiative meant to put students in conversation with authors who explain how they use their writing to address society’s most pressing issues. TomorrowTalks is led led by the Division of Humanities at ASU and hosted by ASU’s Department of English in partnership with Macmillan Publishers.

This event takes place over Zoom and is free, although registration is required. Franzen will be discussing his book Crossroads, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His book is set in December of 1971, and it examines a Midwestern family in the midst of a moral crisis. With careful attention to each of the family members, he interweaves their perspectives into a tale of suspense and complexity.

Thank God for Jonathan Franzen . . . With its dazzling style and tireless attention to the machinations of a single family, Crossroads is distinctly Franzen-esque, but it represents a marked evolution . . . It’s an electrifying examination of the irreducible complexities of an ethical life. With his ever-parsing style and his relentless calculation of the fractals of consciousness, Franzen makes a good claim to being the 21st century’s Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Jonathan Franzen has written six novels. He has won a variety of awards: the National Book Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Award, the Heartland Prize, and others. Visit his website to read more about him.

To learn more about TomorrowTalks and register for the event, go here.

Storytelling in a Climate Crisis

Storytelling in a Climate Crisis

Storytelling in a Climate Crisis poster.
Storytelling in a Climate Crisis

On September 14 at 6pm, Lauren Kuby will be at the Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix to exchange poetry and stories about the environment and environmental crisis. Please note that performer signups are limited, and these signups close September 7.

The Changing Hands Bookstore is unique to Arizona and offers new and used books. They often host author events.

Lauren Kuby is a sustainability scientist at Arizona State University and a recognized national champion for climate action and clean energy.

Register here to join!

SR Staff Book Picks

SR Staff Book Picks


We’re back with another installment of SR’s book picks. Here are some of the books the SR staff is reading right now along with some of our all-time favorites. Happy reading everyone!

What we’re reading right now:

Our trainee Guillerly is reading Cthulhu Mythos Tales by H.P. Lovecraft. She likes “The in-depth descriptions of the environment. She says “it’s very immersive.”

Teri, our Content Coordinator, is reading Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin because “The exclusive use of dialogue to tell a mind-bending and eerie story is unique and striking.”

For her fiction writing class, Hannah, one of our Fiction editors, is reading The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera. “I like that Kundera looks at the novel as something profound and an exploration of the self,” says Coleman.

Bailey, our trainee, is reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins. She says, “I like the Hunger Games series and was excited to see the prequel come out. It’s been on my list to read for a while.”

What we’re reading next:

Daniel, a Fiction Editor, is going to read The Treasury of the Fantastic edited by David Sander & Jacob Weisman. He says that he’s “recently become interested in reading fantasy stories that were published before Tolkien’s time. This anthology brings together fantasy stories written by the greatest writers in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Our Advertising Coordinator Au’jae says that she is, “reading The Source of Self Regard by Toni Morrison next because she is one of my favorite authors, and as someone who struggles to be immersed by nonfiction, this book of essays should be immensely interested given Morrison wrote it.”

Khanh, our Editor-In-Chief, says, “I’ve been reading non-fiction for a while now, so I’d like to return to fiction with On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.”

Taylor, the Blog Editor, will be reading The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer by Sandra Scofield. “I’m excited to read this to gain better insight on how to become a better writer and how to write a great scene,” she says.

What we recommend:

Ashley, our Art Editor would recommend The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. “I just finished this book and it changed my perspective on life. It also calmed my anxiety and stress more than I thought it would,” she says.

Interview Editor Veronica recommends Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. “It was an incredibly touching, lyrical memoir, and I cried in every single chapter. It explores Zauner’s relationship with herself, her mother, and her experience as an Asian American woman. The complexities of that exploration were something that I definitely resonated with, and I think even those who don’t identify as Asian American would still love this stunning memoir.”

Anna, a trainee, says her favorites are The Host by Stephine Meyers “because it was my first starter sci-fi type book” or the Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull “for people who like more realistic fantasy.”

Kate, a Social Media Coordinator, “recommend[s] Eckert Tolle’s novel The Power of Now. It offers valuable tips on how to practice mindfulness, which has been helpful given my busy schedule!


We hope that you enjoyed our book choices and gain inspiration for what to read next. Tell us what you’re reading in the comments below!

Reviewing and Interviewing with Kate Cumiskey

Reviewing and Interviewing with Kate Cumiskey


Kate Cumiskey lives with her partner Mikel in coastal central Florida. She has a social justice novel, Ana, forthcoming with Finishing Line Press, and a biography, Surfers’ Rules: The Mike Martin Story, forthcoming with Silent e Publishing; both will be out in late 2022. She is currently concentrating her writing to reflect her perspective of social justice without judgement or paternalism as regards homelessness, and continuing her work in meeting the needs of homeless human beings in her community. She also leads efforts locally to ascertain safety and educational fidelity for students within the public school system through boots-on-the-ground advocacy. 

Our Poetry Editor, Bree Hoffman, read and reviewed Kate’s recent book of poems, The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels and was lucky enough to also interview Kate about the book. The interview was conducted via email.


Bree Hoffman: “Candor” is the first poem in your book, and it lives up to the name by truth-telling right away. What was your thought process when opening the book with “Candor,” and what is the desired effect for the reader? 

Kate Cumiskey: I’ll start with answering the second part of this question. This poem, I hope, serves as a bit of a warning to readers, “there be dragons here.” I don’t want readers to be surprised by the literal candor in the book. It’s important to me that writers speak truth, and with this book I particularly wanted to focus on truths we don’t normally speak out loud, but which do keep us isolated in that they make us feel alone. In fact, such things as hemorrhoids, death, and rape, while two of those are fortunately not universally shared, are common and lose a bit of their power when acknowledged as such. I had been struggling with a bit of inertia when this book was initially accepted by Finishing Line Press – how do we speak truth in such horrific times? – and I reread Candor to get myself back into the fray of writing what is happening to all of us, right now. FLP was gracious enough to allow the book to change with the rapidly changing, deadly times through the publication process. Candor had originally been the title poem of the book, but that too changed through this process. The title reflects my own grappling with deliberately losing my deep Southern drawl as a married teenager living in California, where nobody deigned to speak to me in public. I trained the South out of my voice, and I miss it. This book is an attempt not to recover those vowels, but to speak, now, with the voice I’ve developed on issues which are absolutely vital to me. So, Candor is a warning for readers.

BH: In poems such as “Dirge” and “Favoring Boys” your activist roots come through. How does activism influence you as a writer, and how do you hope to factor them into your work in the future? 

KC: It is interesting that you choose “activist roots,” as I think of this book as very active in voice, and independent from my roots, so to speak. I do not tend to think of my parents as activists, but you are spot-on; certainly they were, both of them. I hope it is evident in the poems that my mother and I had a very complex relationship, but she was in fact the bravest person I’ve ever known. She did things I’d never dream of, and that I’d consider down-right dangerous, for example, always picking up hitchhikers no matter what, until literally the week before she passed away in 2017. That’s activism. She also reserved judgement on people outside her own circle, such as homeless individuals panhandling, saying judgement was for God-she’d give out money and when less radical individuals called her on that, saying, “what if they spend it on drugs?” She’d say, “It’s a tough life, maybe that’s what they need to get through the night.” My father was a NASA pioneer, and even though his designs were crucial to getting humans to the Moon and our technology into interstellar space, when I asked what he was proudest of in his career, he replied, “I couldn’t keep a secretary. Every one of them out-degreed me and went on in the Program. I helped them all do that.” Activism in the workplace, helping females move forward in what at the time was absolutely a male domain. So, yeah, activist roots. Right now, I’m working on a series of poems about withholding judgement. In fact, one of the central poems to that book, Cokeheads I Have Known, is forthcoming in an anthology, The Literary Parrot, Series Two. I am pushing myself hard to speak about our shared humanity, and to encourage readers to strive to leave judgement behind. Again, there be dragons here. It’s hard to examine your own boundaries.

BH: I noticed recurring themes of motherhood and generational trauma several times. Could you discuss why those themes resurface in your work? 

KC: Again, you bring up something about the book I’d not noticed! Brava; I love it! I remember discussing what I was most concerned about in my work with my dear friend and mentor, Robert Creeley. He’d asked, and I responded, “Being labeled a ‘domestic poet’.” He replied with his fabulous candor, “Well, you are a domestic poet, but you’re in good company.” He was saying he too was a domestic poet. That long-ago conversation freed me of the concern, and I allowed my work to truly reflect my domesticity–what’s more domestic than parenthood? I took a sort of semi-conscious approach to this book, letting it be whatever it wanted to, even to the point of playing with, allowing myself to play with, voice in person. That evolved into my writing some of the easier poems first person, and dealing with more difficult topics, like that generational trauma you cite, in second person, and letting the poems stand that way. It’s subtle, but there, and I hope creates a bit of chaos and discomfort and puzzlement in readers. Like trauma does. I believe the deepest root of that trauma goes back to my father’s loss of his parents before he was eight; he was a Mississippi Depression orphan, son of a sharecropper and a teacher, and although he missed them, as a practical Christian he knew he would be with them again, and told stories about them as if they were just away for a while. Which, from a Christian perspective, they are. So, I really missed my grandparents growing up. In fact, as a small child in school I was confused by other children having two sets; I thought of my Atlanta grandparents, my mother’s, as my father’s parents, too, before such things were explained to me. It came as a real blow that I had missing grandparents. This deepened as it became very apparent I most resemble my paternal grandmother, who was also incredibly domestic, and a teacher; my mother was decidedly not. In fact, because I loved these things and she didn’t, she had me take lessons in sewing, cooking, even deportment and etiquette. Because back in the day a woman should be graceful and I was clumsy as a child, I also took dance lessons for several years; I still love to dance. As far as my work, the obvious answer is also that I use these underlying specificities in my past to attempt to connect with readers. It is important to me that each reader experience each poem differently; what the reader brings to the reading through their own past is as important to me as the words on the page.

BH: What advice would you offer to our readers about writing? 

KC: Connect! Read! Reach out to writers whose work speaks to you, if they are living, and ask the questions you are burning to ask. Ask for help. If you are stuck too deeply in your own, isolating experiences, force yourself to look outward and write just what you see, sans analysis. Take a piece of rotting fruit, put it on the table, smash it to bits, and sit down and write that. Keep the self completely out of the work. That’ll get you writing. Work outward from there: write the doorway, then the hall, then the threshold. Then, write what’s outside that door.

BH: What does your personal writing process look like when you are building a book of poetry? 

KC: It’s a mess! In fact, I’ve recently opened an office in a classic old building in order to grapple with my lack of organization, and am working on a schedule. Seriously, although outwardly I’m a bit of a mess, I’m actually pretty organized and disciplined. I keep poems in print and on the computer, and when they start to build up in number, I have a serious look at them to see if they belong in a group, in a book. And I am always sending out finished poems to find a home in a journal or anthology. My mentor Mark Cox worked hard with me on how to put together books when I was in graduate school, and I still use his method, which is deliciously physical. I find a space with a large surface area – The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels was put together in my brother’s beautiful kitchen, in the afternoon overlooking Turnbull Bay, Atlantic Center for the Arts just visible on the opposite shore–and lay out the printed verses. I choose the opening poem, and circle until I find the poem which calls to it, which wants to be next. I keep going until the book is finished. Any poems left I simply hold for another day. Another book or spoken word venue.

Kate’s brother’s kitchen: assembling the book

Review

Kate Cumiskey’s, The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels, is her latest and perhaps most intimate book of poems published thus far. In a recent interview with Superstition Review, Cumiskey said of its origins: 

“The title reflects my own grappling with deliberately losing my deep Southern drawl as a married teenager living in California, where nobody deigned to speak to me in public. I trained the South out of my voice, and I miss it. This book is an attempt not to recover those vowels, but to speak, now, with the voice I’ve developed on issues which are absolutely vital to me.” 

The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels expands on this promise, and provides a candid, autobiographical collection of poems relevant to Cumiskey’s lived experiences. This includes the appropriately titled, “Candor,” a poem that opens up the collection and lives up to its name.

Cumiskey’s writes,

Write your history; write that fear at 2 a.m. the night
your son overdosed. Write tile beneath your knees.
Write rats in the kitchen, raccoons in the roof, your dog
over the fence, gone all night.

I found Cumiskey’s poems to be moving and sincere in their attempts to reclaim ownership over her lived experiences. Her poems cover topics including sexism, assault, politics, loss, and hope for the things she cannot fix. It’s hard to separate the author from the poems in this particular collection, because the two feel so intrinsically linked, and it’s readily apparent when reading them.

Cumiskey writes,

Bit by bit my body settles into age: fractious, screaming all the way
down. Only in twilight sleep I feel my lower jaw shift, relax, offset
to the right, the side I sleep on. My mouth clamps, thin-lipped, crooked,
and settles for sleep into Mother’s fighting look, the one she wears
when will not be moved. Then I can rest. And it feels good
like falling into my own skin.

(From “Just Lately I Feel My Body Settling”).


To purchase a copy of The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels, head to Finishing Line Press. Congratulations and thank you, Kate!

An Interview with Poet Robert Krut

An Interview with Poet Robert Krut


Our Issue 28 Poetry Editor, Bree Hoffman, interviewed Robert Krut, a three-time SR contributor, about his new poetry collection Watch Me Trick Ghosts. The interview was conducted via email.

Robert Krut is the author of four books: Watch Me Trick Ghosts (Codhill/SUNY Press, 2021)The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire (Codhill/SUNY Press, 2019), This is the Ocean (Bona Fide, 2013), and The Spider Sermons (BlazeVox, 2009). He teaches in the Writing Program and College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lives in Los Angeles.

Bree Hoffman: In a previous interview with Frontier you said that as a writer it is important to be “open to new ideas, new voices, new styles, [and] new suggestions.” What role has teaching poetry professionally played in the conception of your own poems? What have you learned from experiencing writing both inside and outside of the classroom?

Robert Krut: I don’t think I can overstate the importance teaching has played in my own writing, particularly recently.  It has helped with my attempts to stay agile, excited, and engaged over the years.  Working with students means working with numerous types of writers, each an individual requiring different suggestions, both in terms of reading and writing.  There is a responsibility to share the entire scope of literature with them, and present them with the latest and most exciting poetry out in the world right now—this, in turn, helps keep me engaged, as well, and not complacent in my reading and participation. 

During lockdown, in particular, my poetry courses were more than classes I was teaching—they were biweekly opportunities to talk with other writers (over Zoom, of course) who were all fully engaged in their process.  If any of them happen to read this, in fact, I’d like them to know what an impact they had on my energy and enthusiasm toward writing over the past two years—their interest and passion really provided a spark for my own writing.  In Norman Dubie’s great The Clouds of Magellan, he wrote “Work with young writers—never for them,” and it’s a quote I’ve thought about for years and years. It becomes more and more clear to me as a teacher.  Working with poetry students isn’t a top-down operation.  In the best cases, it is truly an interactive community.  

BH: One recurring theme of your poems is the element of grimness that is present in the mundane. In “Walk Don’t Walk Walk Stand Still” we see it in the things people avoid, and in “The Dinner Party” we see it in the wounds people share with one another, sometimes willingly and sometimes not. What were some of your influences when writing these poems?

RK: Grimness in grimness has always been boring—I have always been fascinated by its presence, or at least the implication of its presence, in the mundane, that mysterious element in the everyday, as I’m sure many people are.  

Way back in high school, my part time job was at a video store, which was perfect for a movie-obsessed teenager, but also meant I wound up working just past midnight.  I would drive home through suburban New Jersey, fascinated by what I was seeing at that hour: stopping at my favorite 24-hour place and seeing people arguing in the parking lot, driving past the school and seeing people smoke right in the middle of the football field, passing a stray dog scratching at the church door near our house.  It was all engrossing.  

That job not only afforded me a reasonable excuse to be out so late, but it also led me to watch David Lynch’s Blue Velvet for the first of many times, which solidified this interest, and put it right there on the screen—in those opening moments, when Jeffrey finds the ear in the field, I saw the perfect representation of what I found interesting in the world, and it served as a sort of concrete seed for what would come, years later.  

That was the same year I read “A Supermarket in California,” which shares similar DNA, the other side of a quiet town, slipping into something doomed.  Those are the worlds where this book finds most of its poems; there, or in the flipside, in the mundane of the grim—they go hand in hand.

BH: There is a really interesting relationship that these poems have to other people as well as the world, creating a tone that is isolating and internal. For you, what is the role of these interpersonal connections in “Watch Me Trick Ghosts”?  

RK: I sensed from the earliest stages of writing this book that it was going to be a quieter one, one that is, indeed, internal.  As the themes began to become clear, it seemed to be the introverted sibling to the extroverted previous collection.  This was led by the ideas I wanted to explore, but was surely enhanced by the fact that the vast majority was written during lockdown, where we were all isolated by circumstance.  When you mention interpersonal connections, I flash to the fact that I wasn’t walking outside to talk to neighbors up close; there were simple hand waves from across the street.  I wasn’t meeting strangers in crowded places; I was driving past closed up shops.  This book is not “about” that particular time—that would be too narrow for my taste—but the writing couldn’t help but be influenced by it.  In the end, it is indeed an internal book, centered on solitude in some ways, voices you hear when you are alone, and spirits tethered to your body as you move through the day. The title poem was one of the very first, and it served as a sort of guide.  

BH: What are you currently working on in your writing and various workshops?

RK: In terms of my own writing, I’ve just been trying to write a little each day right now—sometimes that’s a whole draft of a poem, and sometimes it’s just a few lines.  After a book comes out, I typically have an “deep breath” period where I’m writing, little by little, getting back to full momentum for where the poems will go next.  As for my courses, this Winter I’ll be teaching a class specifically designed for third-year students who are beginning the process of creating a manuscript for their upcoming senior projects—I’ve taught this for the past few years, and it’s always an exciting process, and never the same.  I’m looking forward to reading some great new work, and the chance to work closely with the students.  

BH: What advice would you give to fellow writers and readers?

RK: The old standbys still hold.  Write every day.  Try to write every day.  I know that’s an easy thing to say, and it’s hard to truly follow it all the time, but I have found that periods where I really try to write something every day, even something that turns out to be garbage, the momentum leads to truly productive periods. 

And read a lot.  Specifically, read people who are writing differently than you—don’t wind up in a literary echo chamber.  

Finally, writing is such a solitary experience, which is often one of the nicest aspects of it, but it can slow down inspiration and growth.  Reach out to friends, and other writers, while working.  One of the rare benefits of social media is that, even if you don’t have someone in your immediate circle who writes, or reads poetry, there are ways to find a community, even if it is online.  I love the independent nature of writing, alone, in the early morning hours, or late at night, but it’s not until I start sharing, editing, revising, and sharing again, that the poems start to breathe.

Shapeshifting: An Interview with Michelle Ross

Shapeshifting: An Interview with Michelle Ross


We’re so excited to share an interview with past contributor Michelle Ross about her new short story collection, Shapeshifting. The book came out in November from Stillhouse Press. The interview was conducted via email by our blog editor, Sara Walker.


Sara Walker: Just about all the stories center on motherhood, children, and those relationships. What inspired this?

Michelle Ross: My first story collection There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You was less unified in its focus, so for my second collection, I wanted to be more deliberate with theme. As the mother of a young child, I found myself, perhaps inevitably, drawn to writing fiction about motherhood and mothers. Motherhood has been a big part of my lived experience these last eleven years. It’s on my mind. I’ve been mentoring high school writers for several years now via the Adroit Journal’s Summer Mentorship Program, and there’s this passage I quote from Lorrie Moore in my syllabus about the importance of writing about what’s on your mind, what you care about. One of the things she says is “You really have to write from the center.” She talks about how one of the big mistakes her students make is that they write about topics they don’t really think about or care about. I think it’s impossible to write well about a topic you’re not at least a little bit obsessed with. Trying to fake it won’t do. The story will be missing something crucial. I see that in the submission queue for Atticus Review, where I’m fiction editor: some stories are missing that spark of energy that you just can’t fake, and I think that whether or not a story has that spark has a lot to do with whether the writer is writing from the center.   

SW: Why is it important to you to highlight the imperfection of motherhood and feelings of imposter syndrome?

MR: I was grappling with many questions in these stories—the impossible pressures put on mothers, the erasure of motherhood, what mothers owe their children, the tremendous power mothers have over their children, the violence and cruelty of children—but most of all I just wanted to write honestly about motherhood. No sugarcoating. No prettying things up. That’s what I want to do with any topic I write about. And one of the truths of motherhood is that no one is born a mother. There’s so much mythologizing about motherhood—that nurturing comes naturally to mothers, for example; that it comes naturally to women and girls in general. But the truth is more complicated. Nurturing isn’t an inherently female trait. It’s at least partly a learned trait. If you’ve rarely, if ever, been nurtured by someone, how do you learn to nurture another person? It wasn’t until my son was born that I really and fully grasped how incredibly vulnerable children are and how, therefore, incredibly easy it is for parents to harm their children; and, of course, the world is full of adults who were harmed by their parents, and many of those adults have children of their own. 

SW: What is it about “Shapeshifting” that made you choose it as the title story?

MR: While the book’s title did come from the title story, the book was not titled after the title of that story; at the time, “Shapeshifting,” the story, had a different title altogether. It was originally published in The Pinch as “Gestation.” The real inspiration for the book’s title was a metaphor within the story. The pregnant protagonist in the story says that as a kid she liked the idea of being a shapeshifter but that it didn’t occur to her that pregnant women are shapeshifters, too: “Shapeshifting isn’t the way I’d imagined it. I’d always pictured myself behind the wheels of other bodies I assumed. This is the opposite. I’m the wheels, not the driver.” I wasn’t yet finished writing all the stories in this book when I decided that Shapeshifting was the perfect title. All humans are shapeshifters (consider puberty, for example), but I’d say mothers are a particularly interesting kind of shapeshifter. Motherhood is a strange metamorphosis. Mothers might come out of pregnancy looking more or less like they did before, but the world sees them as other than who they were. Whatever kind of mother one is, motherhood changes one in a deep way. There is no going back. 

I’m not much of a fan of books sharing the same title as a story within. I’m wary of giving so much weight to one particular story. But when the editors at Stillhouse Press suggested I retitle this story to match the book’s title, I agreed that it was a better title for the story, too; and I kind of like that the story was titled after the book rather than the other way around.

SW: “The Sand and the Sea” is written in a different format – almost like vignettes, rather than a straightforward narrative. How did you make that choice?

MR: This story originated in a weekend workshop I took with the phenomenal Kathy Fish some years ago. The exercise was to write a braided flash piece. If I remember correctly, I think we started by creating three columns on a piece of paper and each column was dedicated to a different thread. I know that one of the threads was to be composed of lines that began with language such as “I wonder…” or “I wish…” I believe the other threads were supposed to be two different time periods in the character’s life? I played for many, many months after that workshop with the pieces I’d written—rearranging, cutting, adding, trying to get the right pieces in the right order. In a way, I felt like I was going back to my roots in this story. When I first started writing short stories seriously in college, the writer who changed everything for me was Amy Hempel. I had struggled with plot, with how to string sentences and paragraphs together in such a way that they were a story. Long scenes, long exposition felt unwieldy. Then I read Reasons to Live and fell so in love with how Amy Hempel constructs her stories out of these concise little fragments—scenes lasting no more than a paragraph or a page or so. Of course, some of those stories aren’t just pieced together somewhat like a series of flash fictions, but some are flash fictions. I didn’t learn the term “flash fiction” until several years later, and I don’t think I tried writing my own flash fictions until many years after that. However, I did start writing and thinking about writing differently after reading Hempel—thinking about stories in a more modular way, as composed of these tight little units that I could rearrange to different effects. Many years would pass before I would try once again to write stories that weren’t so modular.

SW: Which story was the most challenging to write? Why?

MR: Most stories are challenging for me, honestly. I work on stories, including flash fictions, for many months, often many years, before finishing and submitting them. Maybe I should answer this question backwards. One of the easiest stories for me to write was “A Mouth is a House for Teeth.” The general premise and tone of it came to me quickly. Then, before I’d written much of anything down, I floated in one of those so-called sensory deprivation tanks for the first time. I spent pretty much the whole hour thinking about that story. It was a weird and wonderful experience. I felt like I was alone floating out in the middle of a dark ocean, and this story was building in that darkness. After, I went to a coffee shop and wrote pretty much all day—by hand in a notebook, which I hate to say I rarely do these days, and probably should do more often. Writing by hand has a different kind of energy and rhythm. I can easily remember which stories of mine I first drafted by hand and which I first drafted on the computer. Anyway, after that I spent several weeks typing up the pieces, fitting them together, discovering what was missing, what could be cut, and so on. I think that from start to finish, that story took only a few months to finish, which for me is incredibly fast.

SW: “Keeper Four” approaches motherhood in a way different from the other stories; it’s sci fi-esque. What inspired this story?

MR: One of the primary inspirations was a book I’d read with my son when he was younger: Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories From the Animal Kingdom. The photos and stories in the book are endearing, but at the same time, this book creeped me out. Some of the unlikely friendships involved predators befriending prey. Some of the unlikely “friendships” weren’t friendships at all, but mother-child relationships. For example: a dog mothering a monkey. Of course, a mother-child relationship is quite a different kind of relationship than a friendship. We expect friendships to be reciprocal, not so much mother-child relationships. Sure, young children can be loving and kind, but even many of their more charming behaviors are largely driven by their own needs, their own survival. A very young child clings to their mother more for security and safety than out of “love.” That’s not a judgment; I think it’s only natural for a creature that is vulnerable and helpless to charm larger, more capable creatures into protecting it. Anyway, this book disturbed me. Something about the mislabeling of these relationships. Something about the way humans praise females of a species for being nurturing. Something about the oohing and aahing over predators refraining from doing what it is in their nature to do—to prey. From that disturbance was born the idea of humans experimenting to develop a drug to induce mothering behavior even in the most unlikely of candidates. 

SW: What do you hope readers will keep with them after finishing Shapeshifting?

MR: I hope that readers find Shapeshifting to be greater than the sum of its parts. I see these stories as being in conversation with each other, and I think I’m able to achieve something more in the book as a whole than I could in individual stories. But that said, mostly I just hope readers find something of value in this book, whatever that may be for them as individuals—whether it be that they feel seen, that they feel less lonely, that they’re entertained, that these stories make them think, or that something is illuminated for them. 

SW: You also write collaboratively with Kim Magowan. How did your experience with collaborative writing influence this collection?

MR: It’s when I’m feeling a bit in a slump that I’m mostly likely to nudge Kim into writing something together. Collaboration reminds me that writing is as simple on some level as making choices, and that all choices can be unmade, too. It helps train me to make choices quickly, to keep moving forward, instead of allowing a story to stagnate in indecision. It trains me to keep a story’s momentum going. When we collaborate, we typically pass a story back and forth rapidly, several times in a day sometimes. I write a few paragraphs, she writes a few paragraphs. Even a long story gets drafted within a week or so. That energy carries over into my own writing. Writing with Kim always renews my excitement for my own projects.

SW: What does your writing space look like?

MR: When my partner and I bought our house about fourteen years ago, it was important to me to be able to have a home office of my own. I wanted a room with a door, a room that was all mine, a room meant for nothing other than writing (and reading). This was important even back when we were in an apartment, only then we didn’t have all that much space so I had converted our walk-in closet into my writing space. Since the beginning of the pandemic, my home office is no longer just my writing space; it’s also where I do the job that pays the bills. Most of 2020 was a struggle because I was trying to do both these things at the same desk and on the same computer. When I tried to write fiction, I was distracted by work clutter. Early this year, I brought in a second desk and computer so that I have a writing half of my office and a work half of my office. Everything has gone much more smoothly since.

SW: What does writing mean to you?

MR: Writing is how I discover meaning and how I discover what I think. Writing is how I communicate most effectively. Writing is how I push back against the things that bug me. Writing makes me more present in my life, more observant. Writing is hard work but also immensely pleasurable. There’s no other way I’d rather spend my time.


Shapeshifting won the Stillhouse Press 2020 Short Fiction Prize and is available for purchase from Stillhouse Press. Check out more from Michelle on her website and read her stories in Issue 17 and Issue 20. Thank you so much, Michelle!