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!

Allegra Hyde Takes on Climate Change in Eleutheria

Allegra Hyde Takes on Climate Change in Eleutheria

Eleutheria by Allegra Hyde (Vintage forthcoming 2022)

Congratulations to past contributor Allegra Hyde, who has a book forthcoming in 2022! The novel, Eleutheria, will be published by Vintage in March and is available for pre-order from a number of sellers.

Eleutheria follows Willa Marks, a young woman who never abandons hope despite the multitude of hopeless things in her life: her parents’ belief in conspiracy theories, a job with no future, and rising seas. Then she meets Harvard professor Sylvia Gill, who first validates Willa’s endless hope, but then threatens to destroys it after she betrays her. In the wake of Sylvia’s betrayal, Willa discovers in Sylvia’s library Living the Solution, a guide to fighting climate change. Inspired and with nothing holding her back, she jets off to an island in the Bahamas called Eleutheria to meet the author and join him at Camp Hope. But the group of activists she finds at Camp Hope is not at all what she expected: the leader is missing and the compound isn’t ready to go public. Willa is left to decide: how far will she go to support Camp Hope?

In the book’s own words, Eleutheria is “a story of idealism, activism, and systemic corruption, centered on a naïve young woman’s quest for agency in a world ravaged by climate change.” Knowing SR is housed at ASU, Allegra added: “I started writing the novel while I was at the university. While Eleutheria doesn’t take place in Arizona, living in the state – especially in the Phoenix area – exposes a person to some pretty extreme weather, and this informed some of my thinking about climate change, which is central to the novel.”

Allegra’s essay “Things I Don’t Tell My Mother” appeared in Issue 12 and she was interviewed for Issue 18. She is also the author of a story collection, Of This New World. To learn more about Allegra, visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Congratulations, Allegra!

Meet Issue 28’s Contributors: Part 2

Meet Issue 28’s Contributors: Part 2

We’re back with another installment of getting to know the Issue 28 contributors! In this post, we hear from some of our Fiction and Nonfiction contributors.

What’s your coffee/tea order?

Katherine Tunning (Fiction) says, “The order goes: coffee on Tuesday, Thursday, and the weekend. Black tea on the other days, plus the coffee days, so I can pretend I don’t have a caffeine problem.”

Kelly Gray (Nonfiction) goes for “dark roast coffee with more cream than you would expect.”

Where do you like to vacation? 

Jacqueline Doyle (Nonfiction) says, “It’s nearby, but I always love weekend trips to the Northern California coast.”

Barbara Lock (Fiction) tells us: “I’ll vacation anywhere that provides a washer and dryer, and a chance to get on water! Last summer we paddled on the Colorado, even though the access highway was blocked with half a mountain’s worth of rubble. We took Cottonwood Pass to get from Vail to Glenwood Springs–it was really narrow! The river guide told us that the great thing about driving back on the pass at night was that since we could see all the headlights from far away, we could drive as fast as we liked, ha ha. We didn’t do that though, because we didn’t want to die.”

Melissa Llanes Brownlee lives “in Japan, so anywhere I haven’t been in the country yet, and usually I am camping. If I leave Japan, I like to explore Southeast Asia! Next on my list is Thailand.”

What’s a holiday tradition that you love?

Ashley Wolfe (Nonfiction) shares, “I’m lucky to have a lot of wonderful family traditions. I love cooking a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for a big group of relatives. Baking Christmas cookies with my mom, sister and all our children is another favorite. I also treasure waking up too early on Christmas morning to watch my children discover what Santa left under the tree.”

Kelly explains: “My daughter and I stopped celebrating Thanksgiving many years ago. We take the money we would have spent on food/celebrations and send it to Native run organizations or land trusts. Then, we sit around watching Dolly Parton movies, and now we just refer to it as our own personal Dolly Day.”

Molly Andrea-Ryan (Fiction) says, “My husband and I started a Christmas tradition that I’m pretty fond of. We watch the 1954 White Christmas followed by the 1974 Black Christmas, back to back on the same night. (If you haven’t heard of the latter, it’s a Canadian slasher movie set in a sorority house—and yes, it counts as a Christmas movie. There are Christmas decorations and everything!)”

Tell us about your pets!

Amanda Gaines (Nonfiction) has “two cats—Lady and Carlos. They like to watch squirrels and destroy my house when I’m out of town.”

Erin Murphy (Nonfiction) has “two Siamese cats: Vixen and Djuna. They’re like dogs in cat bodies — they greet you at the door and play fetch. We are in the process of adopting a third cat.”

What are you reading right now?

Molly is “wrapping up Misery right now. Before that, I read a few books by Jennifer McMahon, a contemporary horror novelist from Vermont. I’m also enjoying a few collections of poetry, including “Peculiar Heritage” by DeMisty D. Bellinger—highly recommend.”

For Barbara, “Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter is what I’m reading now. My To Read pile, which takes up six boxes on the upstairs landing of the house, threatens to trip me daily. Right now, Yasunari Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation are on top of the pile, but that could change at any moment.”

What are you streaming/watching right now?

Ashley says, “I’m not one to watch much TV on my own, but I do enjoy shows with my husband and kids. As a family, we’re re-watching every season of The Office and eagerly awaiting the Netflix release of Lost in Space season three. My husband and I also just finished watching Squid Game – I’m still not sure how I feel about that one.”

Jaqueline is watching “‘Minari” (finally). Always on the lookout for Scandinavian noir releases on Netflix.”

Molly tells us: “I just finished a months-long binge of the Sopranos and a days-long binge of Midnight Mass. Oh, and the Bachelorette is back. Seinfeld’s on Netflix now. I’m not gonna lie, I watch a lot of TV.”

If you could instantly learn any language, what would you choose? Why?

Amanda wants to learn “French, so I can watch Amelie without the subtitles.”

Melissa would go for “Korean – I love Kpop and Korean food. Also Hawaiian, because I feel disconnected from my heritage sometimes.”

Katherine says, “I guess Japanese, because I’m currently trying to learn it the traditional, non-instant way, and it turns out that takes kind of a long time.”

What’s the next thing on your bucket list?

Erin tells us: “My niece convinced me to sing along to her new karaoke machine recently, so now I want to try singing karaoke in a club.”

Jacqueline is excited for “a trip to Paris.”

Katherine says, “it is probably tempting fate to say ‘publish a book,’ but: Publish a book.”

What is your most-used phone app?

For Amanda, it’s “Google Docs—I’m not that cool.”

Jacqueline and Barbara both make extensive use of Waze to shave time off their travels.

Melissa: “*whispers* Twitter.”

What song can you listen to on repeat without it getting old?

Ashley loves “anything by the Beatles. And ‘I Feel It Coming’ by The Weekend.”

Kelly enjoys “‘Over Your Shoulder’ by Calexico.”

Erin chose “‘Radar Love’ by Golden Earring (also the first song I chose on my niece’s karaoke machine).”

Thank you to these contributors for helping us get to know them! We can’t wait for the Issue 28 virtual launch party on November 30!

Meet Issue 28’s Contributors: Part 1

Meet Issue 28’s Contributors: Part 1

It’s time to meet Issue 28’s contributors! As we prepare to launch Issue 28 on November 30, we thought it would be fun to get to know its creatives. This post focuses on some of our Art and Poetry contributors.

What’s your coffee/tea order?

Artist Teresa Sites says, “Every day, I make myself a black 1/2 regular coffee and 1/2 decaf coffee at home. When I ordered this combo at a coffee shop, the next person in line complimented me saying that I was a ‘professional coffee drinker.’ I was so proud!”

Poet Grace Q. Song shares: “I don’t drink coffee/tea, but I do have apple juice every morning!”

Poet Gretchen Rockwell enjoys “a caramel latte, unless I’m in the mood for chai.”

Where do you like to vacation? 

Poet Leah Falk is easy to please: “Give me an ocean and I’m good.” 

Along those lines, poet Preeti Vangani will go “anywhere with a beach and fresh sea food.”

Teresa loves “staycations and just having the luxury of extra time to relax at home.”

What is a holiday tradition that you love?

Poet Glenn Shaheen is a fan of “horror everything for Halloween season (September 1st through October 31st). My mother also makes a delicious cream cheese salsa dip at Christmas but it’s not really a ‘Christmas’ thing. She’s sent me the recipe a million times and I could theoretically make it any ole time of year.”

Artist Kateryna Bortsova says, “My tradition is to not have traditions.”

Preeti looks forward to “playing cards with my cousins, and losing money. I have never ever won.”

Tell us about your pets!

Poet Liz Marlow has “a silly dog, Lola, who loves putting her head on my keyboard while I am trying to write. She also loves swimming in the lake at the dog park but refuses to swim in a pool (that water is too clean!). I also have a fish tank with neon tetras, cory catfish, and a clown pleco.”

Poet Ronda Piszk Broatch tells us: “Ciri, a Torbie cat, is an explorer and thief, who loves socks and crinkly shoebox paper. She is named after the princess in the Witcher series. Z, or Zilpha, is a black siamese who is quite pissy, long-limbed, and has a need to be brushed several times a day – first with the rubber scrubber, then the wire brush. They like Irish cheese, and salmon fat.”

What are you reading right now?

Leah is in the middle of “Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, and a book about the science of how children acquire language called The Infinite Gift. Also just finished Krys Malcolm Belc’s incredible The Natural Mother of the Child.” 

Teresa is enjoying “art manuals! I have stacks of these and I enjoy leafing through all the inspirational projects and possibilities! One thing I love about art is that there are seemingly endless things to learn and discover. Art manuals compile and share so much practical information for artists. I revisit these books continually, as the different ideas presented can shape and guide my own artistic projects.”

What are you streaming/watching right now?

Liz “recently watched Dug Days on Disney+ with my kids.”

Ronda “just finished the Welsh mysteries Hinterland and Hidden, and we’re on to the final two episodes of Baptiste. Thrilling!! Unlike my grandmother who didn’t like mysteries, and who would tell me the plot of anything we watched when I was little, I adore anything British, Belgian, Australian, Welsh, Irish … Acorn TV is a go-to.”

If you could instantly learn any language, what would you choose? Why?

Kateryna would go for “German, I don’t know why.”

Gretchen would learn “Japanese, so I don’t have to rely on subtitles or translations.”

Preeti is interested in “Spanish, because it sounds so musical!”

What’s the next thing on your bucket list?

Glenn wants to “see Aurora Borealis.”

Next up for Grace is “surviving college.”

Liz says, “I would like to go to New Zealand, take a helicopter ride to a glacier, and ski all the way down it.”

What is your most-used phone app?

Preeti, Kateryna, and Grace say it’s Instagram.

For Teresa, Ronda, and Glenn it’s email.

Glenn also shares: “If email doesn’t count then Tumblr because of Star Trek reasons.”

What song can you listen to on repeat without it getting old?

Gretchen says, “Too many… currently, ‘What’s Good’ by Lou Reed.”

Leah enjoys “‘Aicha’ by Algerian Raï singer Cheb Khaled. Right now I also keep looping 10,000 Maniacs’ version of ‘Because the Night (Belongs to Lovers).’”

Kateryna is a fan of “Golden years” David Bowie. 

Thank you so much to our contributors for sharing a little bit about themselves! Join us all on November 30 at 12pm AZ time for our virtual launch party!

Flyer for Christa Parravani event

An Evening With Christa Parravani

Flyer for Christa Parravani event
Courtesy of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing

If you’re looking for literary inspiration, the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at ASU is a wonderful resource. Next month, the Piper Center is holding An Evening With Christa Parravani. Christa, a memoirist and creative nonfiction writer and author, will host a talk and workshop.

When: Friday, December 10 from 6:00pm to 7:30pm AZ MST time (8:00-9:30pm EST).

Where: Zoom and livestreamed on the Piper Center Facebook page.

Cost: Free

To register, visit the talk’s Eventbrite page. Learn more about Christa on her Twitter and her ASU Visiting Writer page.

No matter where you are in the world, you can take advantage of this event! We encourage you to join and hear from Christa.

book of poetry

Poetry Editorial Style: Bree Hoffman

book of poetry

In this semester of acting as SR’s poetry editor, I have learned three very important things about working in an editorial role. It’s okay to trust your gut, it’s okay to ask for a second opinion, and having conversations about what you do and don’t like about writing is the best way to discover your own biases around art and poetry in particular. I think it’s very important to be knowledgeable of your biases before reading pieces critically, and will help to generate the most diverse group of submissions for publication. Getting into the editing was the hardest part for me, especially at the very beginning. There are times when insecurity wants to take over and you worry you can’t tell the difference between a great poem and a simply okay poem. But that insecurity really leaves quickly once you’re actually in the thick of it, and get to rise to the occasion by showcasing some excellent submissions for our readers. That has definitely been my favorite part of the editing process, finding the ones that really stand out.

To me, poetry is an excellent window into other people, and is a great demonstration of what the humanities can be. Through poetry, we learn to demonstrate a lot of complex thoughts and feelings, and how we interpret them is indicative of our own perspectives and experiences we bring to the table. The coolest part to me, is how much variation poetry can utilize, and the fact that each poem is fully dependent on the voice of its author. I feel like poetry is one of the most intimate forms of expression, and one of the most creative and expansive outlets that humans have.

For Issue 28, I started by reading each submission and giving my instinctual vote on it, usually in the form of a Yes, No, or Maybe. I am a little more forgiving in this step of the process. Once I’ve selected my Yes’s and Maybe’s, I then re-read them more critically, analyzing the content, composition, and craft to try and narrow down the best top ten submissions for the magazine. The act of collaborating with the Poetry team on the final selections is the most exciting part of the whole semester, outside of the actual publication itself! The role of Poetry Editor has taught me so much about curating selections for readers and how to trust your own opinion in the way that your peers and readers trust you to show them great pieces of work.

Daisy Hernandez headshot - credit Bosch studios

The Kissing Bug: Race and Disease Explored

The Kissing Bug cover
The Kissing Bug by Daisy Hernandez (Tin House Books 2021)

Check out past contributor Daisy Hernández’s new book, The Kissing Bug, to join Daisy as she unravels family and medical secrets surrounding a disease that led to her aunt’s death. While researching for the book, Daisy spoke to patients, doctors, epidemiologists, and veterinarians, all the while uncovering the impact of Chagas – also known as the kissing bug disease – on the Latinx community. The Kissing Bug: A True Story of an Insect, a Family and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease explores how the confluence of infectious disease, racism, and for-profit healthcare systems have relegated Chagas to the dark.

Hernández raises damning questions about which infectious diseases get attention and whom we believe to be deserving of care.

NPR BOOKs

An engaging, eye-opening read for anyone looking to learn more about the human suffering caused by the collision of a tropical parasite and years of neglect by the United States’ medical system.

Kris Newby, author of Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons

The Kissing Bug was published in June by Tin House Books and you can by it from Bookshop or IndieBound. Daisy’s was interviewed for Issue 16 of SR and she is also the author of the memoir A Cup of Water Under My Bed and coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. To learn more about Daisy, visit her website or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

David James headshot

Why Poetry Matters, a Guest Post by David James

Book with scenes sprouting from it

Many would argue that poems do not matter in today’s world. Very few people read poems voluntarily, and even fewer buy books of poems. Probably 99.9% of poets can’t exist on writing poems; they must work at something or leech off others–parents, spouses, social services. Most people see no practical value in these short, broken lines on the page.

Yet it’s interesting to me that we turn to poetry at crucial times. For example, when we’re in love, suddenly the words, sentiments, emotions found in love poems matter to us. After 9-11, people wrote and read poems because poems often capture what we can’t express. At a recent funeral, three of the five people giving testimonies read poems. In these moments of deep feeling, we often turn to poetry, trying to capture some human essence in words and images.

I am a believer in poetry. Not just because I write poetry but because I read it. Through poems, I have been awakened, I have experienced, and I have imagined worlds that would never have been within my scope of knowledge. I am caught up in the idea that by putting little ink marks on paper, a writer can move a reader to tears, to joy, to feeling, to understanding, all by cobbling together words and images in a particular order. 

Poetry matters because poems focus our attention. This modern life is busy and complex. We run and hurry from one obligation to another, often confused by the idea that the busier we are, the more we live. The opposite is probably true. As we rush from project to person to responsibility, we ignore the here and now, the clouds forming in the sky, the heron flying overhead, the kids jumping in leaf piles. Sometimes we ignore the fact that the world is falling apart around us—climate change, world hunger, ethnic cleansing—to name just a few, and poems can urge us to take action. Poems can focus our attention on what we need to do to survive in this world.

Poems require us to stop, slow down, narrow our view on the particular, the specific. Poems may even require multiple readings. This focus hones our ability to perceive and pay attention in our own lives. James Tate, Pulitzer prize winner in poetry, touches on this ability of poetry to capture life’s essence: “While most prose is a kind of continuous chatter, describing, naming, explaining, poetry speaks against an essential backdrop of silence. It is almost reluctant to speak at all…there is a prayerful haunted silence between words, between phrases, between images, ideas, and lines. The reader, perhaps without knowing it, instinctively desires to peer between the cracks into the other world.” Tate implies a sacredness, a holiness, here. There is more to the poem than the words.  Something exists between the words and phrases, inside the body of writing, that we sense when we read a good poem. Another modern poet, E.A. Robinson, said, “Poetry tells us, through more or less an emotional reaction, something that cannot be said,” highlighting that impossible nature of true art.  

Since experience matters, poems matter. In poems (as in stories, novels, and plays), we imaginatively experience the lives of other people. We see the world from different perspectives and  viewpoints. We get a chance to live out experiences we might never have in our own lives. Billy Collins, a former poet laureate of the United States, says, “When we read a poem, we enter the consciousness of another. It requires that we loosen some of our fixed notions in order to accommodate another point of view.” In this manner, we broaden our understanding of the world.

Poems inform us that there are other perspectives, viewpoints, emotions. They enlighten us with other people’s take on life, most likely different from ours. These “voices” coming in affect us, expand us, strengthen and weaken us. Most importantly, they force us to re-think our own narrow perspective and re-examine our ideas.

Poems touch each reader uniquely; they make us feel reassured about our humanity and remind us that we are part of the human family. Readers bring their own experiences, past, emotions, even dreams into the understanding of poems. In his Nobel prize speech, Pablo Neruda puts it so eloquently: “All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are.” Every poem is an attempt to translate human experience, to explain the unexplainable. We all want to connect with others, and poems are exercises in sharing–an image, a thought or idea, a loss, a hope, a memory.  The more we share, the more we grow, understand, and are understood. And the more we share, as readers or writers, the larger we become, more compassionate, more humane, more real.  

If the imagination matters, then poems matter. Poems stretch our minds beyond their normal limits, and that, of course, builds and strengthens our imaginations. We all know that original inventions and solutions to problems come from people who think creatively, who can imagine worlds beyond the one we live in. Novelist Tom Robbins puts our goal as writers so clearly: “To achieve the marvelous, it is precisely the unthinkable that must be thought.” Writing involves risk-taking. Writing demands the lowering or eliminating of censors inside, and it allows the imagination to play wherever it wants to.

When we read imaginative poems, we exercise our mental muscles; we picture images unknown to us, therefore allowing us to make new and innovative connections that we might not have made previously. Absurd, silly, humorous and surreal poems not only bring pleasure and delight, even confusion at times, but they force us to see and imagine impossible worlds. Combining the impossible with the real nurtures original thought.   

Finally, poetry matters because life matters. Gwendolyn Brooks says, “Poetry is life distilled.”  All art, in one way or another, shines a spotlight on the here and now, the routine, the miraculous, the mundane, pleading with us to see, to hear, to smell, to feel, to taste the world at our fingertips. Each day is a miracle, and that’s what poems say in that “prayerful haunted silence between words,” as James Tate writes. Every poem I’ve read or written has focused my imagination deeper into life. Each poem adds to the warehouse of my experience.  

This is all we have in the end: this precious moment alive. We can plod blindly through each minute and hour and day, living a life of worry and dread and busyness, or we can realize, like poems do, that every experience and feeling, every event and moment, good or bad, conveys the seed of joy and wonder and the miraculous.  

Those who live the best are alive the most. And poems help us to live, calling to us like mythical sirens on the ocean of life: Stay awake. Look around. Take the world in. Be alive!

Sara Henning headshot

Terra Incognita Helps Us Find Solid Ground

Terra Incognita cover
Terra Incognita by Sara Henning (Ohio University Press forthcoming 2022)

We’re excited that past contributor Sara Henning has a book forthcoming in 2022! Terra Incognita‘s poems trace a woman as she navigates her relationship with her mother and experiences life after loss. Each of the book’s four sections explores a different era of the daughter’s life as she tries to make sense of the world. Ultimately, Terra Incognita shows us how to find joy in some of life’s most heart-wrenching moments.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us knows until we reach it,” Joan Didion once declared. Sara Henning crafts beautiful and protean music out of the terra incognita of motherlessness. The gallery of richly evoked lines and incidents suggests the poet is a dynamic, at-the-ready elegist for all she sees. “In the belly of every summer day is a god / taking its first breath, so I learn to call it praying, / my mother forsaking the AC for a grace called smoking / in the car.” Yes, one of the book’s major triumphs is that Henning, with artful precision and a daughter’s utmost love, makes the vital woman who was her first window on the world count for the reader as well.

Cyrus Cassells, 2021 Poet Laureate of Texas

Terra Incognita won the 2021 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize and will be published by Ohio University Press. The book is available for pre-order now!

Sara’s poems have appeared in both Issue 11 and Issue 22. To stay up to date with her, visit her website or Twitter. Congratulations, Sara!

Heart Radical cover

An Interview With Anne Liu Kellor

Heart Radical by Anne Liu Kellor (She Writes Press 2021)

We are thrilled that we recently had the chance to interview Anne Liu Kellor about her first book, Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Belonging. Heart Radical is a memoir about Anne’s experiences navigating her ethnicity, heritage, and place in this world. The interview was conducted via email by our blog editor, Sara Walker.


Sara Walker: Could you describe the inspiration for this memoir?

Anne Liu Kellor: Between 1996 and 2001, I traveled back and forth between the Pacific Northwest and China, my mother’s homeland, as well as to Tibet. Growing up bilingual, I set off as a young, twentysomething mixed-race Chinese American woman searching for my connection to my linguistic roots, as well as to my greater path in life. Underneath this, what I discovered was my desire to speak truth, to break silence, and to follow my intuition. To give voice to all the moments where I knew something in my body, but could not find the right words to own what I knew. And to give voice to how I come from a lineage of silence—of stories not told, trauma not named, feelings not expressed.

SW: Much of the book is written in present tense, but you’re recalling your past. What precipitated that choice?

ALK: Originally, I wrote a lot of the chapters as stand-alone pieces, experimenting with voice and form. Eventually it became clear that my writing in present tense felt more charged, whereas past tense got too bogged down in reflection—reflection that in some cases had not had enough time to gestate, so it could not say all that I wanted it to. As I revised the memoir over many years, my perspective on this period also kept deepening, and thus there was the temptation to keep revising, adding layers to what the story was “about.” Finally, by changing it all to present tense (and interspersing chapters that were purely backstory or more lyrical), I tried to create both a traditional arc-driven narrative of my outer journey, and hint at all of the deeper layers of spiritual questioning. All of this was a challenge because my story ultimately resisted one tidy arc and redemptive ending. It was hard for me to explain my spiritual unfolding at the time, because some of those lessons I’m still living out to this day. So while I wanted to keep the narrative focused on a certain time period, there were deeper layers I just couldn’t get to yet. The point of view choices were in part a response to this tension.

SW: I’m sure some of your past was challenging to write about. How did you navigate that? How did you get into the headspace to write in depth about your past?

ALK: Since I worked on the book on and off over twenty years (!), when I wrote a lot of the early drafts, the events I was describing were only a couple years in the past—still relatively fresh. Plus, I had a ton of journals to mine for details. Often I would first spend time reading my old journals and free-writing, and then I would find an image or scene or line that carried energy, and use that as a point of departure to begin a more crafted piece. Sometimes I played music that evoked the emotion of that period for me, and I also had the gift of long consecutive days to settle into writing. I find I need that extended silent, alone time to get a discovery draft out. Later, with all the stages of editing, I can dip in and out more easily.

SW: As we all know, the Covid-19 pandemic brought forth intensely anti-Asian-American sentiments. What was it like to work on and release this book in a year when Asian-American violence was so high?

ALK: I don’t tend to watch a lot of news or let myself get swept up in Facebook scrolling if I can help it, so while I stay abreast with headlines, I also often feel insulated from the sudden impact of the rise and fall of violence. I choose when to let it in. I don’t need to read the details to know how it impacts me; I feel the swell of pain continually, the pain of being alive in this ignorant, racist world. The ways in which all of our pain is connected. I have, however, continued to deepen my relationship to other Asian American and mixed-race writers over the last several years. I’ve offered more classes for our communities, as a way for us to share hard stories, interrogate complicated relationships, own our voices, and join the crucial conversations around race that our world is having more of these days. What does it mean to be Asian American—to be so often erased from the conversation or seen as a model minority monolith, and how can we own our inherited biases, privileges, and participation in white supremacy culture?

In implicit bias tests, Asian American women are the group that is viewed as the least capable of leadership. How have we been conditioned to see ourselves as silent or weak too? The outer violence against Asian Americans—or any racial group for that matter— starts with these kinds of fucked up biases and dehumanizing beliefs. Becoming a more visible, public writer and more fully owning the political identifier as Asian American, raises the stakes for me and my writing. I am increasingly aware of how I am a part of a lineage, and how sharing my story creates more space for other people to believe that their story matters too.

SW: In Heart Radical, you’ve captured countless experiences from your life and share them in a remarkably lyrical and straightforward way. Which memoirs and memoir authors inspire you?

ALK: A lot of my early writing was influenced by my mentor from grad school, Brenda Miller. I learned a lot from her about how to trust that images can carry deep metaphorical resonance, or that one can convey so much through juxtaposition and white space. Poets are often my favorite memoirists. So much can be encapsulated in one line—so much of what is not being said, for the reader to fill in. Recently, I’ve been super inspired by memoirs like Tastes Like War by Grace M. Cho, The Magical Language of Others by E.J. Koh, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T. Kira Madden, and Made in China by Anna Qu. Old favorite non-linear collage memoirs include The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, and Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas.

SW: You’re a teacher in addition to a writer. How has your role as an educator shaped you and your writing?

ALK: So much so. In all of my courses, my students and I spend time writing together from prompts. I always participate to make sure that I stay engaged with the vulnerability and presence it takes to show up in the moment and write, then share. Teaching also keeps me actively exploring new voices and forms. Whatever I’m reading then bleeds into my own work. Writing never gets old; even if some of my thematic material can feel well-tread, there’s always a new angle or way to approach it—if I can keep experimenting and staying receptive. Also, being a teacher connects me to so many amazing writers. The work of a writer can be very isolating, so nurturing community has become increasingly important to me. It helps me remember who I am writing for and why I am doing this. Why words matter. What kind of healing and connection can be forged through the often long, slow, plodding process of shaping a piece on the page.

SW: Heart Radical is your first book. What does that mean to you?

ALK: It means it’s about f’ing time! It means hallelujah, it is finally out of my meddling hands, fears, and perfectionism, and into the world of my readers, completing the cycle from fruition to full completion. 😊 It means that I learned SO much through writing this book and revising it over the years, especially about not giving up. It means I have a really strong sense now of who I am as a writer, and I’ve also written so many essays along the way that I also have a full collection that I’m ready to publish, called Uncertainty, Trust, and the Present Moment: Essays from In Between. And I have another memoir, Artifacts of Longing, that I’ve been working on for over a decade. I suppose I now can say that I’m a writer who works on books in cycles—write, let it rest and work on something else when it is driving you crazy or being rejected, but always return, return, return. Return to that seed of trust that a story or book needs to be written. Return to what calls you back, won’t let go. Book-length memoirs especially demand their own timeline for the lessons of a longer period of life to metabolize. We may think we are “ready” or “done,” but so much of the writing—and publishing—process is also not in our control.

SW: What does your writing space look like?

ALK: I write at one end of a big room with an A-frame roof and warm cedar walls. It’s a cabin in residential Seattle, a special place, a home I inherited from my old neighbor (a part of my second memoir’s story). I look out on cedar branches, salal, Indian plum, and moss—a classic Pacific Northwest landscape. Otherwise you can find me at the window seat journaling, or propped up on my bed with my journal or looking through binders of work, music playing, incense lit. I find that when I’m not at the desk I often sink into the more emotional or poetic aspects of my work… mining for new insight or lines, connections. Whereas when I’m at my desk I’m editing on the computer and in productivity mode.

SW: What does writing mean to you?

ALK: Writing is my meditation, my daily practice. It’s work too, yes, but primarily it’s a way of being in the world—a way of paying attention, honoring small details, honoring the wide span of history and time, timelessness. Writing is a way to capture all that is hard to express, a way to revisit old wounds and heal, a way to make amends, a way to see clearly, and sometimes, to forgive. Writing can do so much. It’s a way of connecting, a way of witnessing, a way of praising and mourning, and a way of being.

SW: What advice would you give to up-and-coming Asian-American writers? 

ALK: Do not be afraid to put anything down on the page in early drafts. To write what you can’t imagine yourself publishing or sharing. To write it all. To trust, that in time, with practice and community and mentorship, you will be able to name and share more. But this is a lifelong practice—you don’t have to say it all at once. You don’t have to share it with your parents. Your writing has important value, even if it just lives in your notebooks or is entrusted to a few readers. Your writing can help you grow as a human being. And yes, if you want it to, when you are ready, your writing can also challenge long-held familial silences or legacies or beliefs. Make sure you find community to share this journey with. Seek out classes and teachers who are supportive. Create writing groups with fellow students you admire. Trust that if writing truly calls to you, you won’t regret following this path. There is nothing more exhilarating than finally giving yourself permission to do what you love.


To learn more about Anne, visit her website or Twitter. Heart Radical is published by She Writes Press and available for purchase from Bookshop. Our heartfelt thanks to Anne for agreeing to the interview and sharing so eloquently!