Contributor Update: Lisa Ko

Congratulations to past contributor Lisa Ko, who has a new novel coming out in March! The novel is titled Memory Piece and will be available for purchase March 19th, 2024. Visit Penguin Random House for preorder information.

In the early 1980s, Giselle Chin, Jackie Ong, and Ellen Ng are three teenagers drawn together by their shared sense of alienation and desire for something different. “Allied in the weirdest parts of themselves,” they envision each other as artistic collaborators and embark on a future defined by freedom and creativity.

By the time they are adults, their dreams are murkier. As a performance artist, Giselle must navigate an elite social world she never conceived of. As a coder thrilled by the internet’s early egalitarian promise, Jackie must contend with its more sinister shift toward monetization and surveillance. And as a community activist, Ellen confronts the increasing gentrification and policing overwhelming her New York City neighborhood. Over time their friendship matures and changes, their definitions of success become complicated, and their sense of what matters evolves.

Moving from the predigital 1980s to the art and tech subcultures of the 1990s to a strikingly imagined portrait of the 2040s, Memory Piece is an innovative and audacious story of three lifelong friends as they strive to build satisfying lives in a world that turns out to be radically different from the one they were promised.

This novel has received outstanding reviews:

“A moving, strikingly evocative exploration of New York’s art, tech, and activism scenes across the decades.”

Vogue, Best books of 2024

“Lisa Ko has brought us one of those rare, sumptuous tales of art and friendship that feels both universal and inimitable.”

Elle, Best (and most anticipated) Fiction Books of 2024

“This novel serves as an archive of our past and a vision for what’s to come, hauntingly beautiful in a way that’s both nostalgic and dystopian. In essence Memory Piece is about the power of remembering, especially when it’s painful.”

Booklist

Lisa Ko is the author of the nationally bestselling novel The Leavers, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and the PEN/Hemingway Award, and winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Ko’s short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and her essays and nonfiction have been published in The New York Times and The Believer.

Superstition Review did an interview with Ko in issue 21, you can view that here. To learn more about Ko and her work visit her website here.

After Dinner Conversation: Technology and Ethics

Congratulations to After Dinner Conversation literary magazine on the recent publication of their first themed short story collection! Technology Ethics is part of a series of nine themed editions the magazine is releasing throughout 2024.

The dawn of AI, transhumanism, and robotics, will rise just like the sun, inexorably, and we are now struggling to imagine that future, to understand what it might mean for humanity when/if something else takes the wheel. There is no doubt now that AI will surpass our abilities in many areas: radiological analysis, data entry, medical diagnosis, paralegal research, and the list expands daily, as does the worry surrounding the disruption to our jobs, and to our lives.

This issue of ADC speaks to the growing unease with respect to our loss of control and our involuntary delegation of decision-making to technology. This powerful and accelerating wave will be transformative.

Deborah Serra – Technology Ethics Edition Editor

You can purchase the Technology Ethics collection on Amazon. Their next collection, Crimes and Punishments is available for preorder and will be released on February 21!

This collection has already received well-deserved praise:

“These collections can offer a spine for such courses, or the individual stories could be added to a course as illustrative material to stimulate discussion; outside of educational contexts, they work nicely to stimulate conversation in families, elder hostels, youth clubs, or book groups.”

Luc Bovens, PhD – Philosophy Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

After Dinner Conversation is an independent, nonprofit, literary magazine that focuses on short story fiction that encourages philosophical and ethical discussions with friends, family, and students.  Each story comes with five suggested discussion questions. You can discover more on their website and social media: f x i.

“Do Robots Make Good Poets?” Let’s Discuss.

They cannot evoke a poet’s self, but they can sometimes come up with useful lines.

Like many writers and teachers, I feel the gathering threat of machine-written literature. In the old days of computers, there used to be a saying, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Today, into the maw of large language models, some garbage no doubt goes. But these large language models are also fed, as I understand it, all the text that exists on the internet and that includes the great works of world literature (though maybe not very recent works). It is becoming more common to allow these models or chatbots to write essays, analyses, business plans, and the like. As a teacher of poetry writing, I wanted to see how these bots might operate in the creative-writing classroom. I wanted to find out if robots made good poets.

To attempt to answer this, I created an exercise for my Summer 2023 Drexel University poetry writing class to see how and how well ChatGPT generated poems. The exercise comprised several steps. Students first had to engineer a prompt that included a topic, a mood, and some key words. That took some thinking and attention to self. Next, students told their chatbots to produce a poem based on their engineered prompts. The bots produced the poems in fifteen seconds. Following this, students shared the bot poems out loud in class and posted them on our teaching platform (Blackboard), and we workshopped the robot poems. Finally, the students had to harvest from their robot poems any usable lines and make them part of their own follow-up poem. As a means of attribution, the students were required to underline the robot-written lines they added to their self-written follow-up poems. (It does feel weird to use the term self-written).

Occasionally the students found some strong and usable lines in the robot poems. More often than not, however, the students condemned the robot poems as soulless and rote imitations of verse. Not only were the students vehement and harsh critics of the robot poems, they were enthusiastic about each other’s real voices, praising each other’s follow-up poems for their sincerity and heart. I was very encouraged by the students’ overall negative attitude to the chatbot poems. As much as I hate to say this, I was a little less harsh than the students about some of the AI poems.

The students in this class were sophomores on up and came from a wide variety of majors. No one was required to participate in this exercise. Three students did opt out of the exercise: a philosophy major, a computer science major, and an English major.

Of course, the robots were good at spelling, mechanics, and standard English grammar. This was a benefit to all, especially the English language learners in the class. I appreciated the clean copy as I did not have to pinpoint glitches in proofreading. Almost always when the tool saw the term “poem” in the prompt, it generated a rhymed poem even when the student’s prompt specified an unrhymed poem. Once in a while, the bots committed the classic error of sacrificing meaning or correct usage in the service of rhyme. Sometimes I could detect the influence of English and American poets from the tradition in the AI poems even when the students did not request a poem “in the style of.” 

I present here a selection of student-engineered prompts, the raw robot poems, students’ own poems connected with the exercise, workshop comments about the robot poems, and a few other observations. Finally, I include some of my students’ overall comments on the exercise and some of my own opinions about the future of AI-generated literature. All the students quoted and named here gave me permission to use their work and their names.

The precursor prompt

Before I began the more creative part of the exercise, I had all the participating students ask ChatGPT to write an unrhymed ten-line poem from a prompt I engineered. The bot was to write a poem about a man named Sam who encounters a wolf while hiking in the woods, incorporating the words “gray,” “the smell of green weeds,” “teeth,” “gun,” “afraid,” “run,” “yell,” “twilight,” “safe.” All the robot poems were different!

Samples from the multi-step exercise

English major Diamond Warney offered ChatGPT this prompt: 

No rhyme scheme. Ominous and foreboding mood – “Something is coming. Use the verbs ‘devour,’ ‘drown,’ ‘mourn,’ ‘sleep’ and ‘drive.’  Use the adjectives ‘godly,’ ‘delicious,’ ‘heavenly,’ and ‘pungent.’ Use elements of different religions and faiths. Use the words ‘purple,’ ‘garlic,’ and ‘hospital.’ Use the phrase, ‘Richie, don’t be late for dinner.’” Diamond underlined the phrases in the raw ChatGPT poem that she included in her original poem, and she underlined those raw phrases (or their revisions) in her follow-up poem.

Here is the raw ChatGPT poem generated from Diamond’s prompt:

untitled

In shadows cast by gods of old and new,
An ominous veil, foreboding, weaves its view,
As whispers 'cross diverse faiths, they fly,
The harbinger of change, impending nigh.

Devouring stars, a cosmic tempest looms,
Religions' ancient scripts in heavenly tombs,
They drown in sacred waters, souls in mourn,
While deities in slumber, await their cosmic turn.

From east to west, the chariots of fate do drive,
A pungent scent of garlic, offerings alive,
Yet Richie, don't be late for dinner, pray,
For in this mystic hour, worlds may fall away.

Purple shrouds the horizon, darkness to distill,
A hospital for hope, a reckoning, and will.

Of this poem, Diamond remarked, “The first and last lines are interesting and could be reworked and added to a better work. I also like the line, ‘Richie, don’t be late for dinner, pray.’ I didn’t think about praying before meals when I wrote the prompts. I think ChatGPT could be used to connect ideas you had but didn’t realize were related. The bot didn’t pick up on tone and literally used the words in the poem, but there are some ominous images in here like the mass of purple on the horizon. The bot also connected some of the words that I used in the prompt, like garlic and pungent.”

A few observations from me as instructor:

My take here is that the AI knew many stock phrases about spirituality and the cosmos and churned them into a rhymed sonnet even though Diamond didn’t ask for a sonnet. The program mostly used Diamond’s key words in the order she listed them in her prompt. It did not use the word “godly,” but did use the word “god.” 

Below is the follow-up poem Diamond created incorporating some AI-generated phrases. These are underlined.

Kitchen Sink 

By Diamond Warney

Babies left behind 
by gods of yesterday and today
at fire stations, on doorsteps, in pews
reaching out plump hands 
trying to catch the stars.
The only sign the gods were ever there.

My mother left me
in a gas station. I drank warm fuel from the pumps
and got high on the smell of Black & Mild’s.

In death, our atoms spread 
to become tiny pieces of everything.
We are beautiful and cosmic. 
We are ourselves again. 

You said you knew I was trouble
from the way I drive, with my head out the window
devouring stars and flies. 
No one taught me to stay inside the lines

So drown me in the sacred waters 
your mother bathed you in
before you grew out of the kitchen sink. 
Maybe then, I’ll know how to be loved. 
Maybe then, I will be cleansed.

A few observations from me as instructor:

Diamond’s new poem cries out in sympathy for discarded and abandoned children whose only solace, sadly, comes from a mysterious connection to the universe. Then she shifts to a literary speaker who is an outsider, a foundling left at a gas station and who knows the world from gas station odors, such as the smell of tobacco and gasoline. The voice then speaks as an adult who still sees herself as an outsider evoked in part by the image of her dangerously driving with her head out of a car window.

Aliyadeth Griffiths, an English major, did a turn-about. First, she wrote her own poem on the theme of striving, critically assessing the self in the mirror, and incorporating the sentences, “Be more. Do more.” 

Are You Satisfied Yet?

By Aliyadeth Griffiths

As I look at myself in the mirror,
Reflections of all I could be watch me intently,
Their eyes gazing with avid curiosity.

They haunt the bathroom mirror,
With a sinister smile plastered across their face. 
Like lurking shadows, they taunt me. 
“Be more. Do more.” They breathe against my neck.
In return, I stare at my decaying appearance.
My skin, fractured and pale, crumbling under my touch,

The dark circles underneath my eyes rise as I try to smile,
My hands trembling from fatigue.
“Be more. Do more.” They whisper again, their cries louder this time, 
The voices of the expectations echoing on the reflection,
Reminding me that I am meant to be nothing but perfection. 

The bones in my body creak loudly as I stand,
Aching and frail, I stare at all the work that haunts me in my sleep.

I can always do more. 
I can always be more.
I can always work harder than I ever have before.

The voices in the mirror seem pleased by my response,
As I turn away from my reflection,
My body collapsing on the floor.

Aliyadeth’s own poem speaks through graphic and even ghoulish imagery that invokes feelings of self-criticism and self-condemnation, and it includes a strong charge to try even harder to achieve better things. There emerges an interesting dialogue with the self in the mirror.

After composing her own poem, Aliyadeth provided this prompt to ChatGPT. “Write a horror 22-line poem about being a burnout high achiever, including the phrase, ‘Be more. Do more.'” She also asked the bot to create a title. Here is what the robot wrote. 

Whispers of the Abyss: The Burnout's Lament

In shadows cast by fractured dreams, I dwell, 
A burnout high achiever's cursed spell, 
Once driven by the whispers of success's lore, 
Now trapped within a labyrinth of endless chore.
Be more. Do more. The mantra drilled in bone, 
A relentless pursuit, a heart turned stone, 
I climbed the pinnacles of acclaim and might, 
Only to find the abyss in that blinding light.
Frenzied steps echoed, accolades in tow, 
Yet the void within grew with every glow, 
A phantom grin masked the wearied soul, 
As I danced on embers, an unholy toll.
Be more. Do more. The voices never cease, 
A crescendo of torment, a maddening peace, 
Shadows stretch, merging with fractured mind, 
In this twisted symphony, where hopes unwind.
Reflections leer, distorted and askew, 
A burnout's tale, a nightmare woven true, 
Haunted by echoes of an insatiable roar, 
Be more. Do more. Until you're no more.

Here are peer comments on Aliyadeth’s two poems.

From Maura Mealy, a psychology major: 

As always, your work is stellar! As much as I hate to say, I enjoyed an aspect of the bot poem, the repetition in the “Be more. Do More.” The lines were surprising from ChatGPT, but it was part of your original prompt! Your actual poem blew the AI out of the water. The actual narrative and story felt realistic and relatable. The repetition in this felt much more natural and flowed better in the poem, and it was just, in general, more of an enjoyable read. The AI gets bogged down in trying to use fanciful words while you actually utilize descriptors to move the poem along. Great job, as always!!

From Zakee Aleem, a finance major:

The poem drafted by AI was surpringly good even tho still void of so much emotion or even a setting. I think it somehow works because the prompt lends itself to a cold poem void of love and affection. Your poem is much more emotional and I can really place myself in this poem much easier. Great work!

A few observations from me as instructor:

In the bot-generated version, I heard echoes of Byron, Shelley, and Poe. The AI poem had a drumming rhythm and remorseful tone that suited the subject and the injunction to “Be more. Do more.” 

Every so often, the bot would come up with a very sophisticated line. Malachi Solomon, a general studies major, told the bot to write an unrhymed sad poem with these terms: “kick, punch, stupid, good, honest, helpful, caring, fragrant, bang, uncle.” Although the AI poem was filled with the stock observations and persistent rhyme, the robot did come up with one terrific example of anthimeria (use of one part of speech as if it were another): “A kick to the heart, a punch in the think.” “A punch in the think.” What a great phrase. It evokes a harsh and shocking assault to the mind. While Malachi did not decide to use that phrase in his follow-up poem, I have to give AI some props for generating it. Makes me wonder what was going on in the think of the program. 

How beneficial is ChatGPT to you as a poet?

I posed this question to the class, and here are some of the students’ responses.

From Anna Bokarev, and English and writing major:

To me personally, I don’t think ChatGPT will be all that beneficial. In fact, I found it really difficult to workshop the poem that ChatGPT spit out for me. It didn’t really have a tone or voice, and workshopping that into the poem required me to tear it apart and delete most of it. I also wasn’t the biggest fan of the phrases it used. Some of them were pretty interesting, but they were all so surface level that I couldn’t really incorporate them into a narrative-styled poem. ChatGPT was doing a lot of telling but not a lot of showing. 

I also just think reading the work and finding inspiration from real writers is a far better way to do it than consulting ChatGPT. There’s voice and passion in the work of human writers, which I believe is what ultimately inspires a writer. For now, I’d rather avoid the tool at all costs. It seemed to make my writing process more difficult and dull.

From Grace Dhankhar, a computer science major. Grace was one of the students who opted out of the ChatGPT experiment:

Personally, I am very against the use of AI tools like ChatGPT, and I have very strong feelings about it, but I understand that people are going to use it regardless of my opinion of it. With that being said, if people are going to use it, I think that it would be a cool tool if someone wanted to find a new way to say something or a new phrase, since some of the phrases the AI came up with were sort of eloquent, but I would absolutely never rely on it to create anything actually creative. With all of the examples shown in class, the human poem or revision of the poem is so much better and less nonsensical since the AI couldn’t really put together coherent thoughts together.

From Aliyadeth Griffiths, English major: 

For me, ChatGPT has always been more hindering than helpful, especially when it comes to the writing process. I find that reading the bot’s writing before coming up with my own often confuses me, because of its excessive eloquence, along with feeling as if I can’t use any idea the bot might’ve come up with because of the questionable ethics. I also don’t particularly enjoy using even one line from it, as I feel like I’m stealing from the authors the bot has been fed. 

While I am not completely against ever using AI (I feel like there is no point in being so against it—this is the way technology moving forward, and there’s no point in trying to fight it; especially when it is being used so often, by so many people and organizations), but I don’t particularly enjoy it. It feels wrong, as we can’t make sure which of these authors would actually be okay with their work being used this way. While I do think it’s crazy how far technology has come (for better or for worse!), it feels wrong to use it, especially with the writers’ strike going on as writers are not being paid enough to make a living. 

[Note: The Writers Guild of America strike, which began on May 2, 2023, was still going as of the writing of this post in late August 2023.]

From Maura Mealy, psychology major:

I think it’s essential to make the distinction that ChatGPT/AI models like it should be used as tools and not solutions. We talked in class about how these models are fed information and language from great literary sources, like Poe or Wordsworth or whomever, but anyone can feed data into these models. You can tell the AI 2+2=100 enough times, and it’ll believe it. When using it to generate ideas or references, it’s super critical to fact-check them, especially when using it in a creative sense. We saw some fascinating lines come out of the AI poems from the class exercise, some of which didn’t totally suck. While the chance the AI-generated those lines entirely on its own is high, I still feel the need to do a quick Google search to check if these “good lines” were plagiarized material/lines someone else had fed into the machine. 

In the context of writing poetry, this is not a useless tool. It can come up with pretty words/fancy phrases if you are looking for some old-school inspiration. The narratives it generates are straightforward and basic, with surface-level meaning. I feel like most poets seek a deeper meaning behind the pretty imagery used, which the bot just couldn’t create. 

From a majority of students in the class:

The class suggested that I try this exercise next year because they said that the bots will change and people’s perceptions about large language models and other forms of AI will also change. 

Some perspectives on the future of writing and AI:

The students’ pushback against the robots and their observations on the dangers of AI gave me faith in the value of human sensitivity and creativity. But the exercise also made me fearful. ChatGPT did occasionally come up with good lines. The large language model was built on the DNA of the literary tradition, and thus was more learned that the students or me or anyone. It suffered no gaps in education or memory. True self-expression grows out of subjectivity and that oddness that puts the stamp of individuality on a writer’s voice. Can a machine ever duplicate that individuality, or if not duplicate it create a new individuality altogether?

I am concerned, as many others are, that facile AI creations might dominate the arts or “popular culture” (whatever that is). Will the bot scribes, in time, coax us into accepting their recombinations and mutations of preexisting literature, no matter how elegant and respectful of the human condition that preexisting literature is? Will AI-generated literature become so widespread that we accept its verbiage as literature?  Or, more concerningly, might AI create new believable individualities that produce real poetry? 

This is not the first time that human ingenuity has unleashed great powers for human benefit or harm. Consider the printing press, the radio, the telephone, the internet. Think of the atomic bomb, gain-of-function viruses, human-caused climate change. Then think of increased freedom of expression, nuclear nonproliferation treaties, laws (heeded or not) against chemical and biological warfare, medical progress, the fight against global warming. Reflect on how effective AI already is for speeding along propaganda and untruth. In the midst of doomsday threats, the prospect of AI-created poetry seems barely worth the worry. Depending on how seriously AI dominates, poets and writers can resort to samizdat. It would not be the first time writers had to do that.

You can read Lynn Levin’s poem, “Sam Shipper and the Rock: Fiction Writing 101” in Superstition Review‘s Issue 6. Additionally, her guest post, “Beloved, Open Your Door” can be read on our blog.

K-pop. Literary. Phenomenon. Contributor Update: Christine Ma-Kellams

Congratulations to previous contributor Christine Ma-Kellams on the upcoming publication of her novel, The Band! On April 16th, 2024, readers will be able to purchase her book from Atria Books.

“Talent is a burden for which the only relief is attention.”

(But is it paying attention or giving it?) the footnote asks. The Band is a novel that melds the literary and the self-aware. Five K-pop idols rise to unparalleled fame. One disappears. What is the difference between love and paying attention? And what do we miss regardless of how close we think we are watching? Christine Ma-Kellams’ work is humming with insight and connections. The story itself is supremely aware of its existence within a canonalbeit one that includes the Bible alongside Grand Theft Auto V. Often situating itself to other elements of culture, The Band effortlessly stands apart as one of the most unconventional reads of 2024.

Ma-Kellams’ novel has already received well-deserved praise:

“This could very well be the first great K-Pop literary phenomenon.”

Debutiful, Most Anticipated Books of 2024

“No one else could have written this book.”

—Loan LE, Senior Editor at Atria Books

Ma-Kellams’ short story, “Chazzy,” can be found in Issue 19 of Superstition Review.

Christine Ma-Kellams is a Harvard-trained cultural psychologist, Pushcart-nominated fiction writer, and first-generation American. Her work and writing have appeared in Huffpost, Chicago Tribune, Catapult, Salon, The Wall Street Journal, The Rumpus, and much more. The Band is her first novel. You can find her in person in one of California’s coastal cities or online at ChristineMa-Kellams.com.

Contributor Update: Ananda Lima

Congratulations to Ananda Lima on the upcoming release of her fiction debut, Craft: Stories I Wrote for the Devil! The novel with be available June 18th from Tor Books and is available for pre-order now.

Craft is a surreal literary linked short story collection revolving around the absurdity of our times, art, and writing, as well as a complex view of the immigrant experience. The stories are written by a writer who meets with the Devil again and again throughout her life, after sleeping with him at a Halloween party in 1999.

The book has already received significant praise:

“Here is a collection of stories that not only delights in its ability to subvert the reader’s expectations but also leaves one haunted.”

—The Kenyon Review

“My only problem with this book is the title, and that’s because I love it so much. Ananda Lima didn’t write these stories for the Devil, she wrote them for me! An absolutely thrilling reminder that short stories can be the best kind of magic, conjuring up not only the devil, but real emotion, real surprise, real strangeness.”

—Kelly Link, author of The Book of Love

Ananda Lima’s poem “Transa” can be found in Issue 20 of s[r]. She can also be found on her website and across her social media accounts: @anandalima: i | t | b | fb | @.

Ananda Lima is a poet, translator, and fiction writer born in Brasília, Brazil, now living in Chicago, ILShe’s the author of the poetry collection Mother/land, winner of the Hudson Prize. Her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Poets.org, Kenyon Review Online, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, The Common, Witness, and elsewhere. She has been awarded the inaugural WIP Fellowship by Latinx-in-Publishing. She has an MA in Linguistics from UCLA and an MFA in Creative Writing in Fiction from Rutgers University, Newark.

Contributer Update: Terese Svoboda

Available February 1
Winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction
Available March 1

We at Superstition Review are pleased to congratulate previous contributor Terese Svoboda on her upcoming release of two novels!

In Roxy and Coco, the namesake sisters are two glamorous harpies—mythical bird women—attempting to outrun extinction and fix the planet by preventing child abuse, one child at a time. Navigating urgent social work with abusive parents, personal attractions with complicated suspicions, curious homicides and surprise interventions, Roxy and Coco is a mythical reimagining with the soul of modern woes and foes, and the thrill of modern superheroes. 

Winner of the Juniper Prize, The Long Swim is a collection of cynical, irreverent, and formally daring short stories. From a runaway circus lion that haunts a small town where two lovers risk more than their respective marriages, to a junket to Cuba and an ambassador’s dalliance with a niece hide dark secrets and political revolution. Inventive, dark, and absurd, these stories capture Svoboda’s clear-eyed, wry angle on the world: a place of violence and uncertainty but also wild beauty, adventure, and love both lasting and ephemeral. Globe-trotting, barbed, nuanced, and deeply human, The Long Swim will speak to fans of Lauren Groff, Helen DeWitt, George Saunders, and Amy Hempel.

Both novels have already received enthusiastic reviews:

“There are many mythic reimaginings out there, but I can guarantee you that Roxy and Coco is unlike anything you’ve read—Terese Svoboda’s harpies are winged avengers, a celestial task force who save kids who have been abused by their terrestrial protectors.” 

—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia! and Sleep Donation

“Existing at the sweet spot between Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs. Caliban, Donald Barthelme’s Snow White, and James Purdy’s I Am Elijah ThrushRoxy and Coco plucks a creature out of myth to bring it into our present—and does so in a way that keeps a steady eye on the flaws of our own weird moment. Rarely has fantastic fiction managed to say so much so deftly about the real while still offering a terrific, strange and highly original read.”

—Brian Evenson, author of Last Days and Song for the Unraveling of the World

“Terese Svoboda is a master of the dire and the blackly comic and a virtuoso of economy and voice, and The Long Swim features the jaunty and the wounded who in extremis maintain their wit and lacerating self-awareness.”

—Jim Shepard, author of The Book of Aron and Like You’d Understand, Anyway

“One of those writers you would be tempted 
to read regardless of the setting or the period 
or the plot or even the genre.”

—Bloomsbury Review

Terese Svoboda is the author of over twenty books, including fiction, poetry, biography, translation, and memoir, including the recent novel, Dog on Fire (2023). Her many honors include a Guggenheim fellowship, the Bobst Prize in fiction, the Iowa Poetry Prize, An NEH translation grant, The Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, a Jerome Foundation grant, the O. Henry Award for the short story, and a Pushcart Prize for the essay.

You can read her story in Superstition Review Issue 7 here. You can read her interview for s[r] here. She has also published guest posts on our blog. Her work can be found in its entirety on her website.

Superstition Review Submissions Open

Superstition Review is open to submissions for Issue 33. Our submission window closes January 31st, 2024 at 11:59 p.m.

Our magazine is looking for art, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry submissions. You can submit here.

Ensure you read all guidelines before submitting. Do not submit previously published work. Simultaneous submissions are permitted, but please alert Superstition Review to a piece’s potential publication elsewhere. Submissions are able to be withdrawn and part of a submission can be withdrawn if a note is added in submittable.

View Issue 32 of Superstition Review to understand the type of work our literary magazine publishes.

Contributor Update: Timothy Reilly

We are excited to celebrate Timothy Reilly’s recent publication of his fiction chapbook, Short Story Quartet.

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” — C.S Lewis

As the title suggests, this fiction chapbook (published by Bottlecap Press) contains just four stories. The tone is set by a flash fiction titled “Tom Corbett and the Cadets of the Academy.” The flash is something of a “junior” quest story: via a 1950s TV space adventure show, and a box top from Kraft caramels. The stories in this miniature collection are certainly diverse, but they are all stories of longing —with skirmishes and hints of reconciliation between physics and metaphysics. The collection ends with a story blending youth and old age: with an unapologetic nod to The Wizard of Oz.

This book has been well received, hailed “A beautifully nostalgic collection” by Fictive Dream literary magazine.

Timothy Reilly has contributed stories to Superstition Review in both Issues 16 and 19. He also wrote two guest posts for s[r]: “Mozartean,” (November 21, 2020) and “How a Former Tuba Player Becomes a Writer of Short Stories” (October 18, 2018).

You can purchase Short Story Quartet from Bottlecap Press here.

Timothy Reilly had been a professional tubist (including a stint with the Teatro Regio of Turin, Italy) until around 1980, when a condition called “Embouchure Dystonia” ended his music career. He gratefully retired from substitute teaching in 2014. Three-times nominated for a Pushcart Prize, he has published in Zone 3, The Main Street Rag, Fictive Dream, Superstition Review, and many other journals. His chapbook, Short Story Quartet, is published by Bottlecap Press Features. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Jo-Anne Cappeluti: a poet and scholar.

An Interview with E Townsend

This is the Perfect Song for a Forever 21 Store a Decade Ago

After “Men On The Moon,” Chelsea Cutler

We put men on the moon / But I still don’t know how to get to you

We lose each other in between curated bohemian, glitzy, casual rooms in Forever 21, and I know to find you far away from the plus-size section, where I currently am, comforted by the fact this is the first place in my life I can shop for clothes that fit and are kinda sorta actually cool. Lorde blares in the speakers It feels so scary getting old and I need to remember to look up this song later to share with you. I search like a serpent between racks, my attention shifting to hundreds of different clothing styles, trying hard to make a beeline to the dressing rooms. You laugh when you spot a pile of long-sleeve shirts in my arm.

“Knew it would take you a while to find me.”

I don’t know when I’m going to lose you for good.

And now all I can do / Is wait for you to come down

I am so sorry for all the times I scared you. Dropping suicidal threats before lunch in seventh grade, hiding in the science classroom to avoid you. All to get attention that I shouldn’t have fought for, everyone has a life and I need to be better at allowing breathing room. You’re very brave for putting up with this shit. We’re too young, we should be talking about boys, not my frequently imagined funeral.

Years later I do it again to someone else, I hurt them as hard as I hurt you, and I can only see your face in place of theirs, disapproving and reddened, oceans splitting into two. I am always above you when I should’ve been below.

Our friends don’t understand the delicacy of this buoyancy. How I bounce between girls to fill a savior-complex void, knowing I would go back to you, knowing they couldn’t save me well enough to feel like it is enough. Nothing is enough.

We built weapons of war / But I’m out of bullets to fire

It takes three years of college to move on, write a mean essay self-victimizing my depression and our friendship. It takes another three years to write a new essay and realize you were the victim from my suffocation. Bitterness burrows deep when I read that old piece—I was not fearless enough to allow you to read it; I blocked you from the publication link when I posted about it online. But I know you must’ve found it, one of our friends probably forwarded with concern, or you searched for my work, as I always hoped you would. Before we split, you supported my writing, regardless of how aggrieved it tended to be.

“Certainly you remember the guilt, the anger I instilled in our friendship, our stupid, wonderful friendship. I’m thankful for my life, but you carved a scar while trying to save me. You’ve ruined all future devotions to people, because I have to keep them at a distance to not get scorched again. Thanks a fucking lot. I will never feel happy in a new attachment because I have to keep my expectations wrangled in a cage, snarling to get out. Godamnnit. All I did during our broken time was hate you, miss you, forget about you, remember everything about you.”

And now I hate that I had to learn a lesson when I could’ve avoided it and have been a better person. You don’t deserve to live with my resentment. That chapter now feels like an epilogue and we’ve been shelved in a thrift store, left behind and discounted.

My temper is short / But I’m here, givin’ up my ground

I never give you a chance to breathe, and when we move out of town for college, I still won’t let up. Communication is so dramatic sometimes. I mail my side of a closure letter a month before moving to Nacogdoches for college. Before we ended I imagined us at the bottom of a sloped driveway, cinematically saying goodbye—we always knew we would move on, but not on these terms. It burned to not get the image after all. In the fall I receive yours, and there is so much relief. I look for your face everywhere still, despite knowing we’ve truly ended.

After a few months I had to train myself to stop looking at your social media, searching for clues that you were still thinking about me. Only once did I catch something—you sharpied my initials on your wrist for World Mental Health Day. That picture has since been deleted.

It’s only war if there’s a winner / It’s only hell if there’s a sinner

Christianity is something I can’t get with—but you are devoted. I go to church and endure sappy bullshit. You secretly want me to align with your faith but give up when it’s clear I can’t be saved. “If you just let Jesus in, you’d have a better life.” There is not enough energy in the world for me to fight back.

The summer between high school and college, you went on a mission trip to my home state. You posted the mailing address online and I could barely restrain from sending you letters, like the old days, to let you know I missed you and was happy to see you’re in my favorite place. But I knew you would put some religious spin back onto me, and I knew silence would be better than hearing your judgement.

And I’d do all the things we didn’t / ‘Cause I choose you / Yeah, I choose you

Imagine all the pictures we’d have today. The Starbucks selfies, the graduation snaps, the mini road trips, shrieking about first kisses and unrequited crushes, walking our dogs, crying when our dogs died.

I’m forgetting to notice the memories we’ve had and could’ve had in the corners of our haunts. When I land in Texas for the holidays I don’t expect you to show up at restaurants, though I did run into your mom once at Target—I couldn’t recall her name, but remembered all the afternoons she welcomed me over, shouted at us from downstairs for being too loud. As I order coffee I don’t think about your usual latte. You disappeared into the past collection of people whose faces are now strangers. If I heard your voice in the crowd, I would keep walking.

We put men on the moon / But I can’t figure out what is missing

As I make new friends in college, I fall further away. Instead of blaming you for friendship troubles, I force myself to take responsibility. Once I compared you to a friend who lived 800 miles away, and she called me out for being unfair. The manipulative poison hadn’t fully flooded out of my system, but I was trying. After that incident I finally found gratitude for those who could be around me, who remarkably enjoyed my presence.

And in every room / You’re right in front of me

At some point in my life I will burn your closure letter, but perhaps I’ll leave it to my afterlife to deal with. Only in September do I pull it out of a shoebox from the closet, buried beneath letters from other friends and personal documents, the things I can’t bear to misplace. Some years I forget to read it again. A great sign, I suppose, that time does heal.

We find pictures in stars / But they’re thousands of miles away

Our backs ached after we spent an hour sticking glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling, trying not to trip over each other on the twin-sized bed. None of it trailed into a cohesive constellation. You lied on the floor, stretched while I looked down at you. This is how we always sat.

Stargazer obsessed with pictures of bluebonnets in vintage film, some twin lost in the timeline, you used to connect your asterism with me. And once we started to feel miles away, when I started avoiding the lunch table to punish you, we’d grown so far apart we couldn’t see each other anymore. There was too much cosmic dust.

Sometimes I think we were a film that I made up in my mind.

And I’ll give you my all / But you take and you take and you take

This is when all my guilt swallows me whole, a sun pitcher plant opening to the sky, to release and return. I can’t imagine the pain I put you through, how triggered you were each time you crossed my laser beams of boundaries, how my suicidal texts abused your heart. And all I did was feel like I was giving, I was giving you a reason to live, to make me feel alive, when I only took so much, I took your life in a way, made you drop your friends, explain to your dad that I was bad again, no one but you could understand. I took so much from you.

I’m not the same as I was before / I’ll go through the walls and kick down doors

Now, after twelve years of getting over you, I imagine myself making an unnecessary counseling appointment in Texas, even though I am five states northwest. I know you’re a mental health counselor because of me. Or at least, partly. I’ve left too many scars as a guidebook for you to teach others how to heal.

I dream about your face when you read my name in your calendar. The surprise when I burst through the door, all silent and chaotic at once. How it must feel after a decade without hearing our cries beyond hauntings. In the dream I can’t get past the initial shock, I have no idea how we proceed from there. A cliffhanger with no ground to land on.

But I know I want to apologize a thousand suns for all the pain I put you through. I’m not a better person, but I’m better. The strings you cut from my palm haven’t been reattached to anyone else.

No, I’m not the same as I was before / And I wouldn’t hurt you anymore

When I got in my first relationship four years ago, you were not the first person I told like we’d always imagined—but I wished I did. I was so afraid to get in an argument and lose him like I lost you. I warned him, “If I ever become manipulative, let me know. I did that to someone and I can’t do that again.” Shame loves to feed on long-fermented fears.

We used to share a pint of ice cream on Friday nights, lied back on a parent’s driveway. The smell of neighboring sprinklers rusted our plastic spoons. At the time it all felt like a memory, and I was slowly falling out of sleep.

“You already know this, but you’ll be my maid of honor someday,” you said with half a bite of Neapolitan in your mouth. The chocolate side of the pint was carved in deeper.

“Of course.” I sat up and twisted to the left, scooping around the strawberries. “And if I ever find somebody, you’ll be the same.” My parents’ divorce spurned me from marriage and you saw the warpaths I had to wade through every day, being tossed into the middle all the time.

You got married five years later, and I don’t know who ended up being the maid of honor.

(I’m not the same as I was before; ooh) / It’s only war if there’s a winner

I’m engaged and I feel weird envisioning you in the audience. We promised to be at each other’s weddings and look where we’re at. But there are some parts of your life that followed mine.

You already love that I live in the Pacific Northwest, moved as soon as I graduated college; you visit Washington every year with your Texan husband—reason unknown, but it is suspiciously too coincidental when I’m the one who came from here and lamented daily how much I needed to be back permanently. Each time you post a photo album on Facebook I have to think you’re doing it for me, that you’re sharing what we could’ve done. That is awfully narcissistic and not. The more years that go by, the more removed I am from the pain. I can finally feel happy to share this place with you, even though we’re not together.

If you ever go to my hometown, I never know. I don’t think you want me to know that. But the smell of evergreens and Issaquah Creek, the fresh mulch teeming with wildflowers, the standoffish nature of strangers and drinking coffee in solitude, I hope you think about me. That despite all the ugliness I put you through, I still showed you something beautiful.

(I’ll go through the walls and kick down doors; ooh) / It’s only hell if there’s a sinner

The last time you acknowledged me was in 2017 about a grad school acceptance. We kept our intwining moments on Facebook to a minimum; I hid your name from the feed and blocked you on certain posts. I still wanted you to see and be proud of me. Taking a train through America, visiting my hometown in Washington to restore my sanity, publishing silly little essays and poems, finding that life did get better out of high school. Maturity, in some ways, that I wasn’t going to do the same horrible things to someone else.

I think I liked your wedding photos a year later, but nothing else past that. Our perpendicular lines extended too far to see the other line. I stopped dedicating songs to you, us, in such a naively platonic way. There has never been a chance to run into each other’s path. And if something major happens, we’ll keep looking the other way.

(No, I’m not the same as I was before; ooh) / And I’d do all the things we didn’t

Once, often, many, many, many times, I created scenarios in real life and you popped up perfectly to the script. On bad nights I imagined you driving three hours from Dallas to Nacogdoches, knocking on my dorm door and silently hugging me, the way you used to when we were kids, when I was terrified I wouldn’t still be alive in the morning. During holiday breaks I was antsy about serendipitously turning a corner past you in the mall, on my way into Forever 21, looking for a coat to swap with my friend. I heard this song and I thought, This would be an absolute bop ten years ago, and of fucking course it would play in a Forever 21. We are adults now and I can’t fit into a cheap factory’s version of plus-size clothing; I have to go to more size-inclusive stores like Old Navy (which isn’t any better environmentally, but engineeringly). I can barely remember you scoffing at a horrid floral top or rushing to avoid mean classmates in the party section. The mall was our safe spot, where we knew we could just be friends and my mental health wouldn’t be a third wheel. Something about being in a 1.5 million square foot space of options to change characters and clothes and sit in the silence of a movie theater and try to keep up with each other’s pace in the stores and arguing about remembering where we parked and laughing while swerving around traffic back home because we’re 16, we’re on the fringe of losing it, a story no one but us will tell.

I know now when I lost you, and it’s finally okay.

(And I wouldn’t hurt you anymore; ooh) ‘Cause I choose you / Yeah, I choose you / I do

Of all the people I can forget, at any point in my life, the wavy curls to after Sunday School hang outs, the long walks to the yogurt store that’s no longer there, I want to say I choose to forget you. Favorite color, ranting about your sister, playing video games in the dusky dark after a sleepover, thumb gently pressing A. You let me win at Mario Kart and tuck your blanket up. The dawning sky peeks through the shades, an orange glow sweeping our eyelids closed.

Our history is no longer ours, unequipped from fireworks that spring off when a memory arrives. Your name remains as a scar that won’t make me flinch.

E Townsend’s works have appeared in cream city review, Superstition Review, Prime Number Magazine, carte blanche, Orion, and others. Managing editor at Four Palaces Publishing, she’s also the managing nonfiction editor at Chaotic Merge Magazine and a reader for The Masters Review. A previous nominee for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Essays, and Best of the Net, she is currently tinkering with essays and poems in the Pacific Northwest.


Bryan Lurito: When reading your piece, “This is the Perfect Song for a Forever21 Store a Decade Ago,” what really drew me in was the exploration of teenage relationships and the transformation that comes with adulthood. What about this topic inspired you to recount and share your experiences?
E Townsend: I’ve written about teenage relationships a couple times and it’s a theme still strong in my life. The big sister essay of this was about my manipulation, using my mental health to control my best friend, just generally pathetic woe-is-me shit. I recently reread it and cringed. I didn’t realize how intense I was to her, and to anyone really, until I grew out of it. I didn’t intend to make this a redemption piece, but I needed some cathartic way to apologize to her, and to show myself that I have finally somewhat chilled out. The friendship ended well over ten years ago and her presence doesn’t weigh on me anymore. I’m so far removed from my teen years that it was like we never existed. 

When the sister piece was workshopped years ago, some students made the comment that it’s rare to read about friendships that hurt worse than a romantic breakup. You never feel like you’ll get over it. But then you age, and you see where you went wrong, and the longing only feels like a dull ache. I had been trying to reconcile this for a while and finally had the vessel and emotional clarity to do so without making it a melodramatic diary entry. 

BL: I found your sense of rhythm and voice to be particularly strong. How did you go about developing narrative flow when writing your piece?
ET: When writing I always need music, and it’s typically either the exact same song on repeat or the same playlist. The music then influences the narrative flow based on the pitches in the song, the tempo, the lyrical and vocal rhythm. And when I edit, it’s still based on the music that’s on. The song just feels like the perfect backtrack for broken teenage friendship, and I hope the reader will give it a listen while reading. Any song I write to/reference is meant to serve as an extra layer to the piece.

BL: I was particularly intrigued by your integration of a song into your piece. Was this song the inspiration for the piece, or something which built upon a pre-existing story idea? How did this affect your integration of the song into the narrative?
ET: I found the song through someone’s 15 second Instagram story, then listened to the whole thing on loop for three hours. I kept seeing a music video of our friendship, chasing each other through different sized clothing racks, and when it got to the really intense bridge, I imagined a heavy insane sequence of all our fights and pining and missing each other and it only makes sense to us but we’re no longer on the same wavelength so one of us could’ve wiped away the memories. It originally was going to be a love letter to Forever 21, exploring my other teen friendships while shopping in that store and mall, but the song took me elsewhere.

BL: I noticed you also have a history in poetry on top of nonfiction. How do you feel your experience in this second discipline has affected your voice as an essayist?
ET: My poetry professor often told me my poems were essayistic. When I started writing I wanted to be a dedicated poet, but then I discovered nonfiction and fell in love with telling the truth through that particular genre. It excites me to read a line with genuine surprise, a clever smirk at the writer for taking my breath away, so I try to do the same. I’m always looking at every sentence and thinking, if this was a standalone quote, how can I make it stand out? Poetry is full of quick quips and one-liners that transport you to another universe, so it’s fun to challenge myself to write as poetically as I can in a prose form.

BL: I enjoyed how you added several moments throughout your piece which are small on their own, but together aid in fleshing out the main ideas and narrative of the piece. How did you decide which moments to include within your piece, and what was the process of translating them to the page like? Was anything gained, changed, or lost in the process?
ET: When writing the glow in the dark stars scene, I didn’t mention that we also taped lyrics cut from magazine pages on the ceiling—Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars.” That was our song before we ended, focusing on the lines “If I lay here, would you lie with me and just forget the world.” The three lines before those, “I don’t know where / Confused about how as well / Just know that these things will never change for us at all,” kept us together for as long as we could believe in us. We had so many Friday nights lying on a driveway where everything that was going on with us disappeared. We had other things to talk about. I can’t really remember our friendship, which might seem sad, because at one point it was the only thing I would constantly think about. But we’ve grown up, moved on, and I don’t dedicate songs to her anymore (except this one). 

BL: You have been published in quite a few magazines, and also serve as a nonfiction editor yourself. As someone who’s been on both sides of the process, what advice do you have for prospective authors looking to get their own works printed?
ET: Reading other people’s works has definitely influenced and inspired my own. I see the cleverness and the narrative mistakes, the one-liners that blow my mind and the sentences that need to be cut for concision. It has always been my dream to be an editor instead of a writer, but wearing both hats at once gives a really great perspective. Submit your work often, edit every single line, find friends willing to look at your pieces, and keep some sort of notebook (mine is the notes app on my phone) to store your ideas in. Your work will get published eventually—there is always a reader for every and any subject imagined.