Briefs Blog

Behind the Words: Cathy Ulrich

Posted by on Jan 14, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Cathy Ulrich

Cathy Ulrich is a prolific writer and an incredible member of the literary community. She was published in Spry in 2015, and if memory serves me correctly, she’s been working with us as an editorial reader since that publication. Every issue, we offer our staff the opportunity to take a break — we’re an all volunteer team — and every issue, I watch my inbox with anxiety until Cathy responds…always with a note about how happy she’s be to continue working with us.

And only then I can let out a sigh of relief. She is a quick reader, a detailed reader, and a dedicated reader. She encourages stories that may need small edits instead of immediately casting them aside, and when an issue publishes, she champions everyone’s work. I’m so honored to have gotten to know Cathy in the years since we published her work, and I hope you’ll take a moment to learn about her and connect with her now. 

Starlings is a beautifully written piece of flash. Since we publish both creative nonfiction and fiction at this length, I’d love to know which of these genres Starlings falls under.

“Starlings,” like a lot of my writing, has elements of truth in it hidden amongst the lie, the story. This piece has more truth than a lot of my others — it could probably be described as CNF. That year, we really did see a leg-injured starling, really did see a snow-white one in the midst of the others, thought it might be a different kind of bird, looked up on our phones white starlings.

To follow up from that question, where did the spark of inspiration come from to write this piece?

All the elements were there, so many starlings that year, I can still remember how they peppered the yard, the rush of their wings when they took flight. But the thing that sparked it into a story for me was my mother saying if we were birds, we’d be starlings. She says it to mean that we’re average, but I think starlings are really beautiful.

If you could go back and edit Starlings, would you? Why or why not, and what, (if anything) would you change?

This is a game I try not to play! I try to be satisfied with a story once it’s been published, otherwise I’ll be filled with writing regret all the time. Although in this case, I would maybe make the breaks between the paragraphs stronger — each one is its own little section, and I didn’t make that clear enough, I think.

Shoot, now look what I’ve done!

I feel like every time I open Twitter I see that you’ve published something new. What’s your submissions process look like? Do you write something new and send it to a few places? Do you wait and send batches of work out at a time? 

I submit work as time allows — I like to be familiar with the journal’s aesthetic before submitting. In some cases, this works out perfectly: when I wrote “Starlings,” I thought it would be a good fit for Spry and, luckily, you thought so too! Other times, I am completely wrong and then I have to search for a new home for the piece. I try not to do simultaneous submissions — I am much too disorganized to keep track!

How big is your “In-Progress” folder? How many works-in-progress make it to a final draft?

It’s about a quarter inch thick at the moment! I need to have a physical copy to mark up with pen, so I carry a literal folder around with all the things I’m working on, all my scraps of paper that might turn into something.

In a good week, I can write two or three pieces that might be worth submitting. (In a bad week, when I am very depressed or having panic attacks and can’t focus, I usually just stare at the wall on my lunch break; I can’t write at all then.) Usually two or three rounds of edits is all I give a piece — it goes from handwritten rough draft to the marked-up printout to a clean, pretty version. If I can’t get a story in that time, I have to put it away because it just isn’t going to work. Sometimes I completely rewrite it later and come up with something worth sharing, sometimes it is gone for good.

Another thing I notice from following you on Twitter is that you are such an excellent literary citizen. You’re always sharing the work of your peers. Why do you think it’s important to share fellow writers’ words? Why do you do it?

I love reading. All of my favorite writers love reading. So when I see something that makes me feel like, “yes, this is lovely,” I want other people to have that same feeling when they read it!

And it is so, so powerful to know that your writing has meant something to someone — I have become friends with a writer who shared one of my pieces before I was even active on social media. She didn’t know it out the time, but she actually helped save my life. I was suffering very badly, and seeing that somebody was moved by my words, well, it really saved me.

To follow up, what do you think it takes to make a good literary citizen? What do you wish you saw more often from your peers?

There’s something I’d actually like to see less, and that’s comparison. It makes me so sad when people see a story and say “I could never write like that.” That’s actually good, you know? Because that writer is already writing like that. I want you to write like you.

That comparison thing, it hurts you and it hurts the writer you’re comparing yourself to. We’re all just telling the stories only we can tell, sharing them how best we feel comfortable. When people start getting judged for that (positively or negatively), it can become really painful. We’re all just doing our best — there’s no need to put yourself down, or anyone else. There’s enough room in the world for all the beautiful writers and their words.

Is flash the only genre you write in? If so, what do you like/dislike about it so much? If you write in other genres, which is your favorite?

Flash is definitely my preferred genre. They only had poetry classes when I went to school, so my teachers were all poets, but I really wanted to write fiction. Flash is a bit of a compromise, and one that suits my temperament and skills.

Describe a perfect writing day.

Oooh, that would have to be I get a whole hour for lunch break, and the phone doesn’t ring (or if it does, my coworkers answer it), and I have enough time to write a whole story in my notepad before going back to work, maybe get some edits done on another. Yes. That would be just perfect.

You’ve also been a reader for Spry for some time now. I honestly have no clue what the journal would do without you. Tell us, what do you look for in submissions. What sings to you and what turns you off?

I’m so honored to be a part of the Spry staff — it means so much to me to be part of a project like this. What I look for in our submissions is an unexpected moment, beauty in the language, something that makes me look at a character or a poet or an artist and say, yes, yes, I feel like this too.

That moment. It’s just so wonderful.

Erin Ollila believes in the power of words and how a message can inform – and even transform – its intended audience. Her work can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, copywriting, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things content marketing. She graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. Reach out to her on Instagram at @ErinOllila, or visit her website

Behind the Words: Deborah Crook

Posted by on Jan 11, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Deborah Crook

Deborah Crooks is a writer and performing singer-songwriter living in Alameda, California. She’s released a number or records under her own name and with the band Bay Station. Previous publications include No Depression, Kitchen Sink and in the anthology “The Thinking Girl’s Guide to Enlightenment” (Seal Press).

Here, we discuss her issue 11 flash piece, “Animal Time.”

Cathy Ulrich: This is such a great opening: “It was our last day of the week of no thinking.” I know I personally have trouble shutting off my mind and just being. Was this week an escape for this couple? Or a struggle?

Deborah Crooks: It was an escape, but that’s the catch isn’t it? It’s exactly what you mention regarding quieting your mind. It’s often a struggle to truly get to an intended destination, even if the intent and mechanisms are in place. How to shut off certain thoughts when you’ve been set to one channel and then find yourself in another landscape?

You choose this one moment from this one week for this piece — one of their last moments before going back home. What made you pick this particular moment to focus on?

I’m always interested in endings and beginnings. Often it’s not until we’re at that edge that we truly realize where we’ve been and understand how an experience or place has influenced us. And also the bittersweet preciousness of moments I think I write sometimes so I don’t forget a feeling, even if I’ve taken liberties with details.

The description is so powerful in this piece, “Nothing ever completely dried,” it just pulls the reader into the scene. You write with the authority of someone who has experienced this kind of place — have you visited the setting in this story yourself?

Yes, I’ve been to the Caribbean Islands, and other tropical destinations, and that heaviness of air combined with warmth in those places always surprises me. It’s easy for me to get in the actual water in those places, which impresses and delights me as I have a harder time doing that where I live in California, even though I live near the water. It’s just rarely warm enough!

At the end, the narrator says they “wonder who we were.” During this no-thinking week, was this couple very different people from the ones they are in their day-to-day existence, do you think?

Yes, the people in the story are caught up in a different world of work, and urbanity, away from the elements, and their focus is more on mind than body. I think most urban, modern landscapes require a different focus just to move through them, connect with others, and, you know, pay the bills.

The narrator seems to be feeling some regret when the piece ends — is this because they were so different there? Or because they are so different here?

Here. When you know a different way of being you automatically have to compartmentalize it or reconcile it with your present state. I deeply love the natural world and how my being, all my senses, establish a different rhythm when I’m staying in a rural area, or camping or staying in a warm place with time and space. At the same time, my mind is very trained for media and highways and commerce, and I rarely have the guts to completely unplug anymore. Writing this was my way of exploring that reckoning with that feeling of longing for something else even as one is engaged in the current reality. In the meantime, I’m trying to maintain a connection in my day-to-day living in a metropolitan area – whether it’s noticing which birds are flying overhead or getting my feet on unpaved ground as much as possible.


Cathy Ulrich is a writer from Montana. Her work has been published in various journals, including Wigleaf, Passages North and Black Warrior Review, as well as being included in Best Microfiction 2019.

Behind the Words: Fred Shaw

Posted by on Jan 7, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Fred Shaw

Fred Shaw’s poem “Bully” deals with the causes and effects of cruelty. An honest and trenchant look into the mind and experience of a speaker who preys on the weak “as if it were a rite of passage,” Shaw’s poem appeared in the third Issue of Spry. He was kind enough to offer some insight into the poem’s origins as well as his writing process, the literary scene in Pittsburgh, and what honesty in poetry looks like to him. 

Marcus Whalbring: One thing I think about as I’m reading through “Bully” and your other poems in your book Scraping Away is the relationship between poetry and personal memory. The voice of these poems suggests the speaker is, in fact, you, interacting with your own memories, what some people might refer to as confessional. Is that an accurate assumption?

Fred Shaw: I don’t necessarily denote my work as Confessional, though it definitely has elements of that genre. Honesty is what I strive for through accuracy of imagery and setting, getting the details right.  Confessionalism seems to be linked to sin, and, for the most part, my conscience is pretty clean.

You’ve mentioned that one thing that inspired “Bully” was Tony Hoagland’s “Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People,” which talks about, among other things, the impact of “meanness” in poetry. Can you talk a little about how this essay influenced the poem and what the process of writing it was like? 

Saddened to hear of his passing a few years back, I feel honored to have studied with Hoagland as an undergraduate and did a deep dive into his book Donkey Gospel as a student in Jan Beatty’s senior seminar at Pitt.  I came to greatly enjoy his voice and perspective in those poems and others that would follow. I was working on my first chapbook, Argot, during a trip to close down my cabin in upstate PA and found myself losing focus.  Whenever that happens, I turn to reading and that essay got me thinking that my speakers were always too “nice” and needed to bear their fangs a bit, show a different side.  So often, as a writer, I found myself presenting speakers that were troubled though kind at heart.  In “Bully,” I thought I’d embrace that label and began thinking about the negative impact I’ve made on others.  Those are the things I think we try to forget and for me, that’s one of those “difficult things” I’ve been encouraged to write about by various professors in my past.

So this poem began by your wanting to write in a particular tone. What are your other strategies for finding your way into a poem? How do you begin?

As a poet who leans on narrative (but is also aware of line breaks and sound), I tend to think in scenes when it comes to writing, making it as particular and imagistic as I can recall.  The first decent (meaning I got some positive feedback in class) poem I wrote at 19 as an undergraduate was an “I remember….” poem and it seemed to open up a way of thinking that plays to those strengths.  The rest of it is distilling the language down, giving it a sense of compression in the lines, making each word count.

You said you strive for writing that’s honest. Can you explain what an honest poem looks like? Are there particular poets/poems you admire exemplifying this kind of honesty? What other qualities do you admire in poems you read? 

Not sure what it might look like, but I think it might make a reader cringe and have something of a physical reaction to it, positive or negative. (My older sister, referenced in “Bully,” told me she hated it when I passed it along to her.) In an “honest” poem, there’s no holding back from a societal perspective of poetry that seems to paint it as something that needs to be polite and play nice. Ai’s “Child Beater” has that effect on my students.  Terrance Hayes’ “Talk” also does that, I think.  Jan Beatty’s work is very “honest” in how it deals with so many of her topics and themes.  Those are just a few.  Language is important, for both its compelling sounds and the ways it connects with readers.  Robert Gibb uses some amazing turns of phrase in his work that is both painterly visual and hard-hitting.  I like Ted Kooser’s approach that poetry should be something his Aunt can appreciate, making it approachable for the reader.

Are there any voices that similarly inspire you outside of poetry? Fiction, film, music, visual art, etc.? 

Reading short stories and memoir seem to be what I’m drawn most to reading the last few years, though I read much poetry in several journals.  Films by the Coen Bros.  Jazz, especially Mingus and Monk. Peers of mine like local Pittsburgh poets Kris Collins, Bob Walicki and John Stupp are always producing work that I admire and remind me to get back to the keyboard.

Could you talk a little about the role Pittsburgh has played in your poems, and how Pittsburgh has impacted your life and work? How would you describe the literary community there?

Local writer Dave Newman summed up the city nicely in his novel Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children: “Pittsburgh is a postcard that the rest of the country never sees because no one here has the time to send it, because in Pittsburgh we work all the time,” Newman writes. “The teachers wait tables. The bartenders teach school … because here it is required that you must do to be.” Pittsburgh being the place I know best, has made me fiercely loyal to it, so much so that I once nearly came to blows when someone referred to it as “Shittsburgh” in a Seattle bar. I was surprised by my reaction, but it reminded me that place and setting shape us in many ways.  After reading WC Williams Paterson poems, and the Orkney poet George McKay Brown’s work in grad school, I found both seemed to be seeking the universal in their particular corners of the world.  I liked that idea, a familiar landscape, as a starting point for some of my work. As for the Pittsburgh literary community, it is robust, with readings happening nearly every day of the week–in fact, Pittsburgh punches well above its weight with the amount of quality poetry from here being published both locally and nationally. To paraphrase a corny T-shirt–“It’s a drinking town with a literary problem”

You said you wrote your first “decent” poem at 19. How long had you been writing poetry at that point? What inspired you to begin writing? What is it about poetry that specifically draws you in as a writer and reader of it?

“Decent” is a pretty subjective thing–my sophomore creative writing professor, Belle Waring, gave me a few nice comments on something I wrote for her class.  I think that’s all the push I needed to change my major and get a degree in writing as chemistry classes were not going well.  I had been fooling around with some lines, mostly surreal abstractions that were my best attempts at becoming Jim Morrison, The Door’s lead singer who I had listened to since I was a kid, my older sisters having most of their albums.  Typing those first poems on a manual typewriter was so great feeling–physically and emotionally– that I wanted to keep chasing.  Having parents that emphasized reading of any type was influential, as well, though my father’s reaction to my first attempts were understandably less than enthusiastic.  Poetry drew me in by its language, compression, and brevity, but also by its narrative aspects.  I initially wanted to write fiction but failed miserably. However, some of the narrative poems that I’d read in Ed Ochester and Peter Oresick’s anthology, The Pittsburgh Book of Contemporary Poetry, caught my attention and became the angle I pursued in my own poetry.

What advice would you give to other poets who are just starting out as far as reading, writing, literary community?

For my students, I have them read whatever speaks to them from the poetry anthologies I use for class as a way of seeing what styles they’re into.  From there, I hope that a natural curiosity develops, and they seek out poets whose voice and subject matter they identify with in some way.  While students don’t seem to be reader’s the way I was they’re pretty savvy about finding and knowing what they like.  Having them read full-length collections like Jeffrey McDaniel’s The Endarkenment or Jan Beatty’s Jackknife seems to be revelatory for those who haven’t approached poetry in a book-length kind of way.  As far as literary community, I figure they’ll find their tribes as they progress.

What are you working on currently? 

I have several book reviews in the works, and some unfinished poems I need to attend to as the life of an adjunct professor in the gig economy can make it difficult to carve out the time I feel the work deserves.  Summer is never as productive a time as I hope it to be, but I’m grateful for those moments of finding clarity and focus. I work pretty slowly and have come to understand my revision process much better over the years.  I’m less afraid to “kill my darlings,” as the saying goes.

Marcus Whalbring lives in Indiana with his wife and children where he’s a school teacher. A graduate of the MFA program at Miami University in Oxford Ohio, his poems have appeared (or are forthcoming) in The Cortland Review, Spry, High Shelf, Underwood, and the Oakland Review, among others. 

Behind the Words: Sheila Luna

Posted by on Jun 10, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Sheila Luna

Writer Sheila Luna’s work “Unbalanced” graced issue 9 of our magazine. This piece pivots around a narrator attempting to navigate life with her aging parents. Here, Luna and issue 10 contributor, Grace Campbell, talk about how to approach broad themes inside the tiny space of flash.

Grace Campbell: This piece spans a great deal of time. How did you reconcile the necessary compressions to represent a breadth of time in such a small piece?

Sheila Luna: In writing my essay, Unbalanced, I decided that it wasn’t necessary to explain to the reader how much time had passed to tell my story. Instead, I used repetition to string the memories together to give an illusion of time passing. Repetition, in a way, imitates the memory process. I have always admired the writing style of Joan Didion–how she builds paragraphs with a wide array of shapes, various sentence lengths, and turns around and surprises the reader with an irony. She can portray a tone that takes you in one direction, and then hits you with a blow. The ebbs and flows of her prose and the repetitions – whether a paragraph or an essay, come together like music. My piece is basically about memory. It is also about loss and grief, much like Didion wrote about in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking where her expert use of repetition gives rhythm to her prose and also illuminates objects and their meanings. Losing someone you love comes with so many emotions and pain. Not only the sick feeling in your heart of missing someone, but also nagging thoughts like I should have done more of this, I wish I could have told him that. After my dad died, childhood memories flooded into my head and I wanted to capture them. For me, writing is one way to do that. Writing keeps memories alive and makes sense of the chaos of grief. The trick in writing this short essay was to narrow in on a few details about my parents and my childhood – the shoes, the tree, the kitchen, and repeat them to give a sense of movement and at the same time evoke emotion.

You reference the mother’s memories being stolen like ‘a vacuum sucking cheerios from underneath a sofa’. It struck me as the kind of perspective usually common to parents of young children, yet this piece centers around adult relationships. What made you decide to use this reference?

Watching my mother’s memory slip away day by day, month by month, was agonizing.  I went through all the stages of grief when dealing with her dementia. First, I was in denial.  For a while I was mad at the cruelty of the disease. Angry that she had it and that it was taking her away from me.  While writing this essay, the first thing that came to mind was a loud vacuum cleaner – like the one my mom used in our house.  How she’d be insistent on cleaning every crumb off the carpet, especially when we were having company. It was very disruptive—that vacuum.   And who doesn’t have cheerios under their couch? With this image, I wanted to convey a dichotomy – a comforting piece of childhood and the harshness of a sucking vacuum and how life as we know it can be sucked up in two seconds.  Through several drafts–recrafting paragraphs and changing words– I never once touched the sentence about the vacuum sucking up the cheerios. It ended up being the sentence that I worked the rest of the essay around.

How did you negotiate the balance between the time spent discussing the relationship with the mother and the relationship with the father? Did the success of the piece depend on illustrating these dynamics equally or was that an organic byproduct?

My mom and dad were like one person to me. It was always the two of them.  Their names ran together. Their lives were entwined like two trees grown together to form one big trunk.   When writing about one, it is impossible not to include the other. When my dad passed away suddenly, it crushed our family. The pain of his absence almost became a presence.  But, I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt for my mom—losing her husband of fifty years—how her heart must have split in two. In writing this piece, I never consciously negotiated how much to say about my dad versus my mom.  The balancing act in writing this piece was instinctual. This part of the writing process borders on the mystical. Unfortunately, that does not happen with everything I write.

This piece deals with both memory loss and the loss of the narrator’s parents. Is loss a theme you tend to come back to often in your work?

Loss is a theme that I return to in my work because it is part of the human condition. Everybody can relate.  One of my flash essays, The Lipstick Helps, was recently published in Longridge Review.  This piece is about losing my mom to dementia. It is also about how a simple object– in this case a tube of lipstick–can evoke memories, feelings, and connection.  While grief and loss are profound subjects to write about, I also try to convey a touch of the spiritual—how love and joy are what hold us together. Anger, shock, denial, guilt, fear are emotions of grief and loss that make us crazy.  Everyone has experienced loss in some form. And we want to know how others work through it. The writer’s challenge is to craft a story that is not mopey or isolating but one that that readers will want to stick with and ultimately learn from or be moved by.   A good essay that deals with loss is deeply personal but it should also resonate with humanity. Losing someone you love is emotional chaos. While everyone’s grief is different, there are many books from memoir to fiction and even children’s books that can offer some kind of solace.  Examples that come to mind are A Grief Observed by C.S Lewis, The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke, Wild by Cheryl Strayed,  The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander to name a few.

As a writer of flash, do you find yourself focused on economy of language or succinctness of the story arc or both? How do these differing focal points work themselves out on the page?

A good flash essay drops the reader into a story that is underway already.  I’ve been told in writing workshops that the most important parts of flash are the first line, the last line, and the title and that those three lines knit the piece together. So, that is how I approach writing a flash essay.  Often, when sitting down to write, I come up with a title first, and that helps me to focus on the theme. My piece, Unbalanced, actually went through a few different titles, but then I realized that the essay was really about falling–being unbalanced due to grief.    A good last line should move the reader beyond the story. Maybe that goes for every piece of writing, but especially important for flash. The flash essay is short –even shorter than a short story–so I am conscious of my choice of language, imagery, and the element of surprise.  I studied art in college, so I also see the flash piece as a small painting, not a large canvas, with emphasize on negative spaces – the things left out. Every brushstroke counts.  While writers edit and rewrite and revise, the original strokes remain.  An original stroke of my essay Unbalanced was the vacuum sentence. A great flash piece should rip your heart out. One of my favorite flash pieces is  Sticks by George Saunders.  In this very short story, Saunders describes a man by actions and detail and imagery.  And we get to know him, even feel his joys and pains. The story begins with a happy tone and then builds to heart wrenching sadness.  Achieving a punch of emotion like this in just a few well-chosen words is what I try to achieve when writing flash. It is akin to poetry.  Sometimes it is like magic.

Grace Campbell is the author of the chapbook Girlie Shorts and a founding editor/head writer at Black River Press. She is a nonfiction reader at 5×5. Her chapbook, FWIW, was a finalist for the Turnbuckle Chapbook Competition at Split Lip Press. She was awarded third prize in the Atticus Review Creative Nonfiction Flash Contest (2018). She is a 2018 June Dodge fellow at The Mineral School. Her work has appeared in Gravel, New Flash Fiction Review, Jellyfish, Two Hawks Quarterly, Santa Ana River Review and many other places. She has a soft spot for corgis and tinted lip balm.

ABCs of Poetry: Z is for Zoetrope

Posted by on Jun 5, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: Z is for Zoetrope

“Stop worrying about what the poem means and just listen to the damn poem.”

                                                                U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith


If you are looking for sound for your poems, you can do worse than the letter Z: Zephyrus, Zeppelins, zeppoles, zithers, hazmat, Zip Cars and zero. Or zilch. When adding zing with Z’s you have the opportunity for zeitgeist, zebras, ziplines, puzzles, seizures, caesuras, or you can write an homage to the day when Thoreau met Zorro and they discussed Zora Neale Hurston.

Z seems to be inexorably linked with onomatopoeia, so simply by using z words, you can get the joyous sounds of sizzle and razzle dazzle. So how do you avoid ridiculous alliteration when writing with z words? I myself start thinking of zillions of zinc zebras sashaying and soft-shooing to a lazy-paced waltz at the end of the alphabet. The letter Z is made for sound, and sound is the engine of poetry. If you permit a variation of synesthesia, think of sound as movement in poetry.


The zoetrope, is an optical wonder that started as a child’s toy and was the precursor for modern film. The zoetrope is a circular device with printed images inside that creates the illusion of movement when spun. A rudimentary but working version was created in China as early as 180 AD. You view the images through the slits in the side, and the images “move” inside. Zoetropes were sometimes described as “persistence of vision” toys. Your goal as a poet is to leave the reader with an image or sound or motion after the poem is done. Z words mixed with images and ideas are perfect for poetry.

If your poem sounds good, it will move.


Spoken word poetry can be a revelation. I use a lot of audio and video to explore poetry with first-year writing students who engage with the form because the emphasis, nuance, phrasing and emotion are provided for them. It’s as reliable as a Zippo lighter.

G. Yamazawa’s fabulous poem “Elementary” won the 2014 National Slam Finals. “Elementary” is about homophobia, and begins with the memorable line “I was so young, I don’t even remember how old I was the first time I called someone gay.” Yamazawa’s poem has motion. He mixes metaphor, image, confession, anger, and performance. The poem moves, even on the page: “I notice that words have gravity/I’ve seen them crush people.”

Take a look at Yamazawa’s work on YouTube, and while you’re there check out Jamila Lysicott’s “How to Speak English 3 Ways” or Frank O’Hara reading “Having a Coke With You.” O’Hara had fun with sound and words: “Having a coke with you is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne/or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona.”

Another Spezialität on the YouTube menu is Danez Smith’s “Dinosaurs in the Hood.” Smith manages to do a lot of heavy lifting with sound and repetition: “…& no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy.”


When you are creating a poem and get stuck, fall back on sound. You are working in words in an oral art form that was meant to be heard. Gertrude Stein had a talent for punishing prose and making it work hard, and had an odd ear for sound: “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Her famous quip about Oakland is similar: “When you get there, there isn’t any there there.” 

Vladimir Nabokov knew sound. Look at this excerpt from Lolita: “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

Sidebar: Z TV

“Zoinks” is a word that should be familiar to anyone that has ever seen the cartoon Scooby-Doo. It was a favorite oath of slacker Shaggy, and was declared loudly, usually with a bit of trepidation and surprise. (Sixties TV also gave us the Batman “Fight Words” appearing on the screen in jagged dayglo balloons like the word Zonk! which might appear Robin punched The Joker. The words were typically accompanied by shrill horn sounds.) The word zoinks is derived from a word common in Shakespearean Elizabethan English, zounds, which means “by Christ’s wounds,” referring to the stigmata, and was considered a swear. Gadzooks is also a watered-down cousin, a PG oath. Zoinks and zounds sound zany, and if you unpack them you find a key event in Christianity. You can probably use them as swears, too, and no one will notice.


I am working on drafts of a poem called “How the Mayans Invented Television” a title clipped from the 80’s punk film Repo Man. I liked the sound of the Mayan snake god Kulkulkan: it climbs, dips, and zips as if on a rollercoaster. I also use his Spanish name, Quetzalcoatl, pronounced Ketzal Koat.

I read drafts of my poems out loud. Many lines crash and burn like a Zeppelin, and some make progress. Hearing the work out loud unlocks the poem.

We may never agree on what makes a good poem. But image, sound, and ideas make a potent combination. Especially sound. To quote Count Basie, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

With your next poem, you could do worse than building a metaphoric Zoetrope.

If your poem sounds good, it will move.

Christopher Madden is an educator, writer, poet, and editor at Woodhall Press. He is the editor of The Astronaut’s Son, a finalist for the 2018 Foreward Indie Book Awards. He is the co-director of the Black Rock Art Guild Performing Artists.

ABCs of Poetry: Y is for You

Posted by on Jun 4, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: Y is for You

The lyric poem, according to Edward Hirsch, has been in practice “for at least forty-five hundred years . . . and is as ancient as recorded literature” (356). In those forty-five hundred years, the lyric poem has expressed personal emotions, experiences, thoughts, and epiphanies through the speaker, who presents herself/himself through the lyric “I.” This makes perfect sense, since when you talk, write, or sing about yourself, you share the experience through “I.” For instance, “I taste a liquor never brewed” from Emily Dickinson’s poem 214; “Every year without knowing it I have passed the day” from W.S. Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death”; and “I took my lyre and said” from Sappho’s fragment 8. These are personal tellings, so the “I” is used, and if a “you” appears in a poem, the “you” is usually some other person the poet/speaker is speaking to (such as in an apostrophe) and a person who is not the reader. But today, the “you” has taken on a new function in lyric poetry.

Over the last few years, I have noticed an increased use of “you” to convey personal experience, as opposed to using the traditional “I” to convey personal experience. Further, this new lyric “you” now inhabits not only the space of the “you the reader” and the plural “you” of a general audience, but it also inhabits the first-person “I.” Often when a poet uses “I,” it is meant to be a universal “I,” where the “I” can anybody who reads the poem. The reader enters the speaker’s emotional being, and the speaker and reader unite. If the poet were to use “you” instead of “I,” it should feel presumptuous of the poet/speaker to tell the reader what the reader is doing, thinking, or feeling. For instance, if Dickinson wrote, “You taste a liquor never brewed,” the reader might step back and say, “No, I haven’t.” And then the reader is kicked out of the poem. The new lyric “you” avoids this aggressively presumptuous behavior and is as inviting as the traditional lyric “I.” For example, Kirby Knowlton’s “How We Live Now”:

They say you can tell if a dog is stupid or not
by if it recognizes itself in the mirror.
In the checkout line where I work, a man
reads the tabloids the week of Kim Kardashian’s
robbery and asks me, what did she think
would happen
. This is how we live now.
I tell my therapist how they bound her hands
with zip ties, the same things Zach E.
and Zack B. looped through a girl’s belt
loop to attach her to her desk in seventh grade,
how often, it’s only your attempt to leave
that informs you of your inability to.
Driving to work that week,
I marked time’s passing by the deer
rotting outside my neighborhood.
By Friday, its body soft and caved in
like a log seconds before it ashes.
Tell me you’ve never abandoned
something just because you could.

For this poem, I am concerned with the bolded “you” forms [that were bolded by me]. The second-person, epiphanic phrase “it’s only your attempt to leave / that informs you or your inability to” ends the sentence that begins in first person, “I tell my therapist.” It’s possible the poet wasn’t paying close enough attention to her pronoun use, but the title of the poem, “How We Live Now,” indicates otherwise. The poem right away establishes a relationship with the reader through “we.” Still the epiphanic pronoun shift is abrupt. However, the poem is attempting to bring the reader into the experience in a new way. The poem assumes the reader has had a similar experience and can easily relate to not being able to leave. The poem then ends in the imperative mood and assumes the reader of having done something, because the poem assumes everyone has abandoned something because they were able to do so. The empathetic tone of the poem, especially in the previous lines of the decaying deer, enables the poem to not be accusative, but embracing. The poet is projecting overwhelming emotions on to the reader, as they are too much for the poet to handle on her own, as evidenced by her visiting a therapist. Whereas in earlier lyric modes that used the lyric “I,” as noted by T. S. Eliot, the poet “is oppressed by a burden which he [or she] must bring to birth in order to obtain relief” (98). This is what the new lyric “you” does, except the poet is not alone in obtaining relief. The poet shares the overwhelming emotion, the burden, with the reader because the poet knows he or she is not alone in a certain type of experience. The lyric poet is no longer writing a poem that will be “overheard” by someone (if anyone), as many critics (as far back as John Stuart Mill’s “What Is Poetry” from 1833) have pointed out. The lyric poem using the lyric “you” directly addresses the reader. It creates a conversation with the reader, but not in a meta way, but in an emotional and therapeutic way. Additionally, the “you” becomes the subject (or shared subject) of the poem, and sometimes is also the object.

According to German theoretician Wolfgang Kayser one of the “three major lyric possibilities of lyric” is addressing (Culler 286), such as addressing a person, animal, god, or thing. The new lyric “you” continues that possibility but with a twist. Instead of addressing a person in a biographical or praiseworthy manner, the new lyric “you” directly addresses the reader with shared sympathy and understanding – it’s assumptive without a bold, assertive presumptuousness. In the end, it’s similar to TFW memes – “The Feeling When you,” and whatever follows the “you” is an action that most know well. The new lyric “you” resides in the second-person singular, second-person plural, and in the first-person. So, if you are writing a poem about a painful experience or an experience you think others can relate to, and/or if you want to speak in the mannerisms of the times (as poets often do), then you might want to consider using “you” as a new way to address your content and readers, as it is the new way for you to connect.

Tom Holmes is the editor of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics and the author of three full-length collections of poetry, most recently The Cave (winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013), as well as four chapbooks. His writings about wine, poetry book reviews, and poetry can be found at his blog, The Line Break: Twitter: @TheLineBreak

ABCs of Poetry: X is for Xray

Posted by on Jun 3, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: X is for Xray

A few years ago I became interested in the artist Man Ray’s camera-less photographs of the early 1920s. Like many of the budding Dadaists, he tried out several types of media – painting, sculpture, as well as photography. He also had to earn a living, which he did with his portraiture and fashion photography. One day, by accident, Mr. Ray placed a glass funnel and a thermometer on photographic paper. This was definitely an accident; his valuable supply of paper was dwindling and he did not need to waste it. But he switched on an electric light and exposed the paper. Images of the objects emerged. Light was refracted through the glass,  yet stopped by the solidity of the materials, so the shapes turned up white where they sheltered the paper against the black of total exposure.  He slipped the new creations into a packet of fashion shots and brought them to Paul Poirier, the great fashion designer, who somewhat reluctantly took them and passed them along the artistic pike. A genius of artistic self-promotion, Man Ray called these pieces “Rayographs.”

He went on to play with this new medium by taking objects and puting them together so they made their own connections with each other. We see the results. A wire fan makes concentric circles of white on black combined with metal springs and a flat ribbon of a yardstick. Human faces touch their lips together as models lay their cheeks on paper.  A wood and iron hand drill pierce a cloud of a circle, in white against black, the hard metal twist positioned to seem as though inserted into soft fruit.

These days, we are used to seeing X-rays of our own insides. Break a bone, and an X-ray will locate the fracture in a tibia. Even if only at a dentist’s office, we are allowed to see our interiors. Like an X-ray of a giant goat’s stomach after it has devoured an indigestible meal, a Rayograph displays its contents in reverse: white against black. Like bones in an X-ray, the hard parts stand out while the soft matter melts away. Flesh, which acts as padding, a bag full of the liquid of blood and plasma, becomes transparent. Skin, the only layer of a body which can normally be seen, reveals its true nature as a mere cover, a blanket for what lies beneath.  An X-ray can beam through all that, until it is stopped by bone. 

We do not really know what lies beneath this cover of skin.  Assume an ignorance of what lies beneath. Epidermis, callous and scar mask our muscles and sinews and the ultimate bones of our skeletons. All that is inside us is hidden. This is the point in the analogy where the X-ray and the Rayograph part ways.  An X-ray is a picture of inside us. We do not take pieces from outside, set them into our cavities, arrange them. Our inner workings stay put, inside us, without our conscious handling of them.

And I would go so far as to say that our insides are supposed to be hidden. We are told to not cut ourselves open. Don’t break the skin.  What is there, is there. It is what it is. And sometimes, what is inside us calls out. It calls out in the language of poetry.

One day, a person wants to write a poem.  She would like to find hummingbirds flittering among hollyhocks. But on this particular day, in order to write that poem, she would have to put flowers and pretty insects on a piece of photographic paper and expose them to light. That particular garden cannot be found, even if the weather seems perfect for it. Sunshine falls on a golden field. But a chill runs in her bones. At the edge of that field stands a house. On the roof of the house perch six large dark birds. All she can see are the dark birds on the Victorian roof. Closer inspection from a safe distance shows a hole in the roof where rotten beams have given way.

The person stands transfixed at the edge of the field, wondering if emergency medical personnel have been dispatched. The vultures have called out. Something not-beautiful inside requests a showing; wants to be revealed,  exposed,  as certainly as if the sun or a ceiling light shines on it.

But who knows that, if one cannot see inside? The vultures may simply station themselves on the highest perch around, so they can see over the fields in case some animal has already fallen. They aren’t birds of prey, and will hurt no one.  Perhaps there’s nothing in the house to be terrified of. I am telling a narrative, that’s all. The words float on the page.

Words in a poem float on skin. They refer to a point underneath. The skin need not, should not be broken.  Maybe a scratch or two might be okay.  But the flesh should not be hacked at, like some amateur surgeon. One should allow words to suspend and refer through the top layer. If one has a hand drill, don’t let it pierce. Lay it on a piece of paper and admire it for what it is.

It may just be an object, this drill, this vulture, this hollyhock. Or it may expose itself as something more personally compelling. No one knows until the words sit on top of the paper what they refer to inside. Here is why a poem is an X-ray, though sometimes it’s a Rayograph. Usually, it’s better for writer and reader alike if it’s an X-ray.

Jeanne DeLarm writes from a house built by a ship captain in 1853 in a Connecticut shore town.  She received an MFA from Fairfield University. Her poems have been published in various journals, one being nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Currently she works on a novel.

ABCs of Poetry: W is for Weaving

Posted by on Jun 2, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: W is for Weaving

Some of the most common questions I receive when someone reads my work, whether the reader is my mother or a friend or a stranger, are these: Did this really happen? Did you really feel like this? How real are these feelings/situations/repercussions/_______?

Poetry exists in an uncertain space. Fiction can be realistic and still exist in an imagined space; non-fiction can be creative and still exist in the actual. But poetry—where does poetry find itself? A weaving of both, I think. Sometimes more actual, sometimes more imagined, generally concerned with language and sound and emotion in a kind of reaching beyond.

The very asking of the questions about real-ity generally shows me that I have successfully woven my poems in a way that causes readers to question their own reality. Writing poetry in 2018 means access to form and content and media like never before. So whether you are approaching lyric or conceptual or spoken word or formal or visual, no matter the genre, it is inevitable that weaving will occur.

When I apply the idea of weaving to my own work, I generally find that this is how the metaphor plays out:

  • Loom: Sometimes I’ll apply formal rules or patterns to my work, though in my own process, form, often appears after initial drafts, not before.
  • Warp (the longitudinal threads, static across the cloth): The world external to my own experience – what Richard Hugo would call “the triggering town.” Pieces of language I jot down, Wikipedia articles I read in the middle of the night, scientific discoveries, historical events, artwork, dreams.
  • Weft (the lateral threads, active and changing): Emotion or experience, sometimes personal, sometimes imagined. This is usually unplanned for me – when I start writing, beginning with the warp or external world, I’m never quite sure where the weft is going to go, but I can guess that figurative language and imagery is going to be pulled through.
  • Weave (the final product): In the end, after revision and critique and reworking, the poem becomes such a mingling of the warp and weft that it can be difficult for even me to tell which is which – where my own reality is different from the figurative language or external world or persona the poem has taken up on its own.

On a recent visit to the American Writers Museum in downtown Chicago, I read part of a letter that Rose Wilder Lane wrote to her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder. While both daughter and mother are known for genres other than poetry, I think that the advice that Rose gives Laura, deep into edits of By the Shores of Silver Lake, is quite useful for us poets.

“You must take into account the actual distinction between truth and fact. It is beyond all human power to tell all the facts. Your whole lifetime spent at nothing else would not tell all the facts of one morning in your life, just any ordinary morning when you get up, dress, get breakfast and wash the dishes. Facts are infinite in number. The truth is a meaning underlying them; you tell the truth by selecting the facts which illustrate it.”

(You can read the letter for yourself here:

Rose is talking about weaving here, weaving towards truth, where the reader nods their head in agreement or empathy or acknowledgement or witness, when they wonder about the very reality of the poem itself.

My answer to the questions about the real-ity of my poems is this: More-or-less. Sometimes more, sometimes less. But I’m more concerned with the fact that the poem is real, and that there is a very real person reading it. I’ve woven something real, put warp and weft together and created something new. And if it’s difficult to tell the difference between the threads, then I think something has turned out well.

For poets interested in the writing metaphor of weaving, here are some questions and places to start:

1. Identify your own warp and weft, as well as any looms that you turn to frequently. What formal constraints are you most comfortable using? Where do you usually begin your poems? Are there any trends in how your poems are built? Habits in how they reach their end? It might be useful to mark up your own poems in terms of warp and weft – where do you write towards yourself, and where do you write away?

2. For those inclined to begin with the personal, try the opposite. Begin with a different kind of warp: a random Wikipedia article, a particular place, a first line borrowed from someone else, a piece of visual art. (Ekphrasis and found poetry lend themselves particularly well to weaving!)

3. For those inclined, like me, to begin with the external, try the opposite. Begin with an emotion, something internal to the self. Make that emotion as visceral as possible before moving outward towards your external weft.

4. Read some poets who are particularly attuned towards moving between the personal and the external, whether in form or content—I would recommend Sandra Beasley’s I Was the Jukebox, Matthea Harvey’s If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?, Monica Youn’s Blackacre, and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas.

Hannah Kroonblawd is a PhD student at Illinois State University. When not teaching or student-ing, she can be found over-watering her peace lily and watching Chinese rom-coms. A graduate of the MFA program at Oregon State University, her recent work can be found in the Blue Earth Review, Radar Poetry, Ruminate, and the South Dakota Review, among others.

ABCs of Poetry: V is for Volta

Posted by on Jun 1, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: V is for Volta

The volta.

You might be thinking, oh you mean the turn? That spot in a Petrarchan/Italian sonnet between the octet and the sestet, or in a Shakespearean sonnet between the third quatrain and the final couplet, where things change? Things like rhyme scheme, stanzaic structure, and argumentative agenda? And in other poems, regardless of whether they’re rhymed and metrical or in another received form, or even free verse (which is still formally astute or at least ought to be), you mean that location where the cinematic, rhetorical, imagistic, and/or some other poetic pattern is suddenly and significantly disrupted?

And I’d say, yes, but. I’d say, sure, the turn, yes, but I’d rather say the volta, and not just because I like the woozy hit of pretention it gives me. Because yes the turn is great, something about the volta seems to crystalize more of the function and aims of poetry than the turn does.

Why? For one, whenever I say the word volta (which comes from the Italian and means, surprisingly, ‘to turn’) I also hear the ghosts of other words strafing and swirling around it.

One is the lavolta, a dance popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, which involved quick steps and leaps, and very intimate (almost erotic) contact between dance partners in order to achieve these leaps. The dance was considered lewd, immoral, and even grounds for police intervention. Critics were scandalized and dancers shocked, in part because other dances of the day, like the pavane, were more like line dancing—less about propinquity than group rhythm, more about conformity than contact.

Another is vaulting (derived from the French voltige), a competition sport in which riders perform acrobatic tricks on a horse who is tethered to a central hub around which it trots or canters, depending on the rider’s level of skill or foolhardiness.

And another is vault, which in turn calls up its several different forms in the world of the actual: vault as in the type of ceiling characterized by high arches where air circulates and the eye is drawn upwards, and vault as in a room (like bank vault) in which goods are stored for later use, and, finally, vault as in the action of jumping, as in pole vault, as in to leap over.

But so what? This is all at best rather tangentially affiliated with the essential action the volta describes and performs, the yoking together of noticeably different expressions of a particular poetic pattern, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to talk about the way that the volta acts as a hinge between, say, a description of boiled prawns and the rosy flush of sunset? Between, say, a stately if mundane description of a bus ride and a passenger’s sudden hurling of a racial slur? Or how it bridges the disparity between maligning one’s lover before affirming one’s undying admiration for them?

Perhaps. But the volta, like poetry, is more than just its function. When we turn the lamp of our attention on the meanings which the volta draws to its periphery like people who thought they heard their name called, we can see in the half-light bizarre and exciting resemblances that explain some of the more understated features inside the volta, which its particular function has compacted and smoothed over time.

So, we might wonder how the volta is like an essential component of a dance the mainstream disapproves of for its action, intimacy, and iconoclasm. Or how it relates to the marriage of steady hoofbeat rhythms (akin to meter and breath, maybe) over which perilous and exciting contortions occur. Or how it is like one brick in an airy internal space masquerading as open. Or how in silhouette, it looks like a leap from one shore to another.

You might interpret the volta (and poetry, which it metonymizes) through the lens of these etymological resemblances differently. Maybe instead of a disapproved-of dance you’d say an erotic and motile commingling of oppositions. Maybe instead of someone doing flips on horseback you’d say poetry’s an ornate and circular performance that endangers its performer while frivolously titillating its audience.

Sure. That’s your interpretive prerogative. But when you do this, whatever your conclusion, you’re still performing one of the most critical actions of poetry: the leap, from one thing onto another. The connecting of unlike elements to show how they are, however tendentiously or absurdly, alike, so we can see the world is made with as many (if not more!) resemblances as it is with divisions (I’m thinking of John Donne and his famous flea in particular here, but great examples outnumber constellations).

The volta also calls to its side the volt, the unit of electromotive force it takes to move one ampere of current past one ohm of resistance. In other words, a unit of electricity. A unit which takes its name not from the same radix as volta as one might expect (the *wel- of Proto-Indo-European, which means ‘to turn or revolve’), but from Alessandro Volta, the Italian physicist who invented the battery, that ubiquitous, sold-separately, small cylindrical container which is full of dormant turns and jolts and shocks that are ready at a moment’s notice to be, by some outside apparatus, activated and transformed into motion. Say, a leaning in. Maybe a clapping. Some laughter. A jeer. Whatever hope as an action might look like.

Conor Bracken is a poet, translator, and teacher. His poems and translations appear or are forthcoming in places like the Colorado Review, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest, and Waxwing. He is the author of Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour (Bull City Press, 2017), selected by Diane Seuss as the winner of the fifth annual Frost Place Chapbook Competition, and translator of Mohammed Khair-Eddine’s Scorpionic Sun (CSU Poetry Center, September 2019). An assistant poetry editor at Four Way Review, he teaches English at the University of Findlay.

ABCs of Poetry: U is for “Un,” as in “Un” the Prefix

Posted by on May 31, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: U is for “Un,” as in “Un” the Prefix


Choose the word you want, the part of speech, attach the prefix and there you go.

Writing poems is like that (for me, anyway)—Un-shoring, uncoupling, un-troubling, unburdening, unending, un-fucking…

That’s the one: Un-fucking.

Writing poems is like that, like un-fucking yourself.

And when I say write, I mean draft, again and again and again—so much that you’ve un-fucked the “a” from the “gain” so its “again” again.


You want to write poems. You sit down to do so. Maybe, in whatever “writing space” that you write, you crack books, you find pages and place the books spine-up so the books look like distant birds in a landscape. You write some lines or stanzas—hell, you might even write a poem.

Nice work. Tomorrow, un-fuck it. The next day, un-fuck it again.

Choose your editorial method, the way you dice up what you’ve written, and there you go.


If poetry is the art of anything, it’s the art of the “Un,” a prefix that breeds the anxiety and liberty of detachment, a prefix that helps us recognize what we have by knowing what we can lose—which means, to my mind, a rejection of ego…

An un-fucking.

Or, really, any other “un” word you can muster—it all fits. Poetry, writing poems, is the “un,” the voice of us yearning the way God must’ve yearned hovering over the formless deep: in un-ease, in unraveling, and then in understanding.


Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe writing poems is the opposite of the “un.” Maybe I chose “un” the prefix because I had to choose “U” as a letter for this series of craft essays. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe by not knowing I’ll find something cogent to say by the end of this. And then I’ll be undone, unfurled, un-fucked, understood.


I sit down to write with an idea, almost always (I’m not one to free-write or write about not being able to write in the face of writing). I pull out books, scan some, don’t look at others, then place them text down (spine-up like distant birds in a landscape). I have an idea, and maybe the spine-up books have helped or hindered it, but it doesn’t matter. My idea is unformed.

Tomorrow I’ll understand the idea’s unimportance; tomorrow I’ll have un-fucked myself from the idea and un-fucked the idea from the poem.

The un-writing of however I start a poem is the core of the poem, the poem’s id, the un-caged animal lusty and unquenchable.

I have to feed it. But first I have to understand how to unshackle it, unlock it, un-cage it.


Am I unclear?

Whatever you write, un-do it. Your poem will crawl out un-shackled and un-caged.

And then you’ll be un-fucked, at least for a little while.

Matt LaFreniere is a husband, father, teacher, poet–not always in that order. His first poetry collection, Don’t Turn the Projector Off!, was recently published by Unsolicited Press. His poems have appeared in Dunes Review, Main Street Rag, Pilgrimage, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Spry, and others.