Big Sky, Small Prose: Flash Contest Winners

Congratulations to Alysia Sawchyn, winner of the 2016 Big Sky, Small Prose Flash Contest! Her piece, "Riverbanks and Honeysuckle" will appear in CutBank 86. Here's what our judge, Chad Simpson, had to say:

"The narrator of 'Riverbanks and Honeysuckle' dredges the Potomac in search of something like truth, but her memory won't cooperate. What the reader gets instead is an investigation of 'overcoming and omission' that is both lyrical and poignant and seems as though it may never end."

About Alysia Sawchyn
Alysia Sawchyn currently lives in Tampa, Florida. She is the managing editor of Saw Palm, and her writing can be found in Indiana Review, Midwestern Gothic, Barrelhouse Online, and elsewhere.

Congratulations also to our two runners-up, whose work will appear in CutBank 86 as well:

"Planning to Be Amazed" by Daryl Scroggins
"At the Dog Park" by Derek Updegraff 


The Woodshop is a feature examining the work spaces and habits of writers both big and small. Joan Didion spent the night in the same room as her work when it was almost finished. Don DeLillo kept a picture of Borges close by. When, and how, do you work? Our latest contributor is poet Danny Caine.

1. Where do you do your work?

I write poems generally whenever they hit me, and it's often quick. "When" becomes "where," and "where" could be on a napkin, in the periphery doodles of class notes, on the back of a cardboard coaster, or on the NOTES iPhone app like an apologizing celebrity. But if there's a single place lately that has a statistically higher percentage of sentences originated therein, it'd be the record-player half of my living room. My living room is split in two by what's basically an invisible hallway from my front doormy apartment is big but it's an architectural nightmare, as is the case with rentals in a college town. Anyway, one half has a couch, a piano, and a bookcase, and the other has a craigslist armchair and a record player. I frequently write in the record player half. 

2. What do you keep on your desk?

It's not really a desk, then, is it. The craigslist armchair has a vintage Danish side table next to it, which frequently has my writing beverage of choice (cold brew, bourbon, sometimes both). There's also a rotary phone with an old poison control sticker, and some vintage trophies, plus a few candlesticks. It's all for decorationmy wife Kara has a great eye for vintage knickknacks.  

3. What's your view like?

There's a weird little cut-out into my kitchen (again, weird architecture). Sometimes my cat sits up there and stares at me while I work, demanding to be fed. If I turn around and look out the window, I can see the McDonald's that's very close to my house. I can sometimes hear the drive-through speaker.

4. Have you made any rules for how you use this space?

Not really, though sometimes the cat tries to take the armchair when I get up. 

5. Do you have any routines that help you get into the flow?

I feel like inspiration is fickle and sporadic, but when I absolutely need to get something written, usually reading jogs things up a bit so that something can happen. Poetry begets more poetry; it's a blessing and a curse.

6. Do you have any superstitions about your work? 

I don't think so? Now that you ask, I'm wondering if I should. I can't write poems if I'm wearing blue or prose if I'm wearing red. I can't write if the Cleveland Indians lost by more than five runs the previous night. I can't listen to music from 1998 if I'm trying to write poetry. How do those sound?

7. Share a recent line/sentence written in this space.

I wrote a poem here two days ago, probably called "In the Bathroom of the Ritz Carlton Downtown." Here's most of the first stanza: 

"Hey fuck you automatic faucet

no matter what your shitty laser

eye thinks, I am a body"

Danny Caine's poetry has appeared in New Ohio ReviewHobartMid-American Review, and other places. He's music editor for At Length magazine and has reviewed books for Los Angeles Review and Rain Taxi. He hails from Cleveland and lives in Lawrence, Kansas where he works at the Raven Bookstore. More at

CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Tall As You Are Between Them" by Annie Christain

Tall As You Are Between Them by Annie Christain (2016)

Review by Eve Kenneally

Annie Christain’s utterly enjoyable debut poetry collection, Tall As You Are Between Them (Conscious & Responsible Press), buzzes with an immensely fierce and intellectual energy.

The first poem in the book, titled “The Sect Which Pulls the Sinews: I’ve Seen You Handle Cocoons” and prefaced with Leviticus 18:22, allows the reader to wade into the collection at their own pace: “The first time I touched a boy, / I glimpsed pomegranate arils / in the bowl / and felt beetles walk across my chest” (4). Leviticus is familiar, but this visceral blend of piety, violence, and sensuality is a welcome surprise.

Throughout the collection, Christain deftly switches from traditional syntax to the unexpected. In “Thorns to Rescue Their Bodies,” she says, “This is a strange apple. I said he hits it. It changes to his evil and the rainbow cider” (38). She also toys with how her words and lines occupy the space of the page, alternating successfully between dense prose and sparse line.

Each section in the book is prefaced with a quote about Pleiades; the Seven Sisters make several appearances throughout Christain’s poems. Additionally, the second section“White House Tapes”is a series of prose poems modeled after transcriptions of three different dialects. Christain dips in and out of different narratives with jolts of charged diction. In “XXVII – Kipper Want,” she says, “Once I was young, I didn’t know words for me, but now I can speak and I will.” While entirely reflective of Christain’s ability to blend contrasting narrative voices, if section two has a fault, it is the inclusion of too many characters. It’s easy for the reader to become overwhelmedat the same time, being overwhelmed in Christain’s space is still a strange and enjoyable experience.

The third section includes the poem “Puteum Abyssi: Till I get to the Bottom and I See You Again” which states, “Out the window, I saw a woman running / across Russia until her kneecaps / were on the opposite side. / She screamed: Stop stabbing; / I’m already dead” (101) one of many lines that display Christain’s ability to show a uniquely nuanced and highly characterized violence consistently throughout her collection.

“Under John Wayne’s Hat” is a particularly memorable and remarkable piece. This prose poem places Stalin and John Wayne together, eating fish and playing mancala. A frying pan of fish “leads Stalin and John Wayne to lovingly admitthrough direct rock tweakingthat they are not afraid to know exactly how they or the fish began” (34). Christain’s blend of the familiar with the surprising and slightly Biblical creates a host of odd and stunning moments.

The titles were also one of my favorite elements of Christain’s collection; for example, “Wondering If I’m a Descendant of the Nephilim While Lying on a Merry-Go-Round at Prentis Park,” “God Wants You to Go to Jail,” and “We Must Kill All Rats Before We Can Kill Your Rats” are unusual and wry.

Christain mines through newspaper headlines, quotes, and pop cultural phenomena with a sharp and striking eye. Her poems are prefaced with lyrics by Metallica, the Eagles, and John Lennon; quotes from Cold Case Files; lines from the Bible and the Qur’an; and even a description for a Marilyn Monroe snowglobe.

In the penultimate poem, Christain muses, “The idea for manifest destiny didn’t just happen” (114). Her poems display elegance, humor, and a strong and grounded sense of development and craft. I can’t wait to see who and what else Christain visits and skillfully constructs in her following collections.

Annie Christain is an assistant professor of composition and ESOL at SUNY Cobleskill. Her poems have appeared in Seneca Review, Oxford Poetry, the Chariton Review, and the Lifted Brow, among others. She received the grand prize in the 2013 Hart Crane Memorial Poetry Contest, the 2013 Greg Grummer Poetry Award, the 2015 Oakland School of the Arts Enizagam Poetry Award, and the 2015 Neil Shephard Prize in Poetry. 

Eve Kenneally (from Boston by way of DC) is a recent alumna of the MFA program at the University of Montana. Her chapbook, Something Else Entirely, will be released by Dancing Girl Press in 2016. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Yemassee, Parcel, decomP, Star 82 Review, Blue Monday Review, and elsewhere.

CutBank 85, Fresh off the Press

Our latest print issue is finally here! Dare we say, it's been well worth the wait.

Along with our usual choice selections in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, CutBank 85 features the winners of our Montana Prize in Fiction, judged by Claire Vaye Watkins; the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry, judged by Oscar De La Paz; and the Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction, judged by Amanda Fortini. 

Read a preview of the issue here.

Score your copy through our online store here

BURN PILE: Shirley Jackson, Ouija Boards, and Truman Capote's Ashes

The spookiest month of the year begins tomorrow. Here are some literary tidbits of a decidedly darker nature to get us all in the mood.

  • This week marks the publication of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, a new biography of the oft-overlooked American writer best known for her short story “The Lottery” and the novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Biographer Ruth Franklin reports that Jackson was pegged (and promoted) as somewhat of a domestic “witch” in the early days of her career, and that Jackson took exception to this claim. Later, however, Jackson wrote the following, which should delight those of us who embrace our inner witches: 

I am tired of writing dainty little biographical things that pretend that I am a trim little housewife in a Mother Hubbard stirring up appetizing messes over a wood stove. I live in a dank old place with a ghost that stomps around in the attic room we’ve never gone into (I think it’s walled up) and the first thing I did when we moved in was to make charms in black crayon on all the door sills and window ledges to keep out demons, and was successful in the main. There are mushrooms growing in the cellar, and a number of marble mantels which have an unexplained habit of falling down onto the heads of the neighbors’ children.

At the full of the moon I can be seen out in the backyard digging for mandrakes, of which we have a little patch, along with rhubarb and blackberries. I do not usually care for these herbal or bat wing recipes, because you can never be sure how they will turn out. I rely almost entirely on image and number magic.

EDITOR'S BOOKSHELF: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

By Stephanie Pushaw, CutBank Fiction Editor

I first read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in its essential form: the mass-market paperback that came out in 1981, its ubiquitous cover featuring a bold seventies typeface, a defunct Earth, an eyeless green planet sticking out its tongue, and—at the bottom—a round hand, earnestly thumbing for a ride. This copy had clearly been much-read: fat yellowed pages fanning out, exclamation marks in the margin near the best jokes (all ten thousand of them), flimsy cover peeling off in places. I’d pried it from the communal bookshelf in the London flat my family and I were staying in for a few months. I was thirteen. I read it in a couple hours—one of the beautiful things about the world of Hitchhiker’s is that you can stay in it for as long or as brief a time as you want to—and was all in. It was funny and weird and there were parts I knew were even funnier and weirder, if I could just wrap my head around them. The world ended in the first ten pages, leaving just one Earthling to bound into the deepest recesses of space across a series of fabulous vessels—and what thirteen-year-old hasn’t entertained thoughts of doing that? But beyond the glamorous spaceships, the sharp British wit, the hijinks and battles of interstellar travel, the book held a solemnity as well: everything seemed fraught, even when it wasn’t, with some unspeakable truth about the universe we’d better not look straight in the face for fear of being blinded. The funny bits, I realized, were the only way to deal with the darkness. 

I left that copy in the bookshelf when we returned to the States, feeling like I’d been meant to find it—like I’d been let in on some big crazy secret I now had a responsibility to tell others about (I guess at that tender age my narcissism was so well-developed I still thought I was discovering things, even though Hitchhiker’s and its sequels have been consistent international bestsellers since the day it was published—translated into thirty languages by the time I picked up that first tattered copy in 2005—not to mention the explosive popularity of its other iterations, most notably the radio series that spawned the books in the first place. We won’t mention the movie. We just won’t.). And when I got back to California, back to the house and dog and small eighth grade class, I realized: I needed to read it again, needed to feel again that sensation of escape. I don’t know why this memory sticks with me, but it does: at the now-defunct Borders on the Santa Monica Promenade, I made my way to the sci-fi section and found the holy grail: a leatherbound edition of all the Hitchhiker’s Guide books. The checkout guy looked stoked I was buying them. “All five books in the trilogy!” he said, and I, still thirteen, probably said something irrelevant in reply, thinking: Another thing I know must be funny but I just don’t get. 

About the series, many minds have said things, and I don’t think I could say much more—or really adequately translate why they’ve been a sort of therapy for me over the past ten years. They’re science fiction, but they’re comedy, but they’re deadly serious. It’s not important to me to slot them into a genre, or defend them as literary; it’s important to me that every time I open up that hardcover, I find something that gets rarer and rarer for me every day: a universe so fully contoured, so bulging with strange possibilities, that for those few hours I am not thinking about anything else. 

Six years after I first read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I returned to London. I’d probably re-read the series four times in those six years, my leatherbound omnibus taped up now, its gilt-edged pages losing their sheen. I’d read it after various small college heartbreaks to help get over myself, because it’s virtually impossible to read it without laughing; I’d read it when, stuffed to the gills on “deep” and “challenging” and “literary” assigned literature—even when I loved it—I just couldn’t take another paragraph of Beckett brooding or Nabokov embedding clues into epic poems. I rarely even finished it, on these re-reads; the first chapter, or the first half, was usually enough to knock back into me the wit and whimsy of this alternate world. I’d given up, by then, on hoping for a spaceship to land in an empty field and beam me up to the marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V. The world was proving itself slowly to contain enough mysteries and marvels to content myself with, only looking up now and again longingly to the distant stars. 

But, back in London, I found myself on one hot spring day getting off the tube in Archway with a friend and walking through the iron-gated streets to the Highgate Cemetery. We passed Karl Marx’s grave, featuring a massive bust of the man himself and an exhortation: WORKERS OF ALL LANDS UNITE! We passed the grave of George Eliot, a simple stone with her real name, Mary Ann Cross, engraved below her pseudonym. And then we found it: under a copse of tall trees, another plain tombstone, rectangular like a hardcover book. Carved with thin shallow type, just the words: Douglas Adams. Writer. In front of his grave was a small earthenware pot. It was bristling with pens. Nothing fancy, no Montblancs, no silvery quills. Just cheap plastic Bic pens and ballpoints. I left a pen, too, whatever I had in my pocket. Here, the pens seemed to be saying, in this supposedly haunted cemetery, in front of the grave of a man who died too young, who left behind something that does, at times, truly seem like the guide to the universe. Here. Write us just one more thing.

Stephanie Pushaw is a writer from Malibu, California. Her work has appeared in Fractal, Slippery Elm, The Believer Logger, DIAGRAM, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a fiction editor at Cutbank and a Truman Capote Fellow at the University of Montana. Her essay "Crickets: A Love Song" won the 2014 DIAGRAM essay contest and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is working on her first novel, which features several dog characters. Read more of her work at

THE WOODSHOP: Kate Ruebenson

The Woodshop is a feature examining the work spaces and habits of writers both big and small. Joan Didion spent the night in the same room as her work when it was almost finished. Don DeLillo kept a picture of Borges close by. When, and how, do you work? Our latest contributor is Kate Ruebenson, a Brooklyn poet and filmmaker.

1. Where do you do your work?

During my residency at Arts Letters and Numbers in Averill Park, NY, in spring of 2015, I created my favorite writing space. My desk was on the second floor of an old mill, right by two large windows. I built the desk by placing cinderblocks under a door turned on its side and covered with a cloth.

2. What do you keep on your desk?

I kept snacks, beer, a typewriter, tracing paper, pens & pencils, a bulletin board to post visual fodder for writing inspiration, a book of architecture, and a book of philosophy.

3. What's your view like?

I looked out over a narrow two way road up a hill towards another refurbished mill. My second week at the residency, I saw a double rainbow right out of the two huge windows adjacent to my desk. 

4. What do you eat/drink while you work?

Depending on the time of day, I cycle through drinks and meals. Throughout the day, I keep a glass of water on the table and try to refill it no less than five times. In the morning, I have a cup of coffee; in the afternoon, I will switch to tea or a bottle of beer, depending on my mood. At night, I will switch back to tea again, or stick with water. I like to leave my desk for major meals, but I like having seaweed snacks, pretzels, or nuts hanging around in my periphery in case I'm so busy that I forget to have lunch. I never forget breakfast or dinner, though.

5. Do you have any superstitions about your work?

I have tried to write without my phone or laptop in general proximity, but I always end up wanting or needing to research something I am writing about or check synonyms quickly for alternative word use. I must, however, always turn my phone over on the table or shut my laptop when I am not using them. If I see a notification pop up on either, it is too distracting to continue writing freely, as I feel an itching need to check what is going on outside the world of my desk; this is always a losing battle.

6. Share a recent line/sentence written in this space.

And the passing of time / Feels analogous / To the passing of friends / A long and emphatic / Lament.

Kate Ruebenson graduated this June with her MFA in Poetry from Brooklyn College. A New York City native, she lives in Brooklyn but also spends time on the west coast. She is an Adjunct Professor of English Composition at Medgar Evers College and Brooklyn College. Her poetry has been published in Roanoke ReviewYellow Chair Review, Typehouse Magazine, C4 Magazine and Hanging Loose Press, among othersand last year her short film Ephemreel premiered at Noted Festival in Australia. In July 2015, Kate spent a week on Long Island in workshop with Billy Collins. In August 2015, she was a resident at Arts Letters and Numbers in Upstate New York (featured). This past summer, Kate split her time between workshops with Carolyn Forche and Campbell McGrath at Skidmore College and a poetry intensive with Dorianne Laux at the Port Townsend Writers Conference in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing poetry with a view, whether that landscape is the Cascade Mountains or the traffic on Nostrand Avenue.

BURN PILE: Award Finalists Announced, Jonathan Safran Foer's "Joyless" New Novel, and "Bad" Women

This week, the National Book Award Foundation announced its longlist for the 2016 National Book Award in Fiction, joining its previously announced selections for Non-Fiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature. Finalists in all categories will be announced October 13; winners, November 16. In the meantime, we can all add the following to our fall reading list:

·       The Throwback Special, Chris Bachelder

·       What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell

·       Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett 

·       News of the World, Paulette Jiles 

·       The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan

·       The Portable Veblen, Elizabeth McKenzie

·       Sweet Lamb of Heaven, Lydia Millet

·       Miss Jane, Brad Watson 

·       The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead  

·       Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson  

The Man Booker Prize Shortlist in Fiction was also announced this week, with the following finalists:

·       Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien

·       The Sellout, Paul Beatty

·       All That Man Is, David Szalay

·       His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet

·       Hot Milk, Deborah Levy

·       Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh

The winner will be announced Oct. 25.

In other book news, the LA Times largely pans Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel “Here I Am,” which it calls "joyless" and “kitsch at best.” Meanwhile, LitHub offers readers “10 Books Featuring Subversive Women,” which kicks off with Mary Gaitskill’s excellent—and tenacious—collection Bad Behavior


Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit To submit to our chapbook contest, please see or email for more information.

Dear Nick,

You wrote that somewhere, sometime, some moment, we all lose our way. I’m bound in the back-and-forth of that, the pendulum, the rebound. The world was unfamiliar, and then it became familiar again. But I’m haunted by what-was, by those moments I woke up an imposter, an interpreter, a stand-in, someone hired to carry off my life.

Last night I dreamed of beings who had bargained with some incarnation of the devil. They could stay in their bodies, their lives, if they killed one human each day. I was alternately one of them and fleeing them. Then I awoke and my clothing was damp and the dark just softening into blue. Then I awoke and beside me the dog. I awoke and beside me my love, the one I had gone away from, and then come back, but somewhere in that interim, the loss of the blush of innocence, the watertight promise of what is shared. Somewhere in that interim doubt crept in.

And how does one come back from doubt, really, Nick—you yourself said these words, said "stunned by how quickly it dissolved" and "afraid of all the things I could transform into." And this is a letter about disorientation, about bewilderment, about how quickly the stones beneath our feet hiss and steam when water is tossed on them, our foundation like a sauna, like lava, heated beyond stability by the pressure and the force of so many mountains moving.

There was a day when the heat seemed to beckon of spring, the figs leafing and budding, the clothes on the line, the hummer feeding at the feeder and everything seemed all promise and the scent of baking bread. But there were these other days, days where it snowed, where icicles hung off the eaves of the buildings, where skiing was the way of an afternoon, where a very different promise began to exist. And what do we do with that one, Nick, why did it come along, such insinuation, such promise, that augur of inconstant days?

I’ve seen you transform things that should not be transformed, things that should be frozen and sinking and I’ve seen you make them light enough to float on the surface of the water, alongside the fishing boats and the wharves and the piers of the harbor. Tell me what is more light than this; tell me what the drift portends—this unfurling broken light, this spectacle. This thing that wanders in us, this schism: tell me what it is that we have lost, or would lose, in the leaving. What husk will burn, will softly jerk away; what dissolution follows. Tell me, Nick, given this dusky film over the world, how does one approximate even the smallest comfort?

I await your words, in a suspended state of wandering—



Nick Flynn is an American writer, poet, and playwright. He is the author of three memoirs, including the acclaimed Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, three books of poetry, and other works. He received the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry in 1999.

Arianne Zwartjes is a poet and lyric essayist living in Leadville, Colorado. Her most recent book is Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy (U of Iowa Press, 2012), a selection from which won the 2011 Gulf Coast Prize for Nonfiction and was a Best American Essays Notable Essay in 2013. Visit her and more of her writing at


By Nicole Roché, CutBank Online Managing Editor/Fiction Editor

I discovered Art & Fear four years ago at the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas. I was skeptical at first. The cover was dated. The title screamed self-help, and reminded me of the scene in Donnie Darko where the high-strung teacher tries to get students to place their assigned “character dilemma” on the spectrum between “Love” and “Fear.”    

But long before that time I had come to trust the Raven and its staff. For the uninitiated, the Raven is the Platonic ideal of the downtown independent bookstore, complete with resident cats and David-and-Goliath survival story. (In 1997, a Borders megastore opened its doors one block away, only to close them in 2011.) The Raven is one of those places where the employees post notes about their favorite books, right there on the shelves, so if you are too shy to chat up the sales clerk you always have a recommendation at the ready. The note accompanying Art & Fear assured me this was a work that had stuck with the staff member for many years, and was one they continued to return to for inspiration and guidance.

Now, years later, I find myself coming back to this slim text every few months. I, too, feel compelled to write my own little note here, in the digital ether, urging every writer or artist I know to pick it up.

Art & Fear is self-help, it’s true. But it offers up that help in straightforward, no-nonsense, often elegant terms. At every turn, authors David Bayles and Ted Orland work to de-mystify the process of art-making. Here are just a few of the many truths that resonated with me (though I will stress reading them in the context of the book as a whole makes them all the more powerful):

·       “Your job is to develop an imagination of the possible.”

·       (On talent, or perceived lack thereof) “By definition, whatever you have is exactly what you need to produce your best work.”

·       “The depth of your need to make things establishes the risk in not making them.”

·       “Ask your work what it needs, not what you need.”

The book’s multi-disciplinary approach is one of its greatest assets. There is comfort in knowing writing is neither unique in its challenges nor its rewards. Bayles and Orland are themselves photographers (Orland worked as Ansel Adams’ assistant in the 1970s), and though they do draw from big-name writers such as Melville, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Henry James, and Joan Didion, they also reference Frank Lloyd Wright, Chopin, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Stravinsky, Picasso, and many others. The effect is a sense of real solidarity among artists of every kind.

Consider this bit on the interplay of imagination and control/technique, which Bayles and Orland compare to Didion’s lamentation that writing the first few lines of a story quickly eliminates all further possibilities for the story: “The first few brushstrokes to the blank canvas satisfy the requirements of many possible paintings, while the last few fit only that painting—they could go nowhere else. The development of an imagined piece is a progression of decreasing possibilities.”

Then there’s my favorite, the analogy of the ceramics class, which Lit Hub references when arguing why writers should shoot for one hundred rejections a year. In this analogy, a ceramics teacher divides the class into two groups:  those who will graded by the quantity of their work, and those who will be graded by its quality. The students in the quantity group must produce fifty pounds of pots to earn an A (forty for a B, etc.), whereas the students in the quality group must produce only one pot to earn top marks—but it must be perfect. At the end of the semester, the teacher makes a telling discovery: all of the best pots were made by the students who were being graded for quantity. As Bayles and Orland explain, “It seems that while the ‘quantity’ group was busy churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the ‘quality’ group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.” The lesson here is clear, and a welcome reminder: above all, we improve our work by working.     

Of course, sometimes we need a little goading to take up that pen (or paintbrush). It helps to be reminded that while “flow” and “vision” and “inspiration” may be real and admirable things, so are sheer determination and flat-out hard work. A kind of magic may run through our best work, but it is not required. Art-making of any kind is hard—writing this post, in its own small ways, was hard—but we must find ways to get the work done. For me, at least, this book helps. 

About the Author:  Nicole Roché is a second-year MFA student in fiction. She hails from Lawrence, Kansas, where she earned degrees in journalism and creative writing/literature. She is currently obsessed with orange cats, Alice Munro, and huckleberry anything.  

BURN PILE: Setting Rejection Goals, the Dubious Origins of the Six-Word Short Story, and Gene Wilder, Writer

Submission season is finally upon us. Read why setting “rejection goals” can help you meet your publication goals, too. (Plus a perfect analogy from the always inspirational Art & Fear.)

Dream of being as prolific as [insert favorite author’s name here]? You might consider setting your alarm clock an hour earlier—or maybe not? Check out this infographic that compares what time famous writers rise each morning with how much they publish. (The infographic, it should be noted, does not indicate what time said writers went to bed each night.)

It’s back to school time, and soon writing teachers everywhere will be using Hemingway’s infamous “six-word short story” to teach students about the nuts and bolts of narrative. (For the uninitiated, those six words are, “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.”) But that story, it turns out, is likely apocryphal. (Do we care? Don’t forget to submit your own six-word stories here.)

Did you know beloved comedian Gene Wilder, who died this week at age 83, dabbled in both memoir and fiction writing? Check out this LA Times review of his memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger. Among other nuggets, you’ll learn for which film Wilder was hired because the director needed "an actor who could believably fall in love with a sheep and play it straight." RIP, Gene.

LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: To John Updike, from Lancaster

Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit To submit to our chapbook contest, please see or email for more information.

           I met you three times, each of them in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I live. You were originally from Shillington, outside Reading, which wasn’t far away, though as a teenager your family had moved to a farm in Plowville, which was closer. You were a frequent guest of Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, and you also spent time at the County Historical Society, researching James Buchanan, who had been a Lancaster resident; you wrote a play, Buchanan Dying, and later a novel, Memories of the Ford Administration, about the ex-President. Critics were rather mystified by these works but were generous, and you moved on to more muscular themes.

            I first met you at the world premier of Buchanan Dying, which was performed amidst great fanfare at Franklin & Marshall. The play was undramatic and dull, though the costumes were good. Because my mother was a trustee of the college, we were invited to an after-performance reception at Wheatland, Buchanan’s home. This was a meet-and-greet, sip-and-observe affair; I remember that you were accompanied by your mother, Linda Grace Hoyer, who was also a writer, a grumpy eminence who was both irritated and irritatingshe seemed unashamedly jealous of your success. You were wearing a smart gray suit and you were bashful and toothy and very charming, your hair the usual boyish mess. You were taller then I expected, and rather odd-looking; if you’d been miniaturized you would have looked like a garden gnome. As a writer, of course, I idolized you; you were more-or-less a local boy and had achieved immense success. We shook hands, I congratulated you on your play, and we left.

           You were back at the college a few years later for a reading, and before that a by-invitation-only dinner. Because my mother was ill, I got to sit with ten or twelve other friends of the college at your table, where you were host. During the meal you were clever and funny, deflecting any serious questions with deft non-answers and your grin. You were very winning and I wanted badly to be your friend, though unfortunately we didn’t speakI was shy, the table was wide and the room was noisy. There was thunderous applause later that evening when you finished your reading, your poetry and prose enhanced somehow by your quiet, earnest delivery.

            A few years later a professor friend of mine at the college, Rob Wilson, invited me to sit in on a late-morning English seminar where you were speaking. This wasn’t a lecture so much as an extended question and answer session, as you hadn’t prepared any remarksyou were visiting a number of classes throughout the day. You responded to questions about Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Ann Beattie, and Raymond Carver; your assessments were thoughtful and respectful, though not without some biting wit. There was a very attractive feminist in the front row of the class and about thirty minutes into the session she had had enough; she’d decided it was time for you to own up. “How can you expect to be taken seriously,” she asked, “when all you write about is chauvinism and adultery? What about the big questions, like identity and race? You write like you’ve never heard of Camus, or Faulkner.”

            You were stung, but the siege was short-lived: Professor Wilson quickly intervened, reminding the class that you, Updike, were a guest of the college, not the subject of a roast. The feminist glared, but then the polite give-and-take resumed, and you never did respond to her accusations. As the end of the hour neared, Professor Wilson took it upon himself to deliver to you a valentine: he called you the most complete man of letters since Henry James, and in a winner-take-all short story comparison declared a dead heat between your "Separating" and Chekhov’s "Lady with a Lapdog." Class dismissed. You looked a bit embarrassed as you stood shaking hands with the students and they began to file out.

            What happened next happened very quickly: Rob Wilson and his students disappeared, and another professor entered the classroom, as if by pre-arrangement. This was a fellow I recognized, by his infamous gloved hands; Guillaume Brandt was a noted linguist with a highly contagious skin condition, whose photo had recently been in the college newspaper. He seemed a bit unhinged as he lunged toward youevidently he was trying to pick up on some earlier conversation he’d been having with you that had been interrupted. His plaint? Semantic structures in the Rabbit novels, about which he was composing a paper. The three of us were alone now in the classroom and I heard you yelp.

            “My minder seems to have abandoned me,” you said, to me. “We were supposed to be having lunch.”

            “Oh, I can take you,” I volunteered. Dr. Brandt was still burbling away, backing you into the chalkboard, as he referred repeatedly to what he called your oeuvresomething that had evidently died and that he, the linguist, sought to dissect right here, right now, in ghoulish detail. I didn’t know it then, but later learned that you were afflicted with chronic skin complaints yourself, such as psoriasisno wonder you wanted nothing to do with the sickly linguist!

            “I’m late,” you told Dr. Brandt. “I apologize.” You seized me by the arm and quickly steered us from the classroom.

            “Where were you supposed to meet for lunch?” I asked.

            “I haven’t the faintest idea. I’m parched. And I need a cigarette.”

            Luckily, I was a smoker too, so we both lit up once we’d exited the building. As it turned out, you had less than an hour until your next obligation at the collegeI didn’t know who was supposed to be looking after you, or where they were, and there wasn’t time enough to go somewhere nice for lunch. It was a pleasant spring day as we strolled across the campus to the parking lot. Our house was only five minutes away, though you didn’t askyou were already lighting up a second cigarette as we climbed into my car.

            “This campus is so improved,” you said. “It’s impressive. Where are we off to, anyway?”

            “To get you some iced tea,” I said.

            “How nice of you.”

            You seemed neither uncomfortable nor anxiousyou’d undoubtedly visited dozens of campuses before and had your share of misadventures. And you knew Lancaster, you knew the college. About me, you weren’t curious at all; you seemed content just to bob along, relieved to be out of the limelight for the moment and confident you would be looked after properly.

            When we arrived at the house you climbed out of the car and took off your suit coat, leaving it in the back seat. “Nice place,” you said.

            This time of day, her morning chores completed, in spring and summer my wife, Meredith, liked to adjourn to the patio behind the house with an iced beverage and her cigarettes. As luck would have it, that was where we found her.

            We had glasses of iced tea and smoked while you and my wife exchanged pleasantries. Meredith offered you lunch, but you declined, bashfullyyou claimed that you were dietingthough that seemed ridiculous given your trim frame. Then you looked across our wide back yard and said, “Wow, nice course. Should we play a round?”

            Behind our house, we have a lovely flat lawn that I had just the evening before laid out for a croquet courseI cut the grass there myself, one-half inch shorter than the rest of the lawn, to give the balls on it a nice crisp roll. If we were going to play a game, as now seemed imperative, I thought we’d need a fourth, to make two teamsotherwise, as our guest, you might feel that Meredith and me were ganging up on you.

            “Brad’s probably out front,” Meredith said, having seemed to read my thoughts. She was referring to our mailman, Brad, who often parked his truck under a big shade tree by our house to eat his lunch. Brad and I frequently stole a quick game of croquet during the summer.

            Indeed, Brad was sitting in his van, eating an apple. “Don’t ask me any questions,” I said. “This is an emergency. We’re entertaining a big honcho from the college. I just set up the course last night.”

            In the backyard, I introduced you to Brad, and croquet mallets were selected. You were teamed with Brad, the two of you against Meredith and me.

            I knew you were a golfer, which was clear from the way you addressed the croquet ball, your feet widely spaced, your hands in a traditional golfer’s grip. I’d heard that you were also quite competitive. The game proceeded rather predictably, turn after turn, but then at the middle wicket you found a congestion of balls that offered you a special chance: you could either try for the wicket with your ball or knock Meredith’s ball aside, out of contention. You chose the latter. You gave your ball a big solid swat and Meredith’s ball sailed off the short grass into the brush adjoining our neighbor’s yard.

            Meredith is not generally competitive but I could tell that she was pissed. Did she think you were impolite or just overly aggressive?

            “All right, then,” she announced, dropping her mallet. “I’m out. You literary gents play on.”

            Honestly, I was a bit mystified by your hit myself: why sail your hostess’s ball into the woods? Had you mistaken Meredith’s ball for another? Or maybe you weren’t at all what you seemed; did your affable public face mask a deeper, more ruthless man? Or were you feeling hostile from your morning? Somehow, lashing out seemed entirely in keeping with what must be your tougher side; after all, you hadn’t gotten where you were through pandering. I don’t know, maybe this was the way your crowd played croquet up in Ipswich.

            You and Brad won, handily, and we all shook hands. When we returned to the patio there was a fresh pitcher of iced tea, though your time was running short.

            “I’ve liked your books, mostly,” said Meredith, eyeing you. “I’ve often wondered, though, why is it you’ve never done anything about your hair?”

            “Is it that bad?” you said, looking rather wounded. You drew your hand up to your scalp.

            “Oh, it’s all right,” Meredith said. “It just looks like you never had time to think about it, which, I gather, is probably true.”

            We had another cigarette in the car as I drove you back to campus. Thinking about it, I was a bit annoyed, frankly, knowing I was going to have to defend you, in absentia, to Meredith when I got home; too, there was that lost ball, and I was going to have to get down on my hands and knees and rummage around in the neighbor’s underbrush to find it.

            “Anywhere is fine,” you said, once we were back on campus. “I can find my way.”

            “All right, then,” I said. “It was a pleasure.” I pulled the car over and you climbed out, retrieving your suit coat from the back seat.

            We shook hands. “Thanks,” you said, “You rather saved me.” You slammed the car door, and that was that. You strode briskly up the walkway toward the classrooms.

            Though you seem to have used nearly everything that ever happened to you, in your life, to my knowledge this incident never made it into your work. As the years rolled on and the flood of poems, novels, and stories piled up, there was no mention of our matcha highlight in my life, forgettable to youand that made all the difference.

Samuel Atlee is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. He has published two collections of short stories: Men at Risk and Baby Why Not? He lives in Pennsylvania.

CUTBANK REVIEWS: Sea Summit: Not in the Heart, but in the Humming

Sea Summit by Yi Lu

Translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Review by Christina Cook

Sea Summit, a collection of poems selected from more than two decades of Yi Lu’s published oeuvre, is the first book-length English translation of this important Chinese poet’s work. Her work is unique among her contemporaries in that it explores the gendered relations between humans and the environment and the complexities of ecosystem that circumscribe them. The new book challenges English-language readers—just as her five previous books challenge Chinese readers—to think about the cultural attitudes and imbalances of power that have brought this ecosystem to the brink of breakdown on both sides of the globe.

Disassociation and unity form the two-sided trope that guides the reader through the intricacies of Yi’s vision. The opening poem, “Early Spring,” wastes no time in establishing the speaker’s sight of disassociated bodies in an otherwise pastoral landscape where cows’

            bowed heads seem unrelated to their tails

            each cow also seems unrelated to itself

            is the grass it eats also unrelated to its stomach

            between their four whisking tails

            a butterfly waltzes over hill and dale

            even the butterfly seems unrelated to itself

The disassociation operates on both the physical level (through disembodiment) and psychological level (through the subjective qualifier “seems”), and the resulting sense of instability is emphasized by the poem’s technical elements: the lack of capitalization and punctuation, combined with a mix of end-stopped and enjambed lines, slow readers down as they endeavor to pick their way through the phrasings. In an absence of grammatically organized sentences, they are left to create unities of meaning where none exist on the page. In this way, the reader’s work enacts that of the speaker, who must unify the seemingly unrelated parts of the cows and of the butterfly to create meaning in her own field of vision.

Creating unities of meaning out of a heady mix of language, prosody, and imagery is part of the pleasure and challenge of reading any poem. However, the particular braid of content and form in Yi’s poems invites her readers to invest even more effort in the unities of meaning they make from the now-disassociated pieces and parts of the polluted ecosystem of human-environment relations.

What complicates this project is the blurring of “human” and “nature” that takes place in female identity. In Western literary, cultural, and religious traditions, women have always been depicted as closer to nature than men, and by virtue of that, inferior to them. In recent years, this ideology has provided a useful lens for Eastern literary and cultural critics such as Yu Jiangxia. Her essay “Biocolonialism: An Ecofeminist Perspective,” addresses a similar need in the East to “[unearth] the common cultural roots of the destruction of nature and the oppression of women.”

Yi’s poems express women’s unique closeness to nature, but use their speaker’s gendered perspective to illustrate the ways in which it empowers women rather than renders them inferior. In her poem “Many Many Mothers,” the blurring between women and nature emanates from the all-powerful maternal bond. The poem opens with the following:

            like millions of motors unleashed undersea

            the sea’s body shakes   its chest heaving

            in a splash of white breast milk

            as if spouting the essence of life to its end

            as if the universe needed to be fed

Likening the sea’s fertile, maternal, nourishing body to “millions of motors unleashed” reveals women as a force of nature that summons more horsepower than the male-dominated domain of culture.

Woman’s intimacy with nature is expressed with particular power and poignance in “A Pregnant Woman Walks in the Fields”:

            her body is too full

            spilling over all the way—

            fat lumps of clouds and flowers


            stream water climbs up her bulky legs

            like replenishing a big lake

The description creates an image of a woman so blended into the natural landscape, it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Both woman and field are perfectly porous, creating a unity that is tied like a knot in the unseen, unborn child. The strength of this knot is expressed in the couplet that comes later in the poem: “her vast gaze   wipes away obstacles / even the mountain shifts solemnly.” A mother, whether incarnated in a field, person, or sea, is capable of no less than moving mountains. Fathers, however, are a different story.

In the poem “Father in a Basket,” the speaker places several degrees of separation between the father and nature:

            on the phone my sister said

            she and elder sister put Father’s urn

            in a basket

            carried up a mountain   placed

            in a cemetery resembling apartments


            work stress at hand

            pressing my chest

            I imagine the basket


            taking stone steps   around a mountain bend

            back and forth   grass and floral scent

            Father inside   becomes

            a nest of eggs   a jar of spring water   a few blueberries

Far from taking part in a porous meshing with nature, the father is several removes from it. He is a pile of ashes that has been sealed inside an urn that was placed in a basket and then interred in “a cemetery resembling apartments”—a final resting place whose description brings to mind a communist-bloc housing estate. The father is also several removes from the emotions of the speaker, who is preoccupied with work when receiving the telephone call from a sister who relays the event to her. Even thus removed from the scene, the speaker can imagine the mountain path and the scent of grass and flowers which her father, thrice-sealed at the scene itself, cannot.

Being sealed away from nature does not stop the female speaker of the poem “In the Open Field” from finding a way to connect with it. The poem opens with a wind “pushing open a small window in my chest,” and then another wind when she says,

            my well-sealed body   can hardly stay shut

            clouds and butterflies are diving in


            the juncture of meridians

            now honey and dew

            in the alleys of blood flow

            sunlight like a hand comes to and fro


            let’s drive some things far away to a stronger wind

            let the brain turn into a happy nest

            the heart a team of humming flowers

The physical boundaries of skin and bone are no match for the elemental connection between women and nature. Here, the speaker’s open heart finds unity in multiplicity, and nature finds a continual source of pollination in return: an activity in which all global ecologies rest. What sustains life on earth is not the human heart but the humming inside it—and what lends this last line its power is as much the language as the content. Translator Sze-Lorrain unites multiple prosodic techniques—alliteration, sound symbolism, and onomatopoeia—to not just convey, but auditorily enact, the cross-pollination between human mothers and Mother Nature.

Just as the mother-speaker’s humming heart enacts this life-sustaining wholeness “In the Open Field,” her heart—and ours—is moved by a bird’s refusal to comply with the sorrowful dictates of pollution in “A Bird”:

            a bird

            lands on a pile of scrap iron

            jumps from one iron plank to another

            then bounces   to the tip of a thin tilting rod

            like a note

            handling a very large musical instrument


            rust falls   and more

            the bird and the scrap iron   seem

            to laugh aloud


            the cheerful bird

            sees my eyes now

            chirps twice   but asks for no reply


            the bird has actually moved my heart

            astonishing the whole gloomy afternoon

The impish bird enables the speaker—and reader—to see laughter and lightness in the sharp and shattered world. The metaphor that transforms the pile of scrap iron into a musical instrument asserts that the bird quite literally plays the junk pile in the sense of not only playing music, but also playing a trick: the bird here has the upper hand.

 This image of nature taking the toxic detritus of humans so lightly is puzzling. Taking it to mean that nature will prevail against human harms to it or one can still see beauty in polluted world would be overly simplistic: Yi does not package her poems in tidy, pretty messages. Satisfyingly, she resists the urge to resolve the complexities of her vision. It is an urge that a lesser poet would fall prey to, but Yi’s resolve allows her readers to puzzle these complexities out for themselves. This is the solar plexus of her body of work, the power center out of which radiates the reader’s own resolution to think about and, moreover, take action against the degradation of women and the environment: the two most powerful and yet most vulnerable parts of our ecosystem.

About the Author: 

Yi Lu is a theater scenographer who leads a parallel life as a poet. Known for her elegant and distilled lyrical voice, as well as her ecological awareness, her honors include the Hundred Flowers Award for Literature and other distinguished literary prizes from Fujian province. 

About the Translator:

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. In addition to translating Chinese and French texts, Sze-Lorrain is the author of three books of poetry in English, The Ruined Elegance (Princeton University Press, 2015), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Time Book Prize in Poetry and one of Library Journal’s Best Books of poetry, My Funeral Gondola (El Leon Literary Arts, 2013), and Water the Moon (Marick Press, 2009). She lives in Paris.

About the Reviewer:

Christina Cook is the author of A Strange Insomnia (Kelsey Books, 2016), Ricochet (Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press, 2016), and Lake Effect (Finishing Line Press, 2012). 



You are inescapable;

give me a moment to



She hid a safety blanket made of
five razor blades
in her medicine cabinet,
where I stow my
chemical castaways
and the floorplans to a
prepackaged death.

The city lives in a perpetual daylight
composed of artificial sun,

and perhaps, so do we.

I cloud my depress and exhaust
behind habitual manic excitement

(name me Happiness)

and your ache to harm
itself into displacement

(name me Happiness)

As I write, the
sun has long since set itself to bed behind
a steel horizon,
yet the nightlined street is still bright enough
to pen this outside.
Every speck of nature here is
a testament
to man’s inability to shed the
of control,

and yet,

there is life here still.

We are still alive,
despite [to spite]
every instinct that wills us to

Perhaps the trees, the flowers, the grass,
even the daylight,
are Artificial,
but they are
fighting to push back the cold winter night.

And so are we.

About the Author:
Pascale Jarvis is a second-year student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where they study creative writing. When they aren’t huddled in a chair, scribbling in a notebook, they enjoy painting murals, climbing trees, and kick boxing. One day, Pascale hopes to pulverize the gender binaries of society armed with pencil and paintbrush, and maybe a cup of coffee as motivation.

About All Accounts:
All Accounts and Mixture is an annual online feature celebrating the work of LGBTQ writers and artists. For this series, we seek work from authors who self-identify as "queer," while acknowledging that this designation is subjective and highly personal. Our goal is to provide a forum for writers whose voices might be mis- or underrepresented by the literary mainstream. 



For Lena, 1987-2014

In the blue light of late-afternoon, 
we take turns trying 

to consume, 
be consumed. 

We’ve lost by now the power
of language, our phrases a series of 

cliched stutterings— 
forever—I love you—mine— 

mine—like ramming
against opposite sides of the same wall. 

But this afternoon, I say what I mean, 

inching my mouth along her soap-
scented skin, 

down to that delicate, 
earthy place, the threshold of which

I tongue again
and again. 


A Week Before Christmas, 

approaching dusk,

Lena and I in her dorm room, 
draped over the bed, fully dressed, 

our hands groping for openings. 

She’s supposed to be waiting outside for her brother. 
They’re going to a family party down River Road. 

Through the picture window, the dorm’s shadow
stretches like a castle across the snow. 
Lena’s sapphire studs glitter. 
Her neck smells like Europe. 
                                             I know exactly where to go, 
how to make a tent of her still-buttoned
jeans with the back of my wrist— 

Her brother’s fists 

pound against the locked common room door. 
Lena leaps up 

like reverse lightning, smooths her hair, 
kisses me fast and runs out to him laughing. 
I don’t mind it yet, the door slamming, 

the room watching to see what I’ll do. 
                                                               Back then I knew 

how to hold on, 
how to let the cord between us spool out: 

Lena’s body racing
through the fresh-spread dark.


The Last Time I Saw Her

Her hand, a cold wing, palm-to-palm
with mine, and her question I couldn’t— 

Our love spun in
that first day
as if it had swung through a million times

we were what was new. 

Mellifluous breeze. Curtains astir. 
Both of us holding our breath. 

Thank you, I finally said
before continuing, 

but it rang like Fuck you.

About the Author:
Cassie Pruyn is a New Orleans-based poet born and raised in Portland, Maine. Her poems have appeared in AGNI Online, The Los Angeles Review, The Normal School, The Adroit Journal, Poet Lore, and others.

About All Accounts:
All Accounts and Mixture is an annual online feature celebrating the work of LGBTQ writers and artists. For this series, we seek work from authors who self-identify as “queer,” while acknowledging that this designation is subjective and highly personal. Our goal is to provide a forum for writers whose voices might be mis- or underrepresented by the literary mainstream. 



by Heather Rick

Nadezhda kept candles burning before an icon in her kitchen and offered a prayer when we came in from the rain. Jesus dreamed atop the fridge in a wooded frame, high cheekbones and oblong almond eyes bleeding mercy into her dirty little Bucktown walk-up. I imagined the smell of peasant vodka on his breath, the black etch of Soviet prison tattoos on his prayer-folded hands. We would dry off with her old threadbare towels and sip our liquor under his gaze, in the cool root cellar gloom of the little kitchen. Nadezhda would cross herself before it, in the Orthodox way, counter-clockwise from the way my Catholic great-aunts did it. I thought of those mustached Acadian women who brought me milk chocolate bunnies and plastic eggs with little gold crucifixes in them on Easter, who crossed themselves and intoned “He has risen” as ham and green bean casserole and carrot cake were passed around on wobbly paper plates. Their Jesus was a crude working man like their husbands, men with missing teeth and criminal tendencies. Men without mercy or softness. Nadezhda’s Jesus was different, but I still couldn’t pray to him. I refused to press my lips to the wood to where the paint of his face was rubbed thin by generations of lips. He was simply an emissary from a world I’d left behind, the Poles and Indians and Acadians of my family who’d folded their work-worn hands in prayer on two continents.

“It does not matter, he watches you, even if you do not return the favor,” Nadezhda said, gesturing to the icon with her glass. “That’s God’s job, to just be there.”

“That’s nice,” I said, “but for Catholics, it’s all guilt and obligation. God’s an awful duty, like visiting old relatives in a nursing home or getting up in the morning and going to work for minimum wage.”

“Well then,” Nadezhda said, throwing back the last of her vodka and putting one of her thick wheat-smelling arms around my neck, “it is a good thing you are not a Catholic.”

Any knowledge of ancestral religion had been translated through the sticky filter of America, where everything is cheap and big. Bright packaging, flashy advertising, a quick rush, a surfeit, and a hollow experience devoid of nutrition. In our arrogance, we have decided that God too must be an American, that surely he speaks in the bombastic language of thunder-crowned mountains and the flooding of holy rivers, that divine retribution manifests in hurricanes and mass shootings and planes flying into buildings, grace blooms in holy images appearing in fast food burgers and broken windows. Just like God was some outrageous character in the TV show that is America.

That summer I was reading a Qur’an from the library, one that felt too much like a Bible with its leather-bound weight and King James-style translation. But the chapters had titles like “The Spider,” “The Star,” “The Sun,” “The Moon,” “The Dawn,” “The Cow,” and “The Ant,” which seemed a reminder that God speaks more often in small quiet ways, in the language of birds and trees, the laughter of drunks, in qualities of light and shadow and water. There was “The Calamity” too. The Arabic word was “al-zalzālah” which could also mean earthquake or convulsion. I liked the way the word felt on my tongue, those z’s that were like tectonic plates splitting apart, the l’s that lilted stinging as drunken kisses. It spoke of a day when “the earth throws up her burdens from within,” which is what it felt like, all of it – sex and conversion and depression and immigration, this outpouring of inner tensions, convulsions that destroy and create. God was in that too.

But I am, after all, merely an American, rhapsodic and overdramatic, weaving eschatologies out of library copies of sacred texts and drunken hook-ups beneath the painted eyes of an icon. Perhaps I too may be forgiven.

“Tell me about Russia,” I’d ask the dark, as we sunk into her couch, listening to the rain outside and feeling the heat and the alcohol melting our bodies together. It wasn’t her stories, so much as the melancholy romance of the Slavic world which I asked her to invoke. This romance spread like a nuclear fog across the landscape of my imagination, the Russia and Poland I absorbed from the gestures and accents of my father’s family, the books by Bugalkov and Miłosz that I read on the El. There it was always a January of grey winter-wheat fields, of brooding ashy skies, a land of winter so like Chicago. Maybe it was the fog of ancestral memory, enveloping the entire Slavic world, everything east of the Danube, the land that gave me my thick muscular peasant-woman legs, my predilection to alcoholism and cynicism, my taste for cabbage and vodka and revolution.

Slavic women had a tough beauty like Chicago itself—lipsticked and scarred, immigrant grit ground into their makeup. If the French-Indian women on my mother’s side were mustached behemoths, those Catholic aunts whose mouths were perpetually pinched into beaks from the cans of beer they were always greedily slurping down, poverty and obesity rendering them callused and unfeminine, then the Polish ladies of my father’s family were like an assortment of hard candies wrapped in bright foils. Sweet and tooth-breaking tough, adorned in the plastic-cheap, foil-bright fashions of the lower-class Eastern European émigré – knock-off designer purses from Chinatown, teenage-tight blue jeans, eyebrows plucked and crayoned in, second-hand fur coats reeking of thrift stores, animal-print dresses, leather heeled boots, lipstick-smeared cigarettes, hair bleached nicotine yellow or dyed smoky industrial dark as my image of Poland. And underneath those gaudy foil wrappers you never knew what flavor you’d get – dumb and sweet as a cherry Coke like Auntie Claudia or harsh and tough as sardines and beer like Mumsie, my dad’s mom.

“You’re not really listening,” Nadezhda would laugh eventually. “You are off in your own head.” And she would bring me back to America and the rain and our bodies. Her mouth tasted like vodka and her hands always felt soft and supple with prayers, no matter what they were doing.

There came a week at the end of July, as summer roared towards its apex, when the rain and thunder shattered like a calamity over the city. The great iron heart of the Midwest just broke and the skies convulsed over us for days.  Skyscrapers bent their heads in mourning while the streets swam salty as if with blood or tears. The city quaked, whether with the passage of El trains or the wrath of God, I could not tell. I started wrapping a scarf around my hair before I left the house, to protect my hair from the rain, but I knew that I would not remove it once the skies cleared. It also protected my soul from the grit and sadness that sifted down onto my skin whenever I stepped out into the city.

“I like it,” Nadezhda said. She reminded me that women in Poland and Russia covered their hair, too, when they were very old or very pious.

My depression was both eschatological and meteorological. Depression in a foreign city is always something like a vacation. In the newness of Chicago, the shapes of buildings and bridges took on the gentle geometry of sorrow, the faces on the train inhabited by my mysterious grief. Street signs and traffic lights leaned like neighborhood matriarchs on the porch of my discontent. Any city can become foreign in a moment—strangers shove the lances of their eyes into your flesh on the street, a stop missed on the train and suddenly you’re in a part of the city you’ve never seen, sun or snow piling the cruelty of weather onto your shoulders, and your thoughts turn to suicide and martyrdom.

But the city is also full of hidden saints and prophets. Riding the train home from Nadezhda’s, I painted these faces on the El: the mean-eyed visage of the dirty-jacketed homeless man slouched on a mid-morning blue line train, the lonesome vulnerability of thin girls in tight pants and tall boots, the beautiful waste-scape of the city sprawling and tumbling outside the windows. In the faces of the sad bums crawling into the subway to escape the rain, I saw Nadezhda’s Slavic Christ. I wept for the world along with Christ. No calamity can last forever. Soon the rain would break, the sun and heat would resume, Nadezhda and I would drift apart and forget one another, I would forget my depression, forget the Polish women whom I was too American to ever truly emulate, forget the weeping Christ.

The rain was clearing as I got off the train and the air outside the mouth of the subway was floating with hazy golden specks. An atom’s weight of good, an atom’s weight of evil.

About the Author: 
Heather Rick is a New England-based writer and former student of the Fiction Writing Workshop at Columbia College Chicago. She holds a B.A. in religion from Smith College and will be pursuing her masters at Harvard Divinity School this fall. Her work has appeared in over a dozen publications including Steam Ticket, Fourteen Hills, Slipstream, and The Cape Rock.

About All Accounts:
All Accounts and Mixture is an annual online feature celebrating the work of LGBTQ writers and artists. For this series, we seek work from authors who self-identify as “queer,” while acknowledging that this designation is subjective and highly personal. Our goal is to provide a forum for writers whose voices might be mis- or underrepresented by the literary mainstream. 



They will call me reckless, and maybe they’re right—

my heart shifts like a loose tooth even now.
Remember the summer I woke with my body vibrating,
like thin glass tapped with tuning fork,

that particular whine of a beautiful thing struck
and singing? Days grew dull, silence draped, clinging
to things unfilled. Refilling my drinks,
I’m murdering time until the dark night

offers itself up bruised. Here in Indiana,
my skin is clean, markedly untouched. Remember
the summer I swaggered through town, unashamed,
the scent of rough mermaids spilling

from between my legs, how fighting was all just play,
and you kissed me so good I bled through my tights,
period off schedule, startling us both? I don’t offer myself up
as easy now, but still it is easy, the offering.

If I stood by the window, you might see me, pressing
tongue to unmoving tooth, trying for the pain
of something near to lost. Here, they tell me
I’m pretty, as if beauty has ever made anyone stay.

Here, my body is quiet,
humming at a low frequency
no one detects.



All the young kids are tying knots—like sailors with identical maps,
duplicate treasure marked spots on sand. How they will swarm the continents;

how the babies will overgrow and slip into the seas for them.

   Once, I fell in love and was lost for decades,
            stuck in the dream of shark slick rubber, cutting teeth,
                        the widening darkness of a throat open, devouring romance.

All the endless map making, all the parchment.
I fear the whale, the waiting and cavernous gut,
the kind of dim that mimics my desire for charting a way in.

                        I slip easy into seclusion, swear allegiance to the wide blue.
            Birds crowd my shoulders squawking: marriage, matrimony, nuptials.

But for you, I fear I would limit my measure to island space,
rope off the edges, cut out the sea. This is not what I should want but it tides in me.

Let us discard our white flags, sway the wild ocean.

Let us stay slick, childless, all our fingers uncovered.

For you, I want to make my way through the waters,
take to the deep despite my fear

of the way the sea goes
down and down.


Turning Back

She secured my hands to the bedposts,
as if I might consider leaving.

Wrists contradicting the headboard,
I pulled against the leather belt and stayed.

We talk about Jesus, sometimes,
but mostly there is a kind of self worship here.

Later, we slant the lip of the windowsill,
bow out, watch cars sprint the Interstate.

I count each band:
space,                          three cars,                                space.

We root to her mattress, twine tangle
of skin and sheets.

We twist away from each other.

At daybreak, rain suffers the sidewalk,

A string of cars secures the highway,
a still shot of reverent motion.

She says I can be selfish,
this isn’t always about love.

I investigate my wrists, search for shadows
of rotten grapes, find only the wistful branches
of my veins.

The daffodils below, sweet from rain,
turn their backs to me,
lower their heads.

About the Author:
Katie McClendon is gay, glittery, glamorous, & gritty, rough, tender, fabulous, & pretty. She currently lives in Austin, TX and her work has been published in Crab Fat MagazineCutBank, Juked, and Smokelong Quarterly, among others. 

About All Accounts:
All Accounts and Mixture is an annual online feature celebrating the work of LGBTQ writers and artists. For this series, we seek work from authors who self-identify as “queer,” while acknowledging that this designation is subjective and highly personal. Our goal is to provide a forum for writers whose voices might be mis- or underrepresented by the literary mainstream. 



On Caracas, and Driving
Through There One Last Time

by Scott Broker

My mother first tells me to play dead on a beach near Caracas. I am crying, or have worried her by crawling off toward the surf while she napped, and she is leaning close so the words make an impression. “Play dead,” she says.

Or maybe we are in La Palma, Panama. I am crying, or have accidentally scratched her face with a poorly-cut fingernail, and she is leaning over and saying, “Play dead” with a voice stripped of inflection. Who knows if I register the command; I am not yet walking, let alone converting her intonation, gesture, and language into a singular message. Who knows if we are even in La Palma, Panama.

We might be in Ventura, California, or Sausalito, or maybe even Florence, which is up north in Oregon. This is the first year of my life: a listless drift up the Americas, nights spent on beaches or near beaches, my mother calling me barnacle baby for the way that I cling to her. In photo albums, we are sunburnt, occasionally smiling, and wrapped in the arms of various men and women. When I see them—often tattooed, muscled, and beaming—I wonder if my mother told them she loved them, that she would choose this beach over any other for the rest of her life, that they could be a new family: the mother, the seafarer, the barnacle baby. How often did they say I love you, too? And how frequently was I in the room while they made love?

I am crying. I am worrying my mother. I am scratching her face with a nail that she herself cut poorly. I am soiling my diaper, reminding her of my father, waking up too early, or interrupting her sandy and salted sex with tears. I am too small, too needy, too vulnerable in a world that spins with so much flying shrapnel.

She is saying, Play dead, barnacle baby. You’re clinging too hard right now. I need a minute, or ten, to let myself believe that I don’t need to be here for you.

My mother is a good person. She commands me to play dead with love. I know that it begins somewhere in her coastal movement, though, because her mind turns on her when it is too warm, too loud, or too crowded. In the first year, I am crying, the beaches are pulsing with sunlight, and the locals are flocking around her, wrapping their arms around her shoulders and asking for pictures. She is saying “Play dead” to me at least once, but possibly more. It might be a weekly plea, a daily one.

I do not resent her for this.

By the time we settle in West Seattle, I know the command and I know it well. When I am seven, she is dating Richie and telling me to play dead whenever they want a night out and can’t find a sitter.

“He can just play dead,” she says, pulling Richie toward the door. “He’s king of the house. Right, honey? Now go play dead.”

My mother tucks against Richie’s neck whenever he laughs. He laughs, now, and she moves her way in, glancing at me beneath narrowed lids.

“A night in is just as fun,” he says, throwing himself against the denim couch. “Be revived!” he shouts to me. I am standing in the corner, goggles still strapped to my forehead from our afternoon at the pool.

“Yes, yes,” my mother says, jumping over the couch and standing on its cushions. “Let the boy live!” she yells, lifting her arms from her sides and up toward the ceiling. Her voice is tuned to an unfamiliar pitch and she rubs her hand against her neck when she settles beside Richie. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”

My body sways above stationed feet. I am not sure if I should be laughing, playing dead despite Richie’s resurrection, or doing something else entirely.

“It’s bedtime,” my mother says, pointing a skinny finger at me.

The two tuck me in together and then have sex in the living room. My mother pounds her fists against the couch. When Richie shushes her, she pretends to restrain gasps and moans but manages to let them escape like unwieldy phantoms. She is doing this for me, casting her shouts like small rocks. She knows that there are multiple ways to break down a door, to let me know that I do not have the power to take away her life.

“Come on, Sarah,” Richie whispers.

“Why is everything always about him?” she says, locking herself in the bathroom while he speaks from the other side of the door.

We are here for years. Richie moves in. The denim couch is replaced by a leather one, which stays cooler in the summer. My mother buys a sunhat, then cries when Richie makes a joke about Seattle’s weather. We cover the refrigerator with drawings I’ve done in art class. Richie says I have potential and frames one of them for my 8th birthday. We spend weekends sitting on the beach. The way that the sound is divided up by land makes for relatively calm water. My mother says she loves this. Other times she says she hates this.

When Richie leaves her, my mother sleeps in my room for almost six months. She says that she can’t sleep without hearing someone else’s breath, that Richie stained her walls grey with his smoking and his bad energy. I am in the 5th grade. I lie still every night while she cries or wraps her arms around my stomach, asking what she would possibly do without me, without my love. For those months, I don’t have friends over and don’t ask to stay elsewhere. I want to be simple and non-burdening. I lie still. I play dead.

Then, it’s April. My mother is drinking tequila in the kitchen with Sally, who she has been sleeping with most nights of the week. Sally works at Swedish Medical Center, which is near the university where my mother is an administrative assistant. Though she is an RN, Sally says that the patients have been depressing her lately. A new job might be on the horizon. Sally does not shush my mother when they have sex in the living room, shower, or bedroom.

“You’ve got a special sort of lady here,” she says, handing me a bowl of cowboy chili.

My mother moves behind me and hugs my head. “He already knows that,” she says, kissing the top of my head. “And I’ve got a special sort of boy.”

During dinner, my mother tells Sally that we haven’t eaten anything but Hamburger Helper since Richie left. This chili reminds her of home, of California, of times that were better than then. My mother is lying, of course—she has made her way through two cookbooks with skill and innovation—but I assume that this is one of her soft lies.

When they are drunk, later, Sally says, “Fuck that Richie guy.”

My mother stands, meeting their foreheads above the coffee table. “Yeah, fuck him.”

I am supposed to be scooping us bowls of ice cream but am unable to move. When my arm relaxes, the bowl drops from my hand.

“What are you doing?” my mother yells, running into the kitchen and kneeling beside the bits of porcelain. “Out of the kitchen,” she says. “Out, out, out.”

“I can clean it.”

“Just go to your room. I don’t want to see you right now.”

I lie still. I try to sleep. My mother and Sally have sex in the kitchen. Sally yells, “Fuck that Richie guy” again. It is late. My mother bursts into my room and pulls the framed drawing from my wall. (Tomorrow, I will find it cast off into the backyard, the drawings from the refrigerator pressed down in the trash and covered in ground beef. My mother will say, “I’m sorry, baby. He had to go, though. He’s been dragging us down all year. Now get me some soda at the store. My stomach is in shambles.”) The drawing is of a shark swimming toward a pair of unsuspecting legs. Around both, scrawls of blue.

Spring passes damply. I try playing soccer in the yard but it is too sodden, soaking my shoes and socks. I go to the beach, chasing the ball across the pebbled expanse, but the sand kicks up and clings to my body. I try to shake it from my pants until my face is overwhelmed by heat, made red and tearful. A girl who lives down the street comes over and asks why I am crying. I tell her that I don’t know. I don’t. These days, I am surprised by what makes me cry. Sand, sandwiches wrapped in newspaper scraps, movie nights with my mother. It does not help that the sky is a mess of grey, unbroken by sunlight for weeks at a time. Sally says that there is a correlation between sun deprivation and emergencies in the hospital. I think of this often.

Sally is gone by summer. My mother says we’re better off without her, that she was fattening us up with all of her carb-heavy meals. She doesn’t sleep in my room, doesn’t say she’d be nowhere without me or my love. We are swimming in Lake Washington daily, even though there are rumors of sewage runoff and long-dead bodies recently surfaced. My mother says that swimming reminds her of Venezuela, Panama, or California, depending on the day. When she starts a conversation with the lifeguard—a younger black man with yellow sunglasses and perfect teeth—she shoos me off with a hand. I go to our towel and imagine starting my own conversation with someone on this beach. I could tell my mother to shoo, too. I could tell her that it’s about time that she play dead.

My life is not replete, but then it isn’t destitute either. I play soccer. I play basketball. I have friends who I call best friends. I know my way around Seattle’s downtown, am able to go there alone if I am willing to ferry over in the morning so I’m back before dark. In class, I get good grades. I like to read, but not as much as some of the other students. I don’t have a bike or an Xbox but I do have a skateboard and a PS2. My mother trusts me. My mother cries at my 6th grade graduation because she is proud. I am not embarrassed by this. Other parents are crying, too.

My mother is quiet for a few years. She does not date, does not sit in the living room crying or suggesting that we just up and leave, visit all of the national parks or make a reverse trip down the coast. At meals, she asks about my days and then nods. If I ask about hers, she keeps nodding. I spend more time with my friends because her quiet makes me anxious. My mother is not usually so resigned. She likes to shout and sing and dance when certain songs come on our radio. On weekends, now, she stays in bed most of the day. Occasionally, I catch her in there during the week, too, having skipped out on work.

“Did you work today?” I ask.

“Can you get me some soda?”

In the summer before high school, she begins to stand more often.

“I miss being young,” she says, putting her hands on her hips and scowling at me. “You’ve got a lot of luck right now. You can sneak out, drink, smoke pot, and no one will bat an eye because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Do you realize how good you’ve got it?”

She begins to sneak out, to drink and smoke pot as though there were anyone trying to prevent it. One night, someone knocks on the door at 2 AM. When I open it, a bearded man has my mother caught in his arms as though he has just saved her from some catastrophe.

“You know this lady?” he asks. “This your mom?”

I let him into the house, showing him where he can put her down.

“What happened?”

“She was dancing on the pool table down at Frank’s,” the man says, running his hands through his beard. “Fell off, but should be fine. It took her half an hour to tell me your address. Didn’t even say that she had a kid here.”

My mother stretches her limbs outward and blinks slowly at both of us. “Oh, sweetie,” she says, “I just wanted some fun. You know how I’ve been missing fun. You have all the luck.”

The man looks at me with a face that bleeds apology. He will go to his friends later and say that this lady took 30 minutes to remember her own home, that she forgot that she even had a kid there at all. I want to break the expression from his face. He gives a weak smile and then turns toward the door. “I’m sorry,” he says.

When he gets down to the driveway and into his car, I almost chase after him. I want to tell him about my mother’s soft lies. Didn’t he know that someone could say something and mean something else? Wasn’t he aware that she could say that she was childless and still have me here? That you could be contradictory without being a hypocrite?

My mother sleeps on the couch. I sleep on the floor beside her. In the morning, she helps me register for my 9th grade classes and asks if I’d like to take a drive down the coast.

We no longer cling together like we used to. I know that the barnacle baby is the one she wants to leave behind, the one that she likes to pretend never came at all. I lay low, driving only when she wants me to drive. She sings loud, dons a cowboy hat that she picked up in Redding, and tells me about how each place we go has changed over the last 14 years. She tries not to bring up Richie or Sally but their words still emerge, drifting through the car before pulling out the open windows. The other lovers hang around, too, joining in the backseat and telling stories through my mother’s mouth, stories that try to push me away or bring me in.

I am no longer crying. I do not need my mother like I once did. She still worries about me but is less strained by her own concern. She does not mind that I wander Little Italy while she sits at the wharf, nor is she bothered when I come back. In motels, we speak during commercial breaks and when the light is switched off but we aren’t yet sleeping.

When we reach Ventura, my mother sprawls out on the beach and says she wishes we had more time. “Imagine if we could make it all the way to Caracas. You could see the place that you were born.” She grabs handfuls of sand and lets it loose across her forehead. “Imagine how strange it would be, you seeing where your whole life began.”

I am wrapped around myself, trying to keep the evening’s cool from infiltrating my light jacket. She wants me to speak, to indicate that my life has been worth her journey from there to here. I say nothing, though, watching the sunlight spread like broken yolk across the riptide. We do not need to reach Caracas to ask ourselves these questions.

My mother yawns and then grabs my hand. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be than right here. You know that, right? You know that I wouldn’t give you up for the world? You’re my best friend—the best friend I’ve ever had.”

Seagulls sweep across the sky. People build bonfires and uncork wine bottles just north of us. I take my shoes off and pour the accumulated sand from them. Had it been so long since we’d last been here? Was this not the same sand reshaped? the same water stirred?

“I know,” I say, even though I don’t. My mother means it and she doesn’t. She is telling a soft lie to keep from breaking our hearts.

I lie back, shading my eyes against the sun. My mother starts to speak but doesn’t. Then she lets my hand drop back into the sand.

“I’m going to dip my feet,” she says, standing and running toward the water. She could stay out there for hours, kicking at the waves and letting her legs go numb against the Pacific. She could wander toward the others and tell them that she had been here once, childless and happy. They might be laughing, drinking, glancing occasionally to where I am. My mother might confess my presence, or she might keep me tucked away, if only through sunset. Play dead, barnacle baby. This is my life without you.

But then she will come back. We will go to the boardwalk for fried pickles and ice cream. She will say she’s forgotten so much and nothing, too. The garbage in the sand, the color of the sunset. When we pass by other people, we will both imagine how we could vanish ourselves to them, to one another. It will be a twilight reverie, a daydream both feared and desired. When we return to the car, tired and together, we will be reminded that there is more than one way to say I love you. Night will come quickly—a wave that fails to break, spilling outward instead—and we will drive north again.

About the Author:
Scott Broker is a writer originally from Colorado living now in Seattle, WA. His work has appeared or is soon forthcoming in Sonora Review, Entropy, American Chordata, Barrelhouse Blog, and Driftwood Press, among others. He holds a BA in English and Philosophy from Seattle University, where he edited the annual journal, Fragments. He can be found at

About All Accounts:
All Accounts and Mixture is an annual online feature celebrating the work of LGBTQ writers and artists. For this series, we seek work from authors who self-identify as “queer,” while acknowledging that this designation is subjective and highly personal. Our goal is to provide a forum for writers whose voices might be mis- or underrepresented by the literary mainstream. 

ALL ACCOUNTS & MIXTURE: Max Oliver Delsohn

Blessed in His Deed

Nonfiction by Max Oliver Delsohn


I am sitting in the bath when I receive my name. With palms upturned I raise and lower my hips, up and down, letting the water move over me in waves. I mouth it to myself, a silent chant. Max. Max.

This feels better than the lazy derivatives of Emma I thought I’d have to use when I was younger. I’d secretly post poems online as the mysterious and potentially British Edward Foxworthy, until Twilight ruined the name for all of us. After that, I tried Emmet, only to discover later that he is also a character in Twilight. I decided a name that invokes images of Mormon vampires is not going to aid me in living my truth.

Still, somehow, it struck me. Max, a name to stretch from boy to girl. A name for someone in a suit, in a dress, with body hair or a clean shave, with boobs, with a beard, with a vagina that feels more like a dick. A label to defend against all labels. Max.

After some time I get out of the bath and look at myself in the mirror. My body is delicate. I’ve been an A cup since seventh grade, I’ve broken each wrist twice, and I have never successfully completed more than one push-up. To make up for my tiny stature, I have a thick mass of curly brown hair at least twice the size of my head. I drench it in detangler as water drips down my back. I take all of it in, my angular face, my curves, my dark body hair. I regard it with a vague affection, a distant curiosity.

My roommates aren’t home, so I walk naked across the living room and through my bedroom door, slipping under the covers and opening my laptop. With no underwear to fumble with, all I have to do is type ‘porn hub gay’ into the search bar and I am good to go. As an old favorite involving a gardener with a leafblower loads on screen, I reach my hand under the covers. My mind is blank except for Max, repeating steadily and reaching everywhere. It is a meditation. Max. Max.

The gardener has only just turned on his leaf blower when I notice I have three missed calls from my youngest sister, Grace. She’s calling to say my grandmother has died. The service is in two weeks.


The only time to tell them was the funeral. Two weeks later I am on a plane home with my other sister, Hannah, discussing strategies for how to break the new name to my parents. I would be in California for three days-- getting in on Monday afternoon, and leaving Thursday morning. Hannah and I agree I should tell them both on Wednesday, the day after the service, once everyone has had a night to process.

 “Mom wants to ride those four-person bikes in Santa Barbara,” Hannah tells me. “Do something as a family.”

“Yeah…” I mutter back, unfolding my tray table so I can rest my face in my hands. I think of our traditional Santa Barbara daycation, the surrey bike’s slow meander on the concrete track along the beach, shouting at each other to pull our respective weight, in pursuit of the tiny ice cream shop at the far end of the dock. I imagine my mother stuttering as she calls out for her daughter Emma, only to remember, Max. I cringe.

 “Do you think she’s gonna freak out?” I ask half-heartedly.

Hannah thinks before she answers. “No. No, I don’t think she’s gonna freak out. It’s not like you’re going full FTM.”

“But I MIGHT go full FTM.”

“Don’t bring that up now,” Hannah warns, with a seriously alarmed look.

“I know,” I sigh. “I wouldn’t,”

“You may need to explain it for a while, like. She isn’t going to get it.”

“I don’t need her to get it,” I tell Hannah as I fold my tray table back up and press myself moodily back into my chair. “I just need her to know.”


My father picks Hannah and I up from the airport. He fills us in on the death of my grandma, the state of my mother. It was sudden. My grandmother died in the hospital after a seemingly-successful surgery, as my mother raced down the interstate as soon as the doctor called to report the complications. She was one hour into the three hour drive when the doctor called again.

We’ve been warned to expect anything between a chaste sadness and total hysteria, so my sister and I step cautiouslyinto the kitchen of our childhood home. My mother sits at the table, composed, but wobbles as she rises to greet us, her face stained with tears, the skin around her eyes dark with exhaustion. We hug stiffly, our custom. The brim of my baseball cap nearly collides with her forehead, but I weave just in time.

“How’s it going?” I ask tentatively, softening my tone.

“Okay, you know? Okay,” my mother says. She smiles at me, eyes wet.

My father excuses himself to pick up Grace from school, as Hannah and I settle in around the table. The first time in over a year. The ghost of how I used to move, the rise and fall of our voices together, it scares me. Is this my body? How did I do this before?

My mother begins listing all confirmed attendees to the funeral. My mother is one of eight children. She names her cousins, my cousins, the children of my cousins. I recognize almost none of them. My mother is thrilled they’re all making a point to be there.

“Joyce and Sheryl are flying in,” she continues, eyeing me expectantly. In an attempt to placate her lesbian daughter, my mother used to temper unintended expressions of disgust towards my sexuality with the quick name-dropping of two delightful older lesbians she grew up with, friends of my grandmother named Joyce and Sheryl. My mother always made a point to tell me how my grandmother ‘never had a problem’ with Joyce and Sheryl, and she didn’t, either.

“Oh, cool. I’ve never met Joyce and Sheryl,” I remind her, trying not to engage.

“Sheryl’s a sweetheart. And you’ll love Joyce-- Oh, shoot, I mean Josh. Josh and Sheryl. Right.”

My eyes narrow as Hannah’s widen.

“Joyce is Josh now,” my mother says simply. I look over at Hannah, who is laughing.

“Well THAT’S ironic,” Hannah blurts out, before immediately throwing her hand over her mouth.

“What are you talking about?” my mother asks. It’s the voice that she uses when someone’s about to be grounded. Neither of us respond. I scratch the back of my neck even though there is no itch.

“What, are you changing your name now, too?”

She stares at me, incredulous. “Thanks Hannah,” I mutter.

“I am so, so sorry dude.”

I did not actually come out as a lesbian to my mother. Instead, I was caught violently kissing my best friend in ninth grade. We were surrounded by textbooks and tried to plead studying, but the door was shut and the lights were off and dry-humping isn’t subtle. So, any conversation of this kind had never happened before. My scalp feels hot beneath the hat. Beneath it, I can feel my hair bunching. Is this a woman’s hair?

“I was going to tell you after the funeral…” I start, but am abruptly cut off.

“I support you,” she responds immediately, leaning in on her elbows like a teenage girl, listening for a secret. “So what’s the name?”


“You do what makes you happy. Now tell me what’s the name!”

“Max…” the name falls out of my mouth, limp and ugly. “I just want to be called Max.”

“I support you, Max,” my mother says, eyes wet again. She seems… sincere. I glance over at Hannah, who shrugs.

“Now we HAVE to go shopping for the funeral,” my mother says, apparently satisfied with my twenty second explanation for abandoning the name she gave me at birth. “A simple black dress should be fine.”


Once Grace gets home we all pile into the car, my mother, sisters and I, on our way to Pegasus, a clothing store in a strip mall just five minutes from our house. It is one small room of suburban pre-teen chic, with cheap dangling jewelry on a revolving rack, amidst neat stacks of overpriced skinny jeans and flowing sheer blouses. We could be in my 7th grade crush’s closet. I furrow my eyebrows and attempt to focus on the task at hand. Hannah and Grace are in their element, darting in different directions, grabbing several dresses at once off the shelves.

Though aggressively grossed out by them as a child, I grew to appreciate dresses in my adult life. I wore them on dates, to college parties, the occasional foray into the mystical, confusing world of femininity. Sometimes, the dresses felt like a costume, and I was just a drag queen with a deeply unfair advantage. Other times, I felt pretty, and I felt like me.

And then, for no specific reason at all, I quit shaving my legs. I started exclusively wearing boxy shirts, and bought myself a binder; the countless Victoria’s Secret thongs I had accumulated over the years were replaced by novelty boxers I purchased in bulk over the Internet. Whether my feminine side was authentic or a two-decade long, private joke, the sparkle had faded.     

Regardless, the point was I had worn dresses before, and I had liked it.


I locate the Pegasus sale section and grab the blandest black dress I can find. Shuffling off to a changing room, I throw the thing over my body without removing my jeans. I’ve stopped wearing bras, too, so I stare at myself in the dress and try to imagine what it will look like once I squeeze into that old push-up bra buried deep in the garage.         

As far as dresses go, this one is modest, this should be manageable, this would have been acceptable funeral attire a year ago. But now I cannot recognize my reflection. I can’t tell if my skin is burning. I cannot shake the nausea, the thought that I am fundamentally mismatched, a collection of all the wrong clothes and body parts.

Grace peeks in to look at the dress. “It looks so good, Emma.”

“Does that work?” I hear my mother yell from the opposite side of Pegasus.

I look myself over once again, and swallow hard. “Tell her this will work,” I whisper back to Grace.

On the car ride home, I briefly explain to Grace that I’m now going by Max. ‘So are you a boy?’ No. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m genderfluid. ‘What is genderfluid?” It’s supposed to be everything, boy and girl. It’s both and neither at once.

“I don’t think that’s a thing,” Grace decides.

"Emma? I mean Max?" my mom interrupts as she checks her rearview mirror. She is wearing her sunglasses, so I cannot see her eyes.

"Will you shave your legs tomorrow?"

Nobody speaks. My mother clears her throat. Then, after a moment, “It’s what grandma would have wanted.”


As my father and I approach the massive Spanish Renaissance style church towering above the thick morning fog, the goosebumps on my bare limbs rise. I stare down at my cold and furry knees. I had agreed to the dress, but couldn’t erase all the hard work I had done for the past six months growing some legitimate leg hair. I try not to think about the gawking from my devoutly Catholic extended family. For the first time since I was 11, I wish that I were blonde.

I slide myself into the mass of people gathering outside the church entrance, hoping to avoid as many relatives as I can. My aunt Lily and her husband, Greg, an aging one-hit-wonder from the seventies, spot me from across the foyer and rush over to me with a box of yellow flowers. “Hi Emma,” they both say hastily with a quick hug. Lily puts one hand on my shoulder and pushes the box towards me with the other. “Give these to guests when they come in, sweetie.”

I am handing out daffodils to some teenaged cousins when my mom whirls by, beaming as if a celebrity has just walked into the funeral. My first thought is Josh and Sheryl. I feel myself blushing.

“Harry’s going to perform Amazing Grace after the Eucharist,” my mom tells me, then lightly jogs towards another aunt looking lost on her way to the bathroom. I don’t get a chance to ask if Josh and Sheryl have arrived, or if musical performances are typical of funerals-- and in that moment, I realize, I’ve never been to a funeral before. This is the first person I’ve truly known to have died.

My grandmother and I were not close. The peak of our relationship came in the form of an impromptu wine-drinking contest on Christmas Eve last year. It was my grandmother’s idea, so of course I accepted, only to learn later my mother had secretly been serving her non-alcoholic wine since 2011. Needless to say, I lost that drinking contest.

Aside from that, my time with my grandmother was made up of passing hellos and goodbyes, small talk at family gathering, and the occasional command for me to ‘brush my damn hair once in awhile.’ I couldn’t call her a mentor, but my grandmother was honest, blunt in the disarming, good-natured sort of way. I wanted to be like that, too. And that was something.

The door to the church finally opens. The organ begins to play as I follow my mother down the aisle. Eyes are on us and with each step something wooden inside is hacked up and splintering. An enlarged photograph of my grandmother’s face just a few years before she died sits in a large frame on the church stage. Some people in the pews turn to look as we walk by, but I recognize none as Josh and Sheryl, and I hate myself for looking, I hate all of us for looking. We stop to file into our pew, in the center of everyone, and suddenly I am crying, willing myself anywhere else and out of this dress, out of clothes and names and history. I try to redirect my thoughts to my grandmother, to mourning, but there is only shame, and then rage, a deafening rage at myself and at my mother and at the whole concept of a funeral, the way it mocks the specificity of pain.

And then I am really crying, sobs loud and unapologetic. My skin is burning and my dress is wrong and my body is wrong and they’re all making me selfish, this solemn audience, and in front of all these people it’s the only thing I can feel. No one expects this from me, and I sense more relatives ogling, fascinated with the depth of my grief. Aunt Lily pats me on the back when I sit down, but I keep crying throughout the ceremony, all the way until Greg finally gets up on stage to perform his rendition of the classic, Amazing Grace.

It is at this point I am getting myself together, and maybe about to laugh, when I notice my mother has made her way next to me in the pew, has rearranged with my sisters so she can hold my hand. Before pulling away from a long, stiff hug, my mother squeezes my arm and whispers, “I know, I know. I miss her, too.”


On the first anniversary of my grandmother’s death I call my mother. She is driving home from the cemetery to meet with my father and Grace for breakfast. Her voice is slow and sad, but somehow peaceful, still full of love. Our conversation is brief, cordial and kind. She doesn’t stutter when she says my name. She hasn’t stuttered in months.

A year later, too, in the mirror.  My hair’s gone. That glorious dragging of soft, dead weight. I loved it for being beautiful, to her, to her, toyou. I loved it because my mother and her mother told me to brush it out, to press my curls flat, but I refused. It was my first, sweet rebellion, with so little at stake.

Hair grows other places now. Legs, arms, and it’s still growing. The only skin I ever shave is my face, expectant with each new needle in my thigh, wondering how my body will interpret the testosterone this week. I regard each change with a vague affection, a distant curiosity.

Boy, girl, boy, girl. These lenses wash over me with each new mirror. Photographs, store windows, still water. Remember, imagine, remember... Emma, Max, Max.

And each time, the compulsion returns, desperate for meaning, for knowing: Is there truth in this body? Truth in this fat distribution, in this tone of voice, in this name? I come in the tradition of women, and I leave--

I leave.

About the Author:
Max Oliver Delsohn is a transgender writer living in Seattle, Washington. He has been published in Fragments Literary Magazine and has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Seattle University. He currently works at Hugo House, a Seattle non-profit for writers.

About All Accounts:
All Accounts and Mixture is an annual online feature celebrating the work of LGBTQ writers and artists. For this series, we seek work from authors who self-identify as “queer,” while acknowledging that this designation is subjective and highly personal. Our goal is to provide a forum for writers whose voices might be mis- or underrepresented by the literary mainstream.