The Masters Review Blog

May 20

2021 Chapbook Open Shortlist

We’ve spent the last four and a half months reading through so many wonderful chapbooks submitted for our Chapbook Open, judged this year by Matt Bell, and narrowing down to only seven was a truly difficult process. Congratulations to the shortlisted and notable chapbooks, and thank you to all of our fantastic submitters! Stay tuned for Bell’s selection!


Love at the End of the World by Lindy Biller

The Potential of Radio and Rain by Myna Chang

Family Tree by Judith Cooper

Why Shit Is Still Like This Around Here and Probably Always Will Be by Molia Dumbleton

Make Work by B.C. Edwards

Tiny Creatures by Eliezra Schaffzin

The Caretakers by Kaj Tanaka

Notable Chapbooks

Fun Can Kill You by Ariel Courage

Dubbing Cartouche by Terry Eicher

Discordant Virgo by Brianne Kohl

Am I A Lesbian?: A Meta-Analysis by Clancy Tripp

CANARY by Katherine Zlabak

May 19

Reading Through The Awards: The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, winner of the 2022 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “Ailey is reared in the north in the City but spends summers in the small Georgia town of Chicasetta, where her mother’s family has lived since their ancestors arrived from Africa in bondage. From an early age, Ailey fights a battle for belonging that’s made all the more difficult by a hovering trauma, as well as the whispers of women—her mother, Belle, her sister, Lydia, and a maternal line reaching back two centuries—that urge Ailey to succeed in their stead.

To come to terms with her own identity, Ailey embarks on a journey through her family’s past, uncovering the shocking tales of generations of ancestors—Indigenous, Black, and white—in the deep South. In doing so Ailey must learn to embrace her full heritage, a legacy of oppression and resistance, bondage and independence, cruelty and resilience that is the story—and the song—of America itself.”

Positive Responses

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois is an intimidating read. It’s nearly eight hundred pages, thirty hours in audiobook form, and its prodigious length is not the only thing ambitious about it. It’s a story about the takeover of Native land, the enslavement of Africans, rape, murder, sexual and physical abuse, Jim Crow and segregation, broken families, crack cocaine, and the neverending waterfall of prejudice and pain that continues to this day. For the first five hundred pages I confess I wondered whether the point was to simply hammer home the truth I’d known (intellectually) for most of my life: that the history of Black people in America was a litany of injustices. I’d heard these sad facts before. They didn’t seem worthy of eight hundred new pages. But my judgment was shortsighted, and my intellectual understanding was insufficient. I repent.

For as the pages turned, I found myself slowly drawn into a story that became more and more like a poem, like a song, that has echoes and parallels across centuries, similar people, similar scenes. I was touched: first my mind, then my heart, then my soul. The characters became familiar, then resonant, then real. Ms. Jeffers has achieved that elusive “final goal” of fiction: to write something that is not factual but is nonetheless absolutely true. What’s more, she has written this work with talent and effort to match her high ambition. I believe this book ought to be placed on the shelf with the rest of your classics. I can’t recommend it highly enough. But be ready when you read it, because what you read will weigh on you, no matter who you are. It’s a heavy burden. And remember, if you’re white like me, when you put the book down with tears in your eyes, reaching for a different book, a lighter one, one less bothersome to your heart: some people don’t get to put that burden down. Maybe you should keep forging ahead. And when you finish, maybe you should turn to the first page and start again.

Taylor Seyfert

A centuries-long story of struggle spread out over roughly eight hundred pages, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers can hardly be considered light reading. However, it is also the type of book I can’t imagine regretting having read. Stitched over the patchwork narratives of her ancestors is the first-person account of 1970s-born Ailey Pearl Garfield as she experiences, first through her own encounters in childhood and adolescence, and later vicariously through her historical research as a doctoral student, the heartache and hard-won triumphs of Black women. This is a story about colonialism, racism, and sexism, and as such, it’s also a story about secrets: how they promise protection but only offer pain, and how life has a way of revolving around them. The real story, even when it does come out, seems to do so only piecemeal, and with every revelation, Ailey’s wise uncle’s words about truth ring, well, true: that it can be “both horrible and lovely at the same time.”

As one might expect with a story of its breadth, I struggled at times to maintain a firm grasp on events and characters—even with the family tree listed for reference at the start of the book. I’d catch myself hesitating mid-scene, thinking, Wait, didn’t that happen to so-and-so’s husband? Or was that her mother’s husband? Upon reflection, I’d recall that, in fact, the same terrible thing had happened to both. Perhaps I wasn’t getting mixed up as much as I was experiencing deja vu. History repeating itself. This feeling of familiarity—along with the book’s telling and retelling of stories, along with the women whose dreams peer into the past and future, along with the long-haired lady who was with Ailey at the beginning and with her again at the end—affirms words once written not by Du Bois himself but by Einstein (with whom the former once corresponded on matters of race): that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

Laura Wormsley

When I first saw the nearly eight hundred page The Love Songs of W.E.B Dubois, I thought if it was dropped from a height, it would probably injure someone. But from the first sentence, I eagerly flipped through the pages until I reached the end. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers makes writing such a story look easy, but with her captivating characters, alluring narrative that blends time, and mastery of writing, I found it hard to put the book down. In The Love Songs of W.E.B Dubois, Jeffers utilizes many functions of narrative to bring forth a story that encapsulates themes such as love, layered roots, and family.

The narrative started with one word that stood out to me, “We.” The voice of the collective. This snippet of the past sets the stage for readers just before the story’s main character, Ailey, appears on the pages. In utilizing the first-person point of view, but rather as the collective than the individual, the narrator establishes that roots are to be acknowledged in connection to the narrative and that the story covers the past and legacy of what Ailey’s ancestors have created. Although these stories from the past are told in this style mix of first person and third person, there is also a distance that Ailey’s “I,” “me,” “my” contrasts against. These different stylistic choices in writing were particularly intriguing to me and kept me reading, fascinated by how time transcended with how it affected the characters.

The roots from what came before are established and out branch different stories and families. However, characters from the past remain in the foreground and are not forgotten but start the story and remain a part of it. The blend of Indigenous and African backgrounds written into the story make for a multifaceted and rich narrative that include the devastation of colonization, racism, and colorism. The Love Songs of W.E.B Dubois has the created a rich soil of love, complexities of family and the legacy of ancestors and beginnings in a thought-provoking narrative which was a joy to read.

Shalah E. Hamza

Negative Responses

The novel opens with the first-person plural point-of-view, and the author almost immediately begins defending a stylistic choice—the use of a boy as the beginning of a woman’s story. Jeffers argues in first-person plural with the reader, already anticipating a backlash that even I raised my brow at. The author feels the need to “protect” the writing like the judgment of the Heavens or some online platform may bear down too heavily on its rather substandard prose. This abrupt justification offers an air of uncertainty around the novel. It is well-known that you must play into your audience’s tastes to win awards and get published by third parties, and it’s even more well-known that you should be confident in the work you make, because it is all a reflection of you. I didn’t appreciate this awkward defense at all.

I also didn’t enjoy the dry reiteration of history. However, I will point out how the story eventually begins traversing between the past and the present, but there is very little unity aside from ancestry and a few themes. The obligatory Du Bois quotes were also painfully shoehorned in as the novel flits from one idea to the next. Even the attempts to engage the reader by asking questions and making side comments throughout the narration quickly become tiring and unwelcome. While there is undoubtedly compassion to be felt for the characters, especially the ones that are purely victims—overall, I liked The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw much better. The narrative feels more sincere concerning black communities and how black women engaged with their surroundings. Oprah’s Book Club should have picked up Philyaw’s novel instead. I would not reread this novel.

S. N. Valadez

May 18

From the Archives: “Raw” by Isle McElroy — Discussed by Rebecca Paredes

How do you write about grief? What about the grief that lingers, the kind that worms its way into a person’s daily life and knocks them off their feet? We’re diving into The Masters Review’s archives to analyze the stories that stick out to us as writers and readers, and I’m excited to bring forward Isle McElroy’s “Raw.” 

Published in our New Voices category in June 2014, “Raw” presents a richly detailed portrait of Tar, a young woman who is reeling from her mother’s death. In just under 3,000 words, “Raw” succeeds in crafting a compelling character in stasis. As readers, we understand the manifestation of Tar’s grief better than Tar understands herself, and this is an act worth studying.

Crafting a compelling opening paragraph

Let’s start at the beginning:

When did the nosebleeds begin? Months before I met Gabe? Weeks? That night? I did get a couple that night. The first came before work—technically during work. I was in the alley behind Raw, ten minutes late to my shift, and leaning my head back so I wouldn’t dirty my shirt. Eric’s car was unlocked, so I got in, knowing there’d be napkins inside. I shifted his rear-view mirror to face me. Thin red streaks crossed my lips like stitches.

Immediately, McElroy establishes narrative momentum, setting, and elements of Tar’s voice and character that are consistent throughout the text. There isn’t any buildup—we don’t have time to set the table in a short story, where every word counts and we want to get to the inciting incident as efficiently as possible.

“When did the nosebleeds begin?” is a question to the reader, but also a question Tar asks herself. We’re in her head as much as she is in ours. By beginning the story with the concept of the nosebleeds, McElroy signals that this element is a big deal. We don’t yet know why, but we get a hint in the next line when we’re introduced to Gabe.

“Months before I met Gabe?” This line accomplishes several things: It answers the opening question with another question, establishes a sense of time, and introduces a character who we think will play a significant role in the story. (Spoiler: We don’t actually meet Gabe until the second-to-last scene, but we’ll get to that later.) There’s an element of intrigue here, and even though we don’t need every paragraph to function as a cliffhanger, McElroy is cueing to the audience that there’s a reason to keep going. We’re building a story, but also introducing more questions, and as a reader, I’m already looking for answers—to the nosebleed, to Gabe, and to the question of how it all fits together.

“That night? I did get a couple that night.” Note the repetition of “that night.” This isn’t any night. Even though we don’t have an inciting incident yet, we have a clear event that motivates us to learn more. This story begins on the night that things changed.

“The first came before work—technically during work” hints at Tar’s voice, with the em dash giving us space for a second thought, illustrating that she’s aware that she’s withholding the truth in this part of her life (but not others, as we’ll see later). She knew what time her shift started, she knew she was late, and she didn’t necessarily care about either.

“I was in the alley behind Raw” immediately gives us a sense of place and tells the reader what the title of the text is referencing: a restaurant, not just a state of being, although it might be a bit of that, too. “Eric’s car was unlocked, so I got in” gives us more insight into Tar’s character: She knows Eric well enough to check his car door, knows him well enough to find the car napkins, and is in a mental state where she would rather invade Eric’s privacy than go back inside the restaurant.

“Thin red streaks crossed my lips like stitches” is a powerful image. It’s significant that this is how we end the introduction, with an image that lingers. At the beginning of the paragraph, this line wouldn’t have the same punch because it could be interpreted so many different ways; without the preceding context, the image of thin red streaks crossing lips like stitches is potentially violent, potentially fantastical. At the end of the paragraph, though, it delivers a final punch that is bolstered by the world-building McElroy establishes in the prior lines. “Thin red streaks crossed my lips like stitches” can still be coded as violent and fantastical, but it’s also grounded in our understanding of Tar’s character so far.

She observes her lips. She isn’t afraid of what she sees. The tone is neutral, and Tar’s perception of her nosebleed is neutral. By ending the paragraph in this way, the reader wants to know more.

And that’s just the opening paragraph.

On monologues, dialogues, and withholding the truth

A writing mentor (hi, Brandon Williams!) once told me that dialogue should reveal character and/or advance the plot. But never neither. I’ve yet to successfully internalize this advice, but I see it displayed throughout “Raw,” beginning with Tar’s phone call with her father.

McElroy skips the pleasantries (“after hellos, the weather”). Don’t need ‘em here. The conversation consists of quick, succinct lines that establish the conflicting desires of each character: Her father wants his daughter to come home, and Tar wants to stay in place. McElroy deftly adds a layer of complexity in this small exchange that both reveals character and adds complexity to the story:

“I have a life here.” [Tar]

“Wiping tables with your diploma?” [Dad]

No diploma. But it wasn’t the right time to tell him. “I use the gown.”

“You’re all alone out there.”

So what? I thought. “No one’s alone.”

A few things here: Tar’s dad thinks she graduated, but she hasn’t found “the right time” to tell him the truth. (When is the right time?) She also deflects his statement that she’s “all alone,” reframing the subject from “you” to “no one.” Each of these twists are dodges, effectively building enough backstory that we can get a hint of Tar’s near-past (she went to college, but she didn’t finish, and she’s far enough from home that her dad wouldn’t know unless she told him) and understand more about her as a person. She’s flighty. She’s stuck. She’s not willing to confront what’s really wrong, and she’s not willing to leave.

McElroy introduces more layers at the end of the phone call, when we learn that Tar’s mother died a year earlier. Again, this information is delivered in a way that reveals Tar isn’t willing—or isn’t able—to confront the reality of her grief:

It had been a year since Mom died and he still wasn’t over her death. They’d been, like most couples, mismatched.

Read these lines too quickly and you might skip the fact that it’s Tar’s mother who died. She says “he still wasn’t over her death,” implying that she’s already over it, and the following line emphasizes her parents’ relationship—again, deflecting the attention away from herself. “They’d been, like most couples, mismatched” functions as a shoddy explanation for her father’s lingering grief, but the narration quickly transitions into a solid paragraph of backstory about the way Tar’s parents met.

“Was there love? There must have been love. Plenty from him. He’d loved her too much, I’d decided,” she says, effectively framing her father’s love as a bad thing, something that places him at fault for her death, even obliquely. Is she aware of this blame? Tar has demonstrated earlier that she possesses an element of self-awareness. But in this paragraph, she frames her father’s phone calls that beg her to come home as “him wanting to recover some part of my mother. But I let him call, let him talk. We all make sacrifices.”

What’s the sacrifice here? Tar offers a detailed explanation of her parents’ relationship and her father’s grief, but fails to consider her own. This tracks with the way McElroy presents Tar’s neutral reaction to her nosebleeds, neutral reaction to her father, and neutral reaction to her work. She turns off her phone and finally starts her shift, only to pour herself a cup of green tea as her fellow servers scramble to deliver food.

By the end of the first section of the story, Tar seems like she has no agency. However, McElroy demonstrates that Tar’s lack of agency is part of a broader pattern of deflections. Maybe this story resonated with me because I’m fascinated by the idea of characters in stasis, avoiding change until they must confront it. What makes “Raw” compelling in these first few pages is that we’re aware that Tar is avoiding reality, which means the story hinges on her losing the ability to hide anymore.

After the section break, Tar tells the reader, “I’m getting to Gabe. But I should probably say more about my mother.” There’s so much value in this cue; it functions as a reminder to the reader that the narrator hasn’t forgotten about this person who seems so essential to the story, even as we’ve been taken in other directions. Note that we’re placing Gabe’s name next to Tar’s mother; each of these characters is important, for different reasons.

McElroy gives us just enough backstory about Tar’s mom to frame her grief and move on with the rest of the story. We learn that Tar’s senior thesis was based on a chapter of her mother’s book, and when she learned her mother was sick, she dropped everything and flew home. It’s worth noting that McElroy delivers the details of Tar’s mom’s final days in a way that complicates Tar’s relationship with her mother; Tar says, “During her final weeks I treated Mom like a chore,” and, “I liked being mad at her,” but her description also reveals the layers of Tar’s loss. The section ends:

She would tell me, when we spoke, not that she loved me, or that she would miss me, but about the things she wanted, not material things, but things like more flesh on her bones, or softer skin, fuller hair. The things I had. The things that I was pleased to be unable to give her.

Death is ugly. So is grief. The reality of this closing paragraph characterizes Tar’s mother, but it also hints at the feelings Tar isn’t willing to confront. The sequence of clauses in that first line contrasts emotions (“love” and “miss”) with the physical. Tar’s burden is knowing that she couldn’t give her mother any true comfort in her dying days. Is there guilt? If there is, Tar isn’t willing to interact with it.

This section is short, but gritty—and it sets the foundation for the grief that Tar holds onto a year later.

The structure of stasis

There’s a lot more that I can say about each individual beat in “Raw,” but I do want to draw attention to the overall structure of the story.

We spend most of the narrative in and around Raw, with breaks for backstory. Tar leaves the restaurant, runs to a grocery store, and ends up at Gabe’s condo. Taken further, it makes sense that we spend so much time at Raw; Tar has been stuck for a year, clocking in and out of her job, going through the motions of her days without considering her emotions. This repetition is cued in the third section, where we get a description of the restaurant rush (“…I began to accept, or to hope, like I normally do midway into a rush, that I’d die here, that people’d keep coming and I’d keep serving and they’d keep eating and I’d keep smiling and we’d keep this up for the rest of forever.”) that ends with the final moment of change.

No, it’s not Gabe. It’s an unnamed woman at the titular sushi bar who wears Tar’s mother’s perfume, which triggers a nosebleed. Tar walks outside to the alley and runs through the rain until she finds herself at a Safeway, where she finally meets Gabe. She agrees to go with him to a party. She says:

This, I think now, is how life occurs: through coincidence and avoidance. We do things because we do not want to do other things.

Up until this point, Tar has avoided doing anything that would force her to confront the reality of her emotions, the actions of her mother, the question of what happens next. The power of “Raw” is that it’s about a character who avoids her grief until she doesn’t, and it’s all based on coincidence—Tar happened to smell her mother’s perfume, she happened to run away from the restaurant, she happened to meet Gabe, she happened to do something impulsive and go to his condo. This story isn’t about Gabe. It’s about the night Tar allowed herself to change.

At Gabe’s party, a gathering of “second-string cheerleaders for Whitfield University,” Tar joins a cheerleading stunt and happens to get another nosebleed. They all collapse into a pile of “unsexy bodies, limbs hooked and bent.” Someone happens to wipe the blood from Tar’s lips. Was it Gabe’s hand? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Tar’s character has changed, in some small way that marks this night a special night, and that’s what makes this story complete.

She avoided things until a series of coincidences caused her to change. Such is life.

Three takeaways from “Raw”

  1. Characters can be messy and flawed, but consistent traits—like an established voice or lack of self-awareness—make them feel more real.
  2. Start a short story close to the inciting incident, and preface it with only as much scene-setting as the story requires.
  3. Thoughts and dialogue should reveal character and/or advance the story. Ideally both. Never neither.

Follow Isle McElroy on Twitter.

by Rebecca Paredes

May 16

New Voices: “Carve” by Kaushika Suresh

Today’s New Voices story is “Carve” by Kaushika Suresh, a coming-of-age story following a group of eighth grade girls preparing for the Sadie Hawkins homecoming dance. From older girls, they learn the secret: “Water then soap then sugar then butter then rinse.” It will hurt, and it will work.

We look ourselves in the mirror. Gruesome and bloody. We want to be the prettiest.

Mallavika tells Kavitha who tells Rani who tells Brinda who tells Pinky’s older sister at Princeton who tells Pinky who tells us. Everybody is doing it.

Water then soap then sugar then butter then rinse, Pinky tells us. All those rules? we ask. Will it hurt? Will it work?

Yes, yes, yes.

We like the sound of that.

I saw it, you guys, Pinky says, black eyes wide and rimmed with kajal. She double taps her press on nails against her phone screen. That’s my sister.

We gather around the dimly lit screen to look at her wallpaper.

Oooh, we whisper. Aaah.

* * *

Eighth grade. We are invincible. We wear our first bras, think about touching ourselves, think about touching others.

The hallways of Herbert Hoover Middle School are lined with gaudy posters and cheap streamers advertising the homecoming dance. It is spring and the theme of our dance is Sadie Hawkins. As usual, we talk at length at study hall about who likes who. This time, none of it is hypothetical. If we feel particular, we stress the name of our boy, making it clear there are no room for trades. No take backs.

I don’t know if there’s anyone for me, Laki complains. Instead of buying her pepper spray, Laki’s mother told her once that she was too ugly to ever get kidnapped. Though we can all see this was untrue—actually, she is the prettiest among us—Laki believes her mother’s word to be God’s.

What about Sagar? we ask.

I think I might go with Sagar though, Anika cuts in.

Oh, we say. To Laki: What about Rutvik?

I think Stephen for me, Aasha says, twirling a strand of her hair.

Who? we ask. Is he cute?

Well, he’s white, she says.

We nod in understanding.

From the side of our eyes, we see Kajal doing homework. Kajal is not a girl at all with skin so dark and unbraided hair so long it moves like her shadow. She thinks she is so cool. All the boys think so too. Ishan and Neel and Rutvik want to ask her to the dance, Anika tells us in whispers.

Gayathri and Himakar are already official, so it is a given he would ask her. Gayathri’s dad is cheating on her mom and Gayathri knows and her mom knows but they don’t say anything about it and neither do we. We know Gayathri doesn’t really like Himakar, but he is her little rebellion, one her parents overlook when they hear commotion in her room or see him walking her home after school.

We remember it like yesterday: We are in Gayathri’s room, twirling on her desk chair, lounging on her bed, sitting on the yellow rug her mother bought her. We are waiting on the squelch of car tires, for Himakar to pick her up for their first date. Gayathri didn’t know about him yet. She puts on blush then dabs it off. We feel what she feels. We are on the precipice, waiting for a new feeling we have not felt.

To continue reading “Carve” click here.

May 14

Litmag Roadmap Update: Wisconsin

We’re back with a new list for Wisconsin! Follow us back to our editor-in-chief’s home state for another round up of Badger litmags you should be sending your work to!

If you’ve read the stunning Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler, you know there’s something about a biting Wisconsin winter that gets down in an artist’s soul. A deity’s too, if American Gods by Neil Gaiman is any guide. The point is, there’s more than cheese in the Badger State. In fact, it’s home to some sterling literary magazines, both young and old. So, bundle up for another stop on our litmag road trip!

Cream City Review

In case you didn’t know (and really who did?) Milwaukee is known as “The Cream City” thanks to a locally made, yellow colored brick popular for building back in the day. Since 1975, this energetic magazine has been operating in its namesake city, currently in association with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Published twice a year, they are particularly drawn to form bending pieces, so long as the experimentation is purposeful. Above all, they prize tightly written and vivid pieces of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art.

About Place Journal

Published by The Black Earth Institute, About Place seeks to strengthen the links between art and the environment. They curate a robust reading series to further their goal of forging an inclusive, free-thinking community. The journal is published in May and October with corresponding reading periods in winter and summer. They seek poetry, fiction, and audio/visual work, usually with a specific theme related to place and current concerns. The most recent one was “A Place for Peace.”

The Madison Review

This student run journal from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been showcasing the best in contemporary writing for nearly fifty years. The rotating masthead ensures no two issues of the biannual publication are quite alike, though they all share a commitment to incisive, thought-provoking fiction, poetry, and art. An online edition is released in the fall and a print edition in the spring, with an annual contest for poetry and fiction running from Nov.-Jan.

Stoneboat Review

Just over ten years old, this independent journal makes its home on the shores of Lake Michigan in Sheboygan, WI—“The Malibu of the Midwest”. They’ve recently transitioned to an all-digital format for their biannual publication. Their quirky, off-beat aesthetic might best be summed up by a title from the most recent issue, “You’ll Never Believe What This Woman Did in a Bagel Shop” by Celeste Hamilton Dennis. If your fiction, poetry, or graphic art is likewise unbelievable, this might be the journal for you.


Dedicated to women’s stories, HerStry has published feisty and insightful writing since 2015. They believe everyone has a story worth sharing and that it’s time for all women-identifying persons to bring their voices to center stage. They accept personal essays on any topic, while offering themed categories during the last week of every month. Mainly, they are interested in pieces that feel genuine and vital.

Wisconsin Review

This venerable magazine is produced by the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Since the mid-sixties, they’ve presented a broad range of writing intended for a “discerning public.” Whether traditional or experimental, they prize voice driven work in fiction, and commanding use of imagery and form in poetry. They also accept artwork and nonfiction essays for their biannual print publication.

Sheepshead Review

Here’s another journal from the literary minded University of Wisconsin system, this one at Green Bay. With a bright, fresh, one might say spunky vibe, Sheepshead prefers the concise, the bold, and the human. Producing two vivid digital issues a year, they are open to fiction, flash, nonfiction, poetry, and visual art on various schedules.

Abraxas (currently on hiatus but still worth a read)

Named for an ancient gnostic Supreme Being (not the Santana album), Abraxas is one of Wisconsin’s oldest literary journals. Founded in 1968, it has long been a purveyor of the best contemporary poetry from both established and emerging writers. They have a particular eye for language and lyricism, and have also given great attention to poetry in translation.

by B.B. Garin


May 10

May Book Review: Time is a Mother by Ocean Vuong

In our second book review of May, we turn to our first poetry collection: Time is a Mother by Ocean Vuong, whose debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, was widely celebrated on its release. Of the new collection, reviewer Irene Lee writes: “Vuong refuses finality, but honors death by acknowledging the depth of grief, which is also the depth of love. He is not afraid of the word as a tool to take one step beyond fatalism.” Read the full review at the link below.

Ocean Vuong runs his fingers through time as if it is water in his new book Time Is a Mother. And, upon contemplation, time does have similar properties to water: in the way it wavers; in the way it melts; in the way it stands, a thick mist before us. In the end, time, like water, has been here all along, it is that which we share.

Time Is a Mother is Ocean Vuong’s second book of poetry. In 2019 he published the novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which won him acclaim and the MacArthur Fellowship. This new book of poetry is subdued. It is a relatively short compilation that centers around the death of his mother, a center which is not entirely substantial. Throughout the beginning of the book there are slight lines printed on the pages like the lines of a notebook, but they are neither consistent, nor self-referential. It is hard to make an unfinished feeling into a warm one. But the book’s intimacy reaches out to readers, as if to say: you know when you know about what it’s like to lose someone you love.

Read more.

May 9

New Voices: “Picture This” by Alicia Marshall

In “Picture This” by Alicia Marshall, readers are introduced to an Old Order Mennonite family with Wegner blood through a family photo taken in 1965. An ekphrastic story, “Picture This” sprawls forward and back through time, examining the familial and cultural tug-of-war beneath the surface, behind the frame. Take a look below.

In the end, none of them left completely. None of them stayed entirely. They were destined, every last one of them, to live in the in-between places—stranded in that two-souled space, suspended between past and future.


The father stood off to the side of the picture, like he stood off to the side of the family, like he stood off to the side of life, always looking for a way to escape into the margins, where there was breathing room, where he could tell stories and crack jokes without receiving dirty looks from his wife.

It was true. He was the head of the household in an Old Order Mennonite church, but he was also a Stoltzfus, while his wife was a Wegner, which meant that he had married way up. He had reached for the stars and grappled and brought down the very light of heaven—and then forced her to reside in a much smaller house, on a much smaller farm, with a surname that could never live up to the glory of Wegner.

He did not regret it, simply because he was not the type of person to regret anything. And because he loved his wife. But he also doubted that he would ever stop paying for his insubordination, for the pride that had caused him to reach above his station—in obligations, in expectations, in a rigid and driven life that he had never anticipated or wanted.

He had guessed, but he had not entirely known—at least not until it had happened, that his wife would never stop being a Wegner, not when she entered his house or his bed or his kitchen. His children (all nine of them now!) had Wegner blood. And Wegner blood did not falter. It did not fail. It did not accept half measures. It did not compromise. It did not cut corners when it came to brown shoes or collared suits. It did not miss Sunday services. It did not tell frivolous jokes or spend long hours tossing horseshoes in the late afternoon sun.

He did his best to make his wife happy, by setting schedules and enforcing rules, by barking out orders and spanking the kids when they strayed too far. But his heart was not in it, and she had sensed immediately his lack of mettle. Not that she ever challenged him. Mennonite women simply did not confront Mennonite men. But still, it was there. Always lurking beneath the surface. That phantom desire for him to be different. That deep and abiding disappointment with his good-natured softness and warm-hearted cheer.

And so, when the camera snapped in Lancaster Pennsylvania, on that cool fall morning in 1965, the father stood off to the side, smiling apologetically, like he had just told a joke and been chided for it.

To continue reading “Picture This” click here.

May 6

May Book Review: The Miraculous Flight of Owen Leach by Jennifer Dupree

Today, we are thrilled to share Kathryn Ordiway’s review of Jennifer Dupree’s debut novel, The Miraculous Flight of Owen Leach, from Apprentice House Press last month. Dupree’s fiction has been published in TMR’s anthology and New Voices, and she has been one of our most dedicated and trusted readers over the last few years. “Who gets to decide what makes a good mother?” Ordiway asks in her review. “This is the question at the heart of Owen Leach, Jennifer Dupree’s debut novel.” Read the full review at the link below.

I flew through The Miraculous Flight of Owen Leach in the days leading up to being induced for the birth of my first child. I highlighted the book in a frenzy. I’m writing the review on the other side, sleeping four-week-old by my side. I’ve reread the book. I’ve highlighted different passages, found different lines and paragraphs that resonate. I love and hate the two central mothers in equal measure, as I see myself in both of them.

Who gets to decide what makes a good mother? This is the question at the heart of Owen Leach, Jennifer Dupree’s debut novel. Readers meet two: Rose, age forty-one, married mother of one, and Sophia, age nineteen, single mother to Owen. Rose does the things society says mothers and wives should do: Worry, long for another child, rub her husband’s shoulders when he’s stressed, ignore her own pain, cook steaks and bake pies and make Halloween costumes. Sophia hides in her apartment when her son flies out of an open window. Rose, miraculously, catches him.

Read more.


May 4

In Conversation: Michelle Ross & Kim Magowan

Kim Magowan and Michelle Ross met in late 2014 via a Sixfold fiction contest. Kim was one of the voters/readers assigned Michelle’s entry into the contest, which ended up winning. They’ve been each other’s first readers pretty much ever since. In the summer of 2017, they started writing collaboratively. In this conversation, they discuss their newly released story collections, which have a number of random things in common, including that each collection contains fifty-seven stories.

Michelle Ross: First, How Far I’ve Come is so extraordinarily good, Kim! It’s a masterful collection. I think of it as a flash fiction collection because it contains fifty-seven stories (the same count as in my new book, coincidentally), most of them very short. But there are a few pieces that stretch a little longer than what most writers define as flash fiction, such as “Home Economics,” “Irreconcilable Differences,” and “Women on the Sidelines.” “Home Economics” is the third story in the book, and it’s composed of tiny, compressed pieces so that the effect is something like a short story built of flash fictions. “Irreconcilable Differences” is under 2,000 words, and it too is composed of pieces, so again, it feels akin to flash. “Women on the Sidelines,” the final story in the collection, is a possible outlier, but, of course, thematically, it certainly belongs. Another interesting thing about this collection is that there is nonfiction included, “Irreconcilable Differences.” What are your thoughts about genre and categorization? How did you decide on this mix of pieces?

Kim Magowan: How weird is that both our books have fifty-seven stories? And I’d never thought of it that way, but you’re right, that two of my longer stories, “Home Economics” and “Irreconcilable Differences,” are composed of pieces—I love your description of them as stories “built of flash fictions.” There are a few other longer stories in there that are “normal” (not broken into sections) and over 2,000 words—“Shoelaces,” “Fire in Snow,” “Incompatible Ideas”—but not many. In the last four years, I’ve gotten obsessed with flash fiction, and so my average story length skews short. The longest story in the book is “Women on the Sidelines,” and it’s only about 3,500 words. Personally, I like mixed collections, combinations of longer stories and flash fiction. I almost didn’t include “Irreconcilable Differences” because it’s nonfiction, but I decided it shared so much genetic material with the fiction—my parents’ divorce was such a foundational experience for me as both a person and a writer—that I put it in. The funny thing is readers don’t seem to realize “Irreconcilable Differences” is nonfiction. I guess you have to know me?

You know how much I love all your books, Michelle! That said, I think They Kept Running is my favorite. You are the queen of flash fiction! I bow before you. One thing that I marvel about with this book is how you’ve sequenced it: Part I groups together stories about children, Part II stories about young adulthood, and Part III stories where the main characters are somewhat older—married, parents—but still navigating the same problems that many of the children did (surviving in a world of predators, both imbibing and resisting social conditioning). Then the story sequence works on a micro level too, in the care you take with how each story transitions into the next. For instance, “Fish Story” ends with, “pay attention, and you will learn all you need to know,” and we turn the page to “Lessons.” You’ve obviously thought a great deal about how to organize the book. How did you curate and structure it? And how does the title They Kept Running fit in? (I think of titles as bowls that have to hold all the stories, or umbrellas—upside-down bowls, I guess—that have to shelter them).

MR: Thanks, Kim! Sequencing and juxtaposition: These are elements I’m attuned to at every level. Within stories, too. As you know, sometimes when a story isn’t quite working, I’ll fix it largely by rearranging its pieces. When I first started getting serious about writing, I remember trying to write these “traditional” length stories with long scenes or passages of exposition and feeling overwhelmed by large chunks of text—pages and pages without breaks. When I started to think of stories as more modular, composed of lots of little scraps that I could rearrange and swap out, that helped enormously. I’m a tactile person. I dig geometry. I like sculpture. Writing stories is, of course, a different beast, but the way that I write stories and build collections bears these influences.

Anyway, with this book, I was interested in how my arrangement of the stories could tell a story. These are all stories about girls and women. The only exception is “Fish Story,” which is told from the point of view of a fish, but even here, the story is not so much about the fish as it is the woman teacher and her young students. These are also largely stories about the many threats that lurk in the everyday lives of women and girls. Dividing these stories into three sections that move from girlhood to adulthood gave the book itself a narrative arc, I think, and one that resonates with the book’s title. I love your upside-down bowl metaphor. Are these characters running from something? Toward something? In the story from which the book takes this title, the young women keep running even though they’re so worn out that they’d move no slower if they walked. For them, continuing to run is about grit. Also, though, the fact that they’re running so slow that walking would propel them just as much is kind of depressing. There’s a stasis in their motion. This is another thing our new books have in common, isn’t it? Your book’s title, How Far I’ve Come, has a similar feeling, plays on a similar metaphor, as They Kept Running. I don’t think I thought of that until just now. How do you see your title as an upside-down bowl for your book’s stories?

KM: Ha, you’re right! I never realized that. It’s like the fifty-seven stories, a funny synchronicity. Both of our titles are about dogged persistence, a treadmill motion. My title is kind of a joke. It’s taken from what was once upon a time the last story of the book, “Impulse Control”—now it’s the penultimate story—which ends with this line: “I want to march to Danielle’s office, even though my session with her isn’t until Thursday, and brag about how fucking far I’ve come.” But the narrator is referring to a dubious accomplishment: She’s just been fired from her job. Getting fired is a small victory—Sarah’s boss/ ex-lover Richard has been trying to manipulate her into quitting—but it’s hardly brag-worthy. So I intend that title to be tongue-in-cheek, a nod to the wobbly trajectories my characters take. That’s picked up in the book cover image: bendy paper dolls march in sinuous twists, like they’re standing in one of those endless switch-back queues. No one is making a lot of progress here! I will say women (I’m generalizing) seem to like my title more than men. They get that it’s insouciant. My favorite book titles for collections are lines from stories (if a book shares a title with a single story, I feel like there’s too much pressure on that one story): lines that have that bowl/umbrella effect, that name the book’s dynamic.

Okay, another question. In interviews I get asked “What’s your favorite story in your book?” And I always feel guilty, like I’m choosing a favorite child. So let’s flip it. What’s your favorite story in my book? You’ve read pretty much every one of these in draft forms. And I’ll start, though it’s very hard to choose. My favorite in yours is “Manhandle”—that’s the one I’m always begging you to read at readings. It feels like such a quintessential Michelle story: It’s hilarious, it’s feminist, it’s barbed, it’s about marriage and parenting and work and obnoxious dudes who talk too loudly in movie theaters. The ending is a drop-mic: “I wanted to say, Where’s your movie, asshole? What have you ever done? What have you ever made?”

MR: Hmm. That’s a super tough question still. I’m going to cheat a tad and mention first how much I love “Contronyms.” It’s a story I’ve heard you read many times now, and I never grow the least bit tired of hearing you read it. One of my favorite snippets: “Or as I think of him now, Contronym Bill, like a vocabulary version of a Wild West outlaw.” My most favorite, though, and it has a similar economic theme, is “Home Economics.” I was talking earlier about loving the modular quality of some stories, and this is a perfect example of a more overtly modular story. It’s composed of these tight, punchy little segments. There’s no fluff here. It reminds me so much of Amy Hempel’s longer stories. I admire the hell out of it.

Okay, so even though we’ve been each other’s first readers for many years now and we’ve written over thirty stories together now, I can’t really say I intimately know HOW you write, Kim. I know you write freaking fast. We do these flashathons, and you knock out stories that are way longer and more polished than anything I can do in an hour. I know you’re not a fan of heavily reworking stories. I know some of your stories come from dreams or you write in your head while out walking. But tell me more! Tell me all your writing secrets. Do you often have an idea of the story you’re going to write before you begin typing, for instance? Do you perfect each sentence as you go?

KM: I am fast, and I tend to write pretty polished first drafts, though that’s because I HATE revising. If a story needs too much work to become presentable, I’ll bail on it. As far as where my ideas come from—they emerge from some dark, Id-ish part of my subconscious that kicks up flotsam. Some stories are born of spite: I’ll see that [Partner] hasn’t put away the trashcans and I’ll write about it. Some come from fear. Sometimes my stories are like dreams, waving flags at me, trying to get my attention. I started writing stories about a girl named Laurel struggling with an eating disorder before I had consciously acknowledged to myself that someone close to me was having similar issues. I feel like my stories snap their fingers in my face, shout, “Wake up!”

What about you? I know you sometimes sit on things that I think are DONE for forever! You’re like that Doctor Seuss character hatching the egg who won’t leave the nest. Sometimes, frankly, it pisses me off, when you admit that you still haven’t submitted some sparkling gem of a story that is, in my opinion, already perfectly cooked.

And final question, once you get done answering that: What’s a book that you wish you’d written? I mean, a book that when you read it, you felt full of both admiration and envy? Just in case we say the same one (frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me), don’t type the title until we’re done with this interview, and we’ll do it at the exact same time.

MR: I sit on those stories, I suppose, because I’m the opposite—I love revision. Also, because they don’t feel quite done yet (and I don’t know yet how to fix them) or because I’m too uncertain. Certainty is a tall order. I’m really talking about a spectrum here. We’ve talked about how it’s easier to really believe in a story once it’s been accepted and published. I think there’s almost always at least a little bit of uncertainty before that happens, and, well, even afterwards. But there’s a threshold I need to cross. A little uncertainty feels healthy—it often means I’m taking risks. A lot of uncertainty is a good indicator that I’m not satisfied with the story, that I haven’t done it justice.

As for your final question, I think I have to go with George Saunders. Which book, though, that’s tough. Tenth of December, I think, but Pastoralia is a close second.

KM: For me, Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill. That novel exploded my brain. Though now I’ve seen your answer, and I love Saunders so much! I teach Tenth of December.

MR: Dept. of Speculation is an excellent choice!

May 2

New Voices: “The Virgins of San Nicolás” by Nicole Simonsen

When Elena’s cousin Perla is sent to spend the summer in San Nicolás de Ibarra with their tias, Elena tags along to keep Perla company. In this coming-of-age story, excerpted from Simonsen’s novel-in-progress, Elena discovers the differences for girls between life here and life back home, and learns along the way some of the history of her family. “The Virgins of San Nicolás” is sharply written, and you won’t want to stop reading.

One muggy afternoon, Consuelo asked if we’d heard about the girls of Juarez. She was sitting cross-legged on the bed, her elbows on her knees, and as she leaned forward, a look passed over her face, a look that I realized later was excitement. She knew something we didn’t.

In San Nicolás de Ibarra, in the old house where Abuelita’s spinstered sisters lived their entire lives, my cousin Perla and I shared a small room with a single, large bed. The pillows were thin, the mattress hard, the sheets musty, and it was hotter and more humid than we’d ever experienced, so we didn’t sleep well. Until that summer, neither of us had ever shared a room, certainly not a bed, and Perla was often irritated by my presence. Even if I was just reading or drawing in my sketchbook, she would huff at me—“Can’t you do that somewhere else? Like on the edge of a volcano?”

I had many other annoying habits, according to Perla. From smacking my gum to asking irrelevant questions to talking in my sleep. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I would sit up suddenly, shaking the rickety bed and waking Perla. Or, I might walk to the window and stare out through half-closed lids. Perla would hiss from the bed, “Elena, what are you doing?” And then, with the moonlight casting a spotlight around my body, I would turn around, slowly, looking right at her, right through her, and glide wordlessly back into bed. It was the creepiest thing she ever saw, one of the creepiest things.

I never remembered getting out of bed and going to the window, but Perla insisted that I had. She had a heart condition, she kept reminding me. Did I want to give her a heart attack?

To continue reading “The Virgins of San Nicolás” click here.

Apr 28

May Deadlines: 11 Literary Contests Ending This Month

All the plants and animals have woken up after the long winter, and they’re shaking off the stupor of hibernation. Join them in limbering up, and send your newly vitalized writing entries to one of these contests!

FEATURED Masters Review Flash Fiction Contest

Never before has each word in a submission been worth so much… You might be limited to 1000 words, but the winner will be rewarded with $3000! Second and third place receive $300 and $200, respectively, and all stories are considered for publication. We’re only looking for previously unpublished stories, but you’re allowed both simultaneous and multiple submissions. Our guest judge is Kim Chinquee, and we’re asking you to amaze her! Don’t miss it!

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: May 31

The Loraine Williams Poetry Prize

Dawn Lundy Martin, the Toi Derricotte Endowed Chair in English at the University of Pittsburgh, is judging this contest for The Georgia Review, and they are looking for a masterful poem! The final winner will receive $1500, publication, and a trip to Atlanta for a public reading, but all submitted poems will be considered for publication (at $4 a line). Learn more here.

Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: May 1

2022 Poetry Prize

If you have a poem to share, Ruminate wants to read it! Judged by the fantastic Rajiv Mohabir, the first-place prize is $1000 and publication. The runner-up will also receive publication. Each submission is only three poems, but there are no limits on the number of entries per person. Submit here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: May 1

Waterston Desert Writing Prize

Inspired by author and poet Ellen Waterston, this prize provides financial and other support to writers whose work reflects a connection to the desert. They’re looking for creative or literary nonfiction, with an engaging style, unique voice, and a fresh perspective. The Waterston Desert Prize recognizes one writer with $3000, a residency at Summer Lake, OR, and a reading and reception at the High Desert Museum in Bend, OR. Applicants need to provide a biographical statement, a proposal, and a writing sample. Submission guidelines here.

Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: May 1

The Emerging Writer’s Contest

Ploughshares prides itself on their commitment to promoting the work of up-and-coming writers, and that means you! This contest is meant to celebrate emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, awarding $2000, publication, and agency review to the winners of each category. Amelia Gray is judging fiction, Danielle Geller is judging nonfiction, and Chen Chen is judging poetry. Guidelines here.

Entry Fee: $24 Deadline: May 15

Raymond Carver Short Story Contest

If your stories are compelling, captivating, and concise, then Carve Magazine has the contest for you! Judged by Dariel Suarez, the winner receives $2000, second-place receives $500, third-place is given $250, two Editor’s Choice recipients get $125, and all of the winning entries will be read by three literary agents. This is the twenty-second anniversary of the contest, so don’t waste any more time! Submit here.

Entry Fee: $17 Deadline: May 15

New Letters Prizes

There are actually three contests here, one each for poetry, nonfiction, or fiction! The Conger Beasley Jr. Award for Nonfiction submissions may be up to 8000 words, and the best essay receives $2500 and publication. The Robert Day Award for Fiction may also be up to 8000 words, the Patricia Cleary Miller Award for Poetry up to six poems, and the winner of these contests also receives $2500 and publication. Make sure to select the correct contest for your submission! More details here.

Entry Fee: $24 Deadline: May 22

Autumn House Press Contests

In this threefold contest offered by Autumn House Press, contestants can submit manuscript entries for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The categories are judged by Venita Blackburn, Lia Purpura, and Carl Phillips, respectively. The winners in each category receive publication, a $1000 honorarium, and a $1500 travel/publicity grant to promote their book! Make sure to choose the correct category when you submit, and good luck! Find more details here.

Entry Fee: $30 Deadline: May 31

Elixir Press Fiction Award

This contest is sponsored by Elixir Press, and is open to all authors writing in English! They’re accepting both novels and short story collections, as long as the submissions are literary quality. Simultaneous submissions are welcome, and the winner receives $2000, publication, and 25 copies of their winning manuscript. Judged by Anthony E Varallo. Submit here.

Entry Fee: $40 Deadline: May 31

Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction

The University of Georgia Press has offered this award since 1983, and it has become an important showcase for talented emerging writers. Series editor Lori Ostlund is looking for short story collections, which may include novellas and long stories, and the competition is open to all authors writing in English who reside in North America. The winner receives a cash award of $1000 as well as a standard book publishing contract with the University of Georgia Press. More information here.

Entry Fee: $30 Deadline: May 31

Guy Owen Prize

Southern Poetry Review is looking for the perfect poem, and it could be yours! They’re accepting three to five poems in every submission, and the winning poem will receive $1000 and publication. Enter here!

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: May 31

by Kimberly Guerin


Apr 26

2021 Novel Excerpt Contest Shortlist

Drumroll, please… The 2021 Novel Excerpt Shortlist is (finally) here! We are thrilled to share this list with our readers, and we are so proud to share these submissions with our guest judge Dan Chaon, who will have a tremendously difficult decision ahead. Thank you for everyone’s patience throughout this extended reading process—when you read the finalists, you’ll know it was worth the wait!

“Viscera” by Jason Bowman

“Proof of a Kill 1973” by Zeeva Bukai

“The Same Country” by Carole Burns

“Hakuri” by Jessica Cavero

“The Shapes You Leave Behind” by Hasret Eleby

“SUGARING OFF” by Margaret Guilbert

Excerpt from Minor Chord: “Happy Enough” by Micah Lau

“Take Warning: The Ballad of Sammy Slug” by Glenn Lester

“The Death of Daniel Darling” by Zachary Leven

“Souvenir” by Lily Lloyd Burkhalter

“The Slapjack (excerpt – chapters five, six, seven)” by Alan Sincic

“Red State” by Allie Torgan

“Excerpt from Quick Bright Things” by Jane Wageman

“SHADOW OF A FOX’S TAIL” by Josh Wagner

“Waking Up” by Connor White