Photo by Raj Stevenson

Associate poetry editor Jessica Duncan on today’s bonus poem: Laura Romeyn’s “Native Strand” explores the feelings of inner chaos, of a quiet and subtle panic. This poem is covered in the stickiness of smeared blueberry, weighted with the silent alertness of a deer in headlights (or maybe the attic). It plays on our most innate and original fears: acceptance and survival. What happens when we pull back the drapes and see our fears displayed? How do we react to our own panic?

Native Strand

Tonight there are fawns
in the attic. I’ve been cupping

my hands for blueberry, for
the laying of sod so that in the morning,

when I pull back the drapes,
I’m going to see that someone’s eaten.

Tonight I am feeding at will,
at a moment’s notice grabbing up

the indigo, rubbing the pigment into
my bone structure so that I appear

to have met wild conditions.
One of the boys, he’s bent over

packing himself with sticks and I find
myself hugging the ground all around

our property in my reddish coat,
browsing closer to the main house

now. More bark here because the frame
is made of it, supports it. I harness

my support in the bucket. Add a rope,
cut a milk jug from the side to fill it

with berries, both hands.
My broken hoof eyes are wide

with no sleep. They are turning
into small, sweet edibles. So are those

of hers, my twin. We’ll see who’s
picked now, who mother comes back for.

Tonight there are fawns in the attic.
Someone has shaken me down.

Laura Romeyn’s poems are forthcoming in Crazyhorse and Devil’s Lake. She is the Assistant Poetry Editor for upstreet and holds an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn.

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The Thomas J. Hrushka Memorial Nonfiction Prize will be judged by Steven Church, author of four books, including The Guiness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record, winner of the Colorado Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. His work has been nominated for nine Pushcart awards and was included in Best American Essays in 2011. He is the Nonfiction Editor of the literary journal The Normal School and teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.

We encourage nonfiction submissions without constraints on content or form. Send your best creative nonfiction our way: lyric essays, personal essays, memoir, literary journalism, or hybrid work. Submissions must be under 7500 words.

The Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize will be judged by Lynn Emanuel, author of five poetry collections, including Then, Suddenly. Lynn Emanuel has been the recipient of two NEA grants and winner of the Eric Mattheiu King Award from the Academy of American Poets. She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.

We will consider all forms of poetry for the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, including lyric, experimental, and formal work. Up to three poems may be submitted in one document, but please do not send any individual poems longer than three pages.

Submit online or send paper manuscripts to Passages North, Northern Michigan University, 1401 Presque Isle Ave., Marquette, MI 49855. Please indicate the contest name on the envelope, and make checks payable to “Northern Michigan University.” Contact with any questions.

We look forward to reading your best work!

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Green wheat

Photo by Atis Gailis

Listen to the poem here.


She said she pictured everything,
her father’s body leaning into Gemini soft in the light,
that the daylight would be fleeting the open doors
at the far end of the barn, that the wheat’d be bent and tired.
And Gemini nuzzling his hands.
Hers’ll be rough as his one day.
That she’d say it right there and then.

She said, The thing about it is you can picture
loose sheaves of hay and wheat on the ground,
the heat releasing from your gloves
as you go to touch your neck,
the smell of the deck that you’d built with him just the last week,
the pine strong from the drizzle that took the morning.
And nothing is right.
The field isn’t the color of a long worked day.
Your mother isn’t doing dishes in the window.
Your dad isn’t in the barn, but where the half frozen yard
meets half frozen overturned earth. And you tell him
like there’s fork in your chest
And he doesn’t pull it out,
doesn’t turn around like you thought,
but folds down,
Picks up a rock, smooth and purple,
the moon makin’ what was leftover from the harvest
glow grey and hard. And he keeps turning it
over and over in his left hand,
the stone the size of his palm,
dirt drifting to the ground with each flip,
over and over again, until you leave.

And she was late to meet me that night.
I can picture my uncle’s flannelled shirt,
the loop at the top of his back, the shadowed lines
down to his belt.
I’m sure minutes passed before Brand turned around,
walked the farm-length down to climb onto the roof of the Honda
that died two years ago. And we held each other’s hands
We watched the clouds move quick where the stars would’ve been.

I didn’t expect December,
I didn’t expect Grandma standing in the IGA
a bag of caramels in her left hand, a bag of apples in her right,
debating about whether to make Brand’s favorite pie.
Or, my eyes to hold the lights of her dining room for so long,
brass yellow, as she and mom got louder and louder,
“They’re not coming this year,” Mom said.
And grandma had to sit down then, pulled the chair from the table,
pushed the place settings forward,
the clink, the tink of Christmas china,
and when I turned, the tears streaming down her lips.
Mom didn’t have to say it.

We didn’t expect January or February to mean nothing
in-between. It was a cold winter with no snow and no one
drove down the byway even by accident, I swear.
I’d watch my mother thumb the numbers
on the cordless phone during reruns of Jeopardy
and I’ll bet Aunt Janet did too,
only a field of winter dirt between them.
I watched cracks take the windshield of the Honda,
let the hood take the heat from my back most nights,
wondered if the glint from the north side of their house
was Brand come home for the weekend, scrolled
to that last text I’d received late fall,
the week Brandon said Brand,
that night she said “Be right there.”

I never expected the spring.
The green of the wheat is always different.
Each year, each day. Brand used to take a picture
from each side of our farms, would name each side.
One year her side Yellow Dog River, mine Emerald,
another year Green Water and Moss Lake.
She’d make this spring something brighter than a gem,
shiner than water.
She said there’s nothing like crouching down
when the crop is just starting to talk, to get eye level.
Brand’s eyes were copper and I’d watch her
fall onto her chest, grip the ground soft.
She’d squint her left eye. “When you get down to it,”
she said. “It looks like walls. But it isn’t.”

I didn’t expect this August, for the crop to turn so grey,
for the magpies to yell and scream in the morning.
I didn’t expect the moans of the combines,
the empty deck across, Gemini to stop fussing during storms.
I keep a stone in my back pocket now,
pull it out when the wind waltzes slow between our barns
in grey light, turn it over and over again when I see
that last strip of field dance, those empty stripes of earth,
the skeletons of trees. I turn it and turn it when I see the tires
have lost their air. The Honda’s sinking, really, into the ground,
and the paint’s losing it’s shine.
But if Brand was here, it’d be worth it,
it’d be worth it to climb back on top of that old Honda
just to hold hands.

Zarah Moeggenberg is a queer poet living in Eastern Washington with her 8 lb-Pomeranian named Teddy, a lot of furniture, an unnecessarily large winter coat, and a serious appetite for Indian food. She received her Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at Northern Michigan University and is currently a composition and rhetoric doctoral student at Washington State University. She has been most recently published in The Fourth River, Oklahoma Review, ellipsis…literature and art, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Ellipsis Lit Mag, and SunDog Lit among others. Zarah’s first book of poetry, To Waltz on a Pin, focused on love between women, is forthcoming with Little Presque Books in 2015. When she can she drives to small towns for dive bar karaoke, thrifting, and to collect stories from strangers.

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Photo by Ginny

Note: you can listen to a spoken-word version of Zarah Moeggenbergs’s Writers On Writing essay, as well as her spoken-word poem “Brand,” which she discusses below.

Dancing in the Palouse: Finding Rhythm in a New Field

Dancing to Florence and the Machine or Michael Jackson most mornings, before the hallways woke with tired grad students, Ashley and I didn’t know that in a few months we would be moving westward together. We danced hard, Ash all arm, me all hip. We danced our weekends out; shitty dates, crappy feedback on poems, students we couldn’t reach, solo hikes, wild Lake Superior, snow stuck to our socks, rent we barely afforded, odd jobs we kept on the side. Three minutes before my 8am class, I’d pack. We had it timed perfectly; how many songs we could shake our bodies to in our tiny grey office, how many cups of snobby coffee—usually a pot—before I’d trudge through snow to teach.

Early August, Ash and I packed a seventeen-foot U-Haul. We filled the cab with a cat and a kitten who hated each other, along with my yappy Pomeranian, “T,” and a litter box. Ash and I had never been west of Minnesota; she was a native Minnesotan, I was a transplant Michigander. We jammed to whatever radio station we could find, stopped only in North Dakota for a four hour nap, and otherwise drove 43 hours and 18 minutes to the border of Washington and Idaho.

We crashed in my naked apartment on the brown carpet, little more than a light sheet upon us, and woke to texts we didn’t know how to answer; a few from her boyfriend at the time, one from a pretty blonde-haired girl I’d sought on OkCupid. We ignored the texts and, like zombies, unloaded every piece of anything that belonged to us.

Ash started writing poems like crazy. And I stopped. And that’s the beginning.

I began a PhD in English in Rhetoric and Composition at Washington State University, leaving the poet in me behind. I became immersed in a field I knew little about, knowing only that the highest I had ever felt was while teaching composition. I wanted that high every day for the rest of my life. I read articles that made me feel small, watched bodies freeze when I discussed my research, and drank a lot of whiskey in-between.

The month before I made my decision to move to Washington, where I had the option to pursue a PhD in creative writing instead of comp and rhet, my MFA thesis director told me I should keep making poems, but I shook my head. Then she said, “Well, in all my years, I know you’re someone who’s never going to stop writing.”

For two months in hilly Pullman, Washington, I was frustrated by the lie I felt my director had told me, and especially by things I couldn’t absorb; the man who didn’t wave back on the bike path, broken beer bottles on the sidewalks, my winter jacket still hanging in the closet, the absence of lakes nearby, and having to drive to a tiny patch of trees in the Palouse to hike, to see any green at all. Ash was so busy in the poetry world I had left that we struggled to meet, even just to do homework together every three weeks. My notepads stayed on the desk. I wasn’t writing poems on the backs of receipts or into my palms anymore. I was actually paying attention in my pedagogy and rhetoric courses, but my heart didn’t leap into my sternum at anyone or anything.

My MFA thesis was focused on love between women. The poems were sexy, magical and real, raw and loud, dirty at times, mundane at others, and woven with care in rhythm. In both spoken word and for-the-page poems, I wanted to capture the love in a woman making an omelet, the moment you notice a new wrinkle beneath her eye, tracing a tattoo on the back of her thigh, how hands get memorized on trains in big cities or in cars watching freighters moan down rivers. But in Pullman, WA, in this tiny town of the Palouse, no matter how many dates I went on with women, none of them made me want to write. I made dinner for a woman who couldn’t eat more than four bites. She was sweet and talked with her hands and arms. Another made me eggs some mornings, usually overcooked, and played music I’d never heard before. Another, who cancelled frequently and whom I’d asked out on a date after two shots of tequila, didn’t know how to hold hands back and we talked less and less each week. Eventually, I hesitated to say what I wanted to say. I shut down. I stopped sharing old poems.

I started biking on strange roads and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live in these yellow and brown hills that never seems to end. Most sunsets are pink where I live, and in the winter the light is gone by 4 p.m. It’s taken me five months to find a grocery store where I want to flirt with the cashier, a coffee shop where the chairs and walls are worn, a route to my office where the trees bend the right way. Mostly, it’s taken me a long time to get used to that yellow hue that takes the hills and farms from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. When I get up around 7:30, clip the collar around T’s neck, reheat yesterday’s coffee in the microwave for 65 seconds, and take Stadium Way up the hill, turn around at the top just before the road bends, the world has a filter unavailable on Instagram that lasts all day.

I wrote three 30-page seminar papers, read more queer theory and composition studies than I can convey, walked my dog four times a day, started buying myself flowers at the Safeway each week, took baths, wore too much Patchouli, and drank whiskey and cabernet. And one night, before what would be bowling and Jameson and a bad hangover in the morning, it happened.

I wrote.

The poem “Brand” came on a warm December afternoon in Washington, the kind where you only need a sweatshirt and warm socks. I was walking T up Stadium Way, the light dull and brown. I received a text describing a friend’s grandmother and mother arguing about Christmas plans. I had just reached Harvey and Duncan as I paused to read the message.  After squeezing my hands back into my mittens and shoving my iPhone into my pocket, I looked up. When I saw the hills, grey beyond the city, sleeping muddy wheat fields, I knew my friend had given me a gift. Those hills, the same hills I couldn’t let myself understand, made me question who I could make two women be; where they might live, what they would be upset about, and how they could love. I’ve always believed that we argue because we love each other, and despite only having reached the merger of Stadium Way with Harvey and Duncan, three blocks away from my apartment, I started to walk home. I considered, as Andrea Gibson wrote in her spoken word poem “I Do,” how “This kind of love has to be a verb.” Familial love is so many verbs, so messy, so braided, and so ruthlessly necessary. I wanted to capture that. I wanted to write.

Once home, I began to research the planting of wheat, the same wheat—though my friend argues it is something else—that gets caught in my dog’s fur in the summer. I learned combine harvesting and winter planting and stacking. I learned the hum and thrush of machinery. I learned every color of every month. I learned every hue of green, each flicker of yellow. I learned the dirt overturned. And I started to see a woman flicker underneath it all.  She might have been Brand. She might have been me. She might have been someone I may never know.

It happens—is my point. It’s true that it doesn’t leave you. It’s about waiting for the right spark, the right combination, the kick, the draw, the impulse not to leave for bowling on time and to write her all down. Again I felt my heart in my sternum. I started tapping my feet on the brown carpet. My back was hunched over the paper. The wind whistled around my apartment, which grew darker and darker. After only three hours, “Brand” was drafted. I sent the sound file to Ash, eleven miles away in Moscow, Idaho, and her word for it in the morning was “honest.” In that moment, I knew my director had been right. It doesn’t leave you. Sometimes you just have to wait. Sometimes you have to collect for a while: starless nights over and over again, a mechanic telling you your Subaru will die in two months, your IPhone that won’t light up, one girl’s soft flannel shirts, another’s copper eyes, rough hands that won’t hold yours back, the unsaid in things we say, what is said when no one speaks.

Ash is going to keep making poems each week. I’m going to keep figuring out how to fuse queer theory into composition studies. We’re busy here. But, what’s important is never to stop dancing to what you want to dance to, even if it means she’s not going to dance back, even if it means putting all the leftovers into Tupperware, even if it means making your own eggs and reheating yesterday’s coffee, walking your dog alone, and unheld hands on the few nights she’ll spend with you. Because when that happens enough, once you’ve danced hard and long, once you’ve got enough in your chest, you write yourself. You write her all down.

Zarah Moeggenberg is a queer poet living in Eastern Washington with her 8 lb-Pomeranian named Teddy, a lot of furniture, an unnecessarily large winter coat, and a serious appetite for Indian food. She received her Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at Northern Michigan University and is currently a composition and rhetoric doctoral student at Washington State University. She has been most recently published in The Fourth River, Oklahoma Review, ellipsis…literature and art, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Ellipsis Lit Mag, and SunDog Lit among others. Zarah’s first book of poetry, To Waltz on a Pin, focused on love between women, is forthcoming with Little Presque Books in 2015. When she can she drives to small towns for dive bar karaoke, thrifting, and to collect stories from strangers.

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Photo by Marco Monetti

To You, Who Never

Associate poetry editor Sarah Bates on today’s bonus poem: How do we get from broken to beauty? Find hope in the hurt? Hull’s “To You, Who Never” takes us through moments never shared, memories she carries around like bags of sand and shows us how, still, we go on: through the lyric, the letting go, and the love we find along the way.

Father, I have hammered your coffin together.
I’ve given it a wooden handle to slip my fingers into
yours—you, who never grasped my hand

to cross a street. I’ve been writing letters to slide into
the pockets of photographed shirts. When you die,
will there be a window with an ocean in it?

Each year, I sketch another line onto your photographed face,
so I will recognize—you, who never ages—what time can do.
I have carved a name I will not even whisper

into pieces of slate. When you die, will I weep boats
upon boats for you, who slid my fingers along the creases
of paper sterns, you who held my wrist so I would skip

the stone straight? I pray what your hands have done—
broke her over and over—other hands undo.
She, who never wept, slept for weeks fathoms deep

and woke as another mother. If there is a window,
the ocean I see won’t seem immeasurable.
Contained like a postcard of the sea, my memories

land along shorelines you showed me sandpipers
fleeing from. Once, you—who could never remember the day
I was born—woke me to watch a sunrise that still rises

even on mornings I refuse to wake for it. I reach
for hands, and one set of fingers falls across me like waves
that will not break. My lover who holds me,

even fathoms deep. When he goes, I will weep broken oars,
and my boat will spin its sorrows or I will drift
out to sea. When you die, he will walk me along the thought

of a beach, through all the static that waves leave behind,
leaving you, who never stopped walking away from me.
I have brought a coffin to be carried out with the tide.

M. Ann Hull has had work published in 32 Poems, Barrow Street Journal, Mid-American Review, and Quarterly West amongst others. She has won the Ed Ochester Award for Poetry and the Academy of American Poets Prize. She is a former poetry editor of Black Warrior Review and holds an MFA from the University of Alabama.

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Photo by Brittney Bush Bollay

The Devil (and God) in the Details

We don’t often see how strange we are until we look back and are overburdened with the incriminating, undeniable evidence of our awkwardness. The devil is in the details, as they say. But even when I was young I knew I was a strange kid. I spent a lot of time alone building worlds in my head (my choice, I lie to myself – the truth is I lacked the social grace to make and keep many friends). I remember climbing a tree once during a lightning storm, wind shaking the bough, sky flashing white and me riding it out wondering when I might finally get struck. It wasn’t a death wish. I had seen a film where someone was electrified and transformed into a giant monster and I wanted to be a giant monster, too. Some days I would wander around town barefoot with a walking stick, pretending McKinney, Texas, was an alien planet and I, the first pilgrim observing alien life there. This may or may not have been my way of dealing with the fact I was the alien, or at least felt like one. One day I crawled up on the roof of my house, waiting for my dad to hear my footfalls, and when he came yelling I leapt to the ground, making a game of it. I had always wondered whether or not I could survive that fall. Again, not a death wish, just sheer curiosity. I could, obviously. I would always win this game, and many others I made for myself, always one-player because I didn’t have anyone else to play them with.

Last semester, in the Creative Writing for New Media course I taught at the University of Iowa, I saw in the work of my students an unfortunate pattern I had never seen before. Students were writing characters they felt could appeal to the greatest number of readers possible, purposely crafting superficial Everymen or Everywomen, often keeping even their physical characteristics intentionally vague, their lives and inner lives status quo so that “the reader might better empathize and step into the shoes of their protagonists.” Or so the class would collectively argue upon my bringing up the observation. Never mind that for the vast majority that meant writing a straight while male protagonist (which deserves its own blog post entirely), in most cases a college student named Joe or John or Bill or Sally. It was their depiction of the protagonist’s lives that I took issue with. They would wake up, go to school, hang with friends, drink, come home, do homework, play a video game, watch a movie, or at their craziest, read a book. Their lives were depressingly vapid, innocuous, mediocre. They never did anything incriminating. At no point in the stories did any of the characters attempt to build a tent for their dog out of Snuggies, cry over a tampon commercial, have a spontaneous Nerf gun fight with their girlfriend, or breakdance across the living room to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” while juggling popsicles, all things I’ve done this week.

The devil is in the details, and the pursuit of an Everyman in fiction is the pursuit of a Nothingman. It is the avoidance of intimacy, of writing something deep and true. I suspect it is borne out of fear — like most things with writing that matters — that we might divulge our deepest vulnerabilities, crack open our chests to expose the dust and rust, open the floodgates and reveal something of ourselves on the page that we wished to be kept locked up, out of embarrassment, or shame, or regret. But these things are exactly what make fiction worth writing and reading. To capture life, true life in all its glorious messiness. To invoke the bizarre from the benign and witness we aren’t nearly as strange or ugly as we think we are. To be reminded we all do weird shit sometimes in a desperate attempt to wage war on our inner demons, our addictions, our self-hate, our loneliness. To be granted, at last, confirmation that while we may be alone at least we’re alone together. To be forgiven our freakishness.

When my writing students tell me they’re shaving all the rough edges off a character in an attempt to appeal to the greatest number of readers possible, I tell them they’re assassinating everything human about that character. Humans, after all, are made of rough edges: wondrous patchworks of eccentricity—cuneiforms of scars and oddities. If you want to appeal to the greatest number of readers possible, I tell them, the way to do that is not by appealing to any of your hypothetical readers but the characters you’re trying to do justice. Imagine they are your readers. Would they be satisfied? Have you cheated them out of their weirdness? Their misery? Their humanity? Have you cheapened them in some way to hypothetically sell more hypothetical books to hypothetical readers? If you love your characters, I tell my students, you honor them by putting them on the page in all their aberrant and idiosyncratic splendor. If you can forget about trying to give the reader someone like them and just give them someone real, someone true, someone deficient, flawed, odd and beautifully broken, then counter-intuitively, I promise them, readers will see themselves in there somewhere, and they will rejoice.

The devil is indeed in the details. So is God.

And people, real people contain equal measures of both.

Matthew Burnside keeps a list of his sins here.

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Washing Keys

Photo by Ferrous Büller

Type Hard or Go Home: In Praise of the Clicky Keyboard

Late in the last millennium, I belonged to the Writers Room, an urban writers’ colony on Astor Place. After long days registering film students at New York University, I wrote poems in the Writers Room’s a dimly lit, womblike constellation of cubicles, and filled legal pads of paper, heavy-eyed, fighting off sleep.

What kept me awake, besides a pot of coffee in the kitchen, rested just past the administrative offices, in another room set aside for half-dozen or so members who worked on typewriters. Through a thick glass door, the industrious click-clacks of these Remingtons inspired me to keep going.

Fast-forward to today. I’ve joined the tribe of writers who cling to an older, noisier technology. Not the typewriter, which has been taken up by many other writers, either as an app or the real thing. I’m talking about the clicky keyboard.

I am typing these words on an IBM Model M, a behemoth beast of a keyboard that has a solid steel plate inside. For the past fifteen years, I have refused to type on anything other than a Model M. Made by IBM from 1985 until 1991 (successors made by Lexmark and now Unicomp, while good, are not regarded as classic), it weighs in at six pounds, about as much as six iPads, and connects to a computer with a curly cable that resembles something Jimi Hendrix might have used with his Fender Stratocaster. Its clicks rival any Remington’s.

I attach Model Ms to my work and home computer, as well as my laptop when I am not out in public (I’ve even made a case for it, which resembles a violin’s). My office mates know when I am at work by the clacks coming out of my office. Since my first two books, poem and essay collections on my obsession with the rock band Queen, on up to the memoir I am now finishing, the Model M has been at my fingertips.

“I have almost obsessive relation to writing instruments,” Roland Barthes said in an interview with Le Monde in 1973. My obsession with Model M keyboards rests with its touch. Unlike a membrane keyboard, which is basically a rubber mat with sensors underneath, a Model M uses buckling springs and switches. Each key bounces back and lets out a click. This auditory and tactile feedback, especially for an untrained typist like me, is especially gratifying. Far from causing carpal tunnel stress, I find this prevents my fingers from pounding on unresponsive nubs.

For years, I took pride staying up-to-date with every shiny new machine, every update to our digital lives. In graduate school, I heard about how the late poet Galway Kinnell used WordPerfect 5.0. He had no idea how to use a computer; the IT guy just had him shut the monitor off and on. Perhaps it’s middle age, but the fact that I need a clicky keyboard doesn’t seem so strange now. Joyce Carol Oates famously still writes in longhand, after all. Henry James dictated to a typist. I’ve just refined my process.

“Does a writer’s style depend on the tools he uses?” Arthur Krystal asks in an essay on the early days of the typewriter. Yes and no. Unlike painters or musicians whose tools and instruments are fully integrated into their art, writers just have words on a page. Sometimes, however, I think I have to be a little angry to write. I need to get worked up in some fashion, and take it out on my keyboard. One fan site dedicated to Model M’s has a tagline I love: “Type hard or go home.” William Wordsworth describes good poetry as coming from a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” I take my overflows out on a keyboard that can also be used as a weapon.

As we approach its thirtieth anniversary, more and more homages to the Model M have turned up, from Wired, Lifehacker, and PC World. Adi Robertson’s “King of click: the story of the greatest keyboard ever made,” which ran last year in The Verge, elicited a dual response of joy and dread: joy over reading 2,000 words on “one of the computer world’s most prized and useful antiques,” along with racks of mint-condition M’s displayed like fine art, and dread over how such publicity would drove up prices on eBay. (Mint-condition Model M’s now fetch upwards of $300.)

Clicky keyboard loyalists make strange bedfellows. I am sure a good number of other writers love their keyboards clicky, but for the most part I find my brethren with gamers. Turns out there is this whole other tribe of people who spend hours pounding on keyboards, and demand a higher degree of responsiveness. They and can discern between a key’s 45- and 55-gram actuation weights. It’s an alternative universe where some keyboard connoisseurs prefer Cherry MX Blue switches (clicky and tactile), others MX Brown (tactile but silent) or Cherry MX Red (linear stroke, less sticky). Markus Alexej “Notch” Persson, the inventor of Minecraft, sings the praises of his Model M. Gamers, alas, can’t abide use a Model M while playing—its ancient technology can’t accommodate rollovers, or pressing on multiple key combinations, causing it to jam or ghosting, pressing another key as well.

Like a crate-digger DJ or the gearhound guitar player in search of an elusive sound, I collect Model M’s in the basement, just in case one breaks. My first hasn’t kicked the bucket yet. Under each Model M’s chassis is a sticker that lists the date when it was built. My keyboard’s birthday, August 26, 1991, coincides with the year I graduated from college. Bryan Adams, Paula Abdul, and Vanilla Ice were at the top of the charts, and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was issued to the radio.

In an age where so many are content to smudge messages with oily thumbs on a screen, or type out novels with rubber chiclets, I feel like I am part of a tradition pounding on Model M. I might be phased out like a holdout typists, or given a special room keep things quiet. That’s fine with me. Plus the clicks keep me awake.

Daniel Nester is the author of Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Grief, Making Out in Church, and Other Unlearnable Subjects, which is due from 99: The Press in 2015. Other books include How to Be InappropriateGod Save My Queen I and II, and The Incredible Sestina Anthology, which he edited. He teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York. Follow him on twitter, or visit him at his website at

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Photo by Pat Dumas

Associate fiction editor Mike Berry on today’s story: Have you ever wondered what happens when a family finds a porch full of dirt after they baptize their first child? Me neither. But stretch your arms, shake your legs, and wash yourself in a dirt-baptism with this family’s briefly brilliant yet hopeful story.


The new parents return from St. Alphonsus and discover their front porch blanketed under a foot of soil. From sidewalk to sill the dirt is groomed more carefully than a Zen garden.

When she considers the tiny furrows, so fine they could have been raked by fork, the mother sees rows of cornstalks, lines of lonely boys. She grew up on Foothill Road in a trailer park abutting the city’s last farm. As a child she wandered through the farm’s cornfields stomping the soft earth, searching for a patch of quicksand or a sinkhole, some portal to another world. When that proved fruitless, she’d snap off an ear of corn, hold it to her mouth, and rehearse answers for the talk shows she’d frequent after she escaped the trailer park and made great discoveries as an archeologist. “Just think of it, Barbara,” she’d marvel into an ear of corn, “all that treasure beneath our feet!”

When she was older she’d lead boys into those fields where they’d commit mortal sin. Always the same sin. Sin to which she would never confess. She sought no priest’s absolution but dug miniature graves in the furrows, no bigger than a shoebox, one for each lover. She marked their graves with corn cobs instead of names. One cob for the selfish, handsy boys who finished too soon. Two cobs for the gentle, sweet boys she mothered along so they could satisfy her. There had only been a pair worthy of three cobs, boys who knew what to do with her from the start. The first one had enlisted in the army and shipped off after their only rendezvous. She brought the second one out to the cornfield for nearly two years. They conceived there in winter. Married before she started to show.

The father rocks their son on his shoulder. The infant’s baptism gown glows white, gleams like a fresh snow against the soil. The father resists the urge to plunge into the dirt and demonstrate the art of snow angels for the infant. As a boy he loved nothing more than diving into new-fallen snow, to be the first to spread wings and leave his impression.

He squats down, smells the earth on their porch, smells the anointing oil on their son. Reaches a hand over the neatly raked soil but stops before disturbing the tableau, remembers the summer he was ten and a Gypsy family moved in next door. There’d been a Gypsy boy he’d played with, Mike Dave, who carried a pouch of dirt with him wherever he went. “Graveyard bone dirt,” Mike Dave insisted. “Present from my busha.” His grandmother told fortunes and devised hexes and gifted Mike Dave with dirt enchanted to protect him from enemies. The father convinces himself the dirt on their porch is protection for his family and not a prank or curse. He can’t remember crossing Mike Dave during that brief time they were neighbors, only remembers thinking it odd the boy had two first names.

His son only has one first name, but he has a middle name. It’s a family name passed down five generations. He’ll acquire a third name if he chooses to confirm his faith when he comes of age. While the father is a young man, of sound mind and body, he cannot immediately recall his own confirmation name. When it does come to him, the father regrets what little thought he’d put into choosing it. If his son ever asks his confirmation name, the father will choose more carefully.

The father notes the soil’s color. He will repaint the nursery porchsoil black, protection for the child when the father’s not around. He’d paint the entire house that color but knows his wife wants to move. They bought the house a year ago, an old home in an old neighborhood. It suited the father more than the mother; he planned projects, refinished floors, fenced in their meager yard for the day they’d bring home a dog. The trailer park where the mother grew up was old. Not antique or historic. Just old, charmless, without nostalgia. Last time she’d been out to Foothill Road, she saw the dump trucks and earthmovers lined up straight as cornrows. Soon those machines would break ground, bulldoze crops, dig foundations for new homes. She hopes they’ll be able to afford one of those new homes, dreams they’ll find contentment there.

She runs a hand through her husband’s hair, strokes her son’s cheek. Both parents now hold the infant just as they had over the baptismal font. She kisses her husband, and then he lets go, plunges backward into the dirt.

The infant’s eyes grow wide when his father sprouts wings.

Dan Mancilla lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He holds a PhD in creative writing from Western Michigan University and teaches at Kendall College of Art and Design. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Barrelhouse, BULL: Men’s Fiction, The Chicago Tribune, The Malahat Review, Monkeybicycle, The Saturday Evening Post, and Slice, among others. “Baptism” is a story from his book-length manuscript, All the Proud Fathers. You can read more about Dan and his work at

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Photo by Daniele Bi

Associate poetry editor Sarah Bates on today’s bonus poem: It’s been months since I first read “Hayloft,” and since then I’ve been walking around with a “nubbin of cat purr” and this hope-filled concept of forking the unforked past. I’ve found myself believing in a place where anything can come from boxes and dust. The poem’s address awakens a certain kind of intimacy that sticks and dares you to imagine your own spine, your own life and losses, and what you will do with them all. 


Nowhere is there
light sloshing up
and down your arms
like it did that time
you climbed the ladder
to the hayloft.
Nubbin of cat purr,
scurry of small unseen;
what will you do here,
small one, limber
and brittle as these
aging floorboards?
No one is watching—
not even the slatted
dust-freckled sunlight.
Slim column of empty
boxes for a spine,
I’d like to roll you
over the edge,
fork the unforked past.
How you tremble,
thinking this forbidden
climb is bravery.
I don’t want to hear
anything pretty boom
in your chest. I won’t
supply dragonfly wings,
shoe squeak, centipede feet.
Darling self,
no one cares
how we sculpt ourselves
from rags and dashing.

Amie Whittemore earned her MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in North American Review, Smartish Pace, Gettysburg Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. She won a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg 2013 Poetry Prize, the 2012 Tennessee Williams / New Orleans Literary Festival poetry prize, and a fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center in July 2011. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Photo by David Edwards

On Writhing: A Closer Look at an Underappreciated Art

Recently, in the graduate level workshop I teach, I paused class while discussing a student’s work to ask a simple, straightforward question: What is writhing? We had spent months studying the craft of writhing, its unheralded artistry, debating its most radical theories, yet never, in all of that time, had I stopped to ask them—nor had they, it seemed, stopped to ask themselves—what, exactly, we were doing. The student being workshopped lifted her head and untangled herself, somewhat, while keeping her legs twisted in that marvelously haunting fashion that only she can achieve, and answered, “This. This is writhing.” “Yes,” I responded. “But you’re not entirely right.” Class ended, and it dawned on me that perhaps I had let them down by failing to provide a proper definition of writhing. I drank heavily that evening. It was a long, brain-straining night, as I tried to articulate writhing’s particular immanence, and though my conclusions likely fall short of their mark, I do feel that what follows is a generous delineation of writhing, its history, and what it feels like to give in to the writhing life.

Perhaps the first thing any aspiring writher should know is that writhing—despite our daydreams and indefatigable praise for the masters—will not make you famous. Writhing is not, and has never been, for the fame hungry. It is for those who accept the termination of self. Self-destruction gives writhing its strength, and, if one writhes with all of one’s heart there will be nothing left over to serve as celebrity. This has always been difficult for me to accept. My earliest, semi-serious attempts to writhe were done to impress people, friends, lovers, instructors, and only recently has the desire for praise begun to wane. Writhing, although done by oneself is never done for oneself. Praise is selfish and fleeting. Received, it retreats to the depths of the soul, where it hardens, gunks, and dissolves, leaving a rift that can only be filled by itself. Writhing is for its viewers—audiences, friends. It is dually public and intimate, meant to convey emotions and feelings that words, both spoken and written, cannot, and might never, express. One writher I particularly admire, Sandra Molana, sees writhing as a potlatch for the soul, the sacrifice of material boundaries done to strengthen communities.

Writhing is not a modern phenomenon. It dates back nearly two thousand years. The ancient Komani people, of what is now southeastern Quebec, built an entire society around the interpretation of public writhings. They believed that the writher writhed to reveal the world unseen. Writhers were public prophets. Writhers were touched by gods. To the Komani writhing was the manifestation of community ethos. Of feeling felt but misunderstood. A joyous writhe filled with leaping and spinning might dispel, throughout the community, the feelings of shame and embarrassment that accompanied disappointing harvests. Whereas darker performances, in which writhers zigged roachily on their stomachs, or snapped their bones on the ground and continued performing, could sink the most buoyant Polly Annas. Bleak performances were frequently met with violent backlash from viewers unable to accept intense expressions of darkness and pain. Writhers themselves, though celebrated during performances, were routinely mistreated after performances. Community elders believed that in order for writhers to truly express the will of the people—their emotions, desires, fears, and their futures—that writhers must live in squalor, close to the earth. Hardly unique. Physical hardship is commonly linked to spiritual and emotional insight. But the symbiosis of pain and performance has dwindled over the centuries. And many conservative scholars have noted a steep decline in the quality of modern writhing. Critics, such as A.E. Tinsen, argue that writhers have debased the true nature of writhing. Increasing stylization and individuality, a cult of personality never before seen in the writhing community, signals, to Tinsen, the beginning of the end of quality writhing. And though her ideas are alarmist, she is right to critique the increasing insularity of contemporary writhing, as many young writhers—including my students, and even myself—seek glory in oddness, in bizarre gestures and intoxicant squirms that do less to express the glory and woes of the community, than incite ire and shock. The reasons for this shift are manifold and complex, and, if the history of artistic creation has shown us anything it is that diagnoses are best made in hindsight, but I will say, briefly, that the desire for self-expression can distract from requisite study. What writhers need is not the grand expression of interior motives but the patience to wait for the collective unconscious to take over their bodies. Young writhers might take inspiration from the Komani. They understood that valuable writhing requires the sacrifice of comfort and time, that the distillation and presentation of the universal necessitates compromising oneself, with oneself, but not as oneself.

All this talk of inspiration is not to dismiss the training crucial to becoming a writher. The study of great writhers, past and present, should precede any serious attempt to live one’s life as a writher. I have benefitted greatly from my friendships with older writhers, and when I was in school, certain professors put forth a great deal of time to act as writhing mentors. Is a mentor necessary? I think so. Though I wouldn’t go so far to say that writhing requires a master’s degree. Yes, that is the route I took, twenty years ago, because I knew that I would benefit in a community of like-minded people. And though I learned a lot from my peers, what I gained, more than anything, was the confidence to ignore them. The desire to please others—like the desire to showcase oneself—is a major hindrance to writhing, and the best thing I can teach my students is how to discard my advice. Grad school did help me develop and commit to a schedule. The best writhers are disciplined in their routines. Personally, I writhe every morning. My wife, also a writher, prefers to writhe in the late afternoon. But without our schedules we would not have improved as we have. So, while academic writhing is not for everyone, it’s clear to me that good writhing comes from disciplined practice and irreverent study, a form of learning not, as some prefer, like water being poured down one’s throat, but like wading in and out of a stream, scooping water and slurping it, and, eventually, damming the streams to split the water in unforeseen directions.

To conclude, writhing, by my definition, is an act of love and devotion, a transmutation of feeling through the physical twist, twitch, jolt, jump, hump, tremble and flutter of bodies splayed on the floor. Writhing is done for the other at large. For the infinite and achronological. It requires discipline and commitment, the concentration to roll in front of a mirror for hours on end, noting errors, or dishonest movements, as if you were not the one writhing but a stranger seeing you writhe for the very first time. It requires patience, pain, and focus. An ear attentive enough to auscultate the earth. And most importantly writhing will not make you famous, nor will it bring you comfort or happiness. But the writhing life can be filled with love and devotion. It teaches us both, by demanding we embrace and embody that which exists beyond and within us. It makes us anonymous and synonymous, and in a world obsessively personal and hatefully individualistic, anonymity might be the highest and bravest expression of human potential.

Alex McElroy is a writher based in Arizona. He also writes fiction and essays, which can be found in Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Southwest Review, Diagram, Music & Literature, Tin House, Memorious, and here.

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