The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: AWABI by Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Sumiko’s Daughters

You have to tell Namako to go into the city. She has to believe it’s what you want. Otherwise she won’t do it, she’ll stay here and waste away.

And Sumiko’s own mother saying this, the ama who once dove naked and taught Sumiko to move her legs like fins . . . Sumiko couldn’t have been more dismayed if her mother had told her to take the net bag she’d inherited and tear it with her hands.

Besides, it would be a lie: a lie to pretend that even one hour shape-shifting in the blue-on-blue wasn’t worth the strain; that predator and prey face-to-face and intermingled wasn’t what living was; and that Sumiko hadn’t lived, dived, and survived so that she could pass on that existential truth and the sheer joy of oceanic living to her daughters.

She felt hemmed in and divided: torn between her ocean-daughter who needed ama-mothers to fight for her life and her Namako-daughter who just wanted to be a woman. The indecision seemed to dry Sumiko up. She went into menopause. She pretended nothing was the matter. She avoided serious conversation for a year, never quite acknowledging that what had wrapped her in itself like a cannibal starfish was double-headed fear.

Fear that she couldn’t lie to Namako. Fear that if she didn’t lie, Namako would corrode like awa bi in an ailing sea.

She did it, finally, or there would have been no Hana (b. 2007). Namako became the housewife of an Osaka salaryman. And then Sumiko no longer knew who she, Sumiko, was. She felt like a broken tile in a vast and ancient roof.

There was no outward change in her laugh ing personality. But she was guarded with Hana, the cybernetic granddaughter who learned to use a smartphone before she learned to read. Sumiko couldn’t understand why Namako didn’t at the very least take the baby to a public pool so that the water could teach her to swim. Sumiko reminded her that as an infant she, Namako, had learned to swim from the ocean just as Sumiko herself had done; and Namako dithered, she seemed almost squeamish or perhaps lazy. But besides the fact that Namako and her husband selected such a dry and bewildering name — Hana (花), meaning “flower” or “nose” — Sumiko found herself baffled every time she looked around. There was the Fukushima disas

ter. The ama had declined 80% in number since her childhood. Awabi had diminished by 90%. Kaiyōno, with dwindling snails and proliferating storms, slid into disrepair. The divers, whose average age was 60, felt the ocean warm as their joints stiffened. And before Sumiko died, she would see tropical fishes, refugees from an equator grown too hot, come to pluck the last awabi from their rocks with beakish mouths.

In her grandmother years, Sumiko still dived daily as her mothers dived. She breathed as whales breathed, carrying the nomi she’d carried all her life. Some of what she caught went to the shrine, for kami craved awabi even after all this time, but hotels bought the lion’s share: the words “dying way of life” won publicity for Kaiyōno. The Ama Preservation Association also did its best to piggyback on the trending idea that to “return to ancient ways” was to “embrace sustainable living.” And so Sumiko found herself in a white amagi dancing “traditional” dances in the widow’s restaurant, babbling of better days to anybody who would listen, cackling at her own jokes while some man found reasons to pinch her, and announcing that ama-diving was an “intan gible cultural heritage” as though she belonged behind glass in a museum.


This selection comes from the book, AWABI, available from Digging Press.  Purchase your copy here! Our curator for this selection is Alex DiFrancesco.

Winner of the 2018 Digging Press Chapbook Series Award. Mandy-Suzanne Wong deftly explores the complex world of the ama—ocean women, mostly elderly, who eke out a living while diving deep to capture abalone, snails, and otherworldly sea creatures for food. Suffused with lyrical imagery and profound longing, Wong creates evocative moments of love, pride, jealousy, misunderstanding, and sacrifice in this duet of short stories. She’s also the author of the novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, Oct 2019), which was a a finalist for the Permafrost Book Prize, a semifinalist for the Conium Review Book Prize, shortlisted for the SFWP Literary Award, awarded an honorable mention in the Leapfrog Fiction Contest, and nominated for the Foreword Indies Book Prize. Her stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in Waccamaw, Little Patuxent Review, The Island Review, The Spectacle, Quail Bell, and other venues. Her work has also been shortlisted for the Aeon Award (UK) and taken first prize in the Eyelands International Flash Fiction Competition (Greece). I’m an Afro-Chino-Cuban woman, a native of Bermuda.
 
 
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin HouseThe Washington PostPacific StandardVol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.
 

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The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: AWABI by Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Sumiko’s Daughters

Sumiko had no opportunity to wriggle into a  wetsuit until she was almost 30. Growing up, she dived in cotton shorts and a bandanna, imitating her mother’s straight-down dive, feet skyward shooting. Her mother taught her, as she’d learned from her mother, to live and dive and die in the current that commingled predators and prey and daughter-mothers, as it swirled and surged and flagged and swirled up again in time. Best day of my life, Sumiko would say, when she walked into the ocean with her mother and grandmother for the first time, a young teen with her own nomi,  mask, and barrel. They walked without mincing though waves towered over them. They laughed when the ocean slapped them in the face with the full force of its grandeur, three generations with their faces to the blue-on-blue. Sumiko’s mother  had a tendency to grumble later in life: 

Back then, I could catch 40 awabi a day. 10 years ago, I was down to 4 a day. Nowadays if you can find one, that’s really something. Even though there are no more feudal lords, it’s as if we’re ruled by numbers. How many,  how long, how short, how much . . . 

With chattering teeth, red eyes, and heavy barrels, the ama emerged from the water and huddled,  10 or 12 to a group, shuddering, kimono-swaddled,  around a small pit fire in the amagoya, their small bamboo hut. Later, goya were built with corrated tin sheets held down by rocks. They had showers and places to hang nets and floats, drying wetsuits, sodden underwear. Some even had doors, which the ama left open to keep an eye on the ocean. Though they sneaked emulous looks at other people’s catches, they would run back to the sea if anyone came into difficulty. 

The best thing about being an ama is the ocean. Second best: the snails. Third: the amagoya. That’s your real  home.  

It was a noisy place. Wood crackling, wetsuits  flapping, water hissing on the fire. Loud gossip,  singing, shouting fisherfolk tales (“The Big One”  or “The One That Got Away”), boasting about the size of the haul and the best and worst divers,  hollering bawdy jokes about husbands and which ama had better breasts.  

Outsiders thought the ama the opposite of beautiful. They were too brown from the sun,  too stocky with essential fat and muscle, coarse of hand and tongue, dirty with sand and slaughtered sea-snail slime, and always slithering into in-betweens. But their almost inhuman strangeness, the sense that their dolphinesque ability was some mutation, and the bareness that shocked  Mikimoto’s clientele, lured anthropologists, physiologists, and photographers to Kaiyōno. 


This selection comes from the book, AWABI, available from Digging Press.  Purchase your copy here! Our curator for this selection is Alex DiFrancesco.

Winner of the 2018 Digging Press Chapbook Series Award. Mandy-Suzanne Wong deftly explores the complex world of the ama—ocean women, mostly elderly, who eke out a living while diving deep to capture abalone, snails, and otherworldly sea creatures for food. Suffused with lyrical imagery and profound longing, Wong creates evocative moments of love, pride, jealousy, misunderstanding, and sacrifice in this duet of short stories. She’s also the author of the novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, Oct 2019), which was a a finalist for the Permafrost Book Prize, a semifinalist for the Conium Review Book Prize, shortlisted for the SFWP Literary Award, awarded an honorable mention in the Leapfrog Fiction Contest, and nominated for the Foreword Indies Book Prize. Her stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in Waccamaw, Little Patuxent Review, The Island Review, The Spectacle, Quail Bell, and other venues. Her work has also been shortlisted for the Aeon Award (UK) and taken first prize in the Eyelands International Flash Fiction Competition (Greece). I’m an Afro-Chino-Cuban woman, a native of Bermuda.
 
 
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin HouseThe Washington PostPacific StandardVol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.
 

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The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: AWABI by Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Sumiko’s Daughters

As a child, she asked, Doesn’t it hurt them, ripping  them open? Shoving rocks down their throats?  This made her grandmother feel like a sapling  in an earthquake. At the factory, they said they  were helping oysters; culturing pearls helped  the oyster population to recover from previous  generations’ over-harvesting. Maybe they were  right, but so was Sumiko. Torturing oysters was  no better than killing them. 

Sumiko didn’t know it, but this was her first exposure to the feeling that drove every ama to frustration. The sense that their efforts to conserve were all for nothing.  


This selection comes from the book, AWABI, available from Digging Press.  Purchase your copy here! Our curator for this selection is Alex DiFrancesco.

Winner of the 2018 Digging Press Chapbook Series Award. Mandy-Suzanne Wong deftly explores the complex world of the ama—ocean women, mostly elderly, who eke out a living while diving deep to capture abalone, snails, and otherworldly sea creatures for food. Suffused with lyrical imagery and profound longing, Wong creates evocative moments of love, pride, jealousy, misunderstanding, and sacrifice in this duet of short stories. She’s also the author of the novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, Oct 2019), which was a a finalist for the Permafrost Book Prize, a semifinalist for the Conium Review Book Prize, shortlisted for the SFWP Literary Award, awarded an honorable mention in the Leapfrog Fiction Contest, and nominated for the Foreword Indies Book Prize. Her stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in Waccamaw, Little Patuxent Review, The Island Review, The Spectacle, Quail Bell, and other venues. Her work has also been shortlisted for the Aeon Award (UK) and taken first prize in the Eyelands International Flash Fiction Competition (Greece). I’m an Afro-Chino-Cuban woman, a native of Bermuda.
 
 
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin HouseThe Washington PostPacific StandardVol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.
 

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Sundress Reads: A Review of Atlas of Lost Places

A lament and a love song, Yamini Pathak’s Atlas of Lost Places (Milk & Cake Press, 2020) charts the distance between past and present and childhood and adulthood for a narrator who is an immigrant to the US from India. Each of these poems pulses with a longing for home, but the narrator cannot return home, not simply because of the geographical distance, but because what was once home is no longer home, as both she and the place have changed. That is what makes the place lost.

“Nowadays they are all extinct or endangered: grandfather tiger / Northern white rhinos (which were the ugliest / but closest thing we had to unicorns) home-made pickles,” Pathak writes in “The Northern White Leaves the Page,” mourning the aspects of her childhood in India which have been lost. Some things became lost due to the passage of time (her grandfather). Some became lost because of poachers and hunters (tigers, white rhinos). Some became lost due to a shifting of cultures (home-made pickles).

And the more time passes, the more things grow lost. The further the distance grows.

The desire to shorten the distance is felt on every page. The first poem, “Ahimsa,” is visually formatted in two disjointed columns with white space between. Each line appears as if it’s being pulled apart and the overall effect is a whole being torn into halves. This is how longing affects the body. It rips it apart.

In the opening poem, the narrator asks, “Would you judge me a fool if I said my love / is a parched well that never quits reaching for the aquifer?” The aquifer: home, the past, India. Yet, despite how much the “parched well” of her love reaches for it, it will always be out of reach. And yet, she doesn’t stop reaching. However, as she remarks, she is no fool: this reaching is a testament to her devotion.

The India that she yearns for is one bursting with color and scent. In the titular poem, she writes, “His clipped / wings dream of flight, scarlet-tipped verdant arrows that spear blue skies, of siesta in the / guava grove, of orgies succulent with wild mango.” Scarlet, blue, guava, mango—these images bloom off the page. One can almost taste the fruit. Yet, even in this line, there is sorrow: the bird has clipped wings and cannot fly, and thus, the guava grove remains an unreached destination.

This is not the only instance the narrator likens herself to an injured bird. In “Excerpt from Field Guide for Broken Birds,” Pathak writes, “The Maimed Sparrow seeks the healing of turmeric skies.” Like the prior example, the bird’s inability to fly prevents it from being able to return home, and we feel its sorrow. Instead, it resorts to “[confining] itself to small spaces dense with the incense of familiarity.” This line suggests how the bird finds a home away from home when it cannot return home. Surrounding herself with aspects of her culture—of turmeric, of incense, of familiarity—is a salve for her longing. If she cannot go home, she can bring home to herself.

It is through community she finds home as well. In one poem, the narrator describes getting pedicures with a friend: “We sink into massage chairs / slip on the shared skin of / Hindi slang that belongs alone / to us.” In this moment, for the narrator, the act of self-care is not receiving the pedicure; it is being in the company of a friend with whom she can be herself, someone with whom she can share her culture. This moment of belonging feels intimate, like secrets whispered in the dark for no one to hear but the tellers.

Ultimately, it is with her sons that the narrator finds the closest thing to home. In “The Geography of Bedtime,” she describes reading her son to sleep, how “his [eyes] are shuttered, already / at rest in that borderless town / in a country all our own.” In this tender moment, home is the love between a mother and her son. That love has no edges. It goes and goes, past the limits of the atlas. For the narrator who feels torn between two worlds, this is a moment of peace, a moment in which she is no longer split, but whole.

A love for her sons is at the root of each of these poems. “Where shall you go my sons?” she asks in “Elegy for the Way Home,” and this becomes the collection’s metaphorical refrain. A mother wants to provide her sons a map through which they can navigate the world, but where to go when the map is dotted with lost places, when the route has faded? Even the poem’s title—“Elegy for the Way Home”—tells us that the path back is gone. 

Like their mother, the narrator’s sons will be raised of two cultures, and while she yearns to share her culture with her sons, she regrets it won’t be learned firsthand: “It takes practice to scoop dal with your fingers, taste spice on the honey / of your hot skin before you swallow, this is my sorrow.” But, still, she will teach them, and these teachings will become their path forward. As Pathak writes, “I will be your compass.” She will lead them towards a new home, one they build themselves.

The end of the collection brings a shift. In the first poem, the narrator describes her love as a parched well, always reaching for the aquifer. By the end of the collection, Pathak writes, “the river I swallow runs underground you / the rock in the tide-pool I / the moss that cleaves.” This image suggests the narrator is no longer always thirsty, but coursing with water, full to the brim. In this line, her sons are the rocks in the tide-pool and she is the moss that cleaves. Her sons are planted firmly in the river of her love; as long as she clings to them, she will never be thirsty again.

This fierce love makes Atlas of Lost Places a memorable collection, along with Pathak’s mastery of language, vivid images that bloom an entire world off the page, and twin currents of joy and sorrow that run through every page. This collection is about coming home, which Pathak illuminates as a process less having to do with maps, and more having to do with how you love.

Atlas of Lost Places is available at Milk & Cake Press.


Kathleen Gullion is a writer based in Houston. Her work has appeared in the Esthetic Apostle, Coachella ReviewF Newsmagazine, and others. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

2020 Poetry Open Reading Period Selections Announced

Sundress Publications is thrilled to announce the results of the 2020 open reading period for full-length poetry manuscripts. The winning selections are: Mackenzie Berry’s Slack Tongue City, Jason B. Crawford’s How We Fed the Hunger, and Amanda Galvan Huynh’s Lotería. Each is slated for publication in 2022.

Mackenzie Berry is from Louisville, Kentucky. She has an English – Creative Writing BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison through the First Wave Program. Her poetry has been published in VinylUp the Staircase QuarterlyHobart, and Broadsided Press, and she has read and performed her poems at various events and festivals, including the 2019 Open Book Festival in Cape Town, South Africa. She has an MA in Race, Media, and Social Justice from Goldsmiths, University of London through a Marcus L. Urann Graduate Fellowship. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing – Poetry at Cornell University. You can find some of her work at mackenzieberry.com

Jason B. Crawford (They/He) is a black, nonbinary, bi-poly-queer writer born in Washington DC, raised in Lansing, MI. In addition to being published in online literary magazines, such as SplitLip Magazine, Voicemail Poems, Glass Poetry, and Kissing Dynamite, they are the Chief Editor for The Knight’s Library. Crawford has their Bachelors of Science in Creative Writing from Eastern Michigan University. Their debut chapbook collection Summertime Fine is out through Variant Lit. Their second chapbook Twerkable Moments is due from Paper Nautilus Press in 2021.

Amanda Galvan Huynh (she/her) is a Mexican American writer and educator from Texas. She is the author of a chapbook, Songs of Brujería (Big Lucks 2019) and Co-Editor of Of Color: Poets’ Ways of Making: An Anthology of Essays on Transformative Poetics (The Operating System 2019). Her writing has been supported by fellowships and scholarships from MacDowell, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, Monson Arts, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Congratulations also to this year’s finalists and semifinalists!

Finalists:

Brian Clifton, Beast-Headed
Matthew E. Henry, The Colored Page
Emily Hockaday, Naming the Ghost
Brett Elizabeth Jenkins, How to Be a Good Animal
Athena Nassar, Little Houses
Joshua Nguyen, Come Clean

Semi-finalists:

Babette Cieskowski, Blood In The Garden
Miranda Dennis, My Sister Who is Not My Sister
Jonathan Louis Duckworth, Night, Translated
Maggie Graber, Swan Hammer: an Instructor’s Guide to Mirrors
Paula Harris, Attack of the 50 Foot Wāhine
Sarah Lilius, Dirty Words
Anne Haven McDonnell, Breath on a Coal
Todd Osborne, The Overview Effect
Todd Smith, The Shape of Other Lives in You
Lindsay Wilson, The Day Gives Us so Many Ways to Eat

The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: AWABI by Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Sumiko’s Daughters

Sumiko’s grandmother resisted the diving  mask. It would make them see too well, she said,  they would find and kill too many hidden snails.  And the mask magnified everything. It made her  fearful of kidnapping babies. 

10.6 centimeters. Use a ruler. A smidgen smaller and  you have to release them. Find somewhere dark and narrow  with kelp nearby. Give awabi babies every chance. Her grandmother balked at the wetsuit, too.  Disrespectful, she said, to go to the ocean like that.  You don’t see whales going around like that. Like umib ōzu. Plus you’re more likely to snag something and get stuck.  Then you’d drown. Wouldn’t happen if you dressed the way  your mother made you. 

The umibōzu were demons. They were glossy,  black, humanoid giants who thrashed the sea and stirred up deadly typhoons. Sumiko imagined her grandmother in a glossy, black, skin-tight outfit,  sneaking up on a boat and leaping out of the water to give all the men on the vessel the fright of their lives. The idea made Sumiko giggle. It made her grandmother scowl. Yet it was Sumiko’s grandmother (while her daughter-in-law, Sumiko’s mother, roared with laughter) who was the first  Nagata ama to wear clothes into the water. Skirt and blouse, pearl-white, they’d go down in history as the “traditional” costume of Japanese ama.  These outfits, amagi, offered little warmth, flailed in the water, and were designed in the twentieth century by the Mikimoto Pearl Company in Toba.


This selection comes from the book, AWABI, available from Digging Press.  Purchase your copy here! Our curator for this selection is Alex DiFrancesco.

Winner of the 2018 Digging Press Chapbook Series Award. Mandy-Suzanne Wong deftly explores the complex world of the ama—ocean women, mostly elderly, who eke out a living while diving deep to capture abalone, snails, and otherworldly sea creatures for food. Suffused with lyrical imagery and profound longing, Wong creates evocative moments of love, pride, jealousy, misunderstanding, and sacrifice in this duet of short stories. She’s also the author of the novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, Oct 2019), which was a a finalist for the Permafrost Book Prize, a semifinalist for the Conium Review Book Prize, shortlisted for the SFWP Literary Award, awarded an honorable mention in the Leapfrog Fiction Contest, and nominated for the Foreword Indies Book Prize. Her stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in Waccamaw, Little Patuxent Review, The Island Review, The Spectacle, Quail Bell, and other venues. Her work has also been shortlisted for the Aeon Award (UK) and taken first prize in the Eyelands International Flash Fiction Competition (Greece). I’m an Afro-Chino-Cuban woman, a native of Bermuda.
 
 
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin HouseThe Washington PostPacific StandardVol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.
 

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The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: AWABI by Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Sumiko’s Daughters

She searched for snails: sazae with silver shells  like inverted whirlpools and their mother-of-pearl  abalone sisters, awabi, with such expressive eyes.  She also hunted their cousins: octopi, urchins,  spiny lobsters, sea stars, seaweeds, and sea cucumbers, the chubby and slimy namako. But  awabi were above all. Noshi awabi was the sacred sustenance of the divine kami Amaterasu,  ancestress of all Japan, and luxury markets paid  ¥8,000 per pound for awabi sashimi. 

Even men followed awabi into the water when prawns were scarce or finned fishes weren’t biting. But men preferred fishing from boats atop the sunlit surface. Grubbing in the sand between light and dark, air and water, life and death; turning over rocks and plunging hands into black crevices, the secret lairs of biting eels and stinging puffer fish; battling the cold, the currents, struggling mollusks, and the fighting urge to breathe:  that was women’s work. Sumiko learned from her grandmother, who’d learned from her own grandmother, that throughout the Edo period no community incurred greater disdain than the ama. They were hinnin, strangers who dirtied themselves with death’s dirty work. But from her mother and grandmother, Sumiko inherited the belief that all ama shared. It wasn’t that women  and snail-seeking were ignoble:  

Women and the ocean, we are a natural match. Only women can bear it when the ocean’s touch goes deep. Only women have enough of the right kind of body fat to withstand the biting cold. Women needn’t fear the ocean’s chilling love. And ama mustn’t be afraid. That’s why ama are women.


This selection comes from the book, AWABI, available from Digging Press.  Purchase your copy here! Our curator for this selection is Alex DiFrancesco.

Winner of the 2018 Digging Press Chapbook Series Award. Mandy-Suzanne Wong deftly explores the complex world of the ama—ocean women, mostly elderly, who eke out a living while diving deep to capture abalone, snails, and otherworldly sea creatures for food. Suffused with lyrical imagery and profound longing, Wong creates evocative moments of love, pride, jealousy, misunderstanding, and sacrifice in this duet of short stories. She’s also the author of the novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, Oct 2019), which was a a finalist for the Permafrost Book Prize, a semifinalist for the Conium Review Book Prize, shortlisted for the SFWP Literary Award, awarded an honorable mention in the Leapfrog Fiction Contest, and nominated for the Foreword Indies Book Prize. Her stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in Waccamaw, Little Patuxent Review, The Island Review, The Spectacle, Quail Bell, and other venues. Her work has also been shortlisted for the Aeon Award (UK) and taken first prize in the Eyelands International Flash Fiction Competition (Greece). I’m an Afro-Chino-Cuban woman, a native of Bermuda.
 
 
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin HouseThe Washington PostPacific StandardVol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.
 

 

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The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Pretty to Think So by Samantha Edmonds

A 100% True Totally Not Fictional Ghost Story

He follows me everywhere: work, gym, drive-thru, home. No one else
sees him—not my brightest students, or the woman on the treadmill
next to me, or the man who gives me my veggie burger. Not even the
dog sees him when she wags her tail right through his torso, but I know
he is there. Always, I feel him; I can never forget the feel of him now.
One day I ask him, this ghost of mine: “Please, won’t you just
go?”
I could go, he says. But I’ve been alone for so long, and you are
so very beautiful, he says.
I feel broken, he says.
I feel more than hear myself say, “If I can fix you, I’d be very
happy.”
He stays.
Over time, I come to enjoy his company, like the imaginary friends my
kindergartners bring to school. And the longer he stays, the more often
he smiles, and I find myself smiling too, watching him in a front-row
desk while I teach phonics, floating in the passenger seat on the way to
the grocery store. I smile to make him smile. I want my joy to be
contagious. But as the weeks become months, I begin to grow tired. My
cheeks hurt, my eyes too. The more he smiles, the less I do, his ethereal
pearly whites make me crazy. It’s fucking exhausting to try to be happy
all the time. I feel not chosen but haunted.
I hear you now, thinking, “If he’s smiling, how bad can he be?”
But his smile—after a while, it’s not enough. Soon your love for his
upturned mouth will cause you to long for a kiss. But you can’t kiss a
ghost. No matter how persistently he lingers. And suddenly that smile
you can never share with him becomes the saddest thing in the entire
world.

“Stop,” I say, one summer evening. The sun stays late in the sky
and I don’t see a single human of flesh and bone, just his foggy presence
behind me as I kneel in the garden. “I’d rather you haunt me like a ghoul
than a friend,” I beg. “Hide between the wrapping paper tubes under
the bed and creep behind the cracked bathroom mirror, move my keys
around the house and close the back door when there’s no breeze—
terrify me, frighten me! Just stop smiling at me like I’m something
special.”
He raises a hand like a cloud and rests it against my cheek. It
passes right through. You have made me feel so good, he says, an
apology and a thank you all in one.
I’ve gone out on a date only once since having my ghost, just to try it,
with a boy who looked at me like I was a star in the sky. I’d hoped that
just by being near him some of that affection would pass on to me. But
in the Outback parking lot after dinner, I saw my smiling ghost over my
date’s shoulder. I let the boy with stars in his eyes kiss me; I leaned way
back when his lips touched mine, like dipping in dance. My date likely
thought it was romantic but I knew it was my body trying to get away
from him even as I was slipping my tongue in his mouth, pressing my
fingers against his cheeks.
My ghost was still there when I opened my eyes and he
followed me home like he had followed me there. I think I hate him
but I know I love him, and so I do not call the star-struck boy back. (I
hope he finds a girl who thinks the world of him and leans into his
kisses.)
The day comes when I can’t get out of bed. I call off work, turn
to him, sigh. “This can’t keep happening.” I raise my hand to wave him
away, like you do with smoke or a bad smell. Then I notice my arm has
taken on the same wispy composition as his. The triangular black and
white pattern of my bedspread is visible through my skin.

I leap out of bed and check my reflection in the mirror, and
yes, there I am—solid still, except my right arm. My ghost is fluttering
about me. He has no idea what’s happening, but I do. I reach out with
my ghost hand to touch him as I have done hundreds of times, expecting
to feel air and disappointment, but when my palm feels his cheek—
clean-shaven, but scratchy still—I begin to laugh. He brings his right
hand up and lays it on top of mine, but it passes through my fingers and
then through his face. I drop my ghost limb, stunned. His right hand is
as solid as mine used to be.
He stares at his hand without satisfaction or a hint of deceit. He
did not know this would happen.
I am not sorry, standing here with my hand on his cheek. Finally,
this love that has been building inside me like a storm has found a way
to do something. I thought at times I’d drown in that love before it ever
had the chance to rain on him, but here it is. Touching him, I have never
loved him more.
My transformation is complete by sundown. With every part I
lose, his solidifies. I only wish we did not have to be mirrors of each
other, that we could exist together on the same plane.
He stands before me, a man again.
“I am happy to do this for you,” I say, and I don’t know if I mean
it but I think I probably do, and that’s the worst.
He smiles once more, and then he leaves. I hear he falls in love
with a woman tall and blond, and maybe one day he’ll marry her.


This selection comes from the book, Pretty to Think So, available from Selcouth Station Press.  Purchase your copy here! Our curator for this selection is Alex DiFrancesco.

Samatha Edmonds am the Fiction Editor for Doubleback Review, a new lit journal in the Sundress Publications family, as well as the new Assistant Fiction Editor for Sundress Publications. My work appears in Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, Black Warrior Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. I currently live in Columbia MO, where I’m a PhD student in fiction at the University of Missouri.
 
 
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin HouseThe Washington PostPacific StandardVol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.
 

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The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Pretty to Think So by Samantha Edmonds

That One Nightstand, and That One Nightstand, and That Other
One Nightstand…

“Fair Jenny mine, the thoughtless queen of kisses.” —
Dante Rossetti

When babies are first born, they spend almost 100% of their time on
their backs. Maybe she just never grew out of that—some people don’t,
you know? Which is probably why people see her most nights at the bar
on the corner. She smiles at the bartender, who has hair that shines like
silk, and she winks at the bouncer, who looks like a Greek God, and who
she imagines could kick serious ass if he got his head out of his own once
in a while. It is reported that she chats up the guy on the barstool beside
her, who is hot as hell but writes ‘board of this place yet?’ on the napkin
between them. The working hypothesis is this: as long as he never texts
or emails her, or basically ever communicates via the written word, and
if they spend the entirety of their time together face-to-sinfully-sexyface, then no, she won’t get board, or borde, or even bored (any more than she already is, anyway).
She imagines a world in which she would begin to lose things.
She might leave her keys on a black nightstand with silver handles and
have to call a locksmith to get back into her own apartment. Then she
could forget her cell phone on the locksmith’s nightstand the next night
and then leave the replacement cell phone on the nightstand beside the
Verizon salesman the morning after. She might forget headbands and
necklaces on countless, indistinguishable brown oak nightstands, and
may even once leave her wallet on a nightstand that holds an alarm
clock shaped like Mickey Mouse. She could lose metro cards, earrings,
lip glosses; then she’d lose her mind but she’d never go back for it. She’d
never go back for any of it.


This selection comes from the book, Pretty to Think So, available from Selcouth Station Press.  Purchase your copy here! Our curator for this selection is Alex DiFrancesco.

Samatha Edmonds am the Fiction Editor for Doubleback Review, a new lit journal in the Sundress Publications family, as well as the new Assistant Fiction Editor for Sundress Publications. My work appears in Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, Black Warrior Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. I currently live in Columbia MO, where I’m a PhD student in fiction at the University of Missouri.
 
 
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin HouseThe Washington PostPacific StandardVol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.
 

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Lyric Essentials: Emma Hine Reads Elizabeth Alexander

Thank you for joining us this week for Lyric Essentials! Emma Hine joins us to read Elizabeth Alexander and explores how poetry can give us the tools to communicate, thrive, and connect with one another during a time of political healing.


Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Elizabeth Alexander for Lyric Essentials?

Emma Hine: I’ve loved and regularly returned to Elizabeth Alexander’s work for years, but I’ve been thinking about her especially during the past few weeks. Partly, this is because my first encounter with her poetry was actually at Obama’s first inauguration, standing in the foot-numbing cold on the Washington Mall—a memory that has felt both terribly distant and wonderfully potent for a long time since. Then, in 2017, I heard Alexander in conversation with Maria Popova at an event hosted by the Academy of American Poets at Housing Works. She was talking very explicitly about the role poetry could play in the current political climate and its rhetoric of hate and distrust; she said, “We’ve got something better than that spew that comes out; we’ve got something more precise; we’ve got something that names one another; we’ve got something that sees one another. We’ve got something that connects people instead of separating them. This is what we’ve got, so let’s use it. Let’s believe in it.”

I can’t get over this description of poetry as something that precisely names and sees and connects us, and in my experience with Alexander’s work, this definition seems especially true. Many of Alexander’s poems feel profoundly familiar to me—poems I wish I had written or was able to write—and reading them makes me feel both seen and named. At the same time, across her body of work she is speaking to an identity and to experiences that I have no personal knowledge of but still feel like I can inhabit fully as a reader. I feel connected.

And I’ve had the privilege of seeing firsthand how Alexander’s poems connect with other readers and make them feel seen and named. At the Academy of American Poets, I produced four years of the annual Dear Poet Project, where students wrote letters in response to individual poems. In 2018, one of the included poems was Alexander’s “Tending,” and scores of students sent in letters about how this piece affected them personally. A sixth grader from Sacramento wrote, “It felt like the poem was speaking to me, even though my life was nothing like the life that you described. It really felt like you were speaking to me.” This is how her poems make me feel, too.

Emma Hine reads “Autumn Passage” by Elizabeth Alexander

EH: What drew you to choose these two poems of Alexander’s, specifically?

EH: I love how muscular and lyrical these poems are, how tight the syntax is, and yet how much room they still make for wildness. “On suffering, which is real” is just such an incredible way to start a poem, and then to move into the gorgeous specificity of a toddler’s voice before taking us out, again, to an almost sublimely adult understanding of death—I return to “Autumn Passage” both as a lesson in craft and a lesson in feeling. The same goes for “Equinox,” which, at fifteen lines, is structured like a long sonnet, with its three thematic sections and the final pivoting couplet. This ending is also something I return to often, for how it holds both love and unabashed honesty, and how sonically that last line just lifts from the page.

If we’re talking about the Alexander’s poetry as a vehicle for naming, seeing, and connecting, I should add that I had a lot of trouble selecting which poems to read—partly because I love so much of Alexander’s work, and partly because recording someone else’s poems in my own voice felt like an invasion of intimacy and of identity. Alexander’s “Stray,” for instance, is a poem I read often, but when I tried to record it for this series, my voice seemed to rob it of some of its power and privacy. In a similar vein, many of my favorite poems by Alexander—“Apollo,” say, and “Haircut”—speak specifically to her experience as a Black woman; I didn’t want to impose my own voice on these poems in the recording, but I hope anyone reading this interview will seek out this work as well.

Emma Hine reads “Equinox” by Elizabeth Alexander

EH: Is there a personal connection with Alexander’s writing that inspires your own work as a poet?

EH: Her work has definitely inspired mine, through what it has taught me about craft and language and kindness. She’s one of a few poets I turned to most often while writing Stay Safe—along with Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Tracy K. Smith, Ada Limón…. Like I said, there’s something about both the precision and freedom in her language and syntax that I find fully captivating, and familiar in the best poetic sense of the term—familiar because it needed to exist and therefore feels right when it does, not because it’s like anything we’ve already seen.

EH: Lastly, is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with our readers?

EH: Thanks for asking! About two-thirds of the way through Stay Safe is a long, lyrical prose poem sequence, which was the last part of the book to come together for me. This sequence is set in space, on a fleet of generation ships centuries after the loss of Earth. While I was submitting Stay Safe to publishers and contests, I started working on a novel set in this same world, partially because I couldn’t let go of the idea and partially just as a distraction from submission anxiety. It’s been two years now, though, and I’ve recently finished a first full draft! I’m excited to continue working it, but I’m also excited to start writing poetry more consistently again soon.


Elizabeth Alexander is a widely recognized poet, memoirist, playwright, and cultural advocate from Harlem. Alexander is the author of eleven collections of poetry, of which American Sublime (2005) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Most recently, she published the memoir The Light of the World, which earned 2015 best book of the year pick by Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Gilbert, and several others and was a New York Times bestseller. She recited her poem “Praise Song for the Day” for Obama’s 2009 inauguration, making her only the fourth poet to read at a Presidential Inauguration. Dr. Alexander worked as a professor at Smith College, Columbia, and Yale for 15 years, and currently president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder in arts and culture, and humanities in higher education.

Further reading:

Purchase Alexander’s poetry collection Praise Song for the Day.
Watch Alexander read “Praise Song for the Day” and discuss then and now for Library of America.
Read this profile on Alexander’s memoir The Light of the World in The Washington Post.

Emma Hine is the author of Stay Safe, which received the 2019 Kathryn A. Morton Prize and is forthcoming from Sarabande Books in January 2021. Her poems have recently appeared in The BafflerCopper NickelThe Paris Review, and The Southern Review, among others, and her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Guernica, and Poets & Writers

Further reading:

Preorder Hine’s debut collection Stay Safe from Sarabande Books, available January, 2021.
Visit Hine’s contributor page for the Academy of American Poets to read her lesson plans for teaching poetry.
Read Hine’s poem “Dipping Achilles” in The Missouri Review, which was a finalist for the 2016 Jeffery E. Smith Editor’s prize.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/

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