How (Not) to Write About the Pandemic

As this is my first year reading slush, I don’t know what submissions look like usually, but this time around there was a lot of pandemic content. And I get it – it seems like no matter what it is I set out to write lately, COVID interrupts, pushes others aside, and insists on being the main character. 

But as I was reading these pieces, I noticed that there were very few that worked. So I started wondering why writing about COVID is so tricky. 

The most obvious answer seems to be that we have reached a point of drain and despair about the current state of the pandemic and just don’t want to be forced to think about it any more. It’s been an exhausting year, after all. Maybe it’s a survival tactic of sorts – emotional survival of course, since it’s literally killing us to ignore it. But I digress. This isn’t about anti-maskers.

Many of the submissions I read were obviously written in the spring, at the beginning. So some of them just didn’t age well; they were about finding hope in the stillness of quarantine, meeting neighbors, being outside more. Meanwhile people were of course dying – and sometimes they were mentioned too – but there was still something lacking, even in the pieces that were written later or those that seemed to acknowledge the heaviness of the moment more.

So I started thinking maybe it was that you can’t really write about an experience while still living it. I mean, you don’t go through a breakup and write about it on the same day afterall. You need hindsight. In creative nonfiction, we talk a lot about distance. To write about something traumatic, you have to have had enough distance to have processed it. Living in a pandemic is traumatic and we’re not processing it, we’re surviving it. We have no hindsight and also very little foresight, it would seem. This is sometimes called double perspective – who you are at the time of writing the piece versus the time of the story. While you don’t have to have that perspective, the reflection it involves is often the most important part of a good piece for me. 

And yet – there are plenty of writers who have managed to write about this time in a way that does work and that even stands the test of time. My friend Anney published a pandemic piece back in the spring and when I go back to it, I’m still moved. Perhaps this is because it is not attempting to tackle too much about the pandemic or define this cultural moment. Though her time-of-writing perspective is during COVID, it’s weaved in so cleverly as to make us wonder if this has always been happening, if it is the natural conclusion to where we were headed all long. And we get this little reflective gem:

“[…] this is the way of the world now: there is no longer inside the ambulance and outside the ambulance (the bedroom, the kitchen, the church, the office, the classroom, the bathroom). On Easter Sunday, I take communion in bed.”  

In terms of better known writers, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s piece,“Notes On Grief,” strikes me as another example of writing that is not really about the pandemic but manages to hit on something about how death and grief are just different in a pandemic. Her piece is mostly about losing her father, but it’s also about not knowing when you can grieve, not knowing when a burial can take place because of the backdrop of the pandemic. Many of the scenes in the piece involve technology, but not in that “what is this hellscape I’m living in” sort of way. It’s just there, uncommented upon; it’s how she sees her father’s face right after he’s died. 

She also lost two aunts during COVID and the piece becomes, in many ways, about death in general during COVID, not just the loss of her father. 

“The virus brought close the possibility of dying, the commonness of dying, but there was a semblance of control if you stayed home, if you washed your hands. With her [the aunt’s] death, the idea of control was gone.” 

And so, maybe it is possible to process this time and write it. I guess keep trying, if that’s where your writing leads you. But watch out – it’s tricky.

Dressed Up & Going Nowhere: What I Learned About Clothes and Writing During the Pandemic

When I started this blog initially, I wanted to have words with people who claimed poets dressed better than fiction writers, only because I felt shaded by it. Some astrologically inclined people might say it is because I’m a Scorpio, and Scorpios are vindictive. But the more I scoured the internet for connections between fashion and literature, the more I got to thinking about my personal wardrobe, my favorite characters in books, and writing. 

My foray into clothes came out of the pandemic. My friends along with my partner and I found our way into PAQ’s videos, which consist of British youth engaging in fashion challenges that range from creating their own sneaker to making outfits out of estate sale pick-ups. My partner and I had just moved to a new state when we decided to participate in our own challenges each month, competing against each other to see who made the best outfit based on a theme the previous winner picked. Most of these challenges have been judged by friends of friends or family members. These challenges allow us to occupy digital space with folks we otherwise wouldn’t meet or would have to wait to meet. Our communities are accelerated into interaction with one another in genuine and authentic ways. It’s surprising how we’ve kept going, and how our ideas about fashion continue to evolve as a result of these challenges. Even more surprising is how much of our individual personality and growth can be seen through each challenge. 

I’ve only won once, and to be honest, I didn’t even dress myself for the challenge; I dressed my 22-year-old nephew, Alex. But that experience alone has been a catalyst for thinking (not enough doing, obviously) about my own personal style—in dress and in writing. The challenge was simple: style someone else. And as soon as I reached out to Alex, I noticed how much communication happened outside of language. My direction for his outfit came through images, no-context pictures of clothing or hypothetical occasions that are unimaginable because of COVID. I’d say, “Pretend you’re going to a show, but you’re chilling backstage with your significant other, secretly hoping that your friend, who is performing, invites you on stage. What would you wear to communicate, ‘I’m ready for whatever and I’ll look good doing it?’” 

He’d laugh or chuckle over the phone, then go through his wardrobe and list every single item he had in his closet, the color, and the last time he wore it. It was almost too easy, and we were both hyped about winning. Over the winter break, I went to Chicago and we talked about the challenge while we made music together. We used his sister’s apartment as our studio; I’d fake smoke an unlit cigarette and then mouth the sounds that we’d need to make songs whole, again, some astrologically inclined people might say, because I am a Scorpio. I tried and maybe failed to create a vibe similar to when we would go to real studios—back when I lived in Chicago—and wear our best clothes in case we met fellow aspiring artists or artists mid-ascent, because you never know who you could bump into. Instead, he’d stare at me, shake his head, and proceed to find whatever sounds I made on the keyboard. I imagine that music, like style, is an opportunity to communicate who you are and where you are going. 

The novels that leave the largest imprints on me are the ones that treat a character not just as some psyche to be rendered but as a whole person, made visible. I imagine my favorite characters are like Florentino Ariza—in a three-piece with slick black hair so rigid it makes him seem like he could snap at any moment. I often think of Sula dressed in fancy clothes during her visit with Nel, a symbol of worldliness or liveliness that Nel herself says makes Sula look like a movie star. During my research I stumbled across a Paris Review blog that discusses the way clothes function in Sula, how Toni Morrison’s apt descriptions are so vivid they seem to inhabit physical space. I think good writing can and will not only occupy the imaginary spaces in our heads but also physical space, if we take it that far. 

I think of how important a role clothes play in Haruki Murakami’s works, and how the clothes his characters wear and the music they listen to are derived from western culture. One character from his short story “Drive My Car” wears an oversized herringbone jacket with a t-shirt underneath, brown slacks, and Converse sneakers. One could say after that description, that each character, is almost a marker of globalization and a marker of US hegemony abroad, and many people have. 

Lately, I’ve been infatuated with what my own characters wear and why. It shapes plot possibilities, it builds tension, and they’re markers of time. Sometimes I find myself drawing their outfits so I can pinpoint setting for myself and can better map out time and space. Clothes are a good jumping off point, at least for me, because writing stimulates visual projection, the stories I love the most are the ones I can clearly imagine. I am currently working on a story where this is the case; the character is being built out of a first date experience that leads to an influx of danger and the appearance of a group of people that do not have the best intentions for my protagonist. It takes place in the mid-90s and in Chicago, which has its own scene, speech, racial tension, and political turmoil brewing. This is a time where the suburbs are still a thing that people aspire toward. For me, this clearer picture allows me to begin my research so that I can be as accurate as possible and think of the subtle details that will be necessary to set the scene for my story. In this case, all I have to do is look through photos of my family and ask my sisters whether or not the information is accurate. They love telling stories, and love reviewing outfit choices, and I think of this as a newer and different way to connect and hear about where they would go in these clothes. Stories with this level of involvement from me and my community are the easiest for me to write, because if I know where my characters are going, I’ll know what they’re wearing. 

I choose the clothes I wear with the same logic. They are contingent on knowing the space I am going to be in, which during the pandemic is usually the grocery store or the pick-up line at a coffee shop. There are days, though, where my clothes are about the places that I want to be. If I want to trick myself into normalcy, I’ll dress up, and I’ll pretend I am going to the office and not just our bedroom. If my partner and I are doing a date night, I’ll hide until I get ready, because isn’t that the best part? Seeing someone dressed up and marveling at what they put together? 

There are days where I’m not like that. Where I consider the other clothes. For me, it’s the clothes I rarely wear; you know the ones. The clothes I claim I’m going to fit in or the shirts and pants that are waiting for the right occasion. And let’s be honest, we should all be better at taking losses when it comes to clothes, especially ones we planned to fit in knowing damn well it was never going to happen. Someone can and will wear it better if I give it up. 

The same can be said about unfinished stories and poems. There are stories unfinished and waiting to be, and I wonder if I’m ever going to be ready to finish them. Who do I need to be in order to finish them? What are the areas I need to imagine more clearly in order to begin writing them again? What do my characters want? Do I even want to write? Will writing ever pay me? Sometimes I find that it’s easier to start a new story than to ask myself those questions, in the same way that it’s easier to buy another piece of clothing than see if I can get what I have tailored to fit me. But if I really love a story, I will evaluate it, consider what it needs and whether or not I’m the person for the task. If not, I just leave it alone. Who knows, maybe someone else will write it better, maybe someone else is ready to write that story now. 

An Interview With Michael Thompson

Michael Thompson is a multimedia artist from Chicago, Illinois. One of his monoprints, “Nomenclature,” appears in Issue 41 of Blue Mesa Review, but perhaps his most provocative works are his fake postage stamps, which he has successfully mailed around the world. In late October, prior to the United States presidential election, I talked to him about his process, the way his work has been perceived globally, and the role of art and the artist outside of the “art world.”

Michael Thompson’s first collage (courtesy of artist)

How long have you been making art? How did you start? Were there any formative experiences looking at art that you recall?

I became an artist by mistake. I had a job in Pittsfield, Mass. working for VISTA (a domestic Peace Corps) and was helping convert a stationary store into a community arts center. I spent a few months on the job and upon completion the director of the center asked if I was interested in teaching a class at the center. Teach a class, I asked, in what? I was not an artist and had never taken an art class, but he said, teach a class in collage. What’s collage? I wondered. He explained what collage was and I went home that night and made a collage that to this day I still have and consider a wonderful piece and I was hooked on art. I taught collage at the center for 6 months and then decided to move to Chicago to attend the Art Institute of Chicago.

Your printmaking techniques are fascinating to me because you don’t often use the same methods I’m used to seeing often in museums, like screen printing or printing with linocuts. What draws you to monoprints and chine-colle and how do you find materials to incorporate into those pieces?

A piece made using both monoprint and collage techniques (courtesy of artist)

While at the Art Institute I fell in love with printmaking. I concentrated on monoprints, which allowed me to combine collage techniques with an element of fortuitous chance. The inking and removal of ink from the plate became selective and compositionally specific. It varied print to print and often resulted in happy coincidences. I was compelled to pursue mono-prints because I had very little money and couldn’t afford the new copper plates used in the department, so I recycled the backs of used plates, which forced me to concoct a new way to facilitate printmaking. I came up with a collage technique, essentially chine-colle (the bonding of lighter papers to a heavier support paper through the printing process) which offered the idea of “building a print” (upside down and backward) with the joy of seeing the completed piece after pulling the print off the press, finished! Eventually it occurred to me that I could use my tuition money to just buy my own press, which I did and have been using it ever since.

Could you tell us a bit about the piece that appears in Issue 41, “Nomenclature”?

Definition: “the names comprising a set”.

To me “Nomenclature” represents an image of false hope, or the faith in a set of beliefs that could ultimately prove spurious and fatal. Is “patriotism the scoundrel’s last refuge”? (Samuel Johnson) And what does it mean to suspend disbelief?

Do you find that you start with a conceptual idea and work from there? Or do you have an idea of the methods you’d like to use and then discover what ideas emerge from the final product? More broadly, how do you approach creating a piece of artwork?

I work in a variety of medium and the inceptions vary. For instance I make fake postage stamps, which masquerade as “real” stamps, are placed on addressed envelopes and dropped into mailboxes in the hopes of them being cancelled and delivered…and these require a full conceptual framework for them to be successful from the vintage envelopes, labels and stickers to the correct denomination and lay-out of the stamp.

A stamp commemorating Tiananmen Square student-led demonstrations in 1989 (courtesy of artist)

Ultimately I have made stamps that have been mailed successfully from dozens of countries and I try to make them fulfill certain philosophical, political or humorous criteria. It’s easy to make a Chinese stamp depicting the Great Wall, but to make a stamp commemorating Tiananmen Square and have it cancelled in Beijing is so much more compelling.

Much of my work seems to begin with a vague idea about color or a pile of paper with images, text, forms or abstract shapes, and more often than not the original idea gets me working only to be modified as the work progresses.

A kite (courtesy of artist)

The kites may be commissioned for a certain room with particular colors or can be simply based on a vague sense of calm, serenity or some other generality. They are really like paintings though and I often start by sketching lines and shapes, adding color, swatches of cloth or staining and slowly a cohesive whole begins to emerge.

My work with erector sets is generally based on the idea of a mechanical effect that I want to achieve and the process is to manipulate the toy girders and gears to achieve that result.

How have non-Western cultures influenced your work?

I make kites but they aren’t made to fly. While a student at art school, a kite flying competition was announced with the 1st prize of a case of beer. My friend and I were determined to get this beer, so we build a 6’ round kite with bamboo and canvas but the day of the competition was calm and windless and our kite couldn’t get off the ground. But my girlfriend convinced the Goodman Theatre to agree to have me hang multiple kites from the ceiling in the lobby and a career was born. I actually stumbled upon the East Asian influence when I was at an art stamp conference in South Korea and discovered the books and scrolls and fabrics available in antique stores. It was an amazing realization. I have returned to the Far East on numerous occasions subsequently with such rewarding results.

A memory jug (courtesy of artist)

Certainly experimenting with various mediums and forms appeals to me. I have spent the Covid-19 months creating Memory Jugs, historically the building up, mosaic-style, of small objects, trinkets, keepsakes and various items of sentimental value on a stoneware jug. I’ve been to London to search the Thames River foreshore at low tide where accumulations of broken pottery shards over the centuries have resulted in an activity called “Mudlarking”. The Thames foreshore considered one of the richest archeological sites in Britain. Building these jugs is 3-D collage.

There has been some controversy involving your work. Do you see your work as political? What purpose does art have outside of the “art world”?

Yes, there has been controversy involving some of my work, particularly the stamps, but not confined to them. For instance I once made a floating W.W. ll era mine, of Styrofoam and coffee cups (for detonators), painted it black and placed in the Chicago River. The next day, the Coast Guard and Police arrived to deal with what appeared to be a serious explosive ordnance disposal issue. It was soon discovered that the object was a styrofoam mock-up which they proceeded to destroy with their batons.

A floating WWII era mine replica, made of styrofoam and coffee cups (courtesy of artist)


Dalai Lama stamp on a mailed envelope (courtesy of artist)

The stamps though have caused me the biggest problems. After discovering the riches of the Far East for providing kite-making materials, I began to travel to China on a regular basis. And each trip required a new Chinese stamp to mail; the tanks being stopped at Tiananmen Square, the Dalai Lama, Falun Gong, Xi as Winnie the Pooh, all controversial ideas in China. Usually half of these envelopes would be confiscated in China. I never mailed them to myself but used friends and relatives as recipients of the letters, so the Chinese wouldn’t know that I was responsible for the mailings.

Seven Years ago I was invited to participate in a show in Shanghai at the Dulan Museum. I decided to go to China for three months and create all my pieces there, so I had an apartment to complete the work in. I was picked up at the airport by staff from the museum. A week after arriving the local police came to my apartment to check my residency papers, which I had neglected to pursue for fear that vetting that application would unearth my association with the fake stamps. So, I began to submit my personal information to the Police to qualify for residency and during that process it was discovered, by State Security, that I was the guy who had been mailing these stamps for the past decade. Under the guise of meeting the Director, I was lured to the Museum and greeted by a dozen State Security Agents, who asked me if I was responsible for the fake stamps, and, as I had an envelope with the stamp I was mailing on this particular trip in my briefcase. I could hardly deny it. I was informed of the trouble I was in and after signing a statement attesting to that fact was ultimately offered the choice of jail or deportation (as I was a guest of the State I was given an alternative) After a long pause, I chose deportation, was taken back to my apartment, packed my bags, driven to the airport and made to buy a ticket out of the country. I picked Seoul because it was the cheapest flight available. I have applied in the years since for a visa but it is always denied.

“Make Italy Great Again” stamp, highlighting the Roman Empire (courtesy of artist)

The stamps have become very political. At their foundation, stamps are nationally issued and often represent a nation’s tradition and values which make them the perfect vehicle to satirize those traditions and values. A recent example that seems to fulfill a few of the requirements of a stamp was an Italian “Make Italy Great Again” stamp that highlighted the Roman Empire.

On the topic of the fake postage stamps, there has been a lot of controversy involving the USPS recently because of the upcoming election, in which more Americans than ever before are expected to mail in their ballots. How do you see your work with counterfeit postage stamps in the context of the pandemic and the new developments concerning postal service?

I am ambivalent about using the stamps during the 2020 Presidential election. The Postal Service is being crippled by budgetary restraints and a Trump appointed Postmaster General (Louis DeJoy) who has initiated a corporate reorganization, changed how letter carriers sort and deliver mail, eliminated late deliveries, reduced some hours of operation and removed sorting equipment in 600 regional post offices, all of which have “negatively impacted the quality and timeliness of mail delivery nationally”.

But I include the proper postage inside of each envelope I mail with my postage stamps with an explanation that this envelope is part of an art project. I sign and date that letter and self-cancel the stamp. In the event of another court case I want to be able to open any envelope with a flourish to prove my object is not to deprive the postal service of their proper revenue.

What are you working on now and what can we expect to see from you in the near future?

I’ve taken to canning vegetables in a pressure cooker, tomatoes are easy in a boiling water bath, but pumpkin requires a higher temperature. Having the pulp leads to pumpkin pies , working on my crust and ultimately entails eating a lot of desserts.

I enjoy working on the memory jugs. They are small, take a lot of time and require searching for and collecting materials. They are 3-D collage in the round.

I work on stamps intermittently these days. It relies a lot on friends going on trips and I would give them a few envelopes to mail, but travel is such a rare commodity these days. The process is more involved now, with packets sent to folks in foreign lands and them dropping the letters into the mail one at a time.

OM installation (courtesy of artist)

I recently installed a light-sculpture in a gallery window. It’s a small neon McDonald’s M and a blinking O, spelling “OM”. Taking a breath, relaxing. I wanted to spell M O F O but I’m still looking for the rest of the letters.

You can see more of Michael Thompson’s work at michaelthompsonart.com.

What Good Nonfiction Does

I am thrilled to be taking on the role of nonfiction editor at BMR for the coming year. I am so honored you’re considering sending work my way. Nonfiction is such an intimate genre, demanding of its writers both vulnerability and compassion (hint: I’m definitely looking for these things!), and it’s a truly special thing to be invited to read what you’ve created.

Writing this in the fall of 2020, I feel a mixture of hope and dread. So much has changed in the past year, and I expect we’re in for several more surprises before my time as editor is up. I have hope we’ll be in a better world than the one we’re in now; as I’ve watched social movements aimed to dismantle white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism take center stage over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about how long this moment has been coming. People have been thinking, organizing, and writing for decades–if not centuries–in preparation for this moment. I am inspired by the people (including you!) who will continue to write, to carry forward and build momentum for whatever is going to come next, to probe the ways our personal stories are connected to the broader stories of humanity so that we will always be ready, always moving forward.

Because I really think that’s what good nonfiction does–it explores the permeable membrane separating who we (the authors) are from who we (all people) are, and it is all the more powerful in this exploration because its content is true (or true-ish). There are really radical possibilities to this exercise. It subverts the idea that any one person or type of person can objectively know about–or have power over–the world, centers our emotional experience, and (as I said above) demands that we enter into a stance of radical compassion toward the people in our work, including towards ourselves. So many of us have identities and experiences towards which the world is not designed to be compassionate; when we are compassionate towards ourselves in our writing, we unlock unknown possibilities for how the world might be.

So those are my philosophical ideas about what writing can do. But what am I really looking for? To be honest, my aesthetic preferences are pretty broad. I love pieces that push the boundaries of form and narrative design, and I also love traditional, plot-driven essays. If you check out our past issues, I’m equally as in love with “Pony Legs” as I am with “Welcome to Iowa: Letters to Carp and Other Immigrants.” Be vulnerable, be compassionate, and write the thing the world needs right now, or the thing the world is going to need in a decade. I can’t wait to read it.

PS–If this is your first submission, here’s a tip: most of the time, I barely skim the cover letters. I’m interested in the quality of the piece you’ve submitted, not whether you have an MFA or dozens of other publications. So don’t stress about it.

PPS–I will get distracted if you submit in a weird font or single-space your work. Please follow our submission guidelines so I can pay attention to the words you’ve written, not the formatting of your work.

What I’m Looking For: Tall, Dark, and… Previously Unpublished (Up to 6,000 Words)

Look, let’s not waste each other’s time. We’re both here for the same reason: We love fiction. (Either that or you’ve cyberstalked me after watching the reality show I was on years ago, in which case I admire your dedication.) In the spirit of cutting the bullshit, let’s acknowledge right off the bat that each of us knows what good fiction is. I bet we both could wax poetic about the book that saved our lives, the single line in Slaughterhouse Five that knocked us out cold and gave us hope for humanity when we were beginning to despair,* the first time we picked up a pen or stared at a blank Word doc for half an hour or clacked a sentence out on an old-fashioned typewriter (we’ve all been through the Pretentious Writer phase). But I’m not going to do that because we’ve got fiction to write and submit.

Truth is, you and I are kindred spirits.

So, I’m going to tell you like it is. I mostly write about down-and-out women through the lens of magical realism. Does that mean you should only submit if you’re the next Karen Russell? Hell no. (Mostly because I’m trying to be the next Karen Russell.) You could write about a chair for all I care, as long as it absolutely eviscerates me, awakens my third eye chakra, and resurrects my childhood dog. Not such a tall order, right?

Real talk: What am I looking for in fiction submissions? Something that’ll knock me out cold and give me hope for humanity? If you can swing it, sure. But beyond that, I want to be broken and put back together again. Dorothy Allison once wrote, “When I sit down to make my stories I know very well that I want to take the reader by the throat, break her heart, and heal it again.” Here’s what I wrote in my journal when I read that: “I would need more than two hours of sleep to articulate why that resonates with me, [living that grad school life] but maybe sometime in the future I can reflect on it more. It has something to do with not shying away from the truth, something to do with breaking and then healing.”

I’ll give it to you straight – You and I both have gone through some shit. While I don’t believe writing is inherently about catharsis (we have therapy for that), I do think good literature breaks us open, guts us, and stitches us together again. I’m in this position as Fiction Editor because I admire the patchwork. At its core, writing is about just that, I think – weaving our individual perspectives into this one long, never-ending conversation. What you have to say is just as meaningful and important as what I have to say. Even if our subject matter differs, if our backgrounds are as distinct as my mismatched socks are right now, if our writing and our lives have absolutely nothing in common, I want to hear your story.

* “When food came in, the human beings were quiet and trusting and beautiful. They shared.” [Yes, I realize that’s technically two lines… I’m a writer, not a mathematician.]

All right. Try this then.

Often, when I tell people I write poetry, they tell me that they used to write poems a long time ago, when they were younger. I’ve always felt fond of this admission because it suggests that poetry may not be as mysterious and untenable as various literary circles have made it out to be. When I was in high school, I self-published my poems on Tumblr for an audience of about five enthusiastic readers. They were confessional ballads, odes to adolescence – I wrote about the field beside the pastor’s guest house where we had unsupervised parties after Homecoming and Prom, about feeling awkward and silly and inadequate, about driving beside the railroad tracks until we got to the abandoned paper mill and then sitting on its crumbling concrete steps. I never would have showed these poems to anyone I actually knew and I think that’s how some people consider poems their entire lives – as secret, embarrassing things.

In a sophomore year Creative Writing class, we were all asked to bring in a poem to read aloud. A classmate brought James Wright’s “Northern Pike.” The poem is stunning. In the first lines, Wright extends a hand “All right. Try this then,” just to pull it away when you’ve taken the bait, “Every body I know and care for and every body else, is going to die in a loneliness I can’t imagine and a pain I don’t know.” Whenever I am stuck on the opening lines of a poem, I still think to myself, “All right. Try this then.”

For a long time, I was embarrassed to tell people that James Wright was the poet that influenced me to begin writing poems myself. Wright and I are not alike. He was a white man from a white Midwestern town, an army vet who participated in the occupation of Japan, an alcoholic for most of his life. I felt worried that the scope of his poetry was limited to the self, that Wright lived the sordid and solitary life of many artists who are blinded into believing their art to be more precious, perhaps, than life itself. Such thinking has often led me down a rabbit hole of believing that perhaps poetry has no real role in the collective struggle I think is necessary globally today and in the months and years to come.

And yet I know this to be untrue. “Northern Pike,” after its introductory instruction and assertion goes through the physical motions of preparing and consuming a fish the speaker has caught on the river, illegally. After he and his companion eat the fish, Wright writes, “There must be something very beautiful in my body. I am so happy.” And yet, in the course of the poem, we are asked to reckon with both the fish’s mortality and our own and the strange and often slanted circumstances that determine them both. The language is sparse and basic, told as though to a friend, nothing too cerebral, and yet it’s stuck with me for almost a decade since I first read it. The poem is an unsettling analysis of justice that I think could only be offered the way Wright offers it: “Slit … open from the hinge of the tail to a place beneath the chin I wish I could sing of.”

We are all forced to live with a lot of uncertainty and, although that’s no different in our current moment than it ever has been, I think we’re having to come to terms with the fact that the structures we thought governed our lives are more idea than actuality. Perhaps this is why I gravitate toward poetry that examines power structures – because these structures are so abstract they appear invisible. Fanny Howe once wrote, “one definition of lyric might be that it is a method of searching for something that can’t be found.” All literature can and should seek to describe those invisible structures and can, perhaps, do so in a much more accessible and elegant way than other forms of rhetoric. The way a good poem accomplishes this task never ceases to surprise me.

I suppose I do have an idea of the kind of poems I’d like to publish in BMR’s next issue, but I would be disappointed if everything I read resembled those kind of poems to a T. Mostly, I am interested in those poems that pay attention – to language, to detail, to the world around them. I’m eager to read all of your poems, even the secret, embarrassing ones – perhaps especially those.

Editor in Chief Welcome

Readers,

I’d like to start by expressing what a true honor it is to be Editor-in-Chief of Blue Mesa Review for this upcoming academic year. Likely, this year is bound to look very different, as the country reopens and readjusts to new norms. Social-distancing. Masks. Shorter work days? All we can predict is unpredictability. At BMR, we promise to keep a safe distance while still consistently reaching you on the deepest of levels with the creative works we publish biannually.

A little about me. I’m a University of New Mexico alum with lots of BMR experience. In my third semester as an undergrad, I was generously approached by my dear friend and mentor, Marisa Clark, about volunteering as a reader. This was Spring 2009, before our digital issues were produced, back when we received submissions through US mail, in large, tan envelopes. Once, maybe twice a week, we’d sit with our coffee, in front of an actual slush pile, ready to mark Y, N or Maybe on the printed manuscripts. (Thank God for Submittable!) I looked forward to those meetings. Discovering publishable work exhilarated me, like unearthing shiny gold from rock. I aspired to be on the BMR editorial board one day, should I get the chance.

In my first semester as an MFA, I signed up as a grad reader. The following year, I was elected Fiction Editor, a challenging role I learned plenty from. Now in my third year, I’m taking on EIC duties, which both excites me and terrifies me. And humbles me. Founded by local great Rudolfo Anaya, and featuring some of our most accomplished regional literary giants, BMR has an amplified voice, and a regional legacy to uphold. Not to mention our exceptional last two issues, which featured an interview with Mr. Anaya himself, and the work of US poet Laureate Joy Harjo, in back-to-back issues. No pressure, right?

Things are undeniably unstable, nationally and globally. Our world, as we knew it just months ago, is likely forever changed. And after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, people are angry, justifiably, ready to set the whole damn thing ablaze. I don’t blame them. I’m pissed too. As writers, it is our job to advocate for change with dangerous ideas. We ignite fires to pages using words to fuel the flames, applying breath and friction for the spark. Many words accurately describe the current state of things: fear, pandemic, lockdown, protest, inequality. The word quarantine is common household language now, understood by children, as typical as hello and goodbye. Another one: unprecedented. Everywhere, on social media, ad campaigns and news coverage, we hear about these unprecedented times. We encounter these phrases with such regularity, it seems reading and hearing them have a pointed, deliberate purpose.

The rapper Immortal Technique often reminds us that we tend to give-in to oppressors when we feel unsafe and afraid. With that in mind, it’s important, now more than ever, to move against the tide and dissent from rhetoric designed to incite paranoia. Fear is an enemy of the rational mind.

If you have flames to ignite and fires of your own to spark, and you need a safe space to do it, send in your work – that’s why we’re here. To provide you a venue where you can set fire to your frustrations, burning them down like a house of cards. We want truth, your truth, and we need to hear it. If you write poetry or prose that refers to the quarantine, or the recent police protests, we are interested in your perspective. But regardless of the nature of your work, we want your submissions. At BMR, powerful writing is what keeps our world turning.

I leave you with this from the great 19th century chemist, Marie Curie, a quote I’ve held close during these tumultuous times: “Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Write Bravely,

Mario Montoya
Blue Mesa Review, Editor-in-Chief

Transitions

I’ve personally gone through a lot of transitions this year—moving to a new house and looking to move out of it again, starting testosterone, defensing a dissertation and graduating during a pandemic, on top of all the grading, lesson planning, and reading that normally accompanies graduate school. I know each of my colleagues has experienced similar strains and stressors. But change is a force we become familiar with as editors, and today, we’re excited to point that energy in a promising new direction.

Blue Mesa Review has elected a new editorial board for 2020-2021, and I am proud to present our new editors:

Mario Montoya—Editor in Chief
Mikaela Osler—Nonfiction Editor
Rhea Ramakrishnan—Poetry Editor
Jennifer Tubbs—Fiction Editor
Lisa D. Chavez—Faculty Advisor and Blue Mesa Review Reading Team Leader

During the next few months, you will see blogs from BMR’s new editorial staff detailing their interests, their passions, and their goals as editors and writers and humans. I am honored to pass the baton to our new board, who will continue our vision for community and creativity from this year into the next and beyond. Thanks to our present and past editors, our founder and our faculty advisors for making the 30th anniversary issues not only possible, but consistently breathtaking and inspirational.

And here’s to another thirty years of Blue Mesa Review.

Truly,

Tori

BMR Goes AWP 2020 (Pt. 2)

Welcome back for part two of BMR Goes AWP 2020! Today, the Blue Mesa Review staff embarks on a roadtrip from Albuquerque to San Antonio for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference that starts Thursday morning. Check out the list of panels below our incoming editors have scoped out, and make sure to visit us at our table (T1914) at the bookfair!

Mikaela Osler, Incoming Nonfiction Editor

R244: Women in Open Spaces: Life after the (Un)remarkable Journey

My memoir is mostly concerned with my experiences as a woman on a journey; I write about my thru-hikes on the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail. These hikes were certainly transformational, but I feel uncomfortable representing them as exclusively experiences of forward progress and redemption. I worry that I’m either trying to force my journey to follow the example set by male heroes like Jack Kerouac or Chris McCandless, or trying to turn my journey into a more acceptable, feminine narrative of personal growth a la Cheryl Strayed. How did having almost exclusively male archetypes through which to understand my own experience impact the way I understood my journeys as I was on them? How does this literary tradition impact the boundaries of my imagination as I try to capture my experiences in memoir? Are there ways of writing about journeys undertaken by people of all genders that subvert the expectations for journey narratives established through stories about men? I could not be more excited to hear a remarkable group of authors discuss these questions, and more.

Rhea Ramakrishnan, Incoming Poetry Editor

R195: The Dynamic Line: Poets on the Craft of Lineation

The only time I would describe myself as “detail-oriented” is when I’m writing a poem. I can tinker around with a single article in a poem for an hour and a line for a whole day. The manipulation of a single line in the poem can really make or break the experience I have reading that poem. Robert Lowell once wrote, “It’s much easier to write a good poem than a good line.” I’m excited to learn about how some really talented poets, including Jake Skeets and Kathy Fagan, craft lines in their poems. Hopefully I can transfer those skills toward revising a stack of poems I want to organize into my first collection!

Jennifer Tubbs, Incoming Fiction Editor

S175: Writing the Difficult with Fabulist Elements

As a writer of magical realism, I was thrilled to see a panel that explores the coexistence of “myth and magic with domestic concerns” in literature. Writing the Difficult with Fabulist Elements will bring authors and poets together to discuss fabulism in women’s writing, particularly as it relates to trauma. I’m especially excited to hear from panelist Paula Neves, whose work focuses on the Portuguese diaspora because one of my goals for this year is to learn Portuguese. Fingers crossed I can catch more than a few words in her poetry!


If you’ll be attending AWP 2020 this week, remember to stop by Table 1914 at the bookfair to meet the current and incoming BMR staff, see our latest issue, pick up some swag, and find out which phenomenal authors we have lined up for our summer contest judges. See you in San Antonio!

BMR Goes AWP 2020

Next week, Blue Mesa Review will be roadtripping the Southwest from Albuquerque to San Antonio for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference. In anticipation of AWP, the BMR staff has been scoping out the panels we’re most looking forward to checking out when we’re not working our table (T1914) at the bookfair — check back next Tuesday for our incoming editors’ lists of panels!

Tori Cárdenas, Editor in Chief

F234:  Pushing Boundary: Trans and Genderqueer Poets Beyond the Page
F173:  New Poetry from Graywolf Press

As a newly out transmasculine poet who is about to graduate, I’m nervous. On the one hand, I feel more connected to poetry as a genre/channel for queerness and emotion and love than I ever have before. On the other, I’m unsure about work after my MFA (what else is new?). Except now, I also need work with health insurance (see previous parenthetical) that has trans benefits so I can stay on my HRT. So, nervous almost covers it.

However, I’m hella excited for Pushing Boundary: Trans and Genderqueer Poets Beyond the Page, a panel of trans/NB/genderqueer poets who are out there DOING THE DAMN THING: writing, working, and creating, in spite of all this daunting life stuff. I’ll also be reading with a whole squad of new queer friends that I can’t wait to meet! We’ll be at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center (922 San Pedro Ave. San Antonio, TX 78212) from 7-10 pm on Friday March 6th, raising our #QueerVoices!

I’ll also be at F173: New Poetry from Graywolf Press, clutching copies of “Postcolonial Love Poem” and “Homie,” and crying queer tears.

Ari McGuirk, Managing Editor

R200: From Darkness to Light: Unearthing Family Secrets in Memoir

I’m fortunate to have a family that supports me writing about them. Since I started writing my memoir a little over a year ago, I’ve been something of an investigator digging up mysteries surrounding my parents and my adoption. Writing this book has been an exhumation—several of its key characters have been dead since I was a teenager. I’ve learned secrets that have been kept from me for decades, most of them unpleasant. Determining which are necessary to write and how to render them has been a difficult process, one I’m still working through. This panel sounds like an incredible resource for memoirists, like me, who are navigating the ethical and moral minefields that accompany this kind of writing and reflecting on the secrets we’ve unearthed with honesty and empathy.

Mitch Marty, Associate Editor

R242: Five Writers Walk into a Bar: Using Humor in Fiction
F140: Make Yourself at Home: Writing the Familiar from a Distance
S274: You’ve Got It Wrong: Writing against Misperceptions

This will be my third trek to AWP, and I’ve finally learned that there’s no way that I can attend all the events I’d like to, so this year I’ve narrowed it down to one panel each day that I’d like to hit when I’m not tabling for Blue Mesa Review, or wandering the Book Fair or San Antonio River Walk.

On Thursday, I’m looking forward to Five Writers Walk into a Bar: Using Humor in Fiction (Cara Blue Adams, Danielle Evans, Kristen Arnett, Jennine Capó Crucet, Courtney Maum). Of late, most of my nonfiction has been an act of juggling heavy personal history with a sense of levity and lightness, so this panel seems a perfect way to mesh pre-AWP therapy with post-AWP writing (and I’ll be honest, Mostly Dead Things was my favorite book in 2019, in part because of the way Kristen Arnett balances heaviness and humor). My writing is also largely centered in rural Southwestern Wisconsin, and I’ve given to a lot of thought about setting from my current perch in the middle of the desert. Friday I’ll be checking out Make Yourself at Home: Writing the Familiar from a Distance (Jennine Capó Crucet, Helena Maria Viramontes, Laura van den Berg, Tiphanie Yanique, and Manuel Muñoz). Last but not least, I’m excited to check out You’ve Got It Wrong: Writing against Misperceptions (Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Carmen Maria Machado, Ander Monson, Paul Lisicky, Fiona McCrae) on Saturday.

Mario Montoya, Fiction Editor

R157: AWP Program Directors’ Southwest Council
R285: Disabled and D/deaf Writers Caucus 

At AWP 2020, there’s a lot to engage. Every day is action-packed and eventful. So, with that in mind, I’ll limit my commentary to the first day. First, I plan on sitting in with the AWP Program Directors’ Southwest Council, a gathering of badass writers from the states of KS, MS, NV, NM, TX and UT. Since I’m a NMer, this might be a great place to make connections. Also, as a writer who uses a wheelchair, I’m looking forward to the Disabled and D/deaf Writers Caucus, which gives is a space for those who are disabled or living with chronic illness to network and discuss all things identity, writing, and teaching.


If you’ll be attending AWP 2020 next week, remember to stop by Table 1914 at the bookfair to meet the current and incoming BMR staff, see our latest issue, pick up some swag, and find out which phenomenal authors we have lined up for our summer contest judges. See you in San Antonio!